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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 31

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 33
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

Vol. II
Chapter XXXII

Farwell Plays a Lone Hand

John Farwell had begun to feel worried lest the war might slip out from under him while he was still marooned on duty at Pensacola. The long lane had a turning, however, and it led him across Atlantic early in April of 1918. A brief stay at Pauillac in charge of a motor convoy for the delivery of cars and he was called to England for instruction in armament at Uxbridge. On August 9th he turned up at Fromentine on the French coast to join the air patrol for anti-submarine and escort work, playing a game much like that of Le Croisic and Île Tudy. He stayed there three weeks and finished his active service as armament officer at Saint Trojan, Charente Inférieure,​a remaining at this post until the Armistice. His was a lone hand in that he was pretty well removed from other members of the Unit who were associated together on the French coast or who met each other in moving about from place to place. Of his experience abroad he writes in a more or less general way:

Sailed for Europe early in April 1918. Was of course very much interested, as everybody else was, by the camouflaged ships. I was fortunate enough to go on a mail steamer which did not go in convoy. One of the most impressive things I ever saw was the way the destroyers met us on the exact minute before sun‑up away out on the ocean. It seemed almost supernatural, the way the flash from the destroyer searchlight found us out of the darkness just as prearranged.

On the trip we had the usual torpedo scare, a six inch gun being shot off, whether for amusement or not, I do not know, directly above the dining room when we were all at luncheon. The naval officers all sat at one table and were rather proud of  p71 themselves as they all stayed in their seats while the Army officers rushed out the door. I think we did lose two paymasters by the same route, but we did not count them.

In traveling about in England and France, conditions changed a great deal between April, 1918, and the Armistice. At first there were very few Americans, which gradually changed until finally at the time the Armistice was signed, I remember very well we saw so many friends in walking down the streets of Paris that it reminded one of walking down Chapel Street in New Haven and you simply waved your hand in a friendly greeting rather than stop and talk, for if you did the latter, it was almost impossible to get anywhere.

England was a bit of a contrast, as far as the people were concerned, from pre‑war years. Traveling in English trains, they would frequently talk to you, which was something I, at least, had never thought of their doing, and everywhere you went you found signs of their thoughtfulness and consideration for their American allies, leaving me, at least, with a firmer impression of what a wonderful race they are.

In Paris at the same time, the Germans were shooting into the city with their long-range guns, lending a very strange atmosphere to an apparently peaceful place. They said a million people had left the town on account of it. How true I don't know, although I believed it and thought the moral effect the Germans got from their raids and bombing of peaceful combatants in their homes was great and it made people around you very angry and eager to fight.

I was lucky enough to take a convoy of motor trucks from Bordeaux to near Brest and could not help but compare the apparent peacefulness of the average French farmer's life with that of our own farmers.

On May 22d I was sent to Uxbridge, England, for instructions in armament. Before leaving America I had to take a physical examination and ran into serious trouble on account of my eyes. This I did not worry about very much as I figured that once I could get where flying was done and they needed fliers there would be no trouble about that.

While in England I had a good chance to appreciate how thorough the English are in everything they do. They took eight weeks for what in America two weeks was allowed, but we know our subject from top to bottom. I was astonished at the  p72 ease with which the English students apparently memorized facts. Possibly their training in public schools helped them out but I am sure the young officers assimilated knowledge a great deal easier than any of the classes I was in at New Haven.

On returning to France, I was stationed with a former friend, Wadley Capehart, at Fromantine,º a small station which, like many others, had large and elaborate plans for a tremendous number of airplanes. The actual plans of most of these stations, as it later turned out, were a great deal larger than necessary. For example, in the three weeks I was there we only heard of one submarine and knew of its movements by the sinking of ships at least two days before it was near to where we were. This one particular submarine which came along the coast was sighted by a dirigible while guarding a convoy. The machine foolishly was on the down wind side of the convoy so that the submarine casually came to the surface and fired its torpedos at the convoy. When the dirigible started to go for it, it naturally made very slow headway against the wind which left it with a speed very little faster than the submarine which brought out its gun and started shooting at the dirigible, driving it away. Why it was not able to sink the whole convoy after that, I do not know.

At St. Trojan, where I was armament officer, they had just had a very severe explosion of bombs, killing and wounding over twenty people on the station. It was a pretty good example of how carelessness can get you into trouble. The bombs themselves were a French make which the local French arsenal knew nothing about except that they went off if they fell on their nose. Both ourselves and the French used no precaution about safety catches on the bombs or putting them in a heavy and secure rack. The explosion was caused by the bombs falling from an insecure rack and having no safety catches which would prevent the firing pin driving into the train of powder that explodes the bombs. For a lot of people who had been careless with their bombs, they had certainly changed when I got there. The problem was rather a simple one, simply to find out how the bomb was constructed and then design a proper rack and safety catch for it. It was rather amusing to see how the same people who ten days before had carelessly been throwing bombs around amongst themselves, put a good half mile between themselves and even such a small thing as a detonator when it was being handled.

Just before Thanksgiving we hoped to have a chicken dinner  p73 by way of a little extra celebration. There were quite a few chickens in the neighborhood. At the price eggs had been sold to us it might well have been said they laid golden eggs but contrary to the proverb, the French refused to cut off the head of the chicken who laid them. The result was, the Captain who was a Southerner gave four negroes shore-leave with instructions that if we did not have a chicken dinner on Thanksgiving day they would get no more shore-leave. The next morning we were awakened by cackles that sounded very much like a chicken dinner.

I was fortunate enough to get leave the day before the Armistice was signed, arriving in Paris about two hours before it was announced, and have never seen such a sight anywhere. For four days the Place de la Concorde was simply black with people. Everywhere you walked you met a parade of relieved men and women singing and shouting, marching behind a drum, flag or anything they might happen to have. During the whole four days, enthusiasm was as great as among the students on the winning side after a Yale-Harvard game. How much longer it continued I do not know. Almost immediately I had a chance to get back to America by taking a draft of men, which I did.​1

The Author's Note:

1 From the Fitness Reports, Navy Department:

Lieutenant (j.g.) John V. Farwell, U. S. N. R. F.

Period from 4 December, 1917, to 1 March, 1918:

Organized and acted as first commander of 1st Squadron at this station (18 seaplanes). Recommended for promotion to Lieutenant (j.g.).

E. F. Johnson, Lt. Cdr., U. S. N.,
Naval Air Station, Pensacola, Fla.

Period from 30 September, to 20 November, 1918.

Has a very excellent technical knowledge of aviation ordinance and valuable practical experience of same.

V. C. Giffin, Lt., U. S. N.,
N. A. S. St. Trojan, France

Thayer's Note:

a There are at least three places by the name on the western coast of France, two of them in the département of Charente-Inférieure (now Charente-Maritime). The one meant here is Saint‑Trojan-les‑Bains on the Ile d'Oléron.

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