In April 1917, more than two and a half years into the bloodiest war the world had yet seen, nearly half of the 9 million soldiers, sailors and airmen, and the 5 million civilians who would be killed in the First World War already lay dead. Some 65 million men were at arms, more than all previous wars combined. Day after terrible day, some 5,000 men died on average. The names of once unknown places where millions died rang out like mournful bell tolls: Somme, Verdun, Gallipoli, Tannenberg, Marne, Ypres, Passchendaele. Despite the unprecedented violence of the first truly mechanized war, the opposing forces of Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and their allies—the Central Powers—and the Allied armies of France, Great Britain, Russia, and Italy, rarely advanced in this awful war of attrition.
Only one great power still stood aloof from the carnage. The United States had remained at peace, following President Woodrow Wilson’s dictate that Americans “must be neutral in fact as well as in name” and “impartial in thought as well as in action.” Even the infamous torpedoing of the British liner the Lusitania, drowning 1,198 people including 128 Americans, and the sinking of multiple American freighters by German U-boats could not arouse the nation for war. Although by and large sympathetic to the Allied nations, the U.S. maintained an army smaller than the Great War combatants lost in a typical month’s fighting. Its modern naval fleet had not trained for the realities of undersea warfare practiced by its potential enemies. And the dawning third dimension of the battlefield, the air war, barely figured into military thinking; the nation supported air forces smaller than Bulgaria’s.
As the battle for European dominance became a world war, no country remained an island; the globalization that has grown suspect today had already sprung fully upon the world in the form of ocean-going international trade. Demand for American products and raw materials from around the world had transformed the nation into an industrial powerhouse. As increasing numbers of ships carrying American-made goods went to the bottom of the ocean, though, more and more voices called for the country to fight to maintain freedom of the seas. Former President Theodore Roosevelt led the chorus calling upon America to enter the battle against what they decried as the Central Powers’ lawlessness.
The U.S. government largely ignored the protests. Wilson won reelection in 1916 with the slogan “He Kept Us Out of War.” But a group of men—boys, really, almost all of them too young to vote—decided that even if the government refused to prepare for war, they would do something about the situation. If the U.S. did go to war, they wanted to lead the way and they wanted to do it in the most daring and ambitious service of all, as pioneering pilots in the new age of aerial warfare. They led the country into its air power future.
Today the children of the one-percenters rarely join the military. These young men, however, most of them college students at Yale, came from the nation’s most privileged families. Among them were a Rockefeller and a Taft, one whose father headed the Union Pacific railroad empire, and another whose father served as managing partner of J.P. Morgan & Co., the world’s most powerful investment bank. Several had fathers managing and making millions on Wall Street. Some traced their lineage to the Mayflower; several counted friends and relatives among presidents and statesmen.
Despite being scions of the Gilded Age’s loftiest families, they considered it their duty to serve their country. They grew up in a time when their privileged position brought with it special responsibilities that may seem distant to us today. Barely a decade and a half after the Wright brothers’ first flight, they were convinced that America needed an air force. Given the country didn’t have one, or barely so, they decided to create their own.
A dozen learned to fly in the summer of 1916 at the splendid Long Island, New York, Gold Coast family estate of the group’s founder, F. Trubee Davison. They trained on bi-wing flying boats over the Long Island Sound. As managing partner of J.P. Morgan and Co. on Wall Street, Davison’s father, Henry P. Davison, was perhaps the most powerful banker in the world. Since the war’s outbreak, keeping the Allied powers in the fight had become Morgan’s chief business. The bank floated bonds on behalf of the British and French. Morgan also served as agents for Allied purchases of U.S. weapons and munitions, grain, iron, steel and oil, spending up to $10 million per day.
Some questioned whether the House of Morgan wasn’t pushing the reluctant nation into the war to protect its financial interests. Others accused Morgan and the British government of engineering the sinking of the Lusitania, which was known to carry ammunition in its cargo hold. In the 1930s backlash against the Great War, a Senate committee held numerous hearings, berating witnesses including partners from J.P. Morgan, in the words of a senator, for being “merchants of death” who pursued war for the “profit for the few.”
Nobody could accuse them, however, of not having put their own blood at risk. Returning to the Yale campus in New Haven, Conn., for the school year, the young men enlisted more of their friends and classmates in their flying scheme; eventually 28 joined together to form the “Yale Aero Club.” Davison went to Washington to offer the organization’s services to the Navy as a reserve unit. However, the Secretary of the Navy lacked the imagination to envision the potential value of their services for his surface fleet. Nonetheless, the farsighted Davison and his friends continued with their own family money to pursue flight training, convinced that this disruptive new technology would one day overturn the hidebound Navy’s ways of making war. With the help of a young Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Davison and some of his classmates did fly from New Haven occasionally to the New London Navy Submarine Base where they went out with their own aircraft on patrol to see if they could spot submerged submarines and to teach the submariners to avoid detection from the air. (As president during World War Two, Roosevelt would call the Yale men back to service in building up and guiding the nation’s air power.)
