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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 29

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 31

This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

Vol. II
Chapter XXX

The Wags at Le Croisic

As a result of Kenneth Smith's misadventure, no more planes were sent out for Le Croisic alone or lacking rations and life-saving equipment. It was a lesson that had to be hammered in by experience. The French methods were haphazard and negligent, trusting rather to 'Mon Dieu' than to their own care and resources. As Henry Landon emphasizes it:

I think I am safe in saying that it was due to Ken's accident that our naval aviation stations on the French coast reached such a high degree of efficiency in so short a time. We learned what to equip our planes with and installed every possible emergency appliance, at the absolute dictation of K. R. Smith. He knew. And the wisdom of it was proved later, in other forced sojourns on the ocean in crippled planes. It was my own ignorance that had sent him out alone, for one thing. He didn't have even a sea anchor, or a Véry pistol. When he saw a dirigible in the distance, he had nothing to signal with. We remedied all that. For food we saw that the planes carried hard-tack and canned tomatoes which were bully to quench a thirst. And three men in one of those boats made too heavy a load, so we took one out. All of which was a darned good thing for the rest of us, but rather tough on Ken. He had to be the goat.

On December 4th another 'Alerte' was sounded. Landon, Coombe, and Smith responded, the 'Allo' coming from somewhere between Belle Isle and Quiberon, in the coastwise convoy track. They sighted several American escort vessels, yachts and destroyers, and the cruiser San Diego outward bound, but no German submarine. The hair of Reginald Coombe had reason to stand on end when one of his bombs broke its forward support and dangled  p50 loose. He could not drop it at the moment because he was flying over a flock of French fishing boats. The wretched bomb was swaying and banging against the frame of the aeroplane and Coombe didn't know what might be due to happen. It seemed as if he would never pass clear of the fishing craft. When he did, he let that bomb drop in a hurry. Smith and Landon were not in sight, so he barged around a bit longer and then went home to the station.

There he found that Kenneth had failed to show up. This was disconcerting. It came only two weeks after his other disappearance. The crowd fidgeted for several hours before a message informed them that Ensign Smith had flopped down with motor trouble and drifted ashore at the island of Houat. A U. S. mine-sweeper delivered him safely at Le Croisic the next day. The two accidents wore on him. He felt the strain, on top of much hard work, so the C. O. sent him off to Paris on temporary duty for a week or so of recuperation.

It was not long after this that the French formally turned the station over to the American organization. The occasion was made impressive, with a great deal of rank and ceremony. Admiral Sims, Captain Cone, and Captain Jackson were among those present as it happened that they were making an inspection tour along the coast. A French admiral added to the display. The crew lined up at quarters to receive them and they were 'piped over the side' in proper Navy style. The station band played the 'Marseillaise' and 'Yankee Doodle.' And as an extra flourish, two planes went scooting off on the first 'All‑American patrol.'

Sam Walker liked this touch of high life so well that he wangled an assignment to report to Colonel House in Paris for duty with the Inter-Allied War Conference. The wires were pulled through a cousin of Walker. It was a transient job, for a fortnight only, long enough to give an  p51 industrious aviator a chance to rest and divert himself. He was a sort of assistant private secretary who attended to getting cables off to the Secretary of State and President Wilson, but refrained from telling them what he thought about things. He enjoyed it immensely, mingling with Prime Ministers, Generals of high degree, and the dazzling assortment of gentlemen who professed the utmost harmony and suspected one another's motives. It was difficult, of course, for a member of the Wag Crew to withhold himself modestly in the background, but Walker claims no credit for influencing the conduct of the war.

When the Conference adjourned, he returned to Le Croisic, having 'learned many facts which were very startling and of the utmost significance at that time.'

Later in December an order came to deliver two D. D. seaplanes to the fellow compatriot, 'Chip' McIlwaine, at Moutchic which was one hundred and seventy-five miles to the southward. Landon flew one of them, selecting Quartermaster Gillespie as pilot for the other. He was a rattling good man and later received deserved promotion to the rank of ensign.

