The Millionaires' Unit

The Aristocratic Flyboys Who Fought the Great War and Invented American Air Power


By Marc Wortman

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The Millionaires’ Unit is the story of a gilded generation of young men from the zenith of privilege: a Rockefeller, the son of the head of the Union Pacific Railroad, several who counted friends and relatives among presidents and statesmen of the day. They had it all and, remarkably by modern standards, they were prepared to risk it all to fight a distant war in France. Driven by the belief that their membership in the American elite required certain sacrifice, schooled in heroism and the nature of leadership, they determined to be first into the conflict, leading the way ahead of America’s declaration that it would join the war. At the heart of the group was the Yale flying club, six of whom are the heroes of this book. They would share rivalries over girlfriends, jealousies over membership in Skull and Bones, and fierce ambition to be the most daring young man over the battlefields of France, where the casualties among flyers were chillingly high. One of the six would go on to become the principal architect of the American Air Force’s first strategic bomber force. Others would bring home decorations and tales of high life experiences in Paris. Some would not return, having made the greatest sacrifice of all in perhaps the last noble war. For readers of Flyboys , The Greatest Generation , or Flags Of Our Fathers , this patriotic, romantic, absorbing book is narrative military history of the best kind.


For my mother and father, Doris and Bernard Wortman

And generations unfulfilled,
The heirs of all we struggled for,
Shall here recall the mythic war,
And marvel how we stabbed and killed,
And name us savage, brave, austere—
And none shall think how very young we were.