Early in 1917, the German Kaiser determined upon starving out Great Britain, by attacking even neutral shipping. As more and more American ships and goods went under the waves, war fever began to grip the land. Woodrow Wilson and the Navy finally realized they needed an air force. They had the seeds for one in the prescient young men from Yale. The Navy enlisted them in March 1917 and called up the First Yale Unit, the first-ever squadron in the Naval Air Reserve.
Of course the Navy still had no budget for their training. This being the “gold spoon brigade,” that wasn’t a problem. J.P. Morgan and Co. and their families paid the bill. The entire U.S. Navy Air Reserve boarded a three-car private train in New York City, including their crated-up aircraft, and went—where else?—to Palm Beach, Fla., to train. Not surprisingly, the press following their exploits dubbed them the “Millionaires’ Unit.”
On April 6, 1917, the U.S. declared war. With “civilization itself seeming to be in the balance,” President Wilson now called for war so that the world might “be made safe for democracy.”
All of the Millionaires’ Unit’s pilots won their Wings of Gold—made up by Tiffany and Co., of course—as Naval Aviators, making them among the Navy’s first 100 flyers. All except one: Davison crashed during his test flight, breaking his back, an injury that would leave him disabled for the rest of his life.
Before the end of the summer of 1917, these flyers provided the nucleus of the burgeoning navy air service. Naval airmen were the first uniformed Americans to reach France and enter combat. Yale Unit members helped build the first American overseas airbase, a training station at Le Moutchic, France, from the ground up. Robert Lovett from the Yale Unit became the first American in uniform to fly in the European theater. He was also the first uniformed American to fly on a heavy bomber mission. He was a brilliant and resourceful leader who rose up the ranks fast. He eventually devised and helped plan the nation’s first strategic bombing campaign and headed its night bomber wing. In the Second World War, he served as Assistant Secretary of War for Air, using what he had learned in the First to build up the bomber and fighter force that helped crush Germany. After that war, as one of the so-called “Wise Men” during the Cold War and a Secretary of Defense during the Korean War, he guided the development of American strategic air power.
Artemus Gates from the Yale Unit eventually commanded the dangerous Dunkirk Naval Air Station. He undertook a daring, singlehanded rescue of a plane that went down at sea, for which he was nominated for the Medal of Honor. In the next war, he returned as the Assistant Secretary of Navy for Air, giving him responsibility for building up the carrier aircraft that proved so decisive against the Japanese.
A dauntless risk-taker, David S. Ingalls, great-nephew of President William Howard Taft, became the Navy’s first Air Ace during the war. He returned to naval service in the Second World War, becoming commander of the Pearl Harbor Naval Air Station.
Erl Gould took command of the Key West Naval Air Station at age 22, making him one of the youngest officers ever to lead such a large military facility. He, too, went back into the navy during the next war. Making his way into the Pacific, he headed up the forward construction operations during the fighting at Tarawa that built the air fields needed in the air campaign against Japan.
Some of the Unit members gave their all. Albert Sturtevant became the first uniformed American killed in air combat. German fighters shot down his plane over the English Channel during a U-boat patrol. Two more of his Yale brothers-in-arms would die in the air war over Europe. One was Kenneth MacLeish, brother of Archibald, later a poet and playwright and three-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize.
By the time of the armistice, November 11, 1918, members of the Millionaires’ Unit had fought in the air war throughout Europe, helped to sink subs, provided convoy protection, trained and led hundreds of men, tested aircraft and weapons, and commanded numerous air stations, doing everything for an air service that grew from almost nothing to a 40,000-man force that rivaled any in the war.
“The war to end all war” did nothing of the kind. It brought down centuries-old royal families, set off rebellions and revolutions, redrew the map of the world, unleashed a devastating flu epidemic, wiped out a generation of young men, and made the United States an unrivaled economic giant. An Austrian corporal gassed in the trenches on the Western Front vowed revenge for the treacherous “Jewish conspiracy” that he believed had undermined his nation and the vengeful treaty imposed on Germany. The Yale Unit flyers would take what they had learned during the First World War as their foundation for finishing the job against Adolf Hitler in the Second.
Admiral William Sims, commander of all U.S. Navy forces in Europe during the Great War, described the young men of the First Yale Unit as “twentieth-century Paul Reveres” and credited their efforts as the “romantic beginnings” of American naval aviation. He wrote, “The great aircraft force which was ultimately assembled in Europe had its beginnings in a small group of undergraduates at Yale University.”
Half a century after that war ended, Robert Lovett was asked what motivated these young men who had everything to live for to risk it all. Despite their great wealth, high birth and unlimited opportunity, they were no different in that respect than all those who have served in the century since they invented American air power. Lovett said “You could have the satisfaction of loyalty, of service, of doing something you believed in with a group of friends that you loved and respected. That’s what kept us going. No question.”
To learn more about the Millionaires’ Unit and World War One, read my history, The Millionaires’ Unit: The Aristocratic Flyboys Who Fought the Great War and Invented American Air Power and see the award-winning feature-length documentary, The Millionaires’ Unit—U.S. Naval Aviators in the First World War.