Maj. James Meissner
James Armand Meissner (born July 20, 1896 in Londonderry, Nova Scotia; died January 16, 1936 in Birmingham) was a World War I “Flying Ace” and founder of the Birmingham Flying Club (or Birmingham Escadrille) which became Alabama’s first Air National Guard unit and was placed under his command.
Meissner was the son of a U. S. Steel board member. He grew up in Brooklyn, New York and graduated from Erasmus High School there in 1914. He enrolled at Cornell University to study engineering and enlisted in the university’s Corps of Cadets. on May 28, 1917 he left school to enlist in the Army Signal Service.
He was trained in military aeronautics that summer and was soon bound for France to continue training under French instructors in Tours. He was commissioned a 1st Lieutenant on November 20, 1917 and reported, the following March, to Major John Huffer’s 94th Pursuit Squadron where he joined Eddie Rickenbacker and a group known as the Lafayette Escadrille.
Piloting a French-made Nieuport 28, Meissner scored his first aerial kill over the Forêt De La Rappe on May 2, 1918, earning the Distinguished Service Cross and the Croix de Guerre. He shot a second plane down near Jaulny on May 30 and racked up two more kills before being made commander of the 147th Pursuit Squadron in July. Now flying a Spad S.XIII fighter, he scored four more kills, one of which was a reconnaissance balloon. He was discharged as a Major on March 25, 1919 and returned to Cornell to complete his master’s in engineering.
After receiving his diploma, Meissner moved to Birmingham and began working at Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company‘s rail mill. He married Elva Kessler, daughter of a landscape architect from Augusta, Georgia.
In 1919 he and Henry Badham Jr organized the Birmingham Flying Club, nicknamed the “Birmingham Escadrille” and leased a tract of land near Ensley to set up an airfield (Roberts Field). The club was recognized as the 135th Observation Squadron on January 21, 1922 under Meissner’s command. It was Alabama’s first Air National Guard unit and the 7th in the United States.
Meissner died from pneumonia in January 1936. Rickenbacker made the trip to Birmingham to serve as pallbearer during his memorial service, which was capped by a flyover by members of his unit. His ashes were interred at Arlington National Cemetery the following May.