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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 20

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 22
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

Vol. I
Chapter XXI

Ireland's Job at Morehead City

Livingston Ireland was one of the few members of the Unit who commanded a naval air station. This honor fell to his lot after the Armistice and he was unable to get rid of it until July of 1919. It was a thankless task, in a way, with the war ended and the populace trying to forget it. The tumult and the shouting died and heroes were at a discount. Besides this, the station on the North Carolina coast was so far out of the world that even the Lord seemed to have over­looked it. In comparison, Erl Gould's billet at Key West was fairly metropolitan. However, Lieutenant 'Pat' Ireland played a poor hand well, made the most of what resources he had, and earned merit for himself and the Unit.

Ordered from Huntington to Hampton Roads on October 17, 1917, he had made his début in charge of erecting N‑9 planes. After three weeks of this, he became an instructor in an F‑boat which flew under the singular nickname of 'Windburg's Jewish Caproni.' Windburg was the mechanic, and this accounts for part of it. The 'Jewish Caproni' may have referred to a tendency to nose-dive.

Ireland instructed six hours a day, getting rid of the last pupil shortly before dark. Then he took Windburg up for a joy‑hop while the other machines were being run into the hangars. These two enthusiasts did stunts in the air until night came down. Then they let the Hebrew Caproni trundle up the runway under its own power and proceeded to secure the hangar as soon as the rest of them. They were a snappy pair who took kindly to flying, and the more of it the better.

 p232  Ireland's random notes have a flavor suggesting Palm Beach or Huntington:

I was one of the calisthenic leaders — could lead them all right but knew no drill commands. Ordered to take men for a run, came to a gate and found another group coming through. Did not know how to give proper commands, so ran to the head of my column and whispered to the front rank to follow me, and so led them off through the woods and eventually back.

The chief Sunday recreation was to go to Newport News and pay $1.00 a minute to fly with Carl Batts and Eddie Stinson and let them do acrobatics. I had my Mercer known as Maggie in which we went to and from the base. The schedule was to get up late, race to Childs, gulp breakfast, run to the garage, get Maggie, and beat it.

Dave McCulloch came to Hampton Roads for two weeks to fly pontoon machines and stayed six months or more. The first machine guns received had no ejected‑shell-containers. Dave and I had one made after our own design and took it out for a test. Found plenty of ducks and spent three hours shooting at them with machine guns. Then found it necessary to test minor improvements on our invention, to the discomfiture of the ducks, until the C. O. got wise to our game and put a stop to it.

On January 1, 1918, Ireland relieved Ensign Atwater as Beach Master and later organized a squadron of three divisions and became Squadron Commander. As such he was placed in charge of all flying instruction and activities. On May 8th he received a letter of commendation which showed that he was not always engaged in pursuits as enjoyable as potting ducks with a machine gun.

To Ensign Robert L. Ireland, U. S. N. R. F.:

The Department is in receipt of the official report of the accident to Seaplane 426 at Hampton Roads, about two miles east of Fort Wool, on March 13.

It appears from the report that Seaplane 426, when at an approximate height of 300 feet, fell and crashed into the water. Of the two occupants, Ensign M. Stevenson was able to extricate himself, but Ensign L. M. MacNaughton, in the rear seat,  p233 was helpless to free himself because of the buckling of the upper wing section over the cowl of the rear seat. You, with the other members of the party, landed near the wrecked plane, entered the icy water, swam to the wrecked seaplane, and rendered all possible assistance toward rescuing Ensign MacNaughton.

The Department feels very strongly that action of this kind is worthy of commendation, more so because of the difficulties under which you were compelled to work. Immersion, even for such a short period, in icy water while wrapped in heavy water-soaked clothing is in itself an exhausting experience, but willingly to have braved these conditions in attempting to rescue a fellow officer makes your action very meritorious and you are highly commended by the Department.

A copy of this letter will be filed with your official efficiency record.

Josephus Daniels

On May 29th, Ireland was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant (j.g.). Ganson G. Depew relieved him as Chief Flying Officer on July 15th and he was appointed as one of the three Flight Commanders in charge of the patrol pilots. Submarine alarms had given the sea patrol more importance than the instructional work, and Lieutenant Ireland spent many hours in coastwise and off‑shore flights during the summer of 1918, the convoy and patrol duty extending over a radius of 115 miles from Cape Henry.

On September 11th he received the order which plumped him down at Morehead City, North Carolina. There he wrestled with many difficulties. There were as many as four hundred men under him and one of the big problems was to keep them well and contented with inadequate equipment and a forlorn, lonely environment pretty far from everywhere. It was an uphill fight all the way through. The inspection report of Rear Admiral Ross contains the following facts:

Sick bay and dispensary very crude and unsatisfactory. Drugs in very insufficient quantity, kept in a small locker. No  p234 cubicles and no nurses. One Medical Officer who is on duty at the station at all times, one Pharmacist's mate, 2nd‑class, and three hospital corps‑men. There is no ambulance attached to the station, the only resort in case of serious illness, besides New Bern, thirty-four miles away, is the naval hospital at Norfolk. If a surgical operation is necessary, the patient is transferred to New Bern. . . . However, the health of the station is excellent.

