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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 17

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 19
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

Vol. I
Chapter XVIII

Way Down South in Texas

Frank Lynch and 'Lotta' Lawrence had made their appearance at Rockaway after a brief and rather sketchy sojourn at Squantum which was their first assignment. The camp was being demolished to make room for the huge plant in which the Fore River Shipbuilding Company proposed to turn out destroyers at a speed unheard of. Most of the aviation students had departed elsewhere, after learning to solo. About all that remained to do at the air station was to pack up the equipment and crate the planes for shipment. This was so much like the famous evacuation of Palm Beach that Lynch and Lawrence were undismayed. There was never a thrill, however, in such drudgery as this and they were glad to see the last of Squantum.

Their first impressions of Rockaway were not much more exhilarating. Frank Lynch writes:

I have a vivid recollection of motoring over to this new Rockaway station with Trubee Davison on a cold, bleak October day. After hunting about, we found a little shack of an office on a sand dune. The only evidences of a flying station were four dilapidated R‑6 machines which had been taken off the cruiser Seattle and stored on this site. There was a lot of work ahead and the apparent hopelessness of the proposition was lost sight of in the anxiety to get things done. I was first lieutenant for a time and later served as executive officer. Lawrence was placed in charge of construction and did excellent work. After some hangars and patrols had been built, we were able to begin the patrols.

Lawrence called it 'a continual struggle against the lack of everything but sand.' One of his worries was a  p204 dirigible hangar and a flock of kite balloons. 'One memorable night five of them had been left out for testing purposes when a heavy gale of wind and storm parted their moorings. For a good half-hour it rained sand-bags and kite balloons all over the station and the fort next door. In the morning we found them strewn from our power house roof to the Jersey coast.'

The restlessness to go abroad was hard to keep down [according to Lynch], and when the work at Rockaway developed along more or less routine lines, I prevailed upon Commander Child [in February] to allow me to go to Washington and try my luck at getting overseas. At the Navy Department I obtained an interview with Commander Towers and had a long talk with him on the subject, putting forward the cases of 'Alphy' Ames and 'Lotta' Lawrence as well as my own. As the interview progressed and Mr. Towers kept insisting on the importance of the work in this country, our chances of getting over seemed to grow dimmer and dimmer.

Fortunately for us, Commander Whiting, who at that time was back in this country organizing personnel and material for the project at Killingholme, overheard the conversation. He called Mr. Towers out of the office for a moment and then came back with the suggestion that we might join his outfit. He added the proviso, however, that before going abroad we must take machine‑gun practice with the Royal Flying Corps at Fort Worth, Texas.

Oliver James also had a finger in this pie. On duty in the Department, he did everything in his power to advance the interests of his friends. Lynch was the first man to start for Texas. Ames followed from Bay Shore and Lawrence from Rockaway. These two Unit groups were pretty thoroughly scattered by now, with Gould at Key West, Ditman in Washington, and Rockefeller at Pensacola. Wells Brown was left alone at Rockaway. It is for us to trail the three pilgrims to Texas before losing track of them. The scene shifts to a very different background and another kind of aerial training. The education  p205 of an aviator literally covered a great deal of ground.

The trip to Fort Worth made Ames nervous. He admits it. For one thing, 'Lotta' Lawrence had a trick of catching trains with no more than a fraction of a second to spare. His air of magnificent leisure was never once rumpled. Ames was always expecting him to miss the next train. Nor was it soothing to read in the newspapers of the deaths on the Texas flying fields. Planes seemed to be crashing every day, and Fort Worth led the list. A total of as many as thirty men had been killed there at this time. The two Yale aviators wondered what their numbers would be. It was not a blithesome thought.

On arrival, however, they found Frank Lynch alive and going strong. He had managed to survive a few weeks of it. This was a hopeful omen. They reported to Ensign Dick McCann at Hicks Field. He was in command of the U. S. N. aviation detachment, and very popular with the Canadians and Americans. He had received his flying training in Canada with the R. F. C. whose instructors hustled men through and sent them to the front after a few hours in the air. The need was too urgent to be over-careful of lives and machines.

