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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 8

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 10
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

Vol. I
Chapter IX

The Wags and Some Others

On April 2, 1917, President Wilson asked the Congress of the United States for a declaration of war. His message on that day will rank among the greatest of American state documents. In terms of studious moderation and dignity, it stated not only the case of America against Germany, but of civilization against barbarism and popular government against tyranny. Almost in the strain of Lincoln's Second Inaugural, the message concluded:

It is a fearful thing to lead this great and peaceful people into war, into the most terrible and disastrous of all wars, civilization itself seeming to be in the balance. But right is more precious than peace, and we shall fight for the things we have always carried nearest our hearts — for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own Governments, for the rights and liberties of small nations, for a universal dominion of right by such a concert of free people as shall bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself at last free.

To such a task we dedicate our lives and our fortunes, everything that we are and everything that we have, with the pride of those who know that the day has come when America is privileged to spend her blood and her might for the principles that gave her birth and happiness and the peace which she has treasured.

God helping her, she can do no other.

On April 4th the Senate passed the war resolution. Two days later the House of Representatives approved the declaration of war against the Imperial German Government. To carry it on, the President was authorized and directed to employ the entire naval and military forces of the United States and the resources of the p98Government. The decision seemed to make victory all but certain. The motives were the recognition that peace could only be won on the basis of a common freedom and the desire to reconstitute public right on a surer foundation than selfish and perilous treaties. The United States prepared to give these ideals the whole support of her mighty strength.

To the group of young men at Palm Beach, as to the rest of the nation, this call to arms was both thrilling and solemn. The reticence of youth restrained the display of emotion, but in their hearts they were ready to dedicate their lives and their fortunes, everything they were and everything they had. There was not much outward excitement. The expected had occurred. They had been looking forward to it. But the aspect of their work was changed. They had been playing a fascinating game. Now, indeed, they belonged to the armed forces of their country in time of war. All their thoughts were turned to the flowing road to France.

The first noteworthy event to follow the declaration of war was the arrival of Lieutenant Edward O. McDonnell, U. S. N., from the naval air station at Pensacola. The members of the Unit having been ordered to active duty by the Navy Department, he was assigned to take charge as commanding officer and supervise the training. Good luck had smiled upon the Unit from the start. Mr. and Mrs. H. P. Davison — then Colonel Thompson and Foster Rockwell — now 'Eddie' McDonnell who was a naval officer peculiarly fitted for this task.

He had made a brilliant name for himself in the naval expedition against Vera Cruz. This was before he was transferred to aviation. He was an ensign at the time. The story of his valor is compactly told in a letter addressed to him by the Secretary of the Navy, June 13, 1914:

p99 To Ensign E. O. McDonnell, U. S. N., via Commander-in‑Chief, Atlantic Fleet.

Subject: Commendation — conduct with landing force at Vera Cruz, Mexico, in April, 1914.

1. The following extract from a report of the Naval operations at Vera Cruz made by Rear Admiral F. F. Fletcher is quoted for your information:

'Ensign E. O. McDonnell, U. S. N., Brigade Signal Officer, posted on the roof of the Terminal Hotel on landing, established a signal station there and personally, day and night, maintained communication between the troops and the ships. At this exposed post he was continually under fire. One man was killed and three wounded at his side during the two days' fighting. He showed extraordinary heroism and striking courage and maintained his station in the highest degree of efficiency. All signals got through largely due to his heroic devotion to duty.'

2. The Department highly commends the heroism and courage shown by you in maintaining your signal station in the highest degree of efficiency while under the effective fire of the enemy.

3. The efficiency, disregard of danger, and the devotion to duty shown by you are in accord with and add to the best traditions of the Naval Service.

4. A copy of this letter will be made a part of your service record.

Josephus Daniels

An American war correspondent found material for a dramatic story in the part played by this boyish naval officer. In the course of a description of the bloody capture of Vera Cruz, he wrote:

Throughout the entire action there was no cooler discipline displayed than that of the signal boys who wig‑wagged messages from the roof of the lofty Hotel Terminal, where they were the conspicuous mark for score of hostile rifle­men. Ensign E. O. McDonnell was in command of this force.

A few marines were sent to the roof to guard the signalmen. The first who stepped out into the open fell with a bullet through his head. I saw him carried on a stretcher a few minutes later into the brigade hospital in the Terminal Building. p100A fine stalwart young chap he was, with light curling hair crowning the head that lay so still, and just below the line of the blonde curls he wore 'the red badge of courage.'