Europe and America, 1916
How Very Young We Were
IN 1916, TWO YEARS INTO THE BLOODIEST WAR THE WORLD HAD YET SEEN, nearly half of the 9 million soldiers, sailors, and airmen and 5 million civilians who would be killed in the First World War already lay dead. Still, from the skies over London to the depths of the North Sea, and from the snowy steppes of Russia to the deserts of Mesopotamia, and all along the 450-mile Western Front, the cataclysmic attrition of the forces of Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and their allies—the Central Powers—and of the Allied armies of France, Great Britain, Russia and Italy would not abate. The world's first truly global conflict had sucked nation after nation down into its murderous vortex. Some 65 million men were at arms, more than all previous wars combined. The front lines convulsed with bloody clashes that massacred 5,000 men on average every single day—but the opposing forces barely advanced.
Only one great power remained aloof, regarding the dreadful slaughter from afar: America. The 3,000-mile barrier of the Atlantic Ocean kept the horrors of the war far removed from the lives of most Americans. The occasional sinking of ships near American ports increasingly poisoned U.S.-German relations, but not even the infamous torpedoing of the British passenger liner the Lusitania as it steamed from New York to Liverpool could rouse a distracted people to war or shift the government from its policy of strict neutrality.
The United States had not fought a large-scale war of massed armies since the Civil War a half century earlier. With its nineteenth-century-style standing army smaller than the Great War combatants lost in a typical month's fighting, a sparse navy charged with defending the nation's thousands of miles of coastline and an air force smaller than Bulgaria's or the Belgian forces that had escaped German occupation, the United States was ill-prepared to fight even a small-scale war.
Instead, other matters occupied the mind of a fast-changing, swift-moving nation. America was building. With its own internal frontiers awaiting conquest, the nation was racing ahead with a commercial exuberance that spread across a vast, largely untapped landscape. Wall Street financiers drove a blinding pace of consolidation and expansion, and business and industry boomed like never before. New factories opened and then expanded. Locomotives carried passengers and goods coast-to-coast at record speeds. Drivers ventured out along a growing network of paved roads. Shoppers with money to spend enjoyed an ever-expanding array of goods at glittery new retail emporiums. Motion picture-goers delighted at the exploits of Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp. And sports fans marveled at the hitting prowess shown by a young Boston Red Sox pitching star named Babe Ruth. A veritable tidal wave of European immigrants, many fleeing war and oppression in their former homelands, was further flooding the New World's already teeming urban neighborhoods. The new Americans came looking for opportunity, with a drive to succeed in a land of freedom from oppressive ancient regimes. The result was the creation of unprecedented wealth and a people preoccupied with the business of the day.
Why should America mix itself up in a brutal war between the Old World's royal powers?
A few outward-looking Americans, though, believed that sooner or later their nation would be drawn into the fight. At the dawn of the modern age, no country remained an island. Oceans that had once seemed insurmountable barriers could now be crossed in a matter of days. America's growing wealth depended on the free movement of goods to trading partners worldwide. The foreign war would soon strangle world commerce, which was the lifeblood of American growth. Already an industrial giant, America was racing toward what many recognized would prove to be a decisive, hemispheric shift in global affairs. A few loud voices predicted the United States would have no choice but to fight.
Although their warnings went largely unheeded in government circles, a group of determined eighteen-, nineteen-, and twenty-year-old boys decided they would try to do something about the situation. Mostly college students from Yale University, they were the sons of America's early twentieth-century aristocracy—one a Rockefeller, one whose father headed the Union Pacific railroad empire, another J. P. Morgan's partner. Others traced their roots to the Mayflower, several counted friends and relatives among presidents and statesmen, and some were famed collegiate athletes. All were fabulously wealthy. Leading members of the group included Bob Lovett, Trubee Davison, "Di" Gates, "Crock" Ingalls, Kenney MacLeish, and Al Sturtevant. Despite their youth, they had grown up in a time when their elite position brought with it special responsibilities that may seem distant to us today. They were schooled in heroism, made ready as schoolboys for leadership and sacrifice, even before their nation called upon them.
Fascinated by the new sport of motorized flight, and dimly aware of its growing military importance, they decided to create their own flying militia. In total, twenty-eight young men would pioneer military aviation, on their own initiative and with their families' immense private resources forming the First Yale Unit—what began as a college "aero" club became the originating squadron of the U.S. Naval Air Reserve. From there, many of these boys emerged as war heroes, and all served as leaders in America's entry into a new dimension. Their every move caught the attention of a nation and inspired other young men across the country to follow their lead.
For a military ill-prepared to fight in the air, the "Millionaires' Unit," as a fascinated press dubbed the squadron, provided the nucleus of the burgeoning navy air corps. Although some were still just teens, all would become officers—in some instances with thousands of men under their command. Most faced death daily in the battle for Europe. One planned the nation's first strategic bomber force and headed its first night bomber wing. Another became the navy's only Air Ace of the war. A few would never return. When America finally went to war, Admiral William Sims, commander of the U.S. Navy in Europe during the First World War, credited them as "twentieth-century Paul Reveres." Following the Armistice, a grateful nation commended their foresight and courage. The rest of the world marveled: one of the finest and largest air services had grown out of what amounted to little more than a summer camp hosted by a group of college sophomores.
