Twenty years after Norman Prince was killed in World War I, his body was brought from France on a luxurious ocean liner, transported on a special railroad car to Washington, and lay overnight in repose in Union Station.
Later, it was placed in an elaborate stone tomb his parents had built inside Washington National Cathedral, at the foot of a seven-foot statue of him by a famous French sculptor.
The former head of the U.S. Army spoke at the dedication.
Today, visitors seldom stop at the crypt of the young aviator, with its carved scenes from the Great War and the flags of the United States and France on either side. The hero is all but forgotten.
On Friday, the cathedral will host a service marking the centennial of Prince’s death and recall a founder of a dashing band of American pilots known as the Lafayette Escadrille.
One of the most famous outfits of the war, it was made up of adventurers, barnstormers and the sons of American tycoons — men who were drawn to the thrill of aviation and a chance to fight in the war.
“They all led comfortable lives, at least most of them did,” said Paul Glenshaw, a Silver Spring, Md., filmmaker who is working on a documentary about the squadron. “They had no business being there . . . many of them knowing that they would not survive.”
But they were moved by the plight of France and eager to volunteer in the French forces long before the United States entered the war against Germany in 1917.
Many, like Prince, had Ivy League educations and had made their way to France in the early years of the 1914-1918 war. They had signed on with the French flying corps, but Prince wanted a separate American aviation unit.
“There are ten American pilots with us in the French service and twelve others in training,” he wrote from France in September 1915. “Some day soon we will all be united in one escadrille [squadron] — an Escadrille Americaine — that is my fondest ambition.”
Prince succeeded, and in the spring of 1916, the American cohort went into action. It was later named the Lafayette Escadrille in honor of the Marquis de Lafayette, the French officer who served in the Continental Army in the American Revolution.
There were 38 original American members, and 10 of them, including Prince, did not survive the war, Glenshaw said in a telephone interview Wednesday.
After the United States entered the conflict, the escadrille was absorbed into the American air service, and today its members are considered the godfathers of the U.S. Air Force, the cathedral said.
Life in the escadrille was glamorous and deadly. Pilots often had comfortable quarters but went into battle in rickety “machines” against valiant German pilots often referred to by the derogatory nickname “Boche.”
The planes caught fire easily. There were no parachutes, Glenshaw said. And if a pilot was killed, he was said to have “gone west.”
During a furlough in Boston, Prince gave an address in which he described his first bombing mission.
“The terrible racket and the spectacle of shells . . . exploding nearby made me shiver,” he said. “My limbs began to tremble . . . My legs were so wobbly . . . that I tried to hide them from my observer, who was an old hand at the game.
“I confess to a feeling of relief when we reached the point where our bombs were to be thrown over,” he said, according to a transcript of the speech.
Prince was 29 when he died on Oct. 15, 1916, three days after a crash that threw him from his airplane, broke both his legs and fractured his skull, according to a brief profile written after his death.
As he lay in a coma, he was awarded the French Legion of Honor. At his funeral in France, a squadron of planes circled overhead, dropping flowers.
“I don’t think Prince minded going,” fellow escadrille pilot James R. McConnell wrote. “He wanted to do his part before being killed and he had done more than that.”
McConnell was killed five months later.
Prince had been born in 1887 in Prides Crossing, Mass., northeast of Boston, into a wealthy New England family. A grandfather had been mayor of Boston, and his father was a prominent financier and industrialist.
Prince had private tutors as a child, then was educated at the Groton School and Harvard. He later graduated from Harvard Law School and began practicing in Chicago.
But, to his family’s dismay, he became fascinated with the hazardous pursuit of flying. “I sometimes think that perhaps fate had reserved him for the cause to which he finally gave his life,” his father, Frederick, wrote later.
After his death and burial in France, his parents wanted him to have a more notable resting place.
They donated the equivalent of almost $3 million to the cathedral for the construction of what is now St. John’s Chapel, where they planned to build their son’s tomb.
In May 1937, Prince’s body was removed from an Episcopal cathedral in Paris and shipped to New York aboard the speedy French liner SS Normandie, according to news reports at the time.
The flag-covered coffin came by train to Washington and was in repose in Union Station on May 31. The next day, it was taken to the cathedral in a cortège that included Prince’s parents and was saluted by Army airplanes flying over head.
Prince was placed in a temporary crypt while the one his parents commissioned was being constructed.
“They were devout Episcopalians,” Kevin Eckstrom, the cathedral’s chief spokesman, said Wednesday. “They were part of the network of people across the country who helped raise the money for this place.”
The cathedral was considered a national landmark. “So if you are a father of a son who died in the war . . . [and] wanted to honor him, and wanted people to know the story, this was the place to do it,” he said.
The Princes hired French sculptor Paul Landowski, who had just helped create the mammoth sculpture of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, to design the statue of their son.
Carved from marble, it depicts Prince standing a top an eagle. Elegant relief panels on the tomb appear to depict scenes of Prince’s life but incorrectly have the year of his death as 1917.
At the tomb’s dedication on Dec. 6, 1937, Gen. John J. Pershing, who commanded U.S. forces in Europe during World War I, spoke. And a passage from the Old Testament’s Book of Ezra was read:
These be they that have put off the mortal clothing, and have put on the immortal . . . now are they crowned, and receive palms.
An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of the chief spokesman of the Washington National Cathedral. His name is Kevin Eckstrom.