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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 9

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.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 11
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

Vol. I
Chapter X

Plane Living and High Flying

One day was much like another as the weeks slid by. War was like an echo of far‑off things, like a trumpet faintly heard. Palm Beach was forsaken by its tourists and cottagers and drowsed in the long summer siesta. Gay house-boats and yachts had vanished. The sun blazed with the fervor of the tropics. Strong breezes tempered it and tumbled the surf on the seaward beaches. High above the blue lagoon of Lake Worth the aeroplanes wheeled and dipped while the aviators looked down at basking turtles, schools of fish, and the feathery palms that fringed the shore. A curious entertainment for the Seminole Indians who stared from their camps in the swamp and hammock land of the Everglades!

Colonel Thompson was not only 'The Boss,' but he was also a good deal like a parent by proxy to all these young men who were so cheerfully risking their necks. The danger of a crash was always present and the Colonel felt profoundly thankful that he was able to send the regular message of 'all's well' to the various homes, with no reports of casualties. The message was in the form of a postal card of this description:

Aerial Coast Patrol — Unit Number 1
U. S. Naval Reserve Flying Corps

West Palm Beach, Florida

April 19, 1917

This is to report that Lieut. (j.g.) F. T. Davison is in perfect health and his work is proceeding 'just grand.' Weight 154. Flying 8 hrs. 30 min.

L. S. Thompson


 p112  The solicitous Colonel spent much of his time on a house-boat anchored well out in the lake. From there he could watch the flying. For amusement he had a .22 rifle and used for targets the tiny brass cartridge cases tossed in the air. He could hit them something like nine times out of ten, according to veracious witnesses. This would go to prove that he was the traditional marksman who could shoot the eye out of a humming-bird.

His companion on the house-boat was Dr. McAlpin all set and on the mark to rescue drowning or disabled aviators. He had a complete equipment for the purpose of bringing them to and putting them together again, but fortunately had no serious use for it. The patrol launches were stationed at several points for emergency calls. The only patients they were summoned to attend were the machines which broke down and had to be towed into port. This happened often.

One story is told of Dr. McAlpin that should not be forgotten. It is the sort of thing that he would never mention himself. Says a member of the Unit: 'I shall always remember one thing the Little Doc did, and I am sure that none of us ever made a greater personal sacrifice. He did it as a simple matter of duty. One day he received a telegram that his father was very ill and could not live. They wanted the Doc to come home before his father died, or at least to arrive in time for the funeral. However, he figured that he was the only medical man available who could properly look after us. With so much flying going on, there was always the chance of an accident. So he decided that he ought to stand by and he did. It was one of the finest things in the records of the Unit, and so say we all of us.'

'Radio' Stewart inserted himself most actively into the daily program. He set up a wireless station which was in touch with Key West and other points, and with ships at  p113 sea. Several seaplane radio sets had been purchased from Sperry. One of these was installed in machine No. 3 and used in practice for sending messages to the ground station. The pupils also made some progress in tuning in to pick up stray radio while they were in the air. On one occasion Bob Lovett intercepted a tender missive which threw him off his balance for several days. It was sent from Havana and said, 'Love and caresses. Galli Thea.' This was enough to demonstrate the wisdom of a censor­ship.

The Unit acquired a Lewis machine‑guna as a gift from the Aero Club of America, through Mr. Henry Woodhouse. An expert gunner who had served in the Marine Corps came along with it. He gave lessons in the mechanism of the weapon and in directing its infernal stream of bullets. It was taken to the beach and used to fire at floating bits of driftwood beyond the surf. The amateurs managed to hit the ocean. Later they mounted it in the twin-motor plane and popped away at kites in the air. This work was more or less desultory at Palm Beach. It was an advanced stage beyond learning to fly and was later carried on more thoroughly at Huntington.

Bits of personal experiences, selected here and there, may help to piece out the picture of the day's work during the sojourn at Palm Beach:

One day 'Crock' and I certainly slipped it over on the rest of the outfit. We got up long before it was light and went down to the machines. We got old Number 3 out just as dawn was breaking. Then we had one of the prettiest flights that ever happened, for about an hour. We went up about 3000 feet and watched the sun rise. Everybody was terribly snotty about it when we came down. They all tried to work this same stunt, but Lieutenant McDonnell forbade it after that. . . . (Harry Davison.)

