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Chapter 33

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 35
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

Vol. II
Chapter XXXIV

'Al' Sturtevant's Last Flight

Blow out, you bugles, over the rich dead;

There's none of these so lonely and poor of old,

But, dying, has made us rarer gifts than gold.

These laid the world away; poured out the red

Sweet wine of youth; gave up the years to be

Of work and joy, and that unhoped serene

That men call age; and those who would have been

Their sons they gave their immortality.

Blow, bugles, blow! They brought us for our dearth,

Holiness lacked so long, and Love, and Pain.

Honor had come back, as a king to earth,

And paid his subjects with a royal wage;

And Nobleness walks in our ways again;

And we have come into our heritage.

Rupert Brooke

In January the two Yale men made their first war flights on the Spider Web patrol. When 'Al' Sturtevant came back from his second trip it was noticed that his bombs were missing. Great excitement on shore! Vorys rushed down to the runway, tickled that his comrade had attacked a submarine, a bit sorry that 'Al' had beaten him to it. The boat landed and taxied in. The crew was log glum. 'Did you get it?' yelled the spectators. 'No, we didn't get it,' was the disgusted response. 'One of our engines conked and we had to drop the bombs to lighten the machine so we could fly home with one motor.'

Soon after this, early in February, the German air stations became more audacious and aggressive. They adopted new tactics of flying offshore in small, fast machines to interfere with the Felixstowe patrols. The leader was said to be Commander Christiansen, a 'full out merchant' and apparently a sportsman, who was credited by the Felixstowe pilots with developing the  p90 swift little monoplane seaplane. He was stationed first at Zeebrugge and later went to Borkum, after his Belgian base had been thoroughly bombed by the naval airmen and more or less wrecked by the Vindictive party.

As the story went, he was originally an officer in the merchant service who had taken up flying before the war. He now led the pilots of the Marine Küstenflieger Abteilung Flandern, and he and his crew were as hard as their name is to pronounce.

One of the Felixstowe patrols encountered four of these German planes. Of the two British boats one found itself in a lively scrap and brought down an enemy machine. A week later another patrol sighted a flock of eight hostile planes which flew in formation and made no effort to get action. Apparently they were scouting for practice and to acquaint themselves with the habits of the British patrols and escorts.

The North Sea weather was rough and rainy and cold in February, with days of violent wind or somber mists and clouds that kept the flying-boats in the sheds. As war pilots Vorys and Sturtevant were supposed to go out three times a week. Luck favored the one and broke wrong for the other. John drew clear days when it came his turn, while 'Al' was repeatedly held ashore by foul weather. At length 'Al' was two or three patrols behind his comrade. This fretted him, so in the evening of February 14th he suggested: 'You are on the list for patrol duty tomorrow morning, John. What do you say we trade the flight and give me a chance to catch up?'

Vorys thought it over. He was anxious to get ahead with his own flying, but 'Al' had his arguments ready. He called attention to the fact that Purdy was posted as first pilot and he wasn't rated as very much, and John would have a much better flight if he swapped patrols and waited another day. After a lot of amiable bickering as  p91 was their habit, Vorys gave in. 'Al' went to find the Flying Commander and obtained his consent. The Americans were treated quite informally and allowed to arrange such matters as this between themselves.

The detail of two machines was to join the convoy with the Beef Trip across to the Hook of Holland, taking the first relay in the early morning. It was advisable to get a good night's sleep when one was to turn out for active duty. The two friends left the mess soon after dinner and walked to their quarters in the old manor house down by the sea. Their beds were in the same room. They felt wakeful and in the mood for talk. Having undressed and crawled under the blankets, 'Al' remarked:

'Say, John, do you know what I have just been thinking? We are really in the war now. All that training at Palm Beach and Huntington and being run through those schools in France and sticking around here — nothing but student pilots ever since you can remember — and at last we genuine war pilots. Great stuff, isn't it?'

'Right you are, Al,' agreed Vorys. 'Any more orations?'

'We aren't merely looking on any more. You know, we may even get killed.'

'That does happen in war, Al. But why gloom up this nice February night?

Albert had something else on his mind. There were some letters he had been reading and a cable message from a girl he was very fond of, in which she said that she had heard from him but didn't understand.

'What do you suppose that means, John?'

'Well, if you will tell me what you wrote her, perhaps I can tell just how you foozled it.'

'I'll be darned if I will.'

'All right. You are going out with Purdy in the morning and he is a rotten flier and you may never come back, so  p92 I'll have to sit down and read your mail anyhow. So never mind your old letters.'

