By Darrell Egbert
Copyright 2017 Darrell Egbert
Cover Art by Wallace Brazzeal
This digital edition September 2017 © Publisher’s Place
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A year ago a member of my church paid me a visit in the hospital. I was lying in bed with a partially fractured pelvis, staring at the ceiling. A week before that I had fallen down our steep driveway. Brent Ainsworth is his name, and a finer fellow well met would be hard to find. We began talking, and before long I was telling him the first of many stories about how the Lord had saved my worthless butt, and how he had helped me on other occasions when I had asked him. The thing of it is I can’t recall having told very many people about it. There’s no doubt that millions of other Christians have experienced the same things in their lives, but not so many, me thinks, have managed to get themselves in so many situations where there was no doubt that they would not have survived if they had not had the Lord to help them. Brother Aynsworth suggested that I reduce some of them to writing – this book is the result. And I hope it strengthens some people’s testimony, and prompts others to search for the truth that Jesus really is the Christ, and that what He taught us in the Bible just might be all true.
There is something else I would like to say: in some quarters, some few people might consider me to be a writer. I suppose this is true of any one that has sold more than one or two of his/her books. But not many have done so, without the help of a good editor. And I am no exception. In this regard I would like to thank Elisabeth Rhodes Bingham, Harvard, EdM and Oxford Post graduate degree from Oxford business school for her expert help. As for me I am not lacking in English schooling, quite the contrary, yet I still have difficulty remembering the difference between a gerund and a gerundive, to say nothing about the use of a comma, and where exactly a paragraph is supposed to start and end.
Most of the events in this book occurred a long time ago. I put off writing about them because I thought some readers might see them as being difficult…no, in most cases very difficult to believe. This is particularly true of those that are avowed agnostics. My guess is that they will not get past the first chapter. I would have a hard time believing it, myself, if I hadn’t lived it.
The events I speak of happened in my early life, and in telling about them, airplanes play a major role. It is also a testimony of how I know that there is a life after this one.
Another thing that has delayed this writing is my memory: how do you take a ninety-one year old seriously that insists he can recall some events in his life back to the time he was four years old? But most of the era in which I lived, and write about was eventful in the extreme. It encompassed three major wars and two depressions. Tom Brokaw, the television journalist and Peabody Award Winner, labeled the “Greatest Generation,” as the time from roughly 1930 to 1963. However, I suggest it might have begun closer to 1900. I have added the extra thirty years to include the heroic people that suffered through the First World War.
I have read about, and talked to veterans of that war, and I have travelled widely, wandering among the battlefields, and the trenches of the Marne and the Western Front, particularly those at Vimy Ridge and the Argonne Forest. I have talked to Frenchmen and Frenchwomen at Arras, and have been shown pictures of the devastation taken by their relatives of the “Great War” that ended in 1918. I have been to “Morte Homme” and to “Cote 304” twice, where there were hundreds of thousands of casualties. They were staggering on both sides with the French suffering the most in a little less than a year of fierce fighting. I first read about Morte Homme when I was twelve or thirteen years old. The writer was on this hill of death twenty or so years after the war. He said it was dusk and he was walking along the tops of the shell holes. He was aware that the hill, some 250 feet high, had been an artillery post that overlooked the reaches of the Verdun battlefield. He first became uneasy, and then he panicked and fell in first one shell hole and then another, as the night settled in. He climbed out and then ran down the west side of the hill. This side, like the others, had been churned into loose soil filled with minute pieces of the bodies of thousands of both German and French soldiers. He knew that this area had seen more intense fighting than any place in Verdun – maybe heavier than at any place in the history of warfare for its size.
I thought a lot about Verdun and Morte Homme over the years I was growing up. I always wondered how mortal men could suffer and die under such terrible circumstances. What bravery. How distinguished they must have been. Then one night, many years after I was grown, I awoke thinking again about Morte Homme. I had been to France once before but never to the battlefield that surrounds the town of Verdun. It was then I decided to go back to France, with my wife Betty, to see it for myself. I write briefly about this area and time to give you an example of the courage and the suffering of the soldiers of that war.
Not far from a large American graveyard near Morte Homme is the battlefield of the “Lost Battalion.” It was neither lost nor was it a battalion. It was nine companies of the American 77th Division of infantry. It comes nearer to the horrors of Morte Homme than did any other action, but it was much shorter in duration. German infantry and artillery pinned the Americans down. They were under siege for weeks without supplies and fresh water. And each runner attempting to breakout was killed. It finally became necessary to use carrier pigeons to make contact. Hence the name “Lost” in the books and magazines of the time. The area in Verdun near where the American Lost Battalion distinguished itself was cordoned off with revetments and then posted. But this has not stopped seekers of war memorabilia from hunting amongst the untold number of unexploded shells.
There were several young Germans hunting there for relics when we pulled up in our German rental car. They thought I was German so they didn’t hesitate to make friends. But we couldn’t communicate. Then one of them showed me a paneled truck full of very sophisticated treasure hunting equipment. When I tried to tell them about the French 75 mm cannons that were in use by the allies, and after the war by the Army ROTC at the university I attended, one of them beckoned me to follow him down the hill. Hidden under the boughs of a pine tree were three or four rusting shells that he and his group had found that morning. I picked one up, intending to show him more about the shell. I caught myself when I realized it might be dangerously unstable. I hurried to put it carefully back on the ground. He understood and rewarded me with a smile.
This area, like Morte Homme, and many others in France, is still littered with unexploded shells that are being continually pushed up to the surface. Two weeks later, I read in our local newspaper where two German sailors on leave blew themselves up in that same area.
I don’t think of myself as a veteran, since I never fired a gun in anger or has anybody threatened my life. Yet some strange things happened to me, including almost losing my life on more than a few occasions. And if I hadn’t come close, the events I write about here might not have been so indelibly imprinted on my mind. Neither would some of the other events if they hadn’t happened in just the way they did.
I have a testimony that God answers prayers, and that there is a life following this one. But I have never told many people why it is that I believe it. Now I am proclaiming that there is a life after this one, and that our Savior, Jesus Christ, is the Son of the living God.
And let me say that this book is not for sale. My others are, but not this one. Nor is this one meant as advertising for the others. This was written, because I feel strongly that if I didn’t write it that some day soon I might have to answer to a higher power for why I didn’t.
I was six years old when we moved from a farm in Layton to a mining town called Lark in the Oquirrh Mountains of Utah. Before that I spent almost six months with my grandparents, Oliver and Viola Lewis on their farm near the town of Bear River City, Utah. It was while the two of us, Oliver and I, were in his barn feeding his cows that a truly extraordinary thing happened. I would remember it for the rest of my life.
He said to me: “Boy I want to tell you something. I was almost twice your age when a friend of mine was killed on his father’s ranch. You knew I was born and raised on a ranch a hundred miles or so south of here. I was a genuine cowboy, then; still am I guess. I only have a team now and these few milk cows, but at that time we ran a fair sized heard of horses and cattle. We would graze them on the open range with our neighbor’s stock, and then when the snow melted, we would round them up and sell some of them to drovers coming down from Salt Lake City. They would come south in giant wagons, pulled by as many as six or more oxen, and then turn west near Minersville, on their way to San Francisco. Then on their way back in the fall, they would stop again and buy some more. Sometimes they would pay us in cash and sometimes we would order hardware, and pay them in horses or cattle or maybe even vegetables and fruits. They could get us anything we wanted in Salt Lake City or San Francisco, including foodstuffs and seed that we couldn’t grow ourselves.
“We ranchers kept them in business for years. Then sometime before the Great War with Germany, the automobile began to replace the horse, and the oxen freighters gradually left the business. It wasn’t long until we also had to move. I went to San Pete County where I met your grandmother. We eventually settled here among a number of homesteading families that were LDS church converts from Denmark. But, anyway, farming is not nearly as profitable as was ranching. I was telling you about my good friend that was killed in a round up. I had another one that lived on the other side of us; the three of us, along with our ponies, were inseparable. It was a warm Sunday afternoon; the two of us were sitting on the top-rail of our corral. We had just come from the funeral of our other friend. We started talking about the possibility of there being a life after this one. This led to my friend making me swear that I would come back and tell him about it if I died before he did – he promised to do the same if there was anyway it could be done.
It wasn’t long after we moved here that I was standing right there where you are now, facing the cows. I was getting ready to milk the first one when I heard a familiar voice. ‘Oliver,’ he said. ‘Yes, it’s me. Don’t turn around there is nothing to see. I have only a few minutes. I just want to tell you that there is a life after this one. I guess you knew I was killed a few years after you left your father’s ranch. I also want you to know that you’re on the right track. You just keep doing what your doing. So long, I’ll be seeing you.’ And with that he was gone.”
I had never spent much time in a Sunday school. I had heard about the baby Jesus from my mother and my grandmothers, so I was knowledgeable about the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. However, I never understood that much about the third personage of the Trinity.
When Oliver told me about this incident with his friend in the barn, I believed him without question. I knew that when you died you went to heaven as a spirit.
Years later, after we had moved from the Oquirrh’s back to Salt Lake City, Oliver often spent the night with us on his way home from visiting his extended family that had homesteaded in the area around Escalante.
It was times like these that he saw to it that I was taught about as much as any ten year old that had attended church regularly. Leastwise, I knew about the power of prayer. And there was something else that I knew that few others did: I knew about Oliver’s friend that had died and gone to another world, because he had returned and Oliver had met him. And Oliver never told a lie. He was known for his honesty. Then, too, there was this: why would a grandfather tell his young grandson a cock-and-bull-story like that unless it had happened? It did not make sense that he would. No, for me it was easier to believe it was all true about dying and going to a “heaven” than to believe that Oliver was lying.
The first time I remember asking a favor of the Lord was for a simple and boyish reason. But looking back on it now, I know He didn’t think so.
Most of the boys and one girl that, incidentally, was ranked at about number three in our school, played marbles during the lunch hour and at recess. Having recently come from this mining town in the Oquirrh’s, I had never seen it played before. Even if I had enough marbles to play, I would have quickly lost them because I didn’t know how. And then I would have been reduced to observer status once again. To a boy of nine this was a crisis of monumental proportions.
Let me explain how the game is played, because, methinks, at this writing it isn’t played much anymore. I say this because it has been a long time since I have seen any marbles for sale in stores. And that’s where it starts: somebody gives you a few “loners” or you scrounge a few pennies to buy two or three at the corner mom and pop store.
When the snow melts and the ground dries up, three or four friends agree to play. A large circle is drawn in the dirt with a stick. All players then place a “mig” in the center of the ring. The first to shoot stands on the circle and shoots at the migs in the center with a “taw.” The taw is usually larger than the migs in the ring, and it’s often made of marble, while the others are made of glass. If you knock a mig out of the ring, and your taw stays in you get to keep it. If you hit one, but it stays in the ring, the next shooter gets to “knuckle-down” at the edge of the ring and try his or her luck. You can see that knucking-down is a definite advantage, because you are closer. You can also see how a greenie can lose his marbles quickly – hence the term, I suppose, “ to lose your marbles.” Clearly, I had to have a plan. I had been playing through one full season and had won absolutely nothing.
At the coming of the next spring, I had acquired a taw and three or four migs. But most of all I had acquired a plan. This plan was simple. I would ask the Lord for help.
The following season I had defeated the girl I told you about to win the school championship. I was then invited to play in the citywide tournament. But I never attended. I had lost interest in the game. But I had learned a valuable lesson. Maybe the most valuable lesson I have ever learned. If I had a problem that I considered serious enough to ask for help, He would help me.
I had just turned 4 years old; I had also just arrived at my grandfather Lewis’s farm for an extended visit for the first time. For me, the main event of the day was watching for the mail plane from Salt Lake City.
Oliver’s farm was on the northern edge of the Great Salt Lake. The airplanes came over low around 1000 hours, several times a week. I was told they were flying to Pocatello, Idaho, but I found out later that they must have been going around the lake to Elko. Oliver’s farm was off their right wing with the left pointing to the shore of the lake. It would have made and excellent checkpoint on the pilot’s map for either city.
Every day, I would go out to the fence and wait. On the days one would show up, I would wave to the pilot, and he would wave back, and then he would waggle his wings. Civilians that were, for the most part, trained by the army, flew these airplanes. In 1934 the job was turned over to the air corps reserves. The pilots had graduated from “West Point of The Air” at Randolph and Kelly Fields in Texas. They had been placed on inactive reserve, and on the orders of congress, they were recalled and tasked with flying military airplanes on civilian mail routes. Never mind that they were ill equipped and lacked the training; they would get better training and the government would save money, said the congress that thought they knew everything. These routes crisscrossed the country, and for seventy-eight days during the winter of 1934, the country was witness to a truly gigantic government fiasco. President Roosevelt stopped the congress’ mistake, when thirteen pilots lost their lives in crashes due to low pilot flying time, weather, and the airplanes having very primitive instruments. They had no chance to prepare for such an operation, and the experiment was a monumental failure.
Of course the congress had no intention of taking any part of the blame, leaving the Army Air Corps commanding officer holding the bag. I knew this gentleman quite well, his name was Benjamin Fuloise, and he was a brigadier general. I met him while attending the Squadron Officer’s School at the Air University in Montgomery, Alabama. The general retired near the school, immediately following the investigation. At night, he would come around to talk to the young student officers. He liked to talk, and we liked to listen to his stories about the early days of aviation.
My first encounter with airplanes close up was at the Salt Lake City airport, where the army’s inactive reserve kept two that were later models than those that I had seen carrying the mail. They had been using them for on-going training of stay-at-home inactive reserve officers.
After the First World War, the air service relied on the Military Academy at West Point on the Hudson for volunteers. But this was considered to be too costly. Anyway, the air service had no need for trained infantry and artillerymen so they decided they would enlist a volunteer as a flying cadet if he had two years of college. They would give him some basic military training and then send him to their own West Point of The Air. At this school, he would receive flight training and more military training comparable to the nation’s Military Academy. After graduation, he would be given a pair of wings and an active reserve commission. They were very picky and choosy as to whom they kept on active duty, though. If he was released a few years later, as most were, he could fly in the inactive reserves, while living and working at home.
I was twelve years old. Sometimes on weekends I would pump out to the airport on my bicycle and hang around. I wondered if any of these reservists had flown the mail route across the edge of my grandfather’s farm. I never asked. I kept still and out of the way. They knew I loved airplanes the same as they did, so they didn’t run me off. I would get there early when they rolled-out the hangered airplanes, and then watch them while they were being warmed-up. I also remember attending an informal before flight briefing. They talked about such things as how they planned to throw rolls of toilet paper overboard, and then chase them as they unraveled. They intended to cut the paper with their propellers; counting the number of times they made contact.
I had a friend that lived adjacent to a large field of short-cropped grass. He was a model builder whose interests were not much different than several others I knew, except he was in the process of building a full scale airplane, designed after one of those that flew in the first war. He kept it in his barn that fronted this grassy field. He had it worked out to scale; however, being fifteen or so he didn’t know that you could not scale up a model and make it work. He didn’t know that aerodynamics didn’t work that way. He was in good company, because as I understand it Orville and Wilber Wright didn’t know it either, when they first started to build an airplane. He also didn’t have an engine nor did he have any idea of the size it needed to be. This airplane he was building needed a lot of things that were unknown to him, and certainly to the rest of us younger boys. The things it did have were a complete fuselage, with workable elevators and a rudder waiting to be covered. When I went down to his model shack to hang out, I would pay a visit to his airplane in construction. He didn’t care if I climbed in and worked the controls like a real pilot. I taught myself the rudiments of flying, that is, coordination of rudder and ailerons that had not as yet been built. I imagined myself at West Point of The Air at Randolph Field, Texas. Using the make shift throttle control I would practice simulated take offs and landings. Of course I knew nothing about correction for torque with the rudder, and use of trim tabs for take off, which had not yet been installed. But with an active imagination I still managed to stay fascinated with airplanes.
About the time I was old enough to think seriously about getting a real job and making enough money to buy some real flying lessons, the government authorities paid his mother a visit. I heard they told her that this machine needed a lot more to fly safely than her son understood, and they would appreciate it if she would prevail on him to destroy it. At least she was supposed to keep him from continuing his work.
There was no problem there. He had lost interest in things aviation and had switched to things naval. He told me one day that he was going to join the navy. He had just turned seventeen and he had his mother’s permission. He wanted me to go with him but I was still two years away from being eligible, and anyway, I had not forgotten about West Point of The Air. As it turned out, we both got what we wanted, and we both survived the war; he having seen a lot of combat in the South Pacific, and me surviving because of the real help afforded me by the Lord.
The dastardly sneak attack by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor had startled and incensed the nation the year before. And this being the middle of the period sometimes referred to as the “Golden Age of Aviation,” there had been a rush to become an aviation cadet. They soon ran out of volunteers with any college and settled for potential cadets that had completed high school. But first they had to pass a written test and an extremely thorough physical examination. There was about thirty percent that did not pass the written, and about the same number that failed the physical. I remember there being a lot of conversation about high blood pressure, and things that had to do with the eyes by those that failed the physical.
Speaking of failing: I had failed the new “Ishihara” colorblind test once before, when I had applied to the railroad for a job, and I had heard that this was going to be one of the main features of the flying physical. Word had it that it didn’t matter if you could see individual colors it only mattered if you could see the numbers, made up of colored dots on the pages of a large book. I was not looking forward to it.
The written was part intelligence test and part a test to determine how mature you were – and I wasn’t very mature. The test had another important feature that had something to do with tradition at West Point. The nations military academy was fraught with traditions. One of them was that you had to score a minimum of seventy-five percent on all tests in order to pass a course. This flying cadet entrance examination was no different, except it had a nasty addition: every missed question counted two against you. This prevented guessing or so the army thought. The sergeant that gave the test warned us about how the odds of passing would be against us if we guessed. When you consider that many of the questions dealt with subjects not taught in school, you can see that being young and inexperienced in things of the world was a definite handicap. It was even more of a handicap if you succumbed to temptation and guessed at many of the answers.
I remember several questions that involved the game of cards. They wanted to know, for instance, which cards in the deck were the highest, and which hands were the highest. If you had not played many card games, and if you didn’t know for sure whether a straight flush beat a full house, and if you insisted on guessing, you might be headed for trouble.
I managed to ignore the sergeant’s advice to not guess at an answer. I beat the odds of failing, though, but not because of luck or anything like it. Near the end of the test, I came to realize that I had guessed at, and probably missed, enough answers to keep me from scoring seventy-five percent. Clearly, I needed help. I didn’t recall calling on the Lord many times after I had won at marbles, so I figured I might have had a few favors saved up. I did, but His help was not dependent on any such thing. I came to realize that he would help me in anything worthwhile if only I had the faith to ask Him. I told Him there was not enough time to review the answers. Even if there was, which of them was I going to leave blank? I told Him I needed His help. Every thing I had worked for, and yearned for, was about to slip out of my hands. I was about to lose my big chance to become a flying officer in the Army Air Corps – something I had wanted desperately to do, since I was a boy. I estimated there were some thirty questions out of a hundred left. Maybe if I quit guessing, I might have an outside chance of passing? But the odds were not good. I needed His help desperately. I needed a sure thing.
I was standing behind the sergeant that was grading my paper. I could see things were not going well. By the time he had marked the missed answers with a red pencil, and there were many, he had about reached that place on the paper where I had asked the Lord for help. All the rest of the questions were correct, and my score was exactly seventy-five percent. Now, I don’t believe in coincidence or luck – I never did.
I thought about this as I climbed on the bus that was to take those that passed the written to the military hospital for the dreaded physical. And here again the same thing would happen. This time I needed His help with the Ishihara colorblind test.
I was aware that there were a few people in line ahead of me that had failed. We watched as their names were taken, and they were separated from the rest of us. There wasn’t many, but there was enough to frighten me. That crazy test, made up of numbers and colored dots, was going to do what the written had failed to do. But here it was more objective. You could either see the right number shown on a page in a book or you couldn’t. I also observed from my position at the end of the line that the corporal giving the test would turn the first three pages of one of the books quickly, and if you answered them correctly, he motioned you to go on. If you missed any of them on the first three pages, he went through all the rest in the book. If you missed more than three, he flunked you. I remember that I missed the first two, and he had pretty well made up his mind that I was colorblind. While he was talking to me about having to eliminate me from the program before I got started, I was feverishly asking the Lord for help.
Then, since I was the last one in the line, he ignored the rules, and instead of stopping and telling me I was washed out after the third miss, he reached for another book. The dots were darker. I could see the numbers in the new book plainly, and I called them out quickly as though nothing was wrong with me. He knew I was colorblind, but only for a mix of pastel red and green and maybe brown. He didn’t seem to know that you could be colorblind for certain colors and not for others. But because I could see the darker colors in one of the new books, he said he didn’t know but he thought I was colorblind. Anyway, he said he was going to let me through, and maybe I would get picked up by somebody else later on. He wished me luck, and then he prepared to close up and go home. I was elated. Thanks to the Lord, I might have been one of the few in the army that couldn’t pass that test but ultimately became a genuine flying cadet.
For the longest time, I couldn’t get it out of my mind what had just happened to me. This was the second time that day that the Lord had interceded in my behalf. I knew He had, and He knew I knew it. It was slowly coming to me that maybe, just maybe it was, indeed, all true.
I was grateful, and He knew that, too, because I told Him so. I suspect He knew I was going to call on Him again, later on, because He knew where I was going and what I was going to be doing. He also knew I was a very young boy – almost three years away from shaving for the first time – and I was also as “dumb as a box of rocks,” having had very little time to accumulate much knowledge of anything worthwhile, relating to the grown-up world. The last thing I needed was eventually what I got, a fast, modern, high performance airplane to keep me company on moonless nights, over rugged dangerous terrain.
Finally, the day came when I turned eighteen and I received orders to report for active duty. But I was going to another army basic training base in Texas, and not to the West Point of The Air at Randolph and Kelly Fields. The army had changed their way of doing things. Instead of giving you another flying physical and a battery of different tests at a pre-flight school in California, they would do it in basic training. That way, those eliminated could be shipped to aircrew gunnery school immediately. This would save both time and money. And the big advantage to the army would be that they could fill their quota of bomber-gunners. What the rest of us did not know was how fast we were losing gunners over Europe. Knowing this would have heightened the stress and increased the tension we were all under. And what would soon be apparent to the rest of us was how close we would come to suffering the same fate.
Years before, as I said, qualifying cadets, were required to have two years of college that they had to acquire on their own. Things changed after Pearl Harbor. They soon ran out of college-trained applicants, and had to settle for high school graduates that could pass a written test. But the high school graduate was not educated enough to suit the army. They were deficient in math and physics, and horribly so in English grammar A senior officer after the war told me that the large majority could not write a simple declarative sentence when called on to do so nor could they diagram a sentence.
The people I’m talking about that were going on were those that would survive another flying physical, and another more difficult test in two parts. The first was written, and the other part was calculated to determine whether you had the physical dexterity to be an officer in the army air force. These additional tests would tell them if you were better suited for the job of bombardier or navigator, in the event you didn’t qualify for pilot or if you later washed out of flying school. In addition, your score in all these tests would result in something they called a stanine score. This term meant standard-nine, an acronym that was of interest only to psychologists. This second flying physical, and a meeting with a psychologist, would determine if you were going to a university for a semester and then on to pre-flight, and then finally to actual flight training as a pilot, navigator, or bombardier. If you washed out you could volunteer for training as a mechanic or radioman or go on to gunnery school. None of these things worried me too much. I knew I could fly because I already had seven hours.
What worried me more than anything else was this crazy Ishihara colorblind thing, again. This time there wouldn’t be an understanding non-com to let me through. This time I would need the Lord’s help more than ever before. The people with low stanine scores, the early potential wash outs, took all the remaining tests, including meeting with a psychologist, before they were told they were eliminated.
There were fifteen would-be cadets on the top floor of my barracks. There were seven total that washed out for low stanine scores or for psychological reasons. It was surprising how many were washed out by psychologists. Those who were believed they were somehow deficient mentally or were otherwise lacking in something that would keep them from becoming an officer.
There was one that bunked next to me that had a pompadour haircut. He also had a prominent wave in the front that was fashionable in high school, but did not improve his appearance. I was not a psychologist, but I couldn’t help wonder if his haircut wouldn’t set off bells in the professional’s mind. Was there other affectations that he had that was also unbecoming an officer? As it turned out, there must have been. There were also four others in our upper barracks that did not have wavy hair, but they suffered the same fate. One was heavy and awkward, another had been a student at Berkeley and he let you know he was. He was proud of the fact that he had a high I.Q., and he inferred the army was lucky to have him. He told most of us in the barracks this before we knew him very well. He must have talked freely to one of the psychologists. This subject must have come up, and it must have indicated something undesirable to this professional. Another of them was rough looking. He didn’t look as though he belonged in polite company. But he was sharp. He liked to play blackjack and he kept a deck of cards in his footlocker. Our group had not been together long before he was looking for somebody to teach the game and to take their money. There were three more that we lost, probably because of low stanine test scores. Later, we figured the overall elimination percentage was about the same as we had been led to believe it would be. None of us were perfect, but the three gentlemen I have mentioned that didn’t meet with the approval of the psychologists were noticeably different. You didn’t need to be one to see this. There was about the same ratio of wash outs in primary flying school. In basic flying there was less, and in advanced there was none at all, but four were killed; two of them were Americans in my class. We had been together from the beginning ¬– almost two years, and one of them had become my best friend. The other two were Chinese, members of the Nationalist Chinese Army.
I had no problem with the psychologist. Among other things he wanted to know what I had been doing before I enlisted. I told him I was a student and that I had quit college to take flying lessons. He asked me where I had been going to school; when I told him the name of the university, he left the subject alone. He did carry on a conversation about personal things with me for another five minutes or so. I got the idea that he was feeling me out. He wanted to lead me into a subject where I might become noticeably nervous. And if he could, I would be a candidate for elimination. After a few minutes of this, he indicated that he was finished. I guess he was satisfied that men might follow me after I had aged a few years. He wished me luck. He stood up. I saluted him and left.
The next day I was scheduled for the flying physical again. That night I reminded the Lord that I couldn’t see the numbers that were made up of dots of red, green, and brown pastel shades of color. Whenever I talked to Him, which was almost every day, and then on those days when I earnestly needed His help, I would ask for it. The length of the prayer didn’t seem to be important. What was important, however, was the purpose for my asking. I became convinced that while asking might be the most important thing, the faith that went along with it could not be ruled out. I had long ago quit telling Him how important it all was––I had the feeling He knew. I arranged to be at the end of the line again for the colorblind test. I had plenty of time to petition the Lord for help once more. It came to me that I would fail if I guessed at the first numbers. I had determined that the first three pages contained the numbers made up with the pastel dots.
I could hear the numbers being called out by those that were being examined in front of me, and I could see the books they were using. There was a total of about 10 numbers in two books that were being called out over and over again. I decided with the Lord’s help that it would be possible to memorize them. I would have it made if I could associate the book he was using with the numbers. When it was my turn, I stepped up, looking as though I owned the place, and that this sergeant with the numbers was wasting my time. I nonchalantly called out the first number and then the next as he hurried through the first few pages of the first book. I realized I could just make them out, that is, I could when I had heard them repeated a number of times, and had partially memorized them. He motioned to me that he was through, as he had the others. I had the impression that none of them failed, because they had already passed it at least once before. The point here is that I wasn’t one of them. I couldn’t pass that test without help.
Am I dangerous in an airplane or an automobile? The answer is no, I am not. And the reason why is because I can see individual colors as well as the next person. I just can’t see the pastel numbers made up of the dots all jumbled together.
It was the next day that, I took the stanine test. I had no fear of this one. I had heard that it tested your dexterity, and your hand/eye coordination. Rumor had it that it really was quite fun. At least it was for those that passed. Anyway, I had no need to bother the Lord about this. Boy, was I wrong.
The first event involved a large square board having fifteen or twenty holes. These holes were filled with large pegs of varying sizes and shapes to match the holes. We were seated at long tables that were petitioned off into about three foot square cubicles. Each cubicle was assigned to one of the would-be cadets. The sergeant explained that we were to be timed. He cautioned us to keep our hands in our laps until he said go. We were then to pick up the board and remove the pegs by turning it upside down. When he said stop, we were to stop immediately and then put our hands back in our laps. We were to fit the pegs into the appropriate hole, much like a child’s play toy. When the order to stop was given, the names of those that had not finished were taken. It was simple enough, but not for me. The pegs were loosely fit, and when I turned the board over, most of them spilled out on the floor. I was about to panic. I quickly petitioned the Lord for his help. Then, instead of trying to pick them up from off the floor while sitting on a chair, I got down on the floor on my knees. I stayed there until my board was full. I had not set a record, but I had done it in the required time. There were some others still working, when I sat back in the chair. And the order to stop had not yet been given. The rest of the test went off nicely in my favor. There was nothing left to do, but wait for the results of everything, including the physical that I was sure I had passed. This would happen the next day. When it came it would be unexpected.
Our flight (the size of a platoon ) was marched from wherever we were back to the front of our barracks. But instead of dismissing us, the sergeant gave us an order. When your name is called, he said, we were to fall out and go inside the barracks. We knew that this was the big day. But what we didn’t know was whether those that went to the barracks were those that passed or whether it was those that remained standing.
The first name called was that of the card player. He smugly looked around, and then headed inside. Before he got there, he looked around once more with a kind of smile on his face that was there because he thought he was the first to make it. I didn’t like the man, but I knew he was smart, and he was dexterous with cards, so he must have gotten a high stanine score. The next was the Berkeley guy, and then another one that I thought was also brighter than the others. I desperately wanted to go with them. But wait a minute: the real smart one was standing next to me. He was a good friend and a former FBI agent, but still I wanted to go with the card player. There was a half dozen more walking toward the barracks, as I pleaded with the Lord to have the sergeant call my name. Then to my surprise, when I looked down the ranks, there was another older even smarter friend, maybe smarter than all the rest. He had been a cattle buyer for his father’s packing plant near San Francisco. I had forgotten about him.
