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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 12

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 14
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

Vol. I
Chapter XIII

The Station at Huntington

After the foregoing detour, the story returns to the main track on which that famous special train rolled northward from Palm Beach. The only war‑time incident occurred when it was held on a siding for an hour and a half instead of making the scheduled stop at West Philadelphia. Some low‑breed minion of the Kaiser had plotted to blow up the train and all these valuable aviators, so the rumor said. They felt highly flattered. The enemy actually thought it worth while bombing them. They looked forward to returning the compliment somewhere in France.

The train was halted for twenty minutes in the Pennsylvania Terminal, New York, before being sent through to Huntington. The orders were strict. Not a man was allowed to wander from sight, although the inducements were numerous. Parents and friends had turned out as an informal reception committee. Their attempts at kidnapping were foiled. To mention leave of absence overnight invited a stern rebuke from Foster Rockwell or Lieutenant McDonnell. There was absolutely nothing doing.

The new quarters on the shore of Huntington Bay were ready to receive the personnel and equipment. Most of the construction work had been finished, including a large machine shop and the runways. The residence of the private estate was roomy enough to accommodate most of the Unit, and there were tents for the overflow. As the 'northern agent,' Mrs. Davison had supervised the details of living that made for comfort and convenience.

The morning after arrival, all hands turned to at five- p146 thirty and began to unload the express cars filled with planes, motors, and so on. The stuff had to be packed on trucks and carried four miles to the air station. The efficiency system was out to make a record. No. 6 plane had been flying in the forenoon of the day the Unit left Palm Beach. It was assembled and sent into the air by eleven o'clock of this first day at Huntington. A fine bit of work, but the surprising feature of it is that the wag crew did not claim all the credit.

Dave McCulloch​1 regretfully detached himself from the Unit, as did Caleb Bragg. Their share of the task was done. They had taught this crowd of pupils how to fly alone, without a serious mishap of any kind. College aviators of other groups were heard to say that this Yale outfit had been a long time learning. Such criticism, however, was made during the hectic rush of war when flying fields piled up a tragic wreckage of smashed machines and dead aviators. This was sheer wastage which more thorough preparation would have averted. Results justified the methods and policy of McCulloch, Bragg, and Lieutenant McDonnell.

Almost a week was required to get the orderly routine under way at Huntington, what with setting up planes and motors and testing them out. This was familiar work to  p147 the gang in overalls. They kept steadily at it and lifted up their voices in song. The change of climate had not affected their vocal cords. If anything they were more tuneful than at Palm Beach. As a reward of merit for the hard labor, they were granted four days' leave. They returned to duty refreshed and eager to get into the great game of war. Impatient, expectant, these last few weeks were the most trying stretch of their training.

They were now preparing for the qualification tests of the naval aviation service. The daily program was much like that at Palm Beach, with more and more attention paid to gunnery, radio, and flying by compass. Besides this, they had to master the tricks of seaplanes of unfamiliar designs. They were accumulating an interesting variety of machines which offered a liberal education. From the old Curtis F‑boat and the big twin-motored craft, they shifted into the N‑9 and the R‑6 types which were sent to Huntington by the Navy Department.

There was also a new Curtiss R‑3 which had erratic manners of its own. It was in this temperamental machine that 'Alphy' Ames made an historic solo flight. There are several versions of the episode. One of them relates that young Mr. Ames rebounded so high that his comrades despaired of ever meeting him again. Bob Lovett, with his ready presence of mind, ordered another machine to carry up sandwiches and a thermos bottle of coffee and toss them to 'Alphy' before he starved to death. Refueling an aviator in the air was a bold conception.

At the critical moment when A. Ames, Esq., soared aloft for the fourteenth time, Colonel Thompson rushed down a runway with a rifle, hoarsely exclaiming:

'My God, have I got to shoot him down? It is the only way.'

 p148  This menace aroused poor 'Alphy' to superhuman exertion. Well he knew what happened when the Colonel pulled trigger. Every cartridge meant a dead bird. The boy sky‑scraper remembered the tale of Davy Crockett and the coon. It fitted the case precisely. Unconsciously he murmured:

'Don't shoot, Colonel. I'll come down.'

He did. In this manner was 'Alphy' restored to the arms of his agitated friends. It was one of those occasions when strong men wept.

Another machine that offered diversion was the Burgess-Dunne which came as a gift from Harry Payne Whitney. It had its sulky moments when it refused to make a turn and was also disinclined to leave the water with more than one man in it. Even the extra weight of his chewing gum and wrist-watch was known to make it rebellious. Harry Davison was proud of the fact that he could coax the Burgess-Dunne to fly at a considerable altitude. Somehow he won the creature's confidence and affection.

