Victor Chapman

Chapman, Victor Emmanuel, A.B. '13. Enlisted private Infantry, foreign Legion, French Army, August 1914; transferred to Aviation Service August 1, 1915; assigned to Squadron V.B. 108, August 10; detailed to Schol of Military Aviation, Avord, September 26; breveted pilot January 9, 1916; assigned to Lafayette Squadron April 20; promoted sergeant; wounded June 17a killed in action June 23, 1916 northeast of Douaumont, France. Awarded Medaille Militaire with the following citation:

"Pilote de chasse qui etait un modele d'audace, d'energie et d'entrain, et faisait l'admiration de ses camarades d'escadrille. Serieusement blesse a la tete le 17 juin, a demande a ne pas interrompre son service. Quelques jours plus tard, s'etant lance a l'attaque de plusieurs avions ennemis, a trouve une mort glorieuse au cours de la lutte" (general order of the Army).

Awarded Croix de Guerre with the following citation:

"Citoyen americain, engage pour la duree de la guerre. Pilote remarquable par son audace, s'elancant sur les avions ennemis quel qu'en soit le nombre, et quelle que soit l'altitude. Le 24 mai, a attaque seul trois avions allemands; a livre un combat au cours duquel il a eu ses vetements traverses de plusieurs balles et a ete blesse au bras" (general order of the Army).

~~ Frederick S. Mead, A.B. (ed), Harvard's Military Record in the World War, 1921, page 363.


Victor Chapman's "Letters from France," dealing with his service for ten months in the Foreign Legion, after which he was transferred to the aviation corps, must be read in the light of the illuminating memoir which his father, John J. Chapman, prefaces to the volume. By far the most significant portion of this memoir is the vivid portrait of the boy's mother, half Italian by blood but wholly Italian in temperament and in the traits which she bequeathed to her son. Young Chapman was graduated at Harvard in 1913. Before entering college he had spent a year in France and Germany, and on being graduated he became a Beaux-Arts student of architecture in Paris. When the war broke out he and his father and stepmother---his own mother had died when he was six---fled from Paris to London. Even when he was a boy Chapman, according to his father, never really felt that he was alive, except when he was in danger. He did not care for books or for sports, but he was passionately fond of color and scenery. "If you could place him," says his father, "in a position of danger and let him watch scenery, he was in heaven. I do not think he was ever completely happy in his life till the day he got his flying papers." From his mother he got his large frame and his corresponding physical energy, which he loved to expend lavishly in the service of his friends. He "could eat anything, sleep on anything, lift anything, endure anything," says his father. " He never had enough of roughing it till he joined the Foreign Legion." Chapman was in the Legion from the end of September, 1914, until August, 1915. During this period his battalion, though often under fire, was not actively engaged. He found the inactivity of trench life irksome, and felt that he was wasting his time. His chief interests were the odd characters in the Legion with whom he made friends, and the scenery. Here is his description of the Christmas truce of 1914, when, in certain parts of the line, the Germans and the Légionnaires fraternized:

     Xmas in the trenches was interesting but not too exciting. Beginning the eve before, "conversations" in the form of calls. "Boches," "ça va," etc. In response: "Bon camarade," "cigarettes," "nous boirons champagne à Paris," etc. Christmas morning a Russian up the line who spoke good German wished them the greetings of the season, to which the Boches responded that instead of nice wishes they would be very grateful to the French if the latter buried their compatriot who had lain before their trenches for the last two months. The Russian walked out to see if it were so, returned to the line, got a French officer and a truce was established. The burying funeral performed, a German Colonel distributed cigars and cigarettes and another German officer took a picture of the: group. We, of course, were one half-mile down the line so did not see the ceremony, though our Lieutenant attended. No shooting was interchanged all day, and last night absolute stillness, though we were warned to be on the alert. This morning, Nedim, a picturesque, childish Turk, began again standing on the trenches and yelling at the opposite side. Vesconsoledose, a cautious Portuguese, warned him not to expose himself so and since he spoke German made a few remarks showing his head. He turned to get down and---fell ! a bullet having entered the back of his skull: groans, a puddle of blood.

Two months later Chapman sent his father this pen-portrait of Nedim:

     There was Nedim, Nedim Bey, a Turk---a black, heavy-faced Turk, and a typical Asiatic. He always wore two passes-montagnes, one pulled down round his chin so that his grizzled unkempt beard and nose protruded through. -I believe he had been sent by the Turkish Government to study, and had worked in the French cannon factories. At any rate the Lieutenant had a high admiration for him which no one could understand. His French was wonderful ~ The article did not exist, but he was fond of the preposition de; as, mon de pain. He got permission at both places to build a separate hole for himself. After working night and day till it was finished he would light a roaring fire and sleep in an atmosphere warm enough to boil an egg. At the other position he had a dug-out about five feet long by two high, with a grate fire at the end of it. And he slept with his head against the fireplace! His love for fire resulted in his burning ends and patches of all of his clothes, and about his abri were always strewn pieces of burnt sacks.... He made an indestructible créneau from which he pumped shot. Inevitably the Germans soon located it and the other day he was hit in the head and evacuated.

