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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 7

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 9
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

Vol. I
Chapter VIII

Rolling Down to Palm Beach

By no amount of courtesy could this be called a naval outfit when it reported so blithely at New London. It knew nothing about rank or discipline and cared less. Gold braid could not make it shake in its shoes nor had it learned to snap out a salute. The Unit, however, had a certain method and system of its own. Trubee Davison was called First Officer, Bob Lovett, Second Officer, and Curtis Read, Business Manager. The rest of them were plain gobs or buck privates who did as they were told unless they felt like arguing the matter. The organization might be delightfully informal, but with Trubee in command it was bound to be efficient.

Commander Stirling was waiting to welcome these Yale recruits and to put them at their ease. He had received orders from Admiral Benson to 'enlist these men with the following rank.' Very kindly he took it upon himself to boost them a grade all around. It was one way of showing his appreciation of their patriotic spirit, besides which he felt sure they could deliver the goods. He was not a man to bother too much with red‑tape. The crowd fairly whizzed through the examinations, mental and physical, without a single rejection although 'Bill' Thompson walked into the room with a noticeable limp.

Trubee Davison was made a lieutenant, junior grade. Most of the group that had trained at Port Washington were commissioned as ensigns. A few of these were rated as chief petty officers and promised commissions as soon as they could qualify as aviators. The men who had joined the Unit during the winter were enrolled as machinists  p87 and electricians. The commissioned officers, therefore, were Lieutenant F. T. Davison, Ensigns Gates, Lovett, Brown, Ames, Ditman, Gould, and H. P. Davison, Jr.

His Honor, the Mayor of New London, made an ovation of it. The city was honored by this event. The bunch of blushing Naval Reserves received the freedom of the municipality of which the keys were symbolical. It was a great moment but acutely embarrassing. Lieutenant Davison had to make the speech of grateful response. He did it without going into a tail-spin. One young man, name withheld, murmured that he knew what to do with a corkscrew but the keys of the city had him stopped.

Albert Ditman was excused as absent on leave. Here is the explanation, in his own words:

On talking the whole scheme over it appeared that although we were learning how to fly we still knew nothing about the rules and regulations of the Navy, and it seemed advisable that if we were going to enlist in this service, we should make our schedule comply as closely as possible with the Navy's program.

At just this time it was possible for me to get away from my business for a few weeks and I made a trip to the naval aviation station at Pensacola for the purpose of studying their course of training and to see how they operated their stations. Every one at this station gave me all the information they had at hand, but this was very limited. Even at this time they were unable to get money enough to operate the school on anything but a very limited basis and they seemed quite surprised when they learned that I was hustling around with the idea of getting information for the purpose of using it in case of war. None of them thought that our country would go into the war, and therefore were not paying any special attention to their training, and at that time there was absolutely no training whatever in gunnery, bombing, or other ordnance work. In their armory I found one old style American and one French machine‑gun. I also found one German aeroplane bomb sight. These three pieces of ordnance, however, were there on exhibition as curiosities and not used.

While at this station I met Lieutenant Edward McDonnell  p88 and talked with him and told him the whole plan of the Unit and asked him whether he would be willing to join us at Palm Beach, take charge of the Unit, and give us the necessary instruction to make Navy guys of us. He was quite enthusiastic about this and the necessary orders were put through for him.

No longer undergraduates but naval officers and bluejackets, the members of Aerial Coast Patrol No. 1 were on waiting orders for Palm Beach. Colonel Thompson was busier than an admiral of the fleet. Already he had earned his permanent rank and title of 'The Boss.' He engaged railway transportation and reserved quarters in Palm Beach. He was accustomed to doing things in a large way. What he wanted was results. As a purchasing agent, he over­looked nothing from automatic pistols and tobacco to canvas hats and chewing gum.

The young men of Unit scattered over Sunday to pack up their traps and see their folks and friends at home. In the New York Tribune they read:

Army Calls Yale's
Student Fliers
for War Drills

'Millionaire' Unit of 28,
Headed by F. T. Davison,
Leaves University

New Haven, March 24th. — Headed by F. Trubee Davison, son of Henry P. Davison, twenty-eight undergraduates, comprising the Yale Unit of the Aerial Coast Defense Reserve Corps, left at noon today under orders received last night from the War Department directing them to report at the navy yard at New London.

