Bob Elmore: On Entering The Army Corps In WWII (6th Excerpt)

  • Tuesday, February 16, 2010
  • Bob Elmore (from his new book)

( As we approached graduation day, we realized that most of the guys would soon be in the military. The draft had been lowered from 21 to 18 and the war was now worldwide.

John Hendricks and I decided to join the Army Air Corps as aviation cadets. We passed the written tests at Fort Oglethorpe then went to Nashville and passed the physical tests at Smyrna Air Base. I had never had a physical exam before.

My papers got lost and I was promptly drafted. When I am asked whether I was a volunteer or a draftee, I answer, “both”. On June 22, 1943, I said ‘I do’ to Uncle Sam, along with a bunch of my classmates and an assortment of others (including a father of 3; 36 years old). We were all draftees and nearly all anxious to go. World War II was a popular war.

Mom and I had a ‘Victory Garden’ and I left just as it started to produce. Mom came to see me at the Induction Center at Fort Oglethorpe. She brought hot corn on the cob from our victory garden. I was a finicky eater and after a few days of army food, this was a gourmet meal. In fact, to this day, nothing has ever tasted better.

The Army was about to send me to the Infantry but the Lieutenant that gave me the Air Corps tests, confirmed my story that I had passed them so I was assigned to the Army Air Corps. The United States Air Force was named a separate branch of the military in 1947.

Before leaving Ft. Oglethorpe, Frank Trundle visited us classmates. His arm was in a sling and he was covered with scratches. Frank was thrown from the same horse that nearly threw me the week before. I believe the horse was named “Thunder”.

Incidentally, Frank was a year older than me, but his draft board was headed by our school principal, Stacy Nelson (Frank was an outstanding athlete). I wonder if his athletic ability had anything to do with the delay in his draft. I lived two streets over and the chairman of my draft board, now called chairperson, was an eager beaver named Helen E. Dilley. She was a dilly!

A troop train is an interesting experience; a lot of fellowship, a lot of curiosity since we knew not where we were headed. I learned to sing ‘No Letter Today’ in anticipation of future mail calls.

We arrived at Gulfport Field, Mississippi around 3:00 a.m. We gathered our clothes and got to bed about 4:00, expecting to sleep in all morning. The Army doesn’t work that way - reveille was at 6:00 a.m.

Basic training was also an experience. I’m sure ours wasn’t as physical as the Marine Corps or Infantry. However, it was tough enough for this still-growing teen-ager away from home for the first time.

Several of my classmates were in my squadron. Hugh Winfrey, grandson of long-time Chattanooga Mayor Ed Bass, had a dry sense of humor that broke me up. Hugh was 6’4” and very thin. I was flight leader (thanks to 3 years in ROTC), so Hugh marched just behind me (tall men in front). He bitched about the Army ever step ---- and you take a lot of steps in basic training.

You meet some interesting characters in the service. I learned what Yankees were. In most outfits I was outnumbered about ten to one. That made it about even.

Every day in basic was a new experience, but the food was a challenge. After eating, we had to take salt tablets which I would promptly throw up. I would go to the PX each night to get nourishment from milk shakes.

Isador Denoff was our Drill Sergeant, mentor, etc. He was from Brooklyn, talked fast and with a strong accent. He could really ream you out.

One day on a bivouac we were told to pitch our tents in a swamp. One of the guys from North Carolina was called “Appalachia”; he seemed to be knowledgeable about snakes and asked the Sergeant to let us camp on the side of the hill to get away from Cotton Mouth Moccasins.

The Sarge doubted we had any problem so Appalachia asked me to go with him on a ‘snake hunt’. I can’t believe I agreed, but I did. My buddy got a forked stick; I stayed a respectful distance behind. Soon we (actually he) captured a big, fat Cotton Mouth and took it to the Sarge. He sent it to the mess hall to be milked of its venom. Don’t ask me why the mess

hall ????

Then we caught another, another, another, and still another Cotton Mouth, plus a Copperhead and a non-poisonous snake. The Sarge was finally convinced. We moved to the hillside.

