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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 27

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 29
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

Vol. II
Chapter XXVIII

The Day's Work on the French Coast

Dave Ingalls was very much 'fed' with Hourtin and spent about a month 'doing nothing but playing bridge and trying to keep warm in a small hotel' where he was kept awaiting further orders. On November 13th he was sent to Paris with Gates and Lovett, but found life no more zippy. He reported daily at aviation headquarters, was given light duty, and spent much of the time in 'eating, I think, and drinking in all the funny little restaurants in Paris.' On December 13th he was sent to the Gosport Flying School in England with 'Shorty' Smith and Kenneth MacLeish. Young Mr. Ingalls had formed his own ideas about how things should be done and he improved his idle hours in Paris by sending the following survey to his father:

Dec. 3rd, 1917

Naval aviation here seems to be getting along very well now as we have several stations under way and some doing active work, but it seems to me they are not yet going at it in the right way. So far we of the Unit and a few older men are the only naval pilots trained in flying sent from the United States. The large number of men who have been sent over have had no previous training or practically none. Most of them are men who, on enlisting, were immediately shipped across regardless of their ability or adaptability for aviation. All the fliers here, except us few, have been trained here, first on land machines, then at several French water schools. These men, turned out as pilots ready for active service, have had very little time in the air and from my observation do not in any way seem to be the picked men that a country of our size and resources should send to the front.

The observers, for most of the water machines carry more than  p20 one man, have also gone through the French water observers' school. These men have had a very primary course in bombing and machine gun work. The mechanics, men picked from different positions of life, are not trained mechanics; some of them with perhaps a small knowledge of engines, have been sent through factories rapidly, listening to lectures mostly in French, a few translated, and they have had to pick up what they could in, at the most, three weeks. The rest are learning from these and from trying to take care of the machines at the station.

Now, to take the case of the pilots. Here, it is at the best a long and inefficient course because of the great scarcity of materials, oil, gas, training machines, etc. The pilots, except for a comparatively small number, will be used for patrolling and convoying. They do not need advanced training in different types of machines and with machine guns. They need merely plenty of flying in a large machine with practice in rough weather and rough landing. With everything at hand and plenty of materials these men could be quickly and much more easily and cheaply trained in the United States than here.

The observers for these large patrol machines in the same manner could be easily trained by a great deal of experience in machine gun work and especially bombing in the best large machines at home. As a patrolling machine does not necessarily have great speed, the observers would be able, on our machines, to have the same conditions in practice that they would have later when actively engaged. Thus the pilots and the observers could have plenty of practical training.

Now from this number of pilots and observers, those who showed themselves superior could be taken out of the school and placed in another small school or else sent to an army school where the pilots could take a long and careful course on fast machines and could take almost the same course in the school of fire and in acrobatics. The observers could also take a course in bombing and machine gun work on the faster, lighter land machines.

The mechanics should be men preferably taken from the class of mechanics, thoroughly drilled on aeroplane motors and if necessary sent through a factory over here if said station does not use our American motor.

When these men arrived here, the pilots for patrol could take perhaps a few hops at the school here in their future machine and then would be ready and fit for work. The bombers and  p21 mechanics would be ready and able to do their work immediately upon arriving.

The small number of pilots for the fast single seaters could take the short course at the army school here, and would soon be ready for duty. If necessary, the observers for the fighting planes could likewise attend for a short term the army school here.

Conditions here make a man's complete training in any one of the three divisions long, inefficient and practically impossible, while at home there is every facility to train any required number of men quickly, cheaply and efficiently.

Meanwhile, of these early arrivals in France, Vorys and Sturtevant were sojourning on the Riviera, chaperoned by 'Di' Gates. As the Pepys of the Unit, Vorys tells us what they did and how they didn't go to Monte Carlo and recoup themselves for the heavy losses they had suffered in playing the Colonel's perfidious Bromo horse to win.

Going down on the train from Paris, we were joined by one of the French student officers from Hourtin, named Louis Maravel, who was one of the best there. He got off at Marseilles, and asked us to visit him there, although he was going in a few days to Sanº Raphael for training. We did not go, however.

