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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 10

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 12
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

Vol. I
Chapter XI

Finding a Northern Base

As an active partner, Mr. Henry P. Davison was kept informed of the course of events at Palm Beach. The reports gratified him and justified his enthusiastic support of the Unit. He found himself in hot water, however, when the New York Evening World, in a misguided moment, printed the following, on April 6th:

Fliers' School
for 100 Pupils
Offered to Navy

H. P. Davison and L. S.
Thompson Head Syndicate
to Bear All Expenses

A syndicate of New York millionaires, headed by H. P. Davison of J. P. Morgan & Co. and Lewis S. Thompson, has notified the United States Navy Department that it is ready to acquire the site and bear the entire expense of a camp to be established somewhere on Long Island for training, in groups of 100 each, college men as aviators to aid the Navy in coast defense and for any other branch of the service desired. Rear Admiral Peary, head of the National Aerial Coast Patrol Commission, is acting advisor, and several conferences with Navy Department officials have been held.

There is little or no doubt of the acceptance of the offer by the Government. It has the unqualified approval of Rear Admiral Usher, commandant of this naval district.

This was important, if true. Mr. Davison was immediately swamped with letters from aspiring young men and their fathers. It was like the bombardment of cocoanuts upon the cottage roof of the Doe family. Here is a  p124 sample, from two students of the College of the City of New York.

Dear Sir:

We have just read the details of your offer to the United States Navy Department as stated in the enclosed clipping. In the event that your offer is accepted by the Government of the United States, we, the undersigned, hereby volunteer our services under the conditions set forth in the newspaper. Both of us are at present members of the junior class and in good standing at our institution. We have had some experience with gasoline motors as we both have driven motor cars for over one year, and are very much interested in the aero corps. We trust that you will give this letter your favorable consideration.

Very truly yours

Ernest K. Baehr
Julius D. Smolen

Letters came to Mr. Davison from several of his own friends and these he took pains to answer with some care. To Mr. Edwin M. Bulkley he wrote, on April 9th:

Dear Ned,

Certainly nothing would be more gratifying than to carry out the suggestion in yours of the 9th regarding your son Harold and his room-mate at Princeton. The facts are that L. S. Thompson and I had planned to send the Unit to West Palm Beach in order that they might take advantage of climatic conditions there and that while there — say for a month or six weeks — we would establish a base at Port Washington; the plan being that we would have enough instructors and boats to carry on a fairly large school. Each man when licensed as a pilot would then move on in into the service and another would take his place. This scheme was suggested to the Navy Department, before the declaration of war. They were very enthusiastic about it and asked us to go ahead, saying that if war were declared they would then expect to take over the whole thing themselves.

You can readily appreciate that it is quite impossible to get any action out of them now; I mean they are so driven that they seem not to have time to take up this particular matter. Therefore  p125 just at present we can say nothing. We do not know whether we are going on with this scheme or if they are going on with it, or in fact whether it is going to be done, and we cannot until the Navy Department have expressed their wishes.

There is another factor bearing upon this which I think you will appreciate, and that is, if we are going to be taxed so much that we have little or no income with which to enter on this work, we may respectfully but firmly leave no option to Uncle Sam, but ask him to do it all himself, which of course he ought to do under all the circumstances. This is rather an incoherent and rambling statement of a simple fact, but will keep Harold in mind and if there are any developments which I think would interest him, will let him know. In the meantime I can give you no particular encouragement and would not want to have him defer action in other directions and then be disappointed because nothing comes of our endeavor. I shall be delighted to have you stop in and have a word with me any time you want to about this subject.

Mr. Davison dictated a memorandum for Mr. Thomas W. Lamont which showed how much excitement had been stirred up:

I have about seventy applications along the line of your friend Burgess. Attached is the general form of reply. Nothing can be said and nothing can be done. In fact, I seem unable to give any advice as to how to get into the aviation work. If you will give Mr. Heinkel the letter and later an opportunity develops, I will see that your friend has as good a chance as anyone else.