Chapman's chief resource in the way of intellectual companionship was a Polish Jew named Kohn. Of him he wrote as follows. under date of January 30, 1915:

     My great joy, though vexation occasionally, is Kohn. Though of such a lovable and childlike innocence of character, he is a softy from having been always pampered. His learning is immense. I picked up a New York Times last night---article by G. B. Shaw. So I casually asked Kohn, who was entirely between the sack curtains, what kind of Socialist was Shaw? "A Fabianist," and with that he gave me an account of the growth of Socialism in England, how it influenced the continents---the briefest kind of a sketch of the points of divergence between Socialism and Anarchism. Well, I was numbed by slumber soon and had to beg him to leave off till I was in a more receptive mood. And Political Economy is not his line, for he says mathematics is his specialty. With that he is of an artistic temperament, almost mystic, in his way of doing things. Herédia used to say that Kohn did the rude physical work as though he was performing a religious rite: in fact, with such devotion and zeal that he soon wore himself down and became more subject than any of us to the cliché we all suffered from.

Three weeks later, in a letter to his uncle, Chapman gave the details of the death of his friend Kohn, "shot beside us in front of our abri while taking observations with field-glasses of hills to the northeast." Chapman missed his companionship very much.

After his regiment was transferred to Alsace Chapman met several Americans who were in other regiments of the Foreign Legion---Alan Seeger, Henry Farnsworth, and David King. In the company of these men, all of whom, as it happened, had been at Harvard, and in a beautiful valley among the foot-hills of the Vosges, Chapman was "very happy." He was, however, to attain to his highest point of happiness, as will be revealed later, as an aviator.

~~ Edwin W. Morse, The Vanguard of American Volunteers (NY: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1918).


Victor Chapman's passion, as we have seen, was for color and scenery, with an admixture of danger. His flying papers admitted him, after ten wasted months in the Foreign Legion, into the French aviation service, and by the end of August, 1915, he was enjoying the scenery and a modicum of danger from a bombing machine. Here is his description, from one of his letters, of the method of dropping a bomb from an air-ship:

     We must be nearing the spot, for the Lieutenant motioned me to load the projectile. This is by far the most difficult operation, for the 155 shell with its tin tail looking like a torpedo four feet long, is hung under the body and without seeing its nose even one has to reach down in front of the pilot, put the détonateur in, then the percuteur and screw it fast. After which I pulled off a safety device. You may imagine how I scrambled round in a fur coat and two pair of leather trousers and squeezed myself to get my arm down the hole. I really had a moment's nervousness that the détonateur would not stay in the hole but fly back into the hélice. However, all went well and the Lieutenant handed me the plan of the town of Dillingen where there were said to be huge casting works. Bad map it was and I got nothing out of the inaudible explanation and gestures. We were just passing over the river Saar by Pachten. Everything on the detail map was red. I still have scruples about dropping on dwelling houses---they might be Alsatians. Right under us was a great junction of railway lines, tracks and sidings. "That's a go," I thought, and pulled the handle when it came in the lighter. A slight sway and below me the blue-gray shell poised and dipped its head. Straight away and then it seemed to remain motionless. Pretty soon its tail began to wag in small circles and then I lost sight of it over some tree-tops. "Pshaw," I thought, "there it's going to fall on its side, and into a garden. Tant pis!" When all at once, in the middle of the railroad tracks a cloud of black smoke which looked big even from that height. The Lieutenant said afterwards that I rocked the whole ship when I saw where it had fallen !

Experience in a bombing plane filled Chapman with a desire to qualify as a fighting pilot, and to join the squadron which his friends, Norman Prince and Elliott Cowdin, were trying to form. His letters for the next few months gave in detail his experiences at the aviation school at Avord, where he was learning to fly. By the following April, 1916, he was at Luxeuil with his mates of the American Escadrille. In one of his letters he said that after their Nieuports arrived, he learned more about flying in five days than he had learned in the previous five months.

Chapman's first letter from the Verdun sector was dated May 23,1916. A month later, to a day, he was killed. He wrote few letters in the interval, apparently being too busy flying to have time to write often. Here is his description, from a letter dated June 1, of one morning's work:

