Albert D. Sturtevant

Albert D. Sturtevant – Naval Aviator #77

The charmer of the Unit was Albert Dillon Sturtevant, perhaps the prototype of the urbane, sophisticated Ivy Leaguer.  A year or two older than most of the other Unit members, Sturtevant had already graduated from Yale and was studying law at Harvard when he answered the call to become a pilot.  He led by example, and his friends were eager to follow after his grace and charm.  Tragically, he lost his life soon after flying his first mission, becoming the first U.S. naval aviator killed in action in World War I.  

Sturtevant was born and grew up in Mt. Pleasant, an early subdivision of Washington, D.C., where his father was partner in a prominent law firm.  The family summered in Haven Colony in the tiny town of Brooklin, Maine, where the oldest son got his first taste of the nautical life.  Al was the pride of the family and moved from public school to Phillips Academy in Andover, MA.  

At Yale, Sturtevant was a mechanical engineering student at the Sheffield Scientific School where one of his professors referred to him as “the finest type of college man.”  By now he was six two in height, blond and blue-eyed with a baby face of exquisite features.  Voted among the “handsomest” and “best dressed” by his classmates, Al was as popular as he was recognizable.  He had joined the Freshman Crew, but during sophomore year in 1914 he had been moved up from the second varsity team to the first boat in preparation for The Race – the annual grudge match with Harvard and the most anticipated sporting event of the year for the two schools.  After seven lean years of defeat, Yale was handed a victory by Al and the seven other oarsmen.  The next year he was made captain, and Harvard was defeated again, this time by five boat lengths.  

In June 1916, as Al prepared for his third match against Harvard, President Wilson called up 75,000 National Guardsmen to police the Mexican border against the threat of Pancho Villa and his peasant army.  The Yale Battery of the Connecticut National Guard had formed in 1915, and more than a year later the campus looked like an armed camp.  The race day was moved up and the rowers were given leaves of absence to compete before reporting for duty.  In fact, Al Sturtevant had stayed at Yale an extra year to row in the Race, which seemed like a very tentative affair now that war was on the horizon.  Finally, the Race was held, but victory would not be Yale’s.  The Harvard team not only won, but beat Yale’s 28-year-old record.  The Yale boat clocked the third-fastest time, and Sturtevant passed out from exhaustion after crossing the finish line.  However, the Race was quickly forgotten as several of the crew reported for Guard duty the next morning.  

Al Sturtevant was not a member of the Yale Battery.  He had been listening to Trubee Davison relate his experiences in the American ambulance corps from the previous summer in Paris.  Davison’s attention was on the war in Europe, and he had been giving a lot of thought to aviation and the fact that America was ill-prepared in this field.  Cord Meyer, a crew team leader, had soloed at an aviation camp at Mineola, Long Island, the previous summer.  Millionaire philanthropist Harry Payne Whitney offered to put some students up at his Long Island estate if they wanted to train as pilots, and Sturtevant, along with Meyer and Seth Low – all from crew – took Whitney up on his offer.  

Al began his flight training on a wing-warping B Wright type aircraft at the National Guard training facility at Minneola.  He then continued training, along with Charles Wiman, on U.S. Army machines at Governor’s Island in New York harbor where he received his pilot’s license.  That summer, Trubee Davison began to pull a group of interested aviators together, forming the Yale Aerial Coast Patrol, Unit No. 1.  Ten were from Yale, plus two junior associates at Morgan and Company.  Sturtevant and Wiman would join the group for the second half of the summer when their Guard training was over.  

By the fall, Sturtevant was at Harvard Law School, but he kept in touch with Davison and came down to New Haven on occasion for meetings and to Groton for sub spotting exercises.  In the winter, the United States was pushed closer to war when German U-boats started indiscriminately sinking merchant ships and with the discovery of the Zimmermann Telegram implicating Germany in a plot to incite Mexico to war against the U.S.  When war was declared, Sturtevant joined the rest of the Yale Aero Club at the sub base in New London where they enlisted into the navy’s first air reserve squadron.  Sturtevant was mustered in as ensign and left Harvard, never to return.  

The First Yale Unit of the Naval Air Reserve, as they were now called, travelled to West Palm Beach in April for further training.  Sturtevant was in his element.  He headed the informal Razz Crew with John Vorys, caustically leading the “Anvil Chorus” to berate flyers for bumpy water landings – until, of course, Sturtevant bounced his plane so hard that he was beached for the rest of the day.  In June 1917 the Unit moved to Huntington, Long Island, where they continued training.  Sturtevant learned to fly the seaplane versions of the N-9, R-6 and R-3 aircraft.  In July at Huntington, the entire Unit (except Trubee Davison, who was badly injured in a crash) earned their navy Wings.  Sturtevant became Naval Aviator #77.  