By now everyone was talking about nothing but snakes. At twilight the sergeant and his trusty private first class were in their pup tent. I found one of those fuzzy sticks that you see in Mississippi and decided to have some fun. I crawled up through sage brush just behind the sergeant’s tent. Quietly I slipped the stick under the tent. Both the sergeant and PFC came out screaming. I nearly broke out laughing but restrained myself.

Some time later, after dark, the sergeant shined a flashlight in the tent and fished the bed clothes out with a stick. He finally decided it was now safe and crawled back in the little tent. I was still waiting. This time when I slipped the fuzzy stick under the tent, they came out with such gusto, they knocked the tent down. I couldn’t restrain my laughter and was nailed. As you may have guessed, I was on a lot of KP (kitchen police) duty. It was worth it. That was one of the funniest sights I have ever seen. It would have been funny even if it wasn’t a “Damn Yankee Drill Sergeant”.

The rigors of basic training were manifested in the only case I ever had of heat rash. It felt like a thousand needles in my back.

My last Aviation Cadet Test papers didn’t show up so I took the tests again. They were harder this time because everyone wanted in. I passed the tests and was anxious to go to a college training detachment, hopefully around Tennessee. Sure enough I was one of the first to leave Gulfport, but I went by truck only 12 miles to Biloxi (Keesler Field).

No more barracks, I had a tent near the swamps. Everyone had mosquito nets except me. A guy named Driscoll, just back from the Aleutian Islands, worked me over. He described the mosquitoes like dive bombers and predicted I would be eaten alive. That night mosquitoes got inside his net. The next morning he was covered with welts. I didn’t have a bite. Mosquitoes must not like type A blood.

After a week or two I boarded a troop train headed north. We dropped cars off in city after city starting in Tennessee. Since I was in suntans (summer uniforms), I should have known I was headed for the north; that’s the Army way. We were dropped in Milwaukee - the first time I had been north of the Mason Dixon line. The first thing I remember seeing was a huge sign, in red, white and blue, touting “Yankee Burgers and Doodle Dogs” (could they have meant hamburgers and hot dogs?). I felt like I was in a foreign country.

Milwaukee State Teachers College, now the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, was a nice, small school next door to the Downer’s School for Girls, but we were restricted to the campus for the first month.

We had about 200 cadets, 800 girl students and 30 or so civilian men students. Not bad duty and the Milwaukee German cooks served up the best food I had in the service, studies weren’t bad but we had to march everywhere. One Tactical Officer would hide behind the bushes. If a co-ed’s dress was above her knees and a cadet’s eyes moved, he would be gigged then made to march for hours that week-end with a wooden rifle.

I just had peach fuzz for a beard, but shaved occasionally, although I didn’t need to shave. One big inspection, the Tactical Officer asked “how long since you shaved?” I said “Yesterday, sir”. He said ‘gig’ this man for not being clean shaven. Harry Faggerty in the next bunk who had a heavy beard, nearly doubled up. I walked 9 hours of tours that weekend as punishment. Frankly, I believe that T.O. was jealous. He had a heavy dark beard and probably had to shave twice a day. Most of these tales weren’t funny at the time but they are funny now.

Here’s another. When we started flight training, in a piper cub, the instructor warned me to be careful of the windows. It was cold and they were brittle isinglass. Remember, I was still growing and gangly. As I got in the little plane, my elbow went through the window. We had ten hours of flight training at Billy Mitchell Field. The day I had my check flight we had a 23 mile an hour wind.

Milwaukee was a good town for servicemen and my northern exposure was interesting. We took physical training in the snow, and then ran three miles, then a few more exercises. We had a maximum of ten minutes to shower, dress and be ready for inspection, still wet behind the ears. It didn’t hurt us. I felt great, never had a cold, did well on all my tests and couldn’t wait to go to California for classification. The last few weeks we frequently sang ‘California Here I Come’.

In December 1943 our ‘Flight’ (that was what each class was called) boarded a troop train for Santa Ana. Since I had never been west of the Mississippi, it was an interesting journey.

