Monday, April 22, 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 This is the 15th in a series of regular excerpts from his as yet unpublished book, “Under This Arch.”)
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Setting: Preflight School in San Antonio, Texas
October 19, 1943:
Today is Tuesday and another tiring day regarding the P.T., which they are laying on us.
The instructors are lieutenants and sergeants who were coaches as civilians. We are required to do 12 chin-ups, which most of can do, a 300-yard shuttle run between stakes, and 114 sit-ups. I’ve got to increase my shuttle run speed. I’m only up to 60 sit-ups but expect to be at 114 soon. We do all of these each day. These requirements must be met before moving to the next phase of training or I will “wash out.” We are all physically fit! I don’t get winded as quickly; nor does it seem as much like torture.
One of the fellows in the barracks showed us a letter he got from a friend in Primary Flying School at Vernon, Texas, where SAACC’s “The Tale Spinner” newspaper had written that acrobatics are made tough by their flight instructors. His friend wrote that everything went well until the instructor asked him to do a half roll and he “fell out of the sky.” The instructor told him to push the stick forward to hold the nose up. Again, he rolled over into the inverted flight and pushed the stick forward with his right hand and pumped the wobble pump to keep the engine running with the other hand in the open cockpit PT-19.
He felt the stick being bumped while hearing a strange noise and looked back. His instructor was hanging out of the cockpit with his gosports flying. His seatbelt had partially weakened and all he could do was to kick the stick. The cadet rolled back over, pulling back on the stick to level flight, slamming the instructor against the edge of the cockpit windscreen, and striking his nose. Then the instructor yelled through the gosport, “Fly back to the field, park the plane and wait for me.” Upon returning with a bandaged nose, he said, “You’re beginning to learn how to do acrobatics. We’ll fly again tomorrow.” And that was one relieved cadet.
The San Antonio Evening News in San Antonio, Texas, on Wednesday, October 20, 1943, said: “RETREATING NAZIS SLAUGHTER ITALIAN CIVILIANS, FIRE HOMES.” Lt. Gen. Mark W. Clark is pouring more men into pursuit of foe. The Germans blast roads, kill livestock in falling back from the Volturno Valley to a fresh mountain line.”
Other headlines from that day’s paper included:
“AIRMEN BATTER JAPS IN CHINA.” Fighter bombers of the 14th Air Force struck enemy troops and supply dumps at Luku in Yunhan Province Sunday in China.
“GABLE LAUDS U.S. FLYERS.” Packing up his things to return to the United States, Capt. Clark Gable declared today that he has been filming and has observed that we have “boys America may well be proud of.”
“FOUR FLYERS KILLED IN FLORIDA CRASH.” A pilot and three crewmembers were killed Monday afternoon in the crash 10 miles north of Fort Myers of a medium bomber from Buckingham Army Airfield.
October 22, 1943:
From Wednesday’s newspaper is an article of another air crash tragedy that we’re accepting as being pilots, to defend our country, in the best Army Air Corps in the world. The colonel that congratulated us in his address, as we were leaving the Classification Center, had said in effect that as pilots we were “offering our lives to the service of our country.” Most of us understood it that way.
Today is Friday and we did drill practice, getting ready for the usual Saturday “full dress” parade before the reviewing stand of high-ranking officers on the base. We are told repeatedly that our pilot training program is an abbreviated West Point Academy officer preparation in discipline and leadership in various ways. At times we drill as a flight and other times with the other three flights combining into our four-flight squadron. During our weekly parade, we combine with other squadrons and groups to make up our 44-F wing. The upper class of 44-E is the other wing. With 6,000 cadets in each wing, we are marching in perfect formation and then at the command, “Eyes right,” toward the reviewing officers.
The reviewing stand sees a beautiful exhibition of coordinated precision military marching. Practice gets us this way! This routine starts as we stand at attention waiting for the command, “Forward march.” The visor of our cadet hats is two fingers in width away from our noses, and our white gloves are pressed against the trousers seam. Our cadet officers will have their brightly polished sabers drawn against their right shoulders ready to give the marching command they receive from the tactical officer in charge. All the cadet officers shouted “Sound Off” and the Preflight School’s permanent enlisted musicians band began playing “Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder.”