Those who returned home lost neither their love of flying nor their belief in its crucial role in any future military conflict. Members of the unit continued to lead in the dawning years of civilian aviation and throughout the interwar years of waning military aerial power. Their heroism and initiative during the First World War was not forgotten. Later, when America entered into World War II, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt recalled nearly all of the former flyers to service. He was tapping old friends and comrades. He had come to know them well even before the First World War when he was a young assistant secretary of the Navy. After nearly twenty-five years on an isolationist, peacetime military footing, they again faced the complex and daunting task of creating a modern air force capable of knocking down a far better-prepared foe.
Their numbers during the Second World War included the undersecretaries who ran the army and navy air corps and the military commanders of the Pacific Air Transport, the vital Pearl Harbor Naval Air Station, carrier groups and numerous other crucial aviation facilities. Before the war's end, the boys who had fought just to fly for their country in 1916 came to rule the world's skies. In post-war years, one of them became a thoughtful, respected Cold War-era secretary of defense, convinced of the importance of aerial power for national security. That conviction was based on experience. As a twenty-one-year-old, he had witnessed that power, in 1918, becoming the first man in American uniform to fly in bombing raids over the Western Front. What he learned on those early missions stamped U.S. military policy from the massive bombing raids over Europe today.
In war and out, the men of the First Yale Unit carried forward the life of service, personal sacrifice, and leadership for which they had been groomed. That life did not result by accident. Today, relatively few young Americans from comparable backgrounds would consider military service—or self-sacrificing service of any kind—as an obligation that comes with the privileges that define their lives. That marks a major change in the nature of America's elite and its national leadership. In their day, the members of the First Yale Unit were prepared to make the greatest sacrifice and were envied for their opportunity to serve and lead the way into battle.
Those privileged to lead emerged from an increasingly deep-rooted national establishment composed of church, private preparatory schools and colleges, clubs, business and family networks, mountain and seaside vacation resorts, and country estates. At one level it was extremely undemocratic: its doors were closed to women—except as wives and mothers—and it fenced out nearly all Jews, Catholics, and recent immigrants, as well as all Asian-, Native-, and African-Americans. Unlike the Old World aristocracies, within those sweeping restrictions, lack of blue-blooded family heritage did not necessarily block an otherwise exceptional young man's rise within that system, nor did a plutocratic father's name assure an unremarkable son's success. Absence of wealth, however, was an absolute barrier.
Membership in the elite was not for the faint of heart in any case. It demanded conformity to unwritten rules. Much of a young man's education was devoted to learning those rules. Their enforcement could be violent, and physically and emotionally bullying. As he made his way, many eyes kept close watch over his progress. And the upper-crust world in which he moved was so selfenclosed at times as to become inbred: marriages were not arranged, but they nonetheless possessed a royal element of the conjoining of bloodlines for the purposes of doing business, often in the form of heirs and heiresses. Families were quite clear about the choices that a young son or daughter should make.
For those living amid the imported ancient trappings of aristocratic Europe, especially England, which surrounded the emerging ruling class—for truly the interlocking WASP families and fortunes that came to the fore in the last years of the nineteenth century and the first years of the twentieth century formed the American ruling class—one forged-steel democratic principle governed all those who expected to take their share in that class's leadership privilege. They had to give of themselves; they had to be ready to sacrifice for their country and to deliver their expertise and money when called upon to serve America in time of war and, if needed, to ante up their lives and, far more painful, those of their own children when duty required. Before self-betterment came self-sacrifice.
In their rigorously classical prep school studies, all had read Thucydides' history of the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides wrote that Pericles told the Athenian Assembly during his funeral oration that the greatest courage in war is shown by those men who act with the most to lose—"who would feel the change most if trouble befell them."1 These Abrahams of the New World did not hesitate to sacrifice their own Isaacs for what they believed was their divinely sanctioned mission to lead their growing nation.
This amalgam of selective institutions and a close-knit world of privileged families that inculcated in their sons a sense of sacrificial mission crafted an increasingly stable leadership coterie that could sustain its elected rule and the legitimacy of its power over a roiling, fast-changing nation in a dangerous world. In twentieth-century America, the group of men who eventually came to be known as the Liberal, or Foreign Policy, Establishment, or just "the Establishment," succeeded despite the immense chasm between their privileged lives and the daily toil of most Americans. It was this stability and legitimacy that enabled the nation's leadership-elite to forge the world's most powerful nation and build the American century.
This book tells the story, in part, of how that leadership ideal emerged in the early lives of the men who would one day lead a nation. The members of the Millionaires' Unit were decidedly representative men of their class, heirs to all their world had to give. They were the youthful beginnings of the next generation of the Establishment, determined, sometimes in defiance of their own government, to fulfill their roles with the chance to serve that the dawn of flight and the coming of the Great War gave them.
America has changed as has its ruling class, but the nation that today straddles the globe with its power would be impossible to conceive without these young men and their determination to serve.
Their efforts and inspiration carried America into the sky, helped to bring the Great War to a swift end, and set the nation on its path to world power. But before then, they were boys.

