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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 18

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 20
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

Vol. I
Chapter XIX

The Crowd at Hampton Roads

For a time, if you lost track of a member of the Unit you were likely to find him at Hampton Roads or Norfolk. In this coastwise area many of them tarried a while before being sent to other stations at home and abroad. They found much to learn and more to do. They were able to observe in intimate detail the whole confused progress of naval aviation, its grandiose schemes and experiments, the hectic struggle to keep pace with the demands of the war. Washington was near at hand. The tumult of its numberless activities came like echoes from a madhouse.

The historic waters of Hampton Roads were a naval pageant; the columns of laden transports steaming seaward, cruisers, seaplanes and destroyers escorting them, the ponderous battle fleet moving out for evolutions, the tiers of merchant vessels riding at anchor, the Norfolk Navy Yard swarming with every type of fighting craft. And the bands playing 'The Long, Long Trail' when the troops marched up the gangways!

A mobilization of the Unit? It looked something like that, for among those present within a brief period were Lieutenant Eddie McDonnell, Dr. McAlpin, Dave McCulloch, Curtis Read, Harry Davison, John Farwell, Bartow Read, Kenneth MacLeish, Livingston Ireland, Allan Ames, Graham Brush, Frank Lynch, Lotta Lawrence, Bill Thompson, John Vorys after he returned from the North Sea, and that battered veteran of the air, the Mary Ann, so faithful and true, who finally had to be chloroformed and mercifully put out of the way at Hampton  p212 Roads. Gentle reader, drop a posy on her bier (no 2.75 per cent stuff, remember!)

An English naval aviator wrote a eulogy to an old bus of his which seems poignantly appropriate to the memory of Mary Ann:

I've split all endwise in her from a bank of vapor,

And surprised a little rainbow lying sleeping in a cloud;

I did my first loop in her, and I've crashed her and rebuilt her,

And robbed her spares from other planes, which strictly ain't allowed.

At evening just at sunset, I have climbed into her cockpit,

And gone roaring up an air lane till I've caught the sun again,

And feeling most important at my private view of glory,

Have watched him set splendacious with his pink and golden train.

Her crash form's all in order, and they'll strip, saw, break and burn her,

And I'm sorry more than I can say to know she has to go;

For blue, depressed, fed‑up, or sore, I'd but to climb aboard her

To leave my pack of mouldy troubles far away below.

In September, 1917, this naval air station, like most of the others, was in the throes of 'construction and organization.' Weighty words these and familiar to the members of the Unit. They met them everywhere. The war ended too soon to finish anything. The United States was still constructing and organizing at top speed. There was also a frequent phenomenon known as 'reorganization' which occurred whenever the Navy Department, for instance, emitted new ideas which flew about like sparks from a grind-stone.

A group of student aviators, mostly Harvard men, had been flying at Newport News during the summer, on their own to a large extent, and with no great help from the Navy. It was decided to move this school to Jamestown and build up a first-class aviation base as a unit of the various naval operations of Hampton Roads. This having been done, the new station began its career with a few officers, thirty students in training, and half a dozen machines.

The officer in command was not sufficiently dynamic  p213 to stamp the enterprise with the proper discipline and morale; such was the impression he made. Kenneth MacLeish expressed it for his comrades at home:

Who do you suppose is relieving him? Our wonderful lieutenant 'Eddie' McDonnell! The finest man in the Navy! He is to be here a month and then goes to France. In the meantime the whole system has been changed, but the only change which would interest you is this: six of us — the two Read brothers from Huntington and the three officers previously here, and myself, take turns acting as commander of the station and first aids to the lieutenant. I've had charge all day, and, as luck would have it, a howling northeaster started which will blow all the machines and hangars away if it gets any worse. I have decided to sleep down here in the office, so that if anything happens, no one can say that I wasn't on the job. It's very lonely and frightfully cold down here; besides, the rain just drives right through the walls. I am going to have the guards wake me up when they take their posts, and make a tour of inspection with them all through the night to do all I can to keep the machines. I am responsible for two patrol boats. One of them is all knocked full of holes and about to sink. I am also having a man sleep next to the telephone at the barracks to make sure that all calls are answered, and I have even gone so far as to get a telephone man down here at this time of night to make sure that the telephone works. If anything happens, I won't be to blame. . . .

Again I write from the hangars, and again I'm officer in charge and again it's blowing cats and dogs. I must tell you a peculiar thing about last Monday. After I had finished my letter to you, I went up into the watch tower and turned the searchlight on the boats and machines. As I started to climb down the ladder which comes up under the eaves of the roof and is hard to find, I slipped on the wet roof. When I came to I was lying in the mud and water and it must have been fully an hour later; the funny part of it was that I didn't hurt myself a bit, and didn't feel any after-effects whatsoever. I did have a bump on my head. I must have struck my head on the roof and fallen perfectly limp. It was a very funny night.

 p214  October, 1917

My orders are scheduled to arrive in six or seven days from now. I shall probably sail from New York and will be given five days before sailing. At present there are not enough instructors here and I have been putting in six or seven hours a day in the air which is twice too much. I am getting tired of water machines and long for the time when I shall be flying fast scout machines. I had a glorious ride with Stinson, the great American flyer, a week ago. I told him I had never been in a land machine and that I wanted to loop, tail-spin, stall, do flipper turns, and fly upside down. He balked a little about the tail-spin, because he said they were dangerous, but I insisted and we started. He was bent on making me sorry for it, too. He showed me how to loop, and I did it four times; then he showed me a tail-spin, and I did three more which nearly set him crazy, after which I don't know what happened. He did every wild trick known to man, and when I came down I felt as though I had been turned inside out and back again about five times.

