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Chapter 1

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 3
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

Vol. I
Chapter II

Trubee Converts his Parents

Returning to his college in September, 1915, Trubee proceeded to organize himself in behalf of the American Ambulance. As might have been expected, his efforts were successful. He was endowed with the gift of leader­ship, to begin with, and the summer in France had brought him into direct contact with the war. It was no longer hearsay. He knew what he was talking about. Most of us can remember how eagerly we listened, in those days, to any one who had come from overseas, whose personal impressions served to vivify the censored columns of the daily press.

Undergraduate committees were appointed. Speakers who had seen active service in France were invited to New Haven. Trubee's room was a publicity office and Ambulance headquarters. Here was something concrete and practical to accomplish while the United States was making up its mind whether to go into the war or stay out. A new ambulance section was recruited for service in the Vosges, and the necessary funds raised. These Yale volunteers planned to sail for France at the end of the college year, with Trubee Davison in charge of the section.

June of 1916 found him at Gales Ferry with the crews. In training for the position of crew manager, he was busy with the details of the job. He records that a 'lot of the present Unit were at the crew quarters, not all of them in the capacity of oarsmen but as waiters and so on. I was a beer tender, for one everything, and I know I handled numerous big barrels of beer.'

 p12  Such a statement startles the present writer who served his time on the Yale crew in the dim and ancient era of the early nineties. One barrel of ale sufficed the squad for a three weeks' sojourn at New London, and there were mighty men in those days. Let us assume that Trubee and his fellow slaves were sweating over those numerous barrels of beer for the benefit of an invasion of thirsty heelers, mostly old grads who had dropped in to look the crews over and spill expert criticism to which nobody paid very much attention.

To the toiling oarsmen and their satellites, all intent upon the race with Harvard, came the sensational news that war with Mexico seemed actually impending. The lid had blown off. The border had been in a state of turmoil since March when Pancho Villa had raided Columbus, New Mexico, killing seventeen Americans. A punitive expedition of 12,000 regular troops, led by General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Pershing, had trailed him into the mountains of old Mexico without success. The resentment of Carranza's Government, the repeated raids and skirmishes, made the tension more and more acute until on June 19th, President Wilson called to the colors the militia of all the States. At the same time a strong fleet of war‑ships was ordered to sail for Vera Cruz.

Compared with the war in Europe this was a side-show, but it created intense interest and excitement among Yale undergraduates. In the fall of 1915 the Yale Artillery Battalion had been organized, at the request of the War Department, for the purpose of training officers. Captain Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Danford, U. S. A., was detailed as instructor and commandant. Without an armory, lacking horses and equipment, he was greatly handicapped, but he enrolled four hundred men who faithfully reported for drills. The battalion owed its success to Captain Danford's ability and admirable personality.

 p13  It was turned out for active service in June, 1916, when the National Guard was mobilized. Instead of being rushed to the Mexican border, the young artillerymen were sent into training camp for the summer at Tobyhanna, Pennsylvania. It was not a thrilling experience. Much of their time was spent in nursing sick horses and burying dead ones. The battalion was later converted into the Reserve Officers' Training Corps of Yale University and was the foundation of the war organization which transformed the campus into a military school.

The oarsmen at Gales Ferry were more or less marooned during the excitement when the artillery battalion was mobilizing for the conquest of Mexico. However, the issue of the Harvard race was overshadowed. A number of them had been expecting to sail for France as members of the Yale Ambulance Section. These plans were disrupted. How best could they serve their own country?

This was the chief topic of argument at the training table, on the shaded lawn, and in the boat-house down beside the river. Beyond what Trubee Davison could tell them, they knew very little about the air service, and his information was sketchy. He had met some aviators in France. The United States was bound to need men trained in flying. The country had not waked up to the immense importance of this branch of the service. The rumpus with Mexico might offer an opportunity to get into the game. It meant a mobilization of the military forces, a change of policy from the attitude of watchful waiting, neutrality, and unreadiness.

