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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces part 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.
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Chapter 1
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

Vol. I
p. v

By Rear Admiral Wm. S. Sims
United States Navy (Retired)

The history of the 'First Yale Unit' and the part it played in naval aviation before and during the World war will serve to remind future generations of a high-minded and intelligent interpretation of duty. At a time when our own military forces were making little or no preparation for the struggle that portended, these young men were not content to sit on the side-lines. Convinced that their country could not help being drawn into the war, they reached the sound conclusion that they ought to be trained and ready. They did not await the turn of events nor postpone action until the draft swept them into the service.

This spirit of gallantry was displayed by thousands of other young men as volunteers in the Army and the Naval Reserve after the declaration of hostilities. The First Yale Unit, however, could lay claim to a twofold distinction. It manifested a foresight which resulted in active organization as early as the summer of 1916, and recognized the vital importance of aviation as the new arm of warfare. All this was successfully carried on at private expense.

I have stated elsewhere that the great aircraft force which was ultimately assembled in Europe had its beginnings, to a large extent, in this youthful group from the Yale campus. They were used also as a nucleus for the training of an air force at home and were to be found as instructors, as commanders of stations, or in other executive positions, at Bay Shore and Rockaway, Buffalo, Boston, Washington, Hampton Roads, Morehead City, Key West, Pensacola, and Rio Janeiro. Everywhere they rendered not only great material service but were characterized  p. vi by an enthusiasm, an earnestness, and a tireless vigilance which helped to strengthen the morale of the whole aviation department.

It was during the period of training that their able leader, Lieutenant Trubee Davison, crashed and broke his back. In spite of this terrible handicap he continued to direct and inspire his comrades. I recall him as limping into my office in London after the Armistice had been signed, badly crippled, but determined to locate the last resting-place of one of his Unit who had been killed in France. His courage matched his unusual qualities of initiative and capacity for command, and he handsomely deserved the honors for which he was recommended.

In August, 1917, the first of these young officers was ordered overseas and others followed until all but six of the Unit were on duty in the war zone. All of them begged to be assigned to the most active and hazardous stations. They were in the war to finish it as soon as possible and their one thought was to come into contact with the enemy. At various times he saw service at all of our naval air stations. Several served on my staff in London, for in addition to their practical value as fighting aviators, they were very useful in organization and administration.

The official records of the war show that the first American airman to make the supreme sacrifice in actual combat with the enemy was Ensign Albert D. Sturtevant, a member of this Unit, who with absolute disregard for his own safety engaged a vastly superior force of German planes over the North Sea on February 15, 1918. His death was a severe blow to us, for he had made a splendid record and was certain to win advancement. He died as I feel convinced he had lived, a knightly gentleman without fear and without reproach.

Later in the same month another member of this Unit, Ensign Curtis S. Read, one of four brothers who served as  p. vii  aviators, was killed in a seaplane crash at Dunkirk. Beloved by his comrades and associates, they had looked forward to a career of distinction which was tragically thwarted. He was the first United States Naval Aviator to be killed in France.

Shortly before the Armistice, Ensign Kenneth MacLeish was shot down in action with enemy planes over a French sector. In the engagement MacLeish had destroyed one attacking machine before he gave up his own life. His influence and achievements left a lasting imprint. We felt a sense of personal loss.

To select any of the living members of the Unit for mention is a difficult task and perhaps an unfair one. In my own opinion the exploits of any of the others might have been as brilliant if the fortunes of war had presented similar opportunities. Nevertheless I must risk the displeasure of two of these officers by brief reference to their service records as contributing to the value of the naval organization overseas.

Lieutenant David S. Ingalls may rightly be called the 'Naval Ace' of the war. He received the British Distinguished Flying Cross and the American Distinguished Service Medal for deeds outlined in the following citation:

For exceptionally meritorious service in duty of great responsibility as a chasse pilot operating with R. A. F., Squadron 213, while attached to the Northern Bombing Group, Northern France, where, as a result of his brilliant and courageous work he was made an Acting Flight Commander by the British authorities over their own pilots. Alone and in conjunction with other pilots, he shot down at least four enemy aeroplanes and one or more enemy balloons.

Lieutenant Commander Artemus L. Gates was one of three, of a naval force of some 5000 officers and 75,000 enlisted men, whom I recommended for the Congressional Medal of Honor. He commanded our naval air station at  p. viii  Dunkirk with marked efficiency and under almost constant shell and bomb fire from the enemy. He rescued the crew of a British air patrol which was wrecked in the sea off Ostend, for which he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross by the British Government. This act of bravery was not a duty required of this officer and demonstrated the highest type of intrepidity and resourcefulness. Gates took part in many flights over the lines, was shot down in combat, and made prisoner by the enemy. He made heroic and determined efforts to escape. Throughout his service he was an example of modesty and unceasing attention to duty.

As their war‑time commander, I desire to employ this opportunity of thanking the members of the Yale Aviation Unit, one and all, for the loyal support they gave the Navy and I offer my congratulations on their splendid war record, individually and as a group.

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Page updated: 10 Sep 13