The mess hall was found in an old warehouse belonging to the target range, which has been remodelled to fulfill, as far as possible, the requirements of the station. Heated by two small coal stoves, it was badly ventilated and badly lighted. The supply of galley facilities was very crude and entirely inadequate. . . .

When it came to the officer personnel, Admiral Ross could find such complimentary things to say as these:

Lieutenant R. L. Ireland, Jr., was the commanding officer and, with the able assistance of the officers and force on hand, he has certainly performed wonders. Unaided, they have erected one hangar, including the placing of the roof trusses, and it was reported that they would be able to complete the one in hand in six weeks if the present force is allowed to remain. . . . . I was very much pleased with the work of Lieutenant Ireland and his staff of officers.​1

 p235  Lieutenant Ireland was fairly bombarding the Navy Department with requests to supply his most urgent needs. It was one of those situations in which things would have been in apple‑pie order if the war had lasted a year or two longer. As commanding officer of the Morehead City air station, the heaviest part of Ireland's work came long after the Armistice. It was recognized by his promotion to the rank of Lieutenant on March 29, 1919.

His own story, as he tells it, is a very worthy contribution to the history of the First Yale Unit and illustrates the wide variety of responsibilities and experiences to which the members were assigned in the day's work:

In the process of establishing a chain of patrol stations along the Atlantic Coast, Morehead City was chosen as the connecting link between Hampton Roads and Brunswick, Georgia. It was the Department's plan to have a temporary six seaplane detachment fitted out and sent from Hampton Roads Naval Air Station with the least possible delay, and then to build a permanent twelve seaplane station in the same location.

On September 11th, 1918, I was sent to Morehead City in a seaplane, accompanied by the Hampton Roads paymaster, 'for the purpose of looking into the conditions relating to the establishing of the naval air station.' Upon my return, I made out my list of officers, men, and material necessary to put a six seaplane detachment in immediate operation and on September 16th went to the new job under the following orders:

You are directed to proceed to Morehead City, North Carolina. You are detailed as Officer in Charge of the Naval Air Station and will exercise your authority in this respect in the endeavor to establish temporary means for operating seaplanes from this station as soon as possible. The station at Morehead City will be operated as a sub‑station, under the Naval Air Station, Hampton Roads.

The site chosen, three miles south of the town, was the State Militia summer camping ground on a sound half a mile wide at that point and sheltered from the ocean by a strip of sand. Arrangements were made with the local hotel, once a famous summer resort but long since gone into a decline, to accommodate the personnel. The Texas Company agreed to furnish gasoline  p236 and oil and a boat was kept constantly ready for use in refueling. Two local Fish Commission boats reported for duty, and with the help of their crews and the six men who came as my first draft, work was begun on adapting the buildings of the Militia camp for use as a naval air station. With these six men came my police dog, 'Lord,' who was exploited by the local newspapers as Government dog trained for sentry duty and sent to help guard the buildings!

On the site were thirty buildings of various sizes and shapes, in care of a State custodian who lived in a bungalow, drew his pay and his breath, and did nothing else. By means of a letter from the Governor of North Carolina to Secretary Daniels, the Navy Department was given the unrestricted use of this Camp Glen.​a When the State custodian, however, feared that he might lose his bungalow and his job, he succeeded in delaying the work by insisting that we let the State buildings alone. I told him that the Navy had no intention of pulling his house or his soft berth out from under him. This calmed him, and he gave me written authority to do what I liked with the property, afterward he wandered off into the unknown on indefinite leave with pay.

About September 30th, Lieutenant Grant (C. E. C.), U. S. N. R. F., reported with orders from the Bureau of Yards and Docks to build the twelve seaplane station. Together we went over the ground and planned the station. All went well until the draft of artificers arrived. Grant wanted complete charge of these men, as he understood from Yards and Docks that they were being sent to him. As I was a line officer in charge of a naval detachment, I took charge. This mix‑up of authority, which delayed operations and caused hard feeling, was directly the fault of the Navy Department.

The construction of this twelve seaplane station should have been carried on through the Public Works Office of the Fifth Naval District and a conference should have been called between the line officer sent from Hampton Roads to command the detachment and the Public Works officer sent down under his jurisdiction to take charge of the construction. Instead of that, the Department instructed the Commandant to send a temporary six seaplane detachment from Hampton Roads and sent the Public Works officer directly to Morehead City to build the semi-permanent twelve seaplane station without  p237 reference to the detachment already on that site and without reference to the artificers' unit which was ordered to report to the officers in charge of construction. This tangle of responsibility caused a good deal of trouble and permitted passing the buck.