As we march around this large parade ground, they play various Sousa military marching songs, too. The parade ground is larger than a normal college football field and serves as our physical training field. We enter this rectangular parade ground at the far end marching across to the opposite side from the reviewing stand, making the first of three left-hand turns. The final left-hand turn places us parallel to and in front of the reviewing stand holding the inspecting officers.
The next shouted commands are “Pass in review,” and “Eyes right.” After passing the reviewing stand, we continue marching around the parade grounds until both wings have passed in review. All squadrons exit the parade grounds with a right-hand turn at the far end where they entered. We all grumble and bitch about our weekly “full dress” parade, but most of us like this time-honored military tradition. Truly, it is beautiful.
October 24, 1943
Dear Mother and Dad,
The big blue sky here deep in the heart of Texas is as blue as ours in South Georgia. Even though today is Sunday, we have a regular routine.
It’s not all academic and we drill every afternoon. The big day is the “full dress” every Saturday. It’s tiring but our flight was sharp in appearance yesterday. At Friday’s drill practice, one of the cadet officers -- who’s not a favorite of the rest of us cadets in the flight because he’s constantly “browning-up’ like a teacher’s pet in school – goofed up. We were standing at attention with the other three flights in our squadron and he incorrectly yelled out “right face,” just as the cadet officers in the other flights properly commanded “left face.”
Our flight was embarrassed but the tactical officer was red-faced mad and chewed out our cadet lieutenant for five minutes. After it happened, one of our cadets in the flight bellowed, “You could mess up a one-car funeral!” and we all laughed, which made our tach officer madder. He yelled, “Silence in the ranks and keep standing at attention.” It was funny but we paid for it. Hug Norma Jean and keep writing.
Your loving son, Wayne
The San Antonio Evening News in San Antonio, Texas, on Friday, October 29, 1943, stated: “TRAPPED GERMANS LOSE LAST CHANCE FOR STAND IN RUSSIA.” Hard-hitting Cossacks, narrowing the Nazi escape corridor in the Dnieper-Nogaisk bulge to less than 80 miles, smashed the main enemy stronghold southwest of the Dnieper Bend and advanced through weak resistance today in an attempt to trap hundreds of thousands of fleeing Germans.
Another headline from that day’s paper: “GOVERNMENT COALMINE SEIZURE EXPECTED AS WALKOUT SPREADS.” A new coal crisis – the fourth in six months – faced President Roosevelt today as spreading strikes indicated a probably near-paralysis of the industry by Monday.
Text above a Wolff and Marx clothing ad on page 2 of that day’s paper: “Contribute Generously to the War Fund – Buy War Bonds.”
October 29, 1943:
I’ve always enjoyed running until traversing our cross country/obstacle course. It must be run in a given time over this hilly and mesquite-growing rough land. There is no slowing down or resting over this course of several miles, since the P.T. sergeants are scattered along the way ready to hand out gigs to those cadets not running at full speed. We all get into a sweat during these late afternoon runs. Those that ran it in the middle of summer had it tougher.
As we were relaxing and talking tonight in the barracks, one of the fellows said to listen to what reportedly happened at another friend’s Primary Flying School in King City, California. He wrote that the end of the runway had a quick drop off of 6 or 7 feet and they knew to never land short. The runway was OK for small planes. Recently, when they were in the cadet mess hall line, they looked up to see a P-38 with one engine running erratically and knew the pilot was in bad trouble.
The pilot buzzed the field, pulled up in a climbing turn, circled back around and dropped the landing gear. This powerful plane was much too fast for the short runway. They all gasped as the pilot touched down and, even though he applied his brakes, they could see he was headed for the drop off. And over the ledge the large P-38 went!!
Several hundred cadets raced to the end of the runway and got there just in time to see the lucky pilot climb out of the cockpit of his burning plane. He was all right except unhappy about losing his airplane and his B-4 bag of luggage.
His friend said that when he heard the story, it was easy to understand why the cadets, having witnessed the hazards of piloting one of those hot birds in the wild blue yonder, were quiet and somber as they walked back to the chow line. It’s easy to get killed in these flying machines, and that’s a chance we’re willing to take to dwell among the soaring clouds.
