Artemus L. “Di” Gates – Naval Aviator #65


The strong, silent type, Artemus Gates was the muscle that backed up the bravado of the First Yale Unit.  Known as “Di” to his friends, he was also known as “the Indian” for his full features, dark complexion and black hair.  At times resentful of his elite East Coast classmates, the tall Midwesterner from Iowa threw his weight around on campus as a starting tackle on the Yale football team.  He was too big to be a fighter pilot because of the small cockpits of the single-seaters, but by the end of the War he would be the most highly decorated officer of the Unit.  

Gates’ father had died when he was a boy.  His mother had raised him and his siblings in the stockyard town of Clinton, Iowa, along the Mississippi, and with help from his grandparents he was able to go to Hotchkiss prep school in Connecticut.  There he met and became good friends with Kenney MacLeish. Together they matriculated to Yale.  

As a freshman, Gates’ position on the starting lineup for Yale was no mean feat.  In an era before the rise of most professional sports leagues, Yale football was about as exciting a national contest as there was, particularly in the new 71,000-seat Yale Bowl.  By the start of his sophomore year, Di Gates was a celebrity throughout New England and beyond.  

Gates’ idol at school was the energetic Trubee Davison. When Davison got the idea to put the Yale Aero Club together, Gates was near the top of the recruitment list for the original twelve members.  After training over the summer near the Davison estate on Long Island, the Club met one evening a week on campus when school started, then spent part of each weekend training at the Groton submarine base as part of the aerial coastal patrol defense line.  

But they had to do without Gates and a few other members of the football team.  The Harvard-Yale game was coming up and all eyes were on Gates and his teammates, as Yale had not won The Game in nine years.  But near the end of the first half, trailing by three points, Gates picked up a fumble on Harvard’s forty yard line and ran it back to the twelve before he was forced out of bounds.  Yale scored and held the game throughout the second half for a 6-3 victory.  Gates was hailed by the New York Evening World as “the great individual star,” and his picture was in the papers across America.  Next year’s team looked to be one of the strongest in the school’s history, but the 33 players would never take the field together.  By next season, 30 of them would trade their jerseys for a military uniform.  

As the United States girded for war in the winter of 1917, the Unit members received ensign commissions in March and made the fateful decision to leave school and decamp to Palm Beach, Florida, for further training.  That April, while still in Florida, Gates was tapped to be a member of Yale’s secret society Skull and Bones, along with Trubee Davison, Robert Lovett, John Vorys, and Alphie Ames.  (In fact, the clubhouse would later accept the machine gun from Gates’ crashed plane as one of their prized treasures.)  After completing their training in Florida and further training at Huntington, Long Island, the Unit passed their written naval aviation tests.  

On July 28, the Unit took their flying test.  In order of seniority, Davison, Lovett, and Gates took to the air.  Davison was completing his maneuvers, but as he came in for his landing, he corkscrewed into the water nose first.  The crowd stood in shock as the Shuttle sped over for the rescue.  In the middle of the pandemonium, Gates and Lovett splashed down safely nearby.  When all was settled, Gates qualified first in the Unit and was designated Navy Aviator Number 65.  

When the United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, they were farther behind in aviation than any other branch of the military.  The navy had 22 operable seaplanes, 38 qualified pilots, and 163 enlisted men for aviation duty.  At the same time, Germany was producing 1,000 planes a month.  It was no use waiting stateside for the U. S. aviation industry to catch up.  In fact, the $640 million congress appropriated to build an air force was not only the largest single appropriation in U. S. history, it was possibly the largest waste.  While France had asked the U. S. for 12,000 fighting planes and 24,000 engines, the Unit pilots – who had increased the navy’s total by more than half – shipped out to France and England to help.  Gates and Lovett – both now lieutenants, were the first pilots from the Unit to sail for Europe, less than a month after their flying test.  

After a tense and frightening journey through U-boat infested waters, Gates and Lovett arrived in Liverpool and toured wartime ravaged London and Paris, before being sent to flight school on the French Riviera.  Gates wrote home from the sun-bathed coast, with reference to the previous training in Palm Beach and posh Long Island, “When the real thing does come, I probably won’t know how to act.”  

But their stay was brief.  Flyers were dying at an appalling rate – half of all pilots during the war would be killed or wounded – and the Americans did not have the luxury to train properly or fully.  They flew their planes hard and all-out.  Gates witnessed ten landing crashes in one day.  Nonetheless, the competitive Gates grew impatient with training and was anxious for a taste of the real thing.  He wanted to go to Dunkirk.  

