Short URL for this page:

[image ALT: Much of my site will be useless to you if you've got the images turned off!]
Bill Thayer

[image ALT: Cliccare qui per una pagina di aiuto in Italiano.]

[Link to a series of help pages]
[Link to the next level up]
[Link to my homepage]

[image ALT: link to previous section]
Chapter 19

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!


[image ALT: link to next section]
Chapter 21
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

Vol. I
Chapter XX

'Bill' Thompson's Hard Luck

Of the other members of the Unit for whom the Department decreed a sojourn at Hampton Roads, 'Bill' Thompson made his appearance by way of the Ground School of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This had been his first assignment after leaving Huntington. His injured leg had troubled him throughout the summer, but he had pluckily carried on and was hoping to be able to continue flying in spite of the disability. On August 13, 1917, Lieutenant McDonnell had reported from Huntington, to the Supervisor of the Naval Reserve Flying Corps:

It is recommended that Ensign W. P. Thompson, U. S. N. R. F., be ordered to appear before the Medical Board to determine his fitness to remain on active duty. This officer has stated to me that he does not believe he will be able to fly the larger seaplanes, and has even had some difficulty in the flying-boats. He has expressed his willingness, however, to do duty as an instructor in F‑boats wherever one is required. It is impracticable for him to crank the boat on account of lameness which was incurred before being enrolled in the Naval Reserve Force as a result of a fall while mountain climbing in the Alps. Since June 1st, this officer has been on leave almost continuously at a hospital and recuperating, and has found it necessary to make visits to his surgeon in New York.

This was why Ensign Thompson was assigned to ground duty. It was a bitter pill to swallow, but he gulped it down and tried to grin. At 'Tech' he found only three officers, including the C. O. and two hundred and fifty freshman aviators. He was made executive officer and held the berth for three months. How good he was  p222 cannot be learned from his own confessions. He hurls no bouquets at himself. He can be quoted as very bearish on 'Bill' Thompson as an executive officer. His friends insist, on the other hand, that he was much better than that. 'Tech' spoiled his temper for some time. To this day he grunts at the mention of it. He felt no great admiration for the C. O. and cherished dislike for another member of the staff who bore a name reverenced in a city where the Cabots speak only to Lowells and the Lowells speak only to God.

It was saved from being a mess by the devoted competency of the dean and faculty of 'Tech' and the zeal of the student officers who took the initiative. Discipline was left almost entirely to the student Flight Commander of the Senior Flight who reported to ensign Thompson at least three times a day and whose suggestions were usually issued as station notices of orders with the Executive's name and that of the C. O. attached to conform with 'Mo. 1379‑17' of the naval regulations.

Ensign Thompson, having looked it over, concluded that this was no place for him. He was honest enough to announce to himself that he didn't feel up to the job. It was too badly snarled and he had neither the age nor the experience to untangle it. Again we must suspect that he had too poor an opinion of his own capabilities. At any rate, he shoved in a request for a transfer and followed it with several earnest encores.

When the Department condescended to listen, he was told to move on to Hampton Roads. This was more congenial, but he remarks, with a sigh:

'Eddie' McDonnell got even with me by making me supply officer, a job even worse than the previous one. I stayed there for a month, living in Norfolk with Harry, Jake, and 'Liv' Ireland. During the day I counted cotter pins, stove bolts, monkey wrenches, etc., and tried to fathom a means of obtaining  p223 a lock washer, 516″, without corresponding in quadruplicate with the Bureau of Yards and Docks in Washington. I must admit complete defeat. In the evening we went to the movies and called on some of the village queens.

On December 15th, while helping to haul an R‑6 up the runway I injured my leg so badly that an operation was necessary and three days later I left for New York.

I was on inactive duty from then until the first of September, 1918. During this time I spent the greater part of each week in Boston with the doctor, getting home over the week-ends where I did quite a large amount of flying in land machines. I also did some interesting work with a gun camera which, although never successful, took some pretty fair pictures. Towards the end of August I went to Washington where my orders for immediate duty with the Northern Night Bombing Squadron were requested from the Bureau of Navigation. These orders however were soon cancelled and I had to return to Washington as the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery was hot on my trail. In some way I managed, with the help of some of the officers at Hampton, to get a statement from Admiral Braisted saying that I was physically qualified for duty in the Naval Air Service. I was then re‑assigned to Hampton. Upon my arrival I was made Aide for Personnel of the Flying School under G. G. Depew, who was then Flight Superintendent. Finding that both Depew and the mechanics could get on far better without me I spent a large part of the time pursuing the furtive U‑Boat. On all these patrols, with one exception, I acted as Second Pilot and Navigation Officer. We had many interesting experiences, none of which however can compare with those of some of the others.

