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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 41

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 43
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

Vol. II
Chapter XLII

Hopping Over the Alps

With a sigh of relief, we have all the pilgrims to Italy safely off our hands excepting Coombe and Bartow Read. One feels reluctant to leave them until they have been safely accounted for, undamaged and right-side up. The entire Italian chapter is like one of those movie 'serials' in which the hero continually ducks disaster and toys with sudden death. You simply have to know what happens to him next. This one might have been labeled, 'And the Caproni Still Pursued Him.' Reginald Coombe was meanwhile making a collection of troubles of his own. He became entangled with the expedition which was expected to make Austrians hard to find at the Cattaro base, but which proved to be a dud. Colonel Grey, of the Royal Air Force, came down to take a hand in trying to expedite the delivery of Capronis to the Northern Bombing Group. He brought with him a group of Handley-Page pilots who were to serve as second pilots with the American officers detailed to ferry nine Capronis to France. These were ready to be taken over from the factory.

On August 27th, five of these started from Taliedo, with Colonel Grey in the lead. The other first pilots were Otis, McCormick, Henderson, and Palmer. As they were about to leave, an Italian motorista crawled through the after propeller of Henderson's machine and was instantly killed. This was not an auspicious omen. On the following day, two more Capronis left, for the south of Italy, for service against the Austrians. One of them crashed at Pisa that same day.

 p233  Coombe was trying to keep things from stalling in the factory and to overcome that unfortunate Italian habit of 'Domani.' While waiting around, Landon flew one of these planes south to Gioja del Colle. According to Coombe, this was the only one of a flock of them which reached the destination without crashing. Reginald had expected to make this flight, but was prevented by temporary disability which he explains as follows:

I was up with an Italian pilot in one of the new machines of the lot that was to be sent to the Northern Bombing Group. The pilot lost his head and tried to land across the field with tail to the wind. Of course he would have overshot, and, seeing this, he put the machine on the ground at flying speed. The result was that the landing-gear was swept off and the plane thrown upon her nose. It happened so quickly that the first thing I knew I was pinned with my face to the ground and the Italian pilot jammed against me, howling and shrieking with blood pouring from his mouth. It was very unpleasant because there was no telling whether the machine was going to catch fire or not. Gasoline trickled down the tanks which were resting upon our prostrate forms and if they had blazed up we would have been fried to a turn. However, they pulled us out and our hurts were not serious. The Italian's collar-bone was broken, and my ankle cut. It put me in bed for two weeks.

About this time, Eddie McDonnell came down with Harry Davison and Percy Morgan and Ken Smith to take planes up north. Sam Walker was selected as one of the first pilots, but he was really too soon out of the hospital to undertake the trip. It accounted, I think, for his crashing in the Alps. Anxiety to get to his wounded brother Joe was what persuaded him to try it.

Two more machines left on August 10th. This took all the spare pilots but Kilmer, Maxwell, and myself. I planned to take Kilmer as my second pilot and to make a start as soon as I could get out of bed. We were all set on the 14th and pulled out for Milan with a favoring wind, in Caproni B‑16. The weather was fine. We flew at 2500 metres and made a record as far as Turin — an hour and five minutes. Here the complications began to ensue, as it were. We found Harry Davison, Ken Smith, McDonnell, and McCormick all laid up with motor troubles. This  p234 was as far as they had flown on the road to France. What now dawned on them and us and everybody else concerned was that the Fiat motors were all to the bad.

Two machines resumed the trip on the 15th, but one caught fire and had to turn back. McDonnell and I made an attempt to leave next day, but my oil system clogged and the pump had to be dismounted. We tried it again the day after that and both of us had to turn back because of motor troubles. It dawned on us again that the Fiat engine was liable to make a fellow feel a bit uncomfortable and all that sort of thing.

