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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The First Yale Unit

Ralph D. Paine

printed at
The Riverside Press
Cambridge (Mass.)

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 2
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

Vol. I
Chapter I

New Warfare in the Sky

Among themselves they still call it 'The Unit.' This signifies a great deal more than the formal designation of 'Aerial Coast Patrol No. 1.' It was, in fact, a group of young men unified by an idea, fused together by an eager purpose, and steadfastly adhering to a conception of service.

There was only a handful of them. In the bewildering magnitude of the Great War the part they played would seem to be quite small, but the influence of the organization, the quality of its various achievements, and the pattern it set in the development of naval aviation were of conspicuous importance. Such was the opinion of those best qualified to pass judgment. To the Yale campus which had sheltered most of them, they contributed a chapter worthy of its honorable history and traditions.

During those four years of destruction and torment, mankind looked forward to peace with a bright faith that was fated to be disillusioned. The aftermath of what had been hailed as a crusade was more like a sordid scramble for spoils. But this cannot darken the splendor of sacrifice nor dim the motives by which youth was inspired to dare and suffer and die. The eternal truths are unshattered. Ideals endure. There are, and will always be, things more valuable than life itself.

It used to seem that the currents of a university were  p2 seldom disturbed by the course of events beyond its own boundaries. In a way it was cloistered and apart. Its own activities were absorbing. Thus it was at New Haven until the autumn of 1914. How the world felt when the storm broke is reflected in the words of H. G. Wells:

All Europe still remembers the strange atmosphere of those eventful August days, the end of the Armed Peace. For nearly half a century the Western World had been tranquil and had seemed safe. The newspapers spoke of a world catastrophe, but that conveyed very little meaning to those for whom the world had always seemed secure, who were indeed almost incapable of thinking it otherwise than secure. In Britain particularly for some weeks the peace-time routine continued in a slightly dazed fashion. It was like a man still walking about the world unaware that he had contracted a fatal disease which will alter every routine and habit of his life.

People went on with their summer holidays; shops reassured their customers with the announcement, 'business as usual.' There was much talk and excitement when the newspapers came, but it was the talk and excitement of spectators who have no vivid sense of participation in the catastrophe that was presently to involve them all.

Aye, it was a catastrophe that was presently to involve us all, but we Americans, looking on in a dazed fashion, were unaware of it. The gray-backed German columns trampled Belgium under foot. England's little regular army retreated from Mons, stubbornly, superbly flinging itself away, the broken remnants crowned with glory as the 'Old Contemptibles.' The bloody inundation swept across France until Joffre rolled it back from the Marne. After that the deadlock of the trenches.

To young men in college, these first phases of the war were profoundly thrilling. They were shaken out of their cheerful indifference to affairs mundane. Their sense of chivalry and adventure was stirred. Their sympathies were with the Allies, their indignation hot against the  p3 ruthless doctrines of an Imperial Germany to whom might was right. After a few months, however, the war had become an old story. The college campus had accustomed itself to the distant shocks and tragedies on a scale too vast for realization.

The Administration at Washington was maintaining an attitude of the most scrupulous aloofness and detachment. The people were exhorted by President Wilson to remain neutral 'not only in act but in word and thought.' To a certain extent, this feeling was bound to affect undergraduate sentiment, endorsed as it was by anxious parents who feared lest this or that impetuous son might go surging off to enlist in the Foreign Legion or a Canadian battalion of the Black Watch.

Meanwhile the United States was being drawn, by forces irresistible, nearer and nearer to active partner­ship in the conflict. With the stupid arrogance that brought about her downfall, Germany was committing one provocation after another. A crisis came with the sinking of the Lusitania on May 17, 1915, and the loss of 113 American lives — all neutrals in the war, all non‑combatants. It was an act deliberately calculated to test the temper of the United States. Wrath swept the country like a flame, but a declaration of war was two years away. The President, still advising restraint and believing that national opinion was not yet sufficiently welded together, made use of the unfortunate phrase that there was such a thing as 'a nation too proud to fight.'

Again the university at New Haven, as elsewhere, was aroused in a spirit of protest which began to take form in the conviction that war was inevitable and that, sooner or later, the robust youth of the land would be summoned to bear arms in defense of its institutions and for the honor of the flag which had been so flagrantly insulted on the high seas. To counsel neutrality of thought and word was  p4 whistling against the wind. How to be ready, what plans of efficient service to devise, was a problem that perplexed and baffled many a restless undergraduate mind.

After college closed, in the summer of 1915, Frederick Trubee Davison​a enjoyed the privilege of going abroad with his father. As a partner of J. P. Morgan & Co., Mr. Henry P. Davison was intimately in touch with the fiscal policies and operations of the war ministries of England and France. In arranging credits and thereby obtaining the immense quantities of supplies and material so urgently needed, this banking house was of great assistance to the Allied cause, particularly at the time when Great Britain was straining every nerve to mobilize her own resources.

