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Chapter 13

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 15
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

Vol. I
Chapter XIV

Trubee, the Crippled Leader

Until the Navy test, late in July, there had been several narrow escapes from disaster, but none was serious. Curtis Read took up a mechanic, Milford by name, and came down in a side slip from fifty feet off the water. The plane was smashed but the two men crawled out unhurt. Harry Davison made a spectacular crash in an N‑9 and came out of it with sundry bruises as souvenirs. Kenneth Smith is reminded of another close call: 'As I remember it, John Vorys and "Hen" Langdon took the Burgess up on a very bumpy day. The Burgess was a hard machine to turn in that kind of weather, due to the fact that every time a bump hit her she would right herself and thus resume a level position which would not permit turning. John and "Hen" went out the harbor all right and as long as they were heading away from home, everything was lovely. It was when trying to turn into the wind and make a proper landing that John got into trouble. He wound up by coming down almost perpendicular and hitting the water about one foot from the beach. When Landon asked him what he thought he was doing, the pilot replied, "Well, I wasn't worried, for I had you to act as a nice, soft cushion in case we crashed." '

The death of Seaman Wells, a mechanic of the naval force, was sudden and tragic, the result of the risks incidental to his duties. Allan Ames was about to take Archie McIlwaine up for a flight in an R‑3. Wells gave them a cheery morning greeting. He was very well liked. They had nicknamed him 'The Child of the Sea.' The two aviators climbed into the machine. Wells offered to turn  p158 the motor over for them. It back-fired and one end of the propeller struck Wells on the arm. Before he could dodge, the other end caught him on the head, crushing the skull. Erl Gould, who was looking on, pulled him from beneath the machine. Dr. McAlpin rushed him to the hospital where he was operated on. The injury was too severe, and Seaman Wells died that same night.

It was arranged that the flying tests for naval aviators should begin on July 28th. The board consisted of Commander Read, Lieutenant Commander Johnson, and Lieutenant McDonnell. The other examinations had been successfully passed. These had to do with theoretical and textual knowledge gleaned from lectures and books. The stipulation for the first of the practical tests was a flight at an altitude of six thousand feet, a descent to three thousand, then shutting off the motor and landing within three hundred feet of a buoy. The members of the Unit had been looking forward to the event with a certain amount of tension, but there was nothing in it to make them nervous. Those who were ready to qualify had been thoroughly trained to pass any reasonable tests.

It was perfect flying weather, on the morning of July 28th, when three machines left the runways, one after the other, for the climb to six thousand feet. Trubee Davison was first to leave the water, followed by Lovett and Gates. As the leader, Trubee was anxious to make his flight ahead of the others. This was his duty, as he interpreted it, although he was not feeling at all fit. In fact, he was tired and overworked to the verge of illness. A spell of faintness on the day before had been a warning to ease up and postpone the flying test.

His friends were aware of his condition. John Vorys said as much when he helped Trubee into his flying clothes and was called a darned fool for his pains. The morale of the Unit was in Trubee's mind. It was for him to carry on.  p159 He had the stubborn quality of courage essential to leader­ship. Another factor besides poor condition seems to have played a part in the disaster. This was lack of confidence in his ability to handle the flying-boat assigned him for the test. This is brought out in a letter from Foster Rockwell to Dave McCulloch, written on July 31st:

Trubee, as you know, has been working under forced draught for a considerable time and the last two weeks have been particularly hard. On Friday night word came that Lieut. Johnson was to arrive to give the Naval aviator tests. It seems that Trubee, although he had been instructing for a considerable time, had but little practice in the flying-boat, most of his flying having been done in the Burgess Dunne, N‑9s and Rs. He had remarked on sundry occasions to 'Di' Gates this fact and worried not a little over his ability to land in the prescribed distance. This mental hazard, coupled with his poor physical condition, is in my judgment the prime cause of the spill. Gates suggested to the powers that be that Trubee had had little or no practice in the flying-boat, but the idea suggested was not considered of enough importance in this instance.

