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Chapter 11

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 13
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

Vol. I
Chapter XII

The War and Naval Aviation

The country had been in a state of war for two months. Tremendous activities had been launched and were gathering headway. Applications for the First Liberty Loan were fairly flooding the Treasury. Four million Americans subscribed a sum in excess of $3,000,000,000. Congress had passed the Army Draft Bill. On the registration day, June 5th, more than 10,000,000 men placed themselves at the Government's disposal with less excitement than usually accompanies a State election. There had been no exhortation, no artificial enthusiasm, no poster advertising, no mass hysteria, only the quiet pressure of a law of universal application, democratic in form and spirit. One could have wished for no greater triumph for the conscription principle than this sober and cheerful acceptance of it.

Despite all forebodings, due to the presence here of so large an element of German blood and sympathies, the nation entered this conflict more united in feeling than in any of its previous wars. Public opinion was practically unanimous in demanding the full execution of the Selective Draft Law. Some 10,000,000 more eligible would be in sight when the first draft was exhausted. In a dark hour of doubt, when Russia's intention of continuing the war was dubious, when the potentialities of Germany's U‑boat campaign were still undefined, and when a great new British drive in Belgium was balanced by an unexpected Austrian offensive on the Carso plateau in Italy, 10,000,000 men of military age had registered in one day. Here was America's answer to all efforts to convince the  p136 German people that the war was without popular support or approval in the Republic.

All other preparations were on this same colossal scale, the mobilization of industrial resources, the ship-building program, food conservation, army training camps, munition plants. As an instrument of succor and welfare, the Red Cross displayed a benevolence undreamed of. Mr. Henry P. Davison had accepted the chairman­ship of its War Council and was in the midst of one of the finest achievements of the war. He earned the gratitude not only of the nation but of a stricken world beyond the seas. The Red Cross was fighting tuberculosis among the soldiers of France and relieving their wounded. It was caring for half a million destitute French refugees. It was distributing medical supplies and food in Russia, Roumania, Italy, Serbia, England, and Armenia. It was ministering unto multitudes of deported Greeks and the other wretched sufferers of Asia Minor. Everywhere the Red Cross was following hard on the track of ruin and disease and slaughter.

The Yale Unit could claim Mr. Davison as one of its own group. He was a partner and honorary member, nor did his interest slacken when he took over the leader­ship of the Red Cross. He could always find time to talk things over or to run out some line of information in the Navy Department when he was in Washington. Temporarily these were his boys. He had enlarged his family to include them all. If he was enthusiastic over the service they performed, they, in their turn, were very proud of the rôle he played in the war. It was a case of mutual admiration.

The plans for the expansion of aviation were in keeping with all the rest of this national effort. It was believe that within a short time the United States would be able to turn out engines for two thousand fighting aeroplanes a month, and every month thereafter it would be possible  p137 to increase the production by approximately a thousand machines until the maximum was reached. By June 12th the Government had completed tentative plans to send at least a thousand aviators a month to France. The first force would be ready to embark some time in September and were to be men who would have received preliminary training in technical schools and on aviation fields before they left. On arriving in France they were to have a short period of intensive training under French instructors and then go to the front.

The great automobile factories were to be turned into aeroplane plants. Training fields in Dayton, Detroit, and Champaign were more than half completed in two months and thousands of men were rushing the work. Six or seven other great aviation camps had been authorized. Thousands of aviation volunteers had filed applications and were awaiting governmental action.

It was believed that from 10,000 to 20,000 American aviators could be placed on the fighting front in France within a year. 'If this country takes hold of air‑preparedness, concentrating on it the energy and unhampered work that Admiral von Tirpitz did in developing the German submarine, we will soon beat the submarine menace, and I am convinced will bring about a speedy and unequivocal end in this war,' said Rear Admiral Robert E. Peary to a Senate sub‑committee on aeronautics having before it a bill to create a Department for Aeronautics, headed by a member of the Cabinet.

