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The Millionaires’ Unit flies high over Yale on Veterans Day

For most Yale students today, it is hard to imagine leaving college to fly rickety airplanes over a war zone, but that is exactly what “The Millionaires’ Unit” did 100 years ago.

On Veterans Day, a packed audience watched a documentary by that name, about Yale pilots in World War I, in the Whitney Humanities Center auditorium. The screening, sponsored by the Yale Veterans Association, was the first complete showing of the film about a small group of Yalies who formed a private air militia—the First Yale Unit—in anticipation of the United States’ entry into the war.

The group became the founding squadron of the Naval Air Reserve, conducting daring bombing raids against German strongholds and U-boats and training a whole crop of WWI pilots. Young men of immense privilege, from some of the most prominent families in the country, they left behind an easy life of social events and gentlemanly pursuits to serve their country. Three of them would make the ultimate sacrifice of their own lives in the pursuit of this goal.

“It is a story about duty and patriotism, strength and sacrifice. It is a story about courage and romance,” said Harry Davison ’84, one of the film’s producers and the grandson of Trubee Davison, class of 1918, who organized the Millionaires' Unit.

“It is about why these young men who had everything in the world put it all at risk, understanding that to whom much is given, much is expected.”

The group first organized private flying lessons off the coast of Long Island. When the US entered the war, most of the men were shipped abroad, where they distinguished themselves in combat. Ultimately, the unit included the Navy’s only air ace during the war, the architect of strategic bombing, three recipients of the Distinguished Service Medal, and 11 recipients of the Navy Cross. 

The story came to light in 2003, when Marc Wortman wrote a Yale Alumni Magazine article about the unit, which ultimately became a book. For the past seven years, Davison and his partners have been sifting through an immense amount of archival material to set the groundwork for the film. Much of this archival material—including many of the letters read out loud in the film—were personal family heirlooms that the public did not previously have access to.

Audience members, including several descendants of the members of the First Yale Unit, praised the film, saying the story of these young men’s sacrifice remains inspirational even 100 years later.

The filmmakers are in talks with PBS about airing the documentary for a commemorative centennial broadcast, and Davison said he hopes the message of how these young men developed their sense of courage, duty, and honor will reach as broad an audience as possible.

The Yale Alumni Magazine is published by Yale Alumni Publications Inc., an alumni-based nonprofit that is not run by Yale University. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the university administration.

Filed under Millionaires' Unit, Harry Davison, Trubee Davison, World War II


  • Jim Lavery
    Jim Lavery, 9:21am November 14 2014 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    Do you havwe the names and class years for those in the picture?

  • Sofia Milonas
    Sofia Milonas, 1:54pm November 15 2014 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    I saw the trailer and it is a fun film. Congratulations Harry !

  • Marc Wortman
    Marc Wortman, 8:11pm November 15 2014 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    If you go to, you'll find images, names of those pictured and more. You can also go to to keep up with news about the film and related materials. Marc

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