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Flight to Glory
In 1916, an elite group of Yale undergrads decided to try the new sport of motorized flight. A year later, they were leaders of the US airborne military—flying, fighting, and dying in the Great War.

A light mist hung in the night air over the Couderkerque aerodrome outside Dunkirk, a dozen miles from the Western Front. In the total-blackout darkness, the four Handley Page O/400 biplane bombers from the Royal Navy Air Service were barely visible. As the pilots warmed the bombers’ twin Rolls-Royce engines, armorers lugged in hundred-pound trays of ammunition for the four Lewis machine guns on board each plane, and strapped nearly seventeen hundred pounds of bombs to its wing roots. They ignored the continuous thunder and flashes from the bloody Ypres salient in nearby Flanders. They did not take time to notice a young American officer climbing the ladder into one of the Handley Pages.


Word reached the aerodrome that the Germans were advancing fast toward Paris.

Freshly arrived by motorcycle from United States Navy Aviation headquarters in Paris, Lieutenant Robert Abercrombie Lovett ’18, a lanky, handsome, 22-year-old, saluted the Canadian pilot he had met in the mess that evening and the bomb aimer/forward gunner in the nose cockpit. He then climbed a ladder and hauled himself into the exposed upper-rear cockpit, taking care not to put his foot through the taut canvas skin covering the wooden airframe. Shouting over the engines’ roar, he introduced himself to the other gunner, a 17-year-old English ensign.

Lovett was trying not to show his nervousness before his first combat mission. Though he was swathed in so many layers of wool, leather, raccoon skin, and rubber clothing that movement was awkward, he was already shivering in the cold wind blown back by the propellers. The stench from the burning castor oil filled his nose.

The British crew was happy to have the Yank on board. Two days ago—at dawn on March 21, 1918—the Germans had launched a massive assault against the French and British. It would prove to be their last major offensive of the war, but nobody knew that yet. Word had reached the aerodrome that the Germans were advancing fast toward Paris, and the Allies were desperate for more fighting men. Lovett knew how to handle a Lewis gun and, in a pinch, could fly the big bomber should the first pilot get hit by bullet or shrapnel. He would do.

Checks complete, one by one the pilots signaled to clear the chocks, and the ground crew muscled the seven-ton bombers onto the runway and then held them back with ropes until the engines reached full throttle. The planes, among the largest yet built, were about the length of one of today’s tractor-trailer trucks. But when fully loaded, they could generate no more than about 90 miles per hour, even in the air. They needed the entire half-mile of rutted hard pack to build up to the speed they needed to lift off the ground. Watching for the flash of the Very flares, the pilots gathered in formation over the North Sea and then turned northward for Bruges, in occupied Belgium. Their target was the Bruges docks, from where a part of a German flotilla estimated at more than 40 U-boats had been devastating Allied shipping and had nearly forced a starving Britain to sue for peace.

Lovett shivered while he scanned the sky for German scouts who might be out searching for them in the black night. The clouds lifted as they crossed over the Belgian coast, and from his perch Lovett could look down to see the flashes of several hundred anti-aircraft batteries firing at once, like a hellish mirror image of the starry sky overhead. He held tight to his gun when, a few seconds later, the plane dropped sharply beneath him and then began to jerk and bounce in the concussions from the bombs bursting around them. He prayed not to get sick.

As nauseated and terrified as he felt, Lovett wanted to be there. For the young advisor to the head of the U.S. Navy’s air force in Europe, it was far more than a chance to fight. If he survived, he would spend the next six weeks in day and night bombing runs against the U-boat docks, amassing experience in strategic aerial bombing. The British and the Germans had both devoted considerable resources to air warfare, but the United States lagged behind. Lovett’s commanders in Paris had asked for firsthand information.


Lovett achieved that most elite of all Yale honors, a tap for Skull & Bones.

Although he was not yet even a college graduate, Lovett’s word counted for much with the U.S. Navy. His recommendations would be the basis for the direction American military aviation would take in the war against Germany. What he could not know was that he was on the first flight into the future of American military power and the eventual development of its unrivaled air might.