Admiral Peary urged the speedy development of the air service for use as a coast patrol and for fighting submarines. He said that within six months the country would be able to maintain an invulnerable aeroplane patrol that would extend its protection five hundred miles out at sea. He expected the aeroplane to be the decisive factor of the war.

 p138  By October 4, 1917, contracts had been let by the War Department for the construction of 20,000 machines. This was almost the whole number of aircraft for which provision had been made in a bill carrying the stupendous appropriation of $640,000,000. It was a grandiose vision doomed to an ignominious finish.

For naval aviation the funds available in 1917 were comparatively small, about $10,000,000. This was vastly increased in 1918 when the building program was in full swing. In a review of the situation, Rear Admiral Josiah S. McKean, Assistant for Material in the office of Chief of Naval Operations, hit the nail on the head when he stated:

Dreaming dreams as to air navigation is easy. We have all indulged in this delightful pastime, but the production and development of these entirely new craft, using a new medium, the air, requiring new materials, the training in a new art, the education of new designers, the training of new types of mechanics, etc., could not be done and was not done instantaneously by any nation, even under stress of war, and we started behind.

Until the Liberty motor had been perfected it was impossible for either our Army or Navy aviation to expand to war dimensions. The motors and machines they were using abroad were practically hand fitted. They had not reached a quantity production at any time. That was the only thing that would save us, to produce a standard type of engine that we could turn out by American manufacturing methods. Another thing, had we produced those special types where each engine was a unit, the number of spare parts necessary to send abroad would have overloaded our cargo space. We could not have sent the stuff over there. We had difficulty enough as it was. The Liberty motor's first successful trial was not until July 4, 1918, after making more than a thousand changes in it. There you have one answer to the delay in building up our aviation force.

A memorandum prepared for the Secretary of the Navy in June, 1917, the month in which the First Yale Unit  p139 moved its training quarters to Huntington, reads, in part:

When war was declared it was desired to expand the training of naval aviators as much as the facilities available permitted. Due to shortage of regular line officers in the service it was considered impracticable to assign any additional line officers to aviation instruction. Numerous applications have been received from civilians to join the naval service for special duty in aviation.

The best of the applicants have been enrolled in the Naval Coast Defense Reserve (Class 4 of Naval Reserve Force for aviation duties) and these men are being ordered to training as rapidly as the available facilities permit. In addition to Pensacola being supplied with as many as can be handled, training camps have been established at Squantum, Mass., and Bay Shore, Long Island. An officer has been detailed to supervise training at a camp established by private enterprise, first at Palm Beach, Fla., and later moved to Huntington, L. I. A contract has been made with the Curtiss Company for the training of 20 aviators at their field at Newport News, Va., under the supervision of a naval officer, and the question of increasing the number at this point is now under consideration. Arrangements have been made with the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. at Akron, Ohio, for the training at that point of 20 dirigible pilots. One hundred men and 4 officers have been to France. The question of sending men to England or giving their men preliminary training in this country has been considered. And arrangements are now being made to send 20 men to Camp Borden, Canada, in connection with 100 Army men for preliminary training and for the purpose of obtaining a broader view of training methods.

The number now under training as aviators is as follows: Pensacola, 45; Squantum, 24; Newport News, 20; Bay Shore, 25; Huntington, 27; Akron, 20; France, 104; Camp Borden, 20; a total of 286. There are also under training 356 student airmen for seaplane and dirigible crews. In addition to those now under training, men are being enrolled and will be called into active service as soon as they can be taken care of. The two obstacles in the way of calling more men immediately are (1) Lack of instructors, (2) lack of aircraft. As aviators are qualified they will be used as instructors for others, and in this way this difficulty will be overcome. Additional seaplanes are being procured  p140 as fast as they can be supplied by the manufacturers, giving due consideration to the urgent needs of the Army.

The United States Navy aeronautic station at Pensacola is being enlarged by addition of permanent hangars for 54 seaplanes and temporary hangars for 12 seaplanes. Construction of quarters for 1000 additional men is also being expedited. A temporary single hangar and a permanent six‑aeroplane hangar are to be constructed at the naval air station at Bay Shore, Long Island.

