This is an example of a standard issue French Air Service uniform coat worn by
Harold B. Willis. Willis sailed for France in 1914, served in the American Ambulance Service and joined the French Foreign Legion in June, 1916. Willis joined the Lafayette Escadrille on March 1st, 1917, as its 25th member and served for five months before being shot down and made a prisoner of war.
On August 14, 1917, Willis went on patrol with Edwin Parsons as his flight leader. The flight took off from the Escadrille’s airfield at Sénard. It tangled with pilots from Jasta 16b based at Spincourt. In a ferocious dogfight, Willis went to protect Parsons’ tail and was shot down over Dun-Sur-Meuse either by Max Holtzem or Ltn Wilhelm Schulz, both of Jasta 16b.
Willis had a small problem when he crash-landed: he was only wearing green-striped pajamas and two sweaters beneath his flight suit. Parsons knew this and returned to Sénard, bundled-up Willis’s “uniform, boots, cigarettes and money” and dropped them at a likely spot behind the German lines with a note addressed to a Lieutenant Willis. Willis was a Sergeant at the time but Parsons was hoping that by fooling his captors into thinking Willis was an officer he would receive better treatment. The ruse appeared to work. Second from right, Willis is seen above in one of the many prison camps he would visit in 14 months of captivity.
He eventually ended up at the POW camp at Villingen in Germany. US Navy Lieutenant Victor M. Isaacs escaped with Willis in a break-out from Villingen on October 5th, 1918.
They hid during the day and walked south at night and reached the Rhine at Waldshut after 4 days. “Wearing only trousers, their money and papers strung about their necks,” they swam 600 feet to the other bank of the Rhine and Switzerland. The Swiss police put them on a train to Berne where they remained until October 17th and then, with money from the American consulate, left for France by train.
On his return to France, Willis found that he had been promoted to a Sous-Lieutenant and awarded the Medaille Militaire.
The label to his tunic is stamped “7 NOV 1918,” three weeks to the day from when he left Switzerland by train with Isaacs. Apparently, this is the tunic which he purchased in Paris on his return from captivity. He would have needed a tunic because he was still a serving member of the French military and had to be in uniform to report back to his unit. Four days later on Monday, November 11th, 1918, the war ended.
After the war, Willis became one of the foremost American ecclesiastical architects. He went back to France at the outbreak of World War II with Paul Rockwell and, together, they tried to start a new Lafayette Escadrille but fled Paris as the German tanks rolled in.
Willis returned to America, joined the Air Force and was successful in convincing the government to transfer 12 Curtiss P-40 Warhawks to the Free French Fighter Group GC II/5 based in North Africa; these aircraft are seen above with the old Lafayette Escadrille insignia emblazoned on their fuselages.
Bequest of the Estate of Col. Harold B. Willis
Country of Origin: France
Clothing: 83.8 x 63.5 x 5.1cm (33 x 25 x 2 in.)
Overall: Wool, cotton, brass, silk, gold wire/thread
Horizon blue French Air Service service coat worn by Harold Willis; single breasted with seven brass buttons down front (button embossed with winged propeller); two upper patch pockets with flap with brass button closure; two lower patch pockets with flap with brass button closure; horizon blue collar tabs with gold wire winged star aviation insignia; gold wire aiguillette over left shoulder; epaulets with brass button; eight medal ribbons over left breast pocket (Legion of Honour, Medaille Militaire, Croix de Guerre, Evade (Escape), Lafayette Flying Corps, Belgian Croix Militaire, Medaille de Verdun, Commemorative 1914-1918)