Friday noon Trubee had a fainting spell and was in a general run‑down condition. Saturday noon at lunch he mentioned to me some doubt in his own mind of being able to make a satisfactory test. Now this with his ever-pressing desire to make good, undoubtedly operated in such a way that he flew almost like a novice. The second thing he said to me after we had rescued him in the launch was that he had no business to have tried to fly that day. Describing the accident, he told me that he was steering to get above the Shuttle and then spiral down. On his last spiral he passed the yacht about two hundred feet away and started on a left turn with a rather flat glide, the wind blowing on his right hand.

Just before he made the final plunge I saw him look out of the machine towards the Shuttle for at least two seconds. Almost immediately he threw over his controls and the machine made a right turn, sliding in and plunging headlong into the water from a height of about seventy-five feet. The boat dived almost straight down, the impact pulling the nose away from the compression strut and forcing the engine back. Trubee was thrown against the seat-back and under the engine bracing where his  p160 legs were somehow caught in the tubular braces. His head was above the water. The boat was completely broken in two. In fact, Fred Golder said it was the worst smash he had ever seen in an F‑boat. The engine, however, stayed on its frame.

Trubee's legs were apparently caught fast in a number of wires. It would have been impossible for him to have extricated himself without help. The three naval officers on board the Shuttle did excellent work in getting Trubee out of the water. We took him into the cabin of the Shuttle and the doctor gave him a little opiate to relieve the pain in his back, which must have been extreme. He was perfectly rational and insisted that I talk with him all the way to Peacock Point, which I did, and there picked up his father and mother and they took him immediately to St. Luke's Hospital, New York.

This is an accurate summary of the disaster. Most of the Unit members had been watching the flight from the runways. They saw Trubee climb steadily skyward. The Shuttle was moving into position as the mark by which to make the landing. Trubee seemed to be handling his boat with no difficulty until he came spiraling down to shoot for the yacht and take the water near it. Then, as one of them said, he appeared to stretch his glide too far on a turn. The machine side-slipped and pitched into the harbor. It fairly crumpled up. The spectacle was appalling.

The Shuttle steamed over to the wreckage while the seaplanes made haste to taxi from the runways. They found Trubee with his face above water, but the smashed boat was sinking and slowly pulling him under. In order to free him, Lieutenant plunged in and released his legs from the entangling wires. It looked as though they might both go under and be drowned together. A fine deed, worthy of a Medal of Honor man!

Lovett and Gates were flying in their own tests when Trubee fell. For the moment they were entirely forgotten. Presently they can swooping down, landing without mishap, and taxied over to the Shuttle and climbed on  p161 board. Dr. McAlpin's hurried examination had convinced him that the accident was very serious. It was decided to take Trubee to New York in the yacht in order to keep him as quiet as possible.

Every effort was made to locate surgeons by telephone, but on this Saturday afternoon in July some were out of town. Others were away from their offices on professional errands. Lovett therefore was told to take the Reads' Marmon and drive to New York and find a surgeon and have him meet the Shuttle with an ambulance. It was a wild ride from Huntington. Dave Ingalls went along. Both men were in their greasy working clothes. Meanwhile the yeomen in the Unit headquarters en route and give the roaring Marmon as clear a track as possible.

At Douglaston a motor-cycle officer yelled as the car flew by, but Ingalls shouted at him — 'hospital — emergency!' They did not look back to see whether they were chased or not. Speed and traffic rules were thrown overboard. The word must have been passed by telephone, for at the entrance of the Queensborough Bridge a policeman waved them along and another one on a motor-cycle dashed ahead of the car to turn other vehicles aside.

The Marmon never stopped and seldom slackened until it rolled up to the office of Dr. Downes in West Fifty-Seventh Street. The run from Huntington had been made in fifty-five minutes. The doctor had gone out to visit his patients. His secretary studied the appointment list and then began calling up one address after another until he was found. Lovett and Ingalls picked him up and drove him to St. Luke's Hospital to find the ambulance and an additional surgeon if possible.

