Friday, March 15, 2019 - 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 This is the 12th in a series of regular excerpts from his as yet unpublished book, “Under This Arch.”)
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Setting: Testing and training at the San Antonio Aviation Cadet Classification Center.
The San Antonio Express in San Antonio, Texas, on Thursday morning, September 9, 1943, said: “NORTH ITALY INVADED.
AMERICANS LAND AT NAPLES, SEEK TO CUT OFF FLEEING NAZIS.” Allied troops landed early Thursday in the Naples area, a third of the way up the Italian boot, a few hours after the surrender of Italy was announced.
Another headline added: “MANY STOLEN RATION BOOKS REPORTED.” San Antonians hold onto that ration book. An average of 40 ration books a day are reported missing or stolen to police headquarters.
September 9, 1943:
Great victory in Italy with successful invasion! This week we’ve marched pretty much all over the base, thinking we were going to get the important Flight Physical 6-4 behind us, and this Thursday morning we went to the hospital for these exams that can wash us out or continue our training as aviation cadets. These will be in-depth physical examinations.
Forms were filled out by us prospective cadets. We were given a piece of paper with various stations listed to stop at for the exams.
My first station was the dental. The dental captain had me open my mouth wide to count the fillings to be charted. He asked about the fillings in my two front teeth and I told him that when in the sixth grade, I was running and drinking a soft drink and fell with the bottle chipping them. He remarked that the filling cosmetics were good. I didn’t tell him that I had always been self-conscious regarding these two fillings in my front teeth.
The next stop was to check the eyes. As I mentioned, as a fifth-grader playing during recess, I had fallen into a large, thorny rose bush and one of the thorns had cut the front of my right eye, but it left no visible scar. Ever since the principal rushed me to the local eye doctor, it’s been a slight worry, though my vision was not affected by the thorn.
The eye exam was of concern to me. This exam was a lot more than reading the 20/20 line on the eye chart. I did not say anything about the thorn bush. The captain eye doctor with his bright light carefully looked into my eyes and made no comment. He tested my vision at near and far and said “20/20.” Last he handed me a book, turning to a page, asking me, “What do you see in the middle of these colors.” I told him it looks like a 58. He said “passed” as he made notations on my slip of paper. I felt better!
As each candidate finished his test, he moved down the hospital corridor to the next testing station room. When I entered the next station with arrows pointing the way taped to the wall, I was told to strip naked and to lie on the floor. This I did for about five minutes. I was then told to get up and I handed the slip of paper to the doctor, as he took my pulse and blood pressure, first on the floor and then standing. Then the same thing happened after running in place. He said, “You’ve now passed the Schneider Test.” I recognized the name since it had been spoken of in several Hollywood aviation movies I had seen. It was the test that always washed out several prospective cadets and I found out that several failed when I got back to the barracks. They are supposed to pack up and go elsewhere in the enlisted training ranks by tomorrow morning.
The last station in the large room – while we were still minus our clothes – was the area where they tested your hearing and looked into our ears with an instrument. The doctor said mine was OK and wrote a number on my slip. As I got into the hall, one of the guys in my flight grabbed at my slip of paper saying, “Let me see what the doctor wrote about your ears because he told me I’ve got ‘busted eardrums.’ ” He produced a small short pencil with an eraser proceeding to erase his slip ear notations, writing in what was on my slip. He said he had to do this because he didn’t want to be washed out. I told him they’ll find your “busted eardrum” later and you’re just hurting your future chances to be a ground officer. I’m wondering where he had the pencil hid, since we didn’t have any clothes on!
Those of us who had passed, or thought we had, were now ready to wait for the results in another week or so. These classification results will determine if we are eliminated (washed-out), or classified as pilot, navigator or bombardier. Several blocks from my barracks is a centrally located bulletin message board where the results will be posted. We’ll all be eagerly checking it out every day. Our future will be posted on it.
September 10, 1943:
Today (Friday) as we were lining up in formation for the usual morning roll call and being called to “tenshun” by our sergeant, I noted that a 1st lieutenant and another sergeant, whom I had never seen before, were present. We were told “parade rest” for roll call. At completion of roll call, we again were called to “attention.” The lieutenant called names and for them to step forward and return to the barracks. The candidate with the “busted eardrums” was one of the four.