Trubee was reminded of his compact with Bob Lovett. He sent a telegram to this competent young man who hot‑footed it to Gales Ferry. They agreed that now was the time to start something. The compact was enlarged to include several of their friends at the crew quarters who were eager to take up aviation. Among these were  p14 Albert Sturtevant, Allan Ames, Erl Gould, Cord Meyer, Seth Low, Francklyn Lawrence, and Charlie Wiman. The First Yale Unit was in process of incubation. A difficult egg to hatch, but they had the sublime confidence of youth! They talked until the wonder was that the crew men had breath enough left to pull an oar.

Learning to fly was not the most immediate phase of the problem. Parental consent loomed in the foreground as an obstacle requiring almost superhuman tact, diplomacy, and persuasiveness. In the homes of these aspiring aviators the announcement was certain to explode with the effect of a bomb. In the popular opinion a man who went up in an aeroplane was flirting with sudden death. It was spectacular suicide, or almost as bad as that.

This was likely to embarrass the earnest pioneers at Gales Ferry, as they were bright enough to perceive. Before they spread the general alarm it might be advisable to gather a few facts about aviation at first hand. This would make their eloquence sound more convincing. Lovett was therefore told to proceed to Mineola and investigate the flying field. He was to saturate himself with information and submit a report. His impressions lacked detail, as it turned out. He found an old Curtiss machine with a single motor and two propellers. It flew in a very leisurely manner when it felt so inclined. About all Lovett had to submit was that you had to be darned careful in handling one of the things or you were liable to break your fool neck.

As the instigator of the enterprise, Trubee Davison decided that it was for him to take the initiative. Nothing could be done until he had obtained the approval of his own father and mother. More than this, he felt implicit confidence in the soundness of their matured judgments. If they should be convinced that this idea would serve the country's needs, they would not hold their two sons  p15 back, no matter what risks they ran. And their approval would go far to persuade other anxious parents.

Mr. Davison had gone to Canada to fish for salmon and was lost in the wilderness, beyond reach of speedy communication. His heavy burden of cares laid aside for a brief respite, he little knew what a surprise party was in store for him. It happened, therefore, that Mrs. Davison had to play the rôle of shock-absorber. A message from Trubee caused her to hasten from Peacock Point to New London. He had cancelled his passage to France with the Ambulance section and was eager to organize an aviation unit. Would she please listen to what he had to say?

It could not be said that Mrs. Davison was flustered. She was too well-poised and courageous for that. And Trubee's opinions were worth hearing, as a rule. Aviation did sound flighty, in every sense of the word, but it was wise to suspend judgment. This interview between mother and son was of vital importance to the First Yale Unit. If she had impatiently dismissed the scheme as impossible, it might have ended then and there. But she knew better than that. The ardent, unselfish interest of these young men was too precious a thing to be rebuked or ignored.

It was her sensible verdict that they ought to find out more about aviation before the matter could be decided either way. Meanwhile she was open to conviction. This was more auspicious than Trubee and his charter members had dared to hope. If Mrs. Davison could be won over, they were sure of an active friend and partner.

Very promptly this admirable mother began a quest for expert advice. The first name to occur to her was that of John Hayes Hammond, Jr., a friend of the family, whose researches and inventions in the field of wireless energy had made him internationally famous. He had displayed a lively interest in aviation and was one of the  p16 governors of the Aero Club of America. Mrs. Davison made an appointment with him.

His endorsement of the idea of a Yale flying group was most cordial. It would be an example and a stimulus. Congress and many high officials of the Army and Navy seemed indifferent to the lessons of the war in Europe. The aviation service, small and wholly inadequate, was over­looked and neglected. Mr. Hammond explained that he had assisted Rear Admiral Robert E. Peary in working out a program for an aerial coast patrol. The stations were to be about a hundred miles apart, extending from Maine to the Gulf of Mexico. The system would form the first or outer line of coast defense.