In almost the same spot on this battle-swept roof another was killed while swinging his gaudy flag messages and three more were wounded. But the message scarcely faltered in the sending. As it was at Guantanamo in 1898, when the marines established Camp McCalla under a gruelling fire, the flags that drooped from a stricken hand were grasped by another almost before they fell, and the story told in pantomime from the bullet-scourged parapet went on to its end.

Lieutenant Howze told me that he had to send more than one hundred messages from this station, and all of them under fire, on the first day of the battle. Every one of them went through correctly and without delay. Ensign McDonnell stood through it all amid the thickest of the fire and never flinched. It was his first experience in action.

For this extraordinary gallantry, young Ensign McDonnell was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest personal distinction in the gift of the Government of the United States. He therefore came to the Yale Unit with uncommon experience and prestige. All this, however, would have amounted to little had he been a stiff-backed young martinet with the regulations as his Bible. Four years at Annapolis and subsequent service afloat and ashore had stamped him with the traditional imprint of the Navy, its customs and its respect for rank and discipline. An officer less adaptable might have made a mess of handling the Yale Unit.

Lieutenant McDonnell had brains under his brass-bound cap. He comprehended what this organization was and how to get the best results with it. The object was to train aviators, not seamen for the deck divisions of a battle­ship. He was not too old to forget that he had been a midshipman. Undergraduates were much like them.

His first impressions were favorable. He wondered whether he should find these young men interested in p101aviation from the romantic point of view but disliking the drudgery, dirt, and hard labor of the mechanical duties, pushing and pulling planes around, carrying gas and oil, wrestling with parts and equipment. A vast amount of this work had to be done and there were few mechanics for the purpose. Would he find them up on their toes and willing and eager to tackle anything, from the drudgery to the adventurous training in the air?

His own professional education had taught him as a youngster to master the duties of a bluejacket before he was commissioned as an officer. It gratified him immensely to discover that these flying recruits took it in the same way. To a man they were zealous to begin at the bottom and work their way up. Overalls were as honorable as a naval uniform, and more popular. The Unit set its own style in discipline.

'At all times good-natured, indulging in a good deal of horse-play,' said Lieutenant McDonnell, 'and with a natural rivalry among the various crews, every man carried on work of the most serious and arduous character. Changing motors, shifting the planes on the runways, washing, painting, etc., were done with the help of a handful of civilian mechanics and helpers which skeleton force was increased by a few petty officers sent on from Pensacola a few days after I arrived. When the flying began in April, the following had been enrolled as commissioned officers, Lieutenant (j.g.) F. T. Davison, Ensigns Gates, Lovett, Brown, Ames, Ditman, Gould, H. P. Davison, Jr.

'The remainder who had received only partial instruction or none at all had been enrolled by the Navy in enlisted ratings. The above-mentioned pilots who had learned to fly alone were used as instructors for the others under the supervision of David McCulloch and Caleb S. Bragg. All the equipment in use when I arrived at Palm Beach, including about six flying-boats, spare motors, shop p102tools, etc., had been supplied by private subscription from Colonel L. S. Thompson, the relatives of the students, and other interested and patriotic gentlemen.'

The enlisted mechanics sent by the Navy Department knew their jobs and made themselves popular. They adjusted themselves to the unusual conditions of this so‑called naval air station. When the members of the Unit foregather in reunion, with Colonel Thompson beaming from the head of the table, you are apt to hear mention of 'Smoky' Rhodes,º 'Lord' Salisbury, Bennett, Payne, and Jack Morgan. It was Rhodes who later flashed on the front page as the mechanic of NC‑4 in her epochal flight across the Atlantic.​a

The coming of Lieutenant McDonnell made the Unit sit up and wonder how much regular Navy stuff he proposed to serve out to them. They were sizing him up among themselves. It was decided to play safe and watch one's step until they had a line on this agreeable, clean‑cut officer who displayed such a friendly spirit. For two or three days they tried to be subdued and soldierly but the strain was too great. They loosened up and gave the lieutenant the 'wrist-watch salute,' a shocking thing to do. It was not repeated. There was no intention of presuming too far or making fun of the etiquette of the service. High spirits and good comrade­ship were the keynote. The prevailing attitude toward the lieutenant was respectful in every sense of the word. In public he was formally addressed. Behind his back he was 'Eddie' or 'The Loot.' This was complimentary. Beware of an officer without a nickname. He is likely to be a ten‑minute egg. The Navy swears by such men as 'Bob' Evans and 'Bill' Sims.

