Wayne Shearer’s World War II Memoir, Part 30: Learning To Fly The AT-6 At Eagle Pass And Hearing About D-Day

Wednesday, December 11, 2019 - by Dr. C. Wayne Shearer
Dr. C Wayne Shearer
Dr. C Wayne Shearer
(Editor’s Note: Dr. Wayne Shearer, 95, 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 This is the 30th in a series of regular excerpts from his as yet unpublished book, “Under This Arch.”) 

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Setting: Eagle Pass Army Air Field, Texas

May 27, 1944: 
After another long, tiring rail journey, we went through San Antonio knowing in a few hours we’d be at Eagle Pass, Texas, on the Rio Grande River border with Mexico.
It is good to be back in Texas and some of us broke out singing a line or two of  “Deep in the Heart of Texas.” Someone then yelled out, “Woo Hoo! I’m thirsty and ready for a Lone Star now that we’re back in Texas.” “Let me have a Pearl,” someone else shouted. Eagle Pass is between Del Rio and Laredo.

Over several years, numerous fighter pilots have graduated and earned their Silver Wings at Eagle Pass Army Air Field, Eagle Pass, Texas. We know that cadets will be eliminated in Advanced Flying Schools, so we still have anxiety as the train gets closer to this small Texas Southwestern border town. It will be my last cadet base assignment before graduating and becoming an Army Air Force pilot/officer, if the “washing machine” or a crash due to ill luck doesn’t happen to me.

Upon arrival, we marched to the chapel and were greeted by a first lieutenant, the commandant of aviation cadets. He was not as discouraging to us as the commandant at Independence had been. He said, “I can tell that you’re eager to do well and not be eliminated in the final stage of your training; but I can also tell that you’re inexperienced and overconfident.” Further, he told us that to graduate will take weeks of tremendous effort and energy. After the short talk, he wished us well! I intend to put forth the required effort!

We marched to the orderly room reporting for duty with our official orders and were assigned quarters. These barracks are tarpaper and one story, similar to what I had at Keesler and Independence. The wind must be less here than in Kansas, because there are not steel cables attaching the barracks to the ground.

The San Antonio Express in San Antonio, Texas, on Saturday morning, May 27, 1944, announced: “AIR FLEETS OVER REICH.” American Flying Fortresses and Liberators, 750 strong, from Italian bases paced yesterday’s two-way assault on France, bombing seven railway targets in the Nice, Lyon and French Alps regions. These strikes are an apparent resurgence of the pre-invasion bombardment after a day’s lull enforced by murky weather over the continent.

Other news headlines from that day’s paper: “ALLIES RACE TO TRAP GERMANS BELOW ROME.” A Fifth Army spearhead cutting deep towards the German’s new Rome line pierced today within 2½ miles of strategic Via Casilina, the main escape route for Nazis falling back from the defeat in the Liri Valley.

Letter home:
May 28, 1944
Dear Mother and Dad,
Note the new address and – yes -- your son did get assigned to a Single-Engine Advanced Flying School, which he had wanted. Eagle Pass, Texas, is located on the Mexican border and is “a ways away” from South Georgia. Even the name sounds like a fighter pilot flying school. From one of the upperclassmen I understand that our base commander, Col. Bundy, owns the land the base occupies and has leased it to the government or this may be only an unfounded rumor. I feel confident of my abilities that got me here and will meet my instructor in a few days. Several of us attended the chapel service today. Give sister a hug and write soon.
Your loving son, Wayne

May 30, 1944: Today (Tuesday) I’m continuing the usual new cadet base routine of getting the ground school books continuing same subjects and another 6-4 flight physical. Glad all of us passed it because it was another “wash-out” possibility. Optimism, since we’ve seen so many of our fellow cadets “wash-out” in the various training phases, is not too much present with us. We’re afraid to be optimistic! Attitudes though are better now that we are in Advanced Flying School.

