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The Millionaires’ Unit—much is given much is expected—how 18 university students changed history and naval aviation

10 March 2018

The Millionaires’ Unit: Privilege, Duty, Sacrifice, Darroch Greer and Ron King, 2014, 120 minutes

The Millionairs’ Unit—a film by Darroch Greer and Ron King

Do not view this film if you want to see some of combat aviation’s earliest history.

Do not see view film if you do not want to experience combatants war experiences.

Do not view this film if you have tired of the 1%.

But do view The Millionaires’ Unit if you want to discover an almost forgotten though hugely significant piece of Americana involving its fledgling naval aviation combat capability. Also, to be awed and inspired by a clutch of ivy league university students who stepped into the breach to not only serve but shaped both naval and air force aviation. An endeavor taking them from World War I through the Cold War—nearly a century of self-less service.

Not the usual story of ivy leaguers.

Not the usual 1 percenters we read of today.

Yale University produces much of the USA’s leadership and has done so for quite some time. Phrases abound in its legacy. Phases like, “…ideals held sacred…” and “…much is given, much is expected..” as well as “For God, For Country. For Yale.” Perhaps unlike today, but perhaps not, in early 1900s these tenets were taken to heart almost religiously. Yale students Frederick Trubee Davision and Robert A. Lovette began the Yale Flying Club which quickly became more commonly called “The First Yale Unit” as it entered service in the U.S. Navy.

Inspiration came from FT Davison after his summer break volunteer service as an ambulance driver in Paris during early World War I, 1914. There ,he became aware of the lethal threat German U-boats presented to the USA in terms of lost lives as well as dire economical stranglehold. He saw aviation as a way to protect conveys, to put it plainly and he set about to accomplish the feat.

Back in the day, units in the armed forces of the USA were often privately funded and so began the First Yale Unit with just 18 charter members. Their initial service meshed well with their social lifestyles—practice flying for submarines off the U.S. Eastern Seaboard while based out of poshy  The Breakers in the Town of Palm Beach. Comfortable duty any service member would envy though rarely experience.

Greer and King’s wonderful film masterfully blends vintage film footage with restored/replica World War I aircraft video (often first person) aircraft flying over the bucolic lands of New Zealand. Actors recite passages from letters, diaries and telegrams so that we learn how service people meld into a unit and undergo the eventual coping with injury as well as death in war time. What has become known as the Ken Burns Effect is widely used in family or yearbook images to bring the personal dimension home to feel what the actual persons were experiencing.

The story is primarily based upon the World War I experiences and storied accomplishments of the First Yale Unit after they were deployed to France in 1917. Often these aviators were loaned to the RAF so the unit flew fighter sweep missions to U-boat patrols as well as much in between. The U.S. Navy’s sole ace of World War I was a First Yale Unit member and it was the unit which lost the first American aviator of the war. Robert “Bob” Lovett’s influence is well told in the film as his influence on strategic bombing was insightful, early and has been commonly uncredited though it lasted through the Cold War.

What began with 18 sons of the USA’s most wealthy produced a mature naval aviation program in a matter of two years, more than making up for lost time, which has continued to serve to this day. Several men of this “Millionairss’ Unit” continued to serve their country for decades after Armistice Day 1918. Greer and King tell their stories quite well and the sum of it all is an amazing contribution to the country—enheralded save for this film by Darroch Greer and Ron King—based upon Marc Wortman’s book. This film wonderfully and warmly tells the take of a few of America’s best making history while pioneering and serving during World War I—not because the had to, or wanted to, but because of honor and duty to more then themselves. Greer and King honor these men, and their families, with a film that could not be produced or filmed better.

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