A year earlier, Bob Lovett, son of the chair of the Union Pacific Railroad empire, had been a student at Yale College. His classmates had voted him among the “most scholarly” and “hardest working.” While at Yale, the affable but reserved patrician had danced in white tie and tails at formal balls, made Phi Beta Kappa, and achieved that most elite of all Yale honors at the time, a tap for membership in Skull and Bones.

In the summer of 1916, before his junior year, Lovett had had a long talk with Frederick Trubee Davison ’18, his classmate and closest friend, about the adventurous new sport of motorized flight. Trubee was the son of Henry Pomeroy Davison, the senior partner of J.P. Morgan and Co. He and Lovett were the sort of wealthy young strivers Owen Johnson had made famous in his immensely popular book of five years earlier, Stover at Yale: privileged and worldly yet deeply committed to their ideals. Above all, their ideals were those of fellowship and transcendent purpose.

Trubee Davison had spent the previous summer as a volunteer ambulance driver in Paris. The war was, in a sense, the Davison family business. His father was banker to the French and British governments and had secured the loans that financed their war efforts. U.S. isolationists even accused him of having engineered the sinking of the Lusitania to lure America into the conflict. (With America’s entry into the war, the elder Davison took a leave from his business to direct the American Red Cross in Europe.)

While in Paris, Trubee had learned firsthand about the new kind of aerial warfare from U.S. and French pilots who would soon form the world-renowned Lafayette Escadrille. Pilots, he discovered, were drawn from the upper crust of society. On the ground, they often lived in luxurious conditions, at least given the privations war exacted on most combatants; in the air, they could still gain individual glory in this unspeakable new age of total war. The sky was the last, great frontier for a young gentleman with dreams of conquest. Intent on proving his courage and leadership to a powerful father who embraced the outdoors and the rugged life, Davison wanted to join the fight in the air. “When I went back to college in the fall,” Davison recalled years later, “I picked out Bob Lovett and poured it into his ear. We made a sort of compact that if war came we should go into aviation. That was the life.”


Davison and Lovett knew next to nothing about flying; their schoolmates knew less.

Davison persuaded Lovett to help him form an aeronautics club at Yale with a select group of their classmates. The two knew next to nothing about flying; their schoolmates knew less. “Trubee explained,” recalled John Vorys ’18 (a future Ohio congressman), “that we were not to fly very high and that, because we flew over water, we wouldn’t get hurt if we did fall occasionally.” Davison and Lovett gathered ten more members for the club and convinced their families to support their undertaking. Their ranks included two non-Yale men, but most were drawn from Yale sports teams. They were the sons of vastly wealthy industrialists, Wall Street bankers, and leading merchants. Several traced their roots to the Puritans. All understood their special place in American society. All believed that this place required them to lead the way in defense of their country.

With Davison’s father’s backing, J.P. Morgan and Co. underwrote major costs of the club’s flight instruction and billeting. Harry Payne Whitney ’94 and Payne Whitney ’98 (whose family later paid for the Payne Whitney Gymnasium) also supported their cause. The club members began flying and aerial combat instruction in the summer of 1916 at the Davisons’ Long Island shoreline estate, and continued during the fall semester at the New London submarine base in Connecticut. Later, they would train at an off-season resort in West Palm Beach, Florida. When not flying or studying flight, they motored around the countryside, dazzling the local women and playing practical jokes. It was all a terrific game, one club member commented later: “We did have a lot of esprit de corps and a lot of fun and a great time together. It was pretty de luxe.”

Military aviation at the time was a new branch of the Army and Navy; the Navy had bought its first airplane only in 1911. Drawing on family ties, the Yale club gained official recognition from the Navy as the first squadron in what is today the Naval Air Reserve. A young assistant secretary, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was especially supportive. The Yale Aeronautical Club was designated the First Yale Unit (two other Yale Units would follow before the war’s end). The New York press dubbed them the “Millionaires’ Unit.”

More undergraduates had joined by 1917, and in March the entire First Yale Unit, now more than two dozen strong, enrolled in the Navy. For their founder, however, the aerial warfare ended early. Trubee Davison crashed into Long Island Sound during a test flight in front of the squad and their families. He was to serve with distinction as a commissioned officer in the Navy, but he would never walk without assistance again.