We went to the Hotel de la Plage at San Raphael and found Gates and Lieutenant Corry there. Also Dr. Sinton, a Navy doctor who was in attendance on the American detachment. We lived at the hotel. There were ten or fifteen American enlisted men living at the station which was a mile from the hotel. We were enchanted by the beauty of the Riviera after our dismal experience at Hourtin, but our experience in flying was the same 'Pas de voler,'º etc. For the first ten days we were held back because there were too many French pilots and when our turn came, the dreaded mistral came up, which blew at times seventy miles an hour, and stopped flying for twelve days.

When the weather did clear up, we were put through very quickly. Maravel, the French officer we had met, came down and went through more quickly than we did. We got to be great friends. While taking one of his tests he got into a tail-spin through using his rudder, which was merely a dangerous ornament and not for use (on the F. B. A.'s), and was killed. This was  p22 the first loss that had come near us and was very depressing. Al Sturtevant was flying at the time of his funeral, but I went. It was held in a cathedral built in the twelfth century, in Fréjus, an old Roman town a mile from San Raphael, and was very impressive. During the procession after the funeral, in which most of the officers from the station took part, a machine trailing a great French flag circled slowly overhead. I tried to express my feeling to Maravel's father and mother, but my French was not equal to the occasion.

We learned a great deal of French, living at the hotel with Frenchmen — not only of the language, but the customs of the people. M. Le Franc, an officer at the station, who spoke English and whom we respected and admired greatly, lived openly with his mistress at the hotel. We had seen this sort of thing at Hourtin, but thought it was only the lower sort of officers who did it.

We took many interesting walks accompanied by our guidebooks, through the towns near there, and I got a bicycle, so as to go further. Al insisted that he would see as much and get more exercise by walking. I used my bicycle to commute from the station to the hotel, and thus was able to get up later each morning than Al, who walked.

We graduated from the rotary motors and flew the F. B. A.'s with Hispano-Suiza motors. Finally we came to our test. These were three in number, but we were allowed to combine them. There was a duration flight of two hours and a half and a duration flight of two hours, and an altitude test in which we were to stay above two thousand meters for one hour. We took these tests in two days. Altogether at San Raphael we averaged eight hours flying in five weeks. After our tests we flew the D. D. machines, and Al got to fly the Telliers, — a larger machine which was later adopted at the American stations.

After finishing our tests we received the French Navy brevet, and a large, fancy diploma with a naked lady on it. We wired to Paris that we had finished and as the Italian offensive was on and communication was slow, we figured we would not be ordered away for a week, so immediately went to Nice, hoping to make a trip to Monte Carlo and possibly the Italian border before we were ordered away. The trains were greatly disorganized, as they were running twenty-four to thirty troop trains a day to Italy, but we greatly enjoyed standing at the station  p23 and watching and cheering the poilus and the Tommies, as they passed through.

We got to Nice and planned to go on to Monte Carlo the next day. We met some Americans and a Canadian and would have had a glorious time. They were going to give us a dance that evening, had we stayed. At noon we received telegraphic orders to proceed to Paris without delay, so we started packing at once, packed up at San Raphael and got to Paris Monday morning, November 25th. We were surprised at the ease with which we got around at the station. I attended to the baggage and Al looked after the tickets. We knew to whom to go; where to go; and what to say. It contrasted greatly with our other arrival in Paris.

On reporting we found we were to be sent to Felixstowe to fly the large Americas. We did not leave until the morning of the 28th and spent the two days with Bob Lovett, Gates, Sam Walker and Dave Ingalls, who all happened to be in Paris at this time. We went to the theatre to see a French comedy, and were able to make a little out of it. We saw 'Wally' Winter who has since been killed, in Paris, and heard news of a great many of the Huntington boys who had come over. We also met Lieut. Hull and Ensign Fallon, who were to be with us at Felixstowe!!!

We went down by train on the 28th and took the boat that night to Southampton, arriving in England about noon on Thanksgiving Day. After being in the South for so long, we noticed the cold a great deal. Thanksgiving dinner we had at the Savoy, where we stayed. Then we reported to Headquarters, and Captain MacDougall, to whom Al had letters of introduction, asked us to lunch the next day, the 30th of November. We met his wife and daughter, and they served cold turkey and mince and pumpkin pies, which made it a real Thanksgiving dinner, although a day late. We disgraced ourselves eating.

