It is fitting that the record of a young life of high aspiration, of fine achievement, and, finally, of supreme self-sacrifice on a world’s battlefield, should be permanently preserved, not only for the satisfaction of those near relatives and friends who deeply mourn its tragic and untimely end, but for the sense of pride and rapture of soul which the contemplation of such a record everywhere inspires. Grievous as it is to see a young and happy life cut off at the threshold of a promising career, there is compensation as well as consolation for such a fate when the fine fervor of youth, thoroughly imbued with a loyal and patriotic spirit, has won for its possessor the well-deserved plaudit of living and dying a hero. Such was the fate and such the reward of the subject of this memoir.
Norman Prince was the younger of the two sons of Frederick Henry and Abigail (Norman) Prince. He was a grandson of Frederick o. Prince, an eminent citizen of Massachusetts and a Mayor of Boston, and of George H Norman, a distinguished citizen of Newport, Rhode Island. He was born August 31, 1887, at Pride’s Crossing, Massachusetts, receiving his early education under private tutors in this country and in Europe and completing his preparation for college at Groton, where he passed five happy and helpful years. He was graduated, with honours, at Harvard College in the class of 1908, taking the academic course in three years and receiving a cum laude with his degree of Bachelor of Arts. Entering the Harvard Law School immediately after his college graduation, he received the degree of Bachelor of Laws three years later.
He was admitted to the bar and subsequently began the practice of law in Chicago, coincidentally devoting much of his time and attention to the study and practice of aviation at a time when flying was popularly regarded as a mere sport rather than a practical utility in this country. This was a diversion from his more serious work at the start, but foreseeing the ultimate possibilities of aeronautics for practical purposes, and becoming an enthusiast in its scientific development, he neglected the practice of his intended profession, and being enabled to provide the necessary funds for experimenting with various types of flying machines, he tested their comparative advantages for aerial navigation. He possessed an exceptionally quick intelligence and applied himself with zeal and diligence to subjects that interested him.
From his early boyhood Norman had been passionately fond of manly outdoor sports, more particularly those connected with equestrianism. He loved hunting, polo, and kindred activities, and he thus developed qualities of sportsmanship that proved useful to him in his later experience in aviation. His courage and enthusiasm enabled him to undertake aerial flights that appalled less intrepid amateur navigators, but which were a joy and an inspiration to him from the beginning. Among his associates in amateur sports he had the reputation of being absolutely fearless. “I never knew a pluckier fellow” said one of his schoolmates, recalling the days of their earlier companionship.
At the outbreak of hostilities in Europe his love of the strenuous life, combined with his intensely patriotic instincts and his deep sympathy with the cause of the Entente Nations, – more particularly for France, – prompted him to go abroad and offer his services in their behalf. He adopted this course ardently and spontaneously, feeling that he was thus performing a duty that he owed to the cause of Liberty and Righteousness throughout the world.
One of the finest chapters in the history of contemporary life is that which records the loyalty and patriotic fervour of so many young Americans, who at the beginning of the World War, before their own country had abandoned its attitude of neutrality, volunteered for military service on the side of the Allies, in the fighting ranks of the foreign legions, especially in the aviation service, which called for efficiency and courage in individual combat that recalled the heroism and devotion of the ancient days of chivalry. The inspiring example
Of these early American volunteers may be said to have given the first impulse to the popular uprising which ultimately led to our country’s active participation in the war.
Having passed many of the earlier years of his youth in France, Norman saw and appreciated his opportunity to testify to the sincerity of his love for what he affectionately called his “second country”. He took passage abroad in December, 1914, four months after the outbreak of the war, arriving in Paris early in the following January, when he promptly offered his services to the Government as a volunteer in the French army to serve until the end of the war – “jusqu’ au bout” as he emphatically put it when he took the oath of allegiance. He began his preliminary training in the military aviation school at Pau, and on receiving his certificate of proficiency, he served for a short time in the aerial defence of Paris and was then sent to the Western battle-front, where, as is told in the subsequent pages of this memoir, he distinguished himself by his skill and bravery in many air raids against the enemy, winning at once the confidence and admiration of his commanders and comrades.
At the beginning of his active service in France Norman conceived the idea of bringing the American aviators, together with some of those of the foreign legions, into a single squadron, not only that the Americans might thus be associated in closer comradeship, but also that their achievements might become more distinctive and thus redound to the glory of their native country as well as to that of the Allies.
This laudable purpose, which was inspired wholly by Norman’s initiative, was realised by the organisation of the American aviators into a body which was at first known as the Escadrille Américaine and which subsequently became the famous Lafayette Flying Squadron. Originally carrying the Tri-color, this Squadron was permitted to carry the Stars and Stripes after the entrance of the United States into the war. It thus became the proud distinction of this Squadron that it was accorded the honour of carrying the first American flag that appeared on any of the battlefields of the World War.