Many years later I would run into him in Elko, Nevada. He was still buying cattle. I was working during the summer for a steel contractor from Denver, while going to the university. We reminisced about this exact morning. He told me that he was also watching our mutual friend from the FBI. He said as long as his name had not been called, everything was going to be all right. Later on we would find out that he was still working for Mr. Hoover while in the air corps. This did not surprise me.
A similar thing happened to me once before. While I was working in the summer, on the construction of a new refinery outside of Salt Lake City, one of the welders dropped the bib of his overalls. His wallet opened as it fell near where I was sitting in the change room. There staring at me was a large badge, clearly stating on it’s face that he was in the FBI. The thought ran through my mind that Mr. J. Edgar Hoover might have agents scattered all through the services, in the war sensitive factories, and who knew where else. I never said anything to the welder. When I looked up, he told me in no uncertain terms that he knew I was going into the army, and that I wanted to become a flying officer. How he knew, I never found out. Then he said that if I breathed a word to a single soul about what I had seen, he would see to it that I would never get a chance to do anything but go to jail.
Back at the barracks, our flight sergeant was still calling out names. I was still asking the Lord to help me get into the barracks. Then I apologized to Him. I might have made a mistake. Now, before anyone knew or even suspected that we were the “chosen,” I had changed my mind. I was now asking Him to forget the barracks, and to let me stay where I was. Finally, my friend standing next to me began to smile. Then he whispered something to the affect that there was no doubt about it now; those remaining were those that were the most fortunate. We apparently were not going to gunnery school.
The sergeant stopped with the names. The last to be called was the awkward one. He was so awkward that he had to have special training to learn to march. He called the rest of us back to attention, and then he marched us off. None of us were absolutely sure whether we were the wannabe cadets going on, and those in the barracks were the unfortunates going to gunnery school. But when we saw the last man called was the awkward one, we were sure the barracks group was those that had been eliminated. Again the Lord had been looking after me.
I was on “cloud nine” it was far and away the best day of my life so far. I was going to a school that was as much like the Military Academy at West Point as they could make it. (A colonel that was in charge of the program, much later in my career, told me it was.)
That evening a civilian came to our barracks. At first we thought he was a visitor. He came to talk with one of the cadet candidates from my hometown that had qualified and was waiting to ship out with us to a college the next morning. But it was anything but a social call. They went outside to talk. A few minutes later he came back in. He told us his brother had been killed and that the Red Cross had given him a train ticket home.
I asked him what his brother had been doing. He said he was working on a team that was doing some classified work for the army. What ever it was, they wouldn’t tell him if, indeed, they knew. He left us as soon as he could pack a bag. The Red Cross told him he would be held over for the next class.
I saw him at another base before preflight school. I asked him again and he said he didn’t know. He did say it was all most peculiar. He wasn’t allowed to talk about anything not even the events at the burial.
It was after the war that I saw him again. And he told me that his brother had graduated in physics from The University of Utah and then joined this secret team. There was no funeral, not even a graveside service. He said the family was standing by at the cemetery when two lowboy trailers pulled in. One of them was loaded with what looked to him to be a cement burial vault only it was much larger. The second was carrying a crane to unload the first. It wasn’t until we dropped the two bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that the secret was out. He figured his brother was either at White Sands or at Chicago. He had apparently been working with one of the early atom bomb teams that were “twisting the tigers tail.” And the tiger ate him up.
The next afternoon, on the train heading to the University of Nevada that was part of the new version of West Point of the Air, I had plenty of time to think about what had happened to get me this far. From the time I started on my quest to become a flying officer, until the present, the Lord was there to help me. There was no question about it then, and there isn’t now. It was there on that train, going back through the Rocky Mountains, that a thought came to me: I had discovered something more valuable than buried treasure itself. I was convinced that if it didn’t involve something like buried treasure, the Lord would support me in any worthwhile endeavor. But I also knew that I had to ask Him.
His last name was Le Duc and he was famous in our squadron of newly appointed cadets for going Absent With Out Leave (AWOL) without getting caught. He had been recently married and his bride was in Ogden, Utah, staying with her parents until the war was over. Le Duc must have spent most of his free time thinking about her, and working on plans to temporarily get away from the army to see her. He confided to one of my best friends by the name of Paul D., all of the details of how it was done. I had nothing if not admiration for Le Duc soon to become another best friend.
I started thinking about Le Duc, soon after I returned from furlough or leave as it was called in the navy, while I was still in pre-flight school at Santa Ana, California. This furlough came about as a big surprise. It was to last ten days, counting travel time. It seems that the colonel commanding the school and his entire staff, excluding the chaplain, were court-martialed.
When the school was first started, soon after Pearl Harbor, it was quickly whittled out of an orange grove near Santa Ana. To make it less barren, the colonel decided to collect “donations” from each cadet for lawn seed. Soon, thereafter, he included haircuts. We had to get a haircut once a week, whether we needed it or not. He decided that when we were in the barbershop, getting this mandatory haircut, we would sign a roster. A weekly check of the roster would tell him what he needed to know, and at the same time he would get a neat kickback from the head barber. It was a tidy amount when you consider the number of cadets at the school, and how long they had been collecting.
It happened one day that back in Washington, the father of one of the cadets contacted Stewart Symington, a member of congress. This cadet was also a Symington and the nephew of the congressman. His father asked him why he was always writing home for money, particularly after he had received a substantial pay raise, after being appointed an aviation cadet. His father demanded an accounting from his son. On the list of his expenditures was grass seed and the mandatory haircut. Congressman Symington was immediately notified. He in turn notified the army, who notified the Inspector General, who ordered an investigation and a court-martial. We, the new corps of cadets, were advised, forthwith, that we could go home until it was all over.
While I was home I thought I had fallen in love with a girl I had gone to high school with. This turn of events placed me almost in the same category as the famous lovesick traveler, newly minted aviation cadet Richard Le Duc.
We were nearing the end of the war and there was a backlog in classes that had built up, due to inclement weather, at the two remaining primary schools and the one basic flying school in the San Joaquin Valley. While the army was waiting for the weather to improve, they transferred us to this same basic flying school at Merced, California, and then they closed the notorious pre-flight school at Santa Ana. There, we saw for the first time, the airplanes that we would be flying if we managed to get through primary, the name given to our first flying school. We had also heard that the wash out rate would be as high in primary as it had ever been before.
Time spent at Merced can best be described as a pleasure. For a brief two months we had nothing to do but work. But it was work of a different kind. We were not pressured to do anything but work, but of course there was the one-hour a day, mandatory physical training that was inherited from West Point. The one thing different from West Point was the duty of kitchen police known as KP. This was a twelve-hour shift that came around about once a month at basic training and at pre-flight. And it was real work that consisted of washing dishes, washing pots and pans, scrubbing walls and floors, and waiting tables.
We were told that it was against military regulations for aviation cadets and cadets at the military academies to do manual labor. After Pearl Harbor, this changed, but in name only, and only for aviation cadets. Now it was officially called, “mess management.” Since cadets were not authorized to do kitchen police, the name was changed. Also, we were told that cadets were being trained as future officers. And didn’t officers supervise mess halls?
The commanding officer of cadets at Merced was a major: But a different sort of major than any of us had seen before. He had an assistant that was a captain. Both of these men were West Point graduates and were real gentleman – but they were both characters – albeit, bored characters. They didn’t have much to do. They were also helped in doing nothing by a reserve captain. They had inherited him from Santa Ana Pre-flight when it closed.
The commandant and his captain friend drew us up in formation, soon after we arrived. After acting like they were new arrivals themselves from West Point, they went into a set act. They approached every fourth or fifth one of us standing at attention and spent a couple of minutes telling us how “raunchy” we looked, and this slovenly appearance was not going to go here. Just because we were here waiting to go to primary flying school, we were not going to get away with anything. Then they gave us some choice words about how things were done at the Academy, and how we could expect the same thing here.
It is true we didn’t look all that good because we had been sitting up all night riding in an old troop train traveling from Santa Ana. We were also hungry and tired; this new major knew it but he didn’t seem to care. The sun had just come up and he was talking about a long hike to get us in shape, and other non-sense that smacked of the school on the Hudson River that really had nothing to do with us. Our first take on this guy was that we were going to be in for a couple of nasty months of hard make-work that was completely un-necessary.
The next morning, before sun up, found three squadrons of unhappy aviation cadets marching somewhere to do something that was unknown to us. We were sleepy and tired and very disappointed with the way things had turned out. We had spent several extra months at preflight because of this weather backlog, and now we were going to waste some more time.
There was this captain that came from Santa Ana, and he was in his element. He had been present when the hazing was going on, after we left the train. And it suited him just fine. He would have been right at home at West Point. This odd ball had been given a nickname at Santa Ana. He was known as “Brace Bradley.” But there was no affection that went with it as there often was between officers and enlisted men and, once in a great while, between officers and cadets.
A brace, incidentally, was a time-honored practice at West Point that had been used forever to humiliate first year cadets. It had been carried over to the flying schools in the thirties that was sometimes referred to by that name. And it served the same purpose in the present wartime flying schools. It was an exaggerated position of attention that among other things called for rigidly standing so that there were wrinkles that formed in your chin. Often you were directed by your tormentor to come up with the same number of wrinkles as your age.
Brace Bradley was said to have acquired an issued bicycle at the preflight school. He turned it in when he left and he had found another as soon as he arrived here. Later, he would ride it all over, creating mischief and generally making life miserable for the cadets that he assumed were his charges. It never took him long to find another bicycle, and to start again doing what he had deemed was his main contribution to the war effort. He thought the major, his superior and supervisor, would be pleased with his show of initiative. The quicker he could get at those cadets the better he was going to be liked. And the better he was liked by the major the longer he was going to stay at this cushy assignment, and away from the rigors and dangers of a place called New Guinea in the South Pacific. After all, this relentless torment of cadets was seen by him, and other officers that he knew at Santa Ana, as right out of the training prospectus that made good combat pilots. Wasn’t it, after all, a known fact that “if you can’t drill on the ground, you can’t drill in the air?” And wasn’t the brace, this exaggerated position of attention, the first step to good order and discipline in the school of a soldier and a combat pilot?
It was a moonless night that was more than likely to turn in to the expected foggy morning. Word had it that we were marching to a theatre. Where it was or how far away it was, none of us knew.
What we did know was that Bradley was behind us ready to pass out demerits. (You were allowed seven of these demerits or gigs before you were restricted on Saturday afternoon and you had to walk one penalty tour. Every gig after that resulted in one more tour). He preyed on unsuspecting cadets that couldn’t keep their mouths shut in ranks. I had been numbered among these unfortunates before. And I had walked more than a few tours at pre-flight, even after dark, as the result of my “gregariousness,” while in ranks.
We knew it was Bradley. Because the word had gotten around about him, fast. We could hear the sound of a squeaky bicycle wheel or chain.
There was also a saying that had been passed down that said it all, “Cooperate and Graduate.” If one of us hated something, we all did. Bradley knew this, too. And he hated us equally in return. The thing of it was how close knit we were. How we would go out of our way to help somebody that flew military airplanes. Brace Bradley, and his ilk, were not part of this brotherhood – and there was nothing he could do about it. And he resented us, because there was a good chance we would fly combat aircraft against the hated Japanese; and there was no possibility that he ever would because he couldn’t fly.
The squeaky wheel or whatever became louder. We almost instinctively knew who it was. Then somebody up ahead of me in the columns of three yelled out something to the affect: “Can I please see a size 10 in a brown oxford.” This would mean nothing to anybody, unless they were part of our select group. Rumor had it that Brace had been a shoe salesman before the war. There was nothing wrong with that except our show of contempt was our way of showing our social superiority, even though he was a commissioned officer. You see, we were military aviators or were going to be. We were the chosen, and to be sure, we took on airs.
There was a loud clatter as of junk running into a tree or Brace falling off his bicycle. This was followed by a commanding voice that emanated from the dark behind us. There was no doubt who it was. It was Brace, and he was mad as a hornet.
“Who said that,” yelled the voice from out of the dark. I don’t remember whether Brace yelled back first or he ran into a tree and fell off his bike first. But the entire squadron that is those far enough away from him that they couldn’t be identified, let out with raucous laughter that must have infuriated Brace all the more. I couldn’t help feel that it was going to turn into a good day after all. Little did I know.
We had learned some time ago that when you went to a theatre for a lecture or to see a training film, if you put your thumbs in your belt and then sat back in the seat you became wedged upright between your friends on either side. You could appear to be fully awake while dozing or maybe even asleep. I had assumed this position while waiting for something to happen. Whatever it was going to be, I was not particularly interested.
We were called to attention. We all woke up to see this major from the train the day before striding down the isle. He walks up the steps of the stage and begins fiddling with the microphone, after telling us to be at ease. We sat back down and once again assumed the practiced position. A few minutes of him playing with the microphone saying things like testing etc. saw most of us dozing again.
I noticed he was carrying an Army issued 45 cal. pistol in a holster. This was not out of the ordinary, since all officers did if they had been detailed as the officer of the day. Finally, he was through with his microphone nonsense and began a lecture about what he expected of us. Actually, it was a continuation of the hazing that started after we departed the train yesterday. Whatever he was talking about did not interest any of us in the least.
Then he started talking about how if we played ball with him, he would play ball with us. This was followed by some equally mindless words about how if you were seen with your hands in your pockets you would not acquire gigs. He went on to say at this base, he never gigged anybody. He says, instead, what would happen was he would shoot us. As he said this he drew his side arm and strode to the front of the stage and pointed it at the front row that was dozing or was other wise not paying attention.
The theatre erupted in several loud explosions that caused everybody to wake up and wonder what was going on. Of course they were blank shells. But the thing of it was, no officer had before or since fooled around like that. When we realized his whole demeanor from the beginning was some kind of an act, we started to laugh. Then he started to laugh along with us because it really was funny, but very out of character, which made it all the more ridiculous.
When things settled down and he again went monotonlesly back to some subject or other, one that we had heard about many times before, we decided the frivolity was over. It had, after all, been just an aberration, and now that things were back to normal, we went back to dozing. We stayed that way until he thought most of us were not paying any attention to him. Then he, again, unholstered his weapon as he moved once more to the front apron. He was obviously getting ready to fire it again at the front row to wake them up. When he got to that part about you play ball with me and I’ll play ball with you, and if you don’t, we won’t gig you we will just…Everybody, but especially those in the front row, grabbed a hold of the arms of their seats and hung on, as he pointed it at them and fired.
But instead of flame and cordite, there was a sick pop and a stick came out of the barrel. From the stick, hung a red colored banner that read “Bang.” That’s all there was. Everybody was more or less speechless, until the major again started to laugh at our startled expressions. This was our real welcome to the non-flying aviation cadet training at Merced Army Air Base. But what we didn’t know, this was just the beginning.
Anyway, when the fun and games were over, he really surprised us by telling us he wanted to make a deal. He said that both flying classes were way behind, due to the foggy weather. He said the weather was due to change. When it did they were going to be flying around the clock. He wanted us to “volunteer” to do nothing but KP. That was the deal. We would take care of the kitchen, and then when the weekend came around if we were not scheduled for work detail, we could have a weekend pass. That meant we could go as far as San Francisco, but only if we didn’t have to work on Sunday. In that case, we would also have a stand-by inspection in the barracks on Saturday. When we were not working or in San Francisco, we could go to town. These things were absolutely out of the question for anybody in the program, before or since. And it had aviation cadet Le Duc salivating at the mouth, never mind that Ogden, Utah, was maybe three times as far away as was San Fran. And this pass would only be valid for three hundred miles. Le Duc had absolutely no interest in San Francisco.
There was a library reserved for cadets that were flying. But they had not been flying for several weeks. Our class moved in and occupied the library in the evening. We were not studying anything, while I believe the real flyers were in ground school most of the time. It was in the library on our second night that I met the famous Le Duc. He was not too interested in talking to me about his current “escape” plan. Those of us in the know were aware that he must have one, because Christmas was coming. When I got to know him better, Le Duc told me that the coming holiday had changed his modus operendi completely. And since we had this best friend, Paul D., in common, he would talk to me, if Paul would insure him that I could keep my mouth shut.
Three days later, he told me that his new plan called for two days with his wife and two long days travel time. Even so, he said, it was mighty risky, and if either one of us got caught, we could expect to spend the holidays in somebody’s guardhouse. And then we could expect to get sent to gunnery school.
He started by telling me that you had to arrange a shift change with somebody you knew real well. The problems wouldn’t start until after you left Reno, he said. Then you would be outside the three hundred mile limit. You could go by bus from Merced, but the military police checked passes and furlough papers at most bus stops, until you reached Salt Lake City. And you didn’t want to get caught hitchhiking in the cold, especially going through the mountains to Reno. The best way was to ask a trucker at a truck stop for a ride. If you were lucky, you could get a ride all the way to Salt Lake City.
Coming back was different. At Wendover there was a super classified air base adjacent to the bus station. If you had to resort to riding the bus, you could expect the military police to come aboard the bus to check passes. If you went inside the bus terminal, the same thing would happen. Best, he said, was to stay off the buses, unless you got caught out in the cold. He didn’t want to travel with me. Too much extra trouble and too many things might go wrong. He said he had travelled to and from Ogden by himself, which I knew about. He said he had never, of course, been caught.
I was about to give up and go back to Merced. I had spent most of the night crossing the mountains in a truck and now I was a couple of miles east of Reno, walking, and I was getting cold. As luck would have it, a car with a newly graduated fighter pilot from the advanced school at Hamilton Field, California, stopped and picked me up. He said he was going to Salt Lake City. I had a ride all the way. He knew I was outside the limits of my pass, if in fact I had a pass. He also knew it was Christmas, and he was still more of a cadet than he was an officer.
We talked about the flight schools that were facing me. He had a lot of inside dope and he liked to talk. He also had a gadget that was a circular slide ruler. He called it an E-6B Computer. He said it was used to solve navigation problems. He fiddled with it the whole time he was driving. He said it would tell him anything he wanted to know about distance, time, and airspeed. And he said it would do much more than that, and it would do the same thing in a car. He said at some point in my training I would learn about it. The time passed swiftly. He asked me how I got over the mountains and I told him a trucker gave me a ride.
I don’t remember how we got passed Wendover. He might have filled up in Reno. I do remember asking him about that base that Le Duc had told me about. He said all he knew about it was that it was designated as “restricted” on the maps. He never flew over it or did he want to. The main reason I remember this incident was because this base would loom large in my tale.
I found out after the war that it was where they trained the B-29 Bomber crews that nuked Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And getting past it on my way back would turn out to be a major problem. It was for me, but not for the Lord, who helped me once again.
When it was time to go back, my neighbor in Salt Lake gave me a ride out west of town, where we both figured it would be easier to catch a ride. But it wasn’t. I had been standing in the cold for about a half hour on the other side of the airport. A car stopped but it was not going very far. When I saw a bus going to California, I hailed the driver. He stopped, but before I cleared Wendover, I wished he hadn’t.
She was a strikingly beautiful woman, quite a bit older than I was, but then who wasn’t. She also had on a heavy expensive sheared beaver coat that interested me more than anything else because I was really cold. I took the isle seat beside her, introduced myself, and told her where I was going. She had never seen a cadet cap like mine. It had a gold colored metal insignia with a large vertical propeller mounted on horizontal wings. She asked me if I was a flyer and I told her yes, although, I had only flown ten hours in a very small military airplane. This was a piper cub that had been part of the flying indoctrination program at the University of Nevada. I would find out later that these small airplanes were being used to determine early on whether or not we got airsick. If we did, it became a matter of record, and if it was a chronic thing it led to an early wash out.
I never told her any of this. As far as she knew, I was a hot fighter pilot on Christmas furlough from combat in the South Pacific. I never told her any different and she never asked. She did know, however, that I was cold, and she never objected when I moved real close to her, taking advantage of her beaver coat to warm my left side. This familiarity with the coat would be the way the Lord used to save me from a long stint in a really classified military lock up.
It was more than a couple of hours until we fetched up Wendover. Everybody got off, except my new best friend and me. When I saw three military police armed with machine guns, I figured I was a goner for sure. I told the Lord they were going to ask me for my pass, and then when I didn’t have one, they were going to arrest me and take me to the cooler. When the first one came aboard the bus, I laid my head on her shoulder and made believe I was asleep. He saw my cadet uniform and thought I was an officer. She didn’t push me away, when he stepped down from the bus steps. When I saw the three of them walking away, I thought about moving my head back where it belonged. I also thought about leaving it there in case they came back. But, I didn’t think the Lord would be a party to anything like that.
I whispered a thank you to her, and then another one to the Lord. What I never found out was why she did not have to go to the bathroom. Everybody on that bus, including the driver, left to go inside. She had no way of knowing that Elko was the next rest stop, and it was a long way off. If she had excused herself and left, they would have assumed that I was now awake and that we were not together. They might have come back. When they saw that I was a cadet, they would have arrested me.
Now I want to go on record here and now to say that I never in all my association with women did I know one that did not have to go to the bathroom while travelling the distance between Salt Lake City and Elko, Nevada – coincidence? Not likely.
The morning after I returned from my Christmas holiday, the cadet officer of the day notified me that Brace Bradley wanted to see me. He told me to “hit a brace.” Then he wanted to know where I had been for four days. He said, wherever I was, I had not signed out. This meant penalty tours were in the offing for me. It also meant he suspected I had gone farther than the three hundred mile limit. This last offense if he could prove it, would result in my elimination. I knew that was what he was going for, because that was the way he was. He had been a training officer at Santa Ana almost since the war started, and it was hard for him to change. The two West Pointers did not like him and we all knew it. We also knew Brace did not approve of the shenanigans of the major and the other captain. I never knew him and probably would not have recognized him if he had not put me in a brace. But he did, and he also verbally charged me with an extreme breach of cadet regulations. I could tell he was bent on gathering evidence, and I was getting very nervous.
We were standing in the hall at cadet headquarters. He had just ordered me to report to his office. Upon hearing this, I figured he already had what he needed, and he was getting ready to sign a charge sheet and take me before the major. I also knew the major wanted no part of a court-martial. He didn’t want anything interfering with his flying cadet feeding program. Brace had already told me I was confined to the base. The next step would have been to give me a chance to resign and volunteer for gunnery school or accept a court martial. Things looked bleak for me.
I was on my way to Brace’s office when the major came out of his office. He looked at my nametag and then stopped me to tell me he was looking for me. I thought Brace had already told him what I had been up to, and it scared me even more. Before he could say anything else to me I consulted the Lord. I don’t know why He helped me but he did.
The Major told me to go see Captain Bradley. He says, tell him to write you a three-day pass authorizing you to go to Los Angeles. He says he had just taken a telephone call from a friend of mine from Salt Lake City.
This friend had just graduated from advanced flying school, and he was visiting his mother. He says to tell the captain that your mother is in Los Angeles visiting his mother. Then he says it would be a nice belated Christmas present for her. He also says that the pass was to start tomorrow, and that I could have this day off it being Saturday – meaning I could take off right then.
I thanked him and walked down the hall to Brace’s office where I knew he was waiting.
He immediately puts me into another brace and starts into a tirade about what he is going to do to me. I didn’t dare interrupt him. When he asks me what I had to say for my self, I told him what the major wanted him to do. Brace immediately forgot about my travels. He was not stupid. He recognized the precarious position he was in. He was not liked, and the last thing he wanted now was to tell the major about the “evidence” he had been collecting about my absence without leave. And, since our primary duty of permanent KP was a marginal endeavor, and might be frowned upon by the major’s superiors, Brace might have been thinking that a transfer to the South Pacific for him was not out of the question if he insisted on making too many waves. Anyway, he made a few veiled threats about keeping his eye on me, while he wrote out the pass. I went back down the hall thinking that the Lord had a keen sense of humor.
I never saw Brace again. I don’t have any idea where he went. Another few weeks saw us transferred to primary flying school. But until we boarded the train, we were submitted to a cadet regimen that was unlike West Point in every possible way. The captain and the major could not refrain from having their fun.
The West Point captain had a mule. Yes, a genuine army mule that was the same species as the mascot of his Alma Matre. He also had a genuine McClelland saddle, and a full dress cavalry uniform, complete with leather leggings and a saber to go along with it. When fitted out and mounted, he did not exactly personify the dashing young officer that he might have once been. Years later it might be said of him that he now more nearly resembled the poor girls General George Patton of movie fame.
We had heard that on occasion if he was in the mood, he would ride this getup to a barracks for a “stand-by inspection.” There he would tie his “mount” to the porch rail, giving cadet on-lookers time to leave the windows where the gang of them had been gazing at this aberration coming down the street. When not on “inspection maneuvers,” the mule was tethered on the lawn by the mess hall, where he indulged himself eating the long grass. It was winter in California and the nights were chilly. But not to worry, this obsolete herbivorous quadruped wore a blue and gold blanket with large printed letters that said of all things: ARMY. The mule looked as though he was going to an Army-Navy football game.
Now, this captain would mount this government issued lawn-burner prior to visiting a cadet barracks. He would don his regulation infantry helmet liner, straighten his saber, and then he was ready to present for anybody interested in watching him move out – but not to laugh. To do so would be to interrupt the ridiculousness of his whole act. It was that if a stranger or a new cadet were to inquire as to the real purpose of the mule, somebody with an exaggerated straight face might answer them that he was not a mule he was a lawn mower. Furthermore, he was a member of the post. No word as to whether the lawn mower was being carried on the morning report.
He and the major tried to out do each other. I remember hearing about the time the major went to Tulare to join the primary graduating class coming to Merced. He told the cadet officer in charge that he had been in the hospital and was now reporting back to duty. He said he had finished the course ahead of them, and that he was probably one of the hottest pilots in the Army Air Corps.
The problem was he needed a shave. His issued uniform was dirty and had not been laundered, starched, and ironed for a very long time. He was in fact very raunchy. He makes a nuisance of himself on the trip up to Merced. He bitches about everything and anything until the class is about ready to throw him off the train. When they get there, the major’s friend the captain meets the class. He proceeds to haze this so called cadet. He keeps them all at attention while he racks the major/cadet over for being so slovenly. Furthermore, he yells at the class drawn up at attention that if they are anything like him, they are in for some bad times. He says things like if you think flying is going to be easy here they would soon find out what was in store for them.
Tradition, and common sense tells the cadets coming from Rankin’s school at Tulare that they should shine their shoes and change into their best uniform. Upper classes have told them that making a good impression getting off the train is the way to start out on the right foot. And everything is much easier when the new officers like you. This special cadet (the major ) that now lays around and bitches about everything wrong with the army, tells them all they have heard about that is a “crock.”
To make things even worse the captain and another tactical officer from another squadron start telling this new class how raunchy they are.
The new cadet disappears and reappears as a showered and shaved major in a newly pressed uniform. He walks into the mess hall late for noon chow, while the rest of the class sit at attention. They have been waiting, still getting chewed by the captain. When he walks in, the captain gets on him for being late. The captain then calls attention, and everybody recognizes the ex-raunchy cadet as a spit and polished major. And everybody has a good laugh at the practical joke.
The next to the last time I saw this major was while standing in ranks. He saw us drawn up in formation across the street and takes it in his head to have an inspection. He stops his old worn second –hand car and joins us. He has a practiced way that he does that – just one more addition to his “shtick.” He shuts down the engine before he parks but he leaves it in gear. He opens the door as it chugs a few feet driverless into a parallel parking place and stops against the curb. He then struts across the lawn and down the ranks as though he is at West Point, until he comes to a cadet that truly is raunchy. That is to say he badly needs a haircut.
The major asks him why his hair has not been cut and then he reads him off with one of his canned performances. The question required an answer. What he said astounded us all, least of which was the major. He told him that he was broke. The major asked him why and he told him he had spent it all for Christmas. The major didn’t say a word, but the meaning was not lost on him. We all knew that he must have scrounged a few extra bucks for presents for his kids. The major reached into his pocket and pulled out what was reported to be several dollars. The haircut cost a quarter. He walked away and headed toward his car parked across the street. He turned his face so that those of us further down the ranks could not see him.
The last time I saw him was two or three days after I came back from Los Angeles. He was still up to his old tricks of making us all laugh, even me, although this time I was to be the object of his foolishness.
It was early in the morning. However, as I remember the sun was up. The bugle had sounded reville, which meant you had better hit the deck and head for the latrine to shave. That is if you were old enough to shave. I still wasn’t, and so I had never paid that much attention to the bugle. That is I was in no hurry to roll out, as was most of the others.
My first realization that something was amiss was when I felt warm water running down my leg. I had gone back to sleep and I awoke with a start, expecting to be embarrassed. Standing next to me was the major and half the congregated barracks. He had slipped in, and raised his hand telling them not to call attention. He wanted to surprise me while I was still asleep. He took the hand pumped water canister that was our fire extinguisher from off a nail in an adjacent post, making sure that the nozzle was between my legs. All had a good laugh when he started pumping. There was no question that we were going to miss him.
We arrived at Tulare, California in the late afternoon. It was hard for any of us to believe that we were actually going to fly a real genuine military airplane. We had been waiting more than a year for this.
This new base was known by the pretentious name of Tex Rankin School of Aeronautics. In point of fact it was a dolled up ex-school for crop dusters. But there were airplanes. To prove it the driver of the bus that drove us from the train station to this facility in the boondocks did not take us directly to our living quarters. He took us for a turn around the flying field that was surrounded by farms. There before our very eyes were airplanes, lots of what looked like brand new, just out of the factory, silver colored airplanes. They were too numerous to take in at a glance.
The field proper was a large tarmac square, not unlike a large shopping mall without the lights. The designated runways and taxiways were lines painted on the asphalt. Sitting on the edge, in front of a rather primitive wooden tower and offices, was an administration building and lounge for the civilian instructors. To the south of this lone building were hangers with workshops that employed an unknown number of mechanics. Plainly visible from anyplace on the field was a large wind tee. This device was new to me; I had never seen one before. I was familiar with the much smaller windsock, however. Later I would learn that you landed with the tee and against the windsock. You didn’t always have a lot of time to determine which was which, either. There in lies a tale, whereby; just such a mistake on my part would cost me penalty tours.
Back of this administration building was an area half the size of a football field. Tex had truckloads of sand dumped there and packed down with heavy equipment. It served no useful purpose to his crop dusting students that had lived in small buildings on the edge of this sand before the war. But it was essential to us for physical training and for marching-off penalty tours. It was to this small housing area that the bus now stopped. This was to be our new home, six to a room with space to study and to hang our uniforms in lockers.