On the 17th, all the planes excepting mine appeared to be ready to try it across the mountains. Nichols and Terres, both ensigns, were in No. 1 machine, with an enlisted mechanician. They opened up the motors and took off the length of the field in the wind. Everything seemed all right until the Caproni reached a height of 150 feet, when the left motor suddenly stopped. They tried a wide turn to the right to get back to the field when the right motor also stopped, throwing the machine into a very quick turn. Almost simultaneously the rear motor died. The plane slipped off on the wing and was instantly in a dive, just beginning to spin when it hit the aerodrome on the nose.

We ran over to the wreck, but both Nichols and Terres had been killed. The mechanician died on the way to the hospital. It was a dreadful sight. Their bodies had been smashed. The machine was broken into little pieces, utterly demolished.

A Board of Inquiry was appointed, but the condition of the wreck made it impossible to discover just what had happened, but it was probably due to an air‑lock in the gasoline system, stopping the flow. The three men were buried in a cemetery near the city. The funeral was impressive, with officers and officials in attendance. This accident made us feel even more uncomfortable about flying the Capronis.

On August 19th, I got off first, followed by McDonnell and Palmer. The day was cloudy and we were unable to see the mountains until we were right on them. Then the clouds completely blanketed us. It was impossible to go ahead, so McDonnell turned back to the field and I followed him. Then for several days we had to wait for clear weather. Four machines of us made another start on the 23d, piloted by McDonnell, Palmer, Hudson, and myself. I led off and had a nasty experience while  p235 doing so. I opened up the two side motors, then pulled back the middle throttle, and something stuck. The motors opened up for no more than 800 revolutions. The machine barely lifted from the ground and I just cleared the factory roofs. It was cheery to see the ambulance ready on the aerodrome. They expected some of us to repeat poor Nichols's disaster.

Because of this slow get‑away I was behind the others in gaining my altitude and was only about 1000 metres when we reached the first valley. Hudson had to quit because of engine trouble. McDonnell was leading. The route lay through a pass running due northwest. This pass forked at Susa, which we reached in forty-five minutes. Here two routes were possible; one to the right up over Lake Cenis, and the other to the left over a little place called Oulx. Both valleys met again at Modane. At Susa we split and I lost sight of the other machine until I reached the aerodrome at Lyons. Just west of Susa is a long high ridge running about northeast-southwest, its height averaging about 3000 metres. At this point the higher peaks had been reached. To the right of Susa was the Roche-Melon 3537 metres, and to the left the Chaberton, 3138 metres. I had not quite enough altitude to cross over the ridge, so followed the valley around to the right in a northwesterly direction over Lake Cenis, passing over a little village of Lanslebourg nestling in the valley at the junction of the Arc and Isère Rivers.

Up to this point my altitude had ranged between 1000 and 2000 metres, and at that low altitude the air in the valleys was frightfully rough. A tremendous bump would come on one wing and turn the machine towards the mountain, first on one side, followed by an equally hard bump on the other, which turned us in the opposite direction. I never had to work so hard in my life to keep the machine steady. However, by the time we reached Lanslebourg and we had gained about 3000 metres, the air was smoother. From Lanslebourg we took a course a point or so south of west and passed directly over the ridge known as the Dent Parrachee, altitude of 3512 metres. Cutting over the southern extremity of the ridge, we passed just to the right of the town of Modane, where we could see the railroad run into the Mont Cenis Tunnel. This particular group of peaks is known as the Massif de la Vanoise. Modane lies in a valley which curves around in a northwesterly direction through St. Michael, St. Avre, Aiguebelle, up to Chambéry. Instead of following this  p236 valley around, I steered directly over the peaks and ridges headed straight for Chambéry. My altitude was sufficient to permit a good view of the valleys for some distance and I kept my bearings by means of the different peaks and glaciers, which were all clearly marked on the maps.

