Trubee Davison – Founder, First Yale Unit

Everyone liked and admired Trubee.  Born with a silver spoon in his mouth, he was amiable and energetic – constantly organizing, supportive of everyone’s efforts, always carrying the heaviest load himself.  He was Johnny-on-the-spot and the preferred companion of all who knew him.  With a selflessness that might only come from good parenting in such a rarefied atmosphere, Trubee inspired all around him to push harder, brave longer, and achieve more than they might on their own.  Though beset by tragedy, Trubee never failed to keep his eye on the prize and hold up those around him.  

Frederick Trubee Davison was the son of Henry Pomeroy Davison, a Wall Street banker who had worked his way up from teller to one of the youngest bank presidents in the country.  When he helped stave off the run on the banks during the Panic of 1907, he was noticed by J. P. Morgan, and became the banking giant’s managing partner.  Davison Sr. was open and affable, a natural leader in a cut-throat world where he built alliances and fostered trust and stability.  He was the driving force behind the creation of the Federal Reserve System.  When J. P. Morgan died in 1913, H. P. Davison became the virtual leader of the world’s most powerful private bank and one of the most powerful men in the world. 

With such clout, Morgan & Company had close ties to Europe, with affiliates in London and Paris.  As World War I literally exploded across the continent, the Morgan bank became the fiscal agent for the Allied Powers, negotiating immense loans.  It also drove munitions manufacturing in America.  Morgan and Company was deeply invested in the Allied victory.  (The stakes were so high for the bank that after the war some believed Davison had a hand in sinking the Lusitania to assure America’s involvement in the war and the Allies' ability to pay back their loans.)  In fact, no other country had ever attempted such large and wholesale economic transformation – one that would create the world’s largest and most powerful industrial economy.  

It was on one of Davison’s business trips to Europe in the summer of 1915 that his eldest son, Trubee, accompanied him, thus giving the young man an up-close look at the effects of war on the European capitals.  Trubee signed on with the American Ambulance Field Service ferrying wounded soldiers from the trains to the American Hospital outside Paris.  Sailing over to Europe, Trubee had met Robert Bacon, Harvard classmate of Theodore Roosevelt, former Morgan partner, and former ambassador to France.  Bacon had not only organized the ambulance corps but had thrown his support behind some young Harvard and Yale students who had joined the French Foreign Legion and wanted to form an American aerial squadron.  They became the Lafayette Escadrille.  Trubee was impressed. "That put the bug in my bonnet.  If we ever got into the war, where I personally wanted to be was in the air service." 

H. P. Davison’s qualities of organization and leadership had been passed on to his eldest son.  Back at Yale in the fall of 1916, Trubee successfully campaigned for manager of the crew (rowing) team.  Though small in height, he loomed large in stature, for The Race was the oldest and most important collegiate sport.  But beyond his school activities, Davison already had his sights focused on aviation.  Pilots were already the chosen occupation of the scions of aristocratic families in Europe.  These "knights of the air," whose skill gave them a chance for glory, were seen as a return to chivalry, much more desirable than the anonymous fate that lay in wait for a soldier in the trenches.  It carried an air of romance,  but with a steep price tag.  

The United States was involved in a border skirmish with Poncho Villa, but Trubee had seen where the future conflict lay, and the United States was ill-prepared in the new field of aviation, which had obvious military applications.  If our armed forces weren’t preparing to do anything about it, perhaps a privately funded militia was the answer.  At school, Trubee looked around at his friends and took his notion to Robert Lovett and "poured it in his ear."  The two of them toured the New York National Guard aerial militia service, the country’s leading center for aeronautics.  The service had exactly two planes, both primitive.  At a time when the American frontier had been closed for two decades and most of the world explored and mapped, Trubee saw aviation as the last uncharted territory where a young man could make his mark.  

His parents were not so sure.  In fact, they were adamantly against it.  Trubee’s mother believed it was "spectacular suicide." His father, alerted of his son’s plans while on a fishing trip in Labrador, cabled home that he thought his son had gone crazy.  As Trubee readied to finish his sophomore year, he was fixated on the idea of an aerial militia, and not only would he need his father’s permission, he would need his financial backing.  Unknown to Trubee, his father was an early supporter of aviation in the war effort.  Davison Sr. had supported the organization of the National Guard’s first aviation unit and had himself flown over the battle lines before any of the U. S. military leadership.  In fact, aviation was deemed dangerous enough that the Naval Appropriations Act of 1914 did not allow high-ranking officers to fly.  