The repercussion of it reached Colonel Thompson at Palm Beach in a telegram from Mr. Davison:

An item appeared in paper day or two ago apparently given by Woodhouse without authority to effect that you and I are proposing an aviation school of one hundred students to be located on Long Island. As a result I am being overwhelmed with applications. For your information I have as yet heard nothing from Towers but am telegraphing him today. Have you made any arrangements with Woodhouse to reply to such applications as I am receiving, or shall I have my secretary acknowledge  p126 them, stating that situation yet undeveloped and impossible to make any commitments? Naturally young men are looking in various directions to arrange for some position in aviation. Your letter received. Am crediting account twenty-five thousand dollars today as requested. Am more than delighted at information that comes regarding situation with you and Unit.

The Colonel had been in Palm Beach less than two weeks, but he was already engaged with the problem of moving the Unit north and finding a base for summer training operations. In reply to Mr. Davison he wried:

Telegram received. Have made no arrangements with Woodhouse. Am having cards printed to reply to applications received here and am filing list of applicants. Caleb Bragg who is instructing here has ten year lease on a property of a three hundred and thirty foot waterfront at Port Washington between the Port Washington Yacht Club and the Trans-Oceanic Hangars. He has an informal but definite verbal understanding with the Wright Martin Company that they may use the land for flying school, but he understands they will not have use for the property until after the war. He suggests that you can arrange with Wright Martin so that we may erect hangars and use property during war and that we give them an option of purchasing after the war any constructions which we may erect. If this is satisfactory to Wright Martin he offers to sublet land to us at cost rental of six hundred and fifty dollars a year. Bragg is telegraphing above to Glenn Martin. He suggests you see McKelvie of Hayden Stone.

This proposition was carried no further, Port Washington being turned down on the ground that a site more convenient and advantageous might be found. Mr. Davison was looking into it in behalf of the Unit and sent the following suggestion to the Colonel:

Howard C. Smith has just suggested to me that Sewanhaka Yacht Club and grounds might be turned over to the Aerial Coast Patrol Unit if they would like it for the summer operations. This appeals to me very strongly. Smith says they have about nine hundred feet of beach and adjoining it is private beach of Colgate Hoyt which could probably be had. Trubee is  p127 familiar with the property. Trustees of club are to have meeting this afternoon. Smith will endeavor to get resolution passed offering it to Unit. Please telegraph fully and promptly your suggestions.

Colonel Thompson thought best to make a trip north and survey the situation for himself instead of long range discussion. Besides this, he wished to relieve Mr. Davison of any feeling of responsibility for the welfare of the Unit. Various sites were examined or reports obtained, the Colonel moving with his customary momentum. On April 20th he notified Mr. Davison:

Dear Harry:

I have finally decided upon a northern location for our detachment of the Naval Reserve Flying Corps. It is the Castledge estate of seventy-five acres and fourteen hundred feet of shore front situated at Huntington Bay, Long Island. I am sorry to say that the land that was so kindly offered to me by the Sewanhaka Yacht Club could not be considered available on account of the amount of land and the necessary cutting away of their property for the building of the hangar. The members of the detachment and myself have felt that if we could have met the patriotic impulse of the gentlemen who had made us such a kind offer, that we would do so if possible. Our organization will number a hundred men when we arrive from the South and we must have plenty of room for future expansion. As you have been the intermediary between the Sewanhaka Yacht Club and our detachment, will you please convey to the gentlemen our grateful appreciation of their kind offer and our regret that we cannot make use of their generous assistance.