In addition to the naval aviation officers sent to this flying field for instruction, Ensign McCann had a school of forty enlisted men, carefully selected, who were being trained as observers and engineers for the big flying-boats. On the day he arrived, Allan Ames took a hop with Frank Lynch in order to get used to handling a land plane. The flight was made without mishap. Two hours later, however, Lynch took up Jim Higginbotham, the Yale football man, in the same type of machine, a JN‑4. Higginbotham lived in Dallas and had been doing line duty in the Navy. He was waiting at home for orders to the ground school at Massachusetts Tech. Lynch describes the fatal accident:

 p206  I went over to see him one Friday night and willingly agreed to his suggestion that I take him up for a flight the next day. He had been up several times with Canadian pilots and had a fair idea of flying. He came over on Saturday afternoon and on coming in from a flight with Alphy Ames, I took another plane. Jim sat in the front seat where I told him to fasten himself in and I would give him the controls when we were up a thousand feet. It is most curious, but I have no recollection of anything more than this. We had been flying half an hour, it seems, when we went into a spin and crashed. I was unconscious all that night and pretty severely bruised. When I finally came to, they told me that Higginbotham had been killed instantly. I never knew about the man, and I have always felt that I would much rather he had been spared than me.

In the hospital Tom Powers, an R. F. C. pilot, was propped upon on one side of me. He was an actor who had played the lead in 'Oh, Boy.' On the other side was a chap named Wadleigh who had come through a long period of action in France without a scratch, but crashed badly while training pilots at Camp Taliaferro. Both of these men did a lot to cheer me up, Powers with his wonderful good humor and Wadleigh with his unlimited grit in the face of injuries that would incapacitate him for the rest of his life. After a week in the hospital, followed by a few days visit with the Higginbothams who bore up heroically under the loss of their son and brother, I left for Hampton Roads as soon as I was able to travel.

My orders designated that I was to return to Washington on medical discharge from the hospital, but my confidence had been badly shaken and I thought it best to take the extra time allowed in travel to stop off at Hampton Roads and put myself to a real test. The weather before I left Texas had prevented a flight. So at Hampton Roads I made my first flight in a Hispano N‑9 and wonder to this day why my knees did not break through both sides of the fuselage before I even got off the water. Once in the air again, I felt reassured and after an hour's flying and considerable stunting, came in feeling much relieved. I also flew a Curtiss N‑9 and an R‑6 before leaving that night.

This accident was a distressing introduction to the Texas flying field for Allan Ames and Francklyn Lawrence. Reminded of it later 'Alphy' said:

 p207  This was only one of about twenty fatal crashes that happened while I was at Fort Worth. The Canadians seemed to be more careless in their flying than the Americans, although the latter were more aggressive. On the other hand, the Britishers had the more effective organization and accomplished more per unit of energy. It was rather odd and confusing to be in the United States Navy and sent down to an American Army field to take instruction in the Royal Flying Corps! The answer is that neither our Army or Navy was, at this time, able to give the course. In other words, ten months after the declaration of war, neither branch had an aerial gunnery course perfected for even elementary work. The Navy had not stressed the importance of gunnery in its aviation program at the beginning of the war. The delay and unreadiness, however, were much more to the discredit of the Army air service.

The first part of the course consisted of lectures on the mechanism and operation of the Lewis gun.​a Combined with this were long periods of practice in taking down and assembling the gun, clearing jams, and so on. We also went out to the range for target practice, to get used to the gun in action and to gain experience. The last part of the course consisted of a minimum of ten hours in the air, shooting at ground targets, towed targets, and camera gun work. Not far from the camp was a lake about a mile wide on which were placed at intervals floating targets in the form of a plane. This made excellent practice, for the splashes on the water checked up the marksman­ship.

The shooting at the sleeve target was good fun for the marksman but rather a dangerous assignment for the poor fellow who had to pilot the target bus. One man came in with a badly shattered fuselage, and on other occasions one or two of the flipper control wires were shot away, but fortunately the pilots always came through safely. It might not be amiss to mention the respect the Canadian officers had for the intelligence, initiative, and general conduct of our enlisted men. The C. O. told me that he considered them better officer material than most of the men he was getting as student officers at that time.

The instruction work was very much rushed. The 'minimum of ten hours in the air,' sometimes amounted to no more than three or four hours, while the photographic training was omitted in some cases. It was an  p208 elementary course in all respects, but the best that could be found in the country at that time. Thirty American naval flying officers were in the group, besides the forty enlisted men. The purpose of this five weeks' special training was to fit them for service in the mysterious undertaking abroad known as '14 and 15.' It was profoundly hush stuff. Not a whisper of information was permitted to escape from the Department. The name of Killingholme was not officially mentioned.​b

These three members of the Unit, Lynch, Lawrence, and Ames, who had been together in Texas, now continued their education at Hampton Roads before they were finally sent overseas. On reporting to Commander Towers in Washington, Lynch was dismayed at being told that his flying days were over and that he would be given a ground job. His earnest arguments to the effect that he had recovered his nerve and was fit again finally ended in sending him down to Hampton Roads to fly H‑12, H‑16, and H.S.‑1 machines, and to help instruct the group of Commander Whiting's pilots who had not been trained in boats. This work was shared with Lawrence and Ames to fit in with the courses given by Lieutenant Frank M. Gill, an R. N. A. S. pilot who had been sent over from Felixstowe, and John Vorys. Lawrence and Lynch left Hampton Roads on May 7th and received their overseas orders later in the month.