After Woodrow Wilson declared war on April 6, 1917, the members of the Yale Unit were dispersed to various bases. They had accumulated less than 100 hours of solo time; nonetheless, they were now the experts in a military that had fewer than 75 qualified pilots. Several members of the Yale Unit were posted stateside to establish the massive flight training bases that sprang up almost overnight, and to test the aircraft, components, and ordnance that an ill-prepared industrial base had begun to churn out. “So proficient had these undergraduates become that they were used as a nucleus to train our aircraft forces,” wrote Rear Admiral William S. Sims, commander of the U.S. Navy in Europe, in a later account of the war.


Lovett’s most challenging job had been as assistant manager of the Dramat.

Eventually, however, most of the Yale pilots found their way overseas. Bob Lovett served for a period as a commanding officer at a British aerodrome, within reach of long-range artillery from the front outside Dunkirk. His most challenging administrative jobs until then had been as assistant manager of the Dramat and floor manager of the junior prom, but he proved a gifted officer. In a Navy with little aeronautics talent to draw upon in building up its war machine, Lovett rose swiftly through the ranks. By 1918, he was second in command of the navy’s aviation Division of Operations in foreign service, helping to establish the U.S. airforce from his desk in Paris.

Most of the Yale Unit members sent overseas remained active fliers, stationed at Allied aerodromes in England and France until the U.S. forces began to build up their own bases. At the front, some flew “flying boats” on submarine patrol; others flew one- and two-seater scouts—the famed Sopwiths, Spads, and Nieuports—on two and sometimes three daily raids behind the German lines, especially against the heavily defended ports in Bruges, Zerbrugge, and Ostend. They bombed U-boats, gun emplacements, and aerodromes. They also supported ground attacks with aerial reconnaissance and bombing and strafing runs. Usually they were met by defending German pilots who quickly embroiled them in tight, twisting dogfights, sometimes involving scores of opposing planes, at elevations ranging from nearly 20,000 feet all the way down to the treetops.

The lives of these earliest fighter pilots were unique in the history of war. Hours of each day were filled with terrifying combat, carried on at elevations and in atmospheric conditions that only Edwardian mountain climbers and polar explorers had experienced. The cold and wind, oxygen deprivation and gravity forces could make a pilot sick and senseless—even without the tension of constant watch for attackers. Frostbite was common and debilitating and emotional casualties virtually universal, and agonizing deaths in mid-air were witnessed by thousands on the ground below. As many as one out of four aviators were killed in action.

“At first it was nauseating, then I felt weak and dizzy,” wrote Kenneth MacLeish ’18 of one especially grueling high-altitude mission. “Finally, after about half an hour, I got used to it, and the only effect was a splitting headache and a funny noise in my ears. The veins around my ears expanded abnormally at every heartbeat, and cut off my hearing entirely, so that when my heart throbbed I couldn’t even hear the terrific roar of my motor or the tat-tat-tat-tat of my machine guns which were firing eight or ten inches from my face.”


“I knew that whenever we had a member of that Yale unit, everything was all right.”

In these extreme conditions, the Yale Unit fliers were highly successful. Many quickly gained positions as chief pilots. Yale hockey captain David “Crock” Ingalls ’20 racked up five enemy kills during six weeks in the summer of 1918, becoming the Navy’s first and only official air Ace of the war. Football star and team captain Artemus “Di” Gates ’18, C.O. of a squadron that included his closest Yale friends, was recommended for the Congressional Medal of Honor after a rescue at sea. When he learned that one of his squadron’s planes was downed and floating within range of German shore batteries, Gates took off alone in a flying boat. With guns ranging the target and a force of German aircraft approaching, he landed, took the two survivors on board, and managed to return home through the enemy fire with all aboard unscathed.

After the war, the lieutenant-commander who was aide for aviation at the Navy’s London headquarters told Admiral Sims, “I knew that whenever 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.”

Lovett, the drama troupe manager and Phi Beta Kappa student, was not as athletic or daring as some of his Yale schoolmates. (In later years, his hypochondria would become legendary.) His contribution to U.S. air might was more complicated and, as it turned out, slower to bear fruit.