Last but not least was the Mary Ann! Caleb Bragg had tried to get rid of her at Palm Beach, but she refused to be scrapped. She was banged about at Huntington, growing slower and soggier and stiffer in the joints, but still responding to kind treatment.

With machines enough and fine summer weather, there were more flying hours than at Palm Beach. There was also more social distraction. Henry Landon thus sets down his impressions:

It has never been quite clear in my mind which camp was our official headquarters, Huntington or Peacock Point or Coldspring Harbor. There was always a mad rush from Huntington at noon, in Peugots,º Mercers, Fiats, Fords, and Overlands, and another equally mad rush back to be in time for our rest hour in the radio house or under the apple tree doing semaphore. It was always advisable to be first into the radio house as occasionally our friends of the 12.30 Club would leave half-consumed  p149 jars and boxes of fancy provender that were thoroughly appreciated. In spite of much social activity I managed to progress in my flying and got to the point where I thought I was pretty clever. I began to take fool chances, jumping boats, docks, and skimming objects closer than necessary, which I now look back on with wonder and sometimes a shiver.

My greatest delight was on slightly misty days, when the Doctor couldn't see very far, to take a spin around my home town, Oyster Bay, and look things over. I always paid a flying visit to the James' and the Jennings' and disturbed their peace by playing the fool to show them how good I was. I realize that my so‑called feats of daring were as nothing to those of the 'Wild Irishman' and others, but I thought they were very good. On one of my trips I flew over Oyster Bay village and later landed in the harbor to take a look around. That same evening a 'phone call came, and I was informed that I was supposed to be dead, as it was reported all over Oyster Bay that I had tumbled into the harbor.

A more serious disturbance of the peace was afflicted upon a Long Island resident whose country place was on Lloyd's Neck, not far from Huntington. He had achieved some notoriety by giving an award, or prize, of $10,000 to the crew of the Deutschland, the German submarine which had crossed the Atlantic and visited Baltimore before the United States entered the war. This was enough to indicate where his sympathies were. They were not colored by American patriotism. As the commanding officer at Huntington, Lieutenant McDonnell one day received a letter which read something like this:

Dear Sir:

I own a place very close to your naval air station. Some most us are old. All are getting older. Our early morning sleep is of great importance to our health. I would appreciate it very much if you could start your flying a little later in the morning, because your machines come by my window and wake me up.

This rubbed the amiable McDonnell the wrong way, so much so that what he said was not entirely proper for  p150 publication. Having simmered down, he sent this tart rejoinder:

Dear Sir:

I wish to acknowledge receipt of your letter. It is an astounding thing that any man who pretends to be an American could make such a proposal as yours at a time like this when every one is bending every effort to defeat Germany in the war. For your information I wish to inform you that we are considering starting our work with the machines at four o'clock instead of five in the morning. If you need more sleep, I suggest that you go to bed earlier.

To comfort was added a sense of luxury, with Harry Payne Whitney's palatial cruising house-boat Whileaway loaned to the Unit and kept at the Huntington station. Mr. Davison turned over his own fast yacht Shuttle as well as the smaller Vitesse. These were used to run errands and for patrol duty when the seaplanes were in the air. It all went to show how unreservedly the Unit was supported in every possible way that might assist the training for war service. 'Roughing it at Huntington' was the popular phrase. The same sort of privations were endured during the delightful week‑end parties at Peacock Point to which all hands were welcomed. There was also the Reads' hospitable place across the Sound at Purchase, where Curtis and Bartow and their mother made their friends feel at home.

The Unit had symptoms of looking like a Navy organization. The uniforms ordered at Palm Beach were delivered after long delay. Occasionally they were worn, but not with the strictest respect for the regulations. Reginald Coombe made noises on a bugle at regular intervals. No matter how badly he jumbled the notes, mess call was never mistaken for anything else. After breakfast they marched to the hangars, Al Sturtevant in the lead, singing the 'Stars and Stripes Forever' for all they were worth.

 p151  For the first time the Unit was brought into contact with men from other aviation groups assembled for training during the early months of the war. The Bay Shore station was in the throes of organization and still lacked almost everything essential to active operation. Its student aviators were therefore sent over to Huntington, a few at a time, and allowed to fly with the Unit soloists. The Army was rapidly expanding the station at Mineola and had several hundred recruits in training. They bragged of their baseball team. Huntington rashly arranged a game, with fewer than thirty men from which to select a nine. This memorable contest was staged at Peacock Point. The Navy fliers had practiced together only once. They trusted to Yale luck to pull them through.