Allan Ames was kept longer on this side and did considerable more moving hither and yon. Of his month at the Hampton Roads he says:

After having learned to fly the big boats I lost all interest in them. I don't know why, but they never gave me a thrill. I can remember arguing with the men at the station that they never would accomplish much in meeting enemy aircraft. I didn't find many supporters at that time, but after reviewing the records of the British at Felixstowe I have since discovered that I had a  p209 great deal on my side. My recollection of those records is that for every Hun single seater brought down by this type of machine, the British lost at least one big boat. That would mean that there was a loss in personnel of four to one, and probably a larger ratio in the loss of material.

About this time it was rumored that the Marines were to have several squadrons of single seaters in northern France, and that the Navy pilots would be able to join them. This appealed to me. Although I was anxious to be placed wherever I could do best for the service, I must confess that my heart was with the small planes. In fact I was hoping that something would turn up whereby I would eventually get into some outfit with them.

After I had been at Hampton Roads about one month, Eddie McDonnell returned from abroad to assemble the personnel and material for the Northern Bombing Group. As it was pictured to us then, this outfit looked like a millennium. A few days after Eddie's arrival, Harry Davison and I were transferred to Washington. One thing was certain, I was out of the big boats and it looked as if Harry and I would have an opportunity to get into the real scrap.

Washington was terrible! I thanked my lucky stars that I was not attached there permanently. This statement is not meant to reflect on the naval aviation personnel in Washington. It was my impression of the whole atmosphere there. Of course, my war de luxe continued. It happened that Harry's father had a house in Washington at which we stayed. We both were very lucky, myself especially. Roger Poor, of Bay Shore, soon joined us in the Northern Bombing Group work. Roger has always contributed hard work and a great deal of fun and pleasure to the crowd. Our little organization acted as a sort of thorn in the naval aviation organization. Our principal duty was to get on the track of material and to speed it up wherever possible. Eddie had 'Deac' Randolph to help him with the personnel, and Lieutenant Gibbs and some pay officers to handle their end of the job. In doing our duty, as we saw it, we wore out our welcome at most of the bureaus and headquarters.

About the second week in June, Eddie McDonnell and myself went out to Dayton on temporary duty to look over the DH‑4's which were to go to the Navy. These were being built at the Wright factory. Speed in production was the motto of the plant. They were putting out about eight machines a day at  p210 that time. The whole place had a phenomenal growth, and as I look back on it, I think they were doing a remarkable job considering the fact that there was very little skilled labor in the country educated to build airplanes, and to handle aviation motors. There were a good many flaws in the machines but no more than could be expected under the pressure at which they were running. It is easy enough for skilled airplane makers to take a single machine and show how they should be built, or in fact build one, but to put them into production is a far different story. It was only another instance of American aviation diving in over its depth.

At McCook Field we ran into some old friends, Caleb Bragg, who was in charge of the practical experimental work in the air, and Fred Golder, who had charge of the hangars. With their help and Major Marmon's generosity, Eddie and I were allowed to fly nearly all the machines, which included Hispano Jn, DH‑4, Vought, and a 220 Spad. This added interest to our trip there. Eddie returned to Washington and left me to carry out some of his instructions in regard to the work in Dayton. I stayed there and learned some of the problems which were going to present themselves with the DH‑4 machines.

Although I spent considerable time at the factory I managed to get a certain amount of time at McCook Field, flying and absorbing information. On one occasion, Bragg and I took a Liberty R‑4 over to Indianapolis where Colonel Vincent wanted to show a Liberty motor in action to some of his friends. While in Indianapolis Major Marmon's brother took us through the Marmon factory which was building Liberty motors. Owing to the lack of men they were obliged to instruct a good many girls in building Liberty motors. I was agreeably surprised to see how quickly they learned and how well they did their work. I remember having a great deal of admiration for the tremendous amount of energy and efficiency which was being used in building Liberty motors at that plant. After my second week at Dayton I returned to Washington.

There I discovered that foreign orders had been authorized for Harry and me on June 1st. Owing to what seemed then some strained relations between our work and that of the naval aviation people in Washington orders were not delivered until the 1st of July. We were given ten days leeway before sailing for England.

Thayer's Notes:

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

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b Killingholme officially comprised Stations 14 and 15; see ch. 39.

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Page updated: 23 Dec 13