My club finger (from baseball) didn’t help my finger dexterity and I had to be re-checked to pass the night vision test. I didn’t do too badly on a battery of aptitude tests. I had the exact same aptitude for pilot, bombardier and navigator.

By now the supply of cadets greatly exceeded the demand. Several of us were called in and told that we were one day

late -- I would have qualified for pilot and/or bombardier and just missed navigator. Thousands of cadets were washed out nationwide for the “convenience of the government”. I could have been bitter being one day late after the many days lost because the Army lost my papers. I heard months later they found the papers at Camp Forest, Tennessee???? When I called Mom and told her “I had washed out”, she said, “Good!” The day before, a B-24 bomber had crashed on Missionary Ridge; she thought I would not be flying anymore.

We knew we would not be going home for the Christmas Holidays. We were restricted to the base, but were told to expect some talent from nearby Hollywood to entertain us. I expected stars, or starlets and beautiful girls. What we got: several men in skirts, one girl, and bagpipes. The men’s legs were not even pretty. Although I’m Scotch-Irish I have not liked bagpipes since.

We received extra pay for flying, but when we were at Santa Ana, we had deductions for various things such as grass seeds. We wondered why. We didn’t have enough food and would sometimes sprinkle canned milk and sugar on bread to fill ourselves. There was something fishy about this. A couple of months later, ‘Look Magazine’ reported that a Lt. Colonel was nailed for missing funds and other irregularities at Santa Ana. Elsewhere, someone must have had an inside deal to sell orange marmalade. We had abundant supplies of it everywhere. I had never had any before and I have never had any since being discharged,

I was asked whether I wanted to go to aircraft mechanics school, radio school, or armament school. I leaned toward the former but a buddy said ‘you don’t want to go to the Texas Panhandle - choose radio and we will go to St. Louis.

Reluctantly, I chose radio even though the aptitude tests for radio operator gave me a headache.

Up to now, we would have gone to Scott-Field at St. Louis. Now they changed me to Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Again I was a day or so late.

Believe it or not, Sioux Falls was the biggest city in five states - around 30,000 (it has really boomed since the war). I’ll never forget that winter. One night the temperature dropped suddenly to -30 F. The fuel in our 3 pot-belly stoves burned up. When you hopped out of bed, your feet stuck to the concrete floor. The latrine had the same problem, except it was your rear-end that stuck to the seat. The dry, drifting snow was a new experience. The barracks would be completely covered at one end, but you could go to the other end and walk on bare pavement between snowdrifts.

For breakfast, our mess-hall served potatoes, sometimes black, and eggs, sometimes green, soaked in grease. Even worse, a lieutenant stood at the garbage can and made you clean your plate (i.e. eat everything). The only thing that saved me was my frequent KP - they thought I worked there and I would slip out the back door.

I ran into a Central High School classmate, Arnold Harris. We both wanted to meet some nice girls. What better place than church? I asked where he went. He said Church of God. With my usual diplomacy, I responded, “Isn’t that sort of a Holy Roller Church”? He looked hurt and said “My daddy is a Church of God minister in Chattanooga”. I am known for sticking my foot in my mouth.

We flipped a coin and he won so we went to the Church of God in Sioux Falls. It was a nice little church, but I was used to a large pipe organ, not a guitar. The natives were friendly and I got a date. We both spotted a gorgeous brunette but didn’t meet her. However, my date got Arnold a blind date with the brunette, Harriet de Haviland.

Arnold and Harriet continued to date after I shipped out and corresponded after he left. After the war, they would meet at a church camp in Indiana. Several years later Harriet came to Chattanooga to visit. Arnold asked me to show her the town. I made a living doing this and am proud of my hometown. I shared the virtues of the ‘Scenic Center of the South’ with a pretty woman.

You will never guess what made the biggest impression -- believe it or not it was the red dirt. She took a jar full back to South Dakota (where the soil is black). Soon after, Arnold and Harriet married and still live in Chattanooga. I went to their Golden Wedding Anniversary.

