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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 5

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 7
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

Vol. I
Chapter VI

Solos and Strange Adventures

The naval maneuvers furnished the high lights of the summer training. As one of the results, the Unit was invited to move to the submarine base at New London for the autumn months. This was under discussion for some time and meanwhile the young men were putting in all the flying hours possible before returning to college. What it meant to earn a diploma as a soloist has been luridly described by Vorys, to wit:

While we tried to learn to fly that summer, undeterred by bad weather, the sinking of the floating hangar, the Wild West Show at Sheepshead Bay and Dave McCulloch's artistic temperament, I began to see that somewhere behind all this fun was a real plan and a vision. And I became intensely interested in the strategy hidden behind all those fascinating things I was learning day by day.

When 'Di' Gates soloed and got his Aero Club ticket, it was late in the afternoon, twilight, in fact. At the mark for him to aim at, Dave and I were in a little skiff tied to a spar buoy. Dave was as near nervous as he could be, over this the first fledgling to be pushed out of the nest, and was distractedly smoking cigarettes made of chewing gum wrappers and some scraps of Bull Durham he found in the skiff.

The blood red sun was very pretty to look at, but it didn't furnish much light for 'Di's' purpose. All he could see was one dark blot to shoot for. As he shut off and glided down, he could make out the spar but he forgot all about us in the skiff. Evidently he was about to land plump on top of Dave and me. We stood up and waved and hollered. 'Di' picked up his near wing as he made a slight turn. Then Dave and I dropped into the bottom of the skiff to duck his right pontoon. After a few tentative skips, he slithered onto the water in a very creditable landing and another airman was made. I didn't solo that summer, neither did Alphy and Erl, my hated rivals in the boob flier class.

 p49  The opening of college did not mean that work had to be abandoned. The machines were kept at Port Washington a few weeks longer before shifting two of them to New London. Albert Ditman and Wells Brown, in business in New York, were able to get in some flying during week-ends and occasionally in the afternoon. This enabled Ditman to qualify and get his aviator's rating in the autumn. This made four in all, Trubee Davison, Gates, Lovett, and Ditman. Wells Brown tells a most dramatic story of one of these excursions:

Ditman and I went down to Port Washington on a fine October afternoon to take a little hop. We flew to Peacock Point and landed there. Ditman took John Hayes Hammond, Jr., up for some observation tests in connection with the wireless torpedo he was working on at that time, so I waited at the Davison's until they returned. The sun was sinking when we finally shoved off for Port Washington and we knew it would be a close call to get in before dark.

All was going well until we reached a point off Glen Cove harbor when suddenly without any warning the motor stopped. We landed well out in the middle of the Sound and proceeded to look things over, in hopes that we could fix the trouble and get back to the hangars. After working for some time and cranking ourselves to death, we discovered that the magneto shaft had sheared off and there was no possible way to repair it. By this time the sun had set completely and it was growing dark.

We looked in vain for a boat to come to our rescue, but although we yelled ourselves hoarse we got no response from the vessels in sight. Pitch darkness set in and a brisk wind came up from the west, blowing us eastward and incidentally away from home. As luck would have it we had descended in the middle of the Sound and right in the path of the big Sound steamers. We could see their lights bearing down on us.

I must admit it made us pretty fretty as there were no lights on our plane and if one of those big boats had hit us, no one would even have known what had happened to a couple of alleged fliers. We made all the noise we could but nobody paid any attention. Finally we decided to sit down and made the best of a bad job. This was not an easy thing for me to do, for aside  p50 from the thought of being knocked into oblivion at any moment by a passing steamer I had an engagement for that evening with the only girl in the world. (She has been kind enough to marry me since then.) She was very nervous about flying so I could picture her feelings as the hour grew later and I hadn't shown up.

Along about ten o'clock, after drifting for five and a half hours, the wind changed and blew us toward the Connecticut shore. We came in so close that we could see the houses on the shore and our spirits rose tremendously. However, the luck broke wrong again and when we were almost near enough to reach the shore, the wind shifted once more and we drifted out to the Lord knew where.

Along about midnight we were being blown toward a shore of some kind. We could hear the waves pounding on the rocks. However, reef or no reef, it was a mighty welcome place and we made ready to jump out and try to save the boat from being hammered to pieces. This we succeeded in doing very well and after securing the boat we decided that I should ramble off in search of aid and comfort while Albert stood by the ship.