Couderkerque, Belgium, October 14, 1918
The Handkerchief
The British mechanic in oil-blackened canvas coveralls pushed up a blade of the wooden prop to prime the cylinders and then drove it down as if pounding a stake into the ground. Still warm from the morning's patrol, the valves in the Sopwith Camel's big rotary engine popped in rapid succession and then the pistons began to bite. With a great jet of blue exhaust and a spit of pungent castor oil, the engine exploded into an earsplitting roar that drowned out all other sounds from the fifteen Camels lined up in front of the row of canvas Bessoneau hangars. The maelstrom of the slipstream blew dust back fifty yards behind the tail and lifted the mechanic clinging to the fuselage off his feet.
Settled into the wicker seat of the biwing Sopwith Camel, Kenneth MacLeish listened intently as the engine fired. Even though the American navy lieutenant had turned twenty-two less than a month ago, his friends in the British Royal Air Force Number 213 squadron thought he had aged years in the last few months. A bout of the Spanish flu in the epidemic that had killed so many of his comrades over the past month had subtracted fifteen pounds from his already slender frame. The stress from flying high into combat so often had also taken its toll.
Still, Kenney was a fortunate man. He was alive; he had braved dogfights, low-level bombing runs, anti-aircraft fire, and nightlong bombardments. Moreover, he had a fiancée he was crazy about who was waiting for him back home in the States. And now he was back doing the one thing he truly loved: flying a scout.
Arriving late the night before in the officers' mess, he had left the crowd of Yank and Limey flyboys in stitches with self-mocking stories of the pennypinching ways of his Scots cousins. Having just rejoined No. 213, he revived friendships with the surviving members, shared memories of those who had "gone West," and retold the bawdy jokes he remembered from college at Yale.
Checks complete, he nodded and waved his hand side-to-side to the members of the crew holding onto the struts and wing tips. Another crewman pulled the chocks away from the wheels. When his flight commander, Canadian Captain John Edmund Greene, signaled the "all clear," MacLeish chopped his hand forward and the crewmen gave him the thumbs up and released the wings and tail. He flipped the blip switch off and on; the propeller alternately windmilling and grabbing, the Camel rolled and bounded ahead onto the cinder runway. The way clear, he throttled all the way up. In just a few yards MacLeish leaped into the sky.1
It was two o'clock in the afternoon of October 14, 1918, and after four years of war—a year and a half since America had entered the fight—the Central Powers were finally on the run. All hands had been thrown into the air to rain hell down on the Germans still holding their positions in Belgium and France and turn their orderly retreat into a terrifying rout.
MacLeish could not wait to get back into the air. Rumors were shooting about that the war might soon end. He was worried that peace would come before he got a final chance to make his mark. He came back to the front intent on making "one last try at really doing something."2 Nothing in his life compared to that hope. Flying in combat for the first time with No. 213 six months earlier—then the Royal Navy Air Service, No. 13 squadron—he had written to his family back home in Glencoe, outside Chicago, about his good luck in being sent out on fighting patrols with the British, after nearly a year of training with a squadron of his Yale College mates in the United States and then in France and Britain. "I'm so happy," he gushed, "I can't see straight."3
His fighting days had not lasted long enough for him. He had been sent for more training and then to help build up the U.S. Navy's bomber force. After an extended stint at a receiving base in England assembling and testing the first American-made aircraft to arrive in Europe and then a week in bed with the flu, he had finally gotten the chance to return to the front. He came back with bloody vengeance in mind.
A week and a half before, his closest and oldest friend, Di Gates, had been shot down while flying with a French squadron during a dogfight over enemy territory. No word had been heard of him since. MacLeish was distraught. Kenney and Di had gone to the same small boarding school in the Connecticut countryside where the two homesick Midwesterners had bonded among the clubby Easterners. They had continued on to Yale together, and Di had brought Kenney into the Yale Aero Club, the beginnings of his flying career. In the intervening months, MacLeish had seen so many men fall with that unforgettable crunch of an airplane striking the earth. Like all men at the front, witnessing death had become a commonplace experience for him. But "Di was different." He had been brought up with him. "He's one of two men that I actually love," he wrote home. His brother Archie, now back in the States after a tour in the artillery fighting on the Marne, in France, was the other.
"I'll get even with somebody!" he swore.4
MacLeish had enjoyed his first taste of revenge just that morning. He began his flying day as he always did, dressing in layer upon layer of silk, wool, canvas, and fur, including the now fraying wool sweater his fiancée back home, Priscilla Murdock, had knitted for him just before he shipped out. A bullet hole through it reminded him of what he faced. Last, he sniffed the lingering perfume on the silk handkerchief Priscilla had given to him before tucking it away into the pocket of his flying suit.
After a fifteen-minute early-morning test flight, he flew his first patrol in the bright sunshine. The squadron of nineteen planes went off on a bombing run against columns of retreating German troops on the roads behind the front near Ardoye, Belgium. After dropping his four twenty-five-pound Cooper bombs on the terror-stricken men and horses, he swooped down low over the road, joining a chattering strafing line that left men, wagons, and horses in blasted bloody heaps. His heart leaped at the sight of the fallen and fleeing enemy. He thrilled to the full-out chase close enough to earth to witness the terror in the Germans' eyes as they looked up at him bearing down on them, dual guns blazing.
Soaring back up several thousand feet, he spotted a squadron of German Fokker biplanes. His flight of five Camels pounced. The results for the Anglo-American squadron were bloody. In the ensuing dogfight, the Germans shot down three of the Allies. Before making their escape, though, MacLeish and Greene converged on an enemy fighter. They machine gunned the German flyer until he went spinning down in flames and disappeared among the remnants of the village of Theurout.
For the Air Ace Greene, that kill marked his fifteenth victory. It was MacLeish's first, his first taste of enemy blood.
MacLeish returned to the aerodrome and wolfed down lunch. His orders for the afternoon called for the squadron to be back in the air patrolling for targets behind the German lines, deep in Belgium.
He flew up into formation within the fifteen-machine Camel circus—in a three-bird flight with Greene and an English airman, Lieutenant Allen. They flew north along the Belgian coast. In the thick shoreline cloud cover the pilots separated and lost sight of each other. After searching for a few minutes, MacLeish, Greene, and Allen gave up on finding the others and decided to continue patroling alone. Seeing no enemy targets, they turned eastward and flew inland several miles behind the German lines to where the cloud cover lifted. Two miles north of the blasted ruins of the town of Dixmude, they spotted two German aircraft flying a few thousand feet below them.
MacLeish scanned the clouds, staring intently into the sun until he had to avert his eyes. Seeing no enemy aircraft, he waggled his wings for his flight mates to follow him down. They banked over and dove at nearly two hundred miles an hour, guy wires screaming in the wind. Tracers streamed out of both barrels as they came in range of the two unsuspecting aircraft.
Entranced by the target in his gunsight, MacLeish did not notice the counterattack until the white sparks of tracers zipped past and he caught the whiff of burning cordite and heard the snap of the bullets. Plunging out of a hiding place in the sun or the clouds, seven German Fokker biplanes were on top of the three Americans. A melee followed. The Camels were quickly separated in the dogfight, leaving them unable to defend each other. Allen's plane burst into flames and spun downward. Greene followed quickly, a German scout firing into the great dogfighter as he fell slowly, along with his plane, an unfurling spiral of smoke to his death.
MacLeish knew how to stunt his jumpy bird, up and down, snapping turns, desperate to dodge the German bullets and snake away from their less-agile but faster machines. The hard-charging German fighters clung to his Camel's tail and pressed their lethal intent home. Everywhere he looked he could see enemy aircraft running in on him. Strings of pockmarks popped through the fabric of his wings and up the fuselage. Rather than keep running, he jumped up and swooped around to face the nearest enemy.