These aviators soon became famous for their skill and daring in their aerial raids over the German lines, and they were repeatedly cited in army orders, individually and collectively, for their fine courage and unflagging spirit of self-sacrifice. In one of these official orders General Pétain, Commander-in-Chief of the French Armies on the Western front at the time, took occasion to say that this American Squadron had aroused the profound admiration of the commanders under whose direction it had fought, as well as of all the French aerial squadrons fighting beside it and aspiring to rival it in valour and achievement. It was for his fine individual conduct on this famous battle-front that Norman won successively the Croix de Guerre, the Médaille Militaire, and the Croix de la Légion d’Honneur. Coincidentally, he successively achieved the ranks of sergeant, adjutant, and lieutenant. He had up to this time engaged in 122 aerial engagements with the enemy planes and was officially credited with five German’s brought down in battle, not to mention four others not officially recorded. Few of his comrades had rendered more active service. He was as ambitious as he was intrepid and resourceful.
On the morning of Thursday, October 12, Norman and other members of his Squadron were assigned to convoy a French bombarding feet in an aerial raid on Oberndorf, a German arms and munition centre located in the Vosges near the plains of Alsace. While circling over the town, they came in close contact with a formidable array of German aircraft, and a terrific encounter ensued in which shot, shell-fire, and skillful manoeuvring disabled many of the machines on both sides. It was at the conclusion of this battle in the air that Norman’s Nieuport machine struck an aerial cable while he was endeavouring to make a landing in the dark within the French lines near Luxeuil. In this collision his machine was overturned and wrecked and he was thrown violently to the ground. On being rescued by his comrades, it was found that both his legs were broken and, as was subsequently found, he had sustained a fracture of the skull.
He was carried to the neighbouring hospital at Gerardmer, where for a time he manifested the undaunted courage that he had always shown under adverse conditions, cheerfully requesting the attending surgeons who were setting the bones of his broken legs to be careful not to make one shorter than the other! The skull fracture was not discovered until later, and it was as a result of this latter injury that Norman died from cerebral haemorrhage on the following Sunday morning, October 15. His comrades gathered around his bedside when he became finally unconscious, in the vain hope of detecting symptoms of renewed vitality, but he passed away peacefully as in a sleep. Those of his near relatives who had been summoned from Paris arrived at his bedside too late to find him alive.
The dead hero was given all the honours of a military funeral, which was held in the Luxeuil aviation field, where the body rested on a caisson draped with the American and French flags. The services, which were conducted by a French regimental chaplain, were attended by a large representation of the Allied military divisions, including French and English officers of high rank, as well as a full representation of the American Escadrille and pilots from the neighbouring aviation camps. During the funeral, instead of the customary firing of cannonas a salutation to the dead, a squadron of aeroplanes circled in midair over the field in honour of the departed aviator, showering down myriads of flowers. The body was borne to a neighbouring chapel, there to rest until the end of the war, in accordance with the military regulations governing the temporary disposition of the remains of those dying at the battle-fronts.
A memorial service, held on the following Sunday in the American Church in Paris, was described by those present as one of the most impressive ever witnessed in that sanctuary.
The American colony came in full numbers to testify their admiration and appreciation of their fellow-countryman’s valour and sacrifice. The President of the French Republic, the heads of the executive and legislative branches of the Government, the Army and Navy and the Diplomatic Corps were represented by their most distinguished members, and the emblems of mourning contributed to a scene that was as beautiful as it was significant and memorable.
This is but the bare outline of the biography of a rare spirit whose loyalty to his ideals and the high chivalry of whose devotion to the cause of Liberty, Civilization, and Humanity have made his name one to be remembered and his memory cherished with those of his patriotic comrades and fellow-countrymen who fell for the same cause “in the sunny morn and flower of their young years”.
It deserves to be noted here that in all of Norman’s spoken or written messages, telling of his experiences in France, there is nowhere to be found a note of doubt or discouragement or a word denoting any lack of confidence in the ultimate triumph of the cause for which he was fighting. The Allies might meet repeated reverses, and tremendous sacrifices of blood and treasure might have to be made, before a decisive victory could be achieved, but he never doubted the final outcome of the war. His faith in this respect was as firm and unflinching as were his courage and natural optimism in all human affairs. His sense of consecration was unceasingly vibrant. He deeply regretted that his own country was not yet actively enlisted on the side of the Allies and that he was not permitted from the beginning to represent his Government as well as his country in the fighting lines, but this disappointment did not diminish his enthusiasm as an American volunteer soldier giving his services for a cause that he believed to be that of his country and of the world.
In one of his letters he wrote enthusiastically:
“Everything goes well. Before the end of this war we shall have aeroplanes with at least
800 or 1000 horsepower flying from Soissons to Petrograd, setting fire to the four corners of Berlin”.
The death of his comrade Victor Chapman touched him deeply. “Poor Victor!” he wrote. “He was killed while fighting a German aeroplane that was attacking Lufberry and me. A sad but glorious death, facing the enemy in a great cause and to save a friend!”
Norman Prince’s heroic sacrifice is finely described in the ode written in memory of the American volunteers fighting for France, by Alan Seeger, the young American soldier-poet, who finally gave his own life for the cause of the Allies on the battlefield of Belloy-en-Santerre;
“Yet sought they neither recompense nor praise,
Nor to be mentioned in another breath
Than their blue-coated comrades, whose great days
It was their pride to share – aye, share even to
Nay, rather, France, to you they rendered thanks
(Seeing that they came for honour, not for gain),
Who opening to them your glorious ranks
Gave them that grand occasion to excel –
That chance to live the life most free from stain
And that rare privilege of dying well.”