Each station would have twelve trained men as the unit, four pilots, four observers, and four anti-aircraft gunners. The planes were to scout seaward, as far as their cruising radius permitted, every station a connecting link in the coastal chain. This was a bold conception which was later to be adopted in the war against Germany. At the Armistice eleven such stations were in operation along the Atlantic coast. However, as Trubee Davison remarked, after Mr. Hammond had aired his views:

'We didn't care particularly about this observer stuff or anti-aircraft gunnery, but we wanted to get under way and learn to fly. Every fellow was dead anxious to spend as much time in the air as possible. That was the stunt we were keen about. The rest of it could be worked out later.'

Admiral Peary had become absorbed in the development of aerial defense and was devoting much of his time to lecturing and writing about it. He had the scientific imagination to foresee the employment of bombing squadrons on a vast scale to invade distant territory and destroy the lives and property of civilian populations. There was a tendency to pooh-pooh him as an alarmist  p17 but he was merely a little ahead of his time. Getting in touch with him, Mrs. Davison and Trubee were strongly encouraged to proceed with the plan as the initial unit of the Aerial Coast Patrol.

Mr. Hammond had advised consulting with Mr. Henry Woodhouse as a man to contribute practical information. What to do and how to do it was the problem. Mr. Woodhouse was then the leading spirit in the Aero Club. He was full of the subject, fairly boiling over with it. His friends said he talked aviation in his sleep. Mr. Woodhouse was only too glad to oblige. Invited to Peacock Point, he fairly swept his audience off its feet and brushed aside every obstacle. The authorities in Washington would welcome the Yale Unit with open arms. He would do everything in his power to coöperate. As good as his word, he proved to be a very useful ally.

The next step in this preliminary survey was to find equipment and instruction for these volunteer airmen. In this they were singularly fortunate. Conveniently near on Long Island Sound was the station and flying school of the Trans-Oceanic Company, at Port Washington. This belonged to Rodman Wanamaker, who had been one of the first Americans to visualize the possibilities of aviation in a large way. It had appealed to him as a commercial venture — flying-boats large enough to cross the Atlantic. His America had been designed and built for this purpose. It had failed for lack of horse-power and facility of control. The idea was born too soon.

In charge of the hangars and training school at Port Washington was an experienced pilot and mechanic, David H. McCulloch, an old hand at the game. He had been flying since 1910 and had seen active service in the Great War as a pilot with the Royal Air Force of Italy. Both skillful and cautious, he had the knack of imparting his knowledge to his pupils. It was a rare stroke of luck  p18 that 'Dave' McCulloch happened to be available. Although he didn't know it at this time, he was to be intimately identified with the history of the First Yale Unit. Alas, he had never learned to fly out of bed in the morning. His education as an aviator had stopped short of this. He had to be pried out or coaxed out by means of breakfast held under his nose. Otherwise he was excellent.

At Port Washington he had one flying-boat in commission. This docile, long suffering craft was later dubbed the Mary Ann. Battered but staunch, she shared the fortunes of the Unit as long as it was kept together. To this day they mention the Mary Ann in terms of endearment. Seldom has one of her sex suffered so much rough treatment and survived to fight another round. When the doctors gave up, all she asked was to be patched again and fed with gas and oil.

Of course Trubee and the two or three comrades who had come home from Gales Ferry with him fairly haunted this private air station at Port Washington. Hawsers could not have dragged them away from it. They made the acquaintance of faithful Mary Ann and found Dave McCulloch most beguiling. They ascertained that it might be possible to take over the entire outfit from the Trans-Oceanic Company. And until then instruction could be had at the rate of one dollar a minute.

Meanwhile Mr. Henry P. Davison was peacefully catching salmon in the Canadian wilderness. He supposed that his two sons, Trubee and Harry, were to sail for France the next day after the Harvard race. He had bidden them good‑bye. He was adjusted, as you might say, to the dangers of the American Ambulance Service at the front. Other fathers were permitting their sons to go the same road and were proud of them.

