In 1925, retired Rear Admiral William S. Sims wrote the foreword for the two-volume definitive record—called simply The First Yale Unit—of this history-making group. Admiral Sims wrote of one particular member of the group, Naval Reserve Ensign Albert D. Sturtevant, who was the first U.S. military aviator to die in combat in World War I. He described Sturtevant as "a knightly gentleman without fear and without reproach." And although Admiral Sims's description may seem quaintly archaic in today's what's-in-it-for-me world, it was a brilliantly precise description of the men who formed the First Yale Unit, a group driven by ideals of patriotism, courage and selflessness.
The inception of the unit can be traced to 1915, when F. Trubee Davison—then an undergraduate at Yale—traveled to Paris and London with his father, a Wall Street executive. In Europe, Davison got a firsthand view of the war that still was abstract for most Americans. While there, he also spent time driving an ambulance in Paris in the volunteer American Ambulance Field Service. But most important, he had the opportunity to observe the formation of the fabled Lafayette Escadrille and to meet with French pilots who had flown in combat. As a result of the last two circumstances, the idea of becoming a military pilot and forming a squadron to fight in Europe began to take hold in Davison's mind and heart.
On his return for his sophomore year, Davison set about forming a Yale section for the American Ambulance Field Service. The group intended to sail at the end of the school year for Europe, and in June 1916, its members gathered at Gales Ferry, New York. War with Mexico intervened, however, and Davison seized upon the nation's growing attention to military matters as an opportunity to shift his patriotic efforts to his new interest in flying. After discussions with some of his schoolmates, he determined to form a flying unit that would participate in the war in Europe. But first was the matter of parental consent.
To his surprise and delight, he was able to convince his mother his plans were rational; his father was a tougher sell. A telegram to his father, who was in Canada on a fishing vacation, prompted a reportedly discouraging reply: "Have you all gone crazy?" When Davison's father rushed back from Canada, things looked bad, notwithstanding the flyover of a rickety local flying boat staged by Davison to coincide with his father's arrival. But the elder Davison consulted with friends and associates who knew something about the newfangled business of flying; apparently he listened objectively. After a crucial father-and-son boat ride down Long Island Sound to Manhattan, Trubee phoned home: "Father is converted." Both parents eventually became active and important supporters of his efforts to form the flying unit.
Getting off the Ground
Through contacts and with guidance from family and friends, Davison's plans moved forward for the formation of an "Aerial Coast Patrol," an idea gathering momentum among both civilian aviation enthusiasts and the U.S. Navy. At this stage, however, the support of the Navy was guarded. In a letter to Davison dated 14 July 1916 from Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, the Secretary began with the bad news: "[T]here is no provision at the present time whereby the Navy Department can give official recognition to the Aerial Coast Patrol." Then followed the somewhat better news—bureaucratically qualified: "There is, however, provision in the Naval Appropriation Bill ... for the establishment of a Naval Reserve Flying Corps .... You will understand, of course, that the Department cannot give official recognition to persons or organizations over which it has no official control."
Focusing on the positive, Davison pressed on with his efforts to form the unit. The original roster of 12 included himself, Alan W. Ames, Henry P. Davison Jr. (Trubee's younger brother), John V. Farwell III, Artemus L. Gates, Erl C. B. Gould, Robert A. Lovett, Albert D. Sturtevant, John M. Vorys, Charles D. Wiman, Wellesley Laud Brown, and Albert J. Ditman Jr. Only the last two were not Yale men. Then, in 1917, 15 additional Yale men joined the Unit.
During World War I and in postwar years, members of this group distinguished themselves in national service in many ways. For example, the unit produced the only U.S. Navy World War I ace (David Ingalls) and the first U.S. military aviator to lose his life in aerial combat in World War I (Sturtevant). After the war, one became Assistant Secretary of War (Trubee Davison) and another Assistant Secretary of the Navy (Gates). It also produced an Assistant Secretary of War (Lovett) in World War II, a Secretary of Defense (also Lovett), and a four-term member of Congress (Vorys). But for the present, these young men recognized that their country soon would be at war. And especially important, they knew aviation rapidly was becoming a significant element of U.S. military strength.
They accepted the fact that initially they would have to act on their own, and at this point all of the assets and efforts were funded privately. The would-be aviators began their flight training in July 1916 at Port Washington on Long Island Sound with one venerable Curtiss flying boat, nicknamed "Mary Ann," and a civilian instructor named Dave McCulloch. Later, McCulloch contributed further to the early stages of naval aviation as copilot of the historic NC-3 transatlantic flight. The Mary Ann, which had been donated by Rodman Wanamaker of department store fame, was augmented by two other flying boats, tripling the training assets. One of these had a mahogany hull that gave it more the appearance of a yacht than of a training plane for military pilots. By the end of the summer, four members of the group had soloed, and the others were close to that milestone.
Proving Their Point
In early September 1916, the unit had its first real opportunity to demonstrate its potential military value. The men were asked to carry out two missions as part of the annual training exercise of the Naval Reserve with the active-duty Navy scheduled at Gravesend Bay off Brooklyn. First, they were tasked to locate and report on a simulated minefield that had been laid inside Sandy Hook. Second, they were assigned to locate two destroyers simulating enemy cruisers attempting to get close enough to New York harbor to attack shipping and harbor facilities.
Despite the fact that only one of the two planes that took off on the first mission actually reached the designated area, the unit located, charted, and reported the minefield. After the event, reports indicated the plane that failed to reach the search area had had engine trouble, and Davison, who was piloting the plane, had been forced to make a dead-stick landing in the East River. It also turned out that while waiting for the needed replacement engine part to arrive, the missing crew had enjoyed lunch on board the Davison family yacht, by coincidence moored nearby.