It was decreed that Freddie Beach and 'Chip' McIlwaine should remain a long while at Moutchic and assist in getting this American station well under way. It was what Atlee Edwards called the process of 'digging themselves in.' This duty engaged the two members of the Unit through the winter and they were not released for training  p24 on land bombing machines in the Army school at Clermont-Ferrand until May 21, 1918. It was hard to feel reconciled to being held back from the front, but the job was well done in spite of heavy handicaps. McIlwaine was made Chief Pilot. Beach served his time as Engineer Officer and tells us how they handled things.

As more men arrived from the United States, they were set at work cutting trees, clearing and grading the land, and erecting more hangars, barracks and work-shops. We were able to find skilled labor among the enlisted force for almost anything we wanted to do; carpenters, masons, plasterers, machinists, etc. When I left in the spring, the station was practically complete in every detail.

We were held up for a long time in our flying due to the lack of spare parts both for planes and motors. New apparatus was slowly coming in, but nothing with which to repair our worn‑out and broken down equipment. However, the machines that crashed were carefully salvaged and from these recovered parts we were able to build up new motors and, to a lesser extent, reconstruct the planes. We heard a great deal of talk of the impracticability of the French motors because of the great amount of hand fitting done to them which made it almost impossible to interchange parts. However, you never know what you can do until you have to. We took crank-shafts, pistons, cylinders, and crank-cases from different motors and turned out rebuilt ones that ran their apportioned fifty hours as well as the new ones. These motors were Hispano-Suiza and Clerget.

McIlwaine and I were allowed a pretty free hand in our departments and we followed quite closely the methods which had worked so successfully in our own training at Palm Beach and Huntington. Lieutenant Commander Bartlett, the new C. O. at Moutchic, knew how to handle us as efficiently as he did the old regulars and always managed to get the best and the most out of every one and yet maintain a good feeling throughout the entire command.

Late in May, 1918, I was sent to Clermont-Ferrand. MacLeish was in command of our party until near the end when he was taken sick and I had to finish up his job. He succeeded in arousing so much enthusiasm and keeping all hands so good-humored  p25 that we made fast progress and incidentally broke most of the school records. The work of the enlisted men whom we had brought along as observers was as good as if not better than that of the officers. MacLeish was also able, by means of his tact and industry, to maintain friendly relations with the school staff despite the fact that at times there was argument and some feeling over questions of leave, etc.

On July 12th we left Clermont for Paris. There we found everything in a mix‑up due to the insistence of the Marine Corps in Washington that the land flying of the Navy should be done by them. We saw our dreams of a crack naval squadron that we had striven so hard to obtain and perfect sort of vanishing into thin air. As one result, we were again broken up and sent out wherever there was room.

McIlwaine found a good deal of satisfaction in the job at Moutchic and was able to say of it:

I consider that this station was by all odds the most important one abroad. Every seaplane flier had to pass through it in order to have the finishing touches added. It was presumed to have no part in training a pilot to fly, but the fact was that the average man had to have a preliminary period of instruction before he could be trusted not to smash up. This was made necessary by the hasty manner in which the pilots were turned out from many of the training stations at home.

No matter how up to date the schools at home were in machine gunnery, bomb dropping, navigation, etc., Moutchic was always two to six months ahead of them. Its main function was to keep abreast of all seaplane matters in England and France and adopt the very best and latest for our pilots.

The idea of the C. O. at Moutchic was to keep tabs on every pilot from the moment he arrived, so that when Paris wanted men for a certain type of work those most experienced in that line could be ordered away. Enlisted observers passed through this school also and at first were arbitrarily assigned to pilots, but this was changed until the two best suited temperamentally and in efficiency were paired together for the final tests. If a pilot and an observer did not keep up to the standard set they had to go through the course again.

I never saw officers and men work harder at any station, and  p26 when the Armistice came along, Moutchic was superior, in my opinion, to any Allied seaplane training station.

Curtis and Bartow Read remained at Moutchic with their two comrades, Beach and McIlwaine, until February 15, 1918. They did bombing practice and industriously helped to put the station and personnel in smoothly running order. Curtis found time to write chatty letters to his mother whom he affectionately called 'Bub.' He told her more about his friends, old and new, than about the day's work. This was characteristic of him. He valued friendships as some men cherish treasure and he inspired the same feeling in others. Those who served with him will tell you that these letters of his have the power to invoke richly freighted memories of his appealing presence.