     This morning we all started off at three, and, not having made concise enough arrangements, got separated in the morning mist. I found Prince, however, and we went to Douaumont where we found two German réglage machines unprotected and fell upon them. A skirmish, a spitting of guns, and we drew away. It had been badly executed, that manoeuvre! But ho ! another Boche heading for Verdun ! Taking the direction stick between my knees I tussled and fought with the mitrailleuse and finally charged the rouleau, all the while eyeing my Boche and moving across Vaux towards Etain. I had no altitude with which to overtake him, but a little more speed. So I got behind his tail and spit till he dived into his own territory. Having lost Norman, I made a tour to the Argonne and on the way back saw another fat Boche. "No protection machine in sight. I swooped, swerved to the right, to the left, almost lost, but then came up under his lee keel by the stern. (It's the one position they cannot shoot from.) I seemed a dory alongside a schooner. I pulled up my nose to let him have it. Crr---Crr---Crr---a cartridge jammed in the barrel. He jumped like a frog and fled down to his grounds. Later in the morning I made another stroll along the lines. Met a flock of Nieuports, and saw across the way a squad of white-winged L. V. G. How like a game of prisoner's base it all is ! I scurry out in company, and they run away. They come into my territory and I being alone, take to my heels. They did come after me once too ! Faster they are than I, but I had height so they could but leer up at me with their deadwhite wings and black crosses like sharks, and they returned to their own domain.

Under the stimulus of the tremendous conflict going on before Verdun, Chapman fought incessantly and fearlessly. In his "With the French Flying Corps " Carroll D. Winslow, who at the time was near the headquarters of the American Escadrille and saw much of his compatriots, describes one incident in Chapman's career:

     I remember one curious incident that occurred while I was in the Verdun sector. Victor Chapman, who was doing combat work with the American Escadrille, after a brush with four German aeroplanes, was forced to descend to our field. Not only had he received a bad scalp wound from a bullet, but his machine had been riddled and nearly wrecked. One bullet had even severed a metal stability control. By all the rules of aviation he should have lost control of his aeroplane and met with a fatal accident. But Chapman was an expert pilot. He simply held on to the broken rod with one hand, while with the other he steered his machine. This needed all the strength at his command, but he had the power and the skill necessary to bring him safely to earth. A surgeon immediately dressed his wound, our mechanics repaired his machine. The repairs completed, he was off and up again in pursuit of some more Boches. I must say that every one considered him a remarkable pilot. He was absolutely fearless, and always willing and able to fly more than was ever required of him. His machine was a sieve of patched-up bullet holes.

Chapman's head was still in bandages when, a few days later, he was killed, falling inside the German lines. Clyde Balsley, to whom he was taking some oranges when he went to the assistance of several of his hard-pressed companions, had been dangerously wounded and was in a near-by hospital. Kiffin Rockwell sent to Chapman's stepmother a long letter, which appears in the memoir prefixed to Chapman's "Letters from France," describing the circumstances attending his fellow flier's last combat. In the course of that letter Rockwell wrote:

The following morning [June 23] the weather was good, and he insisted on going out at the regular hour with the rest. There were no machines over the lines, so the sortie was uneventful. He came in, and at lunch fixed up a basket of oranges which he said he would take to Balsley. We went up to the field, and Captain Thenault, Prince and Lufbery got ready to go out and over the lines. Victor put the oranges in his machine and said that he would follow the others over the lines for a little trip and then go and land at the hospital. The Captain, Prince and Lufbery started first. On arriving at the lines they saw at first two German machines which they dived on. When they arrived in the midst of them, they found that two or three other German machines had arrived also. As the odds were against the three, they did not fight long, but immediately started back into our lines and without seeing Victor.

When they came back we thought that Victor was at the hospital. But later in the afternoon a pilote of a Maurice Farman and his passenger sent in a report. The report was that they saw three Nieuports attack five German machines, that at this moment they saw a fourth Nieuport arriving with all speed who dived in the midst of the Germans, that two of the Germans dived towards their field and that the Nieuport fell through the air no longer controlled by the pilote. In a fight it is practically impossible to tell what the other machines do, as everything happens so fast and all one can see is the beginning of a fight and then, in a few seconds, the end. That fourth Nieuport was Victor and, owing to the fact that the motor was going at full speed when the machine fell, I think that he was killed instantly.

Chapman was the first American aviator to fall in battle. To the French, the fact that a young American volunteer of his type had made the supreme sacrifice in fighting in defense of their cause was of deep significance. "The death fight of Victor Chapman," wrote André Chevillon, "touches our imagination with fire." "Never," said M. Jusserand, the French Ambassador to the United States, on Lafayette Day, September 6, 1916,---"Never in my country will the American volunteers of the Great War be forgotten; some, according to their power, offering their pens, or their money, or their help to our wounded, or their lives." The idealism of which young Chapman was the symbol is represented, at the present writing, by more than a million and a half of American soldiers in France, with hundreds of thousands of others preparing to follow them.

~~ Edwin W. Morse, The Vanguard of American Volunteers (NY: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1918).


Victor Chapman, Victor Chapman's Letters from France , [Memorial Edition], (NY: MacMillan and Company, May 1917). This copy first edition, with bookplate on front pastedown which reads: "The Gift of John Jay Chapman, Memorial Edition", and with an inscription on the front flyleaf: "Ed[?] Van Allen, from Johnny[?] Chapman with many kind regards, June 1, 1917"