After chow, we were told that we had the rest of the evening to go to a small Post Exchange. It also contained a number of stools, a counter, and several large booths – six men to a booth could fit in snuggly but comfortably. Before we could go to this PX, however, we fell out and were marched to a small warehouse. There we were issued a complete set of winter and summer flying clothes. The winter ensemble was made of pure leather, as were the boots. They were both lined and trimmed with genuine sheepskin. We carried these back to our new quarters and quickly checked out the boots and jackets.
Dressed in our new leather jackets and leather boots, you couldn’t tell us from real pilots. And when we began to mingle with old friends that had preceded us from Merced some weeks before, we felt like it. We all had smiles on our faces as we sat in the booths and talked. Some of them had landed only a couple of hours or so before. They had walked over to the lounge to see how many of the new arrivals they knew.
What a day, hob knobbing with real pilots. Each one had soloed, and none of them were interested in talking about wash out rates or about those that had recently been transferred to gunnery school. It became even better when they told us there would be no more fooling around. In fact they had started flying the morning after they arrived here, and we should be doing the same thing. Our assigned civilian instructor, airplane tail number, and approximate time of takeoff would be posted on the bulletin board when we got back, they said. So, here was something else that was for real. We had really enlisted in the real air corps, and we were really going to war. It was a whole new feeling.
The talk in the booths was about airplanes, and it could be heard above the jukebox, blaring over and over again, about: “Drinking Rum and Coca Cola.” I had heard the Andrews Sisters before, but that was a long time ago, and now they sounded even better than I remembered. There have been several memorable days in my life, but few times have I ever enjoyed myself more than I did that day. The exception might be the day I was told that I had successfully passed all the tests, and that I was an aviation student soon to become a real flying cadet.
Two months had passed, but I hesitate to say they were anything but hard work. We had civilian instructors; most of them had been “barnstormers” or had worked for Paul Mantz or Howard Hughes. Both Mantz and Hughes were wealthy “play boys” that were some times moviemakers. Mantz would later pilot a flying contraption that was the subject of the first version of the movie “The Flight of The Phoenix.” At some point during the filming, he crashed and was killed.
Tex Rankin, himself, was a famous aviator that had out-witted life, participating in air races and aerobatic performances in air-circuses. It was said that he had all kinds of trophies, announcing his prowess at this questionable profession. Still he had saved enough money to start his crop dusting school of which there was once many just like it that were owned by other people.
When the war started the army had a choice of ready-made fields. All that had to be done, for the most part, was to move the airplanes from the factories to fields just like the one at Tulare. Most of the instructors were said to be friends of Rankin’s or at least known to him. They had thousands of hours, and were probably elated at being tendered a more stable flying job than what they had been doing – and this one could be expected to last for several years.
The Japanese and Germans were about to get the surprise of their lives at the vast armada of trained aviators that were soon to be loosed over their cities. And instead of years, it took the army a surprisingly short time before they had the largest air force the world had seen before or since. And being in the last class to graduate, I was close to being the youngest pilot to earn a pair of pilot’s wings. At any rate, I was the last pilot to finish at Rankin’s school and his was the last school to close down. And being that I did finish without killing myself was something of a miracle in itself.
I started with an older instructor, a civilian designated as a assistant squadron commander to be exact. He flew with myself and two other students. These two students had been civilian instructors that had lost their jobs when the training fields began closing down. They had enlisted to avoid the draft. They really were there for a check out; then they would be off to basic and then to advanced away ahead of us. They would graduate with the rank of Flight Officer, and then they would be sent to combat to fly transport airplanes.
When the time came for progress check rides, he would drop the three of us and fly only the check rides. The Flight Officers to be sort of disappeared, I never saw them after that. I was the only one that would change instructors.
The other instructors started with five students each. The wash out rate averaged about thirty-five percent. One of them washed out two of his cadets in jig time. They hardly had a chance to learn anything before they were gone to gunnery school. These instructors had been flying with young men for so long that they believed they could quickly tell who was going to be able to fly fighters and bombers without killing themselves and their crews. The enemy would account for them fast enough; the air corps didn’t want to speed it up by passing on marginal aviators to combat units. It was said that most of the wash outs would make pretty good Sunday pilots. But the army was not interested in that, and it never gave them much of a chance to hone any latent skills they might have possessed. I had heard this before I was old enough to enlist, and that’s why I had spent money to learn to fly. But this learn to fly scheme of mine almost got me washed out the first week.
One of my instructors at the local airport in Salt Lake City, where I had taken lessons, was a substitute for my regular guy. He was an airline pilot that talked a lot without saying much. One of the things he told me was what almost got me washed out. He said that in airliners they seldom used the rudder in conjunction with the ailerons to make small course corrections. He said it had something to do with passenger comfort. He said they used the rudder to sort of skid the airplane, as opposed to banking it with the aileron and rudder. This was information that was of absolutely no use to me but nevertheless it was not forgotten. But airline transports were not military fighters. The air corps wanted coordinated turns without losing altitude, and it required the coordination of the two controls. Anything less was called “cross controlling.” My instructor at the University of Nevada had used that term to tell me that my turns were not acceptable. I knew about coordinated turns. But this airline pilot had accrued thousands of hours so he is the one I listened to. After also being told I was cross controlling by Rankin’s first instructor, not once but twice, it dawned on me that the airline pilot was just shooting the breeze and that he knew next to nothing about other kinds of airplanes or he had forgotten. The next turn was perfect. But then I always knew how to make a coordinated turn; he was amazed at how quick I caught on. I soloed with this gentleman, and then when he started flying check rides, I don’t remember ever seeing him again.
Le Duc and Paul D. were also students of my new instructor. He had washed out the other three he started with. They both laughed when they were told that I had been assigned to their instructor. His name was Leach and he was a screamer, and everything you did was wrong, they said. I didn’t know how Paul and Le Duc stood with him, but I fully expected to be next on his wash out list. According to them, this guy was a perfectionist who bragged that none of the cadets that he had taught to fly ever washed out in basic or advanced. Furthermore, he had taught dozens of cadets that were in fighter squadrons and not one of them had lost their lives.
The air corps leading ace was a major by the name of Richard Ira Bong. He had graduated from Rankin’s school, as did some of the other near greats. And the three of us were to hear over and over from Leach that any one of them was what he called “right dexterous citizens.” He would demonstrate a chandelle or something and if you didn’t roll out perfectly on the section line below, he would tell you that you were not a very dexterous citizen and then he would make you do it again and again and again. All the time he would be nagging you, and the whole time I was with him I couldn’t recall having heard one single word of encouragement – neither could any of the others. He figured he was some kind of a psychologist, and he liked to play mind games with his students. I don’t know how many students he taught to fly, but he had spent much of his life doing it – so it must have been considerable. I’m pretty sure, though, that he treated us all the same.
I landed one day around noon and started walking to my quarters. I inquired of a friend what the commotion was over by the tower. The tower had a railing around it and it was about twenty feet high. There were two figures standing at the rail. One of them appeared to be a woman. It turned out that they were Ira Bong and his new wife Marge. Major Bong had recently been awarded the Medal of Honor by General Douglas McArthur. Bong was talking to a group of cadets that was gathering below the tower. I was not particularly interested in what he had to say, but his new wife was a stunner. She was fighting a stiff breeze trying to maintain a modicum of decorum. And most of us gathered there were probably as interested in the contest between her dress and the wind as we were with what the nation’s leading hero had to say.
I don’t know where I heard it; perhaps I read it someplace that Bong went home from the South Pacific after meeting many of the army and the nation’s dignitaries. They gave him two weeks furlough before he had to report to the Lockheed plant at Burbank. He got married, bought a used car, and then took a cross-country honeymoon. On the way, they stopped at some of his old haunts – the advanced school at Hamilton and then down to Tulare. They also stopped at Sacramento, where the depot fixed up a passenger seat for his new wife, Marge, in a twin-engine fighter. He took her for a ride, which must have been one of the highlights of her life. It also might have been the last time he flew a propeller driven airplane.
It was just before I graduated from primary. Leach and I were checking the traffic before take off when we heard a roar that really got our attention. As I looked up there was a loud bang and the fastest airplane I had ever seen pulled up over my head and was heading almost straight up doing victory rolls one after the other. Leach said it must be Ira Bong coming back to say hello. He had been assigned to the new jet fighter program at Lockheed, the pride of the air corps.
The ace of aces had forty kills, all of them in P-38 Lightenings. He told us that he used the same technique, as did other American pilots that flew the same airplane. He would get on top while the Japanese in most cases were ordered to stay and guard the bombers. When they realized there were Americans in the air, waiting to shoot them down, they broke off rapidly. But it was usually too late. The American Lightening’s were faster but not as nimble and acrobatic as the Zero. But before the Zero’s could gain the advantage, a Lightening was diving on them at a tremendous speed. The Americans would not turn and dogfight with them if they missed. But they would shoot them out of the air in the dive if they were accomplished gunners, and Ira Bong was accomplished. He was also an amazing acrobatic pilot that I can personally attest to.
Although he denied it, he was reprimanded by General George Kenney and temporarily grounded for doing loops over and under the Golden Gate Bridge, and for buzzing Market Street. Kenny, the soon to be allied air commander in the South Pacific, says he got a call from a distraught women one day. It seems that she had been hanging out her washing when Bong, flying low over the bay, pulls up over a newly married friend’s house and blows his neighbor’s laundry off the line. Kenny sent him to her place to help her rewash it. Bong says she didn’t have any laundry when he arrived, so he says he stayed for lunch and then later wrote her a letter from the South Pacific.
Gen. Kenny was not a bit put off by Bong’s peccadillos. He chose him to accompany him to the South Pacific to form up the first P-38 Lightening squadrons under his command. He said he was looking for at least one squadron that believed they could fly down busy Market St. in San Fran and get by with it. Bong, he said, fit the bill perfectly.
We were several miles from the field, Leach and I. He had been riding me particularly hard for the past half hour, when out of the blue he said, do you see the field? I had no way of answering him; we had only a one-way communication system. Then he said, we are about ten miles out. You cut the engine whenever you’re ready. Then I want you to land about fifty feet over the apron without adding any power. I’ll clear the engine for you; otherwise, you do not touch the throttle. And by the way if you land short and miss the runway, I’m going to wash you out.
About a minute later I cut the power. His first words were to tell me that I had made a big mistake. You cut it too late, he said, you are too close in. Then he kept up a continual line of chatter about how a right dexterous citizen would have no problem with this exercise. What he meant was that all the pilots he graduated could do it. I took it to mean that he had made up his mind to wash me out and that this was going to be his excuse for doing so.
Weeks before he had asked me if I was a Mormon. He said he had heard I was. He said that might account for something else he had heard. He said I seldom went to town and that nobody had ever seen me drink. Then he told me all I ever did was lie around my room and read flying magazines. Then he raised his voice when he said that once before, he had told me to relax and to quit reading about how to fly. He said he knew all the great aviators in the country, and even a few Germans from the first war, and none of them ever learned to fly by reading about it.
Then he changed his tone as though he wanted to be friends, when he told me again I needed to relax and quit thinking about airplanes for at least one day a week. He said I needed to get away from the army and to get me a girl friend. He said his wife knew a few and she would fix me up. I realized what he was talking about when he told me that he had used them before to relax certain of his students that had been on the verge of being washed out, and they turned out to be right dexterous citizens. The conclusion expected was that relaxing with some loose woman was going to save me. He stopped talking about girls long enough to tell me again that I wasn’t going to make the runway.
He had told me that I couldn’t “box out” to kill air speed, but he said nothing about coming back to my approach heading a thousand feet lower and somewhat slower. I could tell by the way he hung on to the throttle the last time he cleared the engine that he was concerned that I just might make it. And heaven forbid that my judgment might be as good as his. I made a long approach, all the time losing altitude without gaining much airspeed. When it became obvious to him that I really might make it, he said, there is a large puddle of water in head of us, and if I landed in it he was going to wash me out anyway.
The Stearman we were flying had two wings and two cockpits. The student sat in the rear, which made it tougher to see the runway around the instructor and over the engine. Leach wanted to make sure I knew there was a puddle of water there because he didn’t want the mechanics to have to wash the airplane and the engine before it flew again. I could see the water all right. In fact I saw it before entering the approach leg and I had already made plans to miss it by aiming for it. Just before I touched down, I lifted the nose slightly higher. That killed even more airspeed, and it caused the airplane to glide over the water in a stalled position and to touch down close on the other side.
There was a pause before he spoke again to tell me that was some lucky piece of flying. Then he told me that I was not some kind of oddball dexterous citizen even if I thought I was. Quite the contrary, he said, he had made a mistake by not washing me out sooner. What he said after that I had no idea. I wasn’t listening. I was about as angry as I had ever been in my life. When I shut off the engine, I wasted no time climbing out. He knew something was wrong because he could see my face in his mirror, and he hurriedly unfastened his seat belt.
I climbed upon the wing and grabbed him by his flying suit and jerked him about a third of the way out of the cockpit. He had a look of fear about him that was not pleasant to see. His first words were to ask me to please let him go, and to climb down off the wing. He said it was not what I thought it was, and then he apologized for riding me so hard. It took me aback, and I found my self unclenching the fist of my right hand and letting him go. I picked up my parachute and headed for the ready room. I left him standing by the airplane watching me. He never came near me or said anything about it until after I had completed the course. Then he had plenty to say.
I walked back to my room, thanking the Lord for cooling my temper, because I had been close to losing control. I genuinely hated Leach that much. And secondly, I wanted to thank Him for helping me land exactly where I wanted to.
The time came when I was through with Leach. I had finished with instruction. In fact I think that was the last time I flew with him. The rest of the few hours I needed were left to me to do as I pleased. On the next to the last hour, we were cautioned not to leave any time on the flight forms. The army and Tex Rankin did not want to account for fifteen minutes or so. If you did, you would have to fly for another full hour and the army was only going to pay Rankin for the exact time they had contracted for. But true to form, I wasn’t listening. Because when I landed, I left time on the form and had to be scheduled for an hour after everybody else had finished. I was also awarded two more one-hour penalty tours for not paying attention. I remember being called Mr. Dumb-dumb by either the squadron commander or the mechanic that had to turn the engine’s inertial starting mechanism by hand. I taxied out. The sky was clear to the east with only puffy clouds, and of course I had the area all to myself. When I was airborne, I noticed the clouds getting bigger ahead of me. About thirty minutes later I came from the edge of one of them to see the worst storm I had ever seen in my life. It was a textbook thunderstorm with lightening in the roll cloud that preceded it. And it appeared to be moving in fast from the west. Nobody knew too much about flying in thunderstorms because nobody was crazy enough to try it. One of our ground instructors that taught elementary meteorology told us this. He also said that a few pilots had been caught up in one, and had lost their lives. His final word on the subject was to stay away from them. But how was I going to keep away from this one? I had no auxiliary field. There was one where we practiced shooting landings, about two miles away, but it was directly under the worst part of the storm.
I remember telling the Lord I was in trouble, as if He didn’t know. But it settled my nerves to talk to Him. I was convinced that my two-winged airplane was going to come apart if any part of that storm got a hold of it. I remember coming up with a quick plan. I had been trained to do this, i.e. to make a plan, and then to work the plan in an emergency. And certainly this was an emergency of the “first water.” No pun intended. I told the Lord I had to stay away from that roll cloud. I planned to dive the airplane toward the wind tee that I could see in the distance. I had heard that you couldn’t tear the wings off a Stearman, but I never heard what would happen if you pointed the nose almost directly toward the ground at full throttle. Anyway I was depending on a strong wind from the storm that the wind tee was pointing toward to cut my airspeed. There would be no crosswind if I landed behind the tee exactly parallel to it. But to do this would be to land crosswise with the runway. In fact, I planned to land far enough away from the hangers so that I would not fly into an open door and crash on the inside of one.
This airplane had no radio and I was thankful for that. If there had of been, Tex Rankin would have been coaching me. The airplane belonged to him. Then too, he didn’t want to finish his four or so years of operation by killing his last cadet to graduate. Anyway, as experienced as he was, I didn’t expect he knew more about flying than did the Lord. And I had really turned the whole thing over to Him. I only had sixty-five flying hours in this airplane, and landing it right now was obviously the job of professional circus performers – like Leach and Rankin – especially if there was hail involved.
I touched down in a greased in three pointer. No wheel landing for the Lord. He wanted all the airspeed bled off as soon as it could be arranged. Because it had an exceptionally narrow landing gear it was susceptible to “ground looping” at any time, even in the hands of a professional. And believe me, the new pilot of this airplane was a professional. I taxied up to a hanger, while two mechanics ran out and walked the wings to keep it heading straight into the wind. I shut off the engine at the last minute so that they could wheel it into the hanger I had chosen. I was still expecting hail, which might severely damage it. I thanked the mechanics that couldn’t say enough about my expert flying. They had been watching the whole thing, and I expect they were as much worried about having to scoop me off Rankin’s parking lot as they were of anything else.
I took my chute and headed for the ready room in the pelting rain. Standing there was Leach, who still considered me to be his student. His first words were to criticize me for landing in Tex’s parking lot. He said that they had notified the army to fly with me as soon as the weather permitted. This was a wash out ride that was required before the actual grounding and transfer papers were initiated. There was no question about it, he said, it was going to happen since Rankin, himself, had notified the army. After that performance, he said, nobody ever wanted to hear of me flying again. I truly thought they were all nuts. And I was sure of it when Leach told me to remain at attention until the Lieutenant in charge of wash out rides presented himself. I stood there for a full minute thanking the Lord for his help. Both of us knew who the pilot of that airplane had been. I remember thinking it was a stroke of genius to land in that big mall like parking lot instead of trying for a crosswind landing on the designated runway. They could all go to hell as far as I was concerned. And why should I stand at attention if they were going to eliminate me from the program? If they wanted me they knew where I would be. And if Leach showed up, he could expect the worst trouncing of his life.
The next day we had off. We didn’t have anything to do except the mandatory PT. That is everybody did but me. I had to walk penalty tours in full dress with a rifle and white gloves – two hours or more of them. Around noon a commissioned officer approached me. He called me to attention and then he read the contents of a piece of paper he was carrying attached to a clipboard. By the sound of them, they dated back before the civil war. The jist of it was that I had been granted amnesty by some general order that was signed after the death of Abraham Lincoln. It seems that all cadets, both West Point and naval midshipmen of the Naval Academy, and now aviation cadets, had been granted amnesty from all accrued penalty tours for a given period. It seems that it was no joke; President Franklin D. Roosevelt had passed away.
An hour later when I showed up in my room the other two of Leach’s cadets came round to see me. They extended a personal invitation to dinner at his home that night. He had told Le Duc that they might have to drag me there; because of the way he had treated me. Leach told him he didn’t think I would come. There were a few terse words that passed between the three of us before we agreed that we had all been treated the same way. In the end, I said if they were going I would too. And now I’m glad I did.
The dinner, as I remember, was not much out of the ordinary. I hadn’t had a steak in a long time. I figured Rankin was running out of food weeks ago and he was too tight to lay in more. As for the prospect of a steak dinner, it was more Le Duc’s idea than it was anybody else’s. We had all forgotten that meat was rationed. Leach might have needed a half a book of stamps to feed steak to a gang of five. And maybe he didn’t have them.
His home was unpretentious as most rentals built during the war were. It had a den/living room combination that was a pretty good size compared to the rest of the place. The unique thing about it was the wood paneling that he probably put in himself. A second thought was that he didn’t intend to make a den out of the room, but he made it that way to showcase some fifteen or so large photographs in matching frames. The photographs appeared to be reproductions of officer file pictures that were probably taken by somebody in the service at the officer’s request.
Leach was beaming. He had obviously done this before. He knew the names and ranks of all of them. He said he even knew where they were stationed in the South Pacific. And he was smiling as if they were each one his son. He said he wrote to them all, and to one of them about every night. I figured he might have written a couple of times and then let it go at that. But then the South Pacific with its Biak and Port Morsby etc. was a pretty dreary place and his letters might have been welcomed. At any rate, the three of us were frequently mentioned. It was my opinion that he didn’t have anything better to talk about. The answers that came back spoke of the value of the basic rules that were part of his trademark of instruction, such as: don’t fly in a straight line for more than a minute. And keep your head on a swivel. Then they told him to tell us what we all came to know: the Zero fighter was more nimble than was the heavier twin engine P-38 American fighter plane. They would sneak up on you if you flew with your head in the cockpit, the letters said. Leach had emphasized this more than anything else and now he stood vindicated.
Most of the officers pictured knew who we were because Leach would brag to them about how we were doing. He had already told some of them about me climbing up on the wing to smack him in the mouth. They hated him as much as we did until they went into combat, then they looked upon him as some kind of father figure. He said their letters to him were more personal than to their own fathers, because Leach understood what they were going through and what flying was all about. Some of them said to tell us, especially me that we would get over it, and that we would come to regard him as a best friend the way they had.
He took this opportunity to tell me that somebody had told him once that Mormons were pacifists. He said he had been trying to get me mad to find out if I had the guts and the temperament to fly a fighter plane in combat. I think he was thinking about the Amish or maybe some of the Quakers. I asked him if he found out anything? Leach and my two friends laughed, but not me. However my mood did change completely before the evening was over.
He told the three of us that Rankin never wanted to wash me out. When the storm came up and he was told I was up there, soon to be in it, he had called for Leach and then asked him if I was any good. Leach said he told him that I was one of the best he ever had.
Rankin told Leach after I had landed that it was the neatest piece of flying he had seen in a long time. And he knew if anybody did. He had competed against the great German ace and world’s aerobatics champion, Ernest Udet, Leach said. The compliment was not for me. But I didn’t tell anybody what really happened up there. Nor did I tell them what I was thinking later––nothing about flying or about the war. What had been important for a long time began with the story my grandfather told me, then later the things that had happened. I remembered this incident as more proof that it was all true ––every last word.
I went back to my quarters with my two friends in Leach’s car. Leach talked all the way about his officer friends in the South Pacific, and about all the cadets that he had washed out. They couldn’t fly, he said. We knew what he was talking about when he said he might have saved them from a horrible death in the Stearman with the narrow landing gear that was so hard to fly.
When we shook his hand, he asked us to write and tell him what we were doing. He envied us, because he didn’t know if he was going to be able to keep flying. I flew some more as a cadet and as an officer, and for a while I owned two private airplanes at different times. I wonder if he ever had a student that continued to fly that ever forgot him.
We left for basic flying school at Merced the next day. This was the second time I had been stationed there, but this time it would be much different than it was the first time. There was no commandant that was more like a kindly uncle than he was a trainer of cadets. And there was no Brace Bradley to vex our lives. There was, however, flight instructors. And all of them were almost as bad as Leach. They were all combat veterans of the skies over Europe. They were not our friend or big brother or any thing of the sort. They were a disagreeable bunch that would not hesitate to wash us out if we gave them any trouble at all.
The AT-6, Texan, was a low wing, single engine, all metal airplane. It resembled the Japanese fighter known as the Mitsubushi Zero that our veteran pilots had been fighting in the pacific. It, too, had a narrow landing gear that kept you on your toes if you wanted to stay alive. I remember thinking this was the real air corps that I had read and heard so much about, but I wasn’t a happy camper. I should have been but I wasn’t any happier than I was at Rankin’s.
It started out bad. I had talked to a real pilot sometime before primary and he imparted some words of wisdom to me to wit: ground school in basic is easy. He went on to tell me that he had never known anybody to wash out. That was a big mistake, listening to him.
Again, school was the same as at West Point on the Hudson River. You had to stand when called on to answer a question, and every Wednesday there was a twenty-minute quiz that accounted for most of your grade. And again you needed to score a minimum of 75 %, which included an average of seven or eight quizzes. Once you dropped below the magic number, the rest of the course was designed to wash you out. I don’t know, but I suspect at the academy you were given a make up test. The one we were given was twice as hard as the final and lasted twice as long.
I recall only two courses of significance, one of which was Navigation and the other was beginning Meteorology that went by the title of Geography. I found this latter course to be one of the most interesting I had ever studied in school. I scored at the top of the class on all tests on this subject. I also took it over again at the University of Utah a few years later, and found it to be the exact same course, so I suspect the lesson plan was the same as the one used at the academy.
But navigation was a different story. I was warned by friends in the upper class not to take it lightly. But of course I didn’t listen. I paid more attention to my first advisor. I managed to find myself at the movies almost every night when I should have been practicing navigation problems.
I should have known I was getting in trouble by my lack of competence with the E-6B Computer. This was the circular slide ruler that the P-38 pilot that gave me a ride to Salt Lake City was using. It wasn’t too difficult to understand, but on a test, time was of the essence. Accuracy was important, but so was time. I was warned by the officer instructor to start practicing with it at night if I wanted to pass the course. He said he had to wash out more than a few that got in trouble early, and then flunked the make-up – it sounded a lot like what was happening to me. I got scared after my chat with him, because he showed me where, even if I maxed the final, I would have to take the make-up.
I remember there were four of us taking this make up. Two actually washed out. So much for easy ground school – there was nothing easy about any part of the aviation cadet program.
Again, about half way through this test, I called on the Lord for help. I knew He would help me. What worried me was that He might be getting tired of doing it. I know my navigation instructor was, because he told me so, and in no uncertain terms.
He also said that my earlier test results, compared to my final and make-up, told him I had been doping off. He also said he was going to be teaching navigation at advanced school at, Douglas, Arizona. He said I better get in the habit of studying at night.
Navigation at Merced became the least of my worries after I had scored well on the make-up. If I had to have something to worry about it would be how to survive the real tough flying curriculum.
We were about half way through. I had soloed without too much trouble, and I was beginning to look upon myself as one of the chosen. I was a pilot. There wasn’t anything that I couldn’t do with any airplane. My instructor noticed it also. He told me to change my attitude. This was a veiled threat. I had heard that there were a couple of senior officers that needed to fly every month just like everybody else. My instructor told me that I was scheduled to fly a check ride with one of them. He told me not to worry that it wasn’t a wash out ride. I guessed it was as much a ride to check on him, as an instructor, as it was to check on me. But I wasn’t sure he was telling me the truth. I would have to wait for this senior officer to tell me why I was there.
The reason I was apprehensive about it being a wash out ride was that I had made a couple of bonehead moves a few days before. The first one had me lowering my landing gear early. For some reason I let it down just as we approached the downwind leg on a landing. I was supposed to do it when I was opposite from the tower on the downwind. Later I opened the hatch on the same leg instead of the base leg, just before turning on the final or the approach leg to a landing. I looked around to check the traffic, and for some reason I stuck my head out, and the slipstream took my flying glasses and my cap. On the ground, my instructor asked me why I did that. He said it was a dumb thing to do. Then he reminded me that just a few days before I had lowered my landing gear before I entered the downwind leg. He asked me then what was going on in my mind. He said I had simply lost my focus, and in a crowded traffic pattern that would get me killed and maybe him too.
I was sitting in the front cockpit waiting for this senior officer. I was just sure that it was the required check ride before flying a wash out ride. And I was just as scared as I had been before I took one of the colorblind tests. I was by myself and I consulted the Lord. I knew I was on my way out and I needed His help yet again. I really felt sorry for the class members that were without Him, especially with the approach of night flying.
The senior officer introduced himself as colonel so and so. He told me to start the engine and to taxi to the active runway. When we left the pattern, he told me to climb to a certain altitude then to demonstrate the usual stall sequence. I was still relaxed and as confident as I was right after I asked the Lord for his help. There was still no comment from the colonel. I worried about the next manoeuver that was a rudder exercise stall. And the one after that was to demonstrate a gliding turn. This may sound easy but it wasn’t, not in this airplane anyway. My instructor had taught me to put extra rudder into gliding turns. Most cadets were apprehensive about doing it for fear they would stall out and spin in when the airspeed dropped off. I was no exception, but in this case it felt normal, and I really gave the second and third one plenty of rudder. The next maneuver was a spin at lower than normal altitude for recovery. This airplane was dangerous for going into a flat spin if you didn’t pop the stick forward hard, and I mean hard to get it out of the stall that accompanies a spin. But anybody in the back seat was liable to bang his head on the hatch if you did and he wasn’t expecting it. I jolted this colonel with what I guessed was the perfect spin recovery. Once more he made no comment, although I knew he wasn’t expecting it. The thought flashed through my mind that combat fighter pilots often stressed an airplane. The successful one’s were not timid, they seldom worried about banging their heads. What they were really worried about was being shot down and killed.
Another thing. When I started flying solo, I had practiced landing this airplane on a hot runway by making the approach a little bit shallower. It kept the airplane from stalling in with a lot of altitude, which I considered dangerous. To do this you had to come in with more power and less flaps. It made the approach faster but it was less prone to balloon on a hot day. But the sensation from the rear cockpit, when the pilot in the front seat blocked their vision and they couldn’t see the runway, must have aged a young, sometimes shaky instructor, considerably. But it greased in. No jumping all over the runway.
I knew this colonel had been flying fast fighters and that he had lots of nerve. He was unaware that I had called on the Lord for guidance in the nerve department. I suspect that most cadets, excepting maybe Ira Bong were nervous when they made gliding turns and spins. I had been also, and that’s another reason I thought this was a check ride. But now I was relaxed and confident. I never hesitated. It just felt good. I could feel the Lord was there. I was flying as though I was a high time pilot with confidence, and not the way most cadets flew. I knew this colonel could tell. As far as he was concerned, I was ready to be admitted to the fighter pilot brotherhood. I had never performed so well.
The landing was one of the best I had ever made. He asked me, when we got on the ground if I landed that way all the time. I told him that I did when the runway was hot. He never commented to me, but he might have to my waiting instructor. I took it to mean that the colonel landed that way. Maybe all combat pilots did.