The trip abroad enabled Trubee Davison to meet the men conspicuous in the conduct of the war and to behold for himself vivid glimpses of a scene which had seemed so remote and unreal. In London and Paris he began to comprehend what this gigantic war meant to a nation, transforming its whole existence, hardening it with the will to win at any cost. Liberty at stake, freedom in the balance, and the United States a spectator!

For many years prior to 1914, there had been at Neuilly-sur‑Seine, a suburb of Paris, a semi-philanthropic institution supported by Americans and known as the American Hospital. At the outbreak of the war this hospital instantly and naturally became the rallying point for Americans who loved France and desired to help care for her wounded soldiers. Within a few weeks, however, it was evident that larger quarters must be found. A splendid new school building in the same neighborhood was rented and equipped. The staff of doctors, surgeons, and nurses was obtained in the United States.

Thus the American Ambulance Hospital in the Lycée Pasteur, with accommodations for more than six hundred  p5 wounded soldiers, came into being. Soon the generosity of other American friends of France made possible a second Ambulance Hospital, and the venerable College of Juilly, situated about thirty miles east of Paris, was fitted out to receive two hundred additional wounded.

From the outset it was clear that the saving of soldiers' lives depended quite as much upon the quick transportation of the wounded as upon their surgical treatment. In September of 1914, therefore, when the battle front was close to Paris, a dozen automobiles given by Americans and hastily extemporized as ambulances ran back and forth, night and day, between the Marne valley and Paris. This was the beginning of the American Ambulance Field Service.

During the autumn and winter that followed, more cars were given and many fine young Americans volunteered to drive them. When the fighting lines receded and Paris was no longer in peril, sections of motor ambulances were detached from the hospitals at Neuilly and Juilly and became more or less independent units operating with the several French armies, serving the dressing stations and army hospitals in the forward zones. In the summer of 1915 more than a hundred such ambulances were transporting wounded men from the trenches of France and Belgium. Their drivers were mostly recruited from American colleges. Their courage and devotion earned the affectionate gratitude of France.

Trubee Davison joined the Ambulance Service for the summer. To his disappointment he was not sent to the front, but was assigned to drive in Paris, to the hospitals, railway stations, and so on. Somebody had to do it, as he sensibly consoled himself. However, it kindled his interest and gave him something to think about. Here was one outlet for his energy when he went back to college. He would do all he could to help the American Ambulance. It was the real thing.

 p6  The experience in Paris was worth even more than this, as it turned out later. Mr. Robert Bacon had crossed in the same steamer with Mr. Davison and Trubee. He had been Secretary of State and Ambassador to France and was able to discuss the war with keen discernment and sympathetic insight. His heart was with France. He wished to do what he could in her behalf. In any righteous cause he was never content to be a bystander. He was attracted to aviation as the new factor of warfare which already had compelled a radical revision of strategy and tactics.

At the beginning of the war the aeroplane had been found invaluable for reconnaissance because of its range of vision and amazing speed. As a weapon of combat its qualities were experimental until the contending armies dug themselves in and mobile operations came to a standstill. Then began the sensational duels in the air, skill in the use of machine guns, the inception of a war in the clouds which should engage squadrons, swift and venomous, and enroll their heroes among the immortals.

In that summer of 1915 the nations that gripped each other's throats had come to realize that it was to be a long war of attrition and capacity to endure, a war not to be won by the decisive maneuvers of a Napoleon at Leipzig, a Wellington at Waterloo, or a Meade at Gettysburg. Millions of men faced each other in the trenches that zigzagged from the Channel ports to the bleak downs of Champagne, from the dark forests of the Argonne to the scarp of the Vosges, until the French lines stretched into the plain of Alsace and sentries in baggy red breeches exchanged greetings with the outposts of the Swiss frontier.

Greater armies than had ever fought under any flags were rotting in mud or burying themselves like moles. An extraordinary picture from which had vanished all the pomp and pageantry of war!

 p7  The color and movement, the élan of it, were to be sought for in the air where the ancient splendors of chivalry had been reborn. Chosen champions fought each other to the death while the armies looked on. Such a one was Guynemer, the French 'ace of aces,' whose Stork squadron was organized in April of 1915 — Guynemer who shot down fifty-five German planes during his meteoric career of two years, who perished in action and whose name is inscribed on the walls of the Pantheon; to whom his country paid homage as 'personifying the prodigies accomplished by all his competitors and by all the combatants, young or old, by all the heroes, too often remaining unknown and who, like he, simply did their duty and died for France.'

