Wayne Shearer’s World War II Memoir, Part 14: Experiencing The Unusual High Altitude Pressure Chamber

Monday, April 8, 2019
Wayne Shearer
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 This is the 14th in a series of regular excerpts from his as yet unpublished book, “Under This Arch.”)


* * * * *

Setting: Preflight School in San Antonio, Texas


October 9, 1943:

Things went well for us at our Saturday inspection. The words of praise and encouragement from the S.A.A.C.C. commander as we stood at parade rest was nice. One or two cadets in another flight passed out when we were at attention with all the squadrons being assembled. They were quickly revived.


You could see the pride all 6,000 of us felt as we marched across the highway and under the arch that had written on it: “Under This Arch Pass the Best Damn Future Pilots in the World.” This is where it really begins at this historical Preflight School for Pilots on “The Hill” at old Kelly Army Air Field. We are Pilot Class 44-F, the colonel told us. Our journey continues as we marched to our new barracks.


Others that were here ahead of us are now flying combat for their country. This hilly mesquite growing area of Kelly was used in 1918 for bombing practice.


The San Antonio Evening News, San Antonio, Texas, on Saturday, October 9, 1943, said: “FIFTH ARMY PATROLS WAY PAST VOLTURNO RIVER.” Gains of two and three miles are scored by twin forces with one arm of Gen. Clark’s Army taking vital rail and road center of Caserta, 16 miles above Naples.

Other headlines from that day’s paper: “1,600-mile penetration made into Europe by U.S. B-24 Liberators and B-17 Flying Fortresses bombing important targets in Eastern Germay, East Prussia and Poland.”

Also, “World Series resumes at St. Louis park between the Yankees and the Cardinals.”


Oct. 12, 1943:

I haven’t had time to catch my breath since we arrived and unpacked, placing everything into the footlocker and small closet -- all in the neat Army way and ready for inspection at any time. Our new tactical lieutenants and sergeants are going to demand strict discipline of us. We were told to “spit-shine” our shoes and to work the “blitz cloth” on our brass. If not, gigs will be given! It seems that they’re looking for reasons to gig us and to eliminate us.


On Monday, our flight marched to the orderly room to receive our nametags. The two-class system does not exist any longer, as previously; but our new nametags let others know that we are lower classmen. We wear red nametags and upperclassmen wear blue nametags. The tags list name, serial number, and class, such as A/C John W. Smith, 1400-0000, 44F. The nametag is placed over the left hand shirt or blouse pocket.


The “gigs,” or demerits, can be easily obtained by a cadet not obeying any of the many rules they’ve read to us. The nametags in large letters make for quick identification. Gigs being 1 hour each for walking-off purposes on your day off will be done marching at attention with rifle in front of the squadron headquarters building quadrangle.


Since we’ve had no open post yet at San Antonio, we were told it will still be 4½ weeks until we do.


Preflight School will have the following subjects: math, meteorology, physics, aircraft engines, aircraft recognition, ship recognition, aeronautical maps and charts, Morse Code (aural and blinkers), and military organization. These will keep us busy and will be taught by officers who in civilian life were college professors and civilian PhDs. Half of these courses will be given the first 4½ weeks, with the other half the last 4½ weeks.


Letter home:

October 12, 1943

Dear Mother and Dad,

We made the move into Preflight School four days ago, on Saturday. No time has been wasted, since I have been busy. Some of my friends from C.T.D. are not in my new squadron. Seems as if every time we change bases, we’re mixed into different squadrons. You get to meet other people by these changes, though.


The food is good. We are eating out of dishes as they try to make an officer and a gentleman out of us cadets. There is no “drumming out” of failed cadets here as at Maxwell Army Air Field Preflight School in the Southeast training command. Some of the subjects to be covered are a continuation from C.T.D. with new subject materials. Kelly Army Air Field trained cadets in World War I, so there’s lots of history here.

Your loving son, Wayne

P.S. Note my new address and give Norma a hug.


The San Antonio Evening News, San Antonio, Texas, on Tuesday, October 12, 1943, said: “ANTI-SUB BASES IN AZORES MADE AVAILABLE TO BRITAIN.” Portugal has granted Great Britain key naval and air facilities. The Azores Island group lies 800 miles off Lisbon between Portugal and the United States.

Other news headlines from that day’s paper: “NAZI INDUSTRY BEING WRECKED BY BOMBERS.” A prediction that the U.S. Army Air Force and the RAF together ‘shall inexorably beat final victory’ was made today by Prime Minister Churchill.

Also, “16,000 SERBIANS AND JEWS SLAIN.” A Reuters Stockholm dispatch said today, reporting that, after a visit to Hungary, 16,000 Jews and Serbs in the Bacaka region of Serbia were massacred.


October 14, 1943:

Today is Friday and the end of our first week of Preflight School. Some of the cadet officers are new at the job; the others are holdovers from S.A.A.C.C. Most of us do not desire to be cadet officers because of the extra work involved. The tactical officer in charge of us tells the cadet officer what to do whether it be for the cadet officer to shout loudly, “Attention,” “Sound off,” “Pass in Review,” “Prepare for Inspection,” etc. We’ll all receive the same rank upon graduation and the cadet officer will have to prove his ability to get there, like we all do. Some of the cadet officers seem to let it go to their head.