Due to the influenza in the town, I insisted that all the men live in the hotel and use the seaplanes for transporting them to and from the station. Because the hotel cooks were no good and the kitchen filthy, I arranged with the proprietor and detailed my own cooks. Until this time no medical officer had reported, although I had repeatedly wired and telephoned for one. I had one man who had reported for duty with influenza. About this time the influenza spread among the ship-builders in Morehead City, my medical officer arrived and, after consultation, we decided to move to the station.

The men were quartered in 15 × 48 ft. buildings with shutters only for windows. Light was supplied by lanterns and candles. The galley was equipped with one house-size cook stove and three open air fire pits. Cooking was done in five gallon lard cans. We were able to commandeer only sufficient mess gear to give each man either a plate, cup, or saucer or either a knife, fork, or spoon. Our supplies were never more than two meals in advance.

The men were restricted to the station in order to avoid association with the natives among whom the sick toll, before the epidemic ended, rose to sixty per cent. Among the personnel, which increased to four hundred, we had only ten cases of influenza of which number but five reported for sick duty. It was under these conditions that patrols were being carried on and the station built.

The work was further handicapped by the fact that shipments of portable buildings and tools arrived wrong end to. The roofs reached us first. We were therefore compelled to borrow and beg substitutes for the necessary tools wherever we could find them. To make matters worse, I was sent a young Reserve paymaster. Although he coöperated to the best of his ability, his lack of experience made him ineffectual. After frequent requests I was finally given a competent paymaster, but this man had so much of the previous work to straighten out that he was greatly hampered.

After the Armistice came the flood of requests for releases  p238 from active duty, and a general inclination on the part of the men to let down on the work. Having carried it along thus far, and hearing reports that it was doubtful whether the station could be continued, I made every effort to rush the work for fear that I might have to undo what had been done and restore things to please the State custodian.

On February 1st, 1919, the station was made an independent command, although up to that time the Commanding Officer at Hampton Roads had been giving me a free rein. I had learned, by hard experience, that the only way to accomplish things was to go to Washington in person. From this time on, I was busting in there at every opportunity and succeeded in obtaining men appointed and concessions granted by personal interviews in the bureaus concerned. Otherwise I should have been left in the lurch. Like all the other stations I was reluctant to release men, especially as I had to replace skilled artificers with aviator mechanics from overseas who were discontented and unsuited for the work in hand. It was only by means of the Knights of Columbus who supplied entertainments and equipped recreation rooms that I was able to keep the men halfway contented.

I endeavored to release and discharge men in accordance with the Secretary's orders, first on the grounds of dependency, second, to finish their education, third, for urgent business reasons, judging each case on its merits. This caused me no end of trouble, for it was very difficult to determine whether a man was honest in his claims or trying to run a bluff. I made use of the Red Cross, the city administration, and the bankers of the various towns where the men lived to verify the statements. This was the data I relied upon, although I was swamped with requests from Congressmen and other officials who pressed me to pay particular attention to certain cases. I was polite, or tried to be, but strictly impartial.

In February the station was visited by Rear Admiral Ross, the General Inspector of Training Activities. He made a very favorable report of the work accomplished. Later the station was visited by Captain Irwin, the Supervisor of Naval Aviation. I emphasized the needs of the station to both these officers, but obtained minor results.

Carrying out the Department's ideas of war games, I arranged as many long flights for the pilots as possible. Planes were sent in one instance as far south as Jacksonville. Two  p239 planes were sent also to the war games staged at Cape May. Bombing and gunnery exercises, radio experiments, and the training of carrier pigeons were carried on daily.

By June, 1919, the station was practically completed and the greater part of the machine shop and other equipment was ready to install. It was then that the Department decided to reduce the complement to twenty-five men who were to act as guards for the station and caretakers of the material. It was therefore necessary for me to clean up all unfinished work and put the station in ship-shape condition before transferring the excess personnel.

I sent in my request for inactive duty, dated June 21st, and on July 11th, I turned over the station to my Executive Officer and filed my orders of release from active service. I stopped at Norfolk to say good‑bye to the Commandant and his staff, and formally separated myself from getting on with the war at Morehead City, North Carolina.

The Author's Note:

1 From the Fitness Reports, Navy Department:

(Lieutenant Robert L. Ireland)

Period 1 April to 30 June, 1918:

This officer has shown a most whole hearted, complete devotion to duty. Due to his lack of former experience, on account of his youth, he has not developed sufficiently to warrant a recommendation for his advancement in rank at this time. He is a valuable man, and will give an excellent account of himself in any aviation assignment to which he may be ordered.

P. N. L. BellingerU. S. N. (Lt. Cdr.)

N. A. S., Hampton Rds., Va.

Period 30 September to 31 December, 1918:

The above officer has been in charge of the Morehead City detachment from Hampton Roads. The station has been operated as refuelling base and operating seaplanes on a small scale at same time the station has been under construction. His duties have been performed very creditably and he is recommended for promotion to Lieutenant.

P. N. L. BellingerLt. Cdr., U. S. N.

Thayer's Note:

a Properly, Camp Glenn; see North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program.

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