Saluting was discarded as unnecessary for the reason that the rank and file was never in uniform. They were usually arrayed in 'the filthiest khaki trousers in the world, with khaki flannel shirts, and white linen hats and p103sneakers.' 'We were always absolutely covered with grease,' says one of them, 'and my recollection is that the barber at Palm Beach lost more money having his chair cleaned than he made out of us.'

They did doll up and were quite natty at times. In the records one finds mention of white Palm Beach suits and other glad rags. There were reasons. Not all these young demons of the air were woman-haters.

If naval ceremony was absent, there was no lack of harmonious endeavor. And this, after all, was the only thing that really counted. Among young men of a different sort, this free-and‑easy, elastic relation­ship might have been wasteful, even disastrous. Not so with the Unit. It was an asset that they had been a band of friends in the beginning. They fitted easily together. They took it for granted that the other fellow was determined to do his level best for his own sake and that of the Unit. If a man was thoughtlessly flippant or negligent or careless, he did not have to be punished. Merely to call his attention to it was enough. It was morale, in the best sense of the word. This Lieutenant McDonnell soon discerned.

There was no drill. The nearest thing to it was the lining up for roll-call. If Trubee Davison was detained elsewhere, the next in command took it over, Bob Lovett, then 'Di' Gates. There was no roll-call sheet. The names were sung out from memory. John Vorys, being left in charge one morning, simply yelled the names of the fellows he saw in the line‑up and let it go at that.

Lieutenant F. T. Davison made a bluff at military wisdom, insisting that the company stand at attention at roll-call. As a fancy flourish he bawled 'Eyes right' and 'Left elbow on hip.' This happened to be Army regulation style and, of course, Lieutenant 'Eddie' McDonnell, U. S. N., was excessively pained. The left elbow was duly corrected. Such things simply were not done, said he.

p104 Distinctions of rank between officers and enlisted men were sensibly ignored. Oliver James, for instance, had the rating of a chief electrician while his friends of the original Unit were mostly ensigns, but they were all pals together, on duty and off. This was true of the mechanics belonging to the regular service. Men who knew how to handle themselves in any company, they were quick to recognize the fact that this was a unique organization. They were called by their first names, 'Chris' for Christensen, and they did the same thing by the young men from Yale, and it all helped toward a spirit of team-play and efficiency. No other air station was able to train its men so rapidly and well. The war records of the Unit proved that the system had been signally successful.

The amiable 'Loot' later admitted that he had been at first a little disturbed by the lack of those outward essentials of discipline as they had been hammered into his young life. A crowd that persisted in singing while they worked, close harmony and some not so close, was a novelty in the Navy where a man is called down if he so much as whistles. However, the 'Loot' was a man who could endure almost anything for the sake of results and he even learned to live within hearing of the notorious 'Wag Crew.' Forbearance could be stretched no further than this.

'The Wags,' as a close corporation, could not be said to hate themselves. They were rather proud of being called 'the greatest bunch of kidders in the outfit.' They were more than waggish. Repartee, the bright remark, the merry razz, were as plentiful as Palm Beach cocoanuts. They made the Yale Record seem as stupid as a government bulletin. Bob Lovett was in charge as Chief Wag and instructor. His crew consisted of Sam Walker, Charlie Stewart, Reg Coombe, 'Snoot' Brush, and 'Hen' Landon. 'Ken' Smith was initiated into the order after a p105while as a Wag of such merit that they couldn't do without him. When one of these effervescent young gentlemen got a trifle out of hand, he heard the stern voice of Trubee in his ear, 'You are beached for the rest of the day.' The victim swore that Trubee found positive pleasure in inflicting such cruel and unusual punishment.

The daily routine included not many leisure hours after the reveille that roused out all hands at five-forty-five in the morning. There was no brutal master-at‑arms to thunder 'Rise and shine,' 'Shake a leg,' but they tumbled out and dressed on the run for breakfast. Roll-call was immediately followed by turning to at the runways and shop. Flying practice began as soon as the planes could be started and launched. They knocked off at eleven o'clock for recreation until the noon luncheon. A swim was always refreshing.

At one o'clock came a brief period of signal and radio drill. After that, Lieutenant McDonnell delivered a lecture for three-quarters of an hour. The amateur audience was led to conclude that a naval officer had to carry almost as much science of various kinds in his noddle as the entire Sheff faculty. There were lectures on gunnery with all its modern mathematical kinks, on navigation, seaman­ship, naval regulations and customs, and the dynamics of aviation.