No other surgeon was available. With Dr. Downes in the Marmon they followed the ambulance east across One Hundred Tenth Street and down Second Avenue,  p162 pell-mell to reach the New York Yacht Club landing. At Fortieth Street the Marmon died, having burned out the magneto points. It was pushed to the curb and left there. Bob and Dave jumped into a taxi and so finished the journey to the landing just as the Shuttle came in sight from Huntington.

Trubee was in St. Luke's Hospital for six weeks before he could be removed to his own home. He was a man with a broken back. The fracture of a vertebra had injured the delicate tissues of the spinal cord. In spite of this there was a gradual improvement, the very slow regaining of sensation, enough to warrant the hope that he might not be a helpless cripple. The fact that he had survived at all was considered unusual. The case engaged the attention of the most eminent specialists. The patient permitted himself to be exhibited and discussed in the hospital and took it with courageous good-humor.

The Unit was shocked and saddened beyond words. From the beginning they had turned to Trubee as the leader. It was hard to believe that his career as a comrade was finished. He was taken from them just at the climax of the undertaking, when they were about to play their several parts in the war. And yet he was not a lost leader! During the weary weeks in the hospital he kept in touch with the crowd and its activities. They saw and talked with him whenever possible. He was still one of them. He was unselfishly glad to learn of the orders which sent this one overseas and that one to some position of responsibility in the far‑flung organization of naval aviation at home. The Unit was making good. This was his precious reward.

Among the other friends who visited him at the hospital was Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, late President of the United States. Quentin Roosevelt had been in Groton with Trubee, in the class next below him. This was a link  p163 to bind the Colonel's affection, in addition to his enthusiastic approval of what the Unit had done and his profound sympathy for Trubee's misfortune. With that splendid earnestness of his, he told the invalid that his injury was just as much a war sacrifice as though it had been incurred at the fighting front. As a gift he left two handsomely bound copies of his own books inscribed 'To Trubee from Quentin's father.' Nobody knew better than Colonel Roosevelt what it meant to be thwarted and disappointed in the eager desire for active service.

When Trubee was taken home to Peacock Point in September, his mental vigor had returned and he cherished the hope of making himself useful in some kind of a desk position. Technically he was on sick leave as appears from his own report to the Commandant of the Third Naval District:

1. I was injured in a seaplane accident on July 28th, 1917, while on duty with the detachment of the Naval Reserve Flying Corps at Huntington, Long Island, and was removed to St. Luke's Hospital, New York.

2. I was surveyed by a board of Naval doctors on August 10th and told by the senior officer that a two months leave would be given me, but that this would be extended at its termination by periods of two months inasmuch as my injury (a broken back) would keep me unfit for active duty for a good many months.

3. No orders or official communications of any kind received from the surveying board nor from any other department of the Navy.

Lieutenant Commander J. H. Towers displayed a warm interest in Trubee's condition and it was pleasing to have him write from the Navy Department:

Dear Davison:

I have intended for a long time to write to you to find out how you were getting along, but never seemed to have an opportunity. I hear indirectly, however, almost every week and am very pleased to learn that you are recovering rapidly.

 p164  If you would like to return to active duty after you are physically fit, I think your services would be of great use to us here in the central office (Naval Operations) and would be very pleased to have you if the matter can be arranged. Please let me know how you feel about the matter and also when the doctors think it would be entirely all right for you to take up administrative work.

The doctors, alas, could not accomplish miracles. The sick leave was extended indefinitely. The invitation to take up administrative duties in Washington had to be declined. It was beyond Trubee's strength. He maintained a very active interest in naval aviation, however, and by no means rusted in an idleness enforced. His plans and suggestions were studied with respect in the Navy Department. His office was a couch on a breezy porch at Peacock Point. The head of the Personnel Section of the Bureau of Navigation gave Lieutenant Davison credit for the scheme of organization of the Junior Cadet School at the Great Lakes Training Station.

Trubee explains it in his own way:

The idea was this. The preparatory schools of the country naturally did not want to have their boys taken away from them, and the colleges felt the same way until the undergraduates were old enough to go into active service. At the same time I saw a great many fine young fellows between sixteen and nineteen years of age who were very keen to get into service and who were devoting their time to digging potatoes or feeding hogs for their country.