It was natural enough that a young man of Trubee Davison's kind should have been impressed by what he saw of the aviation service of the French army. Mr. Robert Bacon decided to lend an active hand in the formation of a corps of American flying men in France. These volunteers were destined to win renown as the Lafayette Escadrille. As a nucleus, William Thaw, Kiffen Rockwell, and Victor Chapman had enlisted in the Foreign Legion early in the war. They were infantrymen before they became aviators in the French service. Norman Prince had learned to fly in the United States.

After some delay, these four men had been sent to the French aviation schools where they were joined by Elliot Cowdin, Bert Hall, Didier Masson, and Raoul Lufberry. To Norman Prince belongs the credit of conceiving the idea of a squadron of American volunteer pilots to serve with the French. In November, 1914, Prince was at Marblehead learning to pilot hydroplanes at the Burgess school. Believing that other Americans with experience as aviators would like to join with him and that the French Government would be willing to accept a squadron  p8 of them, he suggested the idea to Frazer Curtis who was in training with him. These two spent much time in discussing it.

Norman Prince sailed for France in November, 1914, and among other things endeavored to obtain the aid of influential Americans residing in Paris. Some of them could not be persuaded that the project was feasible. Others thought it unwise to organize a squadron of American volunteers because of the neutrality of the United States. In Robert W. Bliss and Robert Chanler, however, Norman Prince found helpful and enthusiastic allies who endorsed his plan and gave it practical support by arranging introductions to and interviews with officials of the French War Department.

The arrival of Mr. Robert Bacon in Paris and his active approval did much to overcome red‑tape and other bureaucratic obstructions.

Norman Hall, who became one of the conspicuous veterans of the Lafayette Escadrille, has described the critical hour as follows:

For some time the suggestion met with no favor on the part of the French military authorities. M. de Sillac, whose position in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs peculiarly fitted him for approaching the Minister of War, was taking active steps to bring it about. It looked as though we should fail when M. de Sillac arranged a luncheon at the house of Senator Menier. Those present were General Hirschauer, then head of French aviation, Colonel Bouttieux, his assistant, Leon Bourgeois, Mr. Robert Bacon, M. de Sillac, Dr. William White of Philadelphia, Dr. Edmund L. Gros and myself.

Robert Bacon and General Hirschauer discussed the matter fully and the conclusion was that there existed no international law which forbade Americans from enlisting individually in a foreign army, as long as the recruiting was not carried on in America.

General Hirschauer promised to give orders immediately that the various American aviators then in the French army should  p9 be grouped together in an escadrille commanded by a French captain; it was to be called the Escadrille Americaine.

The financial question was quickly solved. I called with Robert Bacon on Mr. and Mrs. W. K. Vanderbilt. We spoke with warmth of our plans. Our enthusiasm must have been contagious, for when I appealed for funds Mrs. Vanderbilt walked to her desk and wrote out a check for five thousand dollars, and turning to her husband said, 'Now, K., what will you do?' His check read fifteen thousand dollars. With this sum in hand, it looked as though our dream was really coming true. From that day to this these generous people have never ceased to be the patron saints of the American boys and have contributed to aviation alone, modestly as is their custom, what would be considered a small fortune.

The origin of this very gallant flying corps, which later took the name of Lafayette, is briefly outlined here because of Mr. Robert Bacon's connection with it and the fact that Trubee Davison was with him in Paris during the summer of 1915. This enabled the Yale sophomore to meet a number of fighting aviators, both French and American, to listen to their story of hazards and escapes, and to learn something at first hand about the air service in war.

Hundreds of pilots were in training. Every effort was exercised to build more machines. In speed and efficiency they were improving day by day. The Germans were no less enterprising and ingenious. It was a breathless race for aerial supremacy. The wildest dreams were coming true. Man had conquered the empty spaces of the clouds in order to slay his enemy with machine gun and bomb.

In the Lafayette Escadrille, Trubee Davison could behold a group of young men bound together as a unit by ties of loyalty and comrade­ship. They were volunteers. They had found friends who were glad to furnish the financial support required. He tucked these impressions away for future reference. There might be something in  p10 the idea. Meanwhile he would do what he could to boost the American Ambulance Service among his friends at college. As he later explained it:

While my firing line was Paris and nothing else, in 1915, I at least saw enough of the fellows over there to know that if we ever got into the war, where I personally wanted to be was in the air service. Mr. Robert Bacon was there, too. I was with him, as a matter of fact, and he was very much interested in the Lafayette Escadrille. He came home from Paris while I was there to organize an additional squadron. That put the bug in my bonnet. When I went back to college in the fall, I picked out Bob Lovett and poured it into his ear. We made a sort of compact that if war came we should go into aviation. That was the life. We didn't know whether it would be in the Army or Navy. Of course the average American knew very little about the air service at that time for the reason that there was so little of it. Our Government was asleep at the switch.

Thayer's Note:

a Frederick Trubee Davison was born February 7, 1896. He was thus a minor during much of his initial flight training, and until early 1917.

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