The machines that I went in were of the H‑12 type, built by Curtiss. In some ways they were very remarkable machines, but are decidedly impractical as far as deep sea patrolling is concerned. They are extraordinarily stable and easy to fly when the weather is calm. One day I sat without goggles or helmet, looking about for whales and boats for thirty-five minutes, and I never touched a control except for occasional pressure on the rudder bar. I have been out in them for just under seven hours at a stretch, and in all the time I flew them I never had one of the motors go bad.

About the middle of September, Depew was made Executive Officer and I moved up with him as Personnel Officer for the  p224 entire station. Alex Strong was made Aide for Operations and John Vorys was made Aide for everything else. During this period John did everything from trying to discover whether the negro waiters ate the officers' dinners to commanding the station. In one week I believe he was a Patrol Pilot, Squadron Commander, Executive Officer and acting C. O.

But the genius of that office was certainly Ganson Depew, who deserves and gets the greater part of the credit in making Hampton the best patrol station the Navy had. His organization plan was sent out by Washington to all other patrol stations, here and abroad, with orders to put it into effect immediately.

Under the C. O. came Depew. In the Executive Office were Strong, Vorys and myself. Depew sat up at the end of the room next to the stove and was boss.

Strong, his Aide for Operations, had under him two divisions of the flying school — patrol and experimental, and all the operations connected with the flying and repairing of the machines. I had charge of all the enlisted personnel; their records, leaves, discipline, etc. Incidentally it took seven husky yeomen seven days a week to keep the records up to date. Vorys took care of all the rest.

The Experimental Squadron was practically a unit in itself. They had their own machines, pilots and mechanics. Very few people bothered them and they hardly ever bothered us. During the day they were always tearing around the bay, supposedly and probably conducting valuable experiments.

The Patrol Squadron was divided into three flights of pilots and two shifts of enlisted men, night and day. One flight of pilots was on duty, one standing by for emergency and one on liberty. These flights naturally rotated daily and were under the supervision of the Senior Pilot who was directly responsible to the Aide for Operations in the Executive Office. The enlisted personnel of the whole station was divided into port and starboard watches. One week the watch would take day duty and the following week night duty. The watch on day duty during the week could go on liberty every evening and Saturday night and Sunday. On Sunday night they would return as night shift for the following week.

As far as the actual patrolling was concerned I am sure that Vorys can give a much better account than myself. Three  p225 patrols of two H.S.‑2's each, left at a few minutes before dawn every morning. They patrolled for about four hours, until just before the Armistice, when these patrols would go north to Chincotagueº where they would receive gas and oil, returning in the afternoon to Hampton. Another patrol would do the same only go south to Morehead City, North Carolina. At about ten in the morning the big boats went out and usually returning between three and four in the afternoon. Upon their return if there was any daylight left, two more H.S.‑2 patrols went out and patrolled until dark. In this way our area was covered at all times during the day. While the routine patrols were out there were always two twin boats standing by for emergency. Undoubtedly these emergency machines were the pride of the station.

An S. O. S. could be received in the main office, the position of the ship in distress determined, the courses completed and figured, and the orders written and sent to the pilots. In the meantime the machines had been started and everybody on board, and the second the orders were received they were off. It usually took slightly over three minutes from the time the S. O. S. was received to the time the machine left the water.

Our quarters were most luxurious. The buildings were the ones that were used during the Jamestown Exposition. The ground floor of every house had a dining room, library and kitchen and one bedroom. On the second floor there were four bedrooms, with three people in each room. The food was excellent, twelve of us having our own negro cook and two waiters.

The station routine was practically the same every day except for an occasional party to Lynn Haven, where we would eat at least ten dozen oysters apiece with several of our lady friends, who then became known as the famous Hampton oysterettes. Four of us in the Executive Office used to alternate in taking Sunday off and occasionally on a very dull, warm afternoon a little golf might be played at the Norfolk Country Club.

I received a medical discharge in the early part of January, 1919, when most of the complications regarding the discharge of the enlisted personnel after the signing of the Armistice had blown over. Here ends my brief and uneventful career in Naval Aviation. I had nearly three hundred hours flying in about twelve different types of machines, several spins and no crashes.  p226 My only claim to any distinction whatever was a gold chevron for hunting several wily U‑boats.​1

'Bill' Thompson has described the busy life led by John Vorys: To fill out the picture of the Unit at Hampton Roads, it is necessary to bring Vorys back from Felixstowe and his war flights in the big boats. He came reluctantly, of course, snatched out of the thrilling game that they were all so anxious to play. But his experience and advice were valuable as one who had been in a position to discard theory and look the facts in the eye. The North Sea was a hard school. It may have been noted that as a literary stylist, Vorys has a method of his own. If he should turn novelist, there would be no Pollyanna stuff in his.