A requirement to pass is to have a trainee experience in the high altitude pressure chamber. We’ve all heard about this large cylindrical tube about 9 feet high and 25 feet long with a large porthole door that is bizarre looking, as if from another world. Its purposes are to demonstrate lack of oxygen (hypoxia), which is a killer, and to test our ability to withstand the transitions up and down while functioning at high altitude. This is done the first several weeks in Preflight School. It was done today for us after seeing some films.


And at the aero-medical building that our flight marched to, we were fitted with typical aircrew oxygen masks. The technician carefully fitted the masks to each of our faces, giving us the camphor test with a cotton tip. If camphor was smelled, he adjusted some more. I did not smell any camphor, so my mask was airtight.


The medics sat on stools outside several portholes with controls, lights and valves where they observed. Eighteen of us entered the porthole into a small lock area being a little altitude chamber, which can be operated separately from the main chamber. If a cadet is suffering extreme pain or some life-threatening condition in the main tank, he can be placed into this small chamber and brought down in altitude to relieve the distress. A flight surgeon is constantly monitoring everyone through the portholes. He can enter the small chamber if necessary.


I noticed as we entered each of these chambers that each porthole door is secured with a number of screw-down locking clamps around the door. The first one was locked in the small chamber, as we entered with two medics to the outside. The second one was locked in the large chamber leading to the smaller, emergency chamber. Rumors are that a cadet had recently died in the chamber.


I felt very closed in and claustrophobic as we were seating ourselves on two benches attached to the sides of the altitude chamber. Oxygen regulators with dangling hoses for our oxygen masks were in the ceiling above the benches where we sat facing each other.


We were becoming more apprehensive in these strange, foreboding surroundings. I’ve never seen or been in anything like this before. We all felt threatened in this chamber, even more as the medical doctors seated outside watched us through the porthole windows. An oversized altimeter was at one end of the wall for us to watch as the air was pumped out.


After the two medical techs with us were satisfied that our masks were properly connected, they connected theirs. One of the techs had a microphone in his mask with a small speaker so he could tell us what was going on.


The needle on the large altimeter began to rise, with a lot of unexpected and dissimilar sounds of popping, hissing and banging of metal pieces. The loud noises of the air being pumped out of the chamber stopped at 14,000 feet. We were told to yawn widely to clear our ears. One of our cadets was worried about his mask and the medic made sure it was OK and then the noise started once more with a rapid rise to 20,000 feet and then stopped. Everyone was very quiet.


The medical tech explained that at higher altitudes, gases are trapped under bad fillings in the teeth and in the bowels. He said that if your tooth hurts, you can’t do anything about it until we return to sea level. He said for the bowel and stomach swelling to loosen your belt and pass as much air as you can, loud or not, but let it rip! Laughter followed with a tension relief. You couldn’t smell anything because we were on pure oxygen with our masks.


He explained that aircrew members must be very aware of their own condition when flying at high altitude. More air was drawn out of the chamber as we went to 30,000 feet altitude on the altimeter. Be aware of your hose connections and oxygen regulator.


Now to demonstrate the effects of hypoxia, the medic asked for a volunteer to remove his mask and was told to whistle. He could not due to the low pressure and put his mask back on. A second volunteer removed his oxygen mask and was told to write his name on a paper pad from top to bottom over and over. His first writing was normal appearing; then all over the pad. He thought it was funny. This was alarming and fearsome to the rest of us as he passed out cold. The medic quickly replaced his mask and he looked around puzzled why we were all looking at him. Our understanding of oxygen deprivation will be with us forever. We slowly descended from 30,000 feet and our own two hours of educational adventure was over!


The San Antonio Evening News, San Antonio, Texas, on Thursday, October 14, 1943, said: “FIFTH ARMY CRACKS GERMAN LINE ACROSS VOLTURNO RIVER.” British and American troops of Lt. Gen. Mark W. Clark’s 5th Army cracked the strong German lines along the Volturno River in a fierce night attack Wednesday and have established several armor reinforced bridgeheads across that most formidable obstacle in the path to Rome, Allied Headquarters announced today.

Another headline said: “177 JAPANESE PLANES WRECKED IN ALLIED RAID AGAINST RABOUL.” Gen. MacArthur threw every bomber and fighter plane he could risk in a gigantic smash Tuesday at Japan’s key sea-air bastion of Raboul on New Britain. He said: “I think we’ve broken its back.”


Letter home:

October 17, 1943

Dear Mother and Dad,

Your son and others in 44-F after 2½ weeks are all getting more assurance each day in Preflight. We have reveille at 0550 continuing with our daily schedule until taps at 2200 (10 p.m. civilian time) through the loud speaker on our 2400 Army hour system. Shortly after reveille, we have breakfast and back to the barracks to sweep the floor, make up the bed, shine shoes and brass for inspection. We march to our 0800 class. Classes continue until dinner (lunch) with the afternoons devoted to physical training (P.T.) and drill (marching).


My flight experienced the high altitude pressure chamber this week. I dreaded it but everything went well and it was a learning situation. The weather is not as hot now; but these uniform shorts are comfortable. We’ll be in long trousers the first of November. Let Norma know how I’m doing.

Your loving son, Wayne


* * * * *


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



* * * * *


Dr. Shearer can be contacted at docshearer@epbfi.com.

 Old military photo shows WAVES in pressure chamber in 1943
Old military photo shows WAVES in pressure chamber in 1943

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