The U.S. military high command was still woefully uninformed about aerial warfare. Lovett had taken the posting to Couderkerque—attacking U-boat docks that were, he wrote later, “the most dangerous objective there is” with “defenses [that] far exceed anything one could imagine”—in order to help persuade his superiors to devote U.S. resources to a massive, sustained strategic bombing campaign against Germany.

For six weeks, Lovett flew and fought. On that first mission over Bruges, he experienced not only anti-aircraft bombs but also a barrage of “flaming onions.” These devices exploded into luminous nets of green flame, designed to entangle and set fire to the oil-spattered wooden frame and canvas skin of an aircraft. Lovett’s plane flew straight through chains of fire that filled the sky everywhere he looked.


He heard the snap of bullets, some of which pierced the plane.

When the docks came into view, the pilot shut down the plane’s engines. With the bomb aimer calling out directions, the Handley Page began its silent, throat-tightening glide down to 5,000 feet—the height from which bombs could be accurately dropped. When it reached that altitude, searchlights caught Lovett’s plane against the clouds like an escaping fugitive. All he heard was the whistle of the wind in the wires and the snap of bullets, some of which pierced the plane’s fabric skin. “We were frequently hit by shrapnel and high explosive fragments,” Lovett reported afterwards, “never, however, in a vital spot.” Lovett fired into a searchlight, knocking it out. As the bombs fell away, the plane lurched upwards. The pilot throttled the engines up and turned back toward Couderkerque. Lovett leaned out of the cockpit to watch the flash of the bombs lighting up the port a mile below.

During succeeding missions over Bruges, Lovett machine-gunned attacking German squadrons, saw shrapnel and bullets shred his aircraft and leave fabric flapping in the wind, and watched his comrades—who carried no parachutes—go down in their planes’ slow flaming death spirals to the earth.

But Lovett also saw that unrelenting, concentrated bombing raids could work more effectively than any armed force yet created. Enough aircraft managed to fly through the barrages, and enough of the British bombers hit their targets. Day after day, the British bombs sapped the enemy’s capacity to make war. “Due to the enormous expenditure of [German] anti-aircraft ammunition,” Lovett wrote his superiors, “the continuous use of the[ir] guns, and the effect on the morale of the[ir] gun crews, the[ir] defenses become weaker each succeeding night.” Here was the proof he needed.

He returned to Paris in early May to create the Northern Bombing Group for the sustained air attack he believed could end the war. Lovett drew on his Yale Unit comrades, bringing together as many of his old friends as he could. With America’s war industry still struggling, the Allies contributed surplus aircraft. Soon, the first U.S. strategic bomber force was carrying out air raids over Belgium. Wrote Admiral Sims, an admirer of the Yale Unit, “The great aircraft force which was ultimately assembled in Europe had its beginning in a small group of undergraduates at Yale University.”

In the end, Lovett was probably wrong about the significance of U.S. strategic bombing in World War I. The naval aviation force had ballooned from 38 officers and 201 men in April 1917 to 6,716 officers and 37,409 men by the Armistice—but it arrived too slowly. It was the flood of fresh American doughboys who turned the tide of war in the summer of 1918.

But by World War II, air warfare was dominant, and the United States was becoming dominant in air warfare. Because of the social prominence, wealth, flying abilitity, and genuine heroism of the Yale pilots (along with, possibly, the care they took to make sure that their story was known and appreciated), the members of the unit played significant roles in the development of America’s command of the world’s skies throughout the mid-century period, and in the growth of a new kind of warfare.

Unit members were friends and advisors to every U.S. president from Harding through Kennedy. Trubee Davison served in Warren G. Harding’s administration as the nation’s first Assistant Secretary of War for Air. Crock Ingalls was Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Air during the Hoover administration.


Lovett’s battle cry was in the ears of all American air force generals: “Keep it incessant.”

FDR, who had helped the Yale Unit get Navy backing when it was formed, recalled several of its members to service in World War II. Di Gates became Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Air. Lovett became Assistant Secretary of the Army for Air. During World War II, Lovett came into his own, guiding the buildup of the vast army air force that played such a crucial role in winning the war. He never forgot the lessons he had learned flying bombing raids against German U-boat installations in Bruges. In World War I, he had advocated relentless bombing of German manufacturing, supply routes, and home defenses all the way to Berlin. In World War II, he applied exactly the same strategy. His battle cry was in the ears of all the generals commanding the American air forces: “Keep it incessant.”

