Wednesday, May 8, 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 This is the 16th in a series of regular excerpts from his as yet unpublished book, “Under This Arch.”)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
November 11, 1943: Armistice Day, being on Thursday, eliminates my squadron’s “open post” because today is an official holiday that will honor World War I vets by having both wings march in review. Something special happens in a cadet’s heart and mind as he marches on the parade ground, one of thousands meticulously lined up with his flight squadron, group and wing listening to the base military band and the shouted marching commands.
We feel proud and we look proud. Hours spent drilling pays off as arms swing in unison and legs march together as one. Now, it’s “eyes right” as we pass the reviewing stand. As we near the end of the parade grounds before squadron formations are dismissed, a quick glance back behind us shows a beautiful sight of the other squadrons of several thousand more cadets turning in perfect formation and moving toward the reviewing stand. All of us are thrilled by this inspiring and impressive parade each time and especially on Armistice Day. Dad would have been proud. I’ll never forget this special feeling. The formations were dismissed to go back to the barracks or the post exchange with the afternoon off.
On November 1, we went into the winter uniforms and got heated up marching and standing. As usually happens, standing at attention for extra long periods on the parade ground and not flexing the knees, cadets in all flights were passing out. They were revived and marched on along when finally “forward march” orders were given. It took a long time for all squadrons to get lined up, but it would have been better for us in that period of time to have been at “parade rest” instead of “attention.” Those things happen every parade.
November 12, 1943
Dear Mother and Dad,
You would have enjoyed seeing both cadet wings marching yesterday honoring Armistice Day. When marching with my flight and squadron as part of my now –“upper class” wing, I feel I’m part of something bigger than I am when out on that parade ground. I almost get chills and feel fortunate to be a part of the Army Air Corps in pilot training.
As an upperclassman, it’s all the same except that a tough new course, the Morse Code, has been added. Most of us don’t see any real use for it but it must be learned. Aurally, we listen with a headset for the dots and dashes. We receive it visually from a blinker light. It will be an additional challenge. Tell Norma hello.
Your loving son, Wayne
The San Antonio Express from San Antonio, Texas, on Sunday morning, November 14, 1943, said: “U.S. EXTENDS BOUGAINVILLE BRIDGEHEAD.” The American beachhead at Empress Augusta Bay on the west-central coast of Bougainville in the Northern Solomons has been extended in all directions, reported General MacArthur’s headquarters Sunday.
Other headline summaries from that day’s paper: “FORTS BREAK THROUGH TO BLAST BREMEN.” The U.S. 8th Army Air Force Flying Fortresses and Liberators smashed through strong enemy fighter opposition to batter the great German industrial and shipping port of Bremen Saturday in their fifth daylight raid of the month on the Reich. The giant bombers and powerful American fighter escort shot down 43 German fighters. Nine fighters and 15 heavy bombers were lost in the attack, being the biggest loss since the October 14 raid on Schweinfurt when 60 Flying Fortresses were lost.
“18 ARE KILLED IN NAVY PLANE TRANSPORT CRASH.”
November 16, 1943:
There is much news in the local newspapers, several times a week, about airplane crashes at various training bases and regular military air bases in the U.S. Most are fatalities! It has become a topic of conversation and is the probable reason our good-natured World War I pilot and our captain and squadron commander called a meeting with us in the area gym late this afternoon.
When our captain arrived with his full staff, and someone yelled “Attention,” we knew this meeting was serious. After saying, “At ease, Misters,” he brought up the subject of the continuing news of air crashes. Calling on his World War I flying experiences, he told us that these are facts of military flying and that most of us will get through it all without a scratch. Further, he said do not let yourself dwell on it and develop a “crash complex.”
We all were encouraged as we marched to each flight’s barracks. No sooner were we in our quarters when someone’s radio was blaring out the Song Spinner’s version of “Coming in on a Wing and a Prayer.” Several of us sang along with these words: “Coming in on a Wing and a Prayer. Tho there’s one motor gone, we can still carry on. Coming in on a wing and a prayer. What a show, what a fight…”
That pepped us up further as one of the guys yelled out, “That flying crew got back safely with the one engine out,” and we laughed. It’s better to be optimistic than pessimistic!
November 19, 1943: After today’s noon meal of fish (always on Friday), our flight was getting ready for the physical training session when one of the sergeants came into the barracks calling for “Mister Shearer.” I spoke up and he said, “You’re needed in the orderly room at once.”
As I followed him out, someone said, “What did you do wrong, Shearer?” When I got to the orderly room and went into the captain’s office, I could hear my knees knocking. The captain handed me the phone saying, “The Red Cross has your father on the line.” Dad asked was I all right. After telling him yes, he said it was heard on the local radio station that I had been killed in an air crash in Texas. He said that the Red Cross traced it down and that it was someone with a similar name. They put the call through to my squadron, so Dad could talk to me. I could tell by his voice he was much relieved.
I got joked around about it upon returning to the barracks. Everyone seemed glad that everything was all right. I told them that maybe my folks and a lot of parents had the “crash complex” that the captain talked to us about Tuesday, since crashes were constantly in the newspapers and on the radio.