To “shoot” a radio fix you tune in 3 stations, where the lines meet, is where you are. It’s usually a small triangle. My first ‘fix’ covered much of North Dakota and Minnesota. I needed to improve on that. After 5 months of training in radio mechanics and Morse Code, I was shipped to Yuma, Arizona for flexible gunnery training. By the time we reached Yuma, my mouth and throat were parched. I felt like a bale of cotton was stuffed down my throat. Now I know what low humidity feels like.

The first night walking across the desert on the way to the PX I remarked that I wouldn’t be interested if Hedy Lamar lay in front of me. She was a movie queen of that era. However, after a few days we were fully acclimated. Bring on Hedy Lamar. After seven weeks, I looked and felt great and was a trim l65 pounds. Gunnery school was interesting. We started skeet shooting with a shotgun on a machine gun mount. As we progressed to a 50 caliber machine gun, we also progressed from ground-to-ground targets, ground-to-air, air-to-ground and finally air-to-air.

Skeet shooting from the back of a moving truck was fun. All the air missions were in B-l7 Flying Fortress Bombers. Air to ground missions would have been fun at 200 to 300 feet over the desert, except the heat thermals bounced you all over. Try to imagine what a B-l7 sitting in the desert sun smelled like when you got in the plane. Remember, dozens of trainees had thrown up before you.

Each 50 caliber gun fired 850 rounds per minute, so the training cost Uncle Sam a pretty penny. Air-to-air missions started by shooting at a large sock pulled by a B-26 Marauder - the kind of airplane I would fly in combat. We would be attacked by P-39 Air Cobras and we would shoot at them with gun cameras.

I got woozy several times, but once I really got sick..!.! I was so sick I crawled in the bomb bay. I didn’t know it, but the doors are supposed to open automatically if a bomb weighing about what I did fell out of the rack; maybe the training planes were adjusted to protect idiots like me. One playful gunner pointed his gun at the B-26 (not the sock behind). He accidentally fired, froze on the trigger, and literally shot the B-26 down. The pilot crash-landed with one engine and broke his ankle.

The gunner was grounded, given psycho tests, and ended up as a radio operator on an Air Corps crash boat (great duty). Ironically, two months earlier at Sioux Falls, they announced a few vacancies on crash boats and had hundreds to volunteer. It’s a wonder more gunners didn’t shoot down more B-26 planes. Later I would be accused of shooting down a B-26 over Europe, but you’ll have to read further to hear about that.

The sun got so hot in Yuma that the runways got too soft for B-l7s (at least that’s what we were told). Consequently, we moved 60 miles to Dateland, Arizona, for flight training. It was a little air base with a couple hundred of us and a few ‘permanent parties’. One of the latter was a sergeant with a gorgeous wife - apparently Mexican (we were on the Mexican border). When this couple came into the mess hall, there was a mad rush for seats facing this beautiful girl. I learned later that she was careless with her legs-and didn’t wear panties. I never was able to confirm this.

An Army axiom is, “Don’t volunteer for anything”. In the pressure chamber, the sergeant asked for a volunteer to take his mask off, to demonstrate what happened without oxygen. I volunteered; why I don’t know. The sergeant said, “Talk or sing.” I started singing the Air Corps song. The next thing I knew the sergeant said, “OK, put your mask back on”. I thought he had changed his mind. To my surprise, the mask was already on. I had been completely out and didn’t know it. Others said it happened quickly. We were at a simulated 25,000 feet; I read recently, in National Geographic, “that consciousness fades at 15,000 feet except for Highland dwellers”. Interesting, but I remember a combat mission later at 15,500 feet, trying to get above the clouds with no oxygen. This was very tiring, but I don’t think anyone passed out.

Several years ago, I wrote the governor, that a pressure chamber would be the most practical, humane, quickest and economical way to execute convicts who have death sentences. Lee Anderson wrote an editorial in the Times Free Press favoring this form of execution. I wrote a “Letter to the Editor”, in support. Millions of Air Force vets can testify to this idea, but the governor never even responded. People are still on “death row” who claim the present method of execution is cruel. This is costing the taxpayers unnecessary legal expenses and delays.