Years later, after I had retired, I talked to two British wing commanders that had flown Spitfire fighters in the Battle for Britain. I asked one of them if a Blenhiem medium bomber tied down at the museum in Duxford, England, was a Bristol Beaufighter. He told me no and then asked why I thought it might be. I told him they had the same silhouette. Both of them had twin engines and unlike the Spit the engines were round. They also were in line with the nose. One of them called me Yank and then addressed me by my rank. He asked me what I had flown during the war, and I told them Harvards – that was the British name for the airplane we flew at Merced. Then I told them that I had also flown the twin-engine Mitchell, pointing to one warming up on the grass in front of us. But, I said, I had never flown in combat. Anyway, one of them shook my hand. He said: no matter, Yank; you are one of the brotherhood. I was touched. I almost teared up.
Their reserved manner left them, and they began to joke with me about landing the narrow geared Spitfire, and how much harder it was to land than the Harvard. Then, since I had just been tapped as one of them, I joked by telling them that the field at Duxford, the RAF fighter field that was much bigger than the parking mall at Tex Rankin’s school, was not a flying field with runways but was more like a golf course. Then I took the liberty of being extra cheeky by telling them that maybe if they landed with the tee, they would never have to land the British fighter in a crosswind. They both smiled at the inexperience of their new brother. They jokingly told me that I had a lot to learn about the Spitfire. What an honor it was just to be in their company.
I don’t remember how the subject came up. It could be because Betty and I, had just walked a quarter mile or so from the American annex. I recall seeing a display of the 97th Bomb Group, the 100th, and the 306th, featuring General Frank Armstrong. One of the two wing commanders asked if by any chance I knew him. I told them I did. More than that I had played golf with him once and had participated for a short time in a stand-by support capacity involving a B-52 bomber that had developed a mechanical malfunction in the air. The general was the vice commander of the Second Air Force and I was a member of his staff. I also knew his younger daughter that came around annually with some friends for Halloween trick or treat. We were not exactly neighbors, the general and I; he lived in one of the older sets of quarters that reminded me of the palatial estates near Chateaux Roux, France, and our quarters were built for junior officers during the last war. What we had in common was an expanse of lawn that separated the two homes. Major General Frank Armstrong was one of the hero’s of the air war over Europe. He was better known as the general in the movie 12 0’Clock High that was played by the actor Gregory Peck.
Upon America’s entry into the Second World War, Major General Ira Eaker was given command of the 8th Air Force. A cadre of a dozen or so officers and men embarked with him for England. Frank Armstrong was one of them; the 97th Bomb group followed them. This unit soon fell on hard times due in part to marginal leadership, but mostly it was due to an error in judgment regarding the effectiveness of high altitude daylight bombing. The B-17 flying fortress was designed to fly above and faster than enemy fighters. But without escorting fighters it resulted in unacceptable losses in airplanes and aircrews. When it became apparent that the bombers of the day could not fight their way to the target and back they blamed failures on lack of leadership. This became the story line of the book by one Bernie Lay Jr., and the screenplay by Sy Bartlett and his friend Bernie Lay Jr.
I never told the RAF officers this, but I served with an officer that knew Bernie Lay Jr. My supervisor asked him once why he was taking notes after a particularly difficult mission. He told him it was because some day he might write a book. Lay flew with the 97th, the 100th and the 306th. His story was declared by experts to be the most authentic novel and movie of its kind. The movie received two academy awards of the recommended four. The reason was because Lay and Bartlett wrote the screenplay. And much of the dialogue, and the scenes were very close to the actual happenings as experienced by the two veteran pilots. It has been said that Lay used his experiences with people he met in the 306th and his knowledge of aerial warfare from other units, particularly the 100th. This latter bomb group to this day is known as the “bloody 100th.”
At the beginning of the war, the Luftwaffe pilots would escort a bomber with wounded aboard to one of their bases where they were hospitalized. The bomber pilot would lower his landing gear as a signal of needing their help. As the story goes, one crew lowered their gear without having wounded and when the fighters moved in as escorts the waste gunners shot them down. That, they say, is why the German’s passed up other units to get at the 100th.
Later in my career, another supervisor and I were heading to the flight line. The bomber wing that we shared the base with was flying its battle flags in front of Wing Headquarters. For some reason the flags brought up a conversation about the bloody 100th. I proceeded to tell the officer I was with about the details of what had happened. He turned to me and called me by my first name, and then proceeded to tell me that he was in the 100th. We never talked about it further. Another time, in another wing, a Lt. Colonel was briefing us about something or other, and for some reason he began talking about the 100th. Directly his demeanor changed, and in a few more minutes he began to cry. He had to be escorted from the room, sobbing. Not a word was ever said about it. He had flown twenty-five missions with the 100th.
Back at Merced, we landed from what I thought was the mandatory ride preceding my wash out. I parked the airplane, and then took the colonel’s chute while he climbed out. He thanked me and then left me thinking about what had just happened. The flight was almost perfect. I figured I had banged or nearly banged his head on the back canopy twice. I was still perfectly calm and I knew why. When my instructor showed up, he had a big smile on his face. He told me the colonel congratulated him for doing such a good job of instructing me. He said it was the best check ride a cadet had ever given him. Then he told my instructor about the professional way I did gliding turns and about the spin recovery.
My instructor asked me what I did that was so different. It is easy to believe it happened the way it did because I believed so strongly that the Lord would help me. I thought about this. But this performance had little to do with me feeling relaxed or in just believing He was with me. No, I think I had enough experience at the controls of an airplane to know the difference. No it was not just a feeling. He was there! Again, I knew who should have received the credit that day.
The next day my instructor’s smile was gone. He stood me in a brace and among other things he called me some uncomplimentary names. It seems I had been on such a high that I had forgotten to turn off the battery switch when I left. The battery had to be changed, which is not exactly as easy as it is in an automobile.
In due course, I was introduced to my night flying instructor. The sun had just set when we taxied out. By the time we neared the approach leg it was dark with no moon showing. He started to talk to me from the back seat and I could tell he was nervous. He was not using the radio because it was tuned to the tower. He was expecting a full flap approach that would have put him at a steep enough angle to where he could see the runway. I had gotten in the habit of landing with less than full flaps, with a ground speed of about ten knots faster than normal. It was pitch-dark, and the last thing I needed was to start fighting a ballooning narrow geared airplane that I had only flown a few hours. The last thing my instructor wanted was a shallow approach where he was sitting in the dark unable to see the runway, because of the nose high attitude, and because he could not see around me. He went from talking to yelling at me. I guess he wanted me to put the nose down. He was scared to death; I only hoped he had sense enough to keep his hands off the controls.
The yelling from the back seat got worse, much worse. In fact it had turned into screaming. I realized later that he was having a panic attack. When we were on the ground, he opened the canopy, and still screaming, he pointed toward the operations shack. I knew he wanted to get out. When I applied the brakes with the engine still running, he left with his chute. He ran up beside my cockpit, still screaming, and shaking his fist at me. The last clear words I heard were: go ahead you dumb s.o.b! Go kill yourself! He turned around, picked-up his chute from off the ground, and made for the door. Before he opened it he shook his fist at me, one more time, cursing.
I remember this scene vividly even now. Many years have passed and I have thought about it many times. I came to realize that he might have been having a nervous breakdown. But I really didn’t care. I taxied out, thinking that he might be in the wrong business. I never stopped to think that he might have just come from combat, where he might have been flying a night fighter – some of our instructors did. I heard from friends that he came running into the ready-room, yelling at the top of his lungs. He was grabbed by two officers and escorted from the room. One of the cadets told me they put him in a staff car; I guess to take him to the hospital. Anyway, as I taxied out and revved the engine for take off, I was feeling rather smug. I was the pilot and I had made a good landing. I was telling myself that I was not responsible for his mental attitude, but I was. I know now that a breakdown of this sort was common in combat; years later, I saw other incidents of the same thing. And not too far in the distant future, I was to experience some of the fear that he felt that night. Not once but several times it would happen. And the smugness had left me a long time ago. Why didn’t I ask the Lord to help this man? And why didn’t I go see him? I wish I had.
A “cross-wind” landing stage is an intentional landing when the wind is coming from either the right or the left of an airplane. We had practiced them before. They were difficult enough in the daylight, but they were dangerous at night, and more so when an airplane was in the hands of a novice, and if the landing gear was narrow. All of these conditions existed the night two cadets from the upper class collided and burned-up at our auxiliary field.
Cadet officers no longer officially practiced hazing. But it was still used by commissioned officers in the air corps, and maybe by cadet officers at the Military Academy. We were assembled in our large ready room. We were called to attention by one of the junior instructors. For some reason he was more angry than usual. I never worried about him because he didn’t belong to me. But it became readily apparent that I was going to acquire him on this particular morning.
I glanced out of the corner of my eye to see him advancing on me. I dismissed what was about to happen. It was really nothing to worry about. I was not guilty of any rule infraction and, furthermore, I was an “old soldier.” Authority did not easily impress me any longer. I was placed in a brace and the hazing began. At the same time the room instantly filled with the rest of the instructors. Each one picked a cadet that was not his own and began shouting at him. At first I thought it was a random selection. But later on I figured the one I drew had been given a list of all the boo-boos I had recently made.
Mine instantly got in my face, yelling, at me. I remember him asking how old I was and then when I told him, he looked me over and then he yelled louder, so that one of his friends working over one of my friends at attention next to me could hear. He yelled something to the affect that we were getting younger. After inspecting the fuzz on my face he yelled out: why this one hasn’t even shaved yet. Then he started with his prepared list. Each one was considered to be a cause for a crash the way he put it. Of course they were not, but it was to address these kinds of small flying infractions that was the reason why we were there. The hazing lasted about a half hour, which is a long time to stand at rigid attention, and then it was over. I was told to report to a certain tail numbered airplane and wait for my instructor.
With my regular instructor in the back seat and with me flying the airplane, we were heading for the auxiliary field where the accident had taken place the night before. These auxiliaries, as they were called, were really quite primitive. They had once been part of a farmer’s farm. They were temporary, unlike our home base where the army had built all the conveniences. They too were supposed to be temporary, but they managed to house for many years after the war, various kinds of airplanes. At Merced, they included a squadron of jet engine Black Bird bombers. This airplane might have laid claim to being one of the most beautiful ever built. Certainly, it was the undisputed fastest. It held a speed record from the South Pacific to New York that might still exist.
I drove through the base once many years later. Most of the barracks were replaced, as was the theatre that had been my favorite recreation area, and as such had almost caused my downfall. And the mess hall was still there. How could I ever forget the food? It was the best I had ever eaten. The adjacent lawn was still growing, but of course the captain and his mule were gone.
The friend standing next to me during this hazing was guilty of landing short and of nearly taking out the wire-fence. The penalty for this infraction was two tours, but he also had to count the steps from the fence to the end of the runway. And he was required to do this while wearing his parachute. It was a seat pack, and it banged against his legs as he walked.
This was the first time we had heard about the accident the night before. That’s what the hazing exercise had been about. It was to sharpen us up – to make sure we didn’t forget who we were, and what we were doing. It was the army’s way of attempting to prevent accidents at night in a crowded sky.
This gentleman on my left was called “Mister,” the same as the cadets were at West Point, so his new name after being officially designated an aviation cadet was Mister Fred Conner. He was a “ladies man.” He was tall, sandy haired and appeared to be bashful. But in reality he was anything but shy and bashful. He resembled the actor by the name of Van Johnson. And he was not exactly the kind of young man that a mother would want to introduce to her daughter.
He carried around an engagement ring in his wallet. It was slightly undersized for the finger of his “fiancé” that he had left back in his hometown. He never gave her the ring it was too small to fit her finger. He had taken it back, telling her that he was going to get it “re-sized,” and then they would get married, maybe even before the war was over. Now Connor had been home for over a week on leave when he was at Santa Ana, and we all knew the story of the ring. Word had it that if he didn’t give it to her then, he never would. And he never sold it back to the jeweler if, in fact, it was paid for. We all knew, but we never cared too much about his personal business, other than to share a laugh once in a while. But this was about to change. We were about to be introduced to the funniest soap opera that any of us had ever listened to on the radio.
A number of us were sitting on the side porch of our barracks the second time we were at Merced. It was a Sunday afternoon and for some reason we had not gone into town. We were talking when Mister Connor jumped up and ran into the barracks like a tiger was after him. Actually there was a reasonable facsimile of one coming down the street. She was in the near distance, and she was closing fast with her young cub in tow.
They were looking for him. They had obviously made a formal inquiry as to his whereabouts; and they had been told where he was quartered. She had fire in her eyes, did this mother tiger. Connor had spotted them when they were a long way off and he was now inside hiding under his bunk. The mother had made the expected inquiries, and was told that none of us knew him. Of course the young lady being escorted was Connor’s intended. I never knew what happened, and I’m only guessing, but I think it might be a pretty good guess.
The mother was not to be so easily turned from her course. She must have had the Officer of the Day send the military cops after Connor. I do know he slipped out of the barracks, and somehow they got him and held him for a dressing down by the mother. Anyway, before they went back to Idaho from whence they came, and Connor went back to his life of flying, the mother got an accounting from Connor. I’m guessing again that he told her he didn’t want to get married. And she told the daughter he wasn’t worth it and that she should get on with her life. But at any rate, he kept the ring. As regards the ring: there is much more hoo-hah about that. Much more.
All was quiet for the next few weeks, and then Connor struck again. This time I was involved.
Merced was on the edge of wine country in California. The real large vineyards were located near the town of Madera about thirty or so miles away. In the town of Merced was a small dance hall with linoleum for a floor and a jukebox for a band.
Connor and I met two young ladies at this dance hall one Saturday night. They were sisters. They were also Portuguese and they came from Madera. Two or three more Saturday nights had passed when the youngest sister told me that Connor intended to take her sister home. She also said that Connor had just proposed to her sister, and that he had purchased an engagement ring, which her sister had seen. She told the younger sister that the ring was too small and that Connor took it back to have it “fixed.” And since they were newly engaged, he also intended to slip into their bedroom through a window that night. The problem was, the two sisters had brothers. The younger sister told me they were first generation from the old country, and that the brothers on occasion carried knives on their belts for splicing grape vines or some such. The sisters were driving one of the vineyard’s trucks, and the younger was sure, because of the late hour that the brothers were going to be waiting-up. She also told me that Connor was expecting me to accompany the three of them home. Connor and her sister had been drinking wine in celebration of their engagement. The younger sister said her newly engaged older sibling was game for the plan if I would tag along with them. But she warned me that if I did, we all four could come to grievous harm.
I met Connor out in the parking lot and proceeded to tell him that he was about to make another really big error in judgment. He had already made two others that I knew of. Back at Santa Ana, “he had fallen in love” with a co-ed from Pomona College. And he had attempted to climb up an emergency fire rope to the girls dormitory where resided his newest fiancé. Something happened that involved the housemother. This was before I knew Connor very well, so I don’t know the particulars. I only remember that at Rankin’s school one Sunday afternoon, just before we went back to Merced, I was invited to a party next door to celebrate Connors latest engagement.
When they dropped the atom bombs, early in August of 1945, the army gave us all a chance to take an early out. Connor never graduated. He quit flying in order to hurry back home. I like to think that he had been corresponding with his first fiancé and that they really were going to get married. If he left the army before accepting his wings, well, that might show the girl’s mother that he was, indeed, sincere about marrying her daughter.
A month later, and after Connor had left for home, another friend and I were waiting at the Gadsden Hotel in Douglas Arizona. We were waiting for the bus, inside where the air conditioners were welcomed. Two girls, about two years younger than we were, recognized us as newly graduated officers. They asked me which class we were from. When I told her she looked surprised and then asked me if I knew a cadet by the name of Fred Connor. When I told her we both did, she said that he had just become engaged to her sister. He had gone home to see his mother, she said, but he was coming back. She said he had gotten out of the service. But before he left he had shown her sister a ring that he was going to give her after he had the jeweler fix it. She also said that she hoped we would be around for the wedding. I told her I hoped so too.
Back at Merced, It was still the middle of May, 1945. The dropping of the atom bombs that would end the war was more than three months away. Nobody had heard of anything called an atom bomb. The next to the last class, and maybe the very last one during the war was half way through basic flight training. Mister Connor was still saying that he was in love with his latest fiancé from Madera and the Japanese were still expecting to win the war.
But General Curtis Lemay had other plans for them. He was still torching large sections of mainland Japan night after night with thermite incendiaries, while planning to drop two of these new bombs on Japan. He had all but run out of targets, and still the Japanese would not surrender. So his staff continued to look for two cities that were relatively untouched. He wanted a clear evaluation of the destructive power of the atom. The general had heard about it but he was anxious to see it for himself.
Meanwhile, the army’s chief planners were still working on invasion plans of mainland Japan. They were oblivious to the existence of the two atom bombs that were either at the Island airfield of Tinnian in the South Pacific or they were on their way. If it turned out that the bombs would not measure up to expectations, we in the last class would be used eventually as part of this invasion. But to do this we had to be officers and fully certified military aviators. We had to first finish at Merced and then complete a three-month course at the advanced schools at Douglas, Arizona, or the one at Luke Field, Arizona.
Most of us were looking forward to advanced. This is where we were going to fly the Mitchell bomber, the first airplane to bomb Tokyo. And, to do it, they had taken off from an aircraft carrier. We had also heard that the Mitchell had been given a new mission, which those going to Luke would miss out on. At Luke, they were eventually going to fly fighters. But for now they were going to continue with the AT-6.
We were going to strafe and bomb trains and installations at low level. I mean really low level. So low were we going to be that the bombs would have to carry small parachutes or the bomb would blow us out of the sky. We had seen combat film of this train strafing, and none of us could think of anything that would be much more fun. Some of the Arizona ranchers registered a complaint with our base commander. We were, on occasion, chasing their horses. I don’t think they cared too much about their horses but they did about their cattle and sheep. And we practiced strafing trains; at least I did with my instructor once. He spotted a train out on the desert, and we approached it from the rear. When we caught up, we flew slow and as close as we dared until we reached the engine. He quickly waved at the engineer, before I cleaned up the gear and flaps. With the throttle advanced, and the propeller in the increased RPM position, he chandelled up and away for the entertainment of the passengers. I was thinking they were wondering if we were going to back off and then come directly at them, broadside, while low on the deck.
I had something like that happen to me, a month or so before this. We were on our way by train to Douglas. A flight of Navy torpedo bombers came across the Salton Sea. They had been on a simulated torpedo run and they stayed down on the water when they saw our train. The sea was lower than we were, and the bombers were about even with us. We knew they would pull up in time to go over. But they were going to be low when they did. It was a frightening experience just the same.
Rumor, also had it that there was a good chance we might fly what was known as the Black Widow when we graduated from advanced. I had never seen one before. I had been told it was quite formidable, capable of scaring the wits out of a Japanese pilot. This airplane had twin engines, like the Mitchell, but was much faster, and it carried many more machine guns and cannon. It was not a bomber it was a night-fighter. It was coal black, and looked deadly, like the spider of the same name.
Before the war ended I was to get my fill of night flying, what with primitive instruments, and without an omni-navigation system that was still in some engineers head. And without radar it was a dangerous business. We lost four pilots and three bombers night flying at Douglas. Two of them were Chinese Nationalists, and two were my best friends. Two other Chinese cadets had the reputation among the Chinese for experiencing the funniest situation in their army.
We landed late at noon, and my copilot and I rode up from the flight line to the mess hall with two of the Chinese. The one that spoke the best English told us about this situation while his friend sat at the table with a grin on his face that was the proverbial mile wide. At times he could hardly contain himself. I could never tell if he was laughing at me, eating boiled rice with sugar and milk, or the story his friend was telling. After lunch the English speaker told me they had never seen anybody eat rice like that. So I was guessing it might be a little of both.
It seems that two of their friends had gotten lost at night a few nights before. They crash-landed when they ran out of gas over the desert. The next morning they decided they were at least a couple a hundred miles into Mexico. They started walking east, and as luck would have it, they found some railroad tracks running north and south. That evening they saw a freight train slowly moving south. They managed to get aboard a boxcar and immediately took a nap. Then they took several more. When the train stopped for water, they began walking toward a town that the train engineer motioned was only a few miles to the west. They got lost and wandered around until the sun came up. They found a town but they were not sure if it was the one the engineer “told them” about. At that point neither of them cared. They entered from the south entrance walking north in the middle of the dirt street. Most of the town turned out to see them coming. They couldn’t speak either Spanish or English. Several Mexicans could speak some English, but could not converse with them.
The conversation that ensued began in sign language and pictures drawn in the dirt. And this is the part that tickled the other Chinese. The Mexicans couldn’t figure out where they parked their airplane if in fact they came in one. The Chinese told them that they came in a choo-choo. The Mexicans thought they were trying to tell them something in some kind of Asian language that matched their features. When they figured it was a train they were talking about, they were confused about how they could be dressed in American flying clothes travelling on a southbound train.
This inane banter went on for some time. The Mexicans saw the scene as being ridiculous before the Chinese did. My narrator said his friends were in no mood for any frivolity, since they expected to be court-martialed, especially since two of their number had been killed in a similar crash-landing the week before. They somehow got to a telephone and called somebody. I don’t remember where it was if I ever knew. It could have been the Chinese Legation in San Francisco as far as I know. I just know it was somebody that spoke Chinese and English.
I don’t remember how they got back to Douglas, either. All I do remember is that the longer the story progressed in the telling the funnier it became. This friend of the narrator kept looking at me, trying to stifle this laugh that was about to do him in. Finally the story ended, and the one that had been listening decided it would no longer be a breach of etiquette if he now laughed, which he did. The Chinese were nothing if not courteous.
I thought it was funny at the time, and laughed along with them. But I hurriedly changed my mind about how funny there flying might be, when a few nights later, two of them came over the field and landed directly in front of me, and without contacting the tower. I had no idea they were in the pattern above and behind me or that they had been on the approach on top of me when I touched down. That might have also been funny to some of the Chinese.
We could see the smoldering fire of the accident at Merced the night before I was to shoot stages. I wasn’t particularly afraid because, as they say, ignorance is bliss. And wasn’t night flying quite easy? Anyway, at that place and at that time I thought so.
My regular daylight instructor wasn’t nervous because he wasn’t flying that night. I don’t remember why he was there; maybe he was going to check me out on a crosswind stage. Maybe the flight was over, and that landing was going to be counted as my crosswind checkout. At any rate, he spent a half hour briefing me what to expect and then he left me. I don’t remember where he went. I just remember the sun going down and the night being awfully black. And the sky was full of wing lights, colored green and red, telling other pilots how far away they were, and in which direction they were going.
Again, I don’t remember my instructor telling me about the danger of landing long. But I knew there would soon be a line of airplanes that had landed. They would be bunched up, close to one another, engine to tail, waiting, with the engines running. They were waiting to taxi off the active runway on to a taxiway. But on this small field the taxiway was adjacent to the farmer’s fence–in an emergency there was no place to go.
I had heard about another accident, one where an airplane had ploughed into another one in the same place. And it shook me up at the time. Whoever told me, said it happened on a moonless overcast night like this one. They had been shooting crosswind landings in a left hand pattern. They were taking off to the west, and turning left after the wheels came up, and then left again. They were flying east now on the downwind leg across from the tower that was watching to see if the landing gear had been lowered. One of the cadets that was killed that night made another left turn, lowering his flaps to allow him to reduce his airspeed before turning on the approach leg. Now with the throttle retarded and the gear down and locked and verified by the tower, the tower would give the pilot permission to land.
In the daytime it was desirable to land in the first one third of the runway. At night it was absolutely essential to touchdown in a stalled attitude on the first one third of the apron. If the airplane landed long, and it was a poor landing it would float, and then the brakes might not stop it before it plowed into the bunched up lights at the far end. A pair of wing lights represented at least one human being that was not aware of the danger he was in.
In this particular accident, when the landing airplane hit the tail of the first waiting airplane, the propeller chewed it off and then it kept on chewing until it chewed into the fuselage. And then, because of the high rate of speed it was travelling, it killed both pilots. The landing aircraft was destroyed even as the first airplane was driven into the one in head of it and so on. The pilot that was telling me the story didn’t know, but I suspect it was one of those cases where the landing pilot was trying to go around.
He said he would leave it to my imagination as to what happened next. Then he went on to tell me the obvious; a rotating propeller, and a gasoline fire, will destroy a body of flesh and blood very quickly. He told me, what my instructor had told me: be prepared to go around if you see that you’re going to touch down long. Go around before it is too late. But if you see you’re in trouble, and your nose is high, and you are about to stall, be careful with the throttle. Don’t panic and jam it forward. If you do, the airplane likely will not fly in that nose high attitude, but it will only pick up speed and hurry you up to the resulting crash. Don’t wait, he said, until it’s too late, and you kill yourself, and maybe several others. Go around and try it again. Pick up your gear as soon as you clear the ground; and then slowly retract your flaps as soon as you can. Don’t get in a hurry, lest you lose lift and sink back onto the ground. Milk them up slowly, as you climb out. I was not looking forward to my next landing. It was my last, and it was going to be a black out.
One of the senior officers told us at the hazing party that the base leg getting too far out caused the accident the other night. When that happens, he said, the odds of flying into somebody on either the base leg, or the approach, where it becomes difficult to see the airplanes surrounding you, rises dramatically. The auxiliary field at Merced had radio contact with those airplanes flying there. But even so, anyone that was about to make a black out landing was not depending on instructions from somebody in the tower. The active runway was not lit, except for two trucks that were parked at the end with the lights on. These lights were used to mark the ends of the runway, and they were of no help after the airplane passed by them. The last landing of the night was the blackout. That meant the truck lights were turned off, and the airplane landing lights would not be of any use because the airplane was in a nose high attitude.
The tower would keep track of the number of landings a cadet made, and then would advise him of when the truck lights would be turned off. This was not too dangerous if it was a clear night with a moon. But this was seldom the case in the San Joaquin valley of California. The ocean to the west of the field influenced the weather. That is one of the reasons several basic and advanced bases were built in the Arizona and the Texas deserts.
I thought about Leach and his favorite saying, as I moved the throttle forward on my last night crosswind stage. I imagined him telling me how it took a right dexterous citizen to shoot crosswind landings on a small field at night with a half dozen airplanes flying off the same field. Leach never taught us anything about night landings, but his saying fit this situation perfectly.
The officer in charge of flying was a major. He was also in charge of night flying. I believe the only time I ever saw him, was when we were flying from the auxiliary field. He was not a bad guy, except for having instigated the hazing party of a couple of days ago.
I was proceeding east on the downwind leg. I had just lowered my landing gear when I heard the booming voice of this major. There was no mistaking who he was. You could tell by his New York accent. He also looked and sounded like the movie actor by the name of Jack Holt. He talked out of the side of his mouth like Holt. He was upset now, because the base leg had moved out too far. Then he directed his next remarks at me. He said he wanted to know the name of the pilot of the airplane directly across from the tower. When I told him, he called me by name and then he said he wanted me to make a new base leg. He said he would tell me when to turn. All the rest in front of me were directed to pick up their wheels and go around.
I didn’t like the idea of someone flying my airplane from the tower, but I reacted before I had much time to think about it. I turned where he told me. And as soon as I did, I knew I was in trouble. I was too high and too close to the edge of the runway. I dropped full flaps and cut the power, and I immediately went into a gliding turn using plenty of rudder to lose altitude.
While the nose was down, I checked the end of the now shortened runway. I could see navigation lights of several airplanes waiting to taxi off. They were in no big hurry because they had no way of knowing exactly where I was. Before I turned, I saw the truck lights go out.
I could see the outside light hanging above the door of the tower almost ahead of me. I immediately appraised my situation. I was in trouble. I could not kill off my airspeed and I was too high. I was going to land long. The thought struck me that I was too slow and to low to safely go around. Things were moving too fast. The only hope I had was to immediately pull back on the stick and let the airplane stall. It was now falling faster in what might be called a modified rudder exercise stall. That is, I “walked” the airplane down with the rudder, keeping the nose high. Eventually it would stall completely. And if I didn’t lower the nose it would hit the ground going much faster than it should, and when it did if the wings were not level, I might be moving sideways with the crosswind, and I could easily tear of the landing gear. My aviator’s instinct told me I was going to hit hard in what could best be described as a controlled crash.
I had only seconds left to do something, and that something was to quickly ask the Lord for help. There was nothing I could do, except keep the stick all the way back. I was stalled out and falling fast. Another few seconds of this and I might drive the gear through a wing tank.
I hit. However, I didn’t hit that hard. That is, it wasn’t hard enough to damage anything. I had been falling in an exact three-point position, so the resultant forces acting on my craft, as it came in contact with the ground, served to make it “stick” to the runway. It also spread out the stress on the airplane to all three of the wheels. What surprised me and Jack Holt, who was watching, there was hardly any roll out; there was no danger of running into the line of airplanes in front of me. It slowed down, as though I had landed in what felt like a large bucket of tar. I taxied toward the airplanes lined up as Jack came on the air telling the others that he wished they could have seen it. That was the kind of flying he wanted from them, he said. He had no idea how close I came to killing myself. He didn’t know that I wasn’t flying. I never told Jack that. And until now I can’t recall having told many others. And I certainly have never given the Lord the credit that was due Him.
Two days later we were scheduled for the next and last major event. It was to be our first cross-country. It wasn’t much when compared to the flights of modern airplanes today, what with their advanced navigation systems and all. We only had what we called a “whiskey compass” that floated in alcohol. From this compass, we would “cage” a gyrocompass that had to be continually reset because of gyro precession. Almost from day one, we were taught to trust the whiskey compass, which was reliable as long as the airplane was level. But this trust came only with experience that most of us didn’t have.
We were to fly to Sacramento then to the center of a large reservoir to the southeast. There we would turn to a new course and head almost in the direction of Yosemite Park. About ten minutes later we would turn directly west and proceed back to our base at Merced.
At Sacramento, depending on the direction of the wind, we were to make our approach from South of the Oroville Reservoir that might be fifteen minutes away. We would be under the control of one of our airplanes that had left early with an instructor at the controls. I always wondered why we had to land instead of calling in to let him know we were all right. I remember everybody in our class having completed the trip without incident. That is everybody but me.
I had written the compass headings on the chart. They were calculated from the true headings and the magnetic headings, adjusted for variation of the earth’s forces. I had done this the night before. My problems began when I dropped my chart on the floor, and it found it’s way back of my seat. Anyway, it was far enough back that I couldn’t reach it even if I had been able to see it. When I leveled off at altitude, I tried a steep dive in hopes of gravity sending it forward where I could reach it – a good idea except it didn’t work.
