The Millionaires’ Unit: The First U.S. Naval Aviators in World War I
Station: Historical Documentary
Time Travel Destination: 1914-1918 WWI America and Europe
Conductors: Darroch Greer & Ron King
“Have you ever had your wildest dreams come true?”
The sheer bravery of these men was astounding. With aviation still in its infancy, they learned to fly at a time when taking to the skies was highly unpredictable and dangerous. These pioneering aviators were a group of affluent and well-educated young men who felt that they should use their privilege for the greater good. They decided early on during World War I that they would master flying in case their country needed them. Up until this time the United States was neutral in the war. There was no call to action. They were driven by their own volition and profound sense of duty. The only thing they wanted in return: honor. They were the first Yale Unit, aka The Millionaires’ Unit.
Directed by Darroch Greer & Ron King, The Millionaires’ Unit follows the story of the first Yale Unit from their early days training, to their enlistment in the U.S. Navy (the service branch during WWI that dealt in aviation), to their battles, the tragedies and the years after the war (watch the video of their 50th anniversary reunion here). This also serves as a history lesson about the early days of aviation history. The men of the Yale Unit included: F. Trubee Davison (founder), Robert Lovett, Davd McCullough, Al Sturtevant, John Vorys, Johnn Farwell, Albert Ditman, Artemus L. Gates, Erl Gould, Allan Ames, C.D. Wiman, H.P. Davis Jr., Kenneth MacLeish and others.
Their story is told through interviews with aviation historians, history professors, a test pilot, a former Secretary of the Navy, and the descendants, sons, grandsons, granddaughters, grandnephews and nieces of the men. Actor Bruce Dern, who is also a descendant of one of the Yale Unit men, narrates the film. In addition to the interviews, there is archival footage as well as photos, letters, diary entries and flight/battle re-enactments with trained pilots flying replica WWI planes. According to co-director Greer, these replicas were from director Peter Jackson’s personal collection. Greer went on to say that it was important to film on “the actual sites in America and Europe where the young pilots trained, flew, fought and died.” He wanted to tell a “character-driven story” with a strong sense of place.
The documentary was inspired by author Marc Wortman’s book by the same name. He is interviewed extensively in the film. Ron King picked up the book in 2006 and recognized his grandfather John M. Voyrus on the cover. He got in touch with Wortman and asked if a documentary was being made. Once he learned there was not, he set out to make one with his good friend Greer. King said,
“It reminds us of a time when people of privilege felt it was incumbent upon them to give back to the community who had afforded them so much. In this case, it was a group of young men who decided to put themselves on the line, defending the interests of the US in WWI. They did so with a spirit of high adventure…”
It took Greer and King seven years to make The Millionaires’ Unit. Extensive work went into research, re-enactment and funding. This was a passion project and it shows in the level of detail and thought that went into the final product.
This award-winning documentary is making it’s digital debut today. February 15th, 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of the death of Albert D. Sturtevant who was killed when his plane when down in the North Sea. He was the first U.S. Naval Aviator killed in WWI combat.
You can watch the movie on Vimeo. iTunes and other digital releases to come in the near future.
The Millionaires’ Unit is a fascinating documentary uncovers the little known history of the first Yale Unit’s contributions to American aviation during WWI. This should be required viewing for anyone with an interest in aviation history. In fact, an history buff will find much to enjoy here.