French Lessons

With their own country occupied by Germany, French air cadets came to Alabama to learn to fly. Vive la Dixie!

Instructor Herbert Cain introduces his French students to their new trainer. (AFHRA)
Air & Space Magazine

THE STUDENT PILOT KNEW HE HADN'T PERFORMED WELL, and back on the ground he waited for a chewing out by his flight instructor. Instead, the exasperated instructor marched him over to another officer on the flightline and told him to give the student hell—in French.

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The obliging officer was my father, Harry Dupont. It was 1943, and he and his fellow U.S. Army Air Forces flight instructors at Gunter Field in Montgomery, Alabama, were struggling to turn young Frenchmen into combat-ready pilots. Eventually, a partnership between the U.S. Army Air Forces and the Free French would bring nearly 5,000 Frenchmen to the United States to train for air crew and ground support positions during World War II. Though few U.S. instructors were able to speak much French, from 1943 to 1945, nearly 1,400 French recruits learned to fly over the piney woods of the American South.

When the Germans took over France in 1940, they devastated the country’s air force, destroying hundreds of French airplanes, confiscating others for their own use, and grounding yet others by removing their propellers. Under the terms of the French-German armistice, the Germans permitted only a few French air force units to operate in France and its North African colonies, and only under German control.

Before the takeover, some pilots managed to fly to England, where they joined the Royal Air Force and flew missions over France and Germany. Eventually the exiled French banded together to form the Free French air force.

In November 1942 the Allies invaded North Africa, defeating the Axis forces there and liberating the French units in Algeria, Morocco, and later Tunisia. These units joined the Free French.

The Free French asked for U.S. aircraft and training to help re-create the French air force. In early 1943 the U.S. military agreed, seeing the benefits of the arrangement. The Allies needed more fliers, and the French had experience in North Africa. But North Africa did not have enough instructors or training fields, so U.S. Major General Carl Spaatz proposed that French student pilots be sent to the United States for flight training.

The French cadets who jumped at the chance to come to the United States for flight instruction had grown up at a time when boys read of World War I aces and dreamed about flying in combat to defend their country. German troops had taken over their towns, and they knew the traumas of occupation.

In November 1942 the cadets were subjected to preliminary testing of their physical and mental abilities, as well as some ground school subjects, such as navigation and gunnery. Those who passed were told to report to Camp Cazes in Casablanca, Morocco, a French air base with two sections, American and French. There the French got their first glimpse of Allied airpower. Compared to France’s aging fleet, the aircraft—Spitfires, P-40s, P-38s, B-17s—were awe-inspiring: roaring, swift, and lethal.

One cadet, René Levêque, later recounted his amazement in a 1982 article in Aerospace Historian: “It was on the apron of a hangar in Casablanca that the future French cadets beheld the B-17 Flying Fortress for the first time. It dwarfed all other planes.”

The training plan called for the French cadets to undergo primary training at a civilian facility near Tuscaloosa, Alabama, basic training at Gunter Field, advanced single-engine training at Craig Field, near Selma, and twin-engine training at Turner Field, outside Albany, Georgia. Later, more highly specialized training centers were established throughout the country, among them Tyndall Field in Florida for machine gunners, Lowry Field, Colorado, for armament technicians, and Scott Field, Illinois, for radio personnel.

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