With their resourcefulness, the Davisons marshaled the opinions of prominent friends, and the picture that was painted of America’s aviation preparedness was dire, particularly as all of Europe surged ahead in the industrial output of aviation and weaponry technology.  The Davisons were informed by the governor of the Aero Club of America that the army had only 26 qualified pilots with 55 training aircraft of which "fifty-one were obsolete and the other four obsolescent."  The U.S. armed forces together had less than 20 planes available.  As Trubee foresaw, it was incumbent upon private militias to fill this gap.  State militias were still an American tradition from the Revolutionary era, and federal law forbade the military from accepting private funds.  While the Navy paid lip service to the important future of aviation, they were unwilling to marshal the resources to do anything about it.  

Mr. and Mrs. Davison were finally convinced of the vital need for aviation development as well as their son’s determination.  There was an immediate need that could be filled that seemed logical and relatively safe.  American shipping needed protection along its Eastern seaboard.  Naval ships were slow and prone to leave gaps where enemy warships, particularly submarines could pass.  North Pole explorer Admiral Robert E. Peary headed the National Aerial Coast Patrol Commission that was developing a string of air stations to monitor the coastline.  Experienced pilots were needed, with the plan of eventually building an air defense department as large as the Navy and Army.  But for now it would start with the Navy.  At present, the Navy had six airplanes; four stationed at their only air base in Pensacola, Florida.  Trubee’s plan for a summer flying school now had an objective.  They could be a vanguard aero militia, the prototype for a naval air reserve corps.  And as luck would have it, there was an aviation school with “flying boats” at Port Washington, just thirteen miles from the Davison estate.  

The Davisons were led to believe that Trubee’s plans and commitment would be greeted with open arms by the Navy.  Such would not be the case.  But with a promise from his father to finance the group, and with his usual gregariousness, Trubee proceeded to organize a group of friends committed to a shared future in aviation.  The initial young men, contacted by telegram in July 1916, were all members of the Yale class of ’18 and of Psi Upsilon fraternity.  They were players and managerial heelers of the varsity sports teams, and they all had “sand” – meaning character, grit, and the spirit "For God, for country, and for Yale."  The phrase came from the sand placed on train tracks to help the wheels grip, and a young man with sand was going places.  

Trubee’s friends had to convince their parents of something very indefinite.  They would initially be flying under the banner of the Aero Club of America, with a vague commitment from the government.  They would not be enlisting yet, though they would form a squadron to help protect the nation’s coastline.  They would continue with school.  John Vorys, who had received his telegram in Columbus, Ohio, while in the hospital after a tonsillectomy, recalled Trubee reassuring him that they were "not to fly very high and that because we flew over water we wouldn’t get hurt if we did fall occasionally."  All of them would be set up in a dormitory on the top floor of the Davison’s Peacock Point estate.  So far, it sounded like summer camp.  

When the initial group of twelve gathered, Trubee mustered them in as the Yale Aerial Coast Patrol, Unit No. 1.  As they settled in, Trubee headed to Washington, D. C. with a letter of introduction to Secretary of the Navy, Josephus Daniels, a former newspaper editor who had never served in the military.  Trubee was told flat out that there was no provision for the navy to recognize a group over which it had no control.  There would be no allotment of funds.  Quite simply, the United States Navy did not see the future of aviation.  The group of future flyers was disgusted by the news upon Trubee’s return, but they began training just the same.  While Trubee was in Washington, he had also paid a visit to the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  Roosevelt was more sympathetic and enthusiastic, and he sent a letter to the navy’s local New York District recommending assistance.  Admiral Peary also lent his support, and the Yale Unit looked toward the future.  

Perhaps the most important supporter at the time was David McCullough, the instructor at Port Washington whom the Davisons hired.  He knew aviation from the ground up, and that’s what he would teach his students.  They would learn to break down their planes and engines and rebuild them as they were learning to fly.  By the end of the summer, Trubee, Bob Lovett, and Di Gates managed to solo.  Trubee was angry that all twelve hadn’t soloed, but McCullough was diligent.  There would be time for all.  

