The debut biography of a once-famed American World War I fighter pilot.
The story of Kiffin Yates Rockwell (1892-1916)—an American member of the French Foreign Legion, a pursuit pilot, and a war hero—begins, in attorney Trapp’s lengthy telling, long before the man was born. In fact, it starts with Rockwell’s earliest known ancestor in the area around Caen, France, in medieval times. Trapp goes on to trace Rockwell’s family tree, which included soldiers and preachers, up to and including the American Civil War and the birth of Rockwell’s parents. From there, the story of Rockwell and his brother, Paul, focuses on their patriotic principles, which led them to volunteer for duty in the French Foreign Legion in 1914, when the United States was officially neutral. Paul transferred to a noncombat unit due to ill health, but Rockwell joined the aviation service and, eventually, the all-volunteer Lafayette Escadrille, in which he shot down several German planes before being killed in battle at the age of 24. Trapp describes the arc of Rockwell’s life in detailed and, at times, exhausting measure. However¸ the author’s masterful prose, coupled with impressive research—there are more than 120 pages of footnotes—offers verisimilitude and colorful insights. Not everything works as it should, though; despite Trapp’s early claim that the book isn’t hagiography, his admiration for his subject borders on the obsequious. This is especially true in the first 100 pages or so, in which descriptions of Rockwell’s ancestry overflow with testaments to their intellectual, moral, and financial prowess. The author also displays a fascination with men’s heights, which are listed for most males who appear in the narrative. Toward the end, Trapp indulges in repeating several clichés about millennials who, in his view, fail to measure up to the patriotic virtues of men of Rockwell’s era. Still, despite these flaws, this book presents a compelling narrative of a principled man who gave everything he had in pursuit of his ideals.
Superb prose and research overcome occasional hagiography and political posturing.