It seemed to me that if the Navy Department should appeal to the head-masters of the leading preparatory schools, the Naval Air Service could get the cream of the young men who would shortly be eligible for flying service and who, in the meantime, could be receiving training similar to that obtained in the ground school at Boston Tech. This training could be carried on during summer vacation and during the regular college course. In addition to that they could get some preliminary flying training.

 p165  The schools and colleges were very strong for the idea, as was the Navy Department. 'Al' Stearns, principal of Andover, was especially enthusiastic about it and helped a great deal. We got it going so late, of course, that it did not have much time to bear fruit, but it seemed to me to have great possibilities.

One of Trubee's orders, received while disabled, refers to a most interesting series of experiments.

October 8, 1918

It is requested that Commander H. C. Richardson (Bureau of Construction and Repair), Major B. L. Smith, U. S. M. C., and Lieutenant Trubee Davison, U. S. N. R. F., be ordered to additional duty in the Bureau of Ordnance in connection with the development of the 'F. B.' apparatus.

Trubee was able to motor to Amityville, Long Island, to see the Sperry aerial torpedo, or flying bomb, given a test. It was the original invention of the kind. Other devices have been perfected later which embody the same basic idea. Trubee tells the story of that trial flight in such vivid phrases that you can see the thing for yourself and 'let your imagination work,' as he suggests:

Lawrence Sperry, who was the son of Elmer Sperry, the gyroscope man, developed a mechanism, directed by a gyroscope, which will fly an aeroplane without anybody in it. The idea was that the plane could be let down with about two thousand pounds of TNT and simply crash on the object. The mechanism itself was, and is, fundamentally sound and there was just the question of refining it. I know that I went down there several times and had a very small part in the work. It was essentially a technical job, although if they had a little more common sense and paid a little more attention to people who knew the air game they would have gone a great deal further.

I remember the first actual flying test that they made. They took a Curtiss land machine, removed the landing gear and put the plane on a small truck which ran along a track and constituted a catapult. The plane was set to climb at an angle of five degrees and after it had flown about five thousand yards along the ground, it was set to dive and crash. Some of the  p166 leading men from the Navy Department were on hand. They had the motor started and gave the sign to pull the trigger. The truck shot forward and the plane rode up. It encountered puffs of wind and was controlled as though an experienced aviator was on board. When it reached the point where it was to dive, something went wrong with the diving mechanism and the plane went right on by and went up out of sight to the sky, climbing all of the time. They never found a trace of it afterwards.

They never really perfected it before the Armistice, but I understand that great strides have been made since then. In my humble mind, it was the deadliest weapon ever conceived. Just let your imagination work on it a little bit. You may remember that Lawrence Sperry was killed last winter while flying over the English Channel. It was a very sad affair, and he was a very fine and extraordinary man. In any event he was the only real genius I have ever met.

On November 23, 1918, the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery made the following report to the Bureau of Navigation:

Subject: Case of Lieutenant Frederick Trubee Davison, U. S. N. R. F.

1. Enclosed herewith is report of medical survey in the case of the above named officer, with the recommendation that he be granted sixty days leave of absence from August 25, 1918, and that another survey be held at the expiration of that period.

2. In order that the pay accounts of Lieutenant Davison may be adjusted, it is requested that the Bureau issue orders, predated September 25, 1917, granting this officer indeterminate leave from the date mentioned.

3. The circumstances in this case are as follows:

Mr. Davison was injured in a seaplane accident on July 28th, 1917, while on duty at the Naval Air Station, Huntington, Long Island, N. Y. A Board of Medical Survey was held which recommended that he be granted two months sick leave, with a further recommendation that his leave be extended at its termination by periods of two months, inasmuch as the injury sustained by Lieutenant Davison would keep him unfit for duty for a considerable length of time. Under date of September 25, 1917, the Bureau of Navigation approved this latter recommendation.

 p167  4. Since September 25, 1917, medical surveys have been held periodically every two months in his case and submitted to the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, in addition to the initial leave granted.

