Celebrating 100 Years of History

How Two Men Impacted the U.S. Navy Reserve

By Lt. Theron Verdon

Although there were citizen-sailors, there was not a formal U.S. Navy Reserve organization until the Naval Appropriations Act of 1916, signed March 3, 1915, established the reserve force. The so-called “Big Navy Act” stated, “The Naval Reserve shall be organized under the Bureau of Navigation and shall be governed by the Articles for the Government of the Navy and by the Naval Regulations and Instructions.” Another responsibility of the Big Navy was to rely on reserve officers to be a majority of the Navy’s pilots, thus founding the Naval Air Reserve in 1916.

USNR_timelineTo help with the war effort, universities formed volunteer aviation units around the country. One of these groups was the First Yale Unit started by student F. Trubee Davison, the son of Henry Pomeroy Davison, a banker and chair of the war council of the American Red Cross. The unit, considered the first Naval Air Reserve unit, was an innovation in Naval Aviation.

Davison, who was a forward thinker, recognized the possibility of U.S. involvement in World War I and the need to be prepared, especially regarding aviation. He formed the First Yale Unit to provide training for pilots in support of the potential war. He and 12 Yale classmates began preparing on Long Island, New York.

Davison fought to have the unit recognized by the U.S. Navy. When not training, Davison spent his time lobbying various key individuals in government to gain official recognition for the unit. When the Naval Reserve Appropriations Act of 1916 was signed, the entire unit—which had grown to include 26 men—was sworn into the Naval Reserve Force. Within weeks, the United States entered World War I. Davison, however, never earned his wings nor did he see combat. During training, he sustained serious injuries when he crashed his plane into the sea. Nevertheless, Davison’s broken back and spinal cord injury did not stop his continuing support of U.S. efforts in World War I.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt called many of the First Yale Unit members back to active service at the beginning of World War II. Davison decided to join the Army, serving as assistant chief of staff of the Army Air Corps in charge of personnel. On June 3, 1945, Davison was promoted to brigadier general. He eventually received the Distinguished Service Medal and the Navy Cross.

Each year after World War I, Davison coordinated a reunion for the unit in New York City. At the 50th anniversary of the Naval Air Reserve gathering, Davison was awarded the Wings of Gold he failed to receive during flight training. He would go on to become the assistant secretary of war for aviation, the president of the American Museum of Natural History and the first director of personnel for the Central Intelligence Agency.

David Sinton Ingalls, another member of the First Yale Unit, at age 19 became the Navy’s only flying ace of World War I. Ingalls was the son of Albert S. Ingalls and Jane Taft, a niece of President William Howard Taft. After joining the First Yale Unit, he became a member of the Naval Reserve Flying Corps. Ingalls completed his training and transitioned to Europe, where he served with the 213 Squadron of the Royal Air Force in 1918.

During World War I, airplanes were primarily used for reconnaissance. However, when the United States entered the war, both sides discovered the importance of aerial combat and these new tactics affected the design and performance of aircraft. Aircraft became faster and more agile, allowing pilots to make more daring attacks on the enemy.

One such attack happened on the night of Aug. 13, 1918, when Ingalls flew over the German airdrome at Varsenaere. He conducted a low-level attack, flying so low that his Sopwith Camel biplane fighter nearly touched the ground. From this vantage point, the aviator stitched machinegun fire into the facility and dropped four bombs onto hangars below. He went on to conduct a similar strike on a different facility, as well as bringing down six enemy aircraft during various flying missions, earning him ace status.

After World War I, Ingalls went on to become assistant secretary of the Navy (AIR). He returned in the mid-1930s as a reserve officer, and then he served on active duty during World War II as commander of Naval Station Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. He earned the Legion of Merit and Bronze Star Medal during the war and retired as a rear admiral in the Naval Reserve. Ingalls would later serve as vice president of Pan American Airways in charge of its overseas operations. In 1954, he became president and publisher of The Cincinnati Times-Star newspaper and vice chairman of the Taft Broadcasting Company.

Adm. William S. Sims, who commanded U.S. Naval Forces in Europe during World War I, summarized the First Yale Unit’s reputation: “Whenever the French and English asked us to send a couple of our crack men to reinforce a squadron, I would say, ‘Let’s get some of the Yale gang.’ We never made a mistake when we did this.”

The Navy Air Reserve continues this tradition of excellence by providing medium airlift capabilities, tactical air, combat search and rescue and special operations support in times of war and peace.

A commissioned officer in the Navy Reserve, Lt. Verdon serves as a public affairs officer assigned to U.S. Fleet Forces (USFF) Command at Naval Station Norfolk in Norfolk, Virginia