Captain Georges Thenault
Born in Celle-Lévescault, Vienne, France December 15, 1887 was the son of Monsieur and Madame Paul Thenault of Coulombiers, Vienne, France. Georges Thenault attended the École Spéciale Militaire de Saint-Cyr and graduated as a Sous-Lieutenant in the Armée de Terre, thus starting his military career. He became associated with French aviation at the beginning of the war and was one of the first French regular army officers to learn to fly.
Thenault, a Lieutenant, was assigned to Escadrille C.11 of the French Aéronautique Militaire, August to December 1, 1914, a reconnasiance squadron flying the Caudron G.3. On August 27, 1914 he received a Citation of the French Order of the Army. Again on October 29, 1914 he received the Legion of Honor.
On January 12, 1915 he reported to the Military academy of piloting of Avord where he trained in the Nieuport 12, a two-seat fighter-reconaissance biplane, powered by 110 hp (82 kW) Clerget 9Z engine, until March 23, 1915, receiving his certification.
After training, on March 25, 1915 he was assigned to Escadrille C.34, in this unit he also piloted the Caudron G.3. During this assignment, in May of 1915 he was promoted to Captain.
On July 31, 1915 he was reassigned to a détachement de l'armée de Lorraine, Escadrille C.42 as commanding officer. This unit flew the Caudron G.4, a twin engine design developed from the G.3. These aircraft were used for deep penetration reconnaissance missions and bombing. During this period he became aquanted with Sous Lieutenant William Thaw, an active pilot with the C.42 and one of the men who helped establish an all American Escadrille. Thenault held the C.42 command until April, 1916.
Norman Prince, a young lawyer who had become interested in aviation and developed into a trained flier, sailed for France on Janurary 20, 1915 with an idea envisioned during his time at the Burgess Flying School of an all American squadron. Upon arriving he managed to pull together a small group of Americans, William Thaw, Bert Hall, James Bach, Norman Prince, Frazier Curtis, and Elliott C. Cowdin. They made several contacts, M. Jarousse de Sillac a French career diplomat, Dr. Edmund Louis Gros, M.D. an influential American physician, Mr. Frederick H. Allen a retired New York lawyer, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Bentley Mott, military attache to the American Embassy in Paris, Colonel Victor Paul Bouttieaux, French Army. Final approval for this plan was given by Major General Auguste Edouard Hirschauer - Chief of French Military Aeronautics on March 15, 1916.
Captain Thenault then took command of Escadrille N.124 on April 9, 1916, then referred to as the Escadrille Americaine. Upon receiving orders for this new command he obtained the appointment of Lieutenant de Laage de Meux as his second in command, a trusted friend. Thenault then went to Lyons to obtain personell and equipment to support an escadrille, ten tractors, four trucks, two automobiles, and eighty men made up the mechanics, drivers, armorers, cooks, clerks, and quartermasters. From Lyons the men and material were sent on a special train to Luxeuil where the escadrille was being formed. Quartermaster Sergeant Deville opened his books and the escadrille was then an actuality. The pilots received thier orders to report on April, 18 1916. On April 20, 1916, Victor Chapman, Kiffin Rockwell, Norman Prince and James MacConnell reported for duty. William Thaw arrived the next day, Elliot Cowdin and Bert Hall reported on April 28, 1916, thus making up the Americaine Escadrille.
The Escadrille N.124, was first called the Escadrille Americaine, however German objection filed with the U.S. government, over the actions of a supposed neutral nation, led to the name change in December. The original name implied that the U.S. was allied to France when it was in fact neutral. The name then changed to the Escadrille des Volontaires, and finally the Escadrille Lafayette.
Standing 5-ft, 8-in, Captaine Georges Thenault stood as a giant in the eyes of his fellow Frenchmen and a respected leader among the American volunteer pilots. The Lafayette Escadrille N.124, was assigned to Groupe de Combat 13 under the overall command of Commandant Philippe Féquant. During 1916-1917, this Groupe de Combat 13 took part in such engagements as the Battle of the Somme, the Second Battle of the Aisne, the Battle of Verdun, and in the Battle of Passchendaele. In early 1918, it operated in the region between Soissons and Reims. Thenault is not listed as an ace but he was credited with seven victories among which four confirmed. As Commander of the Lafayette Escadrille he was an active pilot.
On Monday, 18 February 1918, under the provisions of an agreement between the French and American armies, the Lafayette Escadrille became the 103rd Aero Squadron- originally known as 103rd Pursuit Squadron- United States Army Air Service. Captaine Thenault relinquished comman of N.124 to Sous-Lieutenant William Thaw on January 18, 1918. Thenault was the only French officer to be in command of the Lafayette Escadrille. Much more important was the fact that he perfectly succeeded in creating and commanding the squadron which will become the core of the first American fighter group.
Captain Thenault accepted orders as Chief Pilot at the French School of Aerial Acrobacy & Combat at Pau, Pyrénées-Atlantiques, remaining there for the duration of the war.
Following the Great War, Captain Thenault remained with the Armée de l'Air, and used his excess time to compile his personal journal into an historical essay. "The Story of the LaFayette Escadrille," published by the Small, Maynard & Company, Inc. of Boston, Massachusettss. Written in French, the context was translated into English by Walter Duranty, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist. Captain Thenault compiled his manuscript at his residence located in Vaux-en-Couhe, Vienne, France. The book was written specifically to commerate those daring American volunteers who served under his command, the eager, fearless, genial band, each so loyal, all so resolute.