Due to its location on the French coast near the Belgian border, and with its deep harbor in close proximity to Dover, Dunkirk would play pivotal and tragic roles in both World Wars.  The U. S. Navy decided to man a station at the docks of Dunkirk to lead the fight against the German U-boats, and Gates did all he could to be sent there, including pleading his case to the new C.O. whom he ran into in Bordeaux.  

After several weeks in Paris, Gates got his wish.  He was transferred to Dunkirk along with Lovett.  His hope, as it was with all the Unit pilots, was to fly the single-seater land machines, like the Nieuport, SPAD, or Sopwith, scouting planes the likes of which America did not yet have.  But Gates was simply too large for the small cockpits and had to content himself with flying the water machines he was relatively used to.  Ever the competitor, Gates wrote home to Trubee on November 25, 1917, “I have one satisfaction, and that is I will be under fire and see some excitement long before any of the others.”  Indeed.  One American aviator reported to Kenney MacLeish that Dunkirk pilots had a 99% casualty rate.  Eighty-five percent of them were killed “and the rest lost their nerve.”  

It became common knowledge in the winter of 1918 that the Germans were planning a massive offensive and Dunkirk would certainly be one of the targets.  The Germans wanted to get the upper hand before the Americans were organized in fighting shape, but they would have to wait for spring before “Operation Michael” could be deployed.  The offensive was launched the first day of spring, March 21, the very day that Kenney MacLeish, Dave Ingalls, and “Shorty” Smith arrived to join Gates at the Dunkirk Naval Air Station.  They could hear the pounding of the shells at the front.  Lovett also arrived that day from Paris by motorcycle.  He had big plans, which he could not talk about, and this again scratched an old annoyance Gates held toward his patrician friend.  “The same old Bob,” Gates wrote to Trubee several weeks later, “very secretive and chasing all over the country with the wildest stories that never seem to match up.”  

But at dinner that first night, with six members of the Unit around the table, the sirens blew and the men ran outside to witness the German Gotha night bombers working their way down the coast.  Ingalls was dazzled by the sight of the explosive night sky, but turned to notice Gates still at the table.  When asked if they shouldn’t head to the cellar, Gates just motioned to the door.  After four months of almost nightly raids, he had long since given up taking cover.  Noting the destructive randomness of the shelling, he mused “If one’s name is on one of the shells it is impossible to get away from it.”  

Gates was now the chief pilot at Dunkirk, arguably the most dangerous Allied air base in the European theater.  Responsible for the training of the pilots and the upkeep of the planes, Gates quickly realized he had been given a no-win situation.  The planes the French had handed off to the Americans were essentially rejects.  They were slow and had to be run at full-throttle to carry a payload, burning out their engines after a few flights.  Worse, there were no hardened hangars and the flying boats had to be lowered by crane one by one into the water, thus losing any chance to catch a sighted sub before it submerged.  

Gates was still hardened and proud, but he had just lost another Unit member, the first Navy aviator to die in France.  Curt Read would have been the manager of the Yale football team that Gates would have captained to near-certain glory.  Read was a nervous flyer who “never got the hang of it,” according to friend and Unit member John Farewell.  He had confided to his brothers he was scared.  Having already walked away from one crash, he felt his luck had been used up.  Perhaps more than any of the others, Read had been carried to war by the romance of the enterprise, but was most startled to see the reality in torn bodies and horror stories.  But he disdained a desk job and felt he had to be at the front.  He fatalistically confided to his diary that he would make the ultimate sacrifice.  “There is absolutely no other way out,” he had written.  When Read arrived at Dunkirk, Gates had taken him up in a Donnet-Denhaut flying boat to get the lay of the base and the traffic patterns.  Read then went up with an observer with whom he had flown at Moutchic.  Gliding back to the basin, a puff of wind knocked the boat into a fatal nose dive.  Curt Read was the first American to die at Dunkirk.  His death made Gates grip the tenuous air base that much harder in the face of the German offensive.  The British had abandoned the air base for one inland; the Americans had stayed and were hanging on.  

In early August, the radio sounded an alert that a British Handley-Page bomber had been downed in the sea forty miles up the coast off Ostend.  The wreck was in range of German shore guns.  Gates dashed to a moored flying boat as an escort of Camels was alerted at the aerodrome.  Without waiting for them, Gates headed north and spotted the downed fliers hanging on to each wing, as they were still being shelled.  At the sight of Gates’ plane, the Germans called out their fighters.  The Camels arrived just in time to see Gates splash down and keep the German fighters at bay.  Gates taxied around to both of the pilots, got them on board, and was just able to start his plane and lift off for home.  He landed to a hero’s welcome.  

The British Admiralty awarded Gates the Distinguished Flying Cross, and U. S. Admiral Sims recommended him for the Medal of Honor, one of only three navy men to be so recommended.  He received the Distinguished Service Medal.  But Gates wasn’t yet finished playing the hero.  