Just before school started, the navy performed an exercise sending a mosquito fleet of ships to search for dummy mines in the lower New York Harbor off Sandy Hook, New Jersey.  At the last moment, they invited the Aerial Coastal Patrol to participate.  The fleet set off in a heavy fog and couldn’t see a thing, while instructor McCullough with John Farwell as his observer, picked out every mine from aloft and landed amidst the fleet to give them directions.  The feat caused a sensation.  Trubee and Bob Lovett had tried to join the search, but ran into engine trouble and made an emergency splash landing in the East River.  The next day, the navy sent two destroyers along the southern coast of Long Island to test the surveillance around New York City.  Again McCullough was up, this time with Trubee observing.  They spotted the two ships 12 miles south of Fire Island Light, but a storm blew up and pitched the plane into a nose dive, knocking both pilots out.  They came to in time to make an emergency landing off Oak Island in the Great South Bay.  After reporting their safety, they again made a splash, this time into national news.  It appeared that naval defense had a new weapon in its arsenal – but Secretary Daniels would still not officially recognize the unit.  However, the local navy department asked Trubee if he could base two of his aircraft at the submarine base in Groton, Connecticut, right as the school year got under way.  

Trubee was certainly big man on campus now and the activities of the aero club were the big news from the summer.  On weekends, members who weren’t on the football team went out to New London to fly, further analyzing how to spot subs, even after they submerged.  The navy had never done tests like this before. Yet without the navy's support (and consistent with the country’s anti-interventionist mood), Congress decided not to fund the aerial coastal defense line.  Then, the mood changed. In early October 1916, a German U-boat made a courtesy call at Newport, Rhode Island, then proceeded outside the three-mile territorial boundary and torpedoed three British, one Dutch, and one Norwegian ships.  At the end of the month, an American liner was sunk by a U-boat off Portugal.  

If the navy wasn’t paying attention, Yale was.  Trubee received permission from the dean to start a Yale Aero Club based on campus with the objective of early aviation training in preparation for the Navy Reserve.  Candidates flocked to the group – again, athletes, heelers, and members of prominent families – some fifty in all attending weekly meetings.  Nothing enflamed their passion and resolve as much as a visit from Yale dropout and co-founder of the Lafayette Escadrille, William Thaw.  He both dazzled them with tales of heroism and warnings that only a few would make the grade.  Admiral Peary paid a visit with the prediction that "naval aviators would become the eyes of the fleet."  A second and third Yale Aero Club formed.  

In early January, the German admiralty opened assaults on all Allied shipping in an attempt to strangle Britain.  Ten days later, the infamous Zimmerman telegram was decoded, and two weeks later the American cargo ship Housatonic was torpedoed.  The tide of public opinion started to turn.  Also with winter, David McCullough moved down to quarters in Palm Beach, Florida.  Trubee, all-consumed by his project, made arrangements for the Unit to join McCullough should the group decide (and get permission from their parents) to leave school.  He bought up all the existing flying boats he could find, bringing the total to six and allowing the unit to expand to thirty men.  The navy finally acknowledged that should the country go to war, the Unit members would join as reservists with the rank of ensign.  From now on, they would be known as the First Yale Unit.  

War preparedness gripped the Yale campus, but Junior Promenade Week went on in early February as planned, managed by Bob Lovett.  Though it was the biggest social event of the season, Trubee Davison did not attend.  Instead, he went to Washington to meet again with Secretary Daniels.  Trubee outlined the study and training they had undergone and reminded the assorted brass of the successful exercises in which they had engaged.  He emphasized that pilots needed months of training and time was of the essence.  And, as the First Yale Unit had a larger air force than the U. S. Navy, they were the ones for the job.  Again, the Secretary told Trubee that he and his fellow pilots were not needed.  

On returning to campus, Trubee wrote a withering letter to the Yale Daily News chastising the navy for its lack of foresight and unpreparedness.  At the same time, with the help of family friend Colonel Thompson, Trubee tracked down Navy Lieutenant John H. Towers in New York.  Receiving encouragement from the third navy flyer to earn his Wings, Trubee followed Towers back to Washington where the lieutenant told him that if they were ready to leave college, he would recommend the Navy Reserve enlist them and clear it with Secretary Daniels.  The First Yale Unit was off and running.  