After walking miles and miles, or it seemed like that, I found we had landed on a desert island where 'man had never set foot.' This was impression while blundering about in the dark. On general principles I yelled for help. It sounded foolish, but presently I heard a faint reply to my stentorian shouts. I legged it as hard as I could in the direction of the friendly voice. The response grew stronger and my hopes higher. At last the rescuer and I bumped into each other. Here we draw a curtain over the scene. Albert and I had been hailing each other all the time, like a couple of lunatics, both expecting to be saved from the fate of shipwrecked mariners! Albert cursed bitterly. I never do.

We blundered about until we could see a light on what appeared to be the nearest point of the Connecticut shore. It didn't look so far and I was in a desperate state of mind so I concluded to swim for it. Having stripped to B. V. D.'s and a jacket life preserver, I plunged in, leaving Albert to wait to be salvaged. He was poor company by this time. It turned out to be a fairly short swim. I climbed the rocks and looked for the light we had seen from the desert island. There were several houses close by but these were dark and empty. The summer cottagers had long since fled.

 p51  Hanged if this wasn't another uninhabited island! The light that had lured me on came from the mainland which was some distance beyond. A man of weaker fibre would have sat down and wept. I was ready to swim a few miles more, but the hoodoo had been lifted. I found a rowboat and rowed to the genuine terra firma of Connecticut. Albert Ditman could be saved, or so I took for granted. And what was a thousand times more important, I should be able to send word to my girl.

The light that had so long eluded me proved to be in a kitchen. I knocked on the door. Nobody answered. I pounded again and made the welkin ring with my lusty cries. Nothing doing. As dead as a tomb! I turned the knob and walked right in. It was a basement kitchen so I climbed the back stairs and entered the hall. There I shouted some more. From the next flight of stairs there floated the voice of a shy and frightened female. This was a servant who had been left all alone in the house. She was agitated and can you blame her? Soothingly I made her listen. She steadied down while I explained that I was no burglar but a perfectly harmless aviator who had been cast ashore.

The young woman screwed up her courage to come downstairs and show me where the telephone was. Horrors! I had forgotten my costume or the scandalous lack of it! At any instant she might snap on a light. B. V. D.'s and a life jacket might shock this worthy female for life. And my own embarrassment was most painful. It was a situation for the modern school of realistic fiction. With swift presence of mind I begged her to stay where she was. She obeyed. I groped for a closet and found a coat. It was not a long coat, but it helped. The young woman was somewhat startled. Perhaps 'intrigued' is the word. Bravely she steered me to the telephone where I called my girl and also the Davison house.

I learned that the Shuttle had been out looking for us all night and that Trubee was about to send George Baker's yacht to join the search. This was flattering. Apparently we were quite highly thought of. I told Trubee where we were. Then I thanked the lone female, again apologizing for the deficiency of trousers, and hiked it back to find my trusty comrade, Albert Ditman. Instead of swimming I used the rowboat. Albert was not where I had left him. Neither were my clothes and shoes. I was shivering with cold. The rocks cut my bare feet as I limped  p52 in the direction of our own boat. What I thought about Albert for taking my shoes ought to have killed him.

When, at last, I found him, the argument was violent. As soon as I ran out of breath and there was a lull, he explained that he hadn't touched my damned shoes and clothes. He resented my language. As a matter of fact, I was the goat. A rising tide had floated them off from where I had left them, clothes, shoes, money, jewelry, the whole outfit. I was a total ruin. Albert consented to forgive me. After all, I had saved his life at the sacrifice of personal property and modesty. We sat there on the island for hours and hours longer, until the Viking's searchlight picked us up. Safe on board, we enjoyed a hot bath and a hot drink. I forgot to mention the fact that I had been keeping Albert's money for him. It, too, went out with the tide. His generous nature was severely tried.

For the undergraduate members of the Unit, it was pleasant to be in New Haven again, but the campus no longer bounded their horizon. They were marking time. To stay in college meanwhile was a duty. They were so many Micawbers of the sky, expectantly waiting for something to turn up. Athletes like Gates were not permitted to imperil their precious necks in flying for fun during the football season. The others were not so valuable to the University and they thought a Sunday wasted unless they could hustle to Port Washington and hop off in the crisp October weather.