It was a benefit performance, in aid of the Red Cross, and widely advertised. Seaplanes dropped circulars over the near‑by towns but the wind blew most of the reading matter into the Sound. Spectacular aerial exhibitions were given at the baseball field. The army sent more than a dozen planes which did thrilling circus stunts. The game itself was even more remarkable. The Unit nine played seven innings without an error, and won by the score of 3‑2. They were better than they knew how to be. For one day it was a team of miracle men. Thereafter they refused all challenges. They stood pat on their record. This peerless aggregation of stars consisted of:

C. Read Pitcher
Gould Catcher
Lynch First Base
T. Davison Second Base
Ames Short Stop
H. Davison Third Base
McIlwaine Left Field
Smith Centre Field
 p152  Rockwell and Landon Right Field
Mr. H. P. Davison Umpire

Ames was particularly good at short-stop. No matter how high they bounced, he could stay up in the air with them. He was used to it.

Whether Colonel Thompson won any money on the ball game is not a matter of record. He was more intimately acquainted with the sport of horse racing. And he was so fond of these boys of his that he was anxious to do them any favors in his power. An inside tip, for instance, a chance to clean up on a sure thing. He was in a position to get the information. So he announced to them, after receiving a wire from the track:

'Here is the opportunity of your young lives. I urge you to get aboard. You are engaged in pretty dangerous work. I realize that, and I want you to lay by a little easy money for your heirs. Now this horse Bromo simply cannot lose. It is as certain as death and taxes. You boys make up a pool from your lavish Navy pay and we'll get it down on Bromo at nice odds. And you will thank the old man.'

The Colonel spoke with deep feeling. Seldom had he displayed so much emotion. His audience was impressed. They were ready to bet their shirts on this Bromo horse. The war was a side issue until after the race.

Something went wrong with the Colonel's inside dope. Bromo bore an unlucky name. He was bottled up or something like that, and never did get uncorked in time to finish with the rest of his field. In the quarters at Huntington the gloom was so thick that it had to be removed with a shovel. Nobody blamed the Colonel, even in this bitter hour. Bromo had put a nick in his own bank-roll.

Kenneth MacLeish's letters from Huntington add something to the impressions of these last weeks in which  p153 these Yale undergraduates were together as a closely knit fraternity engaged in a common task.

July 10th

This has been a busy two weeks for me. I have had extra duty because I have been working in the machine shops as well as trying to keep that big R‑3 in order. Mother, I hate to brag, and I wouldn't only I feel that it will help your feeling along when I tell you that I really think I am getting some intelligence after years of fruitless effort. I have been doing beautifully lately with my flying. I learned how to spiral all by myself, and several other tricks that are difficult to explain. I had just got to the stage where I was feeling most confident, and just the period when accidents are bound to occur, when I decided to call it all off and now I am as cautious as I was when I began. Every time I feel sure that I can do something hard, I stop and say to myself that I won't do it, and just go back to the beginning and take absolutely no chances.

They are still picking on me for instruction. I'm just scared to death that they'll make me stay around here and instruct when I've finished my training. It's a regular nightmare for me. But, then, I suppose I have to take my medicine like a man. I know you'll both cheer when I tell you that we are going to be paid soon. It will be only thirty dollars for a while, until I get my commission, but after that I'll get more.

Gee! I surely get homesick around here. There are only five of us who don't live right near home. The other four are ensigns and get enough money to go to New York over the week‑end, but I have to stick around here. Two weeks ago I was the only person on the place — even the mechanics left. . . .

July 25th

We take the Navy test this week for our Navy pilot's licenses. After that half of us will be sent broadcast over the country as instructors. . . . . In two or three weeks I'll either be an instructor or sailing the briny deep. The choice of those who go and those who stay will be entirely on their respective merits. Some can naturally instruct and others can't. I want to go where I will be of the most service. Here's hoping it's over there. I'll be an ensign in two weeks. I got paid also. Cheers!

The only flurry to suggest the conditions of war was when, early in August, an enemy submarine, or something  p154 that resembled it, was reported off the coast. Rear Admiral Usher, Commandant of the Third Naval District, ordered an air patrol sent out from Huntington. This caused excitement, of course, and in the memoirs of John Vorys it is recorded:

In connection with the first submarine hunt, Harry Davison, as acting C. O., sent me in the Mary Ann to catch the 'Loot' who was bound to New London on the Shuttle. I landed beside the yacht and told him the tremendous news. He and the Colonel were having — er — a cigarette, and he was loth to return. However, he got into the Mary Ann and took over the bridge from me. A strong northeast wind had sprung up, with the usual driving rain, and I won't forget for some time the 'Loot's' beautiful down-wind landing in the middle of the cloud-burst in Huntington Bay, and the classy way he took charge when he got ashore. But why the down-wind landing, Eddie?