In early September 1917, Sturtevant and John Vorys received orders to sail for London, thus becoming the third and fourth Yale Unit aviators to be deployed overseas following the departure of Bob Lovett and Di Gates two weeks earlier.  For the next six months they would be inseparable.  A year later, Vorys dictated an account of the time he spent with Sturtevant and gave it to Sturtevant’s family along with his flight log.  Here is some of his testimony in quotations:  

“We left New York on the 14th of September, 1917, on the ‘St. Paul,’ at six in the morning….Al and I were the only line officers of the Navy on board, beside the armed guard officer…[and] it was arranged that we should take a watch on the bridge each night….”

Nervously on the lookout for patrolling German U-boats, Sturtevant was alarmed the first evening by two phosphorescent wake lines streaking toward the ship.  Bracing for the explosion and with a cry stuck in his throat, he was relieved to see the torpedoes turn sharply and head to the bow where they revealed themselves to be porpoises swimming in the wake.  The St. Paul was otherwise unmolested on the voyage over.  

“We made Liverpool on the 22nd of September, 1917, and…immediately took the train to London….That evening, while we were in the theatre, we saw our first air raid….There was absolutely no panic.  We went out into the street to see what was happening.  All we could notice was the shells bursting overhead, like skyrockets in a fourth of July celebration.”  

Vorys wrote to the injured Davison about their first brush with battle: “Look me over!  I’ve been under fire!”  They would soon get closer than that.  Sturtevant and Vorys were quickly sent to Hourtain, France, near Bordeaux.  They were greeted at the train station by Bob Lovett, who was temporarily in charge.  

“He had been through the French school at Hourtain and told us terrible stories of the dangers attendant on flying the F.B.A.s and the discomforts of the life at that station.  It turned out he was right, but we were annoyed with him at the time for discouraging us.”  

Sturtevant and Vorys both soloed their first morning – their first experience with rotary motors and stick control on Hispano-suiza powered French F.B.A.s – but the machines were in sorrowful shape.  It then rained for 16 days.  On a weekend in Bordeaux they got sick eating French pastry.  When the weather cleared, they were joined by Dave Ingalls, Ken Smith, Sam Walker, Henry Landon, Reggie Coombe, Freddie Beach, and Chip McIlwaine.  They had a glorious week together at the ragged base then, after graduating, Sturtevant and Vorys shipped to the South of France for finishing school at Saint Raphaël on the Riviera.  There they met Di Gates.  Perhaps the war was not going to be so bad after all.  

“At Hourtain we had started a discussion as to our respective prowess in mustache-growing.  We shaved on the same day, thus getting an even start…After three weeks Al won in a walk.  His mustache came out strong and red, with a Teutonic turn-up at the ends.  We spent much of our time at San Rafael attending our respective mustaches.”  

In five weeks of flying they averaged eight hours.  Upon graduation, the Americans received the French Navy brevet and “fancy diplomas.”  They had hoped to play in Monte Carlo, but on arrival in Nice they received telegrams to head to Paris at once where they were given their assignments.  

It was now November, and Sturtevant and Vorys were ordered to the air station at Felixstowe, England, where they arrived December first.  The next day they began flying small Americas and found they handled well, even in 35-knot winds.  Though the English disapproved of their mustaches, the two Americans were accepted in the international group with Canadians, South Africans, and Australians.  

“The usual topic of conversation was praising your own country to the skies and running down the others.  Al was a particular artist at this and could always get a rise, especially out of the Englishmen….At the dances he was the pride of the Americans and the despair of the Englishmen.  When he would put on his dress clothes, he would look so wonderful, and he could dance so beautifully, that the girls just all fell for him.”  

The two attended parties at the Felix Hotel where they encountered the alluring and mysterious Mrs. Dawson – “a lady with a past but still a lady,” according to Vorys.  “She naturally took a shine to Al.”  However, they quickly lost interest when they were taken aside and advised that she was a suspected German spy.  Vorys changed his tune: “She intrigued us about as much as a case of smallpox.”  

By the end of January, Sturtevant and Vorys were finished with flight school and put on patrols with British pilots.  They became much sought after second pilots on the Curtiss H-12 and H-16 aircraft used for patrolling the waters of the North Sea looking for U-boats and escorting convoys – a formational operation called “spider web patrols.”  In the past month, the German subs had sunk 400,000 tons of shipping.  By the end of the war, the Felixstowe pilots would sink 25 U-boats and help turn the tide against the enemy.  

