Friday, December 21, 2018 - by Dr. C. Wayne Shearer
(Editor’s Note: Dr. Wayne Shearer, 94, is a retired optometrist and retired colonel from the U.S. Air Force Reserve now living in Hixson. In his early 90s, he decided to sit down and write from memory and a few records he still possesses his recollections of going through Army Air Corps pilot training at several bases in the United States during World War II. A lifelong writer, he wanted to pen them as he remembered them happening at the time.
He also recreates now-lost letters as best as he recalls writing them and references newspaper articles he collected at the time and still possesses. This is the fifth in a series of regular excerpts from it.)
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April 5, 1943:
I am writing this on Monday afternoon on the Pullman car. The porter just came by and told me to let him know when I wanted my bed made up. This Army Air Force is going to be great! Only Dad took me to the train station; Mother was holding back tears as I left home. As Dad helped me to board the train, he seemed emotional, telling me he loved me and to take care of myself. I’ll come through this all right, I told him.
I only have the clothes I am wearing per instructions, plus shaving kit, comb, toothbrush and toothpaste. I’ll be mailing my clothes home. The excitement of it all, with the clickety/clack and swaying of the train car, is making me sleepy. The porter tells me that this Central of Georgia train is routed from Cordele to Montgomery to Mobile to Biloxi for arrival tomorrow morning.
I woke up to the sound of the steel wheels screeching as brakes were applied and the bumping and lurching of the car was ceasing. I heard the conductor shouting, “All out. We’re at Biloxi.” I quickly dressed, then grabbed my shaving kit and joined the others leaving the train.
The Biloxi, Mississippi, station was small, but I noticed that it was crowded with young men around my age. I assumed they were reporting for active duty, also on April 6. You could tell what part of the country we had come from. Some were in lightweight summer clothes, as I was, and others in heavier clothing. We were all dirty, full of cinders, scared to death and already homesick. We are beardless boys!
Several large military trucks were waiting outside the terminal for us, driven by sergeants. One of the sergeants who seemed to be in charge was angry in appearance. In a few days, I decided that this was a front these drill instructors presented towards us basic trainees. “You privates snap into it. You’re in the Army now. Get into those trucks,” he said to us.
They crammed us in each truck that had metal side seats, and some stood in the middle of the truck. Off we went to Keesler Army Air Field with the Gulf of Mexico saltwater smell in the air. It smelled better than the steam locomotive!
After a short, 10-minute or so ride, the caravan of trucks came to a clattering stop at the main gate with a sign on the guard house reading “Keesler Army Air Field, Mississippi.” Several tough-looking MPs with Colt .45s on their hips and carrying carbine rifles swarmed around the trucks while one was talking to the sergeant who was in charge of us. After this MP was satisfied, we were driven onto the base. At first we passed some new-looking, white-sided, two-story barracks.
Then, at what seemed to be the back of the base, we started seeing one-story tarpaper shacks covered with heavy wood shutters fastened to the roof overhang. These windows were only screened openings, and the shutters could be unhooked and closed in a rain. Most of us had not seen such a building before.
This was to be our quarters for the next six weeks of Army Air Force basic training, I thought, as a different sergeant unloaded the truck. He screamed his commands at us. This was the way it would be from dawn to dusk for the next few weeks. I’m glad I attended the military college of Georgia -- North Georgia College -- for those two quarters.
As we were getting off the trucks, I heard constant yelling of “fresh meat” and “you’ll be sorry.” From the new look of their uniforms, I’m certain that these are new trainees of a couple of weeks. Others yelled, “Where you from?” “Tennessee….Georgia,” we shouted back. Then, “We’re all from some hick town.”
Soon a lieutenant appeared with the sergeant, who had us standing more or less at attention. They went down the line taking our typewritten orders and checking us off on a list and assigning us to one of the numbered tarpaper barracks. The latrine building, which served several barracks, was pointed out to us.
We were told that each barrack composed one flight and that four flights made a squadron at basic training. As a flight, we were marched to our barrack, with the sergeant ordering, “March over to that building! Let’s go. Hut! Two! Three! Four! Hut! Two! Three! Four! Pick ’em up. I’ll teach you your left foot from the right foot.”
Inside the barracks, Army cots were lined up on either wall with an open space in the middle going long ways from front to back. We were told to grab a bed and wait. Everything seemed to be “hurry up and wait!” Shortly, the sergeant appeared, this time with a corporal. He introduced him as Corporal Bland, who will be in charge of us.
Corporal Bland told us that our beds had to be made up the Army way so that a dime could be bounced off of it. Each bed has a mattress cover to serve as a bottom sheet, a top sheet and a pillow with pillowcase. The beds are to be made up so that the rows of beds on each outside wall were head to toe. We must keep the bedding clean because there will be no clean bedding for the six weeks.
By now it was lunchtime and everyone was hungry. Corporal Bland yelled, “Privates, you’re in the Army now. Fall into flight formation with you taller guys in front, down to the shortest in the rear. All in rows of four. We’re marching to the mess hall.”
We will march everywhere, and sometimes in a running formation. We were hungry and had a good meal – my first in the Army. In discussions with others, I found out that we would be privates, then aviation students at college training detachments (C.T.D.s) and finally aviation cadets, if we make it to preflight school. There would be a lot of opportunities along the way to be “washed out” as they make us soldiers.
And we knew the “wash-out” rate to be around 50 percent. We all understood the term “wash-out” to mean eliminated from the cadet program at various stages of training. I intend to work hard.
After eating and drinking all the milk we wanted, our corporal shouted out: “Form up, we’re marching to the assigned orderly room for processing.” He likes to keep us moving.
A single file of us extended outside the door. I went inside to an open desk, where a private first class sat with a typewriter. I gave him my full name, and he went to a filing cabinet pulling my active duty orders I had turned in when being assigned to quarters. He told me about the $10,000 insurance.