So far in this narrative there has been almost no suggestion of the large amount of business detail involved in administering the organization. It was not a thing for the aviators to bother their heads about. They praised the Colonel as the best boss ever, and were quick to note how well the whole affair was managed. Foster Rockwell was not a man to fuss over his own duties. There was a competent secretary in the person of Mr. A. G. Wigren  p128 who had been loaned to the Unit by J. P. Morgan & Co. This staff functioned without friction or noise and unhampered by naval paper work. An idea of the requirements may be gained in a letter sent by Colonel Thompson to Mrs. Henry P. Davison at Peacock Point.

Dear Mrs. Davison:

You are hereby appointed Col. Thompson's northern agent, and sometime when you haven't a thing in the world to do I hope you won't mind taking a pleasant motor ride down to Halesite and see how things are coming along. Arthur Hartridge, the caretaker, writes that he has employed a plumber to turn on the water and to overhaul all the plumbing in the house and on the place, and that he has had three scrub women and a man at work putting the buildings in proper and neat order. He says that he has a couple of good carpenters to do the work of laying the floors for the tents that Abercrombie & Fitch are to put up, and he has acquainted that firm with their names. Hartridge wants to keep his family in the stable cottage, but I have told him to move to the cottage on the hill and that I would spend $100 for repairs.

The firm of Ralph B. Carter & Co., 152 Chambers Street, have been requested to look over the water supply and to clean the tank and see that our supply is good, and an ample quantity of it. Mr. Wm. A. Starrett of 8 West 40th Street is the engineer in charge of the construction of the hangars, runways, machine shop, and docks. Mr. Harry M. Stevens of 320 Fifth Avenue is to put the kitchen in order and furnish the china, glass, etc., and will do the buying, cooking and serving of our food. Nicholas & Hughes of 402 Madison Avenue are to do the furnishing and I append a list of what we have ordered from them. Abercrombie & Fitch, Madison Avenue and 45th Street, are to put up the tents and put in the tent furnishings. The New York Telephone Company, 81 Willoughby Street, Brooklyn, are to put in the telephones — one in the office which will be the smaller of the two downstairs rooms in the big house — one in the pantry, and a line will have to run to the location chosen by Mr. Starrett for the machine shop on the beach. The telephone company will not do this until they receive authorization from Rear Admiral N. R. Usher, Commandant, New York Navy Yard. I have written to  p129 the Admiral and have instructed the telephone company to call upon Mr. Davison in case there should be any delay in the matter.

I had instructed Hartridge to have the electricians overhaul the lights about the place and in the house and install bulbs wherever needed, but he didn't mention it in his letter. The poles that carry the telephone wires to the machine shop should also carry wires for lighting. I suppose that all will depend upon the time that Mr. Starrett will get his end of the business in working order for us to decide about leaving here.

We are already at work planning for our trip up, and we think that we will make a train load of ourselves and the aeroplanes and go direct through to Huntington. We figure that we can break camp and load up in two days and are drilling our crews now so that there will be no hitch. Everything is going grandly. We compared our work with Miami and Pensacola. We are doing very much better than they are.

Lieutenant McDonnell and I dismantled a wireless plant yesterday. The plant belonged to a German, and when he saw the 150‑foot pole crash down, he said, 'That's a fine Government to destroy my property and protect all the property of Wall Street.' We did a good job.

We won the last baseball game, 9 to 5. I was umpire. It is the first game I have won in a long time. Your boys are both in as fine form as possible. Trubee is just as wonderful as ever, and Harry is flying through the heavens all by himself like a veteran.

It was one of the proud moments when Lieutenant McDonnell ordered uniforms for the commissioned officers of his command. This happened early in May. In appearance it could not be said that the Unit had been giving the ladies a treat. An officer looked like a private, only worse. Now, however, they were to sport gold shoulder straps when all dressed up, and, on state occasions, belts and swords — but this is another story and a tragic one. 'It' will be revealed later on. To this day, if you would see certain members of the Unit shudder and show the whites of their eyes, you have only to murmur 'London headquarters — swords — you left-footed lobsters!'

 p130  The lieutenant's letter in re the uniforms carries a weightier meaning than mere pomp and show. It discloses the fact that twenty-eight members of the Unit were expected to pass their naval tests as aviators in a short time, or the entire group, barring one man. This was Charlie Stewart who, through no fault of his own, was listed as ineligible. All he lacked was the aviation temperament, the peculiar adaptability and coördination essentials to the flier. He was too high-strung and nervous by nature to endure the training. His own disappointment was shared by his comrades who thought not a whit less of him. The Wags were never the same after he left them.

