By Darroch Greer
In 2007, a friend of mine from college called me after seeing a photograph of his grandfather on a cover of a book about World War One aviation. He asked me how to make a documentary. Ron King is the grandson of First Yale Unit member John Vorys (Yale 1918, ten-term congressman from Ohio), and his grandfather was sitting next to six classmates in Palm Beach Florida on the cover of a book called The Millionaires' Unit by Marc Wortman (Public Affairs, 2006). The photo was taken in April 1917, and the Yale students had left school to train as pilots in more hospitable weather ten days before the United States declared war on Germany. The Yale Unit became the founding squadron of the U.S. Navy Air Reserve.
Having done most of my documentary work in 19th century American history, I didn't have a strong frame of reference for the Great War. It wasn't touched on at all in secondary school, and my college degree had been in fine arts. Ron attended a talk by the book's author at the Yale Club in Manhattan, and it seemed there might be some unique photos in private family collections. The story was a good one: young, dynamic personalities tackling a new and dangerous technology, running off to war at a time when it seemed romantic.
Several questions raised themselves immediately: how important were these young men to the war effort and to naval aviation in particular? What part did naval aviation play in the War? What can we claim as the Unit's legitimate accomplishments, and how can those accomplishments be communicated in a dramatic and accurate way? Is there enough footage and photos to cover the story? And, how can we pay for what looks to be an ambitious film?