A bird's‑eye view of the station and of the members of the Unit attached thereto, shortly after they joined, is presented by Dr. McAlpin in a letter to Colonel Thompson. It is banged out on the Doctor's Corona which is tame enough to eat out of his hand, and emits news and complimentary phrases in the most fluent manner. Incidentally the Doctor has absorbed the Navy style of correspondence. He simply can't help it.


O. U. doc

2 woofs

U. S. Naval Aviation Detachment

N. O. B. Hampton Roads

Norfolk, Virginia

October 10, 1917

From: Lyttle Dok.

To: The Big Colonel.

Subject: We sure wish you were here.

1. Well here we are 'Corona' and all. And things are rapidly shaping up under the gentle influence of The Loot. At present we have no Quarters assigned and have to live in town. We live in a hotel and are really very comfortable, but have a rather  p215 hurried breakfast at Childs every morning at about 6.30, then hop in the Reads' Marmon and beat it for the base which is about 10 miles from town. We get lunch here and return to town for dinner which is the meal of the day. We are called at 5.45 and according to my views that is too early for an officer and a gentleman to leave his couch, that is during the winter months.

2. It was good to get back to these boys. Lt. McDonnell was sent here to straighten things out a little. I don't know what the trouble was but Lt. Cecil was not getting the right sort of work out of the crowd, just why I don't know. The boys were dissatisfied and there was no 'pep.' One difficulty was the scarcity of machines and good mechanics. This is all being changed, largely due to the arrival of Lt. McD. shortly followed by Chris, Miller, 'Smoke' Rhoades,º Morgan, Blottner, and Toivonen. The flying hours have gone up from less than ten to over seventeen, and two N‑9s arrived this morning. We are having a Nor' East storm so all hands are unpacking.

3. A Lt. Masek from Pensacola arrived here the other day to help with the work. He is rather a shark on the theory, etc. Harry D., Curt and Bart R. and Ken MacLeish are still here and with the exception of Ken all are happy and I think satisfied with the job. Ken is still hoping to get orders to go over.

4. There are about 40 students and as a crowd they are all right. Our old boys are inclined to think they are in some respects below par. This is I think because of the wonderful standard set by the 'only original.'

5. I am afraid we were all completely spoiled last winter. You said you wanted the most efficient unit in the country and you had it. The fact that the efficiency was almost wholly due to you must be a continual source of gratification. I want you to know it is always a keen source of pleasure for me to recall the time I spent working and living with you. Get down and see us if you can.

Always sincerely yours


The 'Little Doc' was not the only one who felt homesick for a sight of the Colonel. The evidence in the case is a formal document officially forwarded and endorsed almost to death.

 p216  In reply refer to

U. S. Naval Aviation Detachment
Naval Operating Base, Hampton Roads, Virginia
Commandant's Office

To: Col. L. S. Thompson (Ret.)

Subject: Orders to report for duty.

1. Report to the Commanding Officer of the Naval Aviation Detachment, Naval Operating Base, Hampton Roads, Va., for such duty as may be assigned you at that place.

2. This employment on shore duty is required by the public interests.

E. O. McDonnell

1st Endorsement.

1. Approved and forwarded.

K. R. McAlpin

Asst. Surgeon U. S. N. R. F.

2nd Endorsement.

1. Approved and forwarded.

Curtis S. Read,

Ensign U. S. N. R. F.

3rd Endorsement.

1. Approved and forwarded.

H. P. Davison, Jr.

4th Endorsement.

1. Approved and forwarded.

R. B. Read

Ensign U. S. N. R. F.

5th Endorsement.

1. Approved and forwarded.

K. MacLeish

In Dr. McAlpin's letter mention is made of Kenneth MacLeish as unhappy and impatient to get abroad. In a way, this was true, although he was faithfully doing his duty and making an excellent record. He had learned that he was listed for foreign service, but there was a delay in his orders which he could not understand. It was  p217 due to a blunder in forwarding mail to him. Late in October he was able to sail, and a letter written to his parents at that time displays the burning intensity and self-consecration with which he offered himself to his country. This spirit will be found burning with a flame even brighter in letters quoted later in this history. His comrades had it in their own souls, but they lacked his gift of expression and were silent because of that sensitive reticence that, as a rule, locks the lips of Youth. Kenneth MacLeish was their spiritual interpreter. From Hampton Roads, he wrote:

It seems as though I were continually thanking you for one thing or another and not doing anything in return. Anyway, I shall try to make you proud of me when I get my chance over there. Oh, it's such a wonderful sensation to feel that at last I have my chance. It is here, and I either must take it or leave it. It is a fine, big chance — the chance of a lifetime and of a life. It's made me more mature, though I don't show it yet. It's so wonderful to play a game with such tremendous odds and to have real honor as a reward. The price of failure is too awful to think about. All I can say is that I am happier than I have ever been, though I hate to leave mother and father. It seems they've made too great a sacrifice in giving three sons. . . .