This finished the conversation. They yawned, bade each other good night and dropped off to sleep. Never again would they laugh and talk together and exchange friendly insults. It was Vorys' last glimpse of his partner of the Yale Unit. Before daylight next morning a quartermaster went around to arouse the officers and men on the duty list. Sturtevant dressed and went out quietly so as not to awaken John Vorys. A hasty breakfast and he trudged sleepily to the sheds and among the great shadowy shapes of the flying-boats. A marine sentry turned on the lights for the working party of engineers and armorers. The two boats were rolled out. Their crews reported and waited for the motors to warm up with a roar that echoed across the harbor.

Purdy and Sturtevant were not in one of the big F‑boats. They had been given a smaller H‑12, one of the last of them to be used for the war flight. They were an inferior type of machine for this work over the North Sea, with the chance of combat. Their construction exposed them to attack from underneath in rear because of the system of bracing which spoiled the range of the machine guns mounted aft. A poor boat in which to fight against odds! The other members of the crew were the engineer, S. J. Holerdge,º and the wireless operator, A. H. Stevensen.

The first pilot of the other boat was Faux, a South African. His second pilot was Bailey. They sailed away in the gray dawn to find the fleet of merchant steamers and destroyers and fly ahead of them in loops of five or ten miles. They were due to return to the station not long after noon. It was sooner than this, at 11.30 o'clock, when one machine came speeding back to Felixstowe. Its two pilots were greatly excited and their nerves unstrung. Faux reported to the C. O. and told the story.

 p93  They had been flying ahead of the convoy, about halfway across the North Sea, with Purdy and Sturtevant in advance by about eight hundred yards. They were about 1200 feet up. The clouds were low, only a little way above them. Out of these screening clouds came ten Hun seaplanes, fast little single-seaters. In beautiful formation they dived from their ambush in the sky. Separating into two squadrons, they made for the two British flying-boats. Faux asserted that he tried to open up his motors and join forces with the companion machine, but the port engine went bad and he was unable to maneuver. In dodging close to the water, he had torn off his wireless antennae and was therefore unable to send a signal for help. He dropped his bombs to lighten the boat and raced for home as fast as he could, pursued by several of the enemy for some distance. These, however, gave up the chase and turned to join the others which had engaged in a running fight with Sturtevant and Purdy.

This doomed British flying-boat, hatred off by vastly superior numbers, was unable to steer in the direction of its own coast. When last seen it was moving to the southward, toward the Belgian shore, with five enemy planes close on its tail. Somewhere near Ostend it was so riddled with machine‑gun fire that it burst into flames and fell into the sea. This was all that could be learned at Felixstowe of the fate of Sturtevant and Purdy, and their engineer and the wireless operator. The cruel fortune of war had tragically wiped them out.

An attempt was promptly made to send out another machine in search, but the strong wind had freshened to a gale and the water was so rough that it was smashed before it got off. Commodore Tyrwhitt had taken his light cruisers and destroyers to sea to look for enemy ships which had made a raid in the Dover Straits. A message asked the flagship to try to find the lost plane or its  p94 wreckage. Three days later the Harwich Flotilla returned to port with no tidings. It was almost a week later when a report came through from a German source that 'a giant seaplane had been shot down in flames off the Belgian coast.'

Valiantly had they fought and died, unshaken by the odds, but the record of Faux, commanding the other plane, was tarnished by the disaster. It was not officially set down against him. In fact a Court of Inquiry cleared him of incompetency or cowardice. But among the comrades of his own mess there was the feeling that he had shown the white feather. His behavior had not measured up to their high code of 'in honor preferring one another.' It was the unspoken verdict that he should have stood by instead of leaving his partners of the war flight to perish alone. The two pilots, Faux and his companion, were told as much by their fellow officers. One of the latter wrote a book called 'The Spider Web,' in which he glossed over the reluctance to engage the enemy, saying no more than:

Purdy made a right-hand turn and steered in a southwesterly direction. Faux opened out his engines and started to turn after him, but his port engine failed and he swung away to the left, thus opening the distance between him and Purdy. Faux found that the air mixture control lever had moved forward with the throttle and had shut down one engine, but in the few seconds it took to put this right, three of the enemy were on top of him and four on Purdy's tail. Faux now had five seaplanes attacking him. He turned for England and roared over the sea, followed by the enemy. Each time they dived they were met by a burst from the rear guns. Finally they kept well astern and sniped from long range. A bullet wrecked the two wind-driven petrol pumps and the wireless operator had to leave one of the rear guns and pump up petrol by hand.