After some delay, a telegram found its way to this unsuspecting fisherman. His sons had changed their minds.  p19 They desired to become aviators instead of ambulance drivers. Everything was beautifully arranged and he was not to worry, or words to that effect. The wording of this telegram had cost laborious effort. It was intended to be lucid and convincing, with no jolts in it. His Canadian guide was too discreet to remember what Mr. Davison said when he read it. Having composed himself, he composed a reply which said, in substance:

Have you all gone crazy? Don't let Trubee touch aviation until you hear from me.

Relieving his feelings to this extent, Mr. Davison followed the telegram as rapidly as he could emerge from the woods and find a railroad station. He was bound through to Locust Valley. Framing ultimatums helped him pass the time. In Vermont his train was delayed by a freight that had jumped the track. This strained his patience severely, so he sent another telegram to explain his slow progress and to repeat the command that nothing should be done without consulting him. The inference is that he knew his own family and feared that their well-known initiative might run away with them.

He was unaware that the patriotic conspirators at Peacock Point awaited his arrival in breathless suspense and trepidation. They had not dreamed of committing themselves to anything without his approval. To submit the information and to try to 'sell him the idea,' as Trubee put it, was the intention. The stage was set for this purpose. Luckily for Mr. Davison, the Canada woods had renewed his vigor. He was in trim for a battle or a siege.

Trubee went over to Greenwich in a launch to meet his father. The young man afterward confessed that he was 'half scared to death,' and lost his nerve entirely. He did not even mention aviation, but talked all around the  p20 subject. Reading his son's mind, Mr. Davison concealed his own amusement and wore a very serious mien. To Trubee it seemed a long ride across the Sound.

It had been artfully arranged that Dave McCulloch should fly the Mary Ann from Port Washington and alight near Peacock Point. This would show Mr. Davison how absurd it was to feel any anxiety about motoring in the air instead of on the water. The reliable Mary Ann came booming along, swooped down, and gracefully came to rest like a huge bird. It looked perfectly safe and easy. Mr. Davison refused to turn his head to look at the flying-boat. The stunt was wasted. Trying to put one over on him, were they, he may have said to himself. He was not to be cajoled as easily as this.

Trubee felt more nervous than ever. He had played his first card and lost. However, there were others in the deck. Mr. Henry Woodhouse was a guest at Peacock Point and John Hayes Hammond, Jr., had stopped over on his way home from Washington to Gloucester. Harry Payne Whitney came breezing in from Mineola. He had decided to stake a few aviators himself. Already Seth Low, Cord Meyer, and Charlie Wiman had been invited to his country place and were learning to fly a land machine.

Mr. Davison had a sense of humor. He perceived that Trubee and his mother had not been idle. Well, a conference would not dismay him. He was used to them in his Wall Street office. He was perfectly willing to have the case presented and he would base his decision upon the facts. It was one of his noble attributes that in a matter so vital to his own happiness as this, he could lay aside his personal feelings and make his decision impartially. Was it right for these boys to go into aviation and was it practicable? Convince him of this and he was a man to stand behind it heart and soul.

 p21  When Mr. Davison went to New York in his yacht Skipaki, on the day after reaching home, he carried along Mr. Woodhouse and John Hayes Hammond, Jr. This was to be the final discussion. All signs pointed that way. At the last moment Trubee rushed down to the pier to join the party. He simply had to know. The suspense had been aging him rapidly. He promised to send word to his mother as soon as he could sprint to a telephone in Manhattan. The people at Peacock Point watched the clock and counted the minutes. To them it seemed as though the swift Skipaki must be creeping like a snail.

At last the message came through from Trubee who was so excited that he sputtered. His words stepped on each other but he managed to convey the glad tidings:

Father is converted.

It sounded like news from a religious revival! Three cheers! A war dance on the lawn! With Mr. Davison believing in it, the First Yale Unit was bound to win out. He inspired this sort of implicit reliance among all who were associated with him. A pledge once given, his loyalty was complete, his devotion undaunted by difficulties.

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