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WWI Image in Focus: Kiffin Y. Rockwell’s Last Photograph

Author: 
Matthew M. Peek, Military Collection Archivist

For a new series of blog posts for the North Carolina WWI Centennial Committee, I thought I would explore the background or context of individual photographs documenting North Carolinians' World War I military service. Whether the images were taken by or of, or collected by, a North Carolinian during the war, we hope to give some of the interesting context to the images that most people might otherwise pass by during their day. What you will be reading is the process I go through every day to ensure that photographs received by the Military Collection at the State Archives of North Carolina are identified and described accurately for researchers. We hope you enjoy this in-depth look at our WWI photographs, and welcome your suggestions or questions through the messaging feature on the North Carolina WWI Centennial Committee Facebook page.

Background

Kiffin Yates Rockwell was born in 1892 in Newport, Tennessee, to James Chester Rockwell (a native of North Carolina) and Loula Ayres (of Marion County, S.C.). James was a Baptist minister but suffered from poor health. When Kifin was almost a year old, James C. Rockwell was stricken in an epidemic of typhoid fever and died. Kiffin’s mother thereafter spent the winters on her father’s cotton plantation in northeastern South Carolina, but returned to the Tennessee mountains for the summers. When Kiffin Rockwell was fourteen, the family moved to Asheville, N.C. Kiffin attended the Asheville High School in Asheville, North Carolina

Kiffin and his brother Paul Rockwell joined the French Foreign Legion in late 1914, After being injured in 1915 in battle and kept out of the infantry, Kiffin Rockwell became one of the first Americans to join the newly formed Escadrille Américaine, which was soon renamed after complaints by the U.S. government—to the Lafayette Escadrille.

While on aerial patrol at the front in May 1916, he became the first American pilot to down an enemy plane. Rockwell subsequently flew dozens of patrols and fought in many air battles, gaining fame for his skill and courage.

Kiffin Rockwell’s final combat took place on September 23, 1916. He would leave from Luxeuil Air Base (or Luxeuil Aerodrome) in his French Nieuport 11, a single-seat sesquiplane fighter aircraft. He encountered a two-seater German Albatross observation plane, dived into a dogfight with it, and was hit in the chest with a bullet from the Albatross’ gunner. The action occurred behind the French lines in the Vosges sector, and Rockwell’s riddled plane fell into a field of flowers between the communes of Rodern and Thann, France. Rockwell is buried in the cemetery at Luxeuil-les-Bains, France.

The Photograph

The small snapshot (which is less than 3.5 inches long) of Kiffin Yates Rockwell of Asheville, N.C., shows him next to his plane at Luxeuil Air Base in France. Taken on September 22, 1916, this is the last known photograph of Rockwell, who was killed the next day on September 23, 1916 after being shot down by German airplane gunfire. The photograph was taken by Rockwell’s French mechanic Michel. In the image, you see Rockwell in his flight suit, with leather skull cap and goggles. In the background, you can see the Luxeuil Aerodrome, which the American aviators used around this time period in eastern France.

This little-known contact print, made from an original negative believed around 1916 or 1917 shortly after Rockwell’s death, has an interesting history. On the back of the photograph are two-different handwritings. The first—in black pen at one end—is by an unknown person believed connected with the Lafayette Escadrille, and contains the details on when the image was taken, who took it, and where it was taken.

The other handwriting—in blue and identified by the Rockwell family direct descendants I met with at the State Archives of North Carolina on July 13, 2017—is attributed to Kiffin’s brother Paul Rockwell. It notes the image’s significance. It was from Kiffin's mother Dr. Loula Ayres Rockwell and his brother Paul Ayres Rockwell, that this image—along with over 150 others collected by the family (primarily Paul Rockwell)—came the WWI Papers of the Military Collection at the State Archives betweeon 1918 and 1920.

Other than the obvious, why is this photographic print of Kiffin Rockwell so significant? After his death, many of Kiffin’s photographs were widely duplicated and distributed around the United States and France. There are few truly “original” or unique photographs of Rockwell that few people have seen. This last photograph of Kiffin Rockwell had not even been seen by surviving Rockwell family. Because of its small size, it has been infrequently used for TV programs and exhibits, in favor of other larger images of Kiffin. It is one of the least-seen images from Rockwell’s WWI service.

The print’s size helps prove its originality and date. Because of how very small the image is, it shows that it was created from a small negative created with a small pocket or portable French or American camera, the same type that date to the period from 1914-1917. This exactly the type of camera that you expect someone like Rockwell’s French mechanic Michel to be using on the airfield.

It is rare with military photographs or service individuals’ snapshots to be able to pinpoint the last-known photograph of an individual before their death in combat. We are lucky to have this photograph, and the details of its creation, to be able to continue to mark the remarkable life and service of Kiffin Y. Rockwell. Today, Kiffin Rockwell is remembered as a hero in his native North Carolina and Tennessee, and by millions of people in France who keep his memory alive.

To learn more about Kiffin Rockwell’s WWI service, check out the Kiffin Y. Rockwell Papers in the WWI Papers of the Military Collection at the State Archives of N.C. in Raleigh, N.C. The majority of the collection is composed of his mother’s letters to Kiffin, as well as one of the largest original sets of photographs of Kiffin Rockwell’s life and service in the world.

We also encourage you to check on the wartime correspondence of Kiffin and Paul Rockwell at their alma mater Washington and Lee University in the Paul Ayres Rockwell Papers (Col. 0301) in the Special Collections and Archives of James G. Leyburn Library. 

You can also watch the first full-length documentary on the life of Kiffin Y. Rockwell entitled Valor (2016), created by Dr. Marc E. McClure, professor of history Walters State Community College in Tennessee.

This blog post is part of the State Archives of N.C.’s World War I Social Media Project, an effort to bring original WWI archival materials to the public through the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources’ (NCDNCR) various social media platforms, in order to increase access to the items during the WWI centennial celebration by the state of N.C.

Between February 2017 and June 2019, the State Archives of N.C. will be posting blog articles, Facebook posts, and Twitter posts, featuring WWI archival materials which are posted on the exact 100th anniversary of their creation during the war. Blog posts will feature interpretations of the content of WWI documents, photographs, diary entries, posters, and other records, including scans of the original archival materials, held by the State Archives of N.C., and will be featured in NCDNCR’s WWI centennial blog.