The cognizance of the Navy requires the establishment of coastal air stations as bases for aircraft operating in connection with the naval district surface patrol craft, or vessels of high sea fleet operating near shore. Strategic localities and sites have been selected by joint Army and Navy boards. Sites have been selected and arrangements are being made to construct air stations at the following points, Montauk Point, Rockaway Beach, Cape May, Hampton Roads, Key West, and Coco Solo Point, Panama.

The number of aircraft now in service and under construction is as follows:

In service Building
Seaplanes 42 220
Kite balloons  5  12
Free balloons  1   1
Blimps  1  40
Airplanes  3   2

Of the forty-two seaplanes reported as in service in June, 1917, the majority were training machines unfit for active service. And the trained personnel was sadly depleted when the four officers and one hundred enlisted men were sent to France. This force, commanded by Lieutenant Kenneth Whiting, arrived at St. Nazaire on June 5th. It was not only the advance guard of the naval air organization but also the first American detachment to join the French cause, preceding Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Pershing's expedition of regular troops by three weeks.

Lieutenant Whiting was given no definite instructions beyond reporting to the French Government. It was, in  p141 fact, a friendly gesture on the part of the United States, in the spirit of 'Lafayette, we are here.'

Lieutenant Commander W. Atlee Edwards, who served with distinction as Aide for Aviation on the staff of Admiral Sims, offers this entertaining comment:

Lieutenant Whiting had written orders to proceed with his detachment to France and upon his arrival to keep the naval attaché in Paris advised of his whereabouts. Before leaving this country he sought further and more detailed information with respect to his duties, but was unable to obtain either instruction or advice except that if he wanted to go to the war zone he had better leave at once before a change of policy might revoke his orders. Accordingly, upon his arrival in Paris, he proceeded forthwith to enter into negotiations with the French Admiralty, during the course of which he agreed, on the part of the United States, to establish certain naval air stations on the French coast.

This was done entirely on his own initiative, and even his presence in Europe was unknown to Admiral Sims until the subject was brought up for discussion at a meeting of the Board of Admiralty in London. Admiral Sims was asked to explain the reason for his secretive policy in concentrating a large air force in France when the most vital areas of the enemy submarine campaign lay in and adjacent to the coasts of England and Ireland. In reply Admiral Sims was obliged to explain that the entire commitment was as much a mystery to him as it was to them; that he had no knowledge of any officer being empowered to represent the United States in France; and, admitting the contention that England and Ireland offered a much more fruitful field for aerial operations against submarines, he would investigate the matter without delay. To this end he summoned Lieutenant Whiting from Paris and found that in the absence of any orders or instructions he had proceeded on his own initiative to commit the United States to the construction of several air stations on the coast of France. In view of this it was considered that his assumption of responsibility and his display of initiative in doing what he did was most commendable.

And so it was that our air stations in France had their beginning. It is probable that had their establishment been the subject of a conference between the Allies and ourselves, part of  p142 this force would have been diverted to England or to Ireland. As it was, however, these stations were very largely instrumental in driving the submarines from the French coast and in forcing them out to sea, where the concentration of shipping was less great and where in consequence less damage was suffered. Generally speaking, therefore, the concentration of our naval air service on the French coast was sound, but in excess of that which was justified by the exigencies of war.

It will be seen from this that the United States entered the war with no naval air policy whatever, and that Lieutenant Whiting and his small force were sent across to work out their own salvation. This was in accord with the general attitude of unreadiness and procrastination. Lieutenant Commander Edwards goes on to emphasize it in the following statements:

In common with all the nations involved in the Great War, save perhaps Germany, America was unprepared in aviation. There was some excuse for this in the case of Great Britain and of France, for aeronautics was hardly beyond its beginning in 1914, but this offers no explanation of the lack of attention paid in America to air preparedness. Nor is it an excuse to say that we could not foresee our participation in the general world upheaval, for events proved that anything was possible and a reasonable amount of foresight in preparation would have been of incalculable value during 1917. Indeed it is more than strange that Americans should have noted the enormous expansion of aerial activities in Europe, and read the accounts of results obtained by the air squadrons both on land and sea, and yet remained so inert in demanding at least a nucleus of an air force.