Sunday, Jan. 20, 1918

Dearest Mother:

Mr. McDonnell arrived the other day and acted as a regular Santa Claus; it certainly was wonderful to get all those nice letters and presents, and it really seemed very 'Christmas‑y,' as you would say. Please thank everyone for their very nice letters. I have written you this before but want you to surely know about it, as I don't feel certain that all my letters get there. I am very glad indeed that our letters got there on the day; we couldn't have timed them better, could we? Your letters are fine, Bub, and you have absolutely no idea how welcome they are; nobody can write such letters as you do anyway.

Mark Walton (you remember Mrs. Walton at Norfolk) and Mr. Atwater, whom you also remember my talking about, arrived at the place where we are at, and you have no idea how fine it seems to see someone who has just arrived from the United States. Charlie Fuller and several others from Norfolk are due here any day now.

Yesterday I went over to a near‑by station and someone asked me if I had ever known a Mrs. Emerson, who this man said had asked about me. Come to find out, Mr. & Mrs. Emerson were living in a château near‑by, and Mr. Emerson is acting as architect for one of the largest naval base hospitals in France. I  p27 couldn't be there long enough to see them, but hope to later. I found out that their château is about forty kilos from where Bart and I are stationed.

Am now staying with Mr. De Haven at his house and it is perfectly fine. His two little girls are very, very nice, and make you feel very much at home. When I come home in the evenings, little Olga, who is Betty's age, meets me and escorts me up to my room and acts like a hostess of three times her age. Am getting so that I can understand French quite decently now and am improving in talking. After dinner we always have a game of chess and I usually get licked too.

The château is right near or on the ocean and it is beautiful in the evenings when there is a good sunset. It is quite warm now and the peasants say it is going to stay this way.

Received your letter with the Yale statistics, which I will fill out shortly. Bart and Mose​1 and Mike and I are going to leave here shortly; probably in two weeks, but as usual we can't say where. We are both very well indeed, and everything is going finely.

Lots of love to you, Bub, and to all the family.

France, Jan. 25th, 1918

Dear Mother:

The last letter I wrote you was a sort of stupid one, as I was pretty busy and did not realize until very near time for the mail to leave that I had not written you that week. There are so many things going on all the time that when I come to think about them, they might interest you, which I take for granted, and I will try and tell you about some of them.

Mr. Atwater and Mark Walton arrived about a week ago and we are expecting six more from Norfolk very shortly. Old Bill Atwater is as funny and cheerful as ever and is lots of fun. I was officer of the day here then and was up meeting a train with a working party to get off some provisions and saw Old Bill Atwater leaning out of the window yelling 'Hello, Manager,' so you can imagine how glad and surprised I was to see him.

I have a nice room to myself at Mr. De Haven's house, which is much better than it was before where four of us were sleeping on cots in the same room. They certainly are a nice family and it is quite a privilege to live with them. Bart is still living here  p28 at camp and is probably going to stay there till we leave, which will be very shortly.

Last night there was a beautiful full moon​a and we all went out for a walk along the ocean. The house that Mr. De Haven has is right by the ocean, and is about five miles from the camp here. We leave in the morning about 5.40 and walk the five miles, so it is very good exercise and keeps you in good condition. This is about the only exercise we get.

Bart and I have everything we need, thanks to you, and to‑day it was like the middle of summer here, so you felt as if you did not need anything on. Where we are now the peasants say that the winter is just about over and that there will be very little more cold weather. But I am going to leave here in a few days, and perhaps Bart, too, and it will be colder up there. The place where we are going is the station which I have been hoping to be sent to. Di Gates is the only one of our Unit there now. It will be the first really active aviation station which the United States has, so it is going to be very fine to be there. Dave Ingalls and Ken MacLeish will be there later. We are finishing our course here in aerial gunnery and bombing in a few days and are the first to leave from this course, as it was not complete before. Mike Murray, who is a very good mathematician and very clever at the theoretical calculation and practical calculations which dropping bombs involves, is being kept here as an instructor. So Bart and Mose and I will probably go to this other station with five enlisted pilots. Lieut. Chevalier is in command of the station, so if you ask Oliver James which one he is in command of, you will know where we are by the time this letter reaches you. George Moseley and several Lafayette Escadrille men are also here now and are going to the same station where we go. They are all very nice indeed and a fine lot. Ask Gus if he knows a man named Charles Bussett who is going with us and who was in the class below Gus at Harvard. He is fine. Also, a man named Haviland​b is going; he was in the Guynemer's squadron, and if you see a picture of the Lafayette group, you will see him in it. He has brought down two Boche already.