I signed for it to be paid to Mother and Dad if I was to die in the service. He further said that supply was out of uniforms and that for a week or so we’d all have to wear the clothes we had on, but that I would receive my dog tags with serial numbers on them to be memorized, shortly. Again outside, we stood around talking to each other until all four flights were processed. The fellows from north of the Mason-Dixon line in their winter clothes were really getting sweaty. Glad I am used to this heat and am wearing summer clothes.
Corporal Bland next got us lined up in our flights and off we marched to the hospital for a physical exam and vaccination shots. As we went down the hallway in the nude, two medical corpsmen, each with a syringe, hit each arm with the needle. Then our eyes, ears, blood pressure, etc., was quickly tested. We were told this was an abbreviated Standard Form 64 (Six Four) flight exam and that the more thorough exam would be given at the Classification Center.
This was our first chance to see it, and we were told that the “washing out” process had started. I noted that several passed out from the shots and wondered whether they would be eliminated, or just those who failed the physical exam.
After all of that and more marching back to the tarpaper barracks, some were too tired to march to the mess hall. But I enjoyed eating again. I am too tired to write Mother and Dad but plan to do so tomorrow.
The New Orleans States on Wednesday, April 7, 1943, said: “AMERICANS LAUNCH HEAVY ATTACK ON FLEEING NAZIS.” The American Army is in an offensive movement to get the Germans out of Tunisia. They now have the troops and equipment needed by General Patton.
The Keesler Field News on Thursday, April 8, 1943, mentioned: “ALLAN JONES, KOSTELANETZ TO VISIT FIELD NEXT WEEK.” Andre Kostelanetz will wield the baton next Wednesday at 2010 in Hangar 2, No. 5 for famed tenor Allan Jones. There will be a stage presentation of Blackstone, the world-famous magician and his company, as part of this USO Show.
The headline on Page 6 of The Keesler Field News added: “NEW SETUP FOR AVIATION CADETS NOW.” A complete revision of the Army Aviation Cadet program extending the training for cadets to 15½ months instead of the present 8½ is now effective, according to Capt. Theodore B. Lowman of the Aviation Cadet Board. Candidates who are members of the Air Corps Enlisted Reserve will finish at least one month of processing and basic training. Next, he will be sent to a college or university for 60 hours in each of these courses: modern history, English, geography, and mathematics through trigonometry. In physics, they are to have 180 hours.
If the above academic phase is satisfactory, he will go to the Air Force Classification Center to determine whether he should become a navigator, bombardier or pilot. Then he should become an aviation cadet to follow advanced academic subjects and advanced flying for another eight months.
April 8, 1943
Dear Mother and Dad,
I’ve been busy since I got on the train Monday afternoon in Cordele. Everything seems to be going well. I passed the flight physical called the Six Four. Note my address on the envelope.
Those 2½ quarters at North Georgia College going through military training have been helpful to me. Corporal Bland is in charge of my squadron for the basic training. He says we will be issued our uniforms next week.
I haven’t heard “Retreat” sounded yet, but these barracks are located on the back part of the base. The only thing we hear are the whistles that the non-coms in charge are constantly blowing to get us up at 5:00 a.m. etc. It gets our attention!
They’re keeping us busy. The daily schedule is reveille whistle at 6 a.m.; form up in front of the barracks for roll call and 30 minutes of exercises supervised by Corporal Bland at 6:30; march in formation at 7 a.m. to breakfast; return to barracks on your own to continue making tight bed and cleaning up areas around the cot; march out to drill field at 8 a.m. with the corporal counting cadence; drilling in formation until noon; march to mess hall for lunch; return to barracks on your own; form up at 1:30 p.m. with roll call; marching to the gym for films and lectures; at 3 p.m., marching double timing to drill field; and, finally, at 4:45 p.m., marching back to barracks to wash up for evening meal; marching at 5:30 p.m. to mess hall; returning to barracks on your own or go shopping at PX, with lights out at 10 p.m.
If Corporal Bland finds your bed not properly made up, then you have to serve 2 hours in the evening on latrine cleanup duty. Saturdays are tough inspection days, with the afternoon off. Sundays are off days. There is no open post during basic training. Give my sister, Norma, a hug.
Your loving son, Wayne
The New Orleans States on Saturday, April 10, 1943, said: “BRITISH 8TH ARMY ENTERS STAX, TUNISIA.” This victory takes place after the Allied forces of the Americans from the west and British forces from the east link up near Gafsa, Tunisia.
Saturday, April 10, 1943:
Even on Saturday, we double-timed the march to the drill field, where other flights were likewise practicing “to the rear march,” “rest at attention,” “parade rest” (less formal, with hands clasped behind). My flight has a ways to go and our corporal is not happy.
After a large noon meal, marching back to the barracks and a short rest, Corporal Bland appeared again, saying to get ready for inspection. This meant remaking the bed and rechecking the footlocker with everything in its place. Shortly, the original, tough-talking sergeant arrived with Corporal Bland for the usual Saturday inspection.
We’ve nicknamed our sergeant “Sergeant Gruff.” He is a large and well-fed fellow. He would give a good account of himself in a fight. He let us know he was old Army dating back before we were born. It was clearly to be seen that we all shared the same opinion and respect for our squadron’s master sergeant.
Sergeant “Gruff” said to help you put a shine to these barracks’ pine floors, “I’ll sell you for $3 each a floor buffer.” Like good soldiers, we collected the money and handed it to him. This should help us pass Saturday inspections!
Monday, we will march during the a.m. to the Quartermaster Clothing Supply building for our uniforms. I’m glad, since my civilian clothes are dirty.
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To see the previous entry in this series, read here.
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Dr. Shearer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.