I was planning to navigate by “dead reckoning” and by “pilotage.” I had also plotted some of the prominent checkpoints, but they were shown on the chart that was under the seat. I had mentally calculated how much time had been wasted trying to extricate the chart. I told myself that I could not afford to waste too much gas. The length of the circuit was about right for the gas we were carrying, but some of the engines were getting old, and mine was one of them. But I was to have another interruption.
I was concentrating on my gyrocompass that I had just reset from the whiskey compass, when I looked over my right shoulder at something that gave me a real shock. There, close off my right wing, was a flight of P-38 fighters stacked in echelon formation. They resembled a giant hawk ready to pounce on me. They were, but it was going to be a simulated fighter attack. I could imagine how a Japanese pilot felt seeing what I was just watching.
I should have left them alone and let them use me for a target but I didn’t. I waited for the leader to break and then I hauled the stick all the way back in a looping Immelman that put me somewhere near the tail of the last fighter that was now disappearing in trail with his buddies. He was going to be my first simulated Japanese kill. I picked up the radio transmitter and made like a machine gun. I suspect we were not on the same frequency, because I could not hear them talking. I wanted them to know that he was my first victory.
When I picked up my heading back toward Sacramento, I got another fright. There off my left wing was a merchant ship. That’s right, the only logical explanation for a merchant ship being in the San Joaquin Valley was that I was not in the San Joaquin Valley. I had been flying due west and below me was the Pacific Ocean. I panicked that’s for sure. I blamed it on the compass that I was positive must have been wrong. The compass had failed me, just as I knew it would. What was I going to do? I was lost. I didn’t know where Sacramento was so I just kept on going according to my gyrocompass. Then when I became scared enough, I asked the master navigator, as well as the best pilot I ever knew, for help. And to keep from overdoing my welcome, I asked for His help to get me home at the same time.
I knew the Lord would bail me out. I knew He would save my worthless butt once again. And he did, when a short time later, much quicker than I expected, I heard the Merced control airplane at Sacramento calling one of my friends that had not landed there yet. He must have been calling me as well because he sounded relieved when I requested permission to turn to the new heading and head for my next check point. I told him I had a gas burner, and that I didn’t think I was going to make it back without refueling if I looked for him and then took the time to land.
He was pleased to oblige. The tone of his voice, and the ease with which he approved of the deviation in plans, told me that he might have thought I had been in trouble somewhere.
I turned to a heading that I wasn’t sure I remembered to the next checkpoint that I would have used if I had gone on and landed at Sacramento. This checkpoint was another of California’s large reservoirs, but I was not sure of the heading or the name. I couldn’t remember if it was the Oroville, the Exchequer, or the Don Pedro. This was important because I might be about to get real lost. I asked the Lord again for his help and directly I saw a large body of water that looked to be much longer than it was wide. That was the silhouette of the Exchequer, no doubt about it. Furthermore, I was headed for the center of it. It was just where I should have been. But I didn’t know the heading of a town over near Yosemite that was my final checkpoint before turning west to Merced.
I flew down the length of the body of water that I had assumed was the Exchequer Reservoir that has since been renamed McClure. I was on course to an old mining town by the name of Coursegold. It was on the edge of the mountains that led to the Yosemite. I knew I was getting low on fuel so I turned west toward Merced field that was ten miles or so north of the city of Merced long before I reached Coursegold. I flew until I could hear radio voices and then I continued on towards them. I didn’t fiddle around with the heading. I had asked the Lord for his help and I knew he had set me on the right course, which was the shortest, when I turned west.
Then I heard one of my classmates calling in for landing instructions. I waited another five minutes or so and then called in to advise them that I was back and safely, too. At least I hoped I was. But I didn’t tell them that. I called again for a straight in approach, using for a reason to do so, the fact that I might be getting low on fuel. Before I had made my last course change, I had advised the Lord of a possible problem with the gas. After that I forgot about it. That is, I forgot about it until my instructor met me. He was most interested; he wanted to know what I had been doing. He said I only had seven gallons left. This talk on the radio about potential fuel problems must have caused them to dip the tanks after I landed. I wasted no time after I parked. I didn’t want to talk to him. I knew he would be looking for me. I figured he wanted to chew on me. But how did he know that mine was one of the poorest cross-countries flown in recent times from that base. What he wanted to say to me was something to the affect that did I know I almost killed myself? The crew chief was the one that told him I only had seven gallons left.
I was not in the mood to listen to him. I was all but ready to move on to bigger and better things at advanced. I told him that crate was a gas hog. And that it should have been put on a red cross and grounded after the last long trip it made; either the crew chief or my instructor should do it now. I told him the airplane was dangerous. Then I told him that a shortage of fuel was the reason I had not landed at Sacramento. He stood looking at me. But he didn’t say one word. I didn’t say anymore. We were the last class and I figured that airplane wasn’t going to endanger any more cadets, but it might a ferry pilot or one of those women flyers that I had heard about that ferried airplanes. I didn’t have the authority to ground it on a red cross. But anybody flying it would have to read my comments about it being a gas-guzzler.
When I reached the barracks I found somebody with a regional chart. What I wanted to clear up in my mind was the business about my having been close to a merchant ship that was in the Pacific Ocean. I could see that there was no mystery. There was some kind of an estuary running from the ocean over to a large city by the name of Stockton. I could see that it was about forty miles from there to Sacramento. I had saved about twenty miles, by turning toward the Exchequer when I did. I had also saved about twenty miles by turning toward Merced Field when I did. I hadn’t drifted off course very far when I turned South East towards the Exchequer, so the few minutes I had been playing with the fighters, and before that, trying to recover my chart, would not account for the gas I had used.
He was one of my very best friends. I will call him George for identification purposes. We had been together since the early days of school at the University of Nevada. Our class and the upper class at Nevada had occupied the girl’s gym. The upper class, 44K, was moving out any day now, but some administrative thing was holding it up. The move they were going to make was across a graveled expanse to a two-story dormitory called Lincoln Hall on the Nevada campus. It was better because it had separate rooms, two cadets to a room. Back at the girl’s gym I had been assigned the top bunk to a two-tiered bunk arrangement. George had the bottom.
Shoe shinning was a big thing at this school that had been turned into a first cousin to West Point. Many training officers had something they emphasized. Most of them were caught up on shined belt buckles and shined brass cadet insignia. We had one that had this thing about highly polished shoes. His own shoes always looked as though they had a spit shine. Rumor had it that he kept one pair in his refrigerator. He would remove them just before he shined them. That way they took a higher gloss, said the rumor.
When we first got there an upperclassman that decided he wanted to be a mechanic after the war, was leaving the program. He sold me a pair that wouldn’t fit either one of us. With the aid of a broom handle, he had stuffed them with newspaper that was serving as a shoetree. They also had been spit shined, and then shellacked to keep the shine. Obviously they were never worn. He told me that the advantage to having such a pair was to keep them under the bed. They never had to be shined. All you had to do was dust them off occasionally. My other pair, he said, would be kept in my barracks bag, and they would never be worn or presented for inspection.
For the most part the members of the class of 44K were pretty good friends. Then, too, many of them came to the cadet program from combat in the infantry. They were quite a few years older than we were, but that’s why they were here in Reno going to school, and not trying to take the Monte Casino Abbey in Italy from the Germans.
It was General George Patton that had the idea to send a few hundred of his ranking non-commissioned officers back to the states as transferees to the Army Air Force. The reason for this brilliant move, as George saw it, was to make this branch of the army older. As it was, we were far too young. What he envisioned down the road, if nothing was changed, was a large part of the air corps being staffed with senior officers much younger than the older draftees they commanded. But not a good idea to make the transfer of his best soldiers in the middle of one of the more ferocious battles ever fought by the American Army. And the American Army was losing.
Patton, who hated losing at anything, had transferred his best units: the 447th Regimental Combat Team made up of American Japanese from Hawaii, and ski troops, most of whom were born and raised in the cities and towns located in the high country. They were known as the 10th Mountain Division. Both of these units were to become the most decorated troops in the army.
The Abbey at Monte Cassino had been bombed over and over again by the American Army Air Force. But all they managed to do was stir up the cement rubble being used as natural fortifications by the Germans. This Abbey was an important fortress. It was a monastery that became the anchor to the Gustav Line, the key to the German ground forces effort to take and hold Italy. Hitler had given orders to hold it at all costs.
Years before the Second World War, the army had started transferring aviators from the active reserve to the inactive reserve and then releasing them from the service. They were going home in the middle of an interrupted career and in the worst part of the depression. Congress took no notice of their lowered morale. They were the least of that organization’s worries. After all, they were barely able to pay the regular members of the air corps, to say nothing of the regular infantry, and the navy that some believed was the first line of defense. Some members once saw the army as being a family but now they were thinking of it is as being an ungrateful mistress, and most of them left with a bad taste in their mouth.
When tension began between European allied nations and Germany, many flying officers were called back to active duty from the inactive reserve. But they were reluctant to go. They suspicioned that they would be released again, just when they had changed their minds about what they intended to do for the rest of their lives. They knew that the term “released for the good of the service” could and would be used against them. And that it would again throw there lives, and in many cases their family’s lives, into a cocked hat.
The morale of Patton’s non-coms that were going back to Italy was completely demolished. The army had offered them the moon, and then just as fast had taken it all away. The circumstances were much like what had happened to most of the flying reserve officers before the war. In fact at the University of Nevada, men that had been some of the best soldiers in Patton’s army were threatening mutiny. The class of 44K was more than decimated; it was reduced by half. The other half was going back to combat in Italy.
The best soldiers in the American Army had not been able to penetrate the ruins of this important choke point at Monte Cassino. When Patton wanted to know why, he was told that for one thing they were short of leaders. When he asked where they were, he was told they were going to college in the air force. When he settled down, he was told that he was one of the generals that had approved the plan.
The immediate departure of Patton’s ground combat troops from the cadet program disrupted the even flow of cadets from one phase to another. Then, too, the war was winding down. But nobody wanted to take the responsibility of stopping flying training because they couldn’t be sure how the war in the pacific was going to play out. The army planners were talking about invasion, which if it became a fact, might call for the use of pilots now in schools. And there was no way to train more, once the aircrew factory had closed down. This had a direct affect on us. We didn’t know if we would find ourselves in a shooting war, maybe even as infantrymen. It was possible. Everybody was expendable.
What they finally decided to do was play it safe and stop the program immediately behind us. The cadet candidates that had qualified for further aircrew training were to be schooled as gunners and mechanics. Thousands of these people had been on the bubble. Rumors were rampant that they were examining the stanine scores and were going to eliminate the bottom twenty percent of our class as well. College training was completely shut down behind us. Those that had completed one full semester were sent to a basic flying school for what they were calling “on the line training.” But we later found out it was a form of warehousing until the preflight school at Santa Ana had room. The senior planners were playing it by ear. Not knowing what was coming next caused frustration among cadets, teachers, and administrators.
A week before the invasion in Europe, we were abruptly notified that we were going to Santa Ana for preflight. But things there slowed down even more. We were the last class, and we had been delayed seven months before we made it to primary flying at Tulare. Several excuses were offered as to why this was, but mainly it was the weather. And there was not enough flying schools left open to service the large number of cadets that had arrived at Santa Ana.
Congress was aware of this cadet accumulation due to the slow down, and they had been making inquires to the army. The army was also being pushed to make up their minds about the bottleneck at their schools by the Selective Service organization. Local draft boards were complaining that they were having a hard time making their monthly quotas. They had to draft older men, even some with children. Mothers were officially claiming that their husbands and fathers should be considered for hard ship discharges. Draft boards saw this pool of young would be cadets as a partial solution to their problem that had been growing worse with time. But even so, we figured there was a good chance we would continue on but at a slower pace.
Ground troops in both theatres were taking casualties. The Army Air Force was being warned that they were going to have to give up their privileged status in the manpower department. This large cadre of men that had been unintentionally avoiding combat, some for more than a year, should be either put in airplanes to fly or they were to be made available for retraining and combat.
When we finished college training it was shut down, and instead of going directly to preflight, we went to a cadet base that was still operational where we participated in make work activities. The same thing would happen again after we went through preflight twice; our class went to another “holding base” before we went on to primary.
As I said, these delays added months to our scheduled graduation date. So much so that we graduated three weeks after the war ended. And then it didn’t stop there. Those cadets that graduated were offered the choice of getting out or staying in. Staying in, though, would result in more holding schemes, this time as officers.
There was a presumed need for “baby-sitters” for the islands in the pacific. They intended to keep some of them active because there were planners in high places that believed if the Japanese found a way to avoid the devastation of the bomb, the fanatics among them would find a way to start it over again. They couldn’t take a chance.
Many that didn’t want to stay in, elected to leave the service and go back to school. This was especially true of those that had gotten a taste of college like I had and preferred to go back. There was even a possibility of later making a career in the regular service with a degree in something relating to mathematics and science. But Russia was looming large on the surface, and none of the planners knew what to do. For those few contemplating coming back and making it a career after receiving such a degree, there was always the specter of the service, even the regular service, not living up once again to their promises.
This best friend, George, that I have mentioned, and another cadet from the upper class were talking about these vagaries of the Army Air Force and what a raw deal some of his sergeant friends had gotten. They were packing their gear now, and were leaving in just a few hours after being notified of General Patton’s order to get them the hell back here. But before they left some of Patton’s former infantrymen that had been unofficially hazed by one of the junior non-coms, permanently assigned to the school went looking for him. They were bent on settling the score. They didn’t care if they were court martialed and put in prison for attacking him. One of them told me that it would be better than going back to Italy and ground combat.
The situation at the university was getting worse. The provost marshal at the nearby army air base was notified. He sent a contingent of his police to guard this one sergeant that was a permanent member of the school staff against those plotting revenge. It became serious when this particular sergeant began carrying a side arm.
The last thing Patton wanted to hear was that some of his top non-coms he was trying to get back were in danger of going to a military prison. The provost realized this, as did the commandant of cadets. It was not settled amicably. Moreover, those of us just out of basic training saw it as one more example of how the army was not interested in doing what was viewed as fair. They were only interested in obeying orders and getting the job done.
School at Nevada was the best thing that happened to me. There were few distractions, as there had been when I was a freshman at Utah. There was also a sense of being focused on subjects of more importance such as English, mathematics, and physics than there ever had been in high school. Nevada had one of the best mining engineering schools in the country, maybe even the world. As such, the subjects of math and physics were emphasized as major rather than as adjuncts to a curriculum of fine arts as they were in some universities. Still there was some college like shenanigans that went on. There had to be, I suppose, when you figure that many of us remaining, after 44K went straight to preflight, were still only eighteen years old.
My friend, George was my exact age and he smoked. The army, like most military institutions, never encouraged nor did they discourage smoking. The non-coms in basic training were fond of saying “smoke if you got ‘em you’re to green to burn.” George was one of the many that always lit up every chance he got. He was fond of telling me that he smoked Chesterfields, and didn’t they advertise how they aided digestion and calmed nerves?
There was one place the army put off limits and that was smoking in bed. My favorite pair of shoes, those I never wore, sat under the bunk just below George’s left hand. He disregarded any regulation concerning where to smoke. Therefore, when he was studying or resting or what not, he would use one of my shoes as an ashtray. I never picked them up. They never needed shining. Maintenance of them was simple; I just periodically dusted them off while they sat in place.
So it was one Saturday morning, this officer with the shoeshine fetish was holding a standby inspection. We were all lined up at attention in front of our bunks, when he noticed the shoes I was wearing. He complimented me on my shoeshine, and then gave me permission to speak. He wanted to know how I got them that way. While I was talking, he spied my shellacked shoes under the bed, just below where George smoked when he was awake in bed. He asked me if he could inspect them further. He appeared to be fascinated with the shine. They were even better than those I was wearing, and better than his.
He turned one over as he looked at it. A half smoked cigarette butt fell out at his feet. He shook the shoe and several more fell out. Then he tapped the heel and a miniature cascade fell out. When he looked up at me, the floor was littered with butts and ashes. The non-com accompanying him was the same one that had trouble with Patton’s soldiers. He was carrying a clipboard and he immediately, with out being told, signed me up for enough gigs to restrict me while I walked a penalty tour. He also confiscated the shoes after being told that the right pair was in my barracks bag. George never said a word to me. He never let on that anything had happened. That was all part of the joke, but the others laughed when they heard about it – none of them said anything to me.
It was about two weeks before he brought up this cigarette business again. This time he was going on about how they increased his wind and why I ought to start smoking if I wanted to run the cross county as fast as he did. Part of every hour of PT included a 440-yard run or a two-mile cross-country. The cross-country ended with the runners coming across the campus into the football stadium and then sprinting once around the 440-yard track. When you finished, one of the school’s football coaches took your time. Your time in this event was supposed to improve. Somehow mine never did, but even so, I slowly got into shape. That’s all they really wanted.
George’s time did improve, however. He bragged about how he thought it was because he smoked. True, I couldn’t argue with him. He was always waiting for me to show up outside the shower. He would sit and have a smoke, while he was waiting for me to get ready to go to another class. It was during this time that he informed me about how beneficial to my health cigarettes would be.
One thing about close-knit organizations like this one, and maybe some of the army’s other specialized training programs, people that liked you would often display this camaraderie by good-natured kidding. The object was to get you to react. And if you got angry, you were sunk. They may never talk to you again. And maybe some others would treat you the same way. The trick was to know when to slow-down and then to stop altogether before it became wearisome, or as they would later say: “no more joy.”
There was a fresh water canal that used to run along side the campus at this university, maybe it still does. It ended up in a large fresh water pond in the middle of the campus and eventually it ran into the Truckee River. The Truckee ran by the Riverside Hotel that once was famous for housing women waiting for their six weeks to transpire before they became a resident. They were then eligible to seek a divorce. It was known as a quickie. Part of this tradition was for them to throw their rings into the water off a bridge outside of the hotel.
The lake in the middle of the campus was landscaped and it helped to make one of the more attractive campuses in the country. Another thing that made it attractive was the money that was donated by some of the country’s wealthiest owners of gambling casinos. It was not only local gambling, but also large mining consortiums such as the Comstock Lode that led the way. Back in the eighteen hundred’s, individual miners from Virginia City that had struck it rich did not hesitate to heavily endow this burgeoning school. Thus, in time, a university emerged that was famous in mining circles for producing well-qualified mining engineers.
This clear water canal made a sharp left turn as it approached the fenced off football stadium on the way to the landscaped lake. There was a large sequoia tree from one of Nevada’s forests or from nearby California that had been placed across the canal. A good twenty feet of it acted as a bridge down stream from the stadium fence. The school’s athletic department used it for competing cross-country athletes to cross the canal. It was one of those balmy early spring days that again called for a cross-country run. We first did fifteen minutes or so of calisthenics known as grass drill. We would fall down on the grass and do a few pushups when called to do so. Then we would standup and run in place before doing it again. This would be followed by several yards of duck walking and then some more pushups and rolling around on the grass. When one of the junior football coaches thought we were sufficiently warmed up, he would set us out on this two-mile cross-country.
Up the stadium steps we would go and then down a hill to the sequoia bridge. Across the bridge and up a steep hill we would run before the path leveled off and circled around an open pasture. We never bothered the horses and they were never spooked. They had seen enough of us crazies to not pay any attention. They were kept in this broad pasture by a one-pole gate that was replaced by the last man to enter the pasture. Then the running began in earnest. We had our second wind and the run actually became tolerable if not pleasurable.
I always thought George was out ahead of everybody. I was always near the back of the pack; hence, I never had the shortest time. Not by a long shot. I was surprised then by the voice of George behind me. We were in the middle of the canal when he took hold of my tee shirt and restrained me from running any farther across the sequoia and up the hill. Then he asked me if I could swim. Before I could answer, he pushed me off the log into the water. He jumped in behind me, and then rolled over on his back and began to drift with the lazy current toward the fence in the distance.
I followed him. The water was cold but not that uncomfortable as we giggled and enjoyed ourselves like the teen-agers we were. About the last ten feet before the bend, he began to swim. He was out of the water waiting to pull me up the bank. Then he proceeded to climb over the fence with me following. There was a thick copse of pine trees in the corner of the stadium. They shielded us from anybody that might be in the stands, including two of the coaches that were minding us.
We rung out our shorts and tee shirts and hung them on a pine limb in the sun. They of course never dried but they were dry enough that when we came chugging in from our run around the track, we were breathing hard. We appeared to have worked up a sweat by the time the real runners entered the stadium and began to sprint. We let several of them pass us up and then finished, breathing hard; we were given our time and then ran up the stadium steps toward the gym and the shower.
Coming out of the shower and then starting to dress, he lit up a cig. I remember having had a good chuckle, when as usual he blew some smoke my way. But he never said any thing. It was all part of the joke.
The Reno Army Air Base was about three miles east of the university. They had a school there that trained pilots for cargo plane duty. Upon completion of the course they were sent to Karachi, India. They were assigned to squadrons that flew the C-47 transport over the “hump,” a euphemism for the tall peaks of the Himalayan Mountains. This was reputed to be some of the worst duty in the army. Anyway, they were said to have suffered the highest number of casualties. They say to this day the trail to Burma shines in the moonlight with crashed airplanes. One of the main problems was the loading. Not only were they, at times, loaded out of balance, but also they were overloaded. The army’s of General Stilwell and Chang-kai-shek needed every pound of material they could get.
The training back at Reno was as near to the real thing as they could make it. Take off and landings were particularly dangerous for the same reasons that hump flying was dangerous. One of our cadets had some kind of ear trouble so they sent him to the hospital at the air base. We heard that they kept him there to try and repair a punctured eardrum.
One Saturday afternoon, two of us went to see him. He was quartered on the second floor of a hospital barracks that overlooked the base chapel. He didn’t like it at all. Although he had nothing to do, he was not happy. He said they had two funerals at the chapel during the short time he had been there. He said that the thing we needed to do was to make sure we somehow avoided the air transport command. Don’t volunteer for transports, because it was a gruesome duty he said. He was told that fire often accompanied the crash of an overloaded take off. And if you crashed in the mountains there was no way they could rescue you. Furthermore, when you finished your tour, you were transferred here as an instructor, which was almost as dangerous.
He needn’t have worried about it because he would be later washed out in pre-flight. The math course at Santa Ana was much like it was at the University of Nevada. It started out very basic. But after a week or so you were into fractions and then algebra that was required for the level of physics taught there. Our friend had missed out on all of this, so he was handicapped. He couldn’t absorb the fractions part of pre-flight fast enough so they washed him out after the first test. As for me, I took no chances. I asked the Lord to make sure I remembered what I had learned in grade school.
One of our favorite non-sensical things to do was for a couple of the northern guys to open the windows above the bleachers that were above the basketball floor. We did this to annoy the southerners that were used to sleeping in hot muggy weather in the summer. In the winter they slept in much warmer rooms than most of the rest of us did. I, for one, spent time on my grandmother’s farm where we slept in a sleeping porch that was only a thin board away from the outside snow. Members of the family all had a pet rock wrapped in butcher paper. In the afternoon somebody would put the rocks in the coal-fired oven. It kept the inside of the bed warm most of the night, while the outside might have been close to freezing. The confederates among us thought we were quite primitive.
Another of our juvenile pastimes, after we moved to Lincoln Hall, was to shimmy down the fire ropes from the second floor windows. Some of us with a more collegiate bent, which did not include me, would then run naked the short distance to the lake and go for a quick swim. They would also slip out after lights out and make their way along the roof overhang to a designated room. There they would indulge in a dice game that eventually drew the attention of this special sergeant. This one night, the surprised players heard a knock at the locked door. It was the sergeant. They panicked. The ensuing Chinese fire drill woke me up as this crowd of gambling participants tried to get through the one open window at the same time. Then there was a clamor as the stampede attempted to negotiate the narrow roof, find their own window, and get back into bed in the dark. The sergeant had been trying to find out who the gamblers were for some time, but he had not been able to as long as they didn’t turn on the light to get into bed. My roommate, who was not George, turned on the light and it ended up by my having to walk penalty tours. I had already collected several gigs so those that were added by this light infraction did me in. He never told the sergeant that I was asleep and that he had turned on the light. He never did because his wife had followed him to Reno where she found a temporary job. And he didn’t want to be restricted on Saturday afternoon. This cadet was much older than I was, and then too, we were never really that good of friends in the first place. It never broke my heart when he washed out early in primary.
There were other memorable if not good times between the university and advanced training at Douglas, Arizona. Actually there was no time for much of anything but study and military training. We adhered to a tight schedule as I suppose they did at all military schools. The army became exceedingly bothered when they saw anybody sitting around for very long that was not gainfully employed. There were scheduled breaks of an hour twice a day, usually following the noon and evening meal. They were supposed to be for writing letters, but many of us used the time for napping. We envied anybody that got sick and had to spend a few days in the infirmary. Some of us would lie outside in the snow to try and catch cold. But nothing ever happened.
We used to lay our parachutes on a long table in the flight line ready room. Just before we left for the airplane parked on the tarmac, we would check the “nibs.” These were the pins that the ripcord cable removed when pulled the ring. It was necessary to check them to make sure they were not bent and would come out easily and let the chute deploy. I flew many times with George. Once when he was watching me inspect the nibs, except it was the nibs on his chute and not mine. he let out a bellow. He feigned being incensed at me, accusing me before a dozen or so classmates of sabotaging his chute. From that day on, whenever I flew with him, I always checked his chute before I did my own. And always he accused me of trying to do him in. None of the rest of the class paid any attention to us. It was just one more game of horsing around that we had been playing for several months.
I was teamed with him for our first night cross-country. We were flying in a combat airplane that was being used for advanced training. The B-25 Mitchell bomber is best remembered as the airplane that was used to bomb Tokyo. It was more than capable of flying from Douglas to Los Angeles, but the one we had wasn’t. I was in the left seat. I was supposed to take us to what then was known as Mines Field, better known now as LAX. He was to fly us back after we refueled. The problem was the engines lulled him to sleep, soon after we took off. I didn’t think he could stay awake if he had the controls.
Our course took us directly over Phoenix. I could see the loom of the city from about fifteen or twenty miles away. I checked our fuel tanks. We were falling behind, which told me we would not reach Los Angeles with any reserve left in our tanks for an emergency. I flew for another half hour and then checked them again. They were still showing a high fuel consumption. I was becoming worried. George was sound asleep when I made my decision to turn around. I banked the airplane more than I intended to and it woke him up. Gravity was pulling at him and he couldn’t see the ground. All he could see was the reflection of the city lights off the clouds and he panicked. He called me an SOB, which was one of his pet names for me. He thought we were going to crash. I told him to quiet down and go back to sleep. Then I told him I had made the decision to turn back. It was too far to go. He thought that over and then he decided that everything was all right and he did go back to sleep. I woke him up just before we pitched out on the customary overhead approach at Douglas. I thought about what he might do if he thought he was upside down with a bad case of vertigo, and I abandoned the idea of a steep pitch-out over the end of the runway. I gave him enough time to wake up. Then I pitched slowly up and out. He didn’t exactly know what was going on but he never said anything. Neither did he comment, when on the downwind I asked him if he wanted to make the landing. He had never made a landing at night from the right seat. He just looked at me and wondered, I guess, if I had lost my mind.
The next day we were flying together again. He had completed all the requirements and he had accrued the right number of flying hours so he had been pronounced finished. But he still had to fly co-pilot for anybody that had not finished – meaning me.
We were tracking in on the local radio station using the radio compass. George was asleep. I woke him up to ask him what he knew about the atom. He yelled at me above the roar of the engines, asking me what the h… that had to do with anything. Then he quieted down when I told him I thought the war was over. I told him about the bomb and he said there must be a mistake because nobody was going to split the atom in our lifetime. He started to go back to sleep when I twisted the knob on the radio compass and he heard the excited voice of the announcer on a Phoenix station telling us what I had just told him. When we got on the ground we agreed the war was either over or soon would be. That was not the sole opinion of either of us. We had heard it on the radio but it sounded reasonable. Even after the second one was dropped there was still no immediate sign the Japanese intended to surrender. We were told that when they did, we would be the last to be offered the chance to leave the service. Anyway, we had come this far and only a few wanted to leave before we graduated.
There were still more cadets that had to get more night time, so life for us went on as though nothing extraordinary had happened. The next night, I flew with one of them and George flew co-pilot with another. But my good buddy, George, was either asleep or was dozing on the downwind leg and his airplane crashed into the ground. George and the pilot were killed.
There was a group of officer instructors gathered in the far end of the ready room. When I walked in I glanced at the flying board, only to see that George had not landed. I made a fool of myself by loudly proclaiming that I suspected he had picked out a mountain and had gone to sleep and had run into it. I said some other stupid things that I don’t remember, and are best forgotten anyway. But one of the officers looked astounded, as he might well have been. One of George’s friends, and mine as well, took the officer aside and told him that I had just landed and didn’t know anything about the accident. Furthermore, our friend told him, we were always joking about something like that. The officer backed off talking to me. When I was told what happened, I walked off, feeling like the biggest idiot in the army.
Back in the barracks, another one of our friends was talking to some of the others. He was telling them how the accident could have happened. He sounded as though he knew what he was talking about.
Day or night we made a 180-degree overhead pattern. The prevailing wind came from the north and the runway most used for landing was 35R or 350 degrees. This was also the runway being used the night George was killed. The field at Douglas was a little more than 4,100 feet in altitude. We would come over the runway we were going to land on, at 2,000 feet above the ground. The altimeter would read 6,100, adjusted for pressure. The compass would read 170, the reciprocal of 350 degrees. Half way down the runway we would pitch out to the right making a descending turn back to 170 degrees. We would level out at 5,100 feet or 1,000 feet above the ground. Moments later we would descend again to the runway altitude of 4,100 feet heading at 350 degrees for touchdown. The cockpit or cabin of a Mitchell bomber was dark at night. There was a glow from the radium treated instruments that were partially illuminated by small lights. But at best, they were difficult to see and dangerous if you were not paying strict attention. The job of the co-pilot was to continually monitor all instrument settings, including power, propellers, and engines. I had flown with George many times both in the day and at night. He always saw it as a time to take a nap. We were all sleep-deprived, and we never hesitated to take a nap if we got the chance. Most of us fought it off when we were flying. But George never seemed to try as hard as the rest of us. This barracks speaker was telling the others that he heard one of the instructors with hours of combat time at night say that he was familiar with accidents at night. He said pilots losing their focus caused them.