About first of March [he tells us] I sailed for home, and after a week in Washington telling them how to win the war and being listened to, and showing them some really good navigation dope and being voted down, I was ordered temporarily to Hampton Roads to train the Whiting Unit and return overseas with them. Quite appropriately I reported on April Fool's day, 1918. The station was then in a daze, having been changed from training to experiment and then back again. 'Pat' Bellinger was the C. O., one of the nicest, bravest fellows that ever lived, but with not quite punch enough to put through a policy in the face of Washington which was too darned close by. 'Liv' Ireland was the real boss of the station at this time, but while he was always an enthusiastic, tireless, unselfish worker he lacked the experience to make a go of such a balled up place as this. Harry Davison was doing experimental work and breaking  p227 a heart in Norfolk. Dave McCulloch was at Hampton Roads, with two H‑12s and 19 Whiting pilots, including Alphy Ames, Lotta Lawrence, and Frank Lynch, all pawing the ground to get across the water. This was my pidgin. I could borrow Dave and the H‑12s from experimental work part of the time and have the pilots all the time. I gave lectures and hours for navigation, and how to catch submarines and inside dope on the war; and we had sub‑calibre aerial gunnery on the ground with a gadget I had made, and aerial bombery with some old Clark dummy bombs with a patent Vorys sight.

Then Flight Lieutenant Frank McGill came down and we went into partner­ship on the school. One ran the ground school in the morning while the other gave flight instruction, and vice versa in the afternoon. Of course we had some awful delays due to lack of material to keep the boats going and to the fact that most of the pilots were conversant with the habits of the staid N‑9 and nothing else. Also we had no equipment for advanced training. On the whole, however, our delays were only about a week behind the vacillations of Washington as to the plans for sending the outfit abroad.

I might have stood a chance of getting away at this time, but suddenly the German submarines appeared off our coast and we had to turn N‑9 instructors and students into patrol pilots right away, besides doing a mess of patrolling ourselves (we is Frank McGill and undersigned), so I couldn't break away then. Then came a rainy day with its subsequent re‑organization, and I was made division commander of the big boats (we then had six). This was the hardest work I ever did in the service. We had no spares at all, and were supposed to be doing patrolling, instruction and experimenting with these six boats. We got so that the men could change a radiator from a machine to another and patrol while number one was being gassed up. If a machine blew a crankshaft, as the Libertys had a habit of doing then, it was stripped to the chassis to patch up the ones that were flying.

We were short of men so we had only one watch, and night work was simply so much hard luck that came about four times a week. I remember working all night to repair the axle of a rotten truck that broke and left a six‑ton boat in the middle of the slipway. The blacksmiths were all in about four in the morning, so I took the sledge and was doing well until I felt  p228 sleepy and banged the helper on the wrist. Luckily I was so tired I couldn't hit him hard. 'Smoky' Rhoades was my right-hand man in the division, and right here let me say that he was the best enlisted man in the service and one of the most useful men in aviation. He was a terrific worker himself, ingenious and resourceful, a fine leader and could drive the other men when they needed to be shoved along. In the most trying circumstances he was so cheerful and funny that it was a blessing to have him around. Morgan, then a chief, was in the machine shop. He was a valuable man to the whole station and could build a truck or mend a watch with his trusty acetylene torch.

Things at the station were getting worse and worse. We were constantly given more to do and could not get spare parts, or new machines, or enlisted men or pilots. A favorite sport of the theoretical pilots at Washington was to spend a week‑end at Hampton Roads inspecting and taking joy‑rides and then to put in the first part of the week writing snotty letters to the poor distracted C. O. Hampton Roads was in a bad position geographically. It was very important as a patrol station to protect the second largest port of departure on the continent, yet being so near to Washington it was a continual temptation to H. Q. to try experiments in organization, construction, aerodynamics, training, and anything else. This is difficult for a patrol station.

Finally came the big shake‑up when Towers really looked into the thing and sent Ganson Depew as Flight Superintendent and 'Lou' Barin to take charge of experimentation. Both men had made reputations in the South and knew many of the crowd in Washington who, after all, were mostly exasperated flyers who wanted to fight instead of write. 'Gans' Depew was the man who made Hampton Roads in my opinion. An adept at paper work, diplomatic, yet a two‑fisted fighter, he gradually gained control of the whole situation. He evolved a plan that really embraced three or four stations in one — experimental, patrol, lighter-than‑air, and, until he could get rid of it, a flying school. Somehow he was able to start material and gobs and pilots coming our way, although, of course, by this time there was more to draw on. He persuaded the admiral of the district to leave us alone in matters connected with flying, after a trial of strength at a court of investigation. Also he sassed Captain Irwin and others with marked success.

 p229  All this was over the C. O.'s signature. The latter was glad to have some one with guts and ability to back him up. He gave Depew full swing and plenty of credit for what he accomplished. From then on the station took an upward slant and played a very useful part in Naval Aviation.

