Wayne Shearer’s World War II Memoir, Part 17: Struggling Through The Morse Code Test And Dreaming Of Being Home For Christmas

Sunday, May 26, 2019 - by Dr. C. Wayne Shearer
Dr. Wayne Shearer and dog Daisy
Dr. Wayne Shearer and dog Daisy

(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 This is the 17th in a series of regular excerpts from his as yet unpublished book, “Under This Arch.”)


* * * * *


Setting: Preflight School in San Antonio, Texas


November 29, 1943:

We received back our final exam scores today, Monday, from the tests we took before Thanksgiving.

I’m in the middle of the others with solid B’s except I failed the blinker part of the Morse Code. I had no trouble with hearing the dahs and dits but the silent blinking light seemed to have failed 80 percent or so of us in the flights composing our squadron. Surely, they’re not going to wash us all out! I’m very discouraged.


The sergeant in charge of the code instruction/testing said the blinker test would be given again tomorrow because so many had failed. He went over some of the blinker code with us again. I’m not sure I’ll do any better.


November 30, 1943:

Well, discouragement knows no end. I and around 30 percent of us who retook the blinker test today failed it. Our tach officer told us that we would not be eliminated but would have to repeat the second half (4½) weeks of Preflight School. I sat near the back of the code room and some of the fellows that passed were sitting near the front and said they could hear a slight sound of the code. No one around me heard it, nor did I. In the future, I’ll sit on the front row. The rumor says that this is a method to slow down and decrease the number of pilot graduates!


A lot of us will be held back. In a few days, some of our friends are moving on to Primary Flying School and the rest of us will move into other barracks with the new upper classes and we become 44-G as “wash-backs.” We’ll make the best of it and I’m keeping my goal of earning those Silver Wings of an Army Air Force pilot.


Letter home:

December 1, 1943

Dear Mother and Dad:

I’m writing bad news today (Wednesday). Many of us failed the Morse Code light blinker retake test. We’re being held back for 4½ weeks and will take over all the courses. I’m trying not to be discouraged but am “downhearted.” I’m now part of Class 44-G.


We’ll all get moved into different barracks with a new address in a few days. I’ll get adjusted and make new acquaintances; as well as being with my friends that are repeating the academics with me, even though we only failed part of the Morse Code. I’m going to do OK and don’t worry about me. Tell my sister, Norma, I love her.

Your loving son, Wayne


The San Antonio Evening News from San Antonio, Texas, on Thursday, December 2, 1943, said: “GERMAN DEFEAT THIS WINTER IS ALLIED CONFERENCE PLAN.” In Cairo Britain and the United State agreed on details for a new invasion of Europe and perhaps discussed a strike into the Balkans, it was reported on good authority today. There was a feeling here that big developments would come from the five-day meeting of President Roosevelt, Prime Minister Churchill and Generalissimo Chiang Kaishek. For Japan they promised unrelenting pressure by sea, land and air.


Other news headlines from that day’s paper: “BEATEN GERMAN TROOPS RETREAT BEFORE ADVANCING EIGHTH ARMY.” German troops, beaten in a bitter four-day battle, are retreating on the Adriatic wing of the Italian front before General Sir Bernard L. Montgomery’s advancing 8th Army, Allied Headquarters announced today.



December 3, 1943:

Yesterday was goodbye to my friends who shipped out to various Primary Flying Schools. I’d like to have been with them! The barracks, being about 80 percent empty, was lonely; but this afternoon (Friday) we moved into barracks on the opposite side of Preflight School. We have new tach officers and some of us are still together.


A positive is that I’m closer to the main PX where a doughnut machine continually makes hot doughnuts that I enjoy. Everything is going to be OK. I don’t think I need the chaplain to punch my card.


The San Antonio Evening News on Monday, December 6, 1943, stated: “3 POWERS AGREE ON PLAN TO WIPE OUT NAZI MIGHT.” President Roosevelt, Prime Minister Churchill and Premier Joseph Stalin have agreed completely on the scope and timing of operations to destroy the German armies, U-boats and war plants, according to an announcement from their meeting in Teheran, Iran, released today.