Leaving Modane, I kept on a northwesterly course, keeping Aiguilles D'Arves, 3514 metres, on my left straight on over the Groupe de Rousses, a long straight ridge of mountains running southwest-northeast. Past this ridge was another parallel to it, the Chaine de Belle Donne, the last high ridge to be crossed. Before us lay the Isère River with Grenoble to the south, and Chambéry almost straight ahead. The country gradually flattened out into a wide plain. I passed almost directly over Chambéry keeping the Lac Bourget (Aix-les‑Bains) to the right. The rest of the trip was easy going, for stretching miles and miles ahead over the plain was a long straight highway into Lyons. Following this road we found the aerodrome at Bron, three or four miles east of Lyons.

We had left Turin at 10.45 and landed at Bron at 1.55, three hours and ten minutes for the entire trip. This was a little longer than it should have been under ordinary conditions, but we had to buck a strong head wind almost the entire way. My altitude had been something over 4000 metres during the larger part of the trip. Save for a few clouds in the valleys, the air was clear as crystal. As far as one could see all around were snow capped peaks, glaciers, and little green winding valleys; while on the right Mont Blanc stood out towering above the other peaks with its 4804 metres. It was a very peculiar sensation to pass over a ridge, look down a few hundred feet to see nothing but desolate ice and snow, and then a minute later to have a green valley many thousands of feet underneath. It was a marvelous trip, and one that had been made, I suppose, by no more than six or seven machines.

I found that McDonnell had beaten me to Lyons by a few minutes, while some ten minutes after I landed, the third machine came in. At eleven o'clock the next morning, McDonnell's machine got away for Dijon. I followed, but had to return on account of backfire in the carburetor. I was unable to get away until the afternoon and made Dijon at five o'clock after an hour and a half trip through very pretty country along the Saone River.

 p237  The next day was spent in getting our machines into some sort of shape, as both McDonnell and I had experienced some trouble with the motors. The next afternoon, the 30th, we were both ready. I got my three motors running and waited a while for McDonnell to get his started. He seemed unable to start his center motor so I left alone. Shortly after leaving Dijon, we ran into heavy low clouds which bothered us for the balance of the trip. This was the most difficult lap of the whole journey as far as finding one's way was concerned. Crossing the Alps we had been able to follow peaks and valleys, but this country was all pretty flat and with not one river to guide us. Also it was the longest leg of the journey.

Forty-five minutes after leaving Dijon, we were lost, apparently not having allowed enough for the heavy cross-wind. We were unable to find ourselves on the narrow roller map which we were using, so I brought out a larger map which I had with me. By means of this we were able to locate ourselves. It was a pretty nasty, uninteresting trip.

We did not hit Orly until just at dark, a good three hours after leaving Dijon. We left the machine in the hands of the Army authorities at Orly, and drove the five or six miles into Paris.

We reported next morning to Captain Hanrahan at headquarters and found 'Ken' MacLeish and George Moseley there. The larger part of the Northern Bombing organization was already near Calais. Captain Hanrahan gave us orders to proceed to St. Inglevert and to deliver the planes to Bob Lovett in command there. Three days of rain kept us in Paris, not very much against our will. On the 2d, we got away from Orly, eleven o'clock in the morning. I shall never forget the beautiful sight of the city of Paris underneath us. There was not a cloud in the sky; everything stood out sharply and distinctly. We got across the southwest corner of the city passing to the left of the Eiffel Tower, headed up north for Beauvais toward Calais.

An hour after leaving the city, we ran into a heavy rainstorm which we weathered for a few minutes. It got so bad, however, that I decided to land at an aerodrome which we happened to pass. This was at Formerie, on the field of a Voisin night-bombing squadron. The personnel of this station had left, taking with them forty planes that very morning. Owing to the recent Allied offensive and the advance of the lines, this outfit had had to  p238 move up nearer the front. We laid up here for a couple of hours, getting away again when things looked a bit clearer in the afternoon. Only a few minutes after leaving, we ran into rain again and very heavy winds as we reached the coast. The route lay to the west of Amiens over Étaples to Boulogne, and thence to St. Inglevert, which lay on the Calais-Boulogne road about five miles from Calais. I never had to land in such rough air as we struck going down at St. Inglevert. We got into a small slip a few feet from the ground, which I was able to get out of by using one side motor. A very high wind was blowing and we were considerably fortunate in having landed without smashing.