On completion of aerial gunnery training we were promoted to corporals and became Radio Operator-Mechanic-Gunners (Air Corps Spec 757).

One of my buddies was Leo J. Harlow from Milford, Mass. He couldn’t pronounce his R’s. To get paid you would salute and give your last name, first name, and middle initial and serial number. The paymaster couldn’t understand ‘Haalo’, so I would chime in and pronounce Harlow for him. He teased me about my southern accent but I responded at least I could collect my pay without help.

Leo’s dry sense of humor broke me up. We went different directions, but ended up on the same ship going overseas. For 52 years after the war we traded insulting notes on our Christmas cards. In 1997 Leo’s brother told me my buddy had died.

I did see Leo once after the war around 1985. I was at a convention in Boston and he came to see me at the hotel. We had a sparkling conversation. In the military you are constantly meeting new people and making new friends; some of them you don’t forget.

School was out. Where would we go next? Answer: everywhere!.! I was given a ten-day delay in route from El Centro, California to Chattanooga to Shreveport, LA

Remember I was a teen-ager who had never been away from home. Now 15 months later I would have a few days home at last. Nearly half of my ‘delay’ was gone before I got home. The train trip on chair cars took four days to Chattanooga.

Mom had kept me posted from the home front by frequent letters. I was good about writing her and others and she saved all of my letters. Fifty-three years after discharge I started reading these. Reading your own letters, more than half a century after you wrote them, brings back a lot of memories.

It was great to get home for a few days with the family and friends. Martha Claxton (my buddy, Henry Howard’s big sister) was expecting a baby any day. She said if I could stay an extra day or two, she would deliver. I sent a telegram to the commanding officer saying my girl friend (she was a friend anyway) was about to have a baby and asked for an extension of leave. It didn’t work. He wired back in so many words to get my tail to Barksdale Field immediately.

I almost had to run to catch the next train for Shreveport. It’s a good thing I did because I entered the gate at Barksdale Field only three minutes before midnight. MP’s started arresting latecomers for being ‘absent without leave’ (AWOL). I had no idea they would do this – guess I was lucky.

Barksdale Field was where we went to meet our air crew and train to go into combat. My pilot was Bill Snead from Virginia (22 years old); co-pilot was Tommy Owsley from Kentucky (23); Bombardier was Sam Ciacio from Colorado (26); Engineer-Gunner , Dean Fredendall from Michigan (19); Armor Gunner Ed Donnellon from Ohio (l9) , and I was the Radio-Gunner from Tennessee (19).We had a good, compatible crew and enjoyed flying together. One day, we would have four hours classroom training followed by four hours flying. The next day we flew four hours in the morning, attended four hours of classes in the afternoon, then four hours of night flying ....a long day.

We were assigned B-26 Martin Marauders - a great airplane with a terrible reputation. This hot, twin-engine medium bomber was rushed into production without the normal testing. Its bad reputation was caused by early accidents due to shortcomings in the electrical system and pilots not being used to such an aircraft. Like a bumblebee, a B-26 aerodynamically couldn’t fly.

Slogans were widely circulated such as ‘a plane a day in Tampa Bay’. The B-26 was dubbed The Widow Maker’, “the Flying Prostitute” (no visible means of support, because of the short wings), “the Baltimore Whore” (where B-26s were built).

We were a little apprehensive at first but learned to love the B-26. It had the worst loss record in training, but, as we found out later, the best record in combat.

The first time Tommy landed the B-26 was in Tyler, Texas. The runway had a large hump in the middle and looked short as you look ahead. Tommy bounced a little and started braking, thinking he had little runway left. We told him ‘nice landing Tommy - all three of them.

One day we were practice bombing with l00 pound practice bombs filled with sand. A black man was in a shack near the target and in radio contact to tell us how we did.

I’ll never forget his excited call to us “Fo five two, fo five two (452, the number of our plane), that last bomb was fo feet from my shack”.