For thirty minutes the chase continued and then Faux ran into a bank of mist. When well in this he turned sharply to the right, the Huns overran him, lost him, and he returned safely to harbor. This was the first boat shot down by the enemy and there was  p95 keen sorrow in the mess over the loss of the crew, both pilots being exceedingly fine fellows and their ratings held in high esteem by their mess-mates.

The undercurrent of sentiment that the surviving first pilot might have done something nobler than merely saving his own skin was casting its ripples on the surface. They were perceived by John Vorys, for instance, and in confidence his British friends at the station expressed their critical opinions. Rumors reached the American naval headquarters in London. The Admiralty was frankly asked and the answer was as candid. Yes, the conduct of the fleeing plane had been unsatisfactory, but the Court of Inquiry had been unable to establish it by means of the evidence available. The case would be reopened, however, should the American naval authorities insist. On the other hand, the pilot in question felt his position very keenly and he would be most unlikely to err again. He was badly needed — pilots were in great demand — and wouldn't it be just as well to waive the punishment of dismissal and let him profit by the bitter lesson? This is how the matter was left. It was one of those complex situations, immensely difficult to handle, which occurs now and then in a war‑time organization. It was no aspersion against the courage and ideals of the Felixstowe personnel as a whole.

The possibility that he had been deserted was acutely painful for the kinfolk and friends of Albert Sturtevant to contemplate, and yet it made his finish even more glorious. So blind and illogical and pitiless is war that it was his fate to be shot down with never a chance in his first contact with the enemy. And yet the life of this gallant gentleman and Yale athlete was not thrown away. He dared and paid the price, flashing out of life like a meteor, in all the splendor of audacious youth. It was his distinction to be the first American aviator, by land or sea, to lose his life in combat during the World War.

 p96  Sudden death was a frequent incident of the North Sea patrol, in the air or among the heroic British submarines and the venturesome destroyers and the hardy trawlers that went out to do their duty. The loss of Albert Sturtevant, however, caused unusual regret among the officers and men with whom he had been associated for so short a time. This was reflected in the letters they wrote. Commander Porte, addressing Rear Admiral Cayley, had this to say:

I am writing to tell you how sorry we all are at the loss of young Sturtevant of the United States Navy. He had been at this station about three months and in that short time had thoroughly endeared himself to every one. He was an excellent pilot and extremely keen in all his work. His personal courage was of the highest order and his influence on the station was all for the good. The day before he was lost he came to me and asked if he could be given more work to do, as he felt he was not doing enough. All I can say is that I wish I had a few more like him. I would like very much that his relatives should know our opinion of him and how much we regret his loss.

Young Ensign A. W. Hawkins, who had joined the American training group after Christmas, felt moved to write to Admiral Cayley:

Sir — I would like to express my appreciation of the kind and courteous manner in which you received us and expressed your sympathy at the loss of one of our number, Ensign Sturtevant. We are all new at the game and this was our first experience of the kind, so very naturally it hit us pretty hard.

He was a very likeable, clean‑cut fellow, as you know, and treated his work here as an absorbing game which he played cheerfully and well. He was just as popular with the English pilots as he was with us. He was what they term a 'full out' pilot and his death was a very real loss to our service. Our keenest regret is that he did not live to accomplish more of the good work which his energy and ability so amply promised.

Honest John Vorys, never known to say a word more  p97 than he meant, added his tribute in a letter to the Admiral at Harwich.

Sir — I wish to express my thanks to you for the interest you have taken in the American officers here and especially for the thoughtful sympathy you have shown with us in the loss of our brother officer, Ensign Sturtevant. His death is a great loss to us, me personally because I was probably his closest friend here. We had been together constantly for three months in training and on leave. But i also feel that by his death the naval air services of both my own and your own countries suffered an exceptional loss. He was unusually well trained for his work, by his mechanical engineering course at college, his flying experience in America and in France, and by his thorough assimilation of the work here at Felixstowe.

He was constantly observing and obtaining information about the station, and writing down what he learned so that his notebooks have been a help to the American officers who came down later, and were invaluable in making our reports for our own headquarters. He was a good flier and although we were all inexperienced he put so much care and thought into his work as a pilot that the R. N. A. S. officers regarded him as especially capable and trustworthy.

After all, we Americans miss him most, and I think the British officers do, too, because he was so attractive personally, with his frank sincerity, his keen sense of the ridiculous, and his occasional outbursts of good-natured criticism, or 'grousing,' as the English say. We have lost an able and gallant officer and a true friend.