Lieutenant McDonnell's notable document, just now referred to, was addressed to Army and Navy Coöperative Company in Washington. It read:

Dear Sirs:

Self-measuring blanks have been filled out by local tailor for twenty-eighta1 members of the Naval Reserve as suggested in your letter and telegram. They are being mailed under separate cover. It is requested that you furnish at the earliest possible date the following uniforms and equipment, at which you quoted a price of $126.50 each:

1 blue service
6 white service
1 white cap
1 pair shoulder marks
1 sword and belt

Enclosed is a check for $1,771.00 to cover half the cost of the entire equipment. It is desired to have the uniforms and equipment for the following ten members rushed as quickly as possible, the remaining seventeen​a2 to be furnished as soon as practicable after the first ten.

Lieutenant (j.g.) F. T. Davison
Ensign A. W. Ames
Ensign W. L. Brown
 p131  Ensign H. P. Davison, Jr.
Ensign J. V. Farwell
Ensign A. L. Gates
Ensign R. A. Lovett
Ensign A. D. Sturtevant
Ensign W. P. Thompson
Ensign J. M. Vorys

As cited in my previous letter, these uniforms should be made for Ensigns of the U. S. Naval Reserve, except for Lieutenant Davison, which is to be for a Lieutenant (j.g.) of the Naval Reserve. Please advise me at once the earliest date at which you can furnish the first ten outfits and when you will furnish the remaining seventeen.​a3

It may seem a small matter in the conduct of a great war that there should have been no snappy officers' uniforms during these weeks at Palm Beach. On the other hand, think how much pleasure it would have vouchsafed the Hood sisters when afloat with Admiral Blundy, or the girl whom Chip McIlwaine was so eager to take to the dance, or Effie Doe and her sister fated to be bereft of their devoted admirers! Beneath the greasy overalls of the Unit there beat many a gallant heart, but they would not have screened well.

While in Washington, Mr. Davison received some suggestions from the Navy Department concerning the training plans of the Unit. These he promptly passed on to Colonel Thompson who saw no reason to change the arrangements already made. He therefore replied by wire on May 9th:

After consultation we think that this Unit could better complete its intensive training at Huntington. McDonnell suggests that they be qualified as naval aviators under their present organization at Huntington and that when they are so qualified the Government should pay back to us a certain amount for each man's training. Our accounts show expense per man less than similar Government cost. So far we have paid fifty-seven dollars for each hour of flying. Suggest that you try to make arrangement  p132 with Towers for proper Government reimbursement when all present students are qualified naval aviators, at which time our organization would cease and all of those that are qualified would be detached and sent into such aeronautic duty as required by the Government. All strongly believe that such arrangements would bring quicker and more satisfactory results. All members should be ordered on active service at Huntington under a naval officer and the expense carried on by the present private interests and management, and reimbursement made by the Department later. It would be desirable to know the amount that the Department would pay for each of our naval aviators. We would rely on the Department supplying us at Huntington two seaplanes at the end of this month, to be followed by four more as soon as possible thereafter. Personally I think that we should finish the job that we have undertaken, and when it is finished we will turn over to the Department thoroughly efficient and qualified naval aviators ready for service anywhere. McDonnell thinks that we could do that in two months from the time that we get North, and if we are shunted it might take till God knows when.

The matter of reimbursement was not pressed at this time. Deferred until the Unit had finished its work as a separate organization, it became more or less lost in the shuffle, as will appear later. Colonel Thompson's cogent arguments, as presented in this telegram, persuaded the Navy Department to keep its hands off until contemplated work at Huntington should be finished.

