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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 25

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 27
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

Vol. I
Chapter XXVI

The Mission to Brazil

Through those eager days at Palm Beach, when nobody knew what the future held and they talked it over so often, not a guess was wild enough to foresee one member of the Unit as rolling down to Rio to pass a year and more among the hospitable but temperamental Brazilians. It would have seemed a jest worthy of the effervescent Wag Crew. A World War it was, indeed, and no region was far enough away to be spared its vibrations and impulses. Portugal, close at hand, had joined the cause of the Allies, and her troops were in the trenches. A similar spirit animated the Republic of Brazil whose vast territory had been, until a time quite recent, ruled by the royal house of Portugal and which was still akin in language and traditions.

Oliver James was not bothering his head about South American policies and affairs. They were nothing in his young life. He had been tied to a desk in the Navy Department and he hoped to wangle himself loose somehow and join his luckier comrades in France. He had been ordered to Washington on September 10, 1917, for duty in the Aviation Section of the Bureau of Navigation. At the same time Graham Brush was assigned to technical work in Steam Engineering.

A letter from Captain Irwin to Commander Bennett, requesting the transfer of Ensign James from the Naval Aviation Detachment, Huntington, contained these interesting facts:

This additional officer is needed now in connection with operation of aviation training. Seaplane deliveries are making possible more intensive training at such stations.

 p298  We shall on September 15th have our first class of 50 from Technology and thereafter 50 entering Ground Schools, 50 entering preliminary schools, etc., every two weeks. Eventually there will probably be more than 600 officers and 1200 men (1000 at Pensacola and 200 miscellaneous) under aviation training.

In addition to coördination of equipment, supplies, and personnel, for requests to Bureaus in regard to these, for training work, and the technical supervision of the training course, data is constantly being received from the Army, from abroad, and from our own establishment that should be condensed and disseminated.

Ensign James has been recommended by Lieutenant McDonnell for such duty. He can be at once of great assistance in many of the details of this work.

Eddie McDonnell had been told to select a particularly capable man from the Unit for administrative duty in the Navy Department and he picked Oliver James because of his 'brilliant mind and calm, clear vision.'

In the organization to which James was attached, Captain Irwin's chief assistant was J. H. Towers. In charge of the flight schools was E. F. Johnson. The applicants for enrollment were looked after by G. H. Balch whose assistant was Leslie Jacobs. In this office was also Captain B. L. Smith, U. S. M. C., who had recently returned from France and was interested in material and equipment.

Oliver James was made assistant to Lieutenant Johnson. He found it fascinating to watch the personnel of Naval Aviation grow by leaps and bounds and its plans expand prodigiously. When he joined the staff, there were fewer than one hundred trained aviators, no air stations abroad, and only two fairly under way in this country.

A congenial group rented a house and kept bachelor quarters, Johnson, Balch, Brush, Jacobs, Luther, and James. They were not far from the Navy Building, and the house became a social rendezvous for aviation officers passing through or tarrying in Washington. There you  p299 might have heard incessant shop talk, a good deal of it worth listening to. All the new ideas were mulled over and appraised. Many of them were fashioned into practicable form in these unofficial discussions and influenced the development of the Naval Air Service.

For a while, Ensign James was very keen about it. He expected to be tucked away in this corner for no more than a month or two, and it was interesting to watch the wheels buzz round in the intricate machinery of the Navy Department. Alas, it dawned upon him that the job was no more than beginning. His own office was swiftly increasing its activities to take care of more air stations, personnel and material. It was fairly swamped with paper work and to keep a desk clear an officer often had to return in the evening and stick at it until midnight.

This became irksome and monotonous to a young man who had looked forward to the career of an aviator and who had been trained as such. The disposition of Ensign Oliver James was not contented to lead this sedentary life with a war going on, and he confesses that he 'got terribly fed up with it.' His requests for transfer to 'any naval air station anywhere' were ignored. He was told that he was satisfactorily broken in to writing official letters and ironing out kinks at his desk, and why let him get away? He would therefore stay put. This ruffled his nerves and he concluded that any other duty would be preferable.

Like a bolt from a clear sky came the word, on March 1, 1918, that he was to be taken by the back of the neck and chucked all the way to Brazil, about as far from the scene of war as it was possible to imagine. It was better than permanent anchorage to a desk, however, and Ensign James cheered up quite a bit. There was another factor of the equation. There had been a war‑time wedding in November. It was graciously permitted Ensign James to  p300 take his bride to Rio Janeiro with him. In this instance the Navy Department was almost human.

The Brazilian Government was desirous of making its naval force most efficient in organization, equipment, and training, with the intention of taking an active part in the War. The United States was therefore requested to lend its coöperation by means of a mission of naval officers who should serve as instructors and advisors. The senior officer selected was Captain C. T. Vogelgesang. With him was Lieutenant Commander W. O. Spear, U. S. N. The Department was unwilling to spare any of its regular officers for aviation duty with the mission. Those sent were Ensigns Philip A. Cusachs and Oliver James.