It was only a week after his death that Yale men of all ages gathered in New Haven for Alumni Day, on February 22d. Said the Springfield Republican:

This was Albert Sturtevant's day at Yale. Nominally it was Alumni Day and no greater gathering was ever seen for that occasion than that which witnessed on the Hewitt quadrangle this noon the unfolding of Yale's undergraduate service flag with its 912 stars. But these alumni, white-haired men of years and honors, lawyers and business executives in their prime, pink cheeked young officers from Camp Devens, gave their day to Albert Sturtevant.

 p98  Nearly three years ago it was, after seven lean years of terrible defeat and one of a victory by a margin of inches so finely drawn that the charge of 'fluke' would never die, Captain Albert Sturtevant's crew of eight stalwart oarsmen swept across the line in the historic Thames regatta, victors over the long triumphant Harvard by five decisive lengths. That June night Yale gave to Albert Sturtevant, too.

But the honor that was paid him of the day was a different kind of honor and for a different service. A few days ago press dispatches reported the death of Ensign Albert Sturtevant, United States Naval Aviation, flying in the North Sea, 'attacked by ten enemy planes.' By now Yale's roll of honor has more than one name on it, but today Albert Sturtevant was Yale's war hero. When the sons of Yale pledged themselves anew to the duties of patriotism, his was the name that they invoked.

At Felixstowe John Vorys had the task of getting his room-mate's personal belongings together so they could be sent home. That jest about looking after his mail had come true. It was the policy of the station to keep its losses to itself. And so John had to try to bluff it out, explaining to the ladies who had been so fond of dancing with 'Al' that he had gone away on leave or had been sent to another station. It was hard to keep smiling and answer all the questions.

When John went out on his next patrol, after a spell of bad weather, he was in a lumbering bus of an experimental type which could do no more than seventy knots wide open. He had no great confidence in the first pilot. And the other machine, flying in front, was in charge of Faux in whom John felt no reliance at all. He and his three shipmates were uneasily of the opinion that if they should meet a flock of Huns the same thing might possibly happen again. They had no intention of being left alone to fight it out. Therefore they clung very close to the tail of the leading plane and could not be shaken off.

Faux semaphored, radioed, and flashed signals for  p99 them to keep off and avoid the risk of collision, but there they stuck. There was method in it. Distance had no charm for them. Vorys glanced at the water now and then, but most of the time his gaze was turned skyward. The wireless operator, instead of sitting at his table, also stood with an eye cocked to the clouds. The engineer forsook his motors and spent the morning in the after ring-mount where he, too, could watch the heavens. According to John, they were an intrepid crew, not!

At last they sighted a small seaplane which appeared to be alone. The two boats made for it, still affectionately close together. It turned out to be a British machine from Margate which had strayed up into Felixstowe territory and was in a state of mind, thinking the two big boats were Germans. It was an uneasy experience until they recognized each other.

Vorys had one sensational voyage shortly before he was ordered to the United States on March 1, 1918. The bright minds of the Admiralty had conceived the scheme of towing planes across the North Sea on lighters and then letting them fly landward and bomb the German bases. This gave them a much larger cruising radius and they might do some effective damage. It was an idea, more or less fantastic, which was tried elsewhere. Vorys was elected to go in one of the planes. His recital lacks enthusiasm.

Destroyers towed the lighters out somewhere in the North Sea. They cast off and did pretty work in swinging in line, quartering the wind, and then steaming slowly into the wind to spout a film of oil to calm the raging main for us poor aviators. Barring a man who got knocked overboard in his sea‑boots, things went very well up to this point. Water was let into the lighters to submerge them and we slipped of in neat style. After that! Oh my, oh my! My boat poked its nose under the first wave and got a thick layer of crude oil. It was plastered all over the wind-shield, the first pilot's goggles and the compass. He  p100 bravely tried to take off without being able to see a thing. I was spitting oil and counting the bounces. Fourteen of them before we staggered blindly out of the oil and managed to get in the air! The only bus that managed to take off without a frightful mess was one that sneaked out of the oil patch into clear water.

We headed east toward Germany, with sealed orders. Of course I supposed we were bound on a raid, else why all the fuss with the silly lighter? However, we soon turned south. Then, after some amazing evolutions by the leading machine, we drifted off generally west, sighted the coast of old England about forty miles from Felixstowe, and so made our way home. It was then learned that we had been ordered to make a good course south-east and then do our regular spider web. It was a practice flight, not a raid as I took for granted, to try out the lighters and get acquainted with the route. The happy-go‑lucky navigation of the leading plane had come near putting us over Germany without intending to pay a visit. The navigator in question happened to be one Ensign Fallon.

This was my last notable exploit. I never saw a German submarine or aeroplane while in English waters. I was under fire twice — in two air raids in London — but like many others of the five million I marvelously escaped damage.

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