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Chapter 24

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 26
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

Vol. I
Chapter XXV

With the Second Yale Unit

The Second Yale Unit had found its original inspiration in the idea visualized by Trubee Davison. It, also, was fortunate in having a leader unusually gifted with the qualities of command. The recent death of Ganson Depew came as a shock to the members of the First Unit who mourned the loss of a valorous comrade-in‑arms. In these pages John Vorys has already complimented him as 'the man who made Hampton Roads and gained control of the whole situation there,' after proving his ability at Pensacola. Of the undergraduate unit which he organized and to which he contributed generous financial support, several members were men of mark in naval aviation overseas. And the First Unit is proud of the fact that in the area of combat its own records are interwoven with those of 'Eddie' De Cernea and 'Shorty' Smith.

John Farwell found his lot cast with the Second Unit, for a time, immediately after the exodus from Huntington. He joined them at Buffalo where a training camp had been set going. This location was chosen because the Curtiss plant was conveniently near. Lieutenant Wadley Capehart, U. S. N., who had been sent there as an inspector, was assigned to the command of the Unit after its enrollment in the Naval Reserve.

When John Farwell joined them, on August 28, 1917, there were twelve student aviators, with two F‑boats, three motors, and one mechanic. It is important to include the negro cook and two mascots. These were a Collie pup which displayed an enthusiastic interest in flying and a half-grown bear which was concerned with its own affairs.  p290 When the training routine became monotonous and the bear and the pup were allowed to mix it up, a good time was had by all.

The camp was not favorably situated. It was just beyond the city dumping grounds where Lake Erie flows into the river that a little further down tumbles over Niagara Falls. Flying conditions were difficult. The open lake was roughened, most of the time, by an irregular swell which bothered the F‑boats whose bottoms were too flat to be handled without bouncing. The only other water was a narrow basin between the dump and a breakwater. This was a cramped space for taking off and landing, and dangerous to inexperienced fliers who had not learned the tricks of the trade.

Notwithstanding the equipment of mascots, the station had played in hard luck. Right at the start the first machine in commission had crashed, killing the instructor and very badly injuring one of the students. The next instructor was kept, but he was sent elsewhere in August and replaced by an Englishman named Spratt who had seen service abroad. These changes made the training lag, and the summer was spent in getting the boys to the point where they could begin to solo.

With his long and thorough experience at Palm Beach and Huntington, John Farwell was in a position to discuss the training program and to take charge of the flying instruction. The conclusion was that the work would have to be speeded up as much as possible. The important thing was to enable the students to pass their tests and qualify for the commissions before cold weather should set in. This would mean closing down the camp and transferring the men elsewhere, to some other Government school as cadets, unless they could finish the course before then. And shifting about meant more delay and confusion in the education of an aviator.

 p291  This thrashed out, the station proceeded to set a pace that Farwell called fairly superhuman. Twenty-five hours in the air per man was stipulated, besides the lectures and textbooks; the whole stiff dose that 'Eddie' McDonnell had made the First Unit swallow. And for lack of mechanics, they had to repair and tune up their machines with which their acquaintance had been quite sketchy during the earlier months. In short, Farwell was passing on what had been so systematically rubbed into him. Lieutenant Capehart thought so well of Farwell that on October 3d he wrote to Lieutenant Earle Johnson, in charge of aviation personnel in the Navy Department:

This man is extremely valuable. When he gets through here, if you have anything open for a man to take charge of training, so far as theoretical work is concerned, I think he would be just the man. He is a good organizer, handles men well, has a very good head, has acquired good knowledge of the elementary theory of aeronautics, and his work is worthy of recognition. He deserves being put in charge of something, as he is quite capable of being in charge instead of acting in a subordinate capacity.

The spirit of the Unit was fine. To pass these tests was the one thing in life that mattered. The work eased up during the week-ends when various people in Buffalo entertained the aviators with a charming cordiality. In odd hours there were the frolicsome pup and the pugilistic bear to play with. When the autumns grew frosty and the ducks were flying, Farwell and one or two others tried shooting at them from an aeroplane. It was a novel and amusing stunt. They were careless with the empty shells of the shot-guns, however, which were thrown back into the propeller and might have made a complete ruin of these enterprising duck-hunters.

Another incident brought one woman in Buffalo very near to hysterics. Frank Goodyear was flying over the  p292 city at an altitude of five thousand feet. He was heading into a wind which blew about forty-five miles an hour up where he was. From the ground his machine seemed to stay in the same place. The telephone rang at the air station. A woman's voice, greatly excited, announced that an aeroplane was absolutely stuck in the air, high over her head, just hanging there helpless, and what in the world could she do about it? John Farwell advised her to be calm. If it came to the worst, the fire department would get him down with an extension ladder, or they could throw him up a rope.

The daily record of flying hours had notably increased. The Second Unit had swung into a gait which won the commendation of Captain Irwin when he came to inspect the station. The aviators were fearfully ragged at lining up and saluting, but such flaws were overlooked. This was not the only crowd that harrowed the feelings of a regular Navy officer.

There was only one flying accident during this period. De Cernea took off the water and tried a climbing turn, but he was not far in the air when the machine fell. Luckily the wing withstood the shock and the plane rolled over, De Cernea escaping with a ducking.

During the test, in November, one of them required climbing to five thousand feet and then landing within a hundred feet of a mark. It showed how inferior the machines were in design and speed. Two of the boys, Otis and Hawkins, were flying about in circles when they took what they considered to be a normal turn and fell into a tail-spin.

Supervising the tests was a naval commander who seemed to enjoy his visit at the station. His nerves were shaken, however, when young Clifford Rodman, who was a crack flier, came swooping down directly for the judge's boat to land so close that he almost scraped the paint  p293 from it. The commander was observed to crawl out from under one of the seats, admitting that the joke was on him. He was willing to pass Rodman as having an eye like a hawk.