Bob Lovett was in charge of the outfit here, which consisted of 200 or 300 men and about fifteen officers. The aerodrome was used by 214 Squadron R. A. F., one of the original R. N. A. S. Handley-Page outfits in command of Major Brackley. Those officers who had already made the trip up from Italy were stationed here, going over the lines with the British in the after-seat of the Handleys to get experience and knowledge of the country.

It was just about my turn to get into the 214 Squadron when orders came for me to go with Eddie McDonnell and a Caproni to our repair base at Eastleigh, England. I tried to get out of this duty, but could not do so. The idea was to have this Caproni taken down and rebuilt, and it was to be my job to test the rebuilt machine out, not a very agreeable one. It had been found impossible to use these pieces of junk over the lines. One machine had made an attempt in a raid over Ostend, but motor trouble had developed and the machine had come to grief on the beach off Dunkirk. By this time everybody was leery of the machines.

While at St. Inglevert one very unfortunate accident occurred. Palmer's machine, which I had left at Lyons, came in one afternoon, landed across the aerodrome, turned about to taxi into the hangars and was running along at about twelve to fifteen miles an hour on the ground when suddenly the wheels stuck in a soft spot. The pilots opened the two side motors a little to shake her free, but the wheels still held, the tail came up and the plane dropped slowly on to her nose. The fuselage had broken off just forward of the pilots' seat and the dashboard pinned the pilots in so that they were unable to move. Both propellers, hitting the ground, broke off and the motor started racing. The mechanic seated in the rear machine gun cage was thrown clear and made an attempt to cut the motors, but succeeded in stopping  p239 only one. In a few seconds the whole machine was a mass of flames. It was impossible to get anywhere near the two men, Frothingham and Palmer, and fire extinguishers were no use whatever. It was an awful sight to be there and see these two men burn up, but there was absolutely nothing that could be done. Frothingham had a little black dog called 'Caproni,' which he had picked up in Italy, very much like a Pomeranian. The pup was in poor Palmer's flying-suit at this time, but was able to extricate itself and jump free.

Lieutenant Reginald Coombe forgets to include mention in his story of a letter he received from Captain David Hanrahan with reference to the tragic death of these two American pilots. It read as follows:

Northern Bombing Group H. Q.

2 October, 1918

Subject: Commendatory action in the face of danger.

I have been informed of the part you took in attempting to save the lives of the two pilots, Ensigns Frothingham and Palmer, when Caproni plane B‑11 was wrecked and burned on the field at Squadron #1 on the afternoon of September 15, 1918.

Such cool and courageous action as you displayed in attempting to extricate the two unconscious pilots from their pinned‑in position in the plane, while it was a mass of flames, and in attempting to extinguish the fire, speak well for your own devotion to duty and are in keeping with the highest aims of our service. It gives me a great measure of satisfaction to commend you for it.

A copy of this letter has been sent to the Department with the request that it be appended to your record.

Resuming Coombe's narrative and carrying it to a conclusion, he goes on to say:

I left with Eddie McDonnell on the 27th of September for Eastleigh. We crossed over the Channel to Folkestone, then followed the coast south passing over Hastings and Brighton. At Shoreham we hit some bad weather about lunch time so decided to come down and have a bite to eat while it passed over. This was a school of the Gosport type for instructors, and the flying here was the most finished I had ever seen. It was a beautiful  p240 thing to watch. Avros and Camels were the only machines used. After lunching at the British mess we pushed on and reached Eastleigh about five in the afternoon, an hour away, the whole trip having taken us about three hours. Eastleigh was an enormous place, looking like a great factory; all the hangars being of concrete. Commander Bulmer was in command. This was the termination of my trip, Milan, Italy, to Eastleigh, England, which had taken some fifteen hours of flying time. I think that Eddie McDonnell and myself were the only two in the Unit to make the trip up from Italy as first pilots.