They will remain at the navy yard until next Wednesday when they will leave for Pensacola or Palm Beach, Fla., where they will perfect themselves in aerial warfare under the direction of army officers until May 15. After that they will await orders for either European or American service.

 p89  Members of the 'millionaire' unit were given a rousing ovation on the campus, which was followed by a parade to the home of President Hadley, who addressed the departing aviators.

'Brag is a good dog, but holdfast is better,' he said in advising them to display their patriotism energetically but quietly.

Besides young Davison, who is the most expert aviator at Yale, there are many others from New York in the unit. One of these is George F. Lawrence who stroked the 'varsity crew last year and is bow oar this year. Others from New York are Robert A. Lovett, son of the railroad president; Reginald G. Coombe, Oliver B. James, Curtis S. Read, Russell B. Read, H. H. Landon, S. S. Walker, and Harry P. Davison. Another member who left is William Avery Rockefeller of Greenwich, and son of William G. Rockefeller, '92. Captain Cord Meyer, of the Yale crew, is a member of the unit, but did not leave with the others. He may join them later. Had he gone now, Yale's hopes for this year's races would have gone glimmering.

In case of war, however, the athletic committee has given the athletic board of control power to disband all athletic teams.

Young Davison frequently has flown across the Sound from his Long Island after breakfast, arriving in time to attend recitations.

This report would have been accurate if there had not been so many errors in it. The suspicion arises that it was written by a News heeler just sprouting his journalistic pin‑feathers. But who cared? They were off for the — er — well, not exactly the fighting front. Palm Beach was hardly that!

The horrors of war! The Unit was ordered to muster at Sherry's for a farewell luncheon as the guests of Mr. and Mrs. Davison. This was on Wednesday, March 28th. All hands were present or accounted for. 'Al' Sturtevant had joined from the Harvard Law School where he was in his first year. Albert Ditman was there in spirit. The rest of him journeyed from Pensacola to Palm Beach direct. It was a jolly luncheon party, but with more than one serious note in it. The grateful guests were glad of  p90 the opportunity to thank Mr. and Mrs. Davison for all they had done for them.

While it was good‑bye to home for not many weeks, it was good‑bye to college and the familiar round of life. They faced a great adventure whose pathway was obscured. This was the beginning of it. They were a picked company. Noblesse oblige! Nor was it sentimentalism to feel a new emotion when they sang 'For God, for Country, and for Yale.' This, in truth, was spirit of their crusade.

The train left for Palm Beach on this same Wednesday afternoon. Life was earnest, or partly so, as these pilgrims demonstrated by practice with the radio buzzer in the Pullmans, reading books on aviation, and rehearsing the semaphore code. The two‑day journey helped to shake the crowd together. Freshman like Dave Ingalls and Bartow Read discovered that juniors and seniors were human. The class distinctions of the Yale campus were soon blurred. Although they didn't bother their heads about it, they were all in the Navy where a chief petty officer might bawl out the Chairman of The Lit or the Captain of the Crew.

Colonel Thompson had begun to get a staff together. His medical man was Dr. Kenneth McAlpin who had been recommended by Dr. Walter B. James. A fortunate choice! 'The Little Doc,' as they called him in terms of affection, made himself an indispensable member of the Unit. This was true also of Mr. Charles H. Stewart ('Radio'), a cousin of Albert Ditman, who took charge of this technical branch of instruction. Experience had made him highly proficient and he was very much awake to the increasing importance of radio in aviation.

An assistant manager was essential, a sort of chief of staff with Colonel Thompson as administrator and adviser. The choice fell upon Foster Rockwell who was asked by  p91 telegraph to report at Palm Beach and take hold of things. He started at once from Arizona and arrived almost as soon as the Unit. This was like him, to set aside his own affairs and come on the jump when duty called. He had just the qualities required. He had demonstrated them as a famous Yale athlete and coach. To courage, persistence, and good judgment he added the knack of handling men and getting the most out of them. To this Yale crowd, it was like bringing in an older member of the family. They all swore by 'Rock.' He was one of the factors of success.

When these high-hearted young aviators trooped into The Breakers at Palm Beach, they had the feeling, no doubt, that this was going to be a luxurious war.

