The history of Buffalo is intertwined with that of transportation in North America.
Whatever the mode -- air, land or water -- Buffalonians have played major roles.
In the field of aviation no name is more colorful or illustrious than that of Nathaniel E. Duffy.
Born just a century ago in Buffalo's old First Ward, Nat Duffy attended St. Bridget's School and St. Joseph's Collegiate Institute. He was an outstanding basketball and football player at Lafayette High School.
In 1916 he enlisted in Buffalo's Troop I of the First New York Cavalry and was sent to the Mexican border as one of the mounted soldiers pursuing the Mexican bandit Pancho Villa. Among the Buffalonians in the unit was Walter Gresham Andrews who later won the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation's second-highest decoration for valor, while serving with the 27th Division in France during the World War I.
Elected to the House of Representatives in 1930, "Ham" Andrews represented Western New York from 1931 to 1949 in Congress and was the first chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
The commander of Duffy and Andrews in Texas was Capt. William J. Donovan. Slightly older than Duffy, Bill Donovan was a role model and mentor for the younger man. Like himself, Donovan was a product of the old First Ward and St. Joseph's Collegiate Institute. The son of an Irish-Catholic railroad worker, Bill Donovan wrote these words in his schoolboy notebook: "Fortune favors the audacious." They were to become his motto as a man of action.
After his service at the Mexican border, Donovan, by then a colonel, commanded New York's famed 69th Regiment during World War I. He won the Congressional Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military decoration, for gallantry in action. His love of cloak-and-dagger operations was fueled as U.S. representative to the White Army during the allied intervention in Russia in 1919 and 1920.
In 1941 President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Office of the Coordinator of Information, forerunner of the wartime Office of Strategic Services, and selected the intrepid Donovan to head it. He rose to the rank of major general.
While still head of the OSS, Gen. Donovan conceived of the idea for the postwar Central Intelligence Agency. The CIA lobby today is dominated by a larger-than-life marble statue of the Buffalo native.
While they were at the Mexican border, Duffy asked Donovan if he thought the United States would be drawn into World War I.
"We can't miss," he replied.
"In that case," asked Duffy, "what should I do to get in at the start and do something worthwhile?"
"Why not go to France and join the Lafayette Escadrille?" suggested Capt. Donovan.
That is exactly what Nat Duffy did. Other Buffalonians in the legendary unit were Dexter P. Rumsey who was related to Donovan through marriage and the author Edward Streeter.
A gallant band whose exploits have been woven into history and legend, the Escadrille was made up of only 38 young men, mostly Americans, who signed up with the French air service. They fought in the old wood-and-canvas crates depicted in films like "The Great Waldo Pepper." A combat pilot's life span in World War I averaged less than 15 hours of flying time. The Lafayette Escadrille shot down 199 German planes, but only six of its members survived the war.
Nat Duffy once recalled his flight instruction. "You learned alone -- no co-pilot instructor -- just signals from the ground," he explained. "No radio. First 12 feet up, then 100, then a turn, all by yourself. You soloed the first time up."
Two members of the Lafayette Escadrille were James Norman Hall and Charles Nordhoff, collaborators on "Mutiny on the Bounty." They wrote of Duffy: "Impeccably uniformed in khaki, handsome, very Irish, broodingly challenging the camera. Sad. What was he thinking? He was hard hit when his best comrade, Bob Hanforth, was killed. He served bravely and faithfully in severe fighting of the war's final summer . . . "
Duffy fought in the drive of 1918 at Mondidier, Amiens and Chateau Thiery. Wounded by machinegun fire as his airplane crashed, the Buffalo aviator was decorated with the French Croix de Guerre for gallantry in action.
After his return to Buffalo, the war hero became assistant to Edwin M. Ronne, director of the new Buffalo Airport. It was in those days little more than a cow pasture. After Ronne was killed in a plane crash, Duffy was named director. He served in that position for 33 years and guided the airport's growth into one of the nation's major air links.
Nathaniel E. Duffy often would say that his two great loves were "aviation and adventure." His granddaughter, Colleen Joseph, a student at the University at Buffalo Law School, recalls that at the time of the dedication of the Peace Bridge in 1927, Nat Duffy -- on a dare -- flew a small plane under the main span of the bridge.