A common wall clock or watch is oriented to the base 12. It differs from an altimeter that’s oriented to the base 10. The number 6 on a clock is at the bottom in the six o’clock position. But the bottom number on an altimeter is not 6 it is 5. If you came over the Douglas Field with the altimeter reading in the 6 o’clock position, you would actually be at less than 5,000 feet. Then if you let down to 5 to fly the base leg, you would have contacted the ground at around 4,100. This would happen half way down the downwind leg.
Years after I had retired from the service, Betty and I came through George’s hometown in Kansas. We stopped to see his mother. She had added a one-chair beauty parlor to her modest home. George had been a contributor to the family income since graduating from high school. When he came into the service he took out an allotment to his mother for half his modest pay, which left him very little spending money. Near the end of the month he would hit me up for ten dollars. He always paid me back when he was paid but he was always broke after going twice into town. A few beers and a carton of Chesterfields was all he had the money for.
His mother invited us in when she found out who we were. The conversation for the next two hours centered on how George was killed. She wanted to know if I knew the details. I did but I never told her that I did. She had made a trip to Douglas a few years after the war to talk to the local undertaker. He knew exactly what she wanted to know but neither of us told her anything. She was better off not knowing. Suffice it to say that dying in an airplane is not the prettiest way to go, if there is such a thing. His new officer uniforms that he never wore were hanging in the closet, a poignant reminder of the last part of her son’s life. We visited his grave and then we left, leaving her crying. I wondered at the time if they had cigarettes in heaven.
I reported to an airplane three days after they dropped the second atom bomb. I remember it being a beautiful warm August morning. The desert air was fresh with a slight cooling breeze blowing. I was nineteen and nearing my twentieth birthday, and in a few days I would arguably be the youngest pilot officer in the air force. How can I remember such detail after all these years, you might well ask? Why, because I was living the last few hours of my life that’s why. And I didn’t realize it then but I did a few minutes later, and I never forgot who it was that saved my worthless butt yet one more time.
The cadet that was to be my co-pilot was exceptionally sharp. Both Paul D. and Le Duc had talked about him. They were in his class at another university. I never knew him that well, but I should have, because as it would turn out he was about to become the most important person to have ever crossed my path. I am convinced that nobody else in my class – I mean no one else picked at random to be my co-pilot would have had the presence of mind to do what he did. And I am equally sure that he would not have done it if the Lord had not been with the two of us that morning. And the thing of it is, this co-pilot was almost oblivious to what had happened. An hour later it was as if it had never happened at all. I looked at the maintenance record, the one we called the Form 1. There was a current write up saying: “Left engine carburetor heater door creeps closed on takeoff.” This was followed by a diagonal mark. It should have been a red cross and the airplane should have been grounded until the door was repaired. I didn’t pay any attention because these engines had Holly carburetors. That meant they had teflon throats to prevent carburetor icing. I had never heard of carburetor icing on this airplane. Anyway, it was early fall and still hot at Douglas, Arizona. But under the right conditions they would ice up. Another friend was flying across the Uintah Mountains of Utah in this same type of airplane when he lost both engines at once to carburetor icing. He was flying co-pilot and had time to jump. Not so the pilot that never had time. He rode it down the backside of a snowy slope like a toboggan and survived unscathed.
I passed the form to the co-pilot. He read the write up but he never said anything to me. I started the engines and taxied out for take off. I made the run up but there was no reaction from the carburetor heater door. Not until I advanced the throttles did anything out of the ordinary happen.
We were about half way down the runway. I was getting ready to call for wheels up when it happened. The airplane started into a slow roll to the left as the left engine began to lose power. All of a sudden I could not hold it from rolling nor could I hold it straight on the runway with the rudders. The RPM on the left engine continued dropping off and it was necessary to increase the engine RPM on the right engine to maintain flying speed.
When you lose an engine on take off, you cut the power on that engine and feather the propeller to reduce drag. If you have flying speed you can climb out on the good engine. But you have to be quick on the controls and quick to give the good engine more power. If you do not have single engine airspeed, it will not climb out but will auger into the ground. The flaps should be retracted and the wheels retracted to cut down on the drag. Then if you are very lucky you might survive. But if you are upside down there is no chance at all. And before you know it the airplane has settled back to the ground.
The canopy is the first to go. Then your head contacts the runway that quickly erases it down to your shoulders. I saw no way out of this if I didn’t hurry and ask the Lord for help. How he was going to do it, I was at a loss to figure out. But no sooner did I think it than my extra sharp co-pilot friend reached across my arms that were glued to the control wheel. He had the presence of mind to undo his safety belt and harness and to reach over my shoulder along the left wall of the fuselage. He was kneeling on me now, pushing me against the control column, as he rammed the door handle back to the open position. The engine got a big dose of air and reacted accordingly. It gave a large surge and immediately came up to RPM. Since the rudder trim tabs had been deployed by him, when it was evident we both could not hold it from rolling, they were now working in the opposite direction. He was quick to reset them as I trimmed the engines.
How did he know where exactly the carburetor door handle was? I had never heard of it, other than to read about it in the forms. And how did he know to leave off helping me to keep the airplane up right. He was not trained to do this. The co-pilots job is to help the pilot maintain control of the airplane until the opposite engine assumes the entire load and they climb out. But we had not reached single engine speed and we were not likely to do so because the airplane had started to settle back toward the ground – upside down.
When we landed, I asked him how he knew exactly what to do. He never gave me a straight answer. Some seven or eight years later I ran into him again. He was a reservist that was spending the weekend at our base. I asked him once again how he knew what to do. Again he never told me anything. I don’t think he knew exactly. I don’t think there was time to think too much about it. He just reacted. But I knew how come he could react so fast. If it had been anybody else flying with me, I doubt that we would have survived. But I firmly believe the fine hand of the Lord helped the two of just as soon as I asked Him.
But it left me thinking what the odds would have been without the help of the Lord. Sure it can be explained away, but not so easy, not if you knew this airplane, and not if you were there, and not after every thing else that had happened to me.
When I was a boy, I had the good fortune to live in a neighborhood of older boys. One of them was always building something of interest. Some of their projects were really quite sophisticated, and they usually let me hang around and watch what was going on. Since two or three of them had paper routes, I always had a job. I was paid off literally in pennies. But that was something that was better than nothing.
One of them had two pairs of earphones. He sold me a pair of them and then showed me how to make a telephone without using batteries. He hooked one of the leads on two of them to nails, and then he put the nails in the ground. The other two leads he strung together on a connecting wire. It made a good telephone. You could talk and then listen in either earphone. The idea was to string a wire between your house and your friends, and then lie in bed at night and talk. You were out of luck if the wire had to cross a street, but then it didn’t take many nights before the two of you were all talked out. When we soon got bored with his miraculous telephone, this same kid built a crystal set from some plans he got from somewhere. A crystal set is a very early and a very primitive radio made from a piece of iron ore (galena), a small coil, a cat’s whisker (thin wire) and a pair of earphones. No outside power other than the antennae was needed. My grandfather told me that he once rode a horse several miles to see one of these miraculous crystal sets demonstrated.
Before the advent of television, people occupied most of their free time at night by listening to the radio. In earlier times, there were four or five radio stations that had super watts or broadcasting power. They were in Chicago, Salt Lake City, New Orleans, and Los Angeles. There was also one in Del Rio, Texas, with the transmitter in Mexico and the studio in the United States. This particular station was reported to be anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 watts. It, along with some other Mexican stations, was known as a “Boarder Blaster.” But Del Rio was the most powerful, reaching sometimes to Canada. I don’t recall ever hearing Del Rio on my cat whisker-galena crystal set, but I knew about it as I knew about some of the others KSL picked up.
It was actually possible to listen to Chicago with a crystal set by tuning in KSL in Salt Lake City. KSL could pick up Chicago by what they called a transcription disc. This device was a special phonograph record that could reproduce a live broadcast. Many nights I fell a sleep listening to famous name bands playing dance music from the pavilion at the Edgewater Beach Hotel on the shores of Lake Michigan. I spent a good deal of time thinking about what it would be like to be grown up and dancing with a beautiful young woman at the Edgewater Beach Hotel in Chicago. As an interesting aside: I later experienced just such an event. Not once but several times. And the young woman – was she ever beautiful? Well, she was a model in Chicago at the famous department store that called themselves Marshall-Fields.
Driving across the country at night, when the Kennelly-Heavyside Layer was at its zenith, you could tune in to one of these 50,000-watt stations. My favorite, with the best music, came from Del Rio, Texas. “Clint the Diamond Man” who sold diamond engagement rings at cut-rate prices sponsored it. His postal address was not Del Rio it was a small town called, of all things, Wink, Texas. It was where you might be led to believe his transmitter was if you didn’t know better.
Another sponsor that was supposed to be broadcasting from Del Rio was actually in Mineral Wells, Texas. He was an entrepreneur and a con man of the first water that went by the sobriquet of “Goat Gland Brinkley.” In due course he acquired this same transmitter that was outside the United States. The studio, as I said, was on this side of the Rio Grande in Del Rio, Texas.
One of Brinkley’s chief moneymakers was his hotel in Mineral Wells. He had built several cement tubs, which he filled with a peculiar type of mud. You could stay at his hotel and, for a price; you could bath daily in this mud. This would rejuvenate you and restore your manhood. If you required more rejuvenation than his mud would provide you could visit his “hospital,” someplace in Kansas. There, if you had the money, he would supplement your malfunctioning gonads with pieces of ready to go goats. There was no American Medical Association or government regulator to bother him, so his business prospered. That is it did until the goat glands began to fester and had to be removed.
Nightly, he would announce the success of both his mud and his surgery, interspersed with first caliber country music. He also had another gimmick that he flooded the Del Rio airways with. He had bought into “Crazy Water Crystals.” They too were rejuvenators. When finally the government officially discouraged his mud; his goat glands; and his crazy crystals; it was declared by competent authority that the crystals did have some therapeutic value. They were a form of Epsom salts, and some other nostrums that buzzed your nose like Seltzer water. This was proclaimed to be the way it acted on your innards to give them added life – the crystals would awaken them. Furthermore, you could buy them at some of the grocery stores or drug stores in your neighborhood. Added to his radio audience were hundreds of people that rented tents in and around Mineral Wells. Most of them would, with a little prompting, vouch for the healing properties of Crazy Water Crystals.
Traveling cross-country once I happened on Mineral Wells. The once grandiose arched sign hanging across the main drag that proclaimed the town to be the Home of Crazy Water Crystals was now dilapidated and skewed by the elements. It was still hanging kitty-corner from Goat Gland’s now abandoned hotel that once proclaimed it to be the site of his magic mud. The nightly advertising of this and other products had their heyday in the thirties through the fifties. And Del Rio was the station I often listened to when traveling.
I was scheduled to fly two nights after George was killed and I was not looking forward to it. I was a bundle of nerves. Our destination was this same town of Wink, Texas, about 500 miles round trip – the same station where I had heard Clint, the Diamond Man. We were to circle this town and then come back. The heading back was the reciprocal of the one that had gotten us there. We could get there direct from Douglas but for one thing. We would have to cross Mexico. And if we took off and flew directly east we would still run into Mexico. We had to fly north for about fifteen minutes and then fly almost due east. We still might fly into Mexico to reach El Paso, but I figured the heading I plotted was close enough. Who cared if we were a few feet or a few miles into Mexico? Not me; there was nothing below but sagebrush, cactus, and rattlesnakes.
I knew my co-pilot, not to well, but I knew him. The thing I didn’t know was whether or not he was prone to panic in the dark. I showed him my plotted course and explained to him about the problem with Mexico and why we had to fly north to get to a destination almost due east of Douglas. We also discussed the distance we were going to travel, and the gas it was going to take. Neither of us liked the idea. We had already, both of us, experienced the planning of other officer instructors. Neither of us had been thrilled with their judgment in the past.
It’s true that our airplane was a combat medium bomber. Recall it was a Mitchell that the army flew off a navy aircraft carrier and bombed Tokyo for the first time. It didn’t do all that much to shorten the war, but it did scare the living daylights out of the citizens of Japan. They had been told they ruled the sea and all the islands for thousands of miles around. All of a sudden there were American bombers over their skies dropping bombs. Later this would become a nightly occurrence, where much larger bombs would be dropped from truly large bombers that also carried thermite bombs. When General LeMay started using thermite exclusively, he burned nearly all of the Japanese cities almost to the ground.
This first carrier bombing was not too long after the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor and it astounded the Japanese. And my buddies and I were flying that exact type of bomber. But it was not invulnerable to running out of gas, as some of us would discover later.
We preflighted the airplane and then cranked engines after dark. Things were normal. We found our plotted turning point and turned east towards El Paso. There would be no problem with navigation until after we cleared El Paso. We had more than an hour to go to find this little town of Wink and to hit it in the dark. And it was dark. Occasionally we would see a farm light below. But there was no way to tell where we were or where we were going by farm lights. It was important that we hit Wink pretty much on the nose. If we didn’t we would have no reliable starting point for our return course.
Then, all of a sudden, my partner in the right seat decided I should make a course change. I think he had been thinking about it for some time. He wanted me to abandon our compass heading that was almost directly east and fly towards Del Rio radio. He didn’t know that Del Rio was one of the few clear channel stations with the super wattage. He thought Del Rio was Wink, because they were still using Wink the same way Clint had a few years earlier.
I knew better. I wasn’t sure how I could prove to him how I knew that Goat Gland had once been broadcasting from Del Rio, but I knew he had not been broadcasting from Mineral Wells or Wink. We began to argue over the roar of the engines. He wanted to change our heading and head for Del Rio, which he was now certain was Wink. He had heard an announcer talking about some product that would be mailed to you from Wink. But Wink was too small to have a transmitter. And I knew the government never licensed farmers or ranchers. We had to be listening to Del Rio, which was about twenty or thirty degrees right of our course. I knew that the Diamond Man had been using Wink as a post office drop box years ago. And this new guy was apparently doing the same thing.
If I did what my co-pilot wanted me to do, we would end up flying across Texas. To complicate things, I had reduced my regional chart into a strip that showed the terrain about sixty or seventy miles on either side of my plotted course. It was far more manageable than playing with the full sized chart. I had done this as a matter of habit since losing my chart under my seat in basic flying school.
I couldn’t prove to him that what we were listening to was not Wink. I had learned to trust my whiskey compass, and I was not going to deviate for any such cock and bull idea as that. I was the captain of the airplane, and he dare not jeopardize our safety by causing some kind of raucous. I told him this, but I couldn’t get him to quiet down. And then there was the problem with the fuel. But to me things were getting serious, and I had lost confidence in his navigation. I wanted to trade this guy for my old buddy George. Somebody that went to sleep and you didn’t have to worry about him.
We flew like this for another five minutes or so and then I had enough of him. I made a steep left turn and picked up a reciprocal heading. He never questioned me. He calmed down. I couldn’t help thinking about my instructor in basic and how he had a nervous breakdown from being afraid of flying in the dark. This cadet wasn’t that bad off. But the death of our two friends had to have affected him – maybe not as much as it did me, but he had to be on edge. The darkness and the problem of getting home had to be a growing concern. I knew if I continued flying on the course that I had plotted that he might get that way. How did I know what experiences he had had with the night, and the boogieman? We passed El Paso, again going back. I checked the clock on the instrument panel. I needed to know when to turn south toward Douglas. He had turned off the radio compass when I turned around. Now he turned it back on and tuned it to the homer at Douglas. When the needle swung ninety degrees, he motioned for me to turn. I did and we picked up our heading for home. I had forgotten about that feature of the instrument. I was waiting for the airplane’s clock to show me when, but then I wasn’t exactly sure what I was doing. He hadn’t made any effort to figure out when we should turn south other than to tune in to what he thought was the Douglas homer. If we missed the base at Douglas, we would fly in to Mexico until we ran out of gas. I was getting nervous and I asked the Lord for help.
There was a prospectus, for want of a better word that standardized our training. It was the same for each class and for each class at other pilot schools. We were never advised more than a day or so ahead as to what was coming next. Then, too, the war had ended, although the armistice had not been signed yet aboard the USS Missouri. We didn’t know what was going on and to tell the truth we didn’t care. All we knew was that if you elected to stay in the air corps you were going to undergo more training than the prospectus we were using called for. And I’m pretty certain that another cross-country was scheduled for that reason.
The next day, the order came down that we would be awarded our wings the following day. Our officer uniforms had been tailored and were hanging next to our others. It seems that what they had been waiting for was for a Chinese general to come from some place to participate in the awards ceremony – big deal.
There was a bombardier base east of the Cochise bombing range. It was far enough away from Douglas to make the flight interesting. To get to it you had to climb out and instead of leveling off you had to keep climbing to get over an extension of the White Mountains. I had never done this before, not even in daylight. Another thing that made this one different was the Douglas water tower we had to fly near. I also had an instructor in the right seat and another cadet in the navigator’s position.
I had barely called for the gear and flaps up when I saw what I thought was another disoriented Chinese cadet coming against traffic and heading right for us. I could see his navigation lights glowing a steady green and red from opposite wings. Civilian airplanes used the same colors but they flashed on and off.
As we got closer to what turned out to be the water tower, the larger the lights became, and of course the further apart they became, which indicated to me that the wings of this imaginary airplane were getting closer. I started a sharp turn to avoid what I thought was another airplane, when it dawned on me that it was the tower. This new instructor gave me a screwy look, but I’m sure he was used to flying at night with cadets where anything was possible. He never said anything and of course I never did either.
But I was fast losing the confidence I had at Merced when my basic instructor lost his mind while night flying. I hoped it was temporary for him, but at that time and at that place, he was no doubt screwier than a bed bug.
The night was not over, not by a long shot it wasn’t. I still had to get over the mountain and I wasn’t sure where it was. My instructor had done this many times. But then this was an assumption, and I had no intention of asking him. I don’t remember if it was fear or curiosity but I had to know what was below us. Maybe he had the same thing going through his mind, because one of us turned on the landing lights. Maybe he didn’t say anything if it was me, because those landing lights saved our butts. There below us was a pine forest. And the big thing was, we were close enough to see the fall-down. And we seemed to be getting closer. I gave both engines full power and changed the propeller RPM to “Increase,” I included the manifold pressure as one more of the instruments that needed my close attention to make sure I didn’t blow off one or more of the cylinder heads. The airspeed had fallen off so much so that I couldn’t turn around. We were climbing, but was there a peak ahead? I don’t think it crossed his mind. If I was nervous before I was more so now.
The instructor was not much help, but the Lord was. I don’t know how long it was that I sweat it out. Not long, looking back at it now. Then the trees seemed to be moving away, and I could tell immediately that we were over the top and safe. The instructor thought it was all-routine, maybe, routine for a good pilot. I knew who our real pilot was but the instructor had no idea.
Deming, New Mexico was our destination. I had been to Rodeo, or over it several times. It seemed to me to be a little more than a hundred miles from there. We were going to overfly Rodeo and land at Deming. The other cadet was going to take over the left seat going back.
About a half hour later, I called the tower at Deming. They answered and gave me the runway heading. What they didn’t do was turn up the runway lights. As I write this now it comes to me that the reason for the night trip in the first place was to give us more training in landing at a strange airport at night. Strange? It was certainly that.
I requested an overhead and they approved it. They were training bombardiers that I believe were still flying in much smaller twin-engine advanced pilot trainers. They were advanced pilot trainers for cadet pilots last year, but now the Mitchell had replaced them.
I approached what I thought was the active runway. But there was no active runway. Bombardiers had all gone to bed or the bombardier program had stopped. What I was approaching was the maintenance hardstand. This was further enforced by there being no airplanes – what few they had must have been in the hangars.
The tower operator must have been dozing. He was fully awake now when he realized one of the biggest airplanes he had seen in a while, close up, was going to land or crash right in front of him. I don’t remember who saw the error first, but he graciously advised me that the active runway was to the right of his hardstand. The runway lights were a dim violet. I could see them getting brighter as I hurriedly broke off my approach before anybody else realized I had made a mistake.
It was later, after I had landed and nestled into the navigator’s compartment for the trip back that I began to think. Maybe what I should do is petition the Lord’s help for an entire flight instead of for individual events the way I had up at the Exchequer.
As it would turn out the trip to Deming would be my last flight in a B-25 Mitchell. The rest of the time I flew on active duty was in the AT-6, single engine. The same airplane I flew in basic flight school.
Shortly after the armistice was signed, I was given a chance to leave the service, which I did. My intention was to get a degree in a subject involving more mathematics and science. I wanted to eventually try for a regular commission and to make a career of the air force.
The subjects that called for the most science courses and therefore I figured would interest the new air force in offering me a regular commission was Air Science and Tactics and Geology. Air Science is now known as Aerospace Science. At that time a major required additional mathematics. Geology also called for courses in physics and mathematics that I had started at Nevada. To insure that I had what they would be looking for, I took courses in chemistry as well.
It worked out just the way I had it planned. I remember telling the regular officer commissioning board just what I wrote here. They were impressed just the way I knew they would be. The reason they were was because junior officers meeting with them for the most part had degrees in the humanities, arts or social sciences. Those with a background in math and physics were usually engineers of one sort or another. And these people were usually offered regular commissions before they left school.
I also wanted to return to flying status. I didn’t want to get an engineering degree and risk working behind a desk. But that is just what happened.
It was after I graduated and applied for active duty that the Korean War broke out. It was also a time when President Harry Truman and General Curtis Lemay determined that the Soviet Union was rebuilding their army and air force. But there were also visible signs they were expanding their form of government to eventually indoctrinate the rest of the world. The Congress became scared enough that they began recalling large numbers of mechanics and aircrews to man new jet bombers and to eventually maintain inter-continental ballistic missiles. A number of bases were reopened and several new ones, especially overseas, were built.
The idea was to “ring” the Soviet Union with our airbases. The operation that was to bring this about was known as “Reflex.” The new air bases were going to be at Thule, Greenland; Terrejon, Spain; bases in England; and two in Morocco. There were several in the U.S. that were reopened as well. The bases overseas were advertised as being air depots where airplanes were overhauled and where major maintenance was performed. But that was a feint. The new B-47 jet bombers, according to Reflex, would fly from bases in the U.S. to these overseas “depots” and then would upload atom bombs. These bombs would be assembled and made ready for loading in the event hostilities broke out with the Soviet Union.
My first assignment after graduation from college was a preparation for joining SAC. I would spend the better part of my military career working in support of Reflex. But because I had been tendered a regular commission and with my science background, I was told I was needed in other jobs that did not call for flying. It also led to my eventually being transferred into the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Program.
One of the types of airplanes I flew in was the AT-6 Texan. Most of the pilots of airplanes flying off this base knew I had applied to get back on flying status. So quite often I was invited to go with them so that I could become familiar with flying again. Recall, the airplane that the two RAF wing commanders were telling me was not as dangerous to fly as was their narrow geared Spitfire fighter that flew in the Second World War. I was of the opinion that it was. I had been in one AT-6 and close to another when they both crashed. They were attributed to pilot error when the pilots lost control due to their narrow landing gears.
The first one was when I was a cadet in basic flying school. I was sitting on a bench at our auxiliary base at Merced the first time it happened. I was watching landings on the active runway that was about one hundred yards away. I noticed that one airplane was too high. It veered off the runway and tore off the gear. I had no idea it would skid so far. But I was wrong. I was also wrong about the uncontrolled direction it was taking. When I finally woke up to what was happening, I realized it might be headed for me. My first thought was to run through the open door of the tower a few feet away. But I quickly changed my mind. I was afraid if it plowed into the wooden tower it would be in danger of exploding with me inside. I stood like a deer caught in headlights. Just before the wing hit me it came to a stop. I can’t remember if I had time to bring this to the Lord’s attention or not. But there is a good chance that I did.
The second incident or near disaster came about soon after I had graduated from college. I had applied for active duty. I was accepted and stationed at the depot at Norton Air Force Base. I was going to apply to return to flying status. So, as I said, I would fly with anybody that asked me. It was one such flight that ended in a crash. Here again, I escaped injury in what might have been otherwise if the Lord had not, once more, been looking after me. The AT-6’s that I had flown in basic flying school at Merced, and later, after I graduated from the wartime aviation flying cadet program, had no tail wheel lock. This seemed to be most important to the accident investigation board that I was directed to attend. I wasn’t on flying status, but I was aboard, and I had quite a few flying hours in this same airplane.
They determined that the pilot had neglected to lock the tail wheel – something I had never heard of before. They asked me several questions about it and to each one, I told them that the airplanes I had flown had no tail wheel locks.
What had happened, they said, was when we taxied out for takeoff and the pilot went through his takeoff run up, he forgot to lock the tail wheel. We had almost reached flying speed when the airplane began to fishtail. This, they said, was because the tail wheel was not locked. I tried to dissuade them in this. I told them I had never had any such trouble. Was it possible that the narrow gear was the major cause and not pilot error due to not following the checklist? They said they would consider this. But if a tail wheel lock was not needed, why did they add one to the airplanes later?
Anyway, the fishtailing continued with the pilot over- correcting while trying to get it under control. But the more he tried to correct it the worse it got. At the same time, he tried to get it to fly by pulling the nose up––it was already at full power. It took several more high bounces, stalling each time at the top of the bounce and then falling back to the runway. Finally, it sheared the gear, just before I figured it was going to fly. With the gear gone, the prop, the elevator, and the aileron controls were next. By this time we had left the cement runway and were headed cross-country through the boon docks. That didn’t particularly worry me except for the several large boulders that we hit. Each time, we bounced high into the air and then repeated it creating a cloud of dust inside the cockpit and outside. The tower operator must have been observing because the ambulance people lost no time in arriving.
Somewhere I remembered hearing that if in a crash you did not lift the rear canopy lock out of detent, you could not slide it backward. It would stay locked, and if the airplane caught fire, you wouldn’t be able to get out. It surprised me how fast we were going; how much dust there was; and what a roar the sheet metal was making as the rocky, uneven terrain tore it apart. It seemed as though it would never stop. I was getting scared, as I realized it was entirely possible that we would explode if we hit one of the larger boulders with either of the wing tanks that were now sliding along the ground. I don’t clearly remember if I asked the Lord to consider this. At any rate, in a few seconds it came to a stop, while I was still fiddling with the canopy lock. The pilot was hanging in his seat belt and shoulder harness as though he might be badly injured. A few minutes later, he was talking to the tower telling them that we had crashed, although we were in this boulder-strewn field in plain view. I got the canopy open and I stepped up on the wing that was now at ground level. The pilot abandoned his attempt at further conversation with the tower when I told him we needed to get him out, and away from the wreck. I helped him, as we staggered away from the airplane. But we stopped before we were far enough away that we would have survived if it had caught fire and exploded. The medics took this to mean that we had been injured and were not thinking clearly. I don’t remember about the pilot but I didn’t think I was hurt. We sat and watched the proceedings, which consisted mostly of fire engines and ambulances running around making a lot of noise with their sirens.
I noticed the medics looking for us several yards farther away. Then one of them yelled out, here they are. Then he held up one of his hands, and showed me three or four fingers. He asked me how many fingers did he have? I replied something to the affect that how many are you supposed to have. He then yells out about how this one was all right. The whole thing appeared surreal. It was easy to remember the details to this day because I always kind of wondered what it would be like. I mean, would I panic or what? But I must have been dazed, because I didn’t feel a thing. The next morning in the shower I could see I was a mass of bruises. Still, at the time I don’t remember hitting my head. But the area around the shoulder straps and my chest and legs looked as though I had been pretty well banged around.
Those of us going to Morocco stayed at the base at San Bernardino. We worked at this depot, overhauling fighter and transport aircraft that were supporting the Korean War. We would eventually operate a base at Nouasseur, French Morocco that was supposed to be similar to this depot. That is what we were being led to believe anyway. But in reality it was in support of Reflex.
I was at San Bernardino about a year, while the runways at Nouasseur were being built. We had a contract with the French that called for local cement to be used. But since the French knew nothing about the heavy aircraft that would be landing there, they skimped on the grade and the amount used. And they had to be redone more than once.
The depot at San Bernardino was expanding to support the war in Korea. They planned to build a jet engine field repair shop there to overhaul fighters. They also planned to start treating transport aircraft going to Korea with a more reliable wing tank sealant. Because of the courses I had taken, I had been assigned to the aircraft repair shops. In due course I was given the job of writing the studies necessary to get each of them started. I was assisted in both of them with experienced aircraft mechanics that worked for the depot. There practical experience made my job much easier and made both studies a success.
Before embarking to Casablanca, about twenty miles from Nouasseur, I was transferred to a staging base in Texas. I was given the job of assisting a major and a captain in making a plan involving a contract airline to transport the entire Nouasseur wing to an army base on the east coast. From there we were to be transported to Casablanca by the navy. This is the first time it had been tried.
They had been recalled and had received promotions in the reserve. They did not impress the Lieutenant Colonel that we all worked for. He relieved both of them and gave me the job because of my success with the last maintenance projects I had been given. Things again worked without a hitch, and the general officer commanding the new base at Nouasseur was sent glowing reports from the airline executives.
I had been there about a year when we were “invaded” by a number of Muslims. They were not aware that we had atom bombs, among other things that were being guarded by army soldiers armed with heavy caliber machine guns mounted on tripods. There were also several special trained guards armed with hand held machineguns and rifles, or so I was led to believe. I was the officer of the day and it was the first inkling I had that we were not what we were supposed to be. Before the shooting was over all of the Arabs were killed. What I learned that night remained secret to all but a few. And for the first time I knew what we were really doing there.
A few weeks later, I was called into the general’s office. I had been recently tendered a regular commission, partly because of the letters he had received regarding the air transfer of the wing, and he welcomed me to the brotherhood. Having graduated from West Point, he had been a member for some years. He told me he had an important job for me to do. He wanted me to carry a Top Secret message to the ranking officer at Sidi Slimane, a SAC base about sixty miles to the north. He gave me a pair of handcuffs with a small brief case. He let me see the letter and it’s classification before he closed it and fastened the cuffs to my wrist.