Our sergeant shouted, “Fill in the ranks and no talking,” and off we marched to the mess hall for breakfast. The conversations ranged from “What did they do wrong?” to “They must have failed the 6-4.” We were all apprehensive during the meal. Truly, silence was in the ranks and a visible sigh of relief that it wasn’t one of us. Upon returning to the barracks to change into gym clothes, we, sadly noted that four beds had been stripped, with the mattresses minus the cover bent double for airing on each bed. We would, probably, never see our friends again, as they had been eliminated (washed out) from the cadet program and would go into another Army Air Corps training program.
The Sunday San Antonio Light in San Antonio, Texas, on Sunday, September 12, 1943, stated: “JAPS AT SALAMAUA IN FULL FLIGHT.” Allied jungle fighters have broken through the Jap defensive at Salamaua and the enemy is now in “full retreat,” General MacArthur’s communiqué announced today. The enemy defenses cracked at their vital New Guinea air base.
Anther headline from that day’s paper added: “5TH PUSHES ON BEYOND SALERNO.” The heaviest battles raged in the vicinity at Naples, Italy’s chief port. There Lt. Gen. Mark W. Clark’s Fifth Army broke up successive German armored and infantry counter-strikes, seizing several hundred Nazi prisoners.
Another headline under local news: A local master sergeant, who’s been on active duty in the Aviation branch of the Army Signal Corps, forerunner of the Army Air Forces, received a direct promotion to captain at Stinson Field. His home is on West Magnolia Avenue. Most of his 25 years of active service have been spent at Brooks, Kelly, Randolph and Stinson Army Air Fields.
Sept. 12, 1943
Dear Mother and Dad,
This has been a busy, tough week of tests, both mental and physical. I think your son barely struggled through them. Several fellows in my flight have been eliminated as a result. I’m happy to have them behind me. I am waiting to see if I’m classified as a pilot. We should know next week. The Army says to “sweat it out.”
One interesting test was depth perception. This is important to have because in landing a plane, you must have good depth perception to determine how high above the runway you are as you throttle back the engine. My flight instructor at Cleveland discussed it several times.
Dad, in the paper today, a local master sergeant who was in World War I, like yourself, received a field promotion to captain. He’s been on active duty since WWI. How’s your Georgia Home Guard duty coming along? Give my sister a hug!
Your loving son, Wayne
September 13, 1943:
After roll call this Monday morning, our sergeant told us that for the next several weeks, we could go to the PX during the day as well as in the evening. There would still be no open post for us until we entered Pre-Flight School. He said we’d be more on our own to go to the mess hall, except the morning roll call formation and march as a flight to breakfast. In the afternoons, we would pick up cigarette butts as the “butt patrol.” We are to work out on our own at the gym. Further, he said, look twice a day at our orderly room bulletin/message board as well as the large centrally located board, which would this week let us know how we were classified.
After he marched us to the mess hall and broke ranks, I told him the gym sergeant said he could use me and a friend to clean up the gym in the afternoons. Sarge said go ahead, but bring a signed statement every afternoon stating we were there. I thanked him knowing it will be cooler in the gym than on “butt patrol.”
One of our barracks mates shared a letter with another of those primary flying stories, this one from Corsicana, Texas, from a college friend. Jack’s friend had his first routine check ride and it, of course, was with the civilian flight instructor with the meanest and roughest reputation.
They took off in the PT-19 in a normal manner. He thought he was doing fine with the first series of maneuvers when, suddenly, through the gosport came a stream of curses with a waving of his arms like he was going to jump out and last held the gosport in the wind almost blowing his eardrums out. The check ride instructor then said take me back to the field. He was very derogatory to him upon landing, telling him, “I’ll give you another check ride at 8 a.m. tomorrow.” Again, the next day it was a repeat, but this time upon landing the cadet was told that he would never be a pilot. “Tomorrow, be here again at 8 a.m. for our final wash-out check ride by the military check pilot at the field,” he said. He didn’t tell him what he had done wrong and the friend still didn’t know.
That afternoon, he again told his regular instructor what had happened for the second day. His instructor went up with him and they practiced everything in the check-out procedure for two hours. The next morning, the AAF captain check ride pilot told him before take-off to show him everything he’d learned thus far. They came back, landed with the captain telling him that it was a good ride. He wrote that he doesn’t want to ever get that close to washing out again!.
My day is ending as we’re all listening and singing along with Bing’s “Deep in the Heart of Texas.” The words of the first verse, which we all know, are: “The stars at night are big and bright, deep in the heart of Texas.” Then we clap, clap, clap, with the music before the next verse. It’s a favorite for us under the big sky of Texas. We are feeling more relaxed now that the testing of last week is behind us.
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To see the previous entry in this series, read here.
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Dr. Shearer can be contacted at email@example.com.