The first start was a failure. 'It was due to my excellent work,' confesses Landon. 'I let my motor die and my plane was blown tail-first against the sea wall and smashed the flipper. Of course I was heartily congratulated by the C. O. and my admiring friends. The Razz Blatt chorus was like an echo of Palm Beach.'

The second start was more auspicious. The two planes flew down the coast for forty miles when Gillespie landed and signalled 'motor trouble.' The pair of them pulled up on the beach of a small town called Pornic.​a Landon went to look for a telephone. Gillespie was able to mend the trouble, however, but when they were ready to go on, the entire population had trooped out to see the noble Aviateurs Américains. The children were dismissed from school and  p52 marched in procession to the beach. As Landon was about to tell the mechanics to start the motors, a large bouquet of flowers was presented to him by one of the blushing tots. Great applause! The splendid American flying‑man, Monsieur Landon, made a speech in French. It was brief, eloquent — consisting of 'Merci beaucoup' and 'Vive la France.' A prominent citizen kissed him on both cheeks. Encore!

They flew a little farther along the coast and came down at the hamlet of Croix-de‑Vie, Vendée. Gillespie needed another rest, according to Landon. You can believe it if you like. It is to be suspected that they craved more bouquets and receptions. At any rate, the town did itself proud. It was decided to spend the night in hospitable Croix-de‑Vie. The proprietor of the hotel welcomed them like long-lost sons. The mayor stationed a guard around the planes. After breakfast next morning the populace gathered while the heroes awaited the high tide. They had to pose for photographs. Then they built a runway of seaweed across the sand so that the machines could be shoved into the water. Meanwhile the villagers were saying it with flowers — enormous bouquets for Landon and Gillespie, tied with ribbons of red, white and blue.

Speeches in response, fluent and sentimental — 'Merci beaucoup' and 'Vive la France.' The cheers were of the loudest! It was all très joli. The so gallant officier, Henri Landon, sat down in his machine and gave the signal. It was to open wide the motors to test them before the plane was shoved into the water. Peste! Sacré baptême! Nom d'une pipe! Mille tonnerres! The sand of the beach was whirled in a violent storm. It dashed into the faces of the assembled villagers. It blew off their hats. It disarrayed the skirts of the demoiselles, who screamed and fled. Ah, those naughty propeller blades that played such havoc with the farewell assemblage on the beach of Croix-de‑Vie!

 p53  The machine rose grandly and circled the town. It was a sentimental gesture. Playing to the gallery, it dived and boomed close to the houses. Ah, the people were frightened and scampered for shelter as hard as they could. Some of them were still running when last seen. Mon ami, what do you think of this Henri Landon?

They squared away for La Pallice to make another stop on this trip to Moutchic. You suspect something? It is quite right. Here at La Pallice, this Henry Landon broke a part of his machine. He called it the starting dog. Ah, ha, he was a poor dog at starting! Much better at stopping, eh? He stayed right at La Pallice for several days while Gillespie flew on to Moutchic with two French planes as an escort. Henri, he was getting mended, so he declares. Were there attractions in this La Pallice? It is to wink the other eye, monsieur!

When he departed, he rated three French planes as his escort. Evidently he had made a hit magnifique. This time he actually flew to Moutchic, arriving in a rain-cloud. He is frank. He confesses that he continually desired what he calls 'beach applause.' Therefore he did 'a tight spiral' to land at Moutchic and almost scraped the paint off a hangar. Awaiting him there was his friend, the Chief Pilot, McIlwaine, whose nom de guerre was 'Le Chip.' They embraced. Also who should join this fraternal reunion but Bartow Read? Overjoyed, Henri Landon, in order to show his esteem, touched him for three hundred francs. It was repaid several months after that, we are informed. Is that credible?

There was a telegram awaiting Landon. He was to go back to La Pallice and thence fly to Le Croisic in the Tellier which had been left there, broken down, by Reginald Coombe. Bad weather delayed this journey. Landon was impatient. He wished to be home (at Le Croisic) in time to welcome Santa Claus. This he did, leaving La  p54 Pallice on the day before Christmas. Not so many stops, you will observe.