Another headline news summary: “AMERICANS TAKE HEIGHTS FROM GERMAN ARMY.” The American 5th Army, bypassing German strong points has captured new heights commanding the road to Rome west of Mignano while the British 8th Army’s drive has carried to the Moro River, Allied Headquarters announced today.


Letter home:

December 9, 1943

Dear Mother and Dad:

I’ve gotten settled into my new flight with the other wash-backs. I’m with a good group of fellows and am moving onward and upward. Note the new address.


This barracks has Thursday off and today several of us went horseback riding after walking off two hours of “gig tours” on the quadrangles. Yes, your son and others got gigged during Saturday’s white glove inspection. The tach officer reached the very back shelf on top of my small closet and -- “oh-oh” – his white glove had dust on it. No more dust will be there!


Since walking the gigs off took part of the day, we went to the historic stables on Kelly Army Air Field just a short on-base walk away. Two old-time pre-World War II sergeants are in charge. They’ve kept these stables over the years. I asked the master sergeant that was in charge to get me a calm horse and that was the wrong request. Of course, I was assigned a “feisty” horse. It was a good ride through the wooded trails until our group turned the horses’ heads around facing the way we had come. They all knew the way back to that barn with a shortcut or two and unfortunately took off at a galloping speed. It was all I could do to hold onto the saddle horn. Each horse was racing the others and mine in the lead to be fed first at the barn. It was a fun ride with laughs. I’ll ask for a different horse next time, though! Write soon and hug Norma!

Your loving son, Wayne


December 11, 1943:

No dust on my closet shelves today (Saturday)! So, am gig free! The routine hasn’t changed regarding the academics, the marching and the physical training. Everything went well at the usual parade grounds inspection and “pass in review.” I’m much more serious about the Morse Code classes now, that’s for sure.


One of the guys heard from a friend, who is an upperclassman at the Muskogee Army Air Field, Oklahoma’s Primary Flying School. He said he got into trouble on take-off with the PT-19’s engine backfiring and missing. He said he prayed and cursed all at the same time while working the wobble pump. This kept the engine running long enough to get into the landing pattern and taxi to the closest hangar. The mechanics said there was no oil in the engine and that he was to blame for not raising the bonnet to check the oil stick. He told them that he didn’t know the plane had a bonnet and that no one ever told him to check the oil. His instructor came to his defense rather than washing him out. The cadet wrote his friend that the same thing had almost killed several others and one cadet crash landed into a cemetery unable to make it back to the flying field.


The San Antonio Evening News on Monday, December 13, 1943, announced: “ALLIED ARTILLERY LOOSES ‘CASCADE OF FIRE’ ON NAZIS.” Heavy American field guns have blasted a German attempt to muster strength for a counterattack designed to drive the 5th Army from mountains north of Mignano Gap and the main road to Rome, official reports disclosed today.


Other news headlines from that day’s paper: “172 NAZI PLANES DOWNED BY U.S. FLYERS IN DECEMBER.” The mighty Flying Fortresses and fighters of the 8th Air Force struck Emden in Northwest Germany today for the second straight day. One hundred thirty eight Nazi fighters were shot out of the sky with our losses being 17 bombers and 3 fighters.


“COL. NEEL E. KEARBY OF SAN ANTONIO WAS DECORATED.” Lt. Gen. George C. Kenney at a 5th Air Force base in New Guinea pinned six medals on the 16-victory ace.



December 15, 1943:

After the evening meal today (Wednesday), we were sitting on our beds talking and were interrupted by Military Police sirens. Upon looking out the windows, we saw that everyone in the barracks next door was in the street and M.P.s had it surrounded. We all ran outside.


What’s going on? In answer one of the guys living in that barracks said about 30 minutes ago one of his fellow cadets, whose bunk was upstairs, went “off the deep end” overturning his bed and closets, was fighting others, and was completely out of control and had barricaded himself in the flight’s cadet officers room. The M.P.s tried to talk him out of the room and had to break down the door to subdue him. The medics put a straightjacket on him and placed him in an ambulance. I’ve never seen anyone in such a psychotic state before. I feel sorry for him.