Albert Ditman had been ordered to Bay Shore on August 3d. From this station he saw the air patrol in chase of the alleged submarines and made the following note of it:

After arriving there we sighted an R‑6 coming across the Bay, apparently from out of the ocean. We knew this was not one of ours and were very much interested at discovering it was Harry Davison who had been ordered on patrol duty with Curtis Read. He had searched the area given him to patrol, but had not sighted any enemy submarines. His plane was equipped with the Davis non‑recoil gun and as far as I know this is the first time in history that this gun was used in actual patrol work.

Although not an especially daring excursion, it had the flavor of novelty and happened to attract the attention of the Secretary of the Navy. He regarded the incident as having dramatic value and was moved to write two letters of eloquent commendation:

 p155  My dear Mr. Read:

I have learned with much interest that you accompanied Ensign H. P. Davison, Jr., as observer on his recent trip in an armed seaplane which was sent out under orders from Admiral Usher, Commandant of the Naval District, to scout for enemy submarines. It is a fact that this is the first time in the history of the country that this particular kind of service has been undertaken and I congratulate you for your part in it. I believe that considerable hazard was connected with such a trip and I wish to congratulate you that you were ready to undertake it. It shows that have the brave and enterprising spirit which we have come to expect in our young men when any serious or difficult project is to be undertaken. This is the sort of spirit which our young men must show continuously if we are to win the great war which we are now waging, and it is pleasing to me to know that you measured up to the opportunity when it came. I wish to extend to you my hearty congratulations.

My dear Ensign Davison:

I have learned with a great deal of interest that, acting under orders from Admiral Usher, Commandant of the Naval District, you took an armed seaplane across Long Island scouting for a submarine, and that this is the first time that an armed seaplane has been sent out in this country to hunt an enemy submarine.

I want to extend to you my very cordial congratulations. You have undertaken successfully a service which involves a very considerable amount of hazard and have exhibited a spirit which we expect our young men to show if we are to win the great struggle in which we are now engaged. It is a most encouraging thing that whenever young Americans have an opportunity they measure up to the high standards of daring and bravery which have always been characteristic of us as a nation.

This pleased the gallant heroes, but they wondered what the Secretary expected an Aerial Coast Patrol to be doing if not to fly on scouting duty when ordered.

For practice in hunting submarines, Rockefeller, MacLeish, and Ingalls were ordered from Huntington to New London for temporary duty. They stayed there a week or ten days. 'During this time,' says Rockefeller,  p156 'we made several flights over submarines operating in the Sound while they tested out various devices by means of which they hoped to be able to detect the presence of aircraft. Submarine officers also took flights with us to observe the visibility of subs while submerged under different conditions. I had my one and only trip in a submarine at this time, as the officers very kindly let us go out with them when we were not otherwise occupied. I don't want another ride. All I remember is a good deal of noise, being told I was under the Sound, seeing the water go by through the little glass portholes in the conning tower, or whatever it is called, and coming up again.'

Wells Brown explains in more detail the detection devices with which the Navy was experimenting at New London. He goes on to say: 'When we arrived there, the listening apparatus had not turned up so we had to hang around several days waiting for it. It proved to be such a bulky thing that it was impossible to use it on the machine we had. So our trip to New London was a good deal of a failure. However, we did get some experience in flying over submarines and in determining at what depths they could be seen, and at what depths they disappeared from sight. Commander Stapler and I made several flights of this character and watched closely the maneuvers of submarines from the base. I think we came to the conclusion that submarines could be found and followed quite easily at about thirty feet underneath the surface, but below that depth they were pretty hard to see. We also decided that this depended a great deal upon the type of bottom, which was very muddy at New London. After being there about a week, we saw that there was no use in spending more time on the experimental work because the apparatus was so bulky that it needed to be redesigned.'

The Author's Note:

1 From the Fitness Reports, Navy Department:

Period from 3 May, to 8 July, 1919:

This officer [Lieutenant David H. McCulloch] has a bearing and manner of one of considerably more years than he possesses. As principal test pilot for the Navy he has rendered most valuable service. His general performance of duty is in all respects excellent. His work as pilot on N. C.‑3 during Transatlantic Flight was practically perfect and it was largely due to his skill in handling N. C.‑3 on water that that seaplane was not broken up completely and lost at sea, with all on board. I consider that this officer's service entitles him to promotion, recommend that he be promoted to grade of Lieutenant Commander. Attention is invited that I have previously made a similar recommendation, which was forwarded, approved by Force commander, Destroyer Force.

J. H. Towers, Commander, U. S. N.,

Commanding N. C. Seaplane Division

Thayer's Note:

a This is the only place in the book where the name 'Biltmore' appears.

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