I had my first flight with Bob Lovett in the old Mary Ann. Then about three hours with 'Di' Gates, after which I was  p114 shifted to Dave McCulloch's class and stayed with him. When some of the juniors went north to New Haven for a week, Ken MacLeish, Harry and I had Dave and a boat all to ourselves. This was Number 4, the old Trans‑Oceanic Company's machine. We soloed soon after this, which was about the first of May. From then on solo work was rather dull until I took Frank Lynch up and tried to demonstrate several forbidden varieties of turn, finally ending with a stall and tail spin. Frank was nearly thrown out but pulled himself together enough to shut off the motor, whereupon we came out of the spin. We landed at once, scared perfectly pink, and decided to keep quiet about it. Later in the day it occurred to us that we might have strained the machine so Frank told Trubee about it, and my flying was called off until we left for Huntington. . . . (Bartow Read.)

Trubee was the pilot for my first flight and it was a thrilling experience. We went down Lake Worth and circled around and came back. I don't suppose it took more than ten minutes, but it was some flight, believe me. Then I was turned over to Albert Ditman as a pupil, and he was able to prepare me to solo a short while before we left Palm Beach. Lots of people have asked if the first solo isn't a terrifying experience. I must confess it wasn't for me, I suppose because I was so preoccupied in keeping things right side up that I had no time to be worried. After three or four flights I began to be able to think about it. And it suddenly dawned on me that here I was all alone up in the air. It was quite a thought. . . . (Bill Rockefeller.)

At Palm Beach I was assigned to Caleb Bragg's squadron and after a good many hours of instruction under him, I was allowed to solo on the same day as Harry Davison. I was shoved along pretty fast because of my previous experience in F‑boats. I also rise to remark that Caleb Bragg could not be beaten as a teacher. Soon after this, six of us, all experienced soloists, were assigned to the Mary Ann and we spent most of the remainder of the time in trying our best to smash her. During the day, while at Palm Beach, I tried to behave just as the others did. Up at dawn, flying all morning, eat some lunch, sleep through the lecture, fly some more and then go to the movies. I spent most every Sunday fishing and occasionally managed to catch something. The only other excitement in my existence down there was my Red Bug which needed more care than all the flying  p115 machines put together. Even after spending three days overhauling it and filling the gas tank with ether, I couldn't manage to win any of the races. . . . (Bill Thompson.)

Number 7 crew and Number 7 machine had the greatest number of flying hours while at Palm Beach, but this is not strange when one considers that they had such able men as McIlwaine, Beach, Smith, Curt Read, and Liv Ireland working on that crew and keeping the machine in order by hook or crook, with an accent on the crook. Who can forget the tea‑parties they held every afternoon, either under the palms next door, or, in case the Loot was around, under their own runway? They took turns in serving and Ireland was voted the hostess with the nicest manners. . . . One day while flying at the end of the lake I looked down and saw a plane making a very fast landing. When it hit the water, all you could see was spray. Later I learned that it was merely Johnny Farwell practicing one of his submarine landings. . . . Vorys, Alphy Ames, and Erl Gould, of Trubee's crew, were always amusing. These three got along like strange bulldogs, due to the fact that they were all captains and no privates when the three of them were together. Alphy once distinguished himself by getting between two step-ladders upon the top of which was stretched a very heavy plank. Alphy wobbled one of the ladders and the plank smote him over the head. He was still groggy when Vorys asked, 'Did it hurt, Alphy?' The reply was a look of grieved indignation. A man less angelic than our little Alphy would have cussed himself out of breath. . . . (Di Gates.)

Several things have happened in the past few days which are worthy of note. To begin with, I am now flying alone. I was the first one of the new crowd to fly alone, and I also beat four fellows who flew all last summer down on Long Island. I learned to fly in about eleven hours. One is supposed to take at least twelve, so you see it did come easily to me, and everything is turning out just as I expected. This accomplishment automatically makes me an ensign and I expect my papers soon.

Several remarks have made me very optimistic. I understand that these F‑boats are the hardest machines to fly. These boats, of course, will not be used in service. The government machine is a 250‑horse-power pontoon machine with a speed of eighty-five miles per hour and a wing-spread of fifty feet. We expect to  p116 have two J. N. tractor machines, but we will take off the wheels and put on pontoons.