These two young men regarded it as an attractive opportunity for constructive work on a large scale. Before leaving they tried to find out something about the Brazilian Naval Air Service, but the information was vague. There was much enthusiasm over flying, it was said, and both American and French machines for training. Cusachs and James, very sanguine, hatched all sorts of roseate schemes. They would organize a squadron of naval air‑men, train them in record time, and then go to the front in France with them. It was a roundabout way to get to the war, but just watch their smoke!

They sailed on March 7th. The steamer slid peacefully through tropic seas with no submarine alarms, and the only excitement the chance of encountering a German raider. The arrival at Rio was in the nature of an anticlimax. The glowing hopes of leading that dashing squadron to France were knocked into a Brazilian cocked hat. Instead of a few months of bringing aviation up to date and adding the finishing touches, it proved to be a task that started from the very foundations. In order to finish it properly, the war would have to be prolonged several years.

 p301  Ensign Cusachs was subdued and Ensign James wore a pensive air that set poorly on a newly married man. They found one air station on an island in the Bay of Rio Janeiro. There were two small hangars, a runway, and one seaplane, a J. H. Standard with a 100 H.P. Hall Scott motor. The force consisted of two qualified aviators and half a dozen student officers. There were no shops. Looking it over, there was less than the First Unit had been equipped with in its fledgling days at Port Washington.

It meant the creation of an air service under very large difficulties. To obtain machines from the United States meant months of delay and precious time wasted even if the plea should be listened to in the rush of emergency war orders. It was possible to build hulls and wings in Rio, but the motor parts, machine tools, and so on, had to be ordered abroad for lack of factory facilities. In fact, everything excepting the wood-work was unavailable. And even with the best intentions on the part of the United States Government, the shipping service was slow and infrequent.

The orders were forwarded to Washington, for F‑boats and N‑9s, for training planes, spares, tools, machine guns, etc. During the interim Cusachs and James found buildings that could be made over into shops, they went about constructing more hangars and concrete runways, and collected all the tools they could lay their hands on. The Brazilian Congress was asked to make an appropriation adequate to creating a real naval air service. Regulations for the administration of a department of aviation were prepared and approved.

A ground school for student fliers was authorized, also one for student mechanics. Making the best of what he had, Oliver James was giving flight lessons in the Standard machine to the few pupils who were there when he arrived.

Eight months passed before the necessary shipments  p302 were received so that the different schools could be effectually operated. Meanwhile the two Ensigns had not been idle. They had gone about it in thorough fashion, working out a sound structure, looking toward the future. Their hopes of active service in the War had gone glimmering, but they were no less intent upon carrying out the task they had been sent to do.

It was a versatile experience. They had no definite billets and were what James called 'the guiding spirits.' They gave flight instructions, bossed the ground school, laid down the practice and the theory, suggested laws, conferred with Brazilian officials of high rank and station, and were very much on their own. The Government was projecting a number of air stations besides the one in the Bay. This was developed as a model and a nucleus for the others, and a comprehensive program worked out.

The term of exile, pleasant in a way, lasted fourteen months. During this time Oliver James was twice promoted, to lieutenant (j.g.) and to Lieutenant. His official status was rather complicated. His original orders attached him to the Embassy of the United States in Rio Janeiro and instructed him to report to the Naval Attaché for duty as 'instructor in aviation.' On May 27, 1918, he received the following notice of transfer, forwarded through the American Ambassador:

You will consider yourself detached from the United States Embassy at Rio Janeiro; will report to the commander-in‑chief, Pacific Fleet, for duty on the Naval Mission to Brazil of which Captain Carl T. Vogelgesang, U. S. Navy, is senior member, and will continue your present duties in connection with the work of that mission.

This was a mere formality, but it colored the assignment with a certain diplomatic tinge. Cusachs and Vogelgesang had been advised in Washington that the purpose of the  p303 mission was both diplomatic and naval, and emphasis was laid upon the cultivation of cordial relations between Brazil and the United States. For this reason Lieutenant James has felt reluctant to criticize in any manner the organization and the officials who were both his hosts and his associates. It is obvious that the American Naval Mission found faults and flaws that called for change and improvement. Such comments, however, are best buried in the official reports.

The people of the South American republics are proud and sensitive. This is especially true of the Portuguese blood. The present writer visited Brazil not long ago in the U. S. S. scout cruiser Concord. It was the homeward stretch of a long voyage, to the Indian Ocean and around the Cape of Good Hope. On the east coast of Africa the cruiser had touched at the port of Lourenço Marques, chief city of the Portuguese territory of Mozambique, the remnant of that mighty colonial empire discovered by the ships of Vasco da Gama.