The cadet mess hall food is good with plenty of it. After lunch we marched to the flight line to meet our instructors and to have a close up view of the beautiful 600-horsepower AT-6s. During the march above a building’s doorway, we saw a familiar sign, similar to the one above the Preflight School entrance arch gate that says, “Enter the best damn pilots in the world.” It’s an encouraging ego boost to me and the others, especially since we’re now referred to as pilots, not future pilots. Oh, happy day!

The airplanes were all lined up wing tip to wing tip on the parking ramp. The AT-6 looks like our BT-14 except has a retractable landing gear and a more powerful engine. I expect the cadets that have flown BT-13s and BT-15s in Basic Flying Schools will have “ground looping” trouble with the more narrow landing gear of the AT-6. This will be no trouble for us who flew the BT-14 with its narrow landing gear.

Six cadets are assigned to each instructor. My instructor is a chain smoker and has nervous energy. I’ve never been this close to a first lieutenant before and I’m nervous, too. He mentioned that he had flown P-40s in the Aleutian Islands campaign. The P-40 has been my dream of a fighter airplane, but my thoughts are now for a P-51. On our base there is a training squadron of P-40s; but the P-40 is no longer considered a front line fighter plane. Even though our instructor seems a bit nervous, he appears to be a regular person who wants to teach us how to become good military pilots. He said he will not be flying a lot with us, but he expected us to use our solo time to practice the new and old maneuvers. He told us he did not think it would be long until all six of us would be soloing.

May 31, 1944: 
As at the previous training bases, one week we fly in the morning, and then go to ground school and physical training in the afternoons. The next week the schedule is reversed. I enjoyed my 30-minute dual flight. He let me do most of the flying. The AT-6 handles much like the BT-14 would with a stronger engine. He was encouraging! During the flight the mesquite trees and sagebrush thickets of this Southwest Texas area sped by beneath the airplane.

As he talked with us together before the flight, he said, “I have a special memory checklist for you to use that may save your life someday.” He continued, “Think of the comic strip character, Andy Gump, but use the letters GUMP. Then land the plane after using this quick checklist.

The letter G stands for gasoline – make sure the selector was on a tank that had fuel. The letter U stands for undercarriage – make sure the landing gear was down and locked. The letter M stands for mixture control – make sure it was moved to full rich. The letter P stands for propeller control – make sure in the landing pattern that the prop RPM is set at the correct setting.

He told us these control settings are not only a safe list for landings, but were proper in the event the pilot had to go around again. He’s a “real live” combat veteran and we’re lucky to have him as our instructor. He said, “Keep familiarizing yourself with the instrument panel. He will continue these short dual flights for several more times and, hopefully, he will solo us. 


June 2, 1944: 
Today (Friday) I spent an hour in a Link trainer and 30 minutes in a parked AT-6 on the ramp studying the instrument panel. Had another 30-minute dual flight. We all feel as if he will solo us shortly.

My barracks’ flight has got to have an extra special clean-up for Saturday’s inspection. Last week one of our tach officers found a light amount of dust on top of the fire extinguisher, and the lieutenant yelled out for all to hear, “You are to continue maintaining West Point standards as aviation cadets." He made our cadet officers double time us several blocks and back to the barracks. The message was that we are still cadets. The barracks will be spotless for tomorrow’s inspection. Our gang can’t get off on the wrong foot.

According to the latest radio and newspaper reports, the invasion of France to free Europe by our Armies is getting closer every day. Our prayers go out to our men for success and to live through it.

The Mobile Press Register, in Mobile, Alabama, on Sunday, June 4, 1944, stated: “FIFTH ARMY CUTS LAST MOUNTAIN GATEWAY TO ROME, TAKES MOST OF ALBAN HILL AREA; ALLIED FORCES ADVANCING ALL ALONG FRONT.” The fall of Eternal City now is believed to be only a matter of a few hours, as officially announced by Fifth Army Headquarters.

Other headlines from that day’s paper: “DEMOCRATIC CHIEFS WATCH MISSISSIPPI FOR STRAW IN WIND.” The Alabama state delegation will probably go uninstructed to the Democratic convention.

“HUNTSVILLE PILOT OF A FLYING FORTRESS KILLED IN AIR CRASH NEAR CLOVIS, NEW MEXICO.”