Such were the first impressions. Frank Lynch records his own as follows:

I shall never forget the morning of our arrival at Palm Beach. Our train pulled in at the Royal Poinciana siding at four-thirty in the morning. The sun was just getting out of bed and as breakfast was out of the question at this ungodly hour we proceeded to look over the ground. In crossing the bridge from Palm Beach to West Palm Beach we were met by Dave McCulloch. Dave was togged out in the finest of Palm Beach feathers and tearing about in a 'Red Bug.' How he happened to be up so soon after dawn I have never been able to find out, but assume, from what I learned later to be his natural proclivities, that he stayed up all night to greet us. He showed us the Trans-Oceanic property at Lake Worth which we were taking over. Then we stowed away our belongings and spent the remainder of the day in getting settled.

The old‑timers, such as Trubee Davison, 'Di' Gates, and Bob Lovett, went up for short hops on this first day, but the crowd, as a whole, was permitted to take it easy and rest from the journey. They were rolled about in wheel chairs by African slaves amid tropical gardens and cocoanut palms. For light exercise they learned how to  p92 glance at their new wrist watches with an air of easy nonchalance. From this the more astute intellects evolved the 'wrist-watch drill' which consisted of a fancy step in unison, then crossed feet and an imitation of the regulation salute. For Navy men their manners were still startling and peculiar.

Right away they worked in some wig‑wag and radio drill and began to get acquainted with the flying equipment and personnel. From Dave McCulloch the rookies learned that there was such a thing as the aviation temperament. A man had to be lazy some of the time in order to keep at a wire edge for his hours in the air. Flying was a skittish, sensitive business and too much drudgery dulled the nerves.

A very fortunate addition to the instruction staff was Caleb Bragg, a Yale man of the class of 1908, who had been a famous automobile racing driver. He later took up flying and had a machine of his own at Palm Beach where he spent his winters. He was there, with McCulloch, when the Unit arrived and offered his services. He was a fearless and finished aviator and a wizard at overhauling and tuning motors. The Unit found him invaluable. During the war he was in the Army and had charge of the experimental work at McCook's Field.

William F. Sullivan went south with the Unit as an able mechanic. The head plane man with McCulloch's outfit was Fred Golder. 'The best man for his job I ever saw,' said Trubee. 'He was a wonder. It sounds silly to say that a man could smell something wrong. But I have seen Golder walk by a machine as somebody was about ready to go up and show you that some vital part was weak and needed fixing.'

At first the stock of machines was quite limited. There was the familiar Mary Ann, nearing decrepitude after a hard life but still able to fly a bit and to bounce as high  p93 as ever in a bad landing. Her hull had been replanked until she was more like an armored cruiser. After a while Caleb Bragg was ungallant enough to damn Mary Ann as so much junk and to pack her in crates for shipment.

They had to wait for their own machines to arrive from the north and another one to be flown from the west coast of Florida. This was the gift of Mr. Charles Rich, vice-president of the National City Bank. There was no delay, however, in swinging into the day's routine. There were machines enough to begin flying instructions, besides which it was necessary to get the organization shaken down. Squads of pupils were assigned to the several instructors, a scheme which worked to advantage. Colonel Thompson was not a boss to let any Palm Beach grass grow under his feet. And Trubee was notorious for hitting it on all six from morning till night. On Sunday, April 1st, the Colonel was writing to Mr. Davison:

Dear Harry:

We came down in fine shape, cool and comfortable all the way. Trubee took charge immediately, formed squads with squad masters, issued his orders, and they went at it. The first and second days they were drilled in wireless and semaphore signalling. They are using the semaphores now and we find it of much value in their work. Things were pretty well mixed up when we got here, no transportation and we didn't know where to go, but we soon adjusted the matter. The living quarters at the Lake View turned out to be small and inadequate. They could have accommodated twenty-four men by putting three in a room. However, I took over the building for administration purposes, at $30 a day. It has my office, the doctor's office, and sleeps the guard and several mechanics. All hands breakfast there at 5.15 and lunch at 12.30. The Wanamaker hangars? There aren't any. Each machine is out in the weather, and there are five runways and a small shop. It is next to the main road and bridge.