There and in Brazil the American cruiser found official courtesy and elaborate welcome. And yet there was discernible a lack of warmth and understanding toward the United States as a nation, a suspicion of its ultimate intentions, and a readiness to resent fancied affronts. In Pernambuco the municipal police seemed rather pleased to arrest an American bluejacket on the slightest pretext, and liberty was curtailed for this reason.

Between the lines of Lieutenant Oliver James' diplomatic reticence it is perhaps possible to conjecture that he was hampered by the habit of mañanaa and amiable evasion that is typical of South America and that he watched his step with scrupulous care to avoid jarring the feelings of a people whose manners, customs, and language were foreign to him. It was not an easy berth for an American naval officer acting as an instructor. And it was very  p304 much to the credit of the two youthful missionaries in aviation that the following letter should have included complimentary mention of them.

Brazilian Embassy,

Washington, May 22, 1919

Mr. Secretary of State:

This Embassy has received a cable from Mr. De Gama, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Brazil, informing it that the Minister of Marine has communicated that Lieutenants Philip A. Cusachs and Oliver B. James of the American Navy who were serving in Brazil as instructors in aviation, have been relieved of their duties owing to the expiration of their mission; and that the Brazilian Government adds that these officers fulfilled their mission in a most complete and thorough manner.

Be pleased to accept, Mr. Secretary of State, the renewed assurances of my highest consideration.

A. De Ipanema Moreira

Chargé d'Affaires

His Excellency,

Mr. Frank L. Polk,

Acting Secretary of State of the

United States of America

Lieutenant James carried home from Rio what might be called his written reference from the 'Cabinet of the Secretary of the Navy.' It has such an impressive air about it in Portuguese that the original is presented herewith:

 p305  Rio de Janeiro, 19 de Maio de 1919

Sr. O. B. James, Lt. U. S. N. R. F.

Ao dispensar‑vos do cargo de instructor da Escola da Aviação Naval, por haverdes concluido a comissão que este Ministerio vos atribuiu, determina‑me o Sr. Almirante Ministro da Marinha que vos apresente os seus agradecimentos pelos serviços que com reconhecido zelo e proficiência prestastes ao ensino naquela Escola.

Aproveito a oportunidade para vos apresentar os protestos da minha estima e distinta consideração.

(Signed) [image ALT: a blank space] H. A. Guilhem,

Commander-Chief of the Cabinet

For the benefit of such members of the First Yale Unit as may find that their Portuguese has become a bit rusty, here is a translation of the foregoing document.​b

On your leaving the place of Instructor of the Navy Aviation School, for the reason that you have ended the commission assigned to you by this Ministry, the Admiral Secretary of the Navy directs me to present to you his thanks for the services which you have rendered in your teachings at that school, accomplished with the utmost zeal and efficiency. Incidentally I wish to present to you the protestations of my esteem and highest consideration.

Socially, the American officers found Rio Janeiro a delightful environment. They were entertained by the Government officials and also by the British, French, and American residents of the city. The War seemed curiously remote, a world away from the gloom and tragedy of London or Paris and the swirling enthusiasm of America with its millions of men in khaki, its parades and 'drives' and fervid exhortation.

Nowhere was there such a setting for an air station as this glorious Bay of Guanabara, jeweled with islands, encircled by mountains. The great city of Rio, opulent and colorful, the parks and boulevards along the shore fast crowding out the old city of narrow streets; the  p306 walled gardens and dignified houses of by‑gone days shaded by royal palms, wide-spreading mangoes, great jaqueira trees heavy with fruit, and the betasseled branches of the Brazilian pine!

A city to lure one back again, but Lieutenant Oliver James was in no mood to linger when, on March 25, 1919, he and Lieutenant Cusachs were relieved by Lieutenant Commander Capehart and ordered to proceed to Washington. There James returned to a desk in the Navy Department, in the Bureau of Operations, and remained until released from active duty on June 23d, with the customary official adieu:

The Bureau takes this opportunity to thank you for the faithful and patriotic service you have rendered to your country in the War with Germany.

Thayer's Notes:

a An unfortunate bit of writing, since the word is not Portuguese but Spanish. As thruout this little chapter, the tone none too good either (to the point that I have some embarrassment reproducing the chapter onsite): here the writer appears to have lumped together all those people south of the border, then wonders at Brazilian resentment of fancied affronts.

[decorative delimiter]

b Actually, several small and even not so small mistakes need to be fixed as well as the general flavor of pidgin (transparency to the original language):

On releasing you from the post of instructor of the Naval Aviation School upon your having completed the mission assigned to you by this Ministry, the Admiral Secretary of the Navy directs me to tender you his thanks for the services you rendered with acknowledged zeal and efficiency in instruction at that school.

I take this opportunity to tender you the assurance of my esteem and distinguished (not "highest") consideration.

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Page updated: 7 Sep 13