When 'Gans' Depew came, I left my beloved squadron and became a sort of aide to everybody for things in general for the rest of my time in the service. I was the only man on the station who had been overseas and done any war flying, and consequently I was the oracle on patrolling. I worked out a system of routine and organization for patrols, modelled somewhat after the British system. I showed the communications or intelligence officer how to make out patrol diagrams. 'Les' Jacobs and I invented the Vorys-Jacobs hardwood bomb sight which was used throughout the summer on nearly all the patrol machines. I wrote the reports connected with patrolling. I instructed the particularly green pilots turned out from the finishing school and made quite a lot of routine and special patrols. At intervals I filled every job on the station while its regular occupant was on leave or away, or not in existence, from pilot, division and squadron commander, flight superintendent (which I abolished in three days), ordnance, communications officer, up to executive and acting C. O. To polish it all off at the finish, I wrote a book on Hampton Roads after the Armistice and presided at a long drawn out court of inquiry which held me in the service an extra month.

This was how I conducted the war at Hampton Roads. None of my experiences would make the reader's pulse beat faster or leave him pop‑eyed. A crank shaft broke on me off the North Carolina coast and I spent a night on the bosom of the deep, with nothing to drink but water and nothing to eat but bread and beans and apples and sardines. A pilot's experience at that time was reckoned in busted crank shafts rather than hours.

I smashed an H‑12 trying to get away in a storm on a false submarine alarm and was commended for it, whether for busting the H‑12 or being an idiot I don't know. I was stuck for four days at the Marine camp on the Potomac until 'Smoke' Rhoades came and fixed up my machine. I did a side slip accidentally for four hundred feet going to Washington in an H‑12 and learned for the first time that these machines would come out of a side-slip. I had a student break the neck of a control  p230 yoke when we were up quite a piece, and that was when control yokes were scarce.

My motor caught fire once at two thousand feet and I came down the next thousand in nothing flat. Then my engineer put the fire out. Another time I flew about eight miles with the engineer standing on the wing, holding some waste where the oil sump drain cap ought to be. I once tore down the coast on an emergency call and arrived in time to see the most gorgeous fire I ever beheld, the tanker Merlo torpedoed and burning on a clear day. Spent an hour looking for the U‑boat and came home by moonlight. We had a great habit of staying out too late and then having to land by faith alone in the Roads. It was easy, except for buoys and stakes, and we knew where most of them were.

I had a swell trip as chauffeur to an ordnance inspection party of two in an H.S.‑2. We visited all the stations on the coast as far as Cape Cod, skimming the shore all the way and having a circus frightening bathers and cows. Coming home I flew into the worst storm that ever caught me. It blew fifteen knots N. W. I spent two weeks on temporary duty at Philadelphia just before and on Armistice Day, doing experimental flying in big boats and other seaplanes. Had some fine flights over the city during the Armistice celebration. Flew a Davis gun carrier and an F‑5 with geared Libertys that turned up 1000 h.p. It weighed 14,000 pounds and did 102 miles an hour and 55 slow, climbed 4000 feet in ten minutes, all a good performance for a big boat. I was able to pry myself loose from the service March 1, 1919, disappointed in the part I was able to take in the war, especially at Hampton Roads. Yet the emphasis placed by Admiral Sims on the importance of the convoy system, in which the Hampton Roads station played a considerable part, has consoled me for the time spent there and has made me a little proud of the station's record.​2

The Author's Notes:

1 From the Fitness Reports, Navy Department:

The above-named officer [Ensign W. P. Thompson] has done efficient work on this station as second H‑16 pilot on a good many patrols; navigation, flying and observation were very good, but was helpless in climbing around the machine in bombing, forced landing, etc. As Aide for personnel, in Seaplane Flying Department, he has been keen, enthusiastic and industrious, handling the work with tact and intelligence. He is anxious to prove himself ambitious to get ahead, and is always good-natured, willing and cheerful, altho under a constant physical handicap. It is recommended that he be retained in his present rank.

P. N. L. Bellinger, Lt. Cdr.,

N. A. S. Hampton Rds., Va.

[decorative delimiter]

2 From the Fitness Reports, Navy Department:

(Lieutenant John Vorys)

Is an excellent officer. As a flier, above the average. Is not especially suited to routine duties, but is of more value in original work. Good initiative and a high degree of intelligence. Has seen service both overseas and in this country. Would be very valuable in a training station due to his ability to grasp situations of an intangible nature. Well qualified for organizing duty and for development work.

P. N. L. Bellinger, Lt. Cdr.

N. A. S., Hampton Roads, Va.

[image ALT: Valid HTML 4.01.]

Page updated: 11 Sep 13