I was reading a book last night called 'How to Take Care of Yourself at the Front,' by an English lieutenant, and in it there was a chapter on things to be sure and 'rub in' to your family. The most important one was — Don't worry if you don't get letters, because if anything should happen to you, your family  p29 will get a cablegram right away. So please consider this point, letters rubbed in, because from now on the mail will probably take a lot longer time to get to you and will also be blocked up more.

I am getting to the point now where every now and then I forget I am in a foreign country, till a peasant with a black tam o' shanter, a blue coat and pointed wooden shoes, comes by, and then I remember that I am the queer looking one, not he.

The moon now is perfectly wonderful and you can read a book in the middle of the night as well as in the middle of the day. Like the land of the midnight sun.

Am keeping a diary every day and write all kinds of fool little things in it that occur to me, as well as what I do every day, so that when I come home, I will have a lot of reminders of interesting conversations and events which I should probably otherwise forget.

Well, will stop now; will write more later on. Lots and lots of love to you all at home. To think that a small little thing like the moon is shining on both of us doesn't make it seem as if we were very far away, after all. I suppose now that there is a full moon, you are naughty enough to read all night long.

France, Feb. 12, 1918

Dearest Mother:

Your letters have been very regular indeed and, needless to say, regularly appreciated. I am sorry to know that the lack of coal and terrible cold weather came at the same time. During the time you had your cold snap it was very cold here too, but now in the middle of the day it is just like summer, and yesterday several men went in swimming. Things are going along as usual, we (Bart and I) are expecting to leave here this week sometime, and will be mighty glad to go. Being at this place is like being a thousand miles away from the war, and to live here you never would believe there was a war, except when you see 'Réformés' going by and occasionally an aeroplane patrol going by and occasionally an aeroplane patrol overhead.

I have changed observers now three times and have one now who is very good. Very bright, quick and no 'yellow' in him at all, despite the fact he is a Jew, but you would never guess it from looking at him or talking with him. It is remarkable how in a camp like this you find men who have been everything from  p30 jewellers to drug store clerks. So if a watch is broken, 'send for the jeweller,' etc. We have an abundance of plumbers who come in very handy too. Can't you see what a job in a drug store will look like to these men after their experience over here?

We have the job of censoring the men's mail and really some of the letters are killing. One fellow who had the romantic job filling in a sand pit, wrote home to his mother that he had been assigned to a machine which climbed ten thousand feet in nine minutes and it was his job to meet the big transports coming over the big ocean and usher them across. 'Bringing the boys safely over was his job.' Talk about your Arabian Nights, won't his mother be pleased to know what 'Ferdie' is doing? Another one says, apropos of some exercises that the whole camp have every morning, 'Well, we American soldiers in France do Swedish exercises every morning to beat the Germans.' Quite an international event! Another one is going 'over the top' (of what I don't know) every day, and has captured several Germans already. Won't the Elmira 'Bugle' come out with an extra? And so it goes, great stories.

Rather a pathetic thing happened to‑day. A French engineer, who has been working here with us, sent us a letter, saying his second son had just been killed and that he was going back to the front. He is some forty-seven or so, and has two wounds already. After being at the front as long as he has, any other work seems to make him restless, and he says he is happiest back there where he has no time to think.

Bart and I are both very well and happy. I weighed to‑day and find I weigh 154 pounds, more than I ever have before. Lots of love to you. We both think of you all the time.

The Author's Note:

1 George Moseley.

Thayer's Notes:

a Not quite. The moon would not be full, strictly speaking, until a bit past midnight on January 27th.

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b Military aviator Willis B. Haviland kept detailed scrapbooks during the war and thru 1922: precious first‑hand photographs, carefully captioned and often beautifully clear; the first of these scrapbooks records war service in the Lafayette Escadrille. The complete set has been put online by a grandson of his, at An Earlybird's Scrapbook.

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Page updated: 1 Feb 18