With the class qualified and the work of the station finished, Farwell went to Pensacola on November 23d where he remained four months. Of the Second Unit, Depew, Goodyear, Rodman, McCormick, Otis, and Fuller had already gone to this station.

An inspection board from Washington had been stirring things up shortly before I arrived [says Farwell]. They had found an easy-going, good-tempered officer in charge who had let things take pretty much their own course all summer. There had been very little flying and the student force had done as it pleased, at the station and in the town. For this he was raked over the coals. As the result, he veered from laxity to the severest enforcement of the regulations, in all the annoying details of the discipline. There was trouble if a man's hair was cut more than a quarter of an inch long, and foolish things like that.

This alleged efficiency did not extend to the flying methods and routine, possibly because the officer and his assistant had never worked on planes or motors themselves and took it out in theory. They did not know, from practical experience, how an air station should be run. As a consequence, most of the work had been turned over to chief petty officers. These were good men, but years of Navy life in time of peace had slowed them down. The idea of moving faster during the War was not strong enough to overcome the more leisurely habits that had been soaking in during ten or fifteen years of service. They expected to begin work at nine in the morning and knock off about four in the afternoon.

Conditions were very much improved when Lieutenant Johnson came down from Washington. He brought with him a full head of steam and the determination to make the Pensacola station produce the goods. Things began to move in a spirited way. He divided the students into two squadrons of three flights each, after the English custom. In a short time the actual flying time and the number of students qualified were tripled. The Yale crowd were given all the authority they desired and  p294 the complete confidence of the new commanding officer. We contributed hard work and enthusiasm.

Later we had a Captain of the Yard which was something none of us had ever heard of before. Before the war he had been a captain of Militia and had never seen a flying machine. However, he showed a keen interest in our work. He found that various kinds of punishments had been dealt out to the students for disobeying flying instructions. One of them was 'beaching' (well known to the members of the First Yale Unit). The Captain of the Yard took an active interest in these cases and reviewed them himself.

In one instance a boy who took off too quickly with the wind left his machine at a stalling angle, and finally the machine came down on its nose with a terrific crash. The boy explained that the plane was underpowered, that he had done his best, had pulled it further and further back, but it simply did not have the power to fly and so came down. The Captain of the Yard overlooked the fact that it takes considerably more power to get off the water than to fly, so that if the machine could rise it ought to be able to fly. Human sympathy intervened to remit the 'beaching' sentence, on the ground that the boy had done his best. This amused the flying officers, but nobody argues with a Captain of the Yard, U. S. N.

Even a casual visitor at Pensacola would have noticed the difference after the Yale crowd had been there a month or two. The machines which had been idle on the beach were in the air or taxi‑ing back and forth. Crashes had been common. Now they were unusual. It seemed as though every other student had had his front teeth knocked out. This often happened when an N‑9 fell. The students were taught to use their common sense and judgment while in the air. The Second Yale Unit made itself felt at this station. It was there with bells on.

During this four months' tour of duty, Ensign Farwell served as Assistant Beach Master and Squadron Commander. He was having trouble about his eyesight and feared it might disqualify him for flying duty. On March 5th the Medical Officer at the Pensacola Station reported to the Commandant:

This officer was examined on December 14, 1917, for aviation  p295 duty involving actual flying and was found physically disqualified, owing to the fact that there was a marked defect in vision. He was again examined subsequent to his discharge from the Naval Hospital on February 11th with the same condition still existing.

While the above defect is fully corrected by lenses, I do not feel justified in requesting waiver, owing to the fact that the defect is so marked and requires such extreme correction.

However, if this officer's service can be utilized for ground duty, it is not believed that the above defect in vision would interfere.

The Commandant forwarded this report to the Navy Department with the following endorsement:

1. Ensign John V. Farwell, N. R. F. C., received his flight training with the West Palm Beach-Huntington Detachment, being one of the first naval aviators of the N. R. F. C. Subsequent to his qualification as naval aviator in August, 1917, he acted as aide in the immediate supervision of the training of the Buffalo Naval Aviation Detachment. He was reported upon most favorably by his commanding officer while on this duty. Subsequent to completion of this duty, and certain special instruction, he has been attached to this station where he has acted as First Squadron Commander, and has done certain additional duties in connection with organization. His performance of duty, involving a certain amount of flying, has been excellent throughout.

2. Although Ensign Farwell's value is best utilized at other than simple pilot or flight instructor work, his experience and record as a flying officer is such that to remove him from the list of flying officers is considered a waste of a man who is exceptionally capable for flying duty. As a squadron commander, for example, it is required that he be available for flights from time to time in connection with material test or personnel test.

3. It is strongly recommended that, in view of Ensign Farwell's flying without experiencing any difficulties with his eyes — his vision corrected as stated in enclosed letter — and in view of the above statements in regard to his record and value, the physical defects in his case be completely waived.

 p296  When his foreign orders came, and he was ready to sail on March 22, 1918, Farwell felt a bit down-hearted. In his papers he discovered that a clause had been inserted to the effect that he was to be given non‑flying duty. The Bureau of Navigation had been obdurate and had seen fit to ignore the strong letter of the Commandant at Pensacola. It seemed a stupid procedure, after a man had been flying successfully for two years and in spite of the expert medical statement that the proper lenses corrected the defect in vision. Aviators of John Farwell's training and ability were not plentiful enough to be tied by red‑tape to ground duty.

He hoped that the edict would be ignored overseas where experienced flying officers were in such demand that those in authority were not apt to be finicky. We shall meet him again, among the members of his own First Unit who did their time in French training schools and stations fearfully and wonderfully conducted, or were sent to this place and that in England.

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