I was surprised to find that the Colonel I reported to at Sidi Slimane by the name of Robert Barrowclough, was quite well known. He had been with another Colonel when the “Roswell Incident” was reported to have taken place. This other gentleman was said to be Colonel William Blanchard, the Wing Commander at Roswell. Blanchard also commanded the first B-29 Wing since the war that was also equipped with atom bombs. A few weeks after meeting Colonel Barrowclough, I met him again at a former Luftwaffe base at Earding, Germany. He had flown from Morocco to Germany to pick me up. He acted surprised that it was a second lieutenant that was waiting when his airplane landed. He made some remark that I must be really important to have a colonel flying around a second lieutenant.
I was the lieutenant. And the job I had been given was only of official interest to the chief of maintenance. Colonel Barrowclough did not know what I had been doing but he never asked. However, to make sure I stayed in my place, he told me to go down to the mess hall. He told me he had called ahead and told the sergeant in charge that he wanted an inflight lunch for him and his copilot. He also emphasized that I was to pay particular attention to the sandwiches. He said, I was to check them out and make sure they were not made from peanut butter and jelly. He said some of the mess sergeants were known for pawning this junk off on visiting crewmembers. I thought he was kidding me. I had never heard of such a thing happening to anybody in the air force, let alone a senior officer. So naturally I didn’t watch them being made. He had told me if I didn’t pay attention to what he was saying, and if that is what he ended up with, he was going to throw me over board when we got over the drink – meaning the Mediterranean Sea. Sure enough when he called for his lunch in the middle of the night, he let out a loud yell and through the sandwiches at me from his seat in the cabin. He yelled that I was to stand by the door as though I was a paratrooper. He said he was going to jettison the door and that I was to take off my chute and jump out. I exited the airplane before he did after we landed. I never saw him again until about four years later.
I was telling you about the extraordinary happening while I was the officer of the day at Nouasseur. I have also told you that those not directly involved with Reflex had no inkling as to what we were really doing there. In the event we were attacked by the Soviet Union, Reflex called for Sidi Slimane to receive Jet bombers and Nouasseur was to receive one or more squadrons of refueling tankers. Me, and most of the other members of our base, thought we were building a depot to overhaul airplanes that would be flown down from Europe.
I always thought something was a little fishy with that story. Besides a maintenance depot at Earding, we had one in Britain and another one in Madrid. What did we need with another one in Morocco? But I kept my mouth shut about my suspicions.
That was the night I realized we were in the middle of Operation Reflex. I later found out that the plan called for us to transport atom bombs, piece-meal, to Nouasseur, where they would be assembled, stored, and maintained. In the event of trouble with the Soviet Union, they would be up-loaded to our new jet bombers flying in from bases in the States. We might have other jobs at this “depot,” but they were really of little consequence; supplying SAC bombers at Sidi Slimane with atom bombs was far and away our main purpose.
About midnight, I got a call to report to the storage warehouses. When I arrived, there were dead Muslims lying all over the area. Somebody had turned the biggest machine gun, maybe even more than one, on this heard of Arabs. Nobody would tell me what had been going on there. But it was obvious to me that they intended to rob foodstuffs from the warehouses, as much as they could carry anyway. But why would a special group of trained ground forces literally wipe them out to a man with these heavy weapons – just for stealing food? Because they were under orders to do so. Because you see, our atom bomb assembly facilities were close by. And that’s how I found out they were there. And the more I thought about it the more I questioned in my mind whether the Arabs were working for the Soviets.
A year or so later, I was transferred to a re-opened Strategic Air Command base at Lake Charles, Louisiana. This was also the first time I fully realized that I had been part of Reflex all along.
The 44th Bomb Wing that I had now joined had gained recognition in World War 11, and was now one of the first to transfer from propeller bombers to jets.
Reflex planned to train jet crews at civilian factories and then fly them to our bomber bases. Since I was a member of the 44th I thought it might be easier to return to flying status. But Reflex was an ongoing program that called for me to do something else. I was later to learn how extensive and detailed it was. The events in my life for the next several years would be determined by this operation, and the air force and the other agencies involved were not too interested in changing their plans to suit mine.
I had been with the 44th at Lake Charles for about 6 months. There had been an exceptionally heavy spring rainfall that flooded the Calcasieu River that ran through Big Lake. It flooded much of the city and most of the adjoining air base near by. We transferred the last of our B-29 propeller driven bombers before the flood damaged any of them. I had some responsibility for this, and consequently was unable to be evacuated before the water became too deep to wade in.
I stayed on the top floor of the barracks away from the deep water. A friend of mine had a one-man life raft. He would sit in the raft and I would hang on while he paddled to the officers club. We opened a door and helped our selves to the food we found inside. About a week later the water dropped and we began receiving our new 4 engine jet bombers, the B-47’s. Several months later our crews became combat ready and the first of them deployed to Morocco on simulated combat missions. The rest of us flew over on transport aircraft where we operated almost around the clock as though we were in actual combat. The third week in Morocco, one of our jets stalled out on the boom while refueling and crashed. The crew was lost.
A few weeks after this I was sitting on the veranda of the club talking to some friends that were navigator-bombardiers. They were talking about what they would do if the same thing happened to their airplane while refueling. Their ejection seat ejected down. One of them said he always had his seat “armed” and was ready to pull the trigger if anything happened. He said he was not going to wait for the rest of the crew that would eject up. I was only partly interested in the conversation because of the seat. There had been some complaints, and the crew’s were looking to us to have the manufacturer fix the problem.
Several weeks later one of these same navigator-bombardiers was refueling over the gulf. He apparently had his seat armed. Something happened that made him think they might be in trouble, and he didn’t wait for the commander to give the order to eject. But whatever happened, he panicked and he was never heard from again.
I was still a junior officer as were some of the other members of our bomber crews. I had never seen one of the new bombing and navigation systems in operation. This crew that I knew well invited me to accompany them on a simulated combat mission where all systems would be operating.
The new jet bomber carried three men with a seat for a fourth. The aircraft commander briefed me on how to exit the airplane in the event of an emergency. It seems there was no ejection seat for the fourth man. There was a door that opened manually, and was supposed to offer some protection from a slipstream that was measured in hundreds of miles per hour. He smiled when he advised me not to worry about it. He said he thought the door was just for show. He said that anybody that had to use it was not expected to survive. I remember thinking at the time that gallows humor is never funny to the one that has his neck in the noose.
We had been electronically bombing targets in Florida and we were on our way back to our base. To get there we had to cross the gulf. It was at some point that I noticed some agitation between the commander and his copilot. There was also some cross talk between them and the navigator/bombardier that was in the forward compartment. I had crawled along a passageway to pay him a visit. While I was there I could see by his radar that we had a long way to go before we reached land. Back in my seat, the commander, who was at the flying controls on a platform above my seat, gave me some bad news. They had been nursing the airplane for the past quarter hour. It seems that they could not transfer fuel from the right wing tanks to the left. One of the complicated transfer valves had malfunctioned, and we were in danger of becoming out of balance and losing control. Once we crossed the water the crew would have a reasonable chance of surviving. They would spend some miserable time in the swamps of the bayou country of Louisiana if they ejected. But I was not expected to make it out of the airplane. There was nothing that could be done. The condition was fast growing unmanageable. The crew no longer believed they could save the airplane. They were concentrating on reaching land so they could eject. They kept this from me. However, I understood the situation. There was no need to tell me, there was nothing I could do. They did tell me before takeoff that they would try to slow the airplane to stall speed. But in the event of an emergency if things got out of hand, which I expected they might, and if I hesitated once I was advised to leave, they would leave me to fend for myself. And, since we were way out of balance the speed at which they would eject would be about the same as was the cruising speed. I knew that the slipstream blowing through the airplane after they ejected would create a whirlwind of dust and dirt. I had heard that if you were caught in one of these circumstances you would temporarily lose your eyesight quickly. The crew knew it also, and they were not about to wait for me and, thereby, jeopardies their lives in an attempt to save mine.
I never knew until years later just how close they would come to ejecting once we left the gulf. But they didn’t, they toughed it out, sweating it all the way. Ten minutes or so later, I could hear them talking to the tower at our home base. They were declaring an emergency and they wanted the tower to clear the area for a straight in approach. I hadn’t called on the Lord in a long time. I couldn’t help wondering if He might have forgotten about me. But He hadn’t.
And another thing, I really didn’t know what was on the crew’s mind. So I never knew how serious it was. When it was over and we were safely on the ground, I started thinking about what had happened. This was not the same as the other times I had called on Him. This time it could reasonably be chalked up to coincidence or luck. Not until years later, as I said, when one of the crewmembers told me what a close call we had, did I realize that this had been a major event in my life – and I never knew it. And I realized, maybe for the first time, what a debt I owed the Lord.
But there would be other times and other places that would also leave an indelible imprint on my mind: I came to believe each one of us has a guardian angel that operates by direction from either the Lord or his Son Jesus. I don’t profess to know how it works I just know it does. And I quit worrying a long time ago about whether the Lord handles these things directly or whether He delegates them.
When it appeared that I could not transfer from SAC nor could I return to flying status, I bought my own airplane. It was small and very old, but it flew. I tied it down with the permission of an oil company that had a hanger next to our air base.
Inside the hangar they kept a transport and a new four-seated Beach Bonanza. It was one of the first of its kind. It was somewhat slower than the Mitchell bomber, but it had a full panel of instruments that included the first of the new omni-range navigation systems. The omni is the system in use by modern aircraft today. It is far superior to the radio compass; however, it had one of those also. It was a dream of an airplane, capable of going most anyplace in the country. But at that time it was expensive – way out of reach of my income.
The airplane I owned was a two seated Taylorcraft. It was seven years old with a 65-horse power engine, and it flew a little over a hundred miles an hour ground speed. It had simple systems that at first glance seem so simple that they would never fail. Take the one that tells you how much fuel you have on board. Instead of a complicated instrument that operates on electrical power, this one had a mechanical bobber. By that I mean it had a device inside the tank that measured how much fuel you had by floating or bobbing up and down. This float was attached to a metal extension that ran outside the cowling. If you wanted to know how much fuel you had left, all you had to do was look at this extension attached to the bobber inside the tank. It would bob up and down, and when it neared the bottom you were out of gas. There was an auxiliary tank mounted in the wing that was a few feet above the main tank directly behind the engine. When the bobber showed the tank was low you could turn a valve and let gas from the upper tank drain into the main. That is you could do this if the bobber did not stick.
And what would make this simple bobber system stick? Why rust of course. If the airplane had been sitting very long the bobber would not float freely and it would hang up, showing maybe a quarter of a tank, when you were really out of gas. If you had learned to fly in such a simple airplane, your instructor would have probably told you to check it during your walk around inspection before take off. Rubbing it with a little oil from the engine dipstick, which you always checked before flight, would keep this system in working order. That is it would have if you had known what I just said.
I had checked out in my “new” airplane by flying with an instructor friend around the pattern, shooting a few touch and goes. Then I decided I would take it on a cross-country. I decided to visit an old friend that I had grown up with and went to school with. He was an instructor at an airbase near Laredo, Texas. It was early on a Saturday morning. Both tanks were full. The bobber was at the top showing a full tank. I had “cumshawed” a regional chart from base operations, and I had plotted my course to a point on the Rio Grande a few miles south of Laredo. The idea was to intercept the river, then turn right. If I had plotted the course directly to the airport near Laredo, I would not have known which way to turn when I reached the river; that is if the airport and the city were no where to be seen when I got there.
This technique was known as “off course navigation” where a navigator intentionally aimed right or left of a plotted position and then turned to his destination. It was an old trick that was used over open water or over open desert where there were no prominent checkpoints. To my knowledge the British navigator, and yachtsman, Sir Francis Chichester, was the first to use it to navigate a light airplane around the world. He was also one of the first to use a “knee table” for navigation in a small cockpit airplane. He would go on to teach navigation to RAF fighter pilots in World War 11.
You may recall that Amelia Earhart, the around the world aviatrix, along with her navigator Fred Noonan, was using this method when the two of them were lost at sea. They were flying one of their longest legs from New Guinea to Howland island, a dot in the sea to the east – Noonan had pre-plotted a position miles to the left of Howland island. The Coast Guard had positioned the cutter, Itaska, to intercept Amelia. Noonan was supposed to use Itaska as a “fix” to verify his “line of position,” as I had the Rio Grande. But they never heard Itaska. A series of mistakes were made that resulted in the two of them running out of fuel before they could reach Howland. They had turned right ninety degrees at Noonan’s estimated off course position and were never heard of again. The Itaska heard her faintly, but was never able to give her the requested bearing to Howland. What happened to them remains one of the great mysteries of our time.
We do know that she had left her trailing antennae and the extra radio that went with it behind. She had lost the antennae in a landing when she forgot to reel it in. She had convinced Noonan it was unnecessary and that it was just extra weight that could be used for gasoline.
My course to Laredo, took me to the north of Huston. I was a few miles away from the farming community of El Campo, when I noticed I was getting good mileage. Ten minutes or so later the engine quit cold.
There was a quick before landing check that we used that was easy to remember. It was called the “Gump” check after the comic strip character by the name of Andy Gump. It meant gas, undercarriage, mixture, and prop. But there was no need to change tanks by opening the valve from the overhead auxiliary because I could see the bobber in the main tank was showing it was a quarter full. But I never noticed that it was stationary and not bobbing. And it had probably been that way for some time.
Now, of course I was not in combat, but I was in danger of getting killed just the same. And that’s where the remembered advice of one of Leach’s cadets came in. He wrote Leach that he never forgot the things he was taught in primary. He was in combat, and he told Leach that many of the things he was taught had saved his life. One of the things Leach emphasized was when you pick an emergency field for a forced landing, always remember not to change it. Leach taught that your second guess was always worse than your first. The most important, though, was to immediately lower your nose if your engine quits, especially if you are taking off. The nose is high and the airspeed will drop off immediately, so always do this automatically without thinking.
I had the airplane under control. It was in a very shallow glide but where it was going to end up, I hadn’t decided yet – but not to panic. It was as though Leach was sitting there waiting to jump on me if I made a mistake. I was at two or three thousand feet and I had plenty of time, but Leach taught all of us not to change our minds after we had picked a field. But that is just what I did. But in this case it was warranted.
Leach preached about making sure the field you picked had no obstacles in it such as hay stacks, tractors and the like. But at two thousand feet I couldn’t see any such thing. At five hundred though things were clearer. This was Texas, mind, and when I could see more clearly I was dumbfounded to see that the field contained more than a few cows. Their heads were down and they were grazing, and they were paying absolutely no attention to me.
The first thing that came to my mind was the right turn I was going to be forced to make. There was nothing suitable ahead; what was off to the right was my only option. If there was nothing available there I was going to crash. I wondered what Leach would have said about that. He would have said I should have checked to my right first before I decided to land in the pasture to my left. But the mistake I made, actually there was two of them, was concluding that there was nothing better than the pasture. My mind was fixed on the pasture. And I should have switched gas tanks as part of the Gump check.
Most good pilots know that anything that flies will kill you. Sometimes the easiest is the most dangerous, because you get careless and lose focus. A forced landing in a small airplane is a good example. When I turned right away from the cows, I lost most of my options. I had one more right turn to make that would put me on the approach, but on the approach to what? I was too low, and there was not enough time left to study what lay ahead. I was committed. If there was no suitable field ahead I would be in a world of hurt. The odds were against me now. I quit thinking about Leach. All I had left was my time-honored friend – I had to rely on the Lord.
I had just finished consulting with Him as I rolled out of my last gliding turn and breathed a sigh of relief when I saw a field of gleaming, green sugar beets. They were not very high and they were pliable. This was important. I did not want to tear the gear off or rip open the bottom of the fuselage. The furrows were also not very high, as I remember. And the field looked dry. This too was important. The thought came flashing to my mind. I remembered reading a book about flying in the Lafayette Escadrille in France during the First World War. The author said something to the effect that there might have been more pilots that died from a broken neck when their airplane nosed over during a poor landing or a forced landing in a wet field than from any other cause. But none of this awaited me. I touched down without incident and rolled to a stop in what seemed to be just a few feet.
When I got around to noticing my outside bobber I realized what had happened. The landing had caused it to bottom out, meaning I was out of gas. The owner of the field was there to greet me as I exited from the airplane. I thought he was going to be angry, but instead he laughed when I told him I almost ruined his crop of sugar beets. He looked at me the way most southerners look at stupid Yankees. He asked me where the devil I came from, while enlightening me about his crop of cotton. It was newly planted, he said, about eight or so inches high. When I asked, he told me the small area I had destroyed could be replaced for about ten dollars. No sweat. Then he proceeded to tell me he was also and aviator and that he had been watching me. He said I planned it just right. Of course I did. But I never told him how come I did.
It was about noon and there was soon an accumulation of kids around my airplane. I had been talking to the owner of the field, and since he was a pilot I was interested in his opinion about how he figured I was going to get out of there. The ground that looked dry from the air was too soft, and the field was too short to attempt it. Anyway, the short field ended in a high revetment with a railroad on top.
He did have a suggestion that he said might work but it could be dangerous. He said lets use these kids to push and pull the airplane to his neighbor’s cornfield. He said there was a road down the center of the corn that ended in front of his neighbor’s house. I thought it was going to be real tricky before I even saw it. Then, when I did see the narrow farm road, and how close we were to the house, I knew better than to try it. Then I was sure when I saw several wind breaking trees on the right side of the house and to my left. I knew I was stupid but not stupid enough to try to fly it out that way. But there was no other way. Because of the raised railroad tracks there was no way to make the “runway” longer.
In the early months of the war, the Army Air Force decided to try and bomb Tokyo. The Mitchell bomber was the airplane of choice. The idea was to launch them from an aircraft carrier, after getting the carrier as close to the Japanese mainland as possible. They went to the navy for a carrier and a place to practice short field take offs. They also enlisted the help of people expert in flying from carriers.
They painted a “carrier” on an old runway at Pensacola. The problem they had was the same as mine: how long the runway would really have to be if you could get the aircraft engine reved up to way above it’s redline? The idea was to hold it in position with the brakes, while the engines were coming up to full throttle. But would the brakes hold it?
The movie they made of this Tokyo operation gave me an idea. Why not use the kids to hold back the airplane while I turned up the engine as far as it would go. They would encircle the airplane, holding on to the two wing struts, and the leading edge of the horizontal stabilizer. I would stay on the brakes until I thought the engine was at the maximum. I would then drop my hand. The farmer/aviator would then signal the kids to all let go at once. I expected the airplane to act the way the bombers did at Pensacola, and again on board the carrier. It would jump out and with a nose high attitude I would wait to the last minute before I pulled it into the air. I talked it over with my new farmer friend. We agreed that if I could not come up to flying speed I would turn into the corn crop to help me stop. The corn had been picked and the stalks were going to be used only for silage. The airplane running through it would not damage it at all.
We made a few dry runs as they did at Pensacola – bringing the engine up to full power. This meant more RPM’s than ever before, and while standing in the same position. One of my problems would be to not over-heat the engine and cause it to swallow a valve or blow a cylinder head gasket.
When the kids were “trained” I again cautioned those on the wing struts to get out of the way of the tail surfaces as soon as they let go. I waved good-by and climbed in. The farmer propped me after we had transferred most of the overhead gas into the main tank.
I began the takeoff roll, and was elated that it was ready to fly before I was half way to the farmhouse. I cleared the ground a few feet above the corn, and kept it level until just before I reached the farmhouse and the trees. Then at the last minute, I lifted it off in a climbing left turn, as we had planned. The turn had to be steep enough to miss the trees. And shallow enough to maintain airspeed without stalling out. Tex Rankin or the German ace Ernst Udet, his air show competitor, could have easily performed this stunt…. But me?? I needed help.
As an interesting aside: Tex Rankin was killed after the second war attempting just such a maneuver. He lifted off the runway at Klamath Falls, Oregon. He had three passengers with him who were grown men. This is important because it appears to me they were overloaded. They were in a Republic Seebee, an amphibian that according to a classmate of mine at Rankin’s school, and who lived in the area, was underpowered – there were others that had flown one who were on record as having said the same thing. My friend also told me that Rankin and some business friends were on their way to Seattle. They were mushing, fighting for altitude, when they augured in and struck a power line some distance away from the end of the runway. The Seebee is a tail dragger, and the tail wheel hangs below the rear of the fuselage an estimated nine inches. The tail wheel caught the power line like a navy fighter contacts an arresting cable. It was reported to have fallen about seventy feet and hit nose down. So every flight in any airplane is dangerous. What appeared to be an easy take off in the Seabee was not a given, even for one of the great aviators of all time.
There was no question the takeoff I was contemplating was dangerous, but not as much as if I had had no faith in the Lord. Again, I marveled at how calm I was. I even waived at the startled family that came running out on their porch to see what the ruckus was all about. Can you imagine what was going through this families mind? They were farmers and no doubt they were eating their noon dinner. The front door was open. They could all see me at once. They must have stumbled over each other, either trying to get out of the house before that crazy airplane coming down the road killed them or they meant to be first to see what was making that loud roar. They were startled all right because I got a glance of them looking up at me as I went over their trees. I quickly landed at a small airfield, used mostly by crop dusters that the cotton farmer had told me about. I filled up my overhead tank and headed for the Rio Grande.
That night in Laredo was kind of like old home week. There were several officers at the club that I knew from summer school. This school was a requirement for completion of a course now known as aerospace studies. After they graduated, they were called up from the reserves. They had qualified for flying school, and now they were all instructors in jet fighters.
After leaving the 44th Bomb Wing, where I had nearly lost my life in one of our new jet bombers, I attended the Squadron Officers School that was part of the Air University. There I met two officers, one of them later became a prisoner of the North Vietnamese. He had flown combat in Korea and in later years flew “Wild Weasel” missions against Russian made missiles operated by North Vietnamese.
He would fly in an area suspected of harboring what was known as flying telephone poles or SAM missiles. When he and his electronics operator “locked on” to a missile’s radar they would turn and dive. They would follow the enemy beam, releasing their weapons in time to pull up, destroying the missile and the missile complex. This was considered to be one of the most dangerous assignments in the Air Force. He was shot down and spent several years in the “Hanoi Hilton” prison where he was periodically tortured. They wanted him to sign a paper saying he was a war criminal.
I talked to him at length after he was released. He told me first hand about what happened to him during interrogations. He said they would tie his legs, and his arms behind his back; they would sit him on a chair and then sit the chair on a table. They would blindfold him and then knock the chair off the table. He said this form of torture was increased after the departure of one, Jane Fonda, a movie actress of some notoriety.
She was a self-proclaimed “activist” that had gone to North Vietnam at our enemy’s request. There she had her picture taken, sitting, smiling, and waving on an enemy anti aircraft gun carriage. While she was there she told the world that our brave airmen were all criminals. As late as 1976, she would often join her second husband the owner of the Atlanta Braves baseball team – they would sit behind home plate to watch the games. The times Betty and I attended, a group, said to be veterans, would display a banner in the stands above center field. The banner would “Welcome, Hanoi Jane.” This activity was meant to embarrass the actress that they held in disdain for what they considered acts of treason of the highest order.
This former prisoner friend and I also talked about a mutual friend that had distinguished himself by being the module pilot in the first lunar expedition. Buzz Aldrin is his name. Aldrin’s brother in law was a member of a reserve squadron from Oklahoma City that had been recalled. He is a special friend of mine that I served with in Morocco. We, except Aldrin, were all involved in the highly classified Operation Reflex.
I mention both of these names for a reason. Aldrin is world famous for not only having been one of the first on the moon, but he is considered to be a scientist of some repute. He graduated from West Point, third in his class, and then went on to earn a doctoral degree in Astrophysics from MIT. His brother in law was also a scholar, graduating from prestigious Wesleyan University. And after leaving the service he became an executive of one of our major oil companies. Both of these men were believers that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. I know this from talking to the brother in law. And much has been written about the life of Aldrin.
Aldrin is an elder in his church. He was known to have partaken of his church’s tokens of the sacrament immediately after arriving on the moon. He had the permission of his church to do so. They encouraged him by giving him a vile of wine and a wafer that had been consecrated for this purpose. He said he wanted to give thanks to the Lord for seeing them safely to their destination, and to encourage the rest of the world to do the same, regardless of which God they worshiped.
I recall discussing some of the universal imponderables with Aldrin’s brother in law many times over the months. I found him to be well educated. As an example. he could speak excellent French, an accomplishment that some of us took advantage of in a country where many only spoke French and Arabic. In one of our many discussions, we talked about the origin of the Christian church, and about the role of the early “fathers” of the Catholic Church, and how the Nicene Creed had influenced all Christian Churches. He asked me about my church’s concept of the Godhead and I told him that we didn’t subscribe to the argument that Eusebius and Athanasius presented to the council of Nicaea. We believe, I told him, that God the Father and God the Son and God the Holy Ghost were three distinct personages that made up the one Godhead. We believed this because Joseph Smith, whom we considered to be a prophet, saw the Father and the Son and they were; indeed, separate in body but one in spirit and purpose,
He asked me to recite the Lords prayer. When I said, “Our Father who art in Heaven….” he stopped me and then he said something quite profound. He said, the use of the pronoun “who” means that they are separate beings but one in spirit. Other Christian Churches say “which art in heaven.” What they mean is that the trinity is one while united in spirit.
I asked a Catholic priest once: If They are One how can the Son be the Father. He told me that was the beauty of it. He went on to tell me it was a mystery and that some day we will all understand. I never asked my friend the same question for fear of getting into an argument that might embarrass him; because I knew there was no answer that made any sense other than the one given by Joseph Smith.
I didn’t expect Aldrin and his brother in law to believe as strongly as they do in a hereafter. I didn’t expect either of them to be atheists or even agnostics. But I also did not believe they would have much of a testimony that God and his Son Jesus Christ existed and that there was, in fact, a life after this one. But there is. And they knew it, and what’s more they have not hesitated to let their beliefs be known. I found this to be the case with many members of the air force. Many that were graduate engineers and pilot officers were acknowledged Christians.
About Aldrin and his trip to the moon: As time goes by and higher education seems to be getting more and more liberal i.e. some professors teach that students should be more questioning of such historical events as journeying to the moon. These teachers go so far as to question honorable men such as Aldrin, saying that he and others are out and out liars.
A vid cap on YouTube had a short documentary that showcased Aldrin and his wife. They were walking down the sidewalk in one of our cities. One of the countries liberal clergymen was walking beside Aldrin. He was taunting him saying he did not go to the moon. Aldrin, being the gentleman he is, turned away from him to avoid confrontation. The pastor ran around in front of him yelling in his face that he dared him to swear on his bible that he went to the moon. Again Aldrin turned, this time completely around with his wife to avoid this character. But he turned with him and now yelling louder, he defied Aldrin to swear on the bible that he went to the moon. This time he pushed the bible too close to Aldrin’s face. He called Aldrin a liar and an expletive deleted. I knew what was going to happen. I knew Aldrin and I knew he had had it with this guy. Sure enough, when he got in his face again, Aldrin cocked his right hand in the manner a trained fighter would and he punched him in the mouth. It was not like some pansy might, but like a boxer trained at the Academy might. The full force of the blow caught the pastor with his mouth open screaming at Aldrin. That was the end of the aggression. The pastor was rendered incapable of walking or yelling further. The vid cap ended. I later read where Aldrin, as might be expected, was hailed before a magistrate. But there was no messing with lawyers and the law. No expected expensive penalties to be awarded to the pastor that saw his actions as the Lord’s work. On the contrary, the judge lectured the pastor on the law of the state of California on the seriousness of stocking. He charged him with that, issued a restraining order, and levied a large fine on the man.
Another computer vid cap had Aldrin talking about seeing aliens while on the moon, and that these aliens had saucers and maintenance facilities, etc. He was supposed to have said they warned him away, telling Aldrin and Armstrong that they had no business there.
I have talked to Buzz Aldrin twice since school. Once when we met on gurneys in the hall of an army hospital. He was coming back from Europe having contacted hepatitis and I was on my way to an air force orthopedic center. Two weeks before I had broken my leg near the Greenland ice cap. The second time I talked to him on the telephone I was interested in acquiring the telephone number of his brother in law. He affirmed once again that he had gone to the moon.
He said later on another Internet presentation that his words had been spliced together to say that he had not been on the moon. Furthermore, they had seen no such thing as aliens on the moon or a UFO while travelling there. He did say that while traveling to the moon they saw a bright light. Aldrin called it a UFO. What he meant was that because he didn’t know what it was it remained unidentified. Later I heard him on television say that he was pretty sure it was the sun reflecting off a part of the rocket or some other part of the booster. And since he could not say for sure what it was, he said it remained unidentified or a UFO. This means that his comments about taking communion on the moon are still the truth – end of conversation.
Before leaving, as I said, for French Morocco, where we manned an incomplete airbase that was being built in support of Reflex, I was stationed at Norton Air Force base in San Bernardino. The director of the overhaul of airplanes, in support of the war in Korea, was a colonel. Among other things, he was known for having been the chief of maintenance for a bomb group in Europe that was known as the “Bloody 100th” ( I have mentioned this group before. )
I was not aware of his strong belief in Christianity. One of his officers mentioned his wartime duties in regards to his religious testimony, however, I do not offer it as proof of anything. I was also not aware of the air forces interest in their senior officers promoting a belief in God. At a staff meeting one day, though, he announced that there would be a base “devotional” the next evening. We were all invited to attend. It was not mandatory, but we knew he had seen the aftermath of many missions over Europe and we knew his group was not known as the bloody one hundredth for nothing. I remember thinking that nobody would show up, but every one of his officers, as far as I know, attended.
I was the youngest, and I looked up to most of them because of their wartime experiences. Later on, after the Second World War and the Korean War ended and the Vietnamese War began, I was to learn from several friends that confided in me that it was not uncommon to see others that gained a testimony of the Lord once they were attacked by enemy fighters or the flack became so thick over a target that “you could walk on it.”