The concluding documents in the case were as follows:

To Lieutenant (j.g.) F. T. Davison, U. S. N. R. F.
Third Naval District,

1. You are hereby detached from such duty as you may now be performing; will proceed to your home and regard yourself as relieved from all active duty.

2. Advise the Bureau of Navigation immediately upon your arrival home, giving the date thereof, and also your full address.

3. The Bureau takes this opportunity to thank you for the faithful and patriotic services you have rendered for your country in the war with Germany.

(Signed) [image ALT: an underscored blank] Harris Lanning

December 26, 1918

Subject: Naval Aviator designation for Lieut. (j.g.) F. T. Davison.
Enclosure: Naval Aviation Appointment.

1. It is requested that the above named officer be designated a Naval Aviator. He organized in 1916 the Davison Unit and taught about thirty men to fly, who were subsequently commissioned when the United States went into the war. During 1917 he served at the head of the Huntington Unit on Long Island, having been commissioned in March of that year as Lieutenant (junior grade). His work consisted of training Naval aviators, but before he himself was able to complete the regular tests for Naval Aviator he met with an airplane accident in line of duty, and has been incapacitated ever since.

2. In view of this officer's services, however, and the fact that he has had a considerable number of hours in the air, it is requested that he may be designated a Naval Aviator, and the enclosure be properly signed and returned.

(Signed) [image ALT: an underscored blank] N. E. Irwin

No one was more competent to appraise the services of Trubee Davison than Lieutenant Commander E. O.  p168 McDonnell. In a report prepared after the war, he had this to say:

As commanding officer of the First Yale Unit at Palm Beach, Florida, and Huntington, Long Island, I wish to call the attention of those interested to the work done by the members of the Unit and particularly to the organizer who was responsible for its success, Lieut. (j.g.) F. Trubee Davison. The Unit was composed of 29 men, 27 of them being Yale men. The idea was developed and the start given by Lieutenant Davison. He picked his members from the flower of Yale College and in picking them showed rare judgment and foresight, selecting those who from their past performances in athletics or other college activities, and from his own knowledge of their character and ability, he knew to be of the stuff to make gallant fighters and who proved to be officers and gentlemen in all respects.

About September first, after three or four months training, the Navy had at its disposal twenty‑six naval aviators who were trained as thoroughly as possible with the means available in the United States. These men were the nucleus of Naval Aviation at that time and represented the finest types of American manhood. This was all with practically no expense to the Navy and had been done largely through the personal efforts of Lieutenant Davison. Upon the completion of his training and while taking his test as a naval aviator, Lieutenant Davison fell in a seaplane and nearly lost his life, receiving serious injuries from which he has not yet recovered.

No one group of men in the Army or Navy, in my opinion, made a record equal to that of the First Yale Unit. The credit belongs largely to Lieutenant Davison, and also, in no small measure to Mr. Lewis S. Thompson. In my judgment, Lieut. Davison made one of the best individual efforts of the war.

Captain Hutch I. Cone (now Rear Admiral) who commanded the United States Aviation Forces, Foreign Service, until he was badly injured in a torpedoed steamer, wrote as follows:

I have recommended Mr. Trubee Davison for the Distinguished Service Medal and the citation which I have forwarded reads as follows:

 p169  This officer was responsible for the organization of the First Yale Aviation Unit of twenty-nine aviators who were later enrolled in the Naval Reserve Flying Corps. The remarkable success of this unit operating under the most difficult conditions was almost entirely due to the loyal, efficient, and patriotic efforts of Lieutenant Davison. This group of aviators formed the nucleus of the first Naval Reserve Flying Corps and, in fact, may be considered as the nucleus from which the U. S. Naval Aviation Forces, Foreign Service, afterwards grew. Three of these young officers were killed overseas, two being shot down in action. Nearly all of them distinguished themselves, and the fact that the group was placed at the disposal of the Navy was very largely due to the efforts of Lieutenant Davison. He himself was seriously injured while flying in the United States, preparatory to going overseas. Lieutenant Davison was an example of courage and loyal devotion to duty, and his indomitable will and courageous spirit inspired his contemporaries to deeds of glory.