The truth must be told. With that comfortable feeling after a square meal, more than one student went to sleep in lecture time, particularly if he could sneak to a seat in the lee of the piano where McDonnell couldn't see him. A certain member of the Unit names 'Di' Gates as the most earnest snoozer of the lot. The present writer, unwilling to run the risk of a libel suit, declines to state this as a fact. It is mere rumor. Anyhow, they all had to take examinations and managed to pass them, including a wrestling match with 'Duchene's Theory of Flight.'

p106 After the daily lecture, flying was resumed from two o'clock to four-thirty when the weather permitted. From four-thirty until five or later the several crews secured their planes, made necessary repairs and adjustments, filled up with gas and oil, and saw that everything was ready for the next day's flying.

With the modesty of a violet under a pebble, 'Sam' Walker now crowds himself into the story and insists on telling what the Wags did as hardy, daring, and able aviators who set the pace for the rest of them:

Of course the finest crew of all was the one I belonged to. In a couple of weeks, no more, we were the envy of all the poor dubs in the other instruction squads. We had our own insignia painted on the bottom of our seaplane so that the others could look up and envy the fine lads who were lucky enough to fly this marvelous boat. The name Wags stuck to us all through the war and helped, I am sure, in a very great degree to win it. Despite many insulting remarks and very silly levity on the part of jealous members of the Unit, such as Chip McIlwaine, this peerless little nucleus forged ahead and made a great name for itself.

Our plane was always in better condition than all the other machines, and when we left for Huntington our reputation stayed with us. Not only did the Unit itself gaze up at the Wag crew with the most profound admiration as it soared above them in the air, but the people of the Palm Beach colony would sigh wistfully as the plane passed by. It personified their ambition, to be able to fly like that, but they could never hope to achieve it. Only a few men, five of us in fact, possessed the requisite qualities.

The only episode of especial interest and danger that happened to me during these weeks at Palm Beach was during my first solo flight about the middle of May. My air pump blew off as I was making a turn at the north end of the lake. Flying into my propeller, it shattered the blades to pieces. Of course the vibration was about the same as when a railroad train moving at full speed puts on its brakes and slides forward with locked wheels. My one idea was to get down before I fell down, so my first landing on my solo flight was a forced one. Being a Wag and p107therefore a superman, I managed to get down all right. On inspecting the plane I found one blade of the propeller completely gone. The other one had cut into the tail of the seaplane, ruining the motor and damaging the hull. If this had happened to some other crew, imagine the consequences! But why knock?

Supermen they were, indeed, to hear a Wag tell it. When they had to change engines, two or three of them lifted the forward end. Then 'Reggie' Coombe would spit on his hands and hoist the propeller end all by himself. In this manner they walked off with it, Coombe scorning assistance, never turning a hair nor bedewing his manly brow with a drop of perspiration.

Henry Landon testifies to this. As a Wag he does not run quite true to form, for he admits that he was not always one hundred per cent perfect.

My first solo was a marvelous success, and I had the feeling of freedom to do what I pleased, being thankful that no one was beside me to grab the wheel or to point where I was to go. My third solo was quite the opposite, as it was late in the morning and very bumpy. I would have given a great deal for a helping hand. A few days later my boat was laid up for repairs and I was given another. It felt strange to me and on my first corner I got into a little side slip which caused the 'Little Doc' and Bart Read no end of amusement. What I did or how I got down I have never been able to recall, but after landing I was ready to taxi back to the station. However, I finally got off the water and flew back, but did not enjoy the rest of the flight. I might have kept it under cover but the 'Doc' was cruel enough to spill the beans when he came in. This was the nearest I ever came to a smash while training.

In the renowned Wag crew, Walker was the expert mechanician, Charlie Stewart attended to the oil and gas. I was the electrician and therefore not suited to heavy labor, so Coombe was elected to take out and put in our motor which we changed daily and sometimes twice daily. The rest of us gave advice while Reggie walked off with the motor on his back. He was much appreciated also when we came to pack up for Huntington p108and load our equipment on the train. It meant a lot of saving in truckage. It helped to put pep in the whole Unit to watch this strong man bearing others' burdens. Another thing that boosted the morale was our musical talent. We Wags never mucked around in overalls that we were not lifting up our voices in some cheerful ditty like 'Way Up Yonder in the Frozen North,' or, 'See Those Little White Tracks in the Snow.' It helped the other fellows keep cool, and if an aviator doesn't keep cool he is out of luck.