In May of 1922, Captaine Tehnault was assigned to a six year tour as Assistant to Colonel George A. L. Dumontin, Military Attache for Aeronautics, at the French Embassy in Washington, D.C. Captaine Thenault traveled to the United States under a French diplomatic passport aboard the SS France which departed from Port of La Havre, Saturday, July 15, 1922, and arrived at the Port of New York, Saturday, July 22, 1922. Captaine Thenault's arrival brought signifiant public attention because his book, just published, had gained widespread American public recognition.
As Assistant to the Military Attache for Aeronautics his various duties included making contacts in the political and deplomatic community in Washington, attending many conferences, luncheons and dinner engagements. His activities often were noted in newspaper society pages such as the Washingtin Post and New York Times. Captaine Thenault, by nature was a personable and friendly man, however, without exception, he at all times conducted himself as a French officer of the Armée de l'Air.
On April 18, 1923, anniversary date of the establishment of the Escadrille Americaine, N.124 (Lafayette Escadrille), the United States awarded Captaine Georges Thenault the Distinguished Service Medal, presented by Secretary of War, John W. Weeks. This Award may be made to persons other than members of the Armed Forces of the United States for wartime services only, and then only under exceptional circumstances, with the express approval of the President in each case.
Georges Thenault, in 1923 was promoted to the Commandant, approximately equal to Major in the United States armed forces. He was often mistakenly referred to as "Major Thenault" in many U.S. periodicals. In the French armed services Major is a non-commisioned officer rank.
Commandant Thenault's duties also involved receiving and introducing French dignitaries into the various political and deplomatic circles. One of the well-known visitors at the time was Captain René Fonck, Armée de l'Air. He arrived in the United States on Tuesday, October 6, 1925. Captain Fonck's visit was two edged, both private and official. Officially upon the invitation from the defense attorney for Colonel Billy Mitchell, U.S. Army Air Service. Colonel Mitchell invited Captain Fonck to reveal the state of the Armée de l'Air, and to testify how it had broken down during the Moroccan Rebellion in North Africa because the Escadrilles had been placed under the command of infantry and artillery officers who had no flying experience . Pivately he was here to attend the international air race at Mitchell Field, Long Island, for the Schneider Trophy. Commandant Thenault also presented Captaine Fonck to President Calvin Collidge, who wanted to meet the great war hero.
Upon completing his six year tour as Assistant to the Military Attache for Aeronautics at the French Embassy in Washington D.C. , in the Spring of 1928, Commandant Thenault was recalled to France. George A. L. Dumont, Military Attache for Aeronautics at the French Embassy was promoted to Brigadier General and recalled to France. Commandant Georges Thenault returned to the United States reporting to the French Embassy in Washington D.C., Friday, July 27, 1928 as Military Attache for Aeronautics- replacing Brigadier General Dumont. As the new Military Attache for Aeronautics, Commandant Thenault sought to strengthen relations of military alliance between the United States and France. Traveling through a number of cities visiting aircraft factories, conferring with aeronautical experts, and inspecting Army air stations keeping his government informed of American progress in the aircraft industry. Thenault was well respected within the U.S. military community and was invited to attend many exhibitions of new military aircraft at Wright Field.
In the Spring of 1933 Thenault completed his second tour with the French Embassy and was recalled. Because he was widely respected the recall brought considerable public attention in the United States. Upon his return to France he was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and resumed his service to the Armée de l'Air.
With the outbreak of World War II, an effort was mounted by some Americans along with Lt. Colonel Thenault, the Escadrille’s first commander, and Dr. Edmund L. Gros attempted create another American volunteer unit. However, the fall of France cut short their efforts. Dr. Gros suffered a stroke in 1940 after the German occupation. He returned to the United States where he died in Westchester, Pennsylvania, October 16, 1942.
Early in 1940, with the war going unfavorably for the Allies, Thenault developed a strategy for his family to escape the Nazi invasion. In mid-July 1940 he executed his plans, his American wife Sarah Spencer Thenault, two children, Catherine Bathilde Thenault and Georges (Tom) Spencer Thenault and mother-in-law Katherine "Danny" Spencer, using their U.S. passports as identification, were able to travel through Spain via train to reach the Port of Lisbon, Portugal. There they boarded SS Exochorda on Thursday, July 25, arriving at the Port of New York, Friday, August 2, 1940. From New York they proceeded to Harwich Port, Massachusetts, where they resided in the home of Katherine "Danny" Spencer's mother during remainder of World War II.
Lieutenant Colonel Georges Thenault resided in the Occupied Zone of France after his family had safely departed. There involved with personal business for the duration of the war.
While on a hunting trip outside Paris, Lieutenant Colonel Georges Thenault suffered a heart attack. He died in Paris, France, on Sunday, December 19, 1948. He was buried on Thursday, December 30, 1948, with all military honors in the presence of many French and American representatives in the crypt of the LaFayette Escadrille Memorial Monument in the park of Villeneuve L'etang, between the suburbs of Garches and Marnes-la-Coquette.