The Millionaires’ Unit is an engaging documentary about the First Yale Unit, a group of 29 students that became the U.S. Navy’s first air reserve and its first aerial coastal patrol unit during World War I.
The First World War is largely forgotten in the collective memory of the United States, save for a handful of recent events marking the centenary of the conflict. Based on Marc Wortman’s book of the same name, the documentary effectively conveys the young men’s eagerness, uncertainty, and determination—largely because it uses their own words to tell the story. The group was in one sense homogenous—wealthy white young men from privileged and influential families—but had within its ranks a blend of different backgrounds and experiences. Primarily due to their money and connections, the group acquired a Curtiss Model F flying boat and took turns learning to fly—a process that had its own share of growing pains. It was an adventure, but it also made the qualified aviators a useful bunch when America entered the war in 1917. Additionally, the documentary features excellent aerial photography (shot with The Vintage Aviator in New Zealand).
Aviation during the First World War was a dangerous undertaking. Although the warring nations learned at a blinding pace between 1914-1918, aircraft were still flimsy, vulnerable machines, and air fighting was a brutal affair. Contemporary discussions, however, are often undermined by nostalgia and inaccurate notions of chivalry. Although the documentary does discuss the dangers of flying, it would have been appropriate to include more from the supplemental featurette, Flying the Sopwith Camel, which does a great job at describing the very immediate difficulties of flying, let alone fighting in combat. But that’s a minor criticism in an otherwise well made documentary.
Members of the First Yale Unit served admirably during the war and several went on to notable careers in the military and government. Their story deserves to be told, and The Millionaires’ Unit is a fitting tribute. ✯
Film Recon is a web series by Paraag Shukla, Senior Editor of Military History and Vietnam magazines at HistoryNet.
The Millionaire’s Unit has been released on home video and is now available through Video On Demand.