By 1948, the year of the Berlin airlift, Lovett had become Undersecretary of State. In the Korean War, he served as Secretary of Defense. He continued to pursue dominance of the skies as the core of the world’s most powerful military—“apostolic in his devotion,” as Time magazine put it, “to the thesis that air power is the decisive power.”

In 1966, the surviving unit members gathered for a reunion at the Davison estate on Long Island, near the shoreline where, 50 years earlier, they had come together to found the Naval Air Reserve. Rear Admiral Paul Ramsey pinned on Trubee Davison, in his wheelchair, the Navy wings that he had been robbed of in the crash half a century ago.

The unit left an enduring mark at Yale. Lovett is memorialized by an endowed professorship in military history. The university’s hockey arena is named for Ingalls. And the names of First Yale Unit pilots killed during the war—Kenneth MacLeish ’18, Curtis Read ’18, and Albert Sturtevant ’16—are inscribed on the war memorial in Woolsey Hall.

But probably the finest tribute to the fliers of the Yale Units was written by one of their own members, Kenneth MacLeish, in a letter sent from France seven months before his death: “I’m going to the front tomorrow. I don’t think anything will happen to me. If it should be my lot to make the supreme sacrifice, you’ll know that I did it gladly, and that I bought life’s most marvelous reward, Honor, at a dirt cheap price, and that I was happy, ever so happy, that it was granted to me, unworthy as I am, to give up my life for my friends, who, fundamentally, are my ideals.”  the end





Last Flight

In late September 1918, less than two months before the Armistice, Di Gates ’18—Yale football star and member of the First Yale Unit—left his command in Dunkirk to fly scouts behind German lines. On October 4, on a mission over occupied Belgium, Gates broke away from his squad to ward off an attacking force of German Fokkers. The other pilots in the squad returned home, but Gates was lost.

The news traveled rapidly among the Yale fliers. One of the pilots Gates had commanded at Dunkirk, Kenneth MacLeish ’18 (brother of the future U.S. Poet Laureate Archibald ’15) was nearly inconsolable. Gates had been his closest friend. “I’ve never, never taken anything so badly,” he wrote home. “I’ve lost lots of friends, but Di was different—I’ve been brought up with him, and he’s one of two men that I actually love—Arch is the other.”

MacLeish had had a long layover in England recovering from pneumonia, but he refused a desk job as a squadron commander and a five-week furlough home. He insisted to Lovett, “There’s no use trying to make a commanding officer out of me if I can’t fight and fly all I want and when I want.”

Back at Dunkirk, he flew his first mission early on the morning of October 14, piloting a Sopwith Camel on a bombing run of 19 planes against retreating German troops near Ardoye, Belgium. He dropped four small Cooper bombs, scattering the enemy column below. Within minutes, a large force of German Fokker biplanes was upon the Allied scouts, and in the melee that followed, MacLeish and another flier raked a Fokker with machine gun fire. The enemy plane burst into flame. For MacLeish, it was his first taste of blood.

MacLeish returned to the aerodrome, immediately refueled and reloaded, and, after a quick briefing, took off in a squadron of 15 Camels making another sortie over German lines. Two miles north of Dixmude, they spotted 14 Fokkers. In the scrap that followed, MacLeish blew a German plane out of the air and then helped send another into a final spin to earth. He failed to see, or perhaps ignored, a signal to return to base. According to notes made by the C.O. in the squadron log, “Lieutenant MacLeish was last seen attacking about seven Fokkers single-handed.”

Three weeks later, on November 11, 1918, came the Armistice. The next day, Di Gates sent a cable from the camp in Vilingen, Germany, where he had been held in solitary confinement following three failed escape attempts.

In December a Belgian farmer, returning to his devastated fields near Schoore, discovered MacLeish’s body about 200 yards from his wrecked Sopwith Camel. Later that year, the Navy christened a new destroyer the MacLeish in his memory.


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