The San Antonio Evening News, San Antonio, Texas, on Monday, November 1, 1943, announced: “STEPS TO SHORTEN WAR ARE TAKEN BY ‘BIG FOUR.’ ” The Moscow parley results include world policing, the United States, Britain and Russia today proclaimed. They have decided on measures in Europe and that Russia will stick with the Allies in forcing the Nazis to unconditional surrender.
Another headline from that day’s paper said: “ALLIES BATTLE JAPS ON CHOISEUL AS RABAUL FEELS MASS AIR RAID.” Gen. Douglas MacArthur announced the important New Britain airfield took 115 tons of bombing from heavy bombers.
November 5, 1943:
Yesterday (Thursday), we enjoyed open post. Maybe they felt sorry for us and allowed us off base after only a month in Preflight School instead of six weeks. We were not given a pass to leave the Classification Center and that’s been since the middle of August. We all made most of the day off.
Several of us decided to walk around downtown San Antonio and enjoy the sights. Lunchtime found us at the Gunter Hotel, where there is a cadet club in the mezzanine area. Other cadets were sitting at several tables. We joined them and had a good lunch. Some of the cadets had been there too long and had too many beers. Woo hoo! That Lone Star! And that Pearl beer! Then have another cold foamy one! Those were the ones that needed help in getting on the cadet bus going back to the base. And that was most of us!
Later in the barracks, Eddie shouted, “Did anyone get them a female?” “It depends,” said Joe.
“What do you mean?” Eddie asked. “Well, as Fred and I were walking along, suddenly this Mexican boy of 10 or 11 grabbed Fred’s hand. In broken English, he asked if we would like to be with his 16-year-old sister, who was just behind the building. Fred jerked his hand away and told him to sell his sister to someone else.”
To that, Eddie added, “You obviously remembered the syphilis disease training films we’ve watched at every base.” Someone else added, “Those awful venereal disease photos are effective.”
And there were teasing and good-natured laughing for several days after that.
Also today, we turned our short trousers into the supply sergeant, but the weather is still on the warm side. They gave me comfort and felt cooler in the extreme heat of several weeks ago.
November 7, 1943
Dear Mother and Dad,
On Thursday I had “open post” for the first time since leaving Cleveland. It was a jubilant bunch of cadets that loaded into the cadet bus. We unloaded at the Gunter Hotel where there is a cadet club.
Several of us decided to walk around for several hours in San Antonio. There are a lot of Mexicans downtown working, etc. On one of the street corners was a large two-wheel cart on which a Mexican woman was making and selling tamales. They sure were good. We went to the historic Alamo and viewed the exhibits.
By that time in mid-afternoon, we were hungry again, so we walked back to the cadet club and ordered small steaks with fried potatoes. They were pleasurable and we enjoyed them before returning to the base before 1700 on the cadet bus. Let Norma know that “big brother” is OK.
Your loving son, Wayne
November 10, 1943:
Some of us are having to study at night by sitting on the commodes in the latrine, since after taps that’s the only place with lights. I’m one of those commode sitters!
As we’re getting into higher laborious standards in P.T., neither the lieutenant nor the sergeants are showing us any mercy regardless of all the bitching and moaning. We’re making slow progress from a few weeks ago. This continues our conditioning.
We’re tested every few days on the three exercises mentioned earlier. Most of us now have regularly made the required time. I’ve enjoyed running; so by pushing myself, I stay qualified. Physical training is heartily emphasized in the aviation cadet schedule.
If we can’t pass these minimum requirements, we’ll be washed out. Sit-ups are similar to running in that you get your “second wind” after 40 or 50. I’ve really pushed myself in getting to the 114 daily now. The sit-ups were responsible for some wash-outs who didn’t become upper classmen. I now have a blue upperclassman nametag.
All of our orders still come from the in-charge tactical officers, a captain, a first lieutenant and a second lieutenant with four sergeants in the orderly room. Our squadron commander, a captain, is a World War I pilot who keeps his silver wings shiny. He’s a fatherly type figure whom we look up to. He has steady blue eyes and a cheerful manner. His right ear has a large cut out area that we’ve heard was from a WWI air battle bullet. We respect him more than we do some of these 90-day wonders.
Tomorrow is Armistice Day, November 11, and we are drilling for the big “Pass in Review” parade tomorrow. We’ve got to look good, as high-ranking officers will be in the reviewing stands, more so than usual.
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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.