Eastleigh was situated about four miles from Southampton, and it was proposed to do all the repair work for the Northern Bombing Group at this point. Disabled machines, motors to be overhauled, and any other general repair work was to be sent from the field to Eastleigh where the work would be done, the machines re‑equipped and flown out to the front again. Also new material, planes and motors, were to go directly to Eastleigh from the factories, to be assembled there, tested and fully equipped and flown out to the lines. There were about 1500 men quartered at the station and 60 officers. Most of the officers being engineers or motor experts. Ken MacLeish was in charge of the flying, and he was the only officer whom I knew on the station. There was practically no work of any kind for me to do as the machine was immediately stripped down and disassembled as soon as I delivered it. I flew around a bit with Ken in some of the DH's, of which there were three types on the station. We had the Liberty DH‑4, from the United States which was beginning to come in ever-increasing numbers; and the British DH‑9a, an improvement on the 4, powered with Liberty motors; and an instruction machine, the old DH‑6.

On the 30th of September a telegram came for me from Captain Hanrahan to report to headquarters, London, for orders to proceed to Milan for further ferrying of Caproni's. This took the wind out of my sails for I had little desire to bring another one of those aerial caskets up from Italy. However, there was nothing to do but to go to London, which I did the next day. At headquarters I met Charlie Fuller and Alphy Ames who were stationed there, and also Fearing who had been with us in the fall of 1917 at Hourtin. Much to my relief I found that it had been decided in view of all the accidents that had occurred to discontinue the ferrying of these machines this very morning.  p241 Apparently, of the twenty brand‑new machines to leave Italy, only eight had gotten up to Calais, the other twelve having crashed. Five people had been killed and several others injured.

I had an opportunity of going out on to one of our battle­ships, the Wyoming, and saw the Grand Fleet at close quarters. A wonderful sight it was to see the Firth of Forth one mass of gray battle­ships. The balance of my leave I spent in London, except for a run out to Sandwich and return to Eastleigh with Frank Lynch, who had just been detailed to duty there on the 25th of October. I had practically nothing to do from that time on until the Armistice. It was slow work getting the Caproni into shape and it was not until the 10th of November that the three motors were on the test stand. I was not sorry that the Armistice came the next day, for two of the three motors immediately caught fire as soon as started.

We all saw that there was going to be nothing else to do in our line so Frank Lynch, who was at Headquarters in London, got orders for Harry Davison, Bill Blair, himself and me to take the first boat out of Liverpool sailing November 16th.​1

The Author's Note:

1 From the Fitness Reports, Navy Department

Period from 13 June to 21 September, 1918:

This officer (Lieutenant (j.g.) Reginald G. Coombe) has been known to the writer for over a year and he has always proven himself excellent officer material. He flies either seaplanes or Caproni machines in an excellent manner and applies himself to his work at all times. Is very willing, thorough, and a hard worker and will undertake any duties assigned him without question. Knows how to handle men and is very popular with both officers and men. An excellent officer and a gentleman.

J. L. Callan, Lieut. Comdr., U. S. N. R. F.

C. O., U. S. N. Air Stations in Italy

Period from 1 April to 11 June, 1918:

This officer has served at LeCroisic Air Station since November 1, 1917. He has efficiently performed all duties assigned to him which included the following details:

Seaplane pilot  months
Chief pilot 1  month
Executive officer 1  month
Ordnance and instrument 1  month
Repair officer 1  month

He has displayed an ever ready, eager, active interest in his duties and will give satisfaction in any work assigned him.

W. M. Corry, Lieutenant, U. S. N.

Commanding, U. S. N. A. S. Le Croisic, France

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