Through the autumn, the station increased in numbers and efficiency. Lieutenant McDonnell, besides his administrative duties, was instructing in radio, signalling, and seaman­ship. The training school was spending as many hours in the air as the weather permitted. It was the blustery season for flying. Therefore when the day was fair, the crews were up and away with the crack of dawn and kept the machines going for seven or eight hours between then and sunset. The personnel was excellent, the enthusiasm high. The station was rapidly turning out qualified aviators with commissions as ensigns. The reports showed, that at this time, Hampton Roads led all other stations in the aggregate of flying hours. Experimental  p218 work was side-tracked in favor of training as many pilots and observers for active service as possible.

In November, Lieutenant McDonnell was transferred to Washington, Lieutenant Commander P. N. L. Bellinger succeeding him. As winter came on and bitter cold and ice prevented flying, the students were sent south to Pensacola. Hampton Roads received a thousand enlisted men to be trained as mechanics, carpenters, and general aviation work. A few of the officers were used as instructors, but most of this routine was given over to chief petty officers of the regular service. The duties of the officers otherwise engaged were various and rather vague. They studied, lent a hand in the classes, and fitted in as best they could. It was a tedious winter for them.

Harry Davison was one of these handy men. During the fall season he had enjoyed his billet as flight commander. All hands were as keen as mustard, it was inspiriting to be with Eddie McDonnell again, and the results were gratifying. When the weather improved, in early spring, the station resumed its outdoor energies. Instead of giving first place to instruction, however, the policy was changed. It was almost wholly experimental — testing out many types of seaplanes, flying-boats and motors.

Harry Davison was made the experimental flight commander. In his air fleet were all the different bags of tricks, old and new, H‑boats, Aero-Marines, Standards, Hispano-Suiza, N‑9s, Sopwiths, and other brands, as fast as they were designed and put together. The program included experiments with bombs, radio apparatus, and machine guns. The most effective work of this kind was done in testing radio devices and learning to handle the H‑boats. Harry Davison's specialty was flying these machines under the eagle eye of Dave McCulloch who had been sent to Hampton Roads for the purpose of trying them out.

 p219  Instruction was not altogether neglected. Two flights were carrying on training work and the force of officers had been steadily increasing. On May 1st, Harry Davison was ordered to Washington as an assistant to Lieutenant McDonnell who, by this time, was assembling and shipping the vast amount of material required for the ambitious plans of the Northern Bombing Group. Together with four other officers, Harry followed this stuff in detail, from the bureau desks, through factories widely scattered over the country, to the wharves at Philadelphia. Within two months' time 90 per cent of the material was ready to be packed into the steamers' holds. It was a feather in McDonnell's cap, but he handsomely credited his staff with a large share of the undertaking.

Curtis and Bartow Read were able to escape from Hampton Roads for duty overseas on November 7, 1917, a fairly brief delay. They had turned to with the others as instruction officers and in helping to pull the station together. Bartow gives generous credit to his brother and 'Ken' MacLeish as 'winning the respect and friendship of the students and working with them exceedingly well.' It amuses him to recall that Eddie McDonnell carried on a sort of private war with the marine guard. These leather-necks seemed to feel that they were the admiral's personal aides and made themselves annoying in many ways.

As officer of the day [says Bartow] it happened to be my job to see that a guard of bluejackets protected our gasoline supply, and to try to find out why so much of it vanished. The marines were supposed to attend to this duty, but we were losing our gasoline.

While I was changing watches in the night, I managed to get myself and four sailors arrested by the haughty marines who insisted that their orders came from the admiral's office and they didn't propose to be monkeyed with. They backed up their argument with a Colt 45. Honestly the hole in the barrel of  p220 that gun looked as big as a railroad tunnel. We were marched to the C. O.'s office where the sergeant of the guard came down to look us over. It was quite humiliating, especially after I learned that an officer of the day should never submit to arrest under any circumstances.

Lieutenant McDonnell promptly brought charges against the sergeant of marines in charge of the guard and was vigorously upheld by Rear Admiral Dillingham. As the result, the sergeant and one or two privates were sent away from the naval base, escorted by armed bluejackets, to the marine barracks at the Portsmouth Navy Yard with recommendations for court-martial. This was shortly followed by the general exodus of the marine guard from the Hampton Roads base and their replacement by bluejackets. This served to soothe the ruffled feelings of Bartow Read and incidentally to restore Eddie McDonnell to his accustomed suavity. 'The Marines had landed,' but on the wrong man.

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