While I have never met Mr. Davison, his splendid work in preparation before the war and example of patriotism all through it is sufficient for me to know what a splendid man he must be. The unusual services rendered me by those officers of the Yale Unit prompted me to recommend him for the Distinguished Service Medal, in the hope that I might repay in part the obligation that I owe to him as well as to the group of officers that he was instrumental in preparing for war.

These sentiments were strongly endorsed by the Commander-in‑Chief of the American Naval Forces in European waters. He expressed himself personally in a letter to Mr. H. P. Davison.

U. S. Naval War College
Newport, Rhode Island

22 July, 1919

My dear Mr. Davison:

I am deeply appreciative of the trouble you have taken in sending me the notes, relative to the Naval Aviation Unit organized by your son, and I am more impressed than ever by the splendid services which he has rendered the Government.

I have recommended your son for Distinguished Service Medal as a token of the country's appreciation of his magnificent work. Furthermore, I propose to use my utmost influence to see that this recommendation is accepted.

 p170  Please accept my sincere congratulations for the manner in which your boy has not only upheld the highest traditions of the Naval Service, but has actually established new traditions for those who follow us to live up to.

Cordially yours

Wm. S. Sims, Rear Admiral, U. S. Navy

For publication, Admiral Sims, who has never been given to flattery, wrote in his book 'The Victory at Sea':

American naval aviation had a romantic beginning; indeed, the development of our air service from almost nothing to a force which, in European waters, comprised 2,500 officers and 22,000 men, is one of the great accomplishments of the war. It was very largely the outcome of civilian enterprise and civilian public spirit. In describing our sub‑chasers I have already paid tribute to the splendid qualities of reserve officers; and our indebtedness to this type of citizen was equally great in the aviation service. I can pay no finer tribute to American youth than to say that the great aircraft force which was ultimately assembled in Europe had its beginnings in a small group of undergraduates at Yale University. . . . This group of college boys acted entirely on their own initiative. While the United States was still at peace, encouraged only by their parents and a few friends, they took up the study of aviation. It was their conviction that the United States would certainly get into the war, and they selected this branch as the one in which they could render greatest service to their country. . . .

After he was released from the service, Archie McIlwaine expressed his own feelings in a letter to Trubee. It was one of many letters written by members of the Unit who spoke from the heart and quite spontaneously.

My dear Trubee:

While abroad I was admirably situated to have a look at the whole naval aviation layout. Stationed first at Moutchic School through which all pilots passed; later joining the Northern Bombing Group, making several trips to England; stationed at Paris headquarters — all these assignments enabled me to get a pretty comprehensive idea of our activities abroad.

 p171  In all these various activities were men of the First Naval Unit which you organized, holding positions of authority. The men were eminently qualified to hold down these jobs because in their early training they had been well grounded. There was, furthermore, an 'esprit de corps' formed during their period of training which the members felt should be kept intact throughout, and each individual was keen to do his part well in order to live up to the traditions of the original unit.

Out of twenty men abroad the Unit furnished three commanding officers, five chief pilots and six squadron or flight commanders. Three were active either as heads of departments at air stations or headquarters, and three gave their all. The above men were scattered throughout England, France, Belgium and Italy, and their work was good.

The fact that their work was good is due to your energy in organizing the First Volunteer Naval Aviation Unit, and your ability to carry the venture to a successful conclusion. I should like to go on record as saying that to you more than to any other single individual is credit due for the development of naval aviation.

In conclusion I want to express my appreciation for your many kindnesses and admiration for your ability.

John Vorys admirably voiced the conviction of all the others when he stated:

From start to finish, Trubee was head of the Unit. In sickness, in health, whether he lined us up for muster or kept us informed or inspired by information concerning the rest, he never lost his hold on the leader­ship of the Unit. From the time he first conceived the idea, through the slow work of the first summer; through his own training, his plans ahead, his executive work, his heart-breaking accident and the months of comparative inactivity that followed, he was C. O. of the Unit, which after September, 1917, consisted only of a reputation, a spirit and an opportunity.

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