That summer he had been promoted to commanding officer, but he was no longer permitted to fly.  His responsibilities for the base weighed on him as he felt ineffective without any equipment and the constant nightly pounding by the Germans.  He applied for transfers but was continuously denied.  As his superior officer, Lovett bore the brunt of Gates’ complaints, and Gates believed Lovett was behind the denials for his transfer, which made him even more enraged at his fellow Bonesman.  But by the end of the month, the Germans had abandoned targeting the coastal bases and submarines were no longer much of a threat.  The Dunkirk base was closed and Gates got his wish at last.  He was to be part of Lovett’s design for the Northern Bombing Group commanding a squadron.  But until his planes arrived, he wanted to fly.  Lovett petitioned Captain Cone to wave the no-fly rule for commanding officers in Gates’ case.  Cone waived the rule.  Gates was transferred to a French naval escadrille south of Dunkirk.  

Gates took some practice runs in a French SPAD.  Though outmoded, the SPAD had been a reliable French scout and was fast in a dive.  For his first mission across enemy lines, he left early in the morning with seven other planes.  MacLeish and Ingalls arrived at the station to find their friend already airborne and laughed how the two experienced pilots would razz him when he returned from his virgin flight.  But they waited in vain.  Gates did not return.  

The seven pilots were a mishmash of experience. When fifteen-miles into enemy territory, some dozen German Fokkers burst out of the clouds above them. The leaders dove for a cloud bank, leaving the less experienced pilots panicked.  The last time Gates was seen, he had swung around in a virage on to the tail of a Fokker, but he was vastly outnumbered.  Gates would not be heard from again, until the end of the war.  

Soon after Gates disappeared, so did MacLeish.  The hope was that they had both landed safely and been taken prisoners of war.  Indeed, as the war wound down, that was the only real hope.  A month after the Armistice, they would learn that MacLeish had not been so lucky.  His body was found in a Belgian field.  

It turns out that Gates had his engine shot out in the dogfight. Three Fokkers followed him to the ground, shooting up his plane as he tried to land.  He caught some telephone wires that flipped his plane, but he crawled out unhurt.  As German soldiers swarmed toward him he tossed a match onto his fuel-soaked plane.  

He was taken to Ghent and installed in a private home for three days where he was served good food and wine by English-speaking officers and female office workers and nurses.  When they realized he wasn’t going to give up any military secrets, German intelligence placed Gates in solitary confinement in the old Ghent penitentiary.  In five days he heard the approaching Allied bombs sounding louder and louder until the city fell.  He was packed off to Germany by train.  Stealing a rail map off one of the cars, he pretended to fall asleep, then climbed out a window and dropped to the ground when the slow train entered a dark tunnel.  

For four days Gates hid by day and followed the tracks south by night to neutral Switzerland.  Three yards from the Swiss border, he ran into a German patrol and was promptly sent straight back to Germany and the prison camp for American aviation officers.  

Meanwhile, three weeks after Gates’ crash, Allied troops stumbled upon a burnt SPAD.  The Davison family, including Trubee, had come to Europe to help locate the missing Unit members. The SPAD was confirmed as Gates’ plane by Harry Davison and Ken Smith.  The landing had not looked rough, and hope was held that he was a prisoner.  Then, on November 11, 1918, the war ended.  Four days later, Gates and his fellow prisoners were released.  Gates dashed off a postcard to Trubee, taking him up on his offer to return to college and room together.  He returned to Yale where he was given the broken propeller and bent machine gun from his plane.  The gun rests in Skull and Bones today.  

Di Gates went on to a career on Wall Street.  Putting his old antagonisms aside, he roomed in Manhattan during the week with Robert Lovett as they both went on to careers on Wall Street.  At 33, Gates became president of New York Trust, a predecessor to J. P. Morgan Chase & Company, making him one of the youngest Wall Street bank presidents since Trubee’s father, H. P. Davison.  Lovett sat on the board, as Gates sat on the board of Lovett’s Union Pacific.  Gates also sat on the board of Pan American Airways as well as the Boeing Company.  When Lovett realized the dire need to build America’s air force, he called on Gates to act as Undersecretary of the Navy for Air.  Gates directed the build-up of the Navy’s air power from seven aircraft carriers and 5,200 planes at the start of World War II to 100 carriers and 70,000 planes.  

In 1966, at the 50th anniversary of the Naval Air Reserve held at the Davison home, Peacock Point, Di Gates called out from memory the names of all 28 men from the original First Yale Unit.  

Photo: Courtesy Vorys Archive 

 
 
Home Page
Copyright 2009 Humanus Documentary Films