Trubee Davison and John Farwell plastered themselves with notoriety by flying to New Haven for Sunday chapel. They dropped in as casually as if they had motored from Long Island. It was nothing sensational in their young lives, but it made a great stir on the campus and in the newspapers. At eight o'clock in the morning they were eating breakfast at Peacock Point. Then they drove to Port Washington in thirty-five minutes. Inserting themselves into a machine they fooled about in the air for some twenty minutes and then soared in a bee‑line for New Haven.

 p53  Alighting on the harbor, they reached the campus comfortably in time for chapel, after which they loafed about for a couple of hours. Leaving Farwell there, Trubee invited Erl Gould to fly home for luncheon with him. This they did with time to spare. Young men had been known to flee from chapel, but for the first time in recorded history they were willing to fly to it.

This devout spirit should have pleased the college authorities, but the resultant publicity made Trubee uneasy. With his customary sagacity he decided to call on Dean Frederick Jones before he was sent for. There was an unhappy suspicion that attending chapel by aeroplane had rubbed the Dean the wrong way. And it was time to find out, if possible, just how the Unit stood and whether it was regarded with sympathy in official quarters.

Trubee marched into the office with the air of a brave man. Dean Jones was writing at his desk. Several generations of Yale undergraduates have discovered for themselves that he wears a kind heart beneath a manner that can be hard-boiled. He glanced up from his desk to bark abruptly:

'Was that you flying around here on Sunday, Trubee?'

'Yes, sir.'

Trubee meant to follow this up by putting over the idea of the Unit, what it had done and what it hoped to do. This was difficult because Dean Jones kept steadily on with his writing and seemed to pay no attention to the boy orator. However, Trubee proceeded to get the arguments out of his system. He talked for one half-hour by the clock, and the Dean was still writing. This was worse than 'converting father.'

At length Trubee gave it up. He had run out of gas. Then Mr. Frederick Jones laid down his pen, looked up with the friendliest expression in that rugged face of his, and exclaimed:

 p54  'Trubee, I think that's fine! It's great! Now tell me what I can do for you. I'm with you.'

'All we want is your moral support, encouragement, and everything,' answered Trubee, quite bowled off his pins.

'You can count on it. I tell you what I'll do. You bring one of your seaplanes up here and I will go up with you. We can tip off the reporters and get some pictures made, and this will let the whole world know that I am back of you. How's that?'

Trubee thought it was splendid. The flight was never made, however, because Mrs. Jones vetoed it. She preferred to keep her husband on the ground. He declined to pass it over her veto. This did not affect his keen interest in the welfare of the Unit. Trubee kept him closely in touch with affairs and found it exceedingly helpful to have frequent chats with him. He was an active friend all the way through. This was the attitude of President Hadley as soon as he was made acquainted with the spirit and aims of the organization.

This coöperation helped to make it feasible to carry on some training work at New London during the late autumn. The suggestion had first come from Commander R. K. Crank, U. S. N., who was an observer during the naval maneuvers in Gravesend Bay. The scheme appealed to Trubee who passed it on to his friend, Mr. Eugene S. Willard, of New York, who was thoroughly posted on Naval Reserve matters and had closely followed the fortunes of the Unit. On October 6th, Mr. Willard wrote as follows:

Dear Trubee:

Since receiving your letter of the 29th, I have waited a few days to answer it, with the hope that I might, in the meantime, hear from the Navy Department through Commander Crank, in answer to my request that you and the other boys of Unit 1 be encouraged by being given the opportunity of coöperating with  p55 the Submarine Base at New London. I was repaid, as I have a letter addressed to Crank, which he has sent me from the Navy Department which while it says that the plans of the Naval District call for the establishment of aero stations in each district, yet directions will go to Commander Yates Stirling at the Submarine Base, New London, Ct., to let you know what submarines are to work off New London and give you a chance to find them. In regard to mines, when mine ships are in that locality they should also notify you and give you the opportunity to find them.

I am writing to Commander Stirling myself, giving him your name and address, and asking him to communicate with you whenever the opportunity for the above work arises, and recommend that you write him directly, so as to keep in close touch with him.

I have joined the Aero Club of America to be directly in touch with the situation, so that we can develop it as fast as possible, and I hope that you will be able to make progress in practice and in getting more men interested in learning to fly, so that the maneuvers may be larger and even more profitable next year.

I was very proud of the work that you boys did, and have praised it very highly. Let me know if I can do anything more for you, or if you do not succeed with Commander Stirling.

Three days later, Mr. Willard forwarded to Trubee a letter received from Commander Stirling at New London. It contained the good news:

As yet I have heard nothing from Admiral Grant, but if Mr. Davison will let me know at any time what he would like to have done, it would give me great pleasure to coöperate with him.