New Haven, June 3, 1916
AS FREDERICK TRUBEE DAVISON'S SOPHOMORE YEAR DREW TO A CLOSE, he had begun to bask in the sunshine of Yale. No light shone brighter, before or since, than on the young men at Yale, Harvard, and Princeton at the dawn of what was to become the American Century. Those glorious rays did little to warm the twenty-year-old Trubee, as everyone knew him, while he sat in the balcony within the soaring heights of Yale's Battell Chapel. The nor'easterblasted spring air brought shivers to the sleepy young men packed together in the pews. The temperature barely clung to fifty degrees that Saturday morning, June 3, the closing month in the 1915–1916 academic calendar. The day had dawned with gray, low-hanging clouds, slanting rain, and frigid winds lashing the southern New England coast. It was just the latest in a month's worth of raw, wet, and gloomy days—the worst spring in years, complained Long Island Sound resort owners who worried their summer season would be ruined before it began.
As he did shortly after eight o'clock each morning, Trubee sat with his 420 fellow sophomores in their designated hard-backed pews of the underclassmen's gallery in Battell. They chanted their daily prayers together with the rest of the Yale College "cousinhood" at mandatory chapel. The university's Congregationalist religious seat, as big as a train station, was a mushroom-color, Victorian stone fortress shoehorned into a gap in the corner of the Old Campus quadrangle. Yale made up for the slight by overdoing the church's interior to the point of giddiness. The walls, ceiling, and floors were a polychromatic carnival of gilding, bright stenciling, and mosaic tile art, embroidered with colorfully painted and intricately carved woodwork. In the sunless morning's gloom, the stained glass windows seemed painted into their niches in the walls. The hulking confection commemorated the 140 Yale men fallen during the Civil War—for both the Union and Confederate armies. Memorial bronze wall plaques and inscribed quotations from famous Yale men stared out at Trubee and his fellow students.


On Sale
May 8, 2007
Page Count
336 pages

Marc Wortman

About the Author

Marc Wortman, an independent historian and freelance journalist, has written for many publications, including Vanity FairSmithsonianTimeAir & Space, and The Daily Beast and has appeared on CNN, NPR, C-SPAN BookTV, History Channel. He is the author of four books on American military and social history, most recently Admiral Hyman Rickover: Engineer of Power (Yale University Press, 2022). He has taught at Princeton and Quinnipiac Universities and a college program at a maximum security prison. He was the recipient of a New York Public Library Research Fellowship and was the 2014 Jalonick Memorial Distinguished Lecturer at the University of Texas Dallas. Following college at Brown University, he received a doctorate in comparative literature from Princeton University.

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