Coombe had gone to Paris on two days' Christmas leave where he dined with Curtis Read, McIlwaine, 'Ken' Smith and Freddie Beach. Before leaving, he was careful to make preparations so that the station might enjoy the holiday. He had been elected treasurer of the wine mess by unanimous vote. He was recognized as the connoisseur par excellence. How he functioned is best told in the words of a comrade.

Reggie would disappear at times for hours on end. When sighted again he would be zig‑zagging (perhaps in fear of enemy subs) toward the quarters with his arms full of ancient and cobwebby bottles. His methods were investigated by the intelligence section. He and the old French wine merchant were fast friends, it seems. The latter used to light a candle and lead the expert Reginald way back into the dark recesses of his cellar, among the rows of dusty casks and enchanting rack of vintage bottles. Coombe knew his way about so perfectly that he never fell over anything. Down in that fragrant, delectable cellar, the pair of them discussed wines like two oracles. It resulted in the merchant's pressing this bottle and that on his congenial guest as samples for his approval. It is not generally known to the other members of the Unit, but the sagacious Coombe is said to have financed his Italian campaign from his earnings as treasurer of the wine mess at Le Croisic.

It was necessary for the station to obtain food as well as drink. This is obvious. Aviators deserved the luxuries as well as the necessities of life. Therefore a novel system of foraging was devised. A plane on convoy duty would fly low enough to read the name of some particular ship. A day or so later a Packard car would drive over from the air station to pay a social call. Officers of the transport were invited to Le Croisic for dinner — sometimes the captain, always the supply officer. They were pleasantly entertained,  p55 Coombe doing his duty as wine treasurer, and giving a hop in a machine if the day was fair. As the result, the air station was invited to name what supplies it needed from the transport. The keys of the ship were presented. A truck did the rest.

But we must be getting on with the war. The patrols were carried on, day after day, in the cold and windy winter weather of the sullen Bay of Biscay. It was a hard service. There was satisfaction in the reports that submarine sinkings amounted to almost nothing in this sector and that the air station was given credit for effective coöperations with the French and American surface patrols. The enemy was growing wary of the coast and cruising farther seaward where the hunting was very poor.

On January 20th, the regular patrol consisted of two planes whose pilots were Coombe and an enlisted man, Weddell. Coombe came back late in the afternoon, after dark, and reported that Weddell had been forced to land about twenty-five miles southwest of the station. Walker was officer of the day. He set out at once in the launch called the admiral's barge, laying a course according to the directions furnished by Coombe's chart. Rounding Le Croisic point, it was seen that a storm was gathering in the south. The feel of the wind was ominous and the swell ran heavy. The seas broke over the bows of the small barge which labored ahead very slowly. If the conditions should grow no worse, it would require at least four hours to cover the twenty-five miles. Sam Walker tells the rest of it.

The sea was very rough and I regarded my responsibility of being in command of this barge as too great to permit myself to be seasick. However, I felt that there was going to be trouble soon and I saw the crew and a chief petty officer, who had been in the Navy for fifteen years, sitting aft watching me. I turned around about five minutes later to reassure them that nothing was wrong when, to my amazement, the sight I saw made me  p56 laugh so that it drove away all feeling of seasickness and made me feel that I had conquered by having them sick first. At the end of four hours standing on the deck of this ship I was soaked through to the skin and freezing cold. A heavy fog had come down and a storm driving hail. The sea was still running large. We sent up several rockets at this time to signal to the distressed plane but failed to receive any answer.

Finally after cruising around in the vicinity for half an hour, we saw a faint rocket on the horizon in answer to ours. I immediately headed over toward it and, sooner than I expected, came upon the plane which could be seen outlined on the top of a wave, towering above us when we were in the trough of a sea. The problem was how to save both the men and the plane. I consequently threw a line to the plane and started towing them. Above the terrific roar of the sea and the driving rain, after we started to tow them, a sharp crack was heard and, sending up another rocket, which was the only means of light we had, I saw one wing sticking up vertically in the air, the other one having knifed into the sea, and both men climbing on the side of the plane.