While still at Norton air base I was appointed assistant prosecutor on the Special Court Martial board. This was before the legal profession decided that all of the military branches were in need of graduate lawyers. Somehow they managed to take over. Never mind that a senior officer admitted to a state bar and had been appointed as the judge advocate representing the convening authority, he was not viewed by them as being qualified to train junior officers in the same way that many civilian jurists were trained in law offices years ago. The fact is that most of them such as Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln served apprenticeships in law offices before they were deemed qualified to practice.
Military courts followed this procedure during the time I was in the service. An accused could hire an attorney or accept one that had been trained and was appointed to this special job. The thing the service was most interested in was the constitutional right of the accused. Elements of proof were religiously adhered to. This was followed by two separate appellate reviews by lawyers that had been admitted to a state bar. In the case of a General Court a legal officer presided. This gentleman was also a member of a state bar.
There was a small brick building near the large hanger at Norton. It was faced with a large iron door that must have been locked from the inside, someway, because I could not see an outside lock.
In front, tied down, were three airplanes that were obsolete. When I asked my supervisor what the building was for he said it was kind of a storage facility. He pointed out two of the three airplanes tied down there as being mistakes in design. The first known as the Gremlin was an odd looking machine that was supposed to hook underneath the fuselage of a B-29 bomber. It had a tripod rig with a hook at the top. The pilot was supposed to hook up to the bomber in midair. If the bomber encountered any fighters, the Gremlin would unhook and attack the fighters. It was a great idea, except the pilot of this curious craft could not hook back up. Several of them tried for weeks but were never able to fly the hook into the bomber’s attaching receptacle.
Another of the other airplanes that did not pan out looked like a beauty in design, and truly it was one of our fastest medium jet bombers. The trouble with it was the pilots sat side by side and the design called for them to eject through a side door. It was another stellar idea, except the pilots would have broken their necks when they tried to use it.
I don’t remember what was wrong with the third airplane but it was something that also made it impractical. Nobody cared very much about the security of these airplanes. But the contents behind the iron door required an armed guard at night. And this particular guard had become my client, because he had gone to sleep at his post. Now this is a no-no in all places military.
My only defense, since the sergeant of the guard was the one that awakened him, was to try and show that there was nothing inside that was of any value. So why was he guarding the place? Pretty lame defense but that’s all I had. I had asked around but I couldn’t find anybody that knew. Then I mentioned it to my supervisor that seemed to know something about it. He said it contained electronic equipment that was obsolete. He said we didn’t want it for anything but we didn’t want it to fall into the hands of the Russians either. That seemed to be the best I could do. It was useless as a defense. I expected the prosecutor would immediately challenge it and it wouldn’t help the accused at all.
Still, I was curious until later when I read a book by one Colonel Phillip Corso on the subject. And for some reason I don’t recall he was at Roswell at some time after the alleged saucer or saucers crashed. Corso was not just a bystander. He had been a member of President Eisenhower’s Security Council and a former head of the Foreign Technology Desk. Anyway, he says he knew where the inside of one of these babies was kept. He said some of it went to Wright Patterson, where the air force had a technical laboratory, and some of it went to Norton. If he knew, and it really was at Norton, that brick building had to be the place where it was being stored. He also said that he was put in charge of reverse engineering of the technology they found inside one of the saucers, and he took credit for putting most of it in the hands of our advanced engineering firms. From it, he said, came night vision goggles; data processors; transistors; integral circuit chips; and lasers among other things.
He wrote that a physicist by the name of Bardeen used this equipment to somehow devise another version of quantum mechanics, and from his efforts, William Shockley of Bell Laboratories was able to make the transistor a reality.
Soon after I arrived in Morocco I was again assigned to the office of the base Judge Advocate. I worked for him as the Trial Counsel on maybe ten cases before he invited me to accompany him to Tangier, a free port in northern Spanish Morocco.
We were driving in his automobile, and we were about an hour north of Casablanca. It was not by accident or coincidence that he had brought up the subject of the law. He told me he was a partner in a firm in Cincinnati. He also told me he was a reservist that had been recalled and that he soon would be leaving the service. He asked me how I felt about the law as a career. He said he had been talking to one of his partners about bringing me on board his firm. He said he knew I had used all of my military scholarship money allotted me by the second world war veterans program. But he said his firm would pay for my tuition at the University of Cincinnati, and they would also pay me while I was going to school. They wanted me to pass the state bar and then join them as a litigator. He told his partner that he liked how I handled myself in court, and he figured I would someday be a valuable asset. That’s why I had been invited on this weekend trip. He wanted to get me off the base so that he wouldn’t be criticized when he asked me to resign my newly tendered regular commission. He also said they wanted me to clerk for them while I was going to school, and for this they would pay me. It sounded like I had it made, but I didn’t want to. I thanked him and then told him I wanted to stay in the service. I was trying to get back on flying status and that is where my interests really lie. He said he understood and the subject never came up again.
We secured rooms at the Minza Hotel in Tangiers. He went off to do something while I sipped a coke at the hotel bar. Directly two young gentlemen made my acquaintance. It was mid-afternoon and they were dressed in evening clothes. But that is not the most curious thing about them.
They introduced themselves and then asked me to join them at a table. They said they recognized me as being an American of which I acknowledged in the affirmative. Then they asked me if I was an officer in the air force. When I answered again in the affirmative, they asked me if I could navigate. I told them not celestial but I could pilotage and dead reckoning. They were not surprised at my answer. They hurried on with the conversation by surprising me with a question that was obviously their reason for making my acquaintance in the first place. One of them asked me how I would like to be a multi-millionaire before I was thirty years old. They said they figured I was a few years younger than they were. And then the other one said that they were both very wealthy. They said they would like to take me to dinner and talk it over. They said they would meet me back here later in the evening. All I remember about the meeting time was that it was dark. And what I remember about them was that they were not phony, that is they were, indeed, wealthy. And something else, they were, indeed, dangerous.
After dinner they said they had to meet somebody and they asked me if I would join them. They obviously were trying to impress me. But by that time there was no need to. The problem was I had already summed them up and I didn’t miss it by far. They were Americans, expatriates that had served in the army in Europe. Actually they were soldiers of fortune. Tangiers was full of those seeking their fortune after the first war – there were also some writers in the mold of Ernest Hemingway that later spent time in Spain before returning home.
They had their car brought around. It was a new or an almost new Mercedes. The driver stayed with us and I thought at the time that he might be a bodyguard. The reason I thought this is because I saw a shoulder holster when one of my hosts undid the buttons on his tuxedo coat. Then again when they took me down by the waterfront and showed me what is best described as a modified cigarette boat. They showed me the twin diesel engines and then told me it was the fastest thing afloat on the Mediterranean. They also told me that they were running guns to the Israeli Kibbutz’s. What they didn’t tell me then was that the British Navy intended to block any more Jewish settlers from coming into the area. And also the Palestinians were intent on shooting anybody supporting the Jews. The good news was there were wealthy Jewish people bent on seeing that occupied Palestine remained in Jewish hands. That’s where the big money was coming from. But I couldn’t help wonder where the man went that they wanted me to replace. Later they would ask me which of the small arms I was qualified with.
The man they needed to see was in the Kasbah. This is the native quarter where Anglo-Saxons never went after dark. The car was parked and locked. The four of us, which included the Arab driver, entered the walled Kasbah and walked downhill to one of the bistros. They did not sell liquor but they did sell “kif”, a Moroccan form of marijuana.
There were also some Arabs smoking some water pipes. This was the first and only time I have smelled marijuana. There was no Humphrey Bogart or Pepe Le Moko nor was there any dancing girls in attendance. And the leaders of the beat generation such as Kerouac, Bowles, Ginsberg, etc, had not yet arrived on the scene. And I didn’t ask them where the girls were and my hosts never volunteered. It was obvious from the start that their interests involved making a business connection. My purpose in being there was to become convinced that the millions they talked about were well within the grasp of somebody like me if I was willing to take the less than remote chance of falling into the hands of the British Navy. If I was not interested in resigning my commission to accept a lucrative scholarship to a law school, why would I be interested in gambling my life or several years behind bars for a fantasy treasure; although it was becoming more and more real as time went by.
When we went into this bistro my two escorts told me to sit at the bar. One of them told the bar tender that I was their guest and that nothing should happen to me. The driver sat on a stool next to me. He was not interested in conversation, if in fact, he could speak English. They came back about thirty or so minutes later. It was then that the two of them came right out and told me what they wanted. But they said if I was not interested in their job offer I was sworn to keep my mouth shut about what little I did know about their business. They didn’t have to tell me twice.
It was never my intention to get married just because the opportunity might present itself. But I was getting tired of travelling around. I never thought I was wasting my time. I always thought my career was pointed in the right direction. I found it hard to see where a wife was going to be of any help. But I always believed that there was a time to get married. And that time was when you had finished school, and had some notion of what you wanted to do in life. This was never a problem with me. I never wanted to acquire a wife, and then face the probability of living from paycheck to paycheck. But, anyway, I never really thought that much about it – not seriously anyway.
I don’t recall what made me start thinking about marriage. Maybe it was the time of life where all the goals I had set for myself might be coming close to being met. Maybe it was what happened next that brought it on, but anyway it was the first time I seriously thought about it. I had a friend that I shared a house with in San Bernardino. We were the same junior rank. He was newly out of flying school and I was newly out of the university. He was interested in building up his flying time and I was interested in just plain flying. And the base had an assortment of airplanes and we were the only two lieutenants that were interested in flying on Saturday. He was an excellent instructor and he was not afraid to let me land the aircraft from the left seat.
He called me one Friday afternoon. He worked in the flight test section and I was in aircraft repair. He said he had volunteered the two of us to go to LAX. He said he and his co-pilot were going to pick up a movie actress and bring her back to San Bernardino. She had volunteered to be the hostess for the Orange Festival but she didn’t want to drive here from Los Angeles. The freeway had not yet been built and it was very difficult to negotiate the back roads of the time. Somebody asked her if she would come if they could get the air force to fly her here. She said she would be glad to so they called the base commander.
Around noon on Saturday, we preflighted a cargo airplane that had passenger seats, and set out for Los Angeles. We were told the actress’s name was Ann Sheridan. She was on the “A” list of moviemakers. When I saw her I was not all that impressed. She was too tanned to suit me and too old. I had graduated from the war and from college, which put me around twenty-four. She was in her early thirties,
She had a paid escort with her that never said anything. She was the first to speak to me. She wanted me to apologize for her to my girl friend for taking up my weekend. This was on a Sunday night.
I told her I didn’t have a girlfriend. She looked surprised but then again I figured her to be an actress. I went along with the conversation. I thought she was just making small talk, but as it turned out she was serious. There was nothing superficial about her. She was one of the most down-to-earth nice people I ever met.
She asked me why I didn’t have a girl friend and I told her I just got out of school, and in school I had to work on week ends in a copper pit to get the money to go. Then, too, I didn’t think I was all that good looking that the girls would want to go out with somebody like me that didn’t have any money. She said, good looking…. and then she said it again and then she said if you only knew. I told her she was a good actress. She laughed and then told me she was telling me the truth. I said well you know all the handsome men in Hollywood. She said she did, and then she told me that they didn’t measure up. I figured she was talking about them being much older; and the fact that most of them drank whiskey; and that they didn’t wear a uniform; and they couldn’t fly an airplane; and so on.
But it got me to thinking. I told myself not to be thinking such foolishness. I had a plan and I wasn’t making nearly what the plan called for. I reminded myself that I should stick to it. Don’t be running off half-cocked thinking about getting married. Ann Sheridan was a charmer, and I promised myself I would remember that she was, anytime the marriage idea came into my head. But the idea had already been implanted.
Two years after my return from overseas the first time, I met and married a beauty queen from Savannah, Georgia and my plan “went up Powell Street in the fog.” Later, Betty was converted to the LDS Church and we were married for the second time, in the Los Angeles Temple, in accordance with the beliefs and ordinances that were passed down from the Lord, Jesus Christ, to Joseph Smith. These beliefs do not coincide with the decision of the Nicene Council, and this is primarily the reason why the Catholics and the Protestant churches proclaim that we are not Christian. We on the other hand, believe that the LDS Church is not only a Christian church, but that it was established under the direction of the Lord, Jesus Christ, Himself. And it teaches that there is a life after this one and that this one is only a prelude to the one that will follow.
There have been, in recent years, an untold number of books written by people that declare they died and went to another world where many of them say they met and were instructed by the Lord, Jesus Christ. There experiences differ on some points. The one major proclamation that seems to be consistent with all of them, however, is that we are here in this world to learn to forgive everyone and to love every one. Also, many of them were asked what they had done here on earth to declare that Jesus is the Lord, the Son of God, and that He is the Creator of the Universe.
One of the many that “died” and returned to tell about how the most important thing he/she was taught was that Jesus loves us all, unconditionally. And that we must do the same; we must love everybody; and that we must forgive those that have trespassed against us if we would have Him intercede with God the Father to be forgiven of our sins and trespasses.
One such writer’s name is Dannion Brinkley. He was struck by lightening and then returned to tell of his experiences in the hereafter. One of the things he said was that he was unaware of any person professing a particular religion that had had a Near Death Experience. He said there was one exception, however, and that one has now passed on. When he was living, Brinkley said, one of the presidents of the LDS Church, Heber J. Grant, wrote that he died and while in the after life met and talked to his wife that had passed on years before. He said that she had a child in tow that she introduced to him as his daughter. She called the little girl by name, and then reminded the Church President that while they were crossing the plains to the valley of The Great Salt Lake that “the wolves had eaten her all up, but it did not hurt her.” Dannion, of course, quoted this conversation verbatim. I believe he was mistaken in that, I think he was referring to Jedidiah, the brother of Heber, who was also a president of the church.
But I did hear President Heber J. Grant speak once when I was a boy. I don’t recall the subject, but as is customary with many speakers, he bore his testimony of the truthfulness of the Church. And he said he knew for a certainty that Jesus was the Son of God.
Heber knew the story of Jedediah’s meeting with his wife Caroline in the spirit world and of his meeting his little girl, Margaret. What a beautiful experience that meeting would have been if Heber had talked about this subject as Dannion Brinkley did in his book, “Saved by the Light,” and if I could have remembered what he had said.
All of my life I have had “flash backs” of incidents that reminded me of how the Lord has helped me when I called on Him for help. This is the main reason I can remember what I write here. One day I can expect my memory to dim and maybe fade away altogether. But right now at this writing, at 91 years, I think my mind is almost as sharp as it ever was.
I have always been afraid of large bodies of water or of fast rivers. I was terrified of a rowboat ride that I was taken on by some cousins when I was a child. This fear was reinforced when my grandmother Lewis stopped her horse and buggy to talk to a friend. The friend told her that two other friends had little boys that had been playing on a bridge crossing the Bear River. My grandmother was told they were climbing under the bridge and that it was believed they became entangled in the steel girders and fell into the river and drowned. Instantly, when I heard this, I recalled my experience with my cousins and the rowboat. I’m sure the same thing has happened to others, maybe even more often and perhaps more vivid.
These past few weeks, some of the media have kept us posted on the condition of the dam and the spillway at the Oroville Dam in California. Some of the engineers and most of the news media have offered their opinions on the safety of this structure. The meteorologists have also kept them informed of their prognostications.
At any moment, according to the aggregate, the lake behind the dam is full for the first time in years and is overflowing from the emergency spillway, while the main spillway has ruptured below. And even if it is repaired, the heavy spring runoff from the Sierra’s does not bode well for the people living below.
I have a particular interest in this because it was close by three of California’s large reservoirs that I flew in the first of my almost disastrous cross-country flights while an aviation cadet during the war.
Recall, I cut short my trip to Sacramento that would have caused me to pass close to the Don Pedro Lake and dam. I did fly over the length of the Exchequer that is now known as the McClure on my way back to Merced.
I recall, right now, the feelings I had as I passed over this body of water. Even at an altitude of 5,000 feet, I was very apprehensive. What if I had an engine failure? Could I glide to safety? Would I have enough altitude then to jump clear of the water? The answer is no I would not. Why then did I insist on going straight down the middle? Because I had asked the Lord for a heading and that heading was down the middle of the Exchequer. The point is I remember it as though it was yesterday. And I feel for the residents of that area as they live day by day under the cloud that is the deep water behind the Oroville dam.
I also remember other times and other bodies of water. One time I was with a crew flying engines back across the ocean. We had been pushed off course at night in a storm off the Azores and had become lost looking for Bermuda. We flew all night dodging one thunderstorm after another until we became low on fuel. Another time I was crossing the Atlantic in a storm at night in a ship when the sea was running particularly high. It was the middle of the night when I was awakened by the noise of the screws coming out of the water. I went topside to see what was going on. There was nobody about. I could see the deck had been rigged for foul weather. And I could see the sea breaking over the bow. I dared myself to get closer. Members of the crew saw me and risked their lives to “rescue” me. Of course I never knew how much danger I was in. Again, while swimming at Balboa, California, where I had heard that high breakers were the norm, I became trapped in riptides. Exhausted, I was lying on the edge of the water, resting, when an older gentleman going for a walk stopped to school me about the danger of riptides, and to tell me that this beach had been posted against swimming because of storms at sea.
Again while in preflight we were taken on what for us was a holiday. The army maintained a tower on the edge of Balboa Bay where cadets were taught how to don a kapok type life preserver. The tower was reported to be about as high as a large ocean liner. We would climb a ladder to the top and jump off into the ocean. We did it several times and then the sergeants let us have the rest of the day off. They cautioned us against going too far out into the bay, because a strong current was running in and out. This never dissuaded two of us when we were told by somebody that John Wayne’s yacht was moored on the far dock. Somebody in the know told us that the dock was about one mile away. We of course had to make a try for it. The yacht, a converted retired mine sweeper, did not meet our expectations but the ocean swim did.
The point here is that being afraid of drowning in deep water was a challenge. I believed the way to overcome this fear was to attack it head on. I probably would not have done these stunts if I didn’t have the Lord to fall back on. I believed He was always there, standing by to call on if He was needed. That made all the difference.
There are no small miracles. A miracle is a miracle and whether it is large or small depends on who is witnessing the incident and how it personally affects them. I can testify that you don’t have to walk away from an airplane that has been totaled without even so much as a limp to know you have seen the Lord’s work up close and personal. Anytime you become involved in something where you have to call on the Lord for his help, and His help is forthcoming, and it is confirmed beyond reasonable doubt that it could not have happened any other way, in my opinion, you have witnessed a miracle.
We had a little dog once. In fact my wife, Betty, and I have had several little dogs. Neither of us owned dogs long enough as children to become attached to them. But our close attachment began in later years with a present in the form of a furry puppy that I gave her for Christmas. To say that we became attached to him is an understatement. If you have never become attached to a dog, I feel that you have missed out on a real treat, I mean this bonding is something in life that is quite amazing.
The dog I write about was our second little dog. We became just as attached to him as we had the first. He was valuable. I mean valuable in money. That is important to the story, but only to the person that found him, because as you might have surmised, he had become lost. Not only lost, but also lost in a traffic filled city that he had never been in before.
The city was large, and he had time enough to wander, as dogs will, looking I suppose for something familiar. Anyway, he had broken loose from where he had been tethered in front of a grocery store. In the meantime, a family member that had taken him for a walk had been frantically looking for him to no avail. After the first hour of calling and walking and calling some more, Betty and I joined him. The three of us began to panic when after another hour we were about ready to give up hope.
He had a collar and the collar carried our telephone number. But we lived in another city a thousand miles away. If somebody found him and called that number there would be nobody home to answer. The fear was that they would give up after making a token effort and decide to keep the dog; because after all he was valuable. And why wouldn’t they be expected to call the dog shelter to see if anybody had called in? It would be for the same reason – the dog was valuable. Around midnight, we did call the shelter––no one had called and no one had brought him in. It was time to admit the odds against finding him, even if we had a dozen people looking, were mounting. What had I always done when I found myself in a situation like this? I had always asked the Lord for his help.
The next morning we were still looking. My wife, Betty, was driving by a shopping mall, miles away from where he had struck out on his own. She was prompted to visit a super-market, and to seek out the manager, and to ask him if he had talked to anybody that had found a lost dog. And if he had a bulletin board where it might be posted.
Now stop and ask yourself what the odds are that she would think to do this? And why would she pick this market? She went inside looking for a bulletin board and found none. But why this store that was miles away from where he became lost? It’s not as though the manager was standing around waiting for her to show up. After all the store was busy and so was he. But eventually Betty found the manager. He told her that in fact, he did have a bulletin board, and, furthermore, a lady had just left after asking him if she could post a lost dog notice on this bulletin board. And why would she ask? Why would she bother to look him up to ask? Why wouldn’t she just do it?
I have said before that I don’t believe in coincidence. I believe in cause and effect. Everything that happens is caused by something. Nothing happens of its own accord. What then caused these two women to meet in just the way they did. I believe the Lord prompted them both to do what they did. There is no other reasonable explanation.
The lady that found our dog said that she saw him trotting down the sidewalk. She slowed with the idea of picking him up and returning him to his owner. But she said she couldn’t get him to stop. At one point somebody opened their front door and he made a beeline up the steps and into their house. Before he went into the house, she said he was running in the busy street. Once when he came to a major cross street he ran out, stopping traffic in all directions, according to her. Why wasn’t he run over? The lady said she watched him dumbfounded. She said he never even came close. All the cars stopped or slowed down and let him get back on the sidewalk.
Maybe there is a logical explanation for all of this. Maybe a mathematician could gather up all the (data) things that happened, and then somehow calculate the odds of it just happening the way it did – maybe. And maybe I would go along with this coincidence thing or probability approach to acquiring the answer if it had been the first time. But it had happened to me any time I had the need to ask Him. Every time. It had to be every time or maybe I wouldn’t be here now to tell about it.
Were all the things I have enumerated just coincidence – beginning with my grandfather’s story of his friend returning to tell him it is all true? If the Lord had a role to play in just one of the things I have been writing about, then there is a Lord. And if this is true, might He not have had a hand in all of them? Can any of them be attributed to luck? Were they all just coincidence? How many such incidences does it take to prove the point? How many times did I have to have it manifested before I accepted it as fact? But the key is you have to ask. You have to get scared enough or want something bad enough to ask for help. You have to understand that by yourself you can’t control the outcome of every event that you are going to be confronted with in life – so don’t try.
The name of the game of life is to be happy. I never knew anybody that was happy and that enjoyed life that did not have peace of mind. Nothing in life will make you happier than to have peace of mind.
As Joshua Loth Liebmann, rabbi and scholar once wrote: “God gives most people health, and many people wealth, but He guards very closely the best gift of all, and when He gives it He gives it to a relatively few people. This gift is peace of mind. And without it nothing else is of any value.”
He is waiting to help you, but maybe He will do so only when He is asked. But relying on him is the quickest way to peace of mind – nay, maybe it is the only way. And when He is asked and He responds it opens up a whole new world. It allays fear of all the things that destroy our peace of mind. And it confirms that there is a life in the hereafter, and that Jesus is the Christ. And while we are here, we must proclaim that He is the Savior and we must learn to love everybody, because there really is a life after this one.
The horrors of the First World War are really indescribable. Never has there been so much suffering for so long a period as there was at the Somme and at Verdun. Knowing that war seemed to be inevitable, and that if another one broke out, the absolute hideousness of the trenches could never be repeated. Many of the historians and military people of the time repeated the mantra that this insanity should never happen again.
After the first war with Germany the French Marshall Petain, who commanded the French forces at Verdun for a time, became a proponent of the Maginot Line. This was an elaborate state of the art defense of the border between Germany and France. Some of the French believed it was another wonder of the modern world, and that it would dissuade Germany from ever invading France again. But if they ever did, they would be stopped in a matter of weeks. There were others, both German and French that believed it was a waste of time and money. Such a one was General De Gaulle, the French infantry authority and author on ground maneuvers and tactics. Others believed that fortresses of any kind were a military abomination. One of them was the outspoken American General, George Patten. In this he agreed with De Gaulle and the British General Montgomery. (It might be noted that this was one of the few times they agreed on much of anything.)
In World War One, the Germans followed the Schifflien Plan that called for avoiding a frontal attack directly into the heart of France. They skirted the boarder and attacked through Belgium. They were stopped in their advance on Paris at the Marne and the Somme Rivers. The war then stagnated into trench warfare, where the British lost some 57,475 men on their first attack on the German trenches on the Somme.
The Germans avoided the Maginot Line when they attacked France the second time by following the same Plan. Petain, the hero of Verdun, in order to avoid another trench war with Germany, and not willing to risk the loss of another generation of young men, surrendered the French forces and allied with the Germans. Then he established a provisional government at Vichy, France, splitting the French forces into Vichy; Free French in Britain under the command of Charles De Gaulle; and the Maquisard or Maqui; the underground forces that made a clandestine war on the occupying Germans and the Vichy.
A closer look at the airplane as an instrument to help the major contending nations avoid another trench war saw a leap in aerial technology. Before hostilities started between Germany and Italy, against France, Russia, Britain, America, Canada and Australia the airplane had replaced the concept of trench warfare, and had also changed the world’s thinking that navies were the first line of defense. This might have excluded the German submarines that were in danger of bringing Britain to her knees.
Before Germany attacked Poland in 1939, Germany, Britain, and America had been testing and had integrated both the modern fighter and bomber into their war plans for the future.
At the time I entered the Army Air Corps in the fall of 43’ the airplane was considered to be the instrument of war that would preclude forever the use of the defensive trench. This of course excludes the use of the occasional temporary hole in the ground known as a foxhole.
But the military planners and the civilian populations should not have been so quick to change their minds about the airplane replacing the machine gun and trench warfare. The bombed out cities and the heavy losses of the American Eighth Air Force were approximating the losses and the suffering that the world associated with the Western Front. Satan and his trench warfare were back in the form of the modern airplane. Although the losses at Morte Homme and the British attack on the Somme would not be duplicated, by anything in WW II the destruction of Dresden and Hiroshima, and the ongoing losses and the suffering of our aircrews were a close approximation. In defense of this position, consider that the training casualties in the continental U. S. numbered in the tens of thousands. And the Eighth alone suffered on average 200 air crewmen a day and they had been fighting since the advent of the first crews landing in England. Total losses for the Eighth alone was 26,000 airmen, and at one time there were 30,000 crewmembers in German prisoner of war camps. Still this had no apparent effect on the enlistment rate. There had been thousands turned away from cadet training by the winter of 1943 with some two more years to go. It’s no wonder that Tom Brokaw said that this was “The Greatest Generation.”
The air war in Europe had not slowed up much and the heavy bombing continued on even after the invasion.
Even with the heavy losses I remember feeling a twinge of jealousy when I heard they were giving priority training to women (WASPS.) And I was not the only one.
One Sunday afternoon I was on the flight line at Minter Field, Bakersfield, Ca. A friend and I were surprised to see a P-39 Aircobra fighter coming in low and fast. It immediately pitched out and came in on a low approach. There was no doubt an expert was flying it.
This expert never hesitated but veered off the runway and came directly toward us. This fighter did not have a conventional landing gear. They sat on three wheels, one of them being a nose wheel. The pilot swung the nose around, slowing the engine and immediately opened the side door. The door was a feature peculiar to this airplane. Neither of us had seen one close up. The pilot beckoned me to come over, posthaste. I climbed upon the wing to see what he wanted. To my surprise a young woman was at the controls. She could not contact the tower, and she wanted to know why the “follow-me” jeep was not waiting for her. I told her the base was closed this being Sunday afternoon. Here next question was, “where is base operations?” I pointed to a building over my shoulder about a mile away. She yelled at me to hang on. Then she gunned the engine, one of the most fascinating sounds I had ever heard. It was a twelve cylinder in line the same as the Merlin in the British Spitfire. The airplane leaped forward with her at the controls. What power. I helped her with her chute and then moved out of the way to let her on the wing and on to the ground where she ran into the building. I asked one of the clerks on duty where she went and what was her big hurry. He pointed to the Ladies Rest Room.
She was a ferry pilot on her way to Lethbridge, Canada, where she planned to stay the night. In the morning she intended to push on to Alaska. A Russian pilot would meet her and fly on to the Russian front. She told me this and lots more, while a gas truck topped off her tanks. She had come from the Bell Aircraft factory. She said that we were giving all of this type of aircraft to the Russians on “Lend Lease.” I asked her why, and she told me some few of them were in the south pacific but were being replaced. The Russians loved them, she said. The engine behind the pilot made for more cannons and more 50 cal. machine guns to be mounted in the nose section. She liked the airplane – no bad habits. But why didn’t we like it? She wasn’t sure but she did know from listening to an English speaking Russian that it was hell on German Tanks. The German Tigers were tearing up Russian ground troops. But the Aircobra’s in the hands of accomplished Russian pilots were taking a toll on the Germans. Another thing, and this is my own opinion. The engine was inline and was liquid cooled. That meant that the radiator coolant was 100 percent ethylene glycol. Then, too, the engine could be kept warm with a smoldering fire under the fuselage. Between the two, they would not be stopped by the severe cold that wrecked havoc with German airplanes and equipment. I had heard they also did this with the Jeeps we gave them. Bro. Gene Payne told me that a Russian told him, when he was on a mission, “those little trucks you gave us were a big factor in our winning the war on the eastern front.” So maybe the Aircobras also helped, maybe even more than the Jeeps. At any rate I was jealous of her. I could see me behind the controls making that approach the way she did. She was what we called a “Hot Pilot” or sometimes a “Smoldering Boulder.” I thought she might be one of the best until I heard and saw Ira Bong. But there is another one that proved to be unbeatable. And I felt His presence at times and maybe that of my Guardian Angel. But of this last personage I can’t be sure, but the presence of the Lord – there was no doubt in my mind. There wasn’t then and there isn’t now.
A year ago a member of my church paid me a visit in the hospital. I was lying in bed with a partially fractured pelvis, staring at the ceiling. A week before that I had fallen down our steep driveway. I began telling him many stories about how the Lord had saved my worthless butt. I wanted him to know that I would not have survived if the Lord had not been there. To my surprise He suggested I write a book. I did. I believe there is a God and that there is a life following this one. This was written, because I feel strongly that if I didn’t write it that some day soon I might have to answer to a higher power for why I didn’t.