The pressure they put on us here is heavy, as we’re getting close to finishing Preflight School. It’s better that it happened here rather than in combat for him and the A.A.F.


Letter home

December 16, 1943

Dear Mother and Dad:

We’ve been having wet, cold days here that reminds me of South Georgia. A freeze is rare this time of year. The local radio stations are beginning to play Christmas music such as Gene Autry’s “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” hit record and Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas.” Mother, in my mind I can hear you playing “White Christmas” on your piano. Glad you got some new sheet music and that was one of the selections. Norma is going to be good, too, on the piano. Christmas will be here in less than two weeks.


All of our final exams start the last week of December. I’m going to pass everything, especially the visual Morse Code! I expect to be in a primary flying school in early January. I know Norma is looking forward to Christmas.

Your loving son, Wayne


The San Antonio Evening News on Friday, December 17, 1943, said: “ARAWE HELD BY SAN ANTONIAN.” U.S. 6th Army vanguards opening an offensive to smash Japan’s “Little Pearl Harbor” at Rabaul in New Britain. An official report from General Douglas MacArthur’s headquarters revealed Brig. Gen. Julian W. Cunningham of San Antonio commands the organization, making the landings with General Krueger in charge.


Other news headlines from that day’s paper: “TROOPS LEARN TO PRAY IN 30 MINUTES OF HELL.” The commandoes who survived the attempted assault on Umtingalu Village of Arawe with the 6th Army suddenly found they knew how to pray. “It didn’t make any difference whether they’d ever been to church,” said Pvt. Fred Libow of Long Beach, N.Y. Sixteen rubber boats carrying 155 men under Capt. Edward Wright Jr., Dallas, Texas, tried to make the assault. Perhaps half got back. All four second lieutenants on the raid were killed. One wounded corporal fired his tommy gun until his ammunition ran out, and he died with his finger on the trigger. The murderous fire from the Japs on shore greeted our troops in rubber boats.


“BERLIN IN FLAMES AGAIN AFTER 6TH RAID IN MONTH.” R.A.F. bombers loosed thunderous explosives on the Nazi nerve center. This raid was launched from Britain just after 8th A.A.F. B-24 and B-17 bombers returned in twilight from their daylight raids on Northwest Germany.


December 18, 1943:

No one fainted today, or recently, in our Saturday “Pass in Review” parade ground marching inspections. Everyone has learned to flex his knees while standing at attention for long periods. Our squadron seems to grade out by the inspecting officer either average or slightly above average. We’re a good, precise marching group.


Next week will be final exams. After the 10 p.m. lights out, I’m one of those sitting on a commode in the bathroom, where the lights are always on, studying. I feel like I’ll be on shipping orders to one of the dozen or so primary flying schools in the Central Flying Training Command.


A few days ago several of us enjoyed seeing Jimmy Cagney and Joan Leslie at the base theatre in “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”


Letter home:

December 20, 1943

Dear Mother and Dad:

Saturday will be Christmas, and Merry Christmas to you and Norma. This will be the first Christmas I’ve never been home. I’ll miss being with you, as well as enjoying the good food you always have. On Christmas Eve, I’ll be attending a service in the chapel.


I feel confident about my final exams next week. All of us have put in extra time on the Morse Code. Some of us that had to repeat it are thinking the AAF may have had more cadets in preflight than there were training spaces at Primary Flight School. Tell Norma that I know Santa Claus is going to be good to her.

Your loving son, Wayne


December 23, 1943:

We’re continuing on our regular schedule this Christmas week. After all, there’s a war going day and night, which the U.S. must win. Air power is a big part of it.


Someone’s radio in the barracks tonight seems to play over and over Bing Crosby’s plainful lyrics to “I’ll Be Home For Christmas.” The last line of the verse, “I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams,” causes a lot of us cadets to get a lump in our throats or even a tear upon hearing this beautiful and melancholic song. One of these days the war will be over and we’ll all be home!


* * * * *


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



* * * * *


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

Old ‘I’ll Be Home For Christmas’ record label
Old ‘I’ll Be Home For Christmas’ record label

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