I rather quaked in my boots when the Lieutenant came around and ordered me to fly alone. I was so new at the game that I had very little confidence. I sort of shut my eyes and 'let 'er go,' and found it highly to my liking to fly the old machine just as I darn please and stand no chance of being bawled out by a sarcastic instructor. I took off the water nicely and then began to settle back and take things easy. I found that my previous nervousness had come from fear of making a mistake when the instructor was with me. The next thing I knew, I felt myself grinning from ear to ear and trying to whistle, though the wind blew my lips flat and the roar of the motor and the propeller entirely discouraged the attempt. I made my first landing alone — a thing I will never forget in all my life. I didn't realize how very dependent I had been on the instructor until I was about to level off above the water. Then something seemed to say, 'Here's where you show yourself that you can fly, or here's where you bust something.' I chose the former and made a perfect landing. Not until then did I realize how dark it was getting and that I was eight miles from home. I started back and that fool sun went down like a shot. While the rays were still shining on me, below me there was pitch darkness.

Well, for once in my life I had a real battle with myself. I finally won out and started to land perfectly calmly and determined that everything should go off smoothly. I couldn't see the surface of the water, but I could faintly make out boats here and there, and I steered my machine between two of them. When I felt the warm air on the water, I leveled off and made a fair landing — nothing to write home about. When I got back, they had left in a speed boat with a searchlight to help me and they had everything around the hangar lit up.

You must excuse my gushing about all this, but remember that I am apt to exaggerate any tight places and, furthermore, this flying simply fascinates me and I fairly dream it. . . . (Kenneth MacLeish — from letter to his parents.)

Not a thing of note has turned up this week. Flying has been very mediocre. I have discovered that the very worst time to fly is when the sun is very bright and there is no wind. It seems that the heat radiates upward in columns like smoke, and the cold air rushes down to take its place. There may be a difference  p117 in velocity of five or six miles an hour between the two air currents, and when you get one wing in one, and the other in the other, you have quite a funny sensation which it is wise never to experience. In this flying game you have to be very quick and yet not nervous. You have three separate controls to work at once, and if you aren't perfectly cool all the time it is not hard to mix them up. One is bound to change quite a bit. I feel perfectly confident in myself for the first time in my life. I never try foolish things, however, because I am a firm believer in the laws of chance. I believe that a man has only a certain number of chances to take before he fails to 'get away with it.' If he takes them in rapid succession and gets into trouble, he is said to be reckless or unlucky. . . . (Kenneth MacLeish.)

While at Palm Beach I was approached by a regular Navy man who had been sent there to get recruits. When I offered my services in naval aviation I was turned down, principally, I believe, on account of age. As far as I can remember I was never asked after this to join the Navy, but apparently I was welcome as I received pay orders and all the other things that go with a Navy job. It is still a mystery, however, as to just how I got on their books. (Albert Ditman.)

The Wag crew excelled in many ways those of the younger generation, not only in maintaining the social standing of the Unit as a whole, but in the more serious phases of the war. We overhauled our engine so many times that Jesse Vincent, the designer of the Liberty motor, would have marveled at the ruggedness of the OXX‑3. These constant repairs were always accompanied by fitting strains of music, to the disgust of Caleb Bragg. He couldn't understand how the Wag crew could skin their knuckles ten times a day trying to pull out a broken cotter pin or spill hot solder down their sleeves, and still sing!

Another activity of the Unit in which I took part was the quartet. No function in West Palm Beach was complete without a song 'by special request' from the 'young men' of the Aerial Coast Patrol Unit No. 1. These mocking-birds, named in the order of their ability, were me, Hen Landon, Chip, Al Sturtevant, Bob, and John Vorys. The most notable performance was at the Methodist Church supper when we started with 'Abide with Me' and ended with 'Roll dem Bones.'

Having taken engineering at college, the instruction of the  p118 Unit in the principles of the four cycle engine and its component parts was assigned to me. Black-boards were immediately produced by the Colonel and the early afternoons were spent either in this course, the life of which was very short because of the limited knowledge of its instructor, or in listening (?) to the Lieutenant lecture. The course which I taught had one fruitful result. 'Lotta' Lawrence became an expert on spark plugs. Any day he could be seen carrying one around and examining it closely, most frequently and most intently when some one was calling for 'more gas for Number 6.' (Graham Brush.)