This proved that all attempts to tow would be futile so the paramount issue was to save the men. I gave orders to pull the plane by the tow line close to the barge, but every time it would get near it would threaten to smash. The pilot of the plane, Weddell, was on its bow ready to jump. He picked a time to jump when the plane was nearest the barge, but they separated very suddenly and he landed in the water with a heavy combination fur suit weighing him down. The problem looked serious, but with a couple of boat-hooks the crew managed to hold off the plane, which in the meantime had closed in again and was threatening to crush him, and with the other boat-hooks they pulled him up on the barge. The observer next took his chance and, jumping when they were close together, landed safely on the barge.

We then took the anchor and tied it on to the tow line, and cast the plane off with the anchor and plenty of line. All this had taken about one and one half hours and it was then 10 o'clock. The question now was to navigate back to Le Croisic through this heavy fog without knowing our exact position. All of us felt it was going to be a hard thing to find the Le Croisic  p57 light and avoid the shoals and treacherous coast. We had a French sailor with us who knew the lights, as he said, and after navigating for four hours he spied a light which he pronounced with the greatest assurance to be Le Croisic. We had been proceeding at half speed as it was too dangerous to go full speed, not knowing exactly where the rocky coast was. But when we saw this light we headed for it and I had just instructed the engineer to proceed full speed when there was a most terrific crunching sound on the port side amid­ships and the barge rolled completely on its side, shipping a great deal of water, stopping the motor, and extinguishing all the lights.

The situation was very uncomfortable and I expected at any moment to have the barge dashed to pieces on the rocks, but it righted itself and the next wave happened to carry it over into deep water. With a great deal of trouble the engineer managed to get the motor running so that the lights came on. We found an ugly tear in the side of the ship through which the water was pouring. One of the men endeavored to keep the water out by stuffing newspapers and waste into the hole, but it managed to come through in spite of this and was rapidly approaching a level with the carburetor, which we all knew would mean the motor must stop. Consequently we hugged the shore, missing further rocks by mere chance, and aiming for a sandy spot.

I realized by now that the light we had been aiming for was not Le Croisic light, but to the north of it. We managed to run along at a very slow speed into Le Croisic harbor where we beached the barge on a big sand bar, all very much relieved. We then proceeded to send up every signal that we had on the ship in order to arouse the station at Le Croisic and get them to send us a relief crew and to take us off. It was then after 4 A.M. and we were all pretty well exhausted after twelve hours of that sea, being frozen and sopping wet the whole time. They managed to send out a dory with some more men on it and took us off and landed us at the station.

A new detachment of pilots and observers was sent from Moutchic on February 21st. They were in charge of Bartow Read who remained at Le Croisic until the latter part of May. Two or three days after his arrival, Walker and Coombe went to Tours to spend a week‑end. There  p58 they had a bit of flying at the land station which had been taken over by the American Army. Before they left Tours they found in a French newspaper a paragraph which fairly stunned them. 'Al' Sturtevant had gone to his death in the North Sea. It was the first break in the brotherhood of the Unit. Losses were to be expected, but this drove the realization home like the sudden thrust of a knife.

It was only a week later that the word came to Le Croisic out of Curtis Read's grievous death by accident at Dunkirk. His brother Bartow bore it most courageously. In one of his letters to his mother, written from this station, he told her:

It makes us very proud of Curt to think of all the people who knew him and loved him so well. The greatest thing of all, for me at least, is to see how every one, even his closest friends not only loved him but really respected him and his fine ideals and his pure life. In the last few years I have met a great many men of Curt's age and a great many of his friends, and I can recall only a very few who equalled his fine, high-minded life. Now, of course, he is no longer with us in body, but his great life and glorious final sacrifice are not like the ordinary death — a thing of sorrow — but a great joy and a noble memory for us to bear always in mind and to be strengthened by. So, Mother, do not be sad. Be proud and happy to have been the mother of such a son. . . .

Thayer's Note:

a The text as printed reads Porine, but there is no such place between Le Croisic and Croix-de‑Vie (an air distance of 48 miles), and Pornic is the only possibility, although its air distance from Le Croisic is only 22½ miles.

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Page updated: 11 Sep 13