In May, Palm Beach was getting uncomfortably hot, with much rough wind and rain that interfered with flying and cut down the number of precious hours in the air. The mosquitoes of the Florida East Coast had begun their active summer campaign and had no prejudices against working overtime. June 1st was the date set to shift to the northern base. Colonel Thompson was enthusiastic over the results accomplished at Palm Beach. This he expressed in thanking Mr. H. M. Hanna, Jr., for his contribution to the Unit funds.

 p133  Dear Howard:

I am very greatly obliged to you for your kind letter and for your check for $15,000 that you have given to this Detachment of the U. S. Naval Reserve Flying Corps. The officers and members and myself wish to thank you and your father and to extend to you both our grateful appreciation for your great kindness. We have come along very fast, all the boys are flying alone, and they are as fit as fiddles and as hard as nails. Each and every one of them is at work every minute with a seriousness and single purpose and their standard for 'the honor of the regiment' is set high. It is a fine and wonderful organization. There is not one but what will acquit himself with honor whenever the time comes.

They were so isolated from the war and its commotion that all hands looked forward with eagerness to the training at Huntington as being so much nearer the active scene. The only suspicion of a hostile incident, as mentioned in a letter home, occurred when 'a man tried to get into the machines. One of the militia guards saw him and chased him, shooting as he ran, but the skulker got away in a boat. About four o'clock this morning the fire whistle blew hard. The Colonel thought he heard some shooting, so he and some of the fellows turned out with their pistols, but there was nothing doing.'

When the order was given to move, Foster Rockwell displayed a system and energy rated at the nth power. In the opinion of the Unit he qualified as a pace-maker for General Dawes or any other human dynamo. It was no small undertaking, to strike camp and transport the equipment with not the slightest confusion or waste of time.

A special train was chartered. It consisted of three Pullmans, a dining car, and six express cars. This enabled the personnel to carry with it all the aeroplanes, spare parts, and the contents of the repair shop. Every piece of equipment was tagged or numbered. On Friday afternoon  p134 several of the fliers were in the air. That same night the last machine was pulled down and stowed in its express car. It was, in a way, a record-breaking example of orderly haste, something to boast about although, of course, the Unit never boasted.

The force of mechanics had a praiseworthy share in it. The Colonel and his staff were in their best form. Without exception, every man of the outfit did his duty and something more. It was a test of an organization which had seen fit to ignore the rigid tenets of military discipline. Lieutenant McDonnell, who deserved high credit for his part of the performance, beamed with pride. The men who could show such harmonious speed and intelligence as this belonged to the naval forces of the United States. They could show the regulars a few things about changing base.

By way of a reward, the Colonel sent them all to the movies that last night. Norma Talmadge was the star, in 'Panthea.' And the special train was held a few minutes so as not to miss the passionate clinch of the final reel. As usual 'Di' Gates led his comrades in chanting the seconds, one, two, three to mark the duration of the concluding embrace. 'Alphy' Ames looked a trifle pensive, as usual. This rite reminded him too much of the 'Razz Blatt' chorus that was wont to count his bounces.

It was good‑bye to Palm Beach, to the malted milk shakes at the Seminole Drug Store, to the sensational games of parcheesi, to the flagship of Admiral Blundy, to Red Bugs and little red bugs that played a skin game and made you scratch, to the smiles and sighs of the various 'Lizzies.' Ella, the dog, begged to be allowed to kill just one more cat, but when it was explained to her that the Unit had to get on with the war, she kicked up the dust in a rush to get aboard the train.

Thayer's Note:

a1 a2 a3 So the letter as printed. Twenty-eight sets of uniforms at $126.50 do come out to twice $1771.00; after the ten sets urgently needed, there should therefore remain not seventeen, but eighteen.

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Page updated: 11 Sep 13