We would be given boxes of ammunition to shoot into the Gulf of Mexico. One day as we were in a steep turn, I saw a seagull flying off at an angle. Without a gun-sight, I fired a short burst and got a kill, confirmed by the pilot. This was like a one in a million shot, but I felt guilty. The last time I felt that way was when I was 12 and took a long shot at a sparrow with a BB gun. I miraculously hit him, felt terrible, and gave him a funeral in a matchbox. I couldn’t give a funeral to the seagull though.

In World War II no one was supposed to use poison gas (like was used in World War I). Both sides feared the other side, so we had to be prepared. At Barksdale we were to enter a building where Chlorine Gas was present, after a brief smell we put our gas masks on. Someone got the mixture too strong and I got gassed. Several of us ended up in the hospital, coughing and on oxygen. Ask yourself, who do you now know, besides me, that got gassed in WWII?

But there is good in everything. My nurse was Miss Barkesdale Field of 1944 and my other nurse was even prettier. I understand Miss Barkesdale made her bathing suit out of a parachute. Have you ever seen how thin or sheer a parachute is?

Mom came to visit me at Barksdale Field. This short visit was welcome and she got to see what a nice base it was. Unfortunately, that day, a guy walked into a prop and was killed. We had several other accidents, two by the same crew, but nothing very serious. We loved the long runways, because B-26s needed them.

Believe it or not, the B-52s that bombed Iraq, a half century later, in ‘Desert Storm’ took off from these same runways in Louisiana and flew non-stop to Iraq.

On some of our training missions, the pilot, co-pilot or bombardier would come to the radio room and have me practice with them on Morse Code. I had been told the signal wouldn’t transmit past the wingtips if I disconnected the antenna. I did this so anyone could send anything. In Morse Code certain naughty words had a nice rhythm, so they were frequently used. It is illegal to curse on the air (although today you would never know it).

We were flying all over the south. Later I found out that our signal was going out well past the wingtip - sometimes 250 miles in all directions. It’s good that most people couldn’t understand Morse Code.

Late each Friday night you could hear the steam train whistle blowing as another class graduated from ‘replacement training’. It was a beautiful but lonesome sound. You couldn’t help but wonder if you would ever see those guys again and how many of them would survive combat. The Air Corps had heavy losses.

After three months it came our turn to follow that lonesome sound to Savannah, Georgia - Hunter Air Force Base. We didn’t do much at Hunter. The idea was to pick up a new B-26 and fly it to Europe - probably over the southern route by way of South America and Africa.

I hoped to get a pass home for Christmas but was turned down. Later Ed, the top-turret gunner, found me in Savannah at the USO and presented me with a three-day pass. He used my name and gave them a better story than I did. Catching the first train out, I had a very brief Christmas at home. This surprise visit endeared Ed to my mother for life.

Ed and I didn’t drink so we spent New Year’s Eve together in Savannah, we ate a steak dinner, later a spaghetti dinner, then later, after a milk shake, we started and led a parade down the Savannah streets. Hundreds, maybe thousands, followed us. Everyone had a ball and Ed and I were stone-cold sober. I still can’t believe we did this.

They ran out of B-26s so we were shipped to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey. While there we visited New York several times. On one return trip the MP’s were checking for passes. Before they got to me I realized I’d lost mine. I was arrested. When we got back my pilot verified my legitimacy and I was released.

Months later in France the Commanding Officer summoned me and asked ‘What is this about you being AWOL in New Jersey? I told him. He said “Just as I suspected, forget it”. He had a file on that little episode two inches thick. It makes you wonder how we won the war.

(This is an excerpt from Bob Elmore's new book, "A Funny Thing Happened on My Way to the National Cemetery." The book is $10 in softback, $20 in hardback. Copies are available at the Bicentennial Library downtown, Wally's (on McCallie), Senior Neighbors, The Racket Club and the Brainerd Trophy Shop. All proceeds, not just profits, go to the Chattanooga Area Historical Association. For more information, call 629-1366.)

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