“FALSE INVASION FLASH GOES OVER AIR IN U.S.”

Eagle Pass News Guide, Eagle Pass, Texas, on Monday, June 5, 1944, said: “ALLIES POUR THROUGH ROME AFTER BEATEN FOE.” Allied Forces stormed through and captured Rome today, crossed the Tiber River and pressed relentlessly against the beaten German 10th and 14th armies as they streamed northward demoralized.

Other headlines from that day’s paper: “1,250 AIR DEMONS HIT NAZIS.” Up to 1,250 American heavy bombers and fighters raked the French invasion coast with bombs and gunfire today.

June 5, 1944: 
Today (Monday) there are more false rumors both on radio and in the newspapers of our invasion forces landing on French beaches. Prayers are needed for our men. My bunch of fellow cadets may be too late for Europe, but we’ll be a part of the Pacific war against the Japs. 

Our instructor told us, “Three of you will go with him and solo from one of the auxiliary fields, and the other three tomorrow.” Further, he emphasized, “As you have been told since Primary Flight School, there will be NO buzzing, NO flying under bridges, and NO accidents!” Do any of these, and you’re on your way to being a new buck private and a former cadet. I’ve always been a straight arrow in trying to follow regulations exactly, but several times in Basic and Primary Flight Schools, I’ve buzzed a house or a car several times. The only way any of us desire to be a former cadet is to graduate as an Army Air Corps pilot. He told it as it is.

Happy I was one of the three he let solo today. The AT-6 is a fun airplane to fly, as I again sang the Air Corps song and a short prayer for a safe flight.

The Cordele Dispatch, in Cordele, Georgia, on Tuesday, June 6, 1944, announced: “INVASION STARTED!” Powerful Air and Naval Forces hit Western Europe’s Northern France commanded by General Montgomery, as announced this morning by General Eisenhower’s headquarters.

The Eagle Pass News Guide, in Eagle Pass, Texas, on Tuesday, June 6, 1944, said: “INVASION SPREADS.” The Allies have forced the estuaries of two important rivers behind the German defenses on the coast of Normandy. President Roosevelt read a prayer in the House of Representatives today at the request of Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas.

June 6, 1944: 
I’ve got a variety of newspapers to save telling about the successful but deadly landing of our forces on the beaches of Normandy, France, across the English Channel from England. America’s prayers are with those on the ground, on the water, and in the air above that battle area.

Now, back to flying practice, and I found my assigned AT-6 parked on the ramp. I did the usual walkaround inspection and climbed into the front cockpit with seat parachute after verifying shoulder harness and seat belt fastened in rear seat with rear canopy closed and locked. Last, I fastened my seat harness, checked the plane’s log book, plugged in earphones, started the 600-hp smooth-running engine, called the tower for take-off permission, and taxied out for the take-off.

I climbed to 9,000 feet in this big beautiful blue Texas sky with a scattering of small fluffy white clouds. I flew straight and level for a few minutes enjoying the view before starting work. After the usual clearing turns, I did a two-turn spin, then back up to altitude for another one. They seemed to be OK and are not my favorite things to do. I did a regular slow roll and two sloppy, eight-point rolls. My air work needs a lot of improvement. I was up for over an hour.

The New Orleans Item, in Tuesday, on June 6, 1944, stated: “ALLIES CLINCH HOLD IN FRANCE.” Military circles at Allied headquarters reported this afternoon that beachheads had been secured in Normandy, France. No big enemy guns were fired against us. American British and Canadian airborne and seaborne forces landed, establishing these beachheads.

Other headlines from that day’s paper: “ ‘THANK GOD, IT’S ON,’ INVASION REACTION HERE.” Many churches had prayers for victory.

“ ‘WHAT A PLAN,’ SAYS CHURCHILL.”

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To see the previous entry in this series, read here.

* * * * *

Dr. Shearer can be contacted at docshearer@epbfi.com.
AT-6 planes lined up at Eagle Pass, Texas, during World War II era
AT-6 planes lined up at Eagle Pass, Texas, during World War II era

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