Yet such was the situation. An inventory of our effects in the spring of 1917 showed that we had practically nothing in the way of material and very little in personnel. In fact, prior to 1916, no appropriations, save small ones for experimental purposes, had been made for naval aviation, the first appropriation of any consequence, $1,000,000, being made in 1916. Yet it must be admitted that we had something that was worth infinitely more than all we lacked — the will to victory. And behind that lay American ingenuity and the vast resources of  p143 our great country. We knew that we could not lose in the long run, but the important question was, 'Would our intervention be sufficiently prompt to insure success?'

That our outlook in aviation at the moment of our entry into the war was gloomy, to say the least, is obvious. We were not only unprepared but we had very little idea of how to prepare for aerial warfare, as is evidenced by the following telegram from the Secretary of the Navy to Admiral Sims, under date of April 20, 1917:

Immediate and full information is desired by the Navy Department as to the present development by the British of their naval aeronautics. What style of aircraft is most used and what is most successful over the water? What is the method of launching at sea when carrier vessel is under way? For coastal patrol and submarine searching what are the types of aircraft used?

This request was complied with in minute detail and sufficient additional information was furnished the Navy Department to enable it to put forward plans looking to the construction of seaplanes and their accessories. The submarine campaign had at this time reached such an acute stage that it was deemed advisable to request priority of shipments of naval aircraft over those intended for army use, and this was granted.

Meanwhile an Estimate of the Situation existing in Europe was prepared and read as follows:

Enemy Forces — Their Strength, Disposition and Probable Intentions

The number and types of enemy submarines are well known and their probable intentions can be predicted from their past performances. Generally speaking, they operate in the lee of the land during bad weather in so far as is possible.

The English Channel, the Irish Sea, and the south coast of Ireland are favorable locations during the winter months. During the summer months enemy submarines as a rule extend their activities to seaward and to the southward into the Bay of Biscay.

The east coast of England, and Scotland and the Mediterranean Sea are operating areas through the entire year.

The enemy maintains command of the air over the North Sea from Dunkirk to the northeastward.

Enemy anti-aircraft defenses are efficient and compel increasing altitude when flying in their vicinity.

 p144  From this information we deduced our mission to be:

(a) To make our primary air effort a continuous bombing offensive against enemy naval objectives.

(b) To make our secondary air effort a patrol of those areas frequented by enemy submarines in readiness for a tactical offensive.

(c) Troop and merchant convoy escort duty.

This general policy was endorsed by Admiral Sims and agreed to in principle by the Navy Department, and while the personnel and the material essential to our war operations were being assembled in the United States, we, on the other side, proceeded to dig ourselves in, so to speak, by building air stations.

The naval air stations mentioned in the report to the Secretary, at Bay Shore, Rockaway Beach, Hampton Roads, Key West, etc., were in process of organization and by no means ready to help get on with the war. The Pensacola base of the regular service had to be stripped of its trained personnel in order to send Lieutenant Kenneth Whiting's small force to France and to furnish what instruction it could for the recruits enrolled at these new American stations along the coast.

The First Yale Unit was, therefore, the Navy's only source of supply for additional trained aviation officers. This was the condition of affairs when the Unit undertook to finish its schooling at Huntington. Begun a year earlier as an experiment and an adventure, carried along as a private enterprise, it had now come to assume an importance in the naval program that far exceeded the expectations of its creators.

In the earlier stages of its history, the Unit had been waiting for recognition by the Navy Department. Now the shoe was on the other foot. The Department was waiting and ready to assign the young men to active duty at home and abroad, in billets that required the qualities of leader­ship.

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