I got a detail of the militia at once, and three men are on guard night and day. Their rifles are loaded, their pistols  p94 loaded, and their belts filled. I have given each man his individual orders. We had to get them at our expense, but I have written to General Wood to detail a guard for our purpose.

The boys were brought here under an arrangement with Fred Sterry until we could get set. We shall have to stay here (at The Breakers) until the 7th, when we move to the Salt Air Hotel at West Palm Beach. We have taken the whole hotel, about fifty rooms, for $75 a day. The rooms are very nice and clean; each boy will have one and divide a bath and toilet. The kitchen is to be taken over by Sterry and he is to supply a steward and a chef and assistants. This sounds like a big order but I regard it as necessary.

The boys have rented bicycles and the staff a second-hand Ford. The patrol boat system has been all worked out and is in order. I am mighty proud of it as one of my best patents. No machine could be in trouble two minutes without assistance being on hand, and every boat and the headquarters knowing of the accident immediately. I hope the patent will not be used, but it's there and ready all the time.

Our schedule is 4.40 call, breakfast 5.15, roll call at the hangars at 6.00, at which time the orders for the day are issued and the details named. The flying and other work is started immediately and lasts until 11. We have a snack at 10 — a free lunch — and any one can dip in at his convenience. There is special instruction from 2 to 3, and the flights and hangar work from 3 to 6. Dinner at 7. Bed 8.30. Sunday nothing. Our first order was strict abstinence; some of the boys have requested beer, but their request refused.

Rockwell has arrived from Arizona. The boys were all glad to see him. He is straining in the harness and will be of great assistance. Dr. McAlpin is all there, on the job all the time, and keen as a briar. We all dined with Dr. Owen Kenan last night, a quiet and pleasant affair and our last party. The freedom of the city and the keys were handed to us in the public square today by the Mayor. Some — I guess a thousand — people were there, the militia, the band, the quartet, and half a dozen speakers. It was well done and full of real patriotism. You will be surprised to know that West Palm Beach is a wide-awake, live town. The banks, stores, roads, and service are first class.

Our organization is complete — a way to have everything now running smoothly. Trubee, Gates, Ditman, Lovett, Dr.  p95 McAlpin, Rockwell and I consult at a stated hour and thrash out everything that we or the others can think of. We have a box for requests and suggestions and one for complaints, which gives every one a chance to be heard. This is a wonderful crowd of men, single-minded day and night. The spirit is inspiring. I tell you it makes the old man's eye gleam and his breast heave! We have had some petty annoyances, naturally, cheap grafters and such, but not to amount to anything. This is disconnected, but I knew you would like to hear. Everybody is well and happy. Drop me a line and any suggestions.

On this same date the Colonel wrote to Harry Payne Whitney, telling him the news, but with one or two variations.

Will you please send to Harry Davison, right away, $25,000 for the Aerial Coast Patrol, Unit Number 1? I put this in to start with because you might get tired of reading what I am about to write and miss the main point of the letter. . . . I wish you might come down and see us and give us some of your wise suggestions. You will find a grand company of young men with great intelligence and a noble spirit. We were given a dinner Saturday and yesterday the freedom of the city and the keys were turned over to us by the Mayor at a huge patriotic meeting in the public park. I replied to the greetings by a patriotic speech that was so fervent that the entire audience broke down, led by Colonel Thompson. Too bad I couldn't get a good look at you before starting for the front. Do come down: come and see the old man as lashes these young ducks into line. The weather is grand, delightful all the time.

The 'young ducks' were unaware that they were such a noble flock of fellows. The Colonel was careful not to tell them so to their faces.

They might wear overalls and be frescoed with grease but they had not forgotten the courtesies, so on April 2nd Mr. Rodman Wanamaker was informed by letter:

We, the members of the Aerial Coast Patrol, Unit Number 1, Naval Reserve Flying Corps, desire to express to you our gratitude and high appreciation of your kindness and patriotism in permitting us to use your aeroplanes for the school work that  p96 we are, at present, engaged upon. We shall make, Sir, every effort to achieve high results, and we thank you again for your kindness and the confidence you have reposed in us.

'High results' was an apt phrase, although it was not meant to refer to the altitudes at which the Unit expected to soar. A similar letter was sent to Payne Whitney to thank him for a handsome contribution to the fund and for the use of his speed launch in the patrol work.

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