Events associated with the second mission—locating the two "enemy" ships—were even more dramatic. After sighting the two warships, the aircraft involved was returning to make its report when it ran into a severe squall. After a near crash and an emergency landing, the shaken pilot and observer reported their survival—and their ship sighting—by phone. The former did not seem to be of much interest to their colleagues, but the latter was seized upon and reported quickly to the Navy.
The two successful missions went a long way toward convincing the Navy of the unit's potential military value, and it became known formally as Volunteer Aerial Coast Patrol No. 1. Although these aviators still were outside the official embrace of the Navy, they were getting closer to military status. Also of great importance, the two successful missions, with progressive embellishment, provided the kind of stories for which Navy aviators have become notorious.
As fall began, the members of the unit returned to their undergraduate work in New Haven, and their training continued on weekends. At this point the group had attracted attention not only for its accomplishments during the Navy's training exercise, but also for stunts such as flying from Port Washington to the Yale campus for Sunday chapel. Fortunately, the university—particularly in the person of Dean Frederick Jones—added its encouragement to the students' voluntary efforts. That encouragement was a noteworthy milestone in Yale's traditional support for its students and graduates serving in the U.S. armed forces-a custom of mutual benefit that came to an inglorious end in the antimilitary convulsions of the 1960s.
In fall 1916, the unit moved its training base to New London, where the would-be pilots worked with the Navy on submarine detection from the air. It was a frustrating time for the band of dedicated volunteers. Everyone agreed that the unit was a good idea, and that it probably would be taken into the Navy as soon as the war began. But the Navy, despite its continued unofficial encouragement, would not provide direct sponsorship. Notwithstanding that inertia, the group continued to gather momentum, as Davison's father, his firm, J. P. Morgan & Co., and friends combined to raise more than $300,000—an astonishing figure at that time—to cover the growing cost of supporting the unit. At the same time, Yale advanced its support to official endorsement of Davison's and other patriotically motivated students' efforts. The university enlarged its sanction with establishment of a policy that for any "undergraduate in good and regular standing at the time of his leaving, who has advanced into Junior year, due credit towards a degree will be given him for satisfactory work in the Army or Navy."
In early spring, pioneer naval aviator then-Lieutenant John Towers (naval aviator number three), who was in charge of the Navy's aviation desk in Washington, broke the log jam. He recruited the entire unit into the brand-new Naval Reserve Flying Corps, which had been created with congressional appropriations legislation of 1916. With the way cleared by Towers, the group was processed and sworn in at the New London Submarine Base on 24 March, 13 days before the United States entered World War I. Then, on 28 March, the unit left by train for West Palm Beach, Florida, where its members began training full time. Suddenly, The First Yale Unit had made the transition from a few highly motivated college students searching for a way to serve their country in the air, to pioneer members of what became the most powerful naval air arm in the world.
In recording this historic point in his book, The First Yale Unit, author Ralph Paine recalled the words of President Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address: "[W]e 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."
As the unit advanced in technical proficiency, it also advanced in other important ways. Everyone worked hard and played hard, and what developed was a unique unit esprit de corps, something that has become a cohesive hallmark of U.S. naval aviation. At this point, the unit had made the change from a group of motivated college students to a team of professional military aviators. In the process, they had become a significant part of a rich tradition that spans the years from the earliest experiments in manned flight to space exploration.
Immediately after the declaration of war, Navy Lieutenant Edward McDonnell—awarded the Medal of Honor for heroism and proficiency at the Battle of Santa Cruz during the Mexican War—was ordered to command the unit. Then, in June 1917, the group was moved, aircraft and all, to a new base at Huntington, Long Island, where the training intensified and the aircraft inventory expanded.
At a time when serious training accidents were an almost routine part of military aviation units, the safety record of The First Yale Unit was exceptional. But in July, Trubee Davison crashed and suffered a broken back. His flying days were over, and he was, in fact, considered lucky to have survived. The unit he had founded, however, was established firmly, and its members rapidly began moving on to positions of leadership in the nation's war effort. In fact, two individuals from the unit were the first members of the Naval Reserve Flying Corps to be ordered to Europe.
Representative of the reputation the unit earned overseas was the comment of one U.S. Navy staff officer in London. He said: "[W]henever we had a member of that Yale Unit, everything was all right. Whenever the French and English asked us to send a couple of our crack men to reinforce a squadron, I would say, 'Let's get some of the Yale gang.' We never made a mistake when we did this."
Although The First Yale Unit is recognized as the initial volunteer college group to enter the World War I U.S naval aviation arena, it was by no means the only example of the involvement of U.S. colleges and their undergraduates in the early development of naval aviation. Following the First Yale Unit closely were such groups as the Aviation Ground School at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the 11 Princetonians—including future first U.S. Secretary of Defense James V. Forrestal—who trained with the Canadian Royal Flying Corps in Toronto. There also was a Second Yale Unit, which formed Aerial Coast Patrol Unit No. 2 and trained at Buffalo, New York.
For his personal achievement in establishing The First Yale Unit—recognized as the beginning of the Naval Air Reserve—Davison was awarded the Navy Cross. And in 1966, the 50th anniversary of the Naval Air Reserve, he was designated an Honorary Naval Aviator and awarded his gold wings. It was appropriate recognition for the man whose combination of unselfish patriotism and stubborn dedication to an idea he knew was right was the catalyst for the creation of the Naval Air Reserve.