Most of the fellows had girls down there with the exception of 'Di' Gates, and me. The greatest fun of all was to see Ken Smith start off in the Admiral Blundy. He was Chief Petting Officer and his crew was made up of the two Hood sisters. He was invariably pelted with cocoanuts when leaving the dock. When we finally pulled out to go to Huntington, Charlie Stewart flew over Mamma Doe's house and bombed the roof with cocoanuts by way of a fond farewell. . . . (Anonymous.)

This last quotation from the unofficial records seems to swing the narrative on another track. It deals with life in a lighter vein than the routine of flying and study. All work and no play makes Jack a dumb-bell. So some wise man has informed the cock-eyed world. And the aviator, beyond all other warriors, requires diversion, to have the tension slackened away a bit. Before dismissing the references to the feminine factor, more information is desirable in the interests of accuracy. It can be found in the following comment:

I was sitting in the hotel one day when the telephone rang and I heard a voice say, 'Charlie and Henry are coming along with a couple of Lizzies. Get the whole crowd out to razz them.' So the Unit was lined up in front of the hotel when Charlie and Henry breezed past with their lady friends, and we were not in the least bashful about making remarks. . . .

There was one family in Palm Beach which received a great deal of attention from Stewart, Walker, and Landon, and that was the Doe family. There were two girls in it, Effie, and I forget the other one's name, and one son called Dudley. He was  p119 sixteen years old, weighed about two hundred pounds, wore a sport shirt, and played the flute. Mrs. Doe had her cap out for Charlie and Henry. In fact she wanted to know if Huntington wouldn't be an attractive place for them to spend the summer in. On the last day of flying I saw Charlie filling his machine up with cocoanuts so I asked what the dickens he was going to do. He confidentially informed me that he intended to fly low and drop cocoanuts on Mother Doe's house, which he did with great accuracy.

The description of young Dudley Doe who wore a sport shirt and played the flute would seem to have justified dropping a Stillson wrench on him from a considerable altitude. After the mention already made, it is obvious that Kenneth Smith should have been decorated with the nickname of 'Admiral Blundy,' and that his philandering pals were known as 'Petting Officers.' It would be unfair, however, to let them be held up to ribald censure while other culprits go unscathed. For instance, there is the sad, sentimental tale of McIlwaine, the facts of which are kindly supplied by young Mr. Ames, who had no use for that sort of thing himself:

One day John Vorys and I went uptown between flights to get a sundae at the drug store. While we were in there a girl appeared whom John knew. After sparring for a few moments he discovered that there was to be a dance in town and that this girl was all broken up because she wasn't going to it. John sympathized and jollied her along until he found out that her 'fellow' didn't dance and therefore felt too bashful to invite her. This was a dirty shame, particularly as she let it out that this bird was a member of the Unit. Our crowd lived so close together that it was amazing to realize that one of them was getting away with something that he had been able to keep under cover. And we couldn't imagine who it was that was so shy and timid and couldn't dance. Why, he even refused to walk past the hotel with her, declared the poor girl, because he blushed so easily. More artful interrogation, and it was revealed that 'Chip' McIlwaine was the shrinking suitor. We jumped on our bicycles and broke all records riding back to the hangar. 'Chip,' of all men, to play the part of the simple country  p120 youth! All hands were summoned to gather round 'Chip's' machine where he was putting in gasoline. The story was told, with gestures, and he was asked to tell the truth. How about it? As a gentleman of integrity, he owned up and acknowledged the same. He was seldom embarrassed, but this time he was completely stopped. The combined force of opinion compelled him to take the trusting girl to the dance and go though with it. But he will never, never live it down. His friends will see to that.

Another affair that caused a certain amount of critical gossip was Reginald Coombe's infatuation with the sea‑cow or manatee which dwelt in 'Alligator Joe's' menagerie. 'Reg' had discovered this unusual creature during a tour of Everglades Park and was enormously intrigued. He could frequently be found hovering with a pensive mien beside the pool in which the manatee browsed on lily pads and so on. It was quite notorious. Reginald even went so far as to sprout and cultivate a mustache in the hope that this manly adornment might make the sea‑cow sit up and take notice.