Within days, hundreds of thousands of dollars were raised, planes were bought, and the Breakers resort hotel in Palm Beach was retained to house the Unit.  On March 24, at the sub base in New London, the young pilots enlisted in the Naval Air Reserve Corps as the navy’s first air reserve squadron, the First Yale Unit.  Trubee was given the rank of lieutenant, junior grade.  The other seven who had soloed were given the rank of ensign; the rest were made petty officers, electricians, or engineers.  Five days later, with plenty of fanfare, they boarded a train for Florida.  The national press dubbed them "The Millionaires’ Unit." 

Though with no official military presence and again in bucolic surroundings, the navy airmen settled in for serious training.  Trubee took charge and divided the nascent unit into seven small groups, each with an instructor and a plane.  Each group was responsible for keeping their plane in flying order.  Trubee woke each morning before dawn to set the day’s schedule and, after instructing, flying, and studying navigation and reconnaissance himself, reviewed the day’s progress with the other instructors.  "He was always on the job," noted John Vorys.  “[We] often wondered where he had the tremendous strength and vitality to bear up under it.”  Trubee also implemented a discipline: failure to get out of bed meant beaching for the day.  The need for discipline was brought home on April 2nd when, after three American merchantmen were sunk in one day, President Wilson asked congress to declare war on Germany.  

Through the spring, more of the members soloed, while the men with real capability began to stand out.  The competition became fierce to see who could spend the most time in the air.  If this meant working all night to get an engine running or pilfering parts from a neighboring crew, so be it.  The goal was to fly, and the sky was the limit.  There were the usual high-jinx, but Trubee managed to keep everyone in line and remain friends with them all.  On Tap Day, the ceremony for admission to Yale’s secret societies, representatives came down to Florida, and – no surprise – Trubee was the first of the Unit tapped for Skull & Bones.  

By the beginning of summer, Trubee and his father had been overwhelmed with applications to the Unit – more than two hundred from Yale students alone – but the Unit and navy had no room to expand.  There simply weren’t enough planes.  Not only that, training flyers was expensive.  As the hot and humid summer approached, a new facility was needed, and one was found on the North Shore of Long Island on Huntington Bay.  Hangars, runways and a machine shop were built in preparation for the Unit to move back north.  They arrived at the end of May, tan and exhilarated, to find something that actually looked like a military base.  

With more planes, more time was spent in the air.  By the end of June, everyone had soloed and they were prepping to test for their pilot’s license at the end of July.  By now, some were flying with machine guns and shooting at kites; calculating distances as they dropped dummy bombs on targets, and practicing tight approaches to land on a mark.  There were some mishaps.  Both Curt Read and Trubee’s younger brother, Harry, Jr., smashed their planes while landing, but walked away.  A navy seaman was killed while cranking a propeller.  The day set for the flying test was the 28th of July.  

In keeping with their elevated status, the 28 young pilots were treated to a gala lunch on the day of the test for their navy Wings.  Whether the pilots ate much themselves that day is not recorded.  Yachts were anchored in Huntington Bay for front row seats, and over a hundred people were gathered in boats, on docks and along the shore.  As the chief officer of the Unit, Trubee would fly first, followed by Bob Lovett and Di Gates.  All 28 had passed their written examinations and there was a general air of optimism in the air.  For all, perhaps, except one.  

Curiously, Trubee Davison was nervous.  He had been the Rock of Gibraltar all during the organization and the training, which may have been part of his problem.  He was exhausted.  In fact, he had been spending most of his time aloft in the N-9 seaplane instructing new pilots, and he complained that morning to Gates that he hadn’t been in an F-boat for awhile.  The N-9 flew by a stick, the F-boat with a yoke.  Gates could see him in the cockpit from his own plane as they bobbed in the water waiting to take off, and Trubee looked unsure.  The day before, he had fainted on the dock under the hot sun.  He revived and said he felt fine, but they would all hear later that Trubee had confided to Foster Rockwell that morning that he wasn’t sure he could pass the test.  His engine was started, and he headed out into the bay and lifted off the water.
The task was to fly to some 6,000 feet, perform some maneuvers, then spiral down, cutting the engine at 3,000 feet, and then glide to a water landing within 200 feet of the mark.  As Trubee completed his tasks and flattened out for the landing, he realized he was too far from his landing mark.  His plane remained flat as he made the final turn. Foster Rockwell said aloud to no one in particular, "He’s flying like he’s never been in a machine before."  A small gust of wind caught Trubee’s left wing and he overreacted, throwing over his controls.  He banked heavily to the left, lost his airspeed, and sent the plane into a corkscrew, a half spiral into the water nose first.