This next week we shall be holding our preliminary torpedo practice with about ten submarines in the Sound between Fort Pond Bay and Gardiner's Bay near the Long Island shore. It might be interesting if some of the fliers, weather permitting, could fly out to sea and observe our submarines submerged, firing torpedoes and watching the track made by the torpedo itself under water.

The week after next we shall be operating with a few submarines in the vicinity of Bartlett Reef Light Ship and I could arrange to have coöperation between the submarines and fliers at  p56 any time, provided we can have notice in time to get out some sort of plan. All of our officers are greatly interested in this work and would be very glad to do all they can.

With this to go on, Trubee Davison made a trip to New London to meet Yates Stirling. The impressions were most agreeable. In Trubee's opinion Commander Stirling was one of the ablest officers and finest gentlemen in the service. The members of his staff were also delightful men to know. They took the visitor aboard ship, showed him the submarine base, and manifested the most genuine interest in his plans. The only experiments with aeroplanes and submarines had been carried on at the Pensacola station.​a

Soon after this, Trubee and Erl Gould flew one of the machines from Port Washington to New London, and William F. Sullivan took another. By this time 'Sully' was regarded as a permanent fixture. He had been taken on during the summer as head mechanic and was on the Unit pay‑roll. He looked after the machines, hired so‑called mechanics to help him at fat wages, and could tell a whopper of a story if you were not particular about the facts. He was an old flier and had enlisted in the Royal Flying Corps early in the war. Trouble and he were brothers, according to 'Sully's' version of his combats and escapes.

He had become rusty from inaction, so Dave McCulloch declared, and before he was permitted to fly he had to be tuned up all over again. After that, he could draw an aviator's pay. Sullivan was properly tuned when the machines went to New London where his services as chief mechanic were indispensable. No hangars had been built. The Navy extemporized a runway with a track that led into the water. A crowd of bluejackets shoved the machine afloat. To get it ashore again, they heaved and hauled until it moved up the track. There were, of  p57 course, no aviation mechanics in this force. 'Sully' was the boss.

Several flights were made in connection with submarine operations. They continued into December, until freezing weather came and ice formed on New London harbor and river. Trubee was in charge of the aviation group. At various times Albert Ditman, Erl Gould, and 'Di' Gates joined in this sport of hunting the shy submarine. Their instructions were involved and technical. For instance, Trubee might be notified:

Submarine E‑1 will leave at 1 P.M. Sarah Ledge 1.40 and trim down. Under way 1.50, course 220 to Bartlett's Reef L. S., then course 260. At 2.20 S. W. of Light Ship, show conning tower and head south for 7½ minutes. At 2.30 go to 60 ft. depth on course 75° and porpoise about every 5 or 10 minutes. At 2.50 come up near Sarah's Ledge.

Commander Yates Stirling had great confidence in the value of aircraft for spotting submarines and showed more foresight than many of the departmental officials in Washington. He wished to assemble all the data possible. How far beneath the surface could a submarine be detected? What were the varying effects of light and wind and rough or smooth water? Would the aeroplane compel the submarine too change its tactics? What about bombing from the air? He invited the aviators to go down in a submarine and learn for themselves how it dived and steered. He sent his officers up on flights so they could observe how their submarines behaved. It was excellent team-work.

The members of the Unit found the schooling in chart and compass work useful, but as submarine observers they were unable to accomplish a great deal. This is how they felt about it, although some definite results were achieved. Dirty water made the conditions unfavorable. The submarines were usually invisible after submersion, but it was  p58 discovered that they left a white wake after diving and this was conspicuous from the air. When the water was fairly clear, as happened once or twice, the hull could be seen perhaps twenty feet down. It was learned that the submarine could be easily bombed, for the planes circled as low as fifty feet without being seen through a periscope. Attempts to drop bags of flour on them failed to score hits for lack of a bombing sight. It is a curious commentary that in the third year of the Great War, American aviation was still so rudimentary.

While the qualified pilots of the Unit were engaged in this submarine patrol, the other members headed for New London whenever they could leave college to continue their training. Solo or bust was the slogan. The miraculous stunt was to leave the water at the Naval Station and fly down river without hitting the railroad bridge. A combination of skill and Yale luck saved them from being draped over the girders or impeding through traffic between New York and Boston.

What the Unit chiefly gained from this New London experience was a closer bond with the Navy and its officers. Mutual respect and comrade­ship were created. It was in the line of preparation for the fusion which was to occur a little later.

Thayer's Note:

a See Yates Stirling, Sea Duty, p160.

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