Sturtevant and Vorys had become quite close after six months of traveling and rooming together, as Vorys recalled:  

“We would get homesick and we had been together a lot and Al and I would talk about home and he would tell about his folks and I would about mine, and talk about girls, and that time from five o’clock to dinner at 7:30 (which was a little formal and we had to dress and shave), we would spend in the cabin.  As I look back on it, those times we had together were the best times of my life, just because we had such talks.”  

In early February, German planes started to appear over the North Sea, sometimes engaging, sometimes not.  Sturtevant flew back in with his bombs missing one day, but it was only because they had to drop them because of engine trouble.  Storms during the dark winter often kept the planes grounded.  Later in the month, Vorys ran into a string of good weather days, Sturtevant a string of foul.  On Valentines Day, Sturtevant asked his commanding officer for more flying time.  That night, Sturtevant asked Vorys if he’d trade flying days tomorrow.  Vorys refused at first, but Sturtevant pointed out that the first pilot that morning was a rotten flyer, and they were only escorting a beef shipment to Holland.  Vorys relented.  That night they acknowledged that they were finally at war.  Sturtevant speculated they might even get killed.  That was the last thing Vorys ever heard Sturtevant say.  When he woke in the morning, Sturtevant was already on patrol.  

“At 11:30 the other machine came back and told that they had been attacked by ten Hun Machines about an hour and a quarter before.  They had been flying along, Al’s machine ahead about 800 yards, at about 1200 feet, and that clouds were hanging over them at about 1500 feet.  Ten Huns burst out of the clouds between them, so they were on top of them before they could think.  The pilot of the second machine said he tried to open up his motors and join Al’s machine, but one of the motors went bad, and, therefore, he spun around and when he could get control of the machine again he was headed the other way and each time he tried to turn back, he had trouble again with his motors….The last he had seen of the other machine, it was headed south, when west would have been toward home, with five Hun machines close on the tail, and the five chasing him soon turned back and joined in the attack on Al’s machine.”  

As Sturtevant’s plane headed for the Belgian coast, they were met by another flock of German aircraft.  The leader of the squadron was Oberleutenant Friedrich Christiansen, one of Germany’s most feared fighter pilots.  In the course of the War he would be credited with 21 Allied kills, and he was the first Navy man and only seaplane pilot to be awarded the prestigious Blue Max.  Sturtevant’s plane was sent rolling into the North Sea and left burning on the water.  

Christiansen would tell Sturtevant’s anguished father sometime later that he returned to the site in the afternoon and saw three men clinging to the wreckage and waving.  There was still a gallantry to WWI flying at this time; rescue was not out of the question.  But by now the sea had kicked up, and British destroyers were in sight.  Christiansen circled but did not land.  At Felixstowe they sent out another plane to search for the wreck, but it smashed on the rough water trying to take off.  The other planes were already on patrols.  

In March, 1918 President Woodrow Wilson wrote to Albert’s father:

“My Dear Mr. Sturtevant:
    May I not extend to you an expression of my heartfelt sympathy in the death of your son? It was a death in the field of honor assuredly and there must be great pride in your heart that that should be the case, but that does not alter the fact that you have lost a beloved son and my heart goes out to you in genuine sympathy.
Cordially and sincerely yours,

(Signed) Woodrow Wilson”

Al Sturtevant received the Navy Cross posthumously, and Yale held a memorial day in his honor.  Sturtevant, Sr., flew to Europe and toured the coasts of Holland and Belgium inquiring after remains, but to no avail.  Subsequently, the navy commissioned the USS Sturtevant to its fleet of torpedo boats.  Twenty years later, again at war against Germany, the U.S. Navy named a second ship for the first navy flier to die in action in World War I, a destroyer named the Sturtevant.  

The U.S.S. Sturtevant, No. 240, a Clemson-class destroyer built at the New York Ship Building Corporation yard in Camden, New Jersey, was christened in honor of Albert Sturtevant by his sister, Ruth Sturtevant, and launched on July 29, 1920.

The U.S.S. Sturtevant, DE-239, an Edsall-class destroyer escort, which served during WWII, was launched on December 3, 1942; decommissioned in 1960.

Sources:
The Millionaires’ Unit – The Aristocratic Flyboys Who Fought the Great War and Invented American Air Power by Marc Wortman
Typescript “Dedicated by Mr. John Vorys, March 30th, 1918

 
 
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