The Razz Crew had no formal member­ship list. Its work was done on the runways. Any man was eligible who could hang something on somebody else. The kidders-in‑chief were John Vorys and 'Al' Sturtevant. To make a sloppy landing within sight of these two was fatal. The unlucky flier never heard the end of it. His feelings were plowed and harrowed.

Retribution smote this pair of playful humorists. They were muffled for some time. Vorys, showing off, did a series of bounces in front of the runways. The spectators declared they could see the roof of the Hotel Poinciana beneath his acrobatic machine when he rebounded from the water for the last time. They laughed their heads off, loud, derisive mirth with the cut‑out open. It was a reception that subdued Mr. Vorys. He was not like himself.

Sturtevant also flubbed a landing. This put him on his mettle. He would show them. On his next flight he came so near to roosting in the cocoanut palms by the shore that an unfeeling instructor 'beached' him for several days. He was quieter, wrapped up in his thoughts, until the penalty wore off. The others had a brief respite from the champion razz artists. They scored on Sturtevant again when Dave Ingalls told him the story of Harry Davison in the Paris café. A pretty creature insisted on sitting in his lap and refused to budge when emphatically bidden to beat it. The situation embarrassed poor Harry very much p109indeed and after that he shunned the boulevard resorts and was easily startled. As elaborated by Dave Ingalls it was a sprightly tale.

'Al' Sturtevant grew so hilarious over it that he backed off the runway into three feet of mud and water. His comrades consider it the best yet. He would get funny over other peoples' troubles, would he? It served him right for leading the 'blatt chorus for bum landings,' a crowd of miscreants loudly counting in unison the number of bounces scored, when the guilty party stepped out of his machine.

Caleb Bragg ruled his crew with a firm hand and kept the lid on the joshers fairly well. They were seen trailing around after him one day, anxious to obey his orders. In fact they were busy fetching him all sorts of tools and gadgets, whether he asked for them or not. They aimed to please. He was trying to measure and fit a wire and had staked it on the floor. Somebody set a motor on it. He moved the wire to a bench and stretched it there. Another willing worker dumped a vise on it. Near the exploding point, Caleb ripped out, 'I suppose if I put it on the roof, the birds would nest on it.'

These frivolities were merely incidental, as Frank Lynch points out when he says:

It was my good fortune to take my first flight with Trubee, and I always felt that any confidence I had in flying was due to the painstaking, intelligent instruction I received from him. I was assigned to a crew with Ollie James, Bill Rockefeller, and 'Lotta' Lawrence, with Trubee as our leader. Our flights were hard-earned at this time, as we were responsible for the up‑keep and maintenance of the boats to which we were assigned. I had the good luck and misfortune to wrap wires and solder connections to the satisfaction of Fred Golder on my first attempt, and for some time was a veritable 'Bill Solder.' While our particular boat was up for a flight, the rest of the crew busied themselves getting gasoline and water ready for her return, and with p110this done they stretched at full length in the cocoanut grove between the runways to read Duchene and Loening.

The spirit of coöperation, earnestness, and work, the keen rivalry among the crews, and the general morale of the Unit was a happy condition that I have never seen duplicated or even approached. From the time we arrived at the hangars shortly after sun‑up and raced to get our planes in the water, until the last plane was put away at night, the fight for time in the air was unceasing. While we worked hard, we played just as hard.

Dave Ingalls has similar recollections of the spirit of the game at Palm Beach.

The first crew I was on was in charge of 'Di' Gates, with 'Ken' MacLeish, 'Ken' Smith, and 'Pat' Ireland. The competition was keen between crews. Each wanted to have the best machine and the most flying. So we went at it hard when anything needed fixing. To work one had to have tools, and to keep a machine in good shape you tried to find the best motor cover. 'Di' would tell us to get something and leave us to go and get it. As burglars we were good. We became very clever at picking up good motor covers that were lying about. When we had wangled something we wished to keep we painted a big number on it. And our friends were base enough to call us crooks!

There was never a thought about how much or how little we were working. The more we did the more we flew, and that was the mark we were shooting at. But it did come as a slight shock, after we had been there almost two months and had lugged gas and oil daily from the tanks to the machines, to have Lotta Lawrence come wandering along with two empty cans and ask where a guy could procure some petrol!

Thayer's Note:

a A good account of the pioneering flight of the NC‑4 is given in Alden & Earle, Makers of Naval Tradition, pp339‑343.

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