Turnage screens ‘Lafayette Escadrille’ in Veterans Day salute

Published 8:03 pm Wednesday, November 9, 2016

In 1958, a movie made its worldwide premiere at the Turnage Theatre in Washington. Friday, that movie will play once again on the Turnage big screen, as tribute to service members on Veterans Day.

Friday, Arts of the Pamlico will present a free screening of “Lafayette Escadrille,” the movie that brought Hollywood to Washington, with movie star Tab Hunter in the leading role, as well as two actors just starting their careers — Clint Eastwood and James Garner.

On display at the theater is also a collection of memorabilia belonging to Washington resident Blount Rumley who’s great uncle, James Baugham, was one of the American volunteers recruited by the elite French flying corps during World War I.

Rumley spoke about his grandmother Patty McMullen’s brother on Wednesday afternoon at the theater, pointing out photos of the young flying ace and letters Baugham wrote home to his mother during his time gunning down German aircraft.

Baugham was a 17-year-old freshman at North Carolina State College of Agriculture and Engineering, the precursor to N.C. State, when the flying bug bit and he found an outlet overseas.

“He was too young to enlist in the U.S. (armed) forces. He wanted to join the Army Air Corps and he saw an ad in the Raleigh paper for the French Corps. … He wanted to fly. They were advertising for volunteers to help fight against the Germans. And that war went on for a long time,” Rumley said. “The guy was sort of a top gun in his day. I think he was too young to be afraid of anything.”

Baugham’s fearlessness is echoed in his letters home, which describe taking on two German fighter planes at once and coming out the victor and another incident in which he landed his crippled plane in the line of fire from both sides and managed to survive, among others.

“Wally Winter was a good friend of mine. … he was diving on a German and his wings came off … it happens all the time. You just can’t tell who’s next,” he wrote to his mother in 1918.

Baugham eventually became the next of those to die in battle, on July 2, 1918.

“He engaged three German planes and three was too many,” Rumley said.

YOUNG AIRMAN: Jim Baugham volunteered for the Lafayette Flying Corps when he was 17 years old — too young to enlist in the U.S. armed forces. At 19, he was shot down after taking on three German fighters simultaneously.

YOUNG AIRMAN: Jim Baugham volunteered for the Lafayette Flying Corps when he was 17 years old — too young to enlist in the U.S. armed forces. At 19, he was shot down after taking on three German fighters simultaneously.

Baugham was buried in France; his remains, along with many others’, were moved to the Lafayette Escadrille Memorial after it was built just outside Paris in 1928.

But it was another Washingtonian who made sure that people wouldn’t forget the young fighter pilot. A housepainter by the name of E.M. Tetterton, more commonly known as “Garbo,” was the force that brought the stars to eastern North Carolina. Tetterton was painting Patty McMullen’s house when he came across some of Baugham’s letters and commendations. His interest piqued, he was determined to do something to honor Baugham, according to Blount.

“It grew and grew. He was a force to be reckoned with, himself,” Rumley said. “He found out about how this movie was being made, and he got someone — Edmund Harding — to call Cecil DeMille, and Cecil got in on it. Cecil had a lot of influence in Hollywood at the time.”

Director Cecil B. DeMille also had strong ties to Washington.

A Feb. 23, 1958 excerpt from “Paul Harvey News,” a national radio show, reads:

“When the motion picture, ‘Lafayette Escadrille,’ premieres this week … It won’t be in Hollywood. Because of a fire-eating house-painter who wouldn’t whit (sic) … talked Hollywood into coming to ‘Little Washington’ … to this farming community county seat of 10,000 people … And the Governor and the French Ambassador and dignitaries from everywhere will be there … To pay tribute to a local lad … but more important … to make certain he did not die for nothing.”

“There was a parade and a lot of dignitaries, and Garbo headed up most of it, and he got everybody in town involved,” Rumley said of the 1958 premiere.

The Veterans Day event will run from 1-3 p.m. Friday; the movie will begin at 1:30 p.m. Beverages and popcorn will be offered for sale before and during the movie. The event is free to the public, though “donations (will be) gratefully accepted to support this remembrance and celebration of our own WWI hero, James Henry Baugham,” reads an AOP press release.

The Turnage Theatre is located at 150 W. Main St., Washington.