Hunting the alligator in his native lairs was a favorite outdoor sport. These expeditions required some preparation and equipment. Everything was done in shipshape style, nothing was forgotten when members of the Unit set forth to bag the alligator. Efficiency was the middle name of the organization. Trubee can vouch for this in his own deposition which runs:

Albert Ditman invited Harry and me to go 'gator hunting with him one night. He had made all arrangements and there was nothing for us to worry about. So on the appointed hour we boarded a flivver, sped through the darkness, and finally reached our destination, which was a rowboat. I will never forget looking into that water. The whole bottom seemed to be wriggling, there were so many snakes and fishes and things. We pushed along a kind of marshy creek until it opened into a big lake. By this time the moon was up. Albert had an electric lamp, so the first thing to do was to find a 'gator with it. He turned on the switch, but nothing happened. He had the lamp, but no  p121 battery. Then we got out the gun and started to load it. The gun was twelve-gauge and we had ten‑gauge shells. There was nothing doing. However, Albert had thought of everything. He had brought fishing tackle along so we decided to use that. There were plenty of rods and nice lines, but no bait. So we thought we had better go home.

Bartow Read and Frank Lynch had better luck, perhaps because they were not personally connected with Ditman. During a Saturday night in the swamps they shot two big 'gators. They had them skinned and took the hides all the way to Huntington with some notion of having them dressed and stuffed. The Unit held an indignation meeting and resolved that the hides should be buried. These were strong men, but they could be crowded too far.

Frank Lynch wields a lively pen and presumably everything he says is true. His autobiography includes an account of his prowess as a hunter and explorer in the wilds of darkest Florida. Henry M. Stanley had nothing on him:

On another occasion I went hunting back in the glades with Eddie McDonnell. We started out at two o'clock on Sunday morning with an old flivver and went back into the country about twenty miles in search of venison which we were told was quite easy to obtain. We each had a Winchester and were so sure of our marksman­ship that we took nothing more than a jug of water and a scanty lunch. The latter part of the journey was over a road that gradually became less distinct and finally faded away. Still we kept on until the rough ground made it impossible to navigate the Ford any farther. We left it and proceeded through a clearing for a mile or two and then spent two or three hours investigating likely looking hammocks in the hope of starting a deer.

We had almost given up hope of seeing anything when Eddie shouted to me from some distance that he was sure he heard something in a hammock near by. The hammock was about a hundred yards long and fifty yards wide, and as we started through the underbrush from opposite ends, a drove of wild boar issued forth. Eddie shot one of the young ones and, passing up  p122 a shot which was in his direction, I started chasing a full grown boar, stopping every fifty or a hundred yards to take a shot.

After running about a quarter of a mile and falling down a couple of times in my excitement, I gave up the chase and came back to find Eddie doubled up with laughter at my futile attempts. Our wanderings had taken us some distance from the Ford and our seagoing instincts were of no help in steering the proper course to find it. We were both very thirsty and anxious to get back to our base of supply, but we disagreed absolutely as to the direction in which the Ford lay.

We finally decided that Eddie was to walk for forty-five minutes in the direction he picked out and I was to head the opposite way. If either man found the Ford, he was to discharge his rifle. After walking my forty-five minutes with no luck at all, I was about to turn back but took a chance on legging it a few hundred yards farther on, to look beyond a clump of tall undergrowth that cut off my view. To my surprised delight, I spotted the flivver a quarter of a mile ahead of me. I fired my rifle and then wore myself out for half an hour before I could start the Ford.

Then I drove back to look for Eddie. I found him in very distressing circumstances. It seemed that when he had come to the limit of his search he had sat down to rest and being very thirsty and thinking he was surely lost, he scooped some water from a stagnant pool. This made him very ill. He had stretched out on the turf in much agony when he was aroused by a buck pushing its way through the underbrush. He said that he quickly forgot his illness, snatched up his rifle, and after slightly wounding the buck gave chase. Eddie ran at top speed for some distance until the buck was completely out of sight. How he was able to exercise himself to this extent was almost unbelievable to me when I saw his condition. The stagnant water had poisoned him and his illness was acute, but in spite of my urging that we start at once for home, he was still keen on getting the buck which he opined could not travel very far.

Eddie was a sicker man than he was willing to admit so long as there was a chance to do some shooting. He suffered intensely through the long drive back to West Palm Beach, and was under the weather for several days. The whole episode showed that the 'Loot' was as game on any sporting proposition as he was in flying.

Thayer's Note:

a This machine gun had recently been invented by Col. Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Isaac Lewis; for good details on the gun and its production, see his obituary in the 1932 Annual Report, Association of Graduates of the United States Military Academy.

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