The crowd was aghast.  This was the first flight of the test; Lovett and Gates were still up in the air and about to land.  The naval yacht Shuttle was the nearest at hand.  As they quickly motored over, they could see that the F-boat, in spite of the buoyant wings, was beginning to sink.  Trubee was tangled in the wires with only his face above water.  Lieutenant McDonnell, in uniform, dove off the boat and swam to Trubee to free him.  Unable to lift the trapped pilot, McDonnell dove down to untangle the wires and pull Trubee to the Shuttle.  In the middle of the commotion, Lovett and Gates touched down.  

The Shuttle rushed Trubee to the New York Yacht Club landing in the East River.  Rockwell was on the boat, and Trubee whispered to him from his prone position, "I had no business flying today." Meanwhile, Lovett and Dave Ingalls commandeered Curt Read’s sports car and sped to New York under police escort.  The family doctor was summoned to the dock and from there, Trubee was taken by ambulance to St. Luke’s Hospital.  He had a broken back.  

The rest of the Unit members, shaken as they probably were, passed their flight tests that day.  Within two weeks, the first Unit members Lovett and Gates started shipping overseas to join the war effort.  Their leader would remain stateside for almost the entire duration of the war.

Trubee remained their leader in a very real sense.  All of the Unit members wrote letters home, filling him in on their progress and the progress of the war.  They communicated with each other through Trubee as a satellite, sometimes complaining about the other members’ behavior, sometimes sharing their loneliness and confusion.  

Trubee’s recovery was slow.  He was back home in Peacock Point after several months, but he would live in pain the rest of his life.  Erl Gould, who had been promoted to lieutenant and was commander of the air station at Key West, was engaged to be married. He asked Trubee to be his best man.  Less than a year after his accident, Trubee made it a point of walking unaided for the first time down the aisle.  

Several months later, both Gates and MacLeish were shot down and their whereabouts were unknown. Trubee received a cable from a former Yale Unit member: 

"Gates' machine found burned but not crashed.  Ground indicates good landing and no burned clothing – probable pilot burned machine.  Indication that Gates is prisoner and not seriously injured, if at all."  
"MacLeish plane not found, but inhabitants say naval aviator captured in that locality.  Confident both are prisoners…"

Trubee made his way to London and directed the search for his friends from nearby.  Gates’ burned plane was the only clue Trubee received that his friend might be alright until Gates was released four days after the Armistice and wrote him a jovial postcard.  They had already decided that if they got through the War, they’d return to Yale and room together.  A month after the Armistice, Trubee would finally learn that they would never see MacLeish again.  

Trubee Davison never had a head for business as did many of his friends from the Unit. After he graduated from Yale, he got a law degree from Columbia and went into practice.  In 1925, he was appointed by President Coolidge to chair the National Crime Commission, put in place to stem the rise of crime caused by Prohibition.  His prominence put on the cover of Time magazine.  The next year, President Harding appointed him Assistant Secretary of War for Aviation, a post he held until Roosevelt was elected in 1932.  Trubee also served in the New York state legislature, but when he tried a run for governor in 1932, he was swept aside by anti-Republican sentiment.  In 1933, Trubee retired from politics and became president of the American Museum of Natural History, a post he oversaw for almost two decades while building it into the largest institution of its kind.  In 1951, he became the first personnel director of the newly formed CIA as well as a trustee of Yale.  

FDR called many of the First Yale Unit members back to active service with the US involvement in World War II. Trubee joined the army, serving as assistant chief of staff of the Army Air Corps in charge of personnel.  On June 3, 1945, Trubee Davison was made brigadier general.  He received the Distinguished Service Medal and the Navy Cross.  

Each year after the First War, Trubee reunited the Unit for a celebration in New York City.  Fifty years after the founding of the Navy Air Reserve, Trubee threw an anniversary gathering of the First and Second Yale Units at Peacock Point.  After a sumptuous meal, Trubee Davison was awarded the Wings he had failed to receive that summer’s day 49 years ago.  A group of six Blue Angels flew over the Davison estate with red, white, and blue contrails, heading out over the Sound where the First Yale Unit first learned to fly.  

The Millionaires’ Unit – The Aristocratic Flyboys Who Fought the Great War and Invented American Air Power by Marc Wortman
The First Yale Unit – Naval Aviation 1916-1919 by Ralph D. Paine

Photo: Courtesy Daniel Davison

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