They are a good bunch of fellows to be together with and very understanding of what my folks just when through. They are that, but also extremely competitive in their desire to get ahead. I’ve seen them “accidentally” kick someone’s shoes -- which should stay perfectly lined up in each of our little closets – to make someone look bad. There is so much talk by our supervisors of being “washed out” that the competitive juices to be the best are always flowing. No one desires to get caught in the “washing machine.” Being in cadet training is not easy. Even so, someone is always playing a prank on another cadet.
The San Antonio Evening News from San Antonio, Texas, on Monday, November 22, 1943, announced: “YANK INVADERS BATTLE JAPS HAND-TO-HAND ON GILBERTS.” A terse, undetailed communique issued by Adm. Chester W. Nimitz’s Pacific Fleet Headquarters said American invasion forces backed by a strong fleet and covered by a canopy of planes battled today to crush two Japanese outposts in the Gilbert Islands (Tarawa) in the first phase of a mid-Pacific offensive on the flank of the trans-ocean road to Tokyo. Hand-to-hand fighting with Japanese defenders was raging on the narrow, sandy beachheads on Makin and Tarawa atolls.
Other headlines from that day’s paper: “CONGRESSMAN KILLED IN NAVY PLANE CRASH.” A Navy plane circling helplessly and dropping flares over Columbia, Pa., through a heavy rain storm crashed and burned near here Sunday night carrying Rep. J. William Ditter (R-Pa.) and Lt. Com. J.J. Mansure, U.S. Navy, to their deaths.
“8TH ARMY THREATENS TWO BASES IN 4-MILE ADVANCE TOWARD ROME.”
November 22, 1943
Dear Mother and Dad,
Hope you’ve gotten over the short period of trauma that your son had died in an air crash. Dad did the right thing in contacting the Red Cross. The local radio station, after somehow learning of an air crash in Texas and the death of a cadet from Georgia with a similar name, had verified who it was. I know you and Mother, especially Mother, were terribly upset. When the captain told me you were on the phone, I thought something bad had happened to Mother or Norma. I’m so glad it was cleared up quickly and everyone is OK.
Thursday is Thanksgiving, which I’m looking forward to, but will miss being home. Even though we’re kept busy in training, I still get homesick.
A lot of us are having trouble with the visual part of the Morse Code class. It’s hard to separate the blinking lights of the dots from the dashes. We can hear the code OK but can’t see the blinks. Have a good Thanksgiving and write soon!
Your loving son, Wayne
November 24, 1943:
We’ve been looking forward to the shooting range experience. Today, we spent the afternoon being instructed as to the most effective way to hold our weapon. Most of the time was used in familiarizing ourselves with the .45-caliber revolver handgun. We shot at targets for most of the afternoon. It is a heavy weapon and we decided we couldn’t hit the side of a barn. The late afternoon ended with a quick orientation of the Thompson sub-machine gun (of John Dillinger fame) and the fast firing by each of us of this hand-held machine gun. We all enjoyed this change of routine and are qualified to shoot both the .45 pistol and the Thompson sub-machine gun! Tomorrow is Thanksgiving!!
The San Antonio Evening News in San Antonio, Texas, on Thursday, November 25, 1943, stated: “RANGOON BOMBED BY AMERICAN HEAVY BOMBERS.” Waves of Army Air Force B-24 bombers successfully bomb Rangoon.
Another news headline from that day’s paper: “RUSSIANS BID FAIR TO WIPE OUT REVERSE.” The Red Army has wrested the initiative from the Germans in the Zhitomir sector of the Ukraine to capture three villages and two commanding heights, front dispatches reported today.
November 25, 1943 (Thanksgiving Day):
Today started with a good breakfast of scrambled eggs (real eggs) and S.O.S. (chipped beef on toast with milk gravy) and all the milk you wanted to drink plus grapefruits and oranges. This is my favorite breakfast!
The best was yet to come! As our flight with the rest of our squadron marched into the cadet squadron mess hall for Thanksgiving dinner, we were greeted with a large cornucopia fashioned out of cardboard materials that was full of oranges, tangerines, apples, grapes, pecans, walnuts and peanuts as was the large table it was centered on. I’ve never seen such an abundance of fruit and nuts.
The food line had turkey with dressing, ham, beef roast, mashed potatoes, green beans, peas, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, etc. Then another special table loaded with pecan pies, apple pies, pumpkin pies, cookies, etc. We had milk, cider, lemonade, iced tea and coffee to drink.
Just as we all were getting seated and loudly talking, our captain walked into the mess hall with his lieutenants and another captain with a chaplain’s insignia. As quick as “Attention” was shouted, just as quickly the captain said, “At ease.” He said a few words to us regarding that our country has many things to be thankful for and for us to enjoy our meal. The chaplain briefly gave a word of thanks for this special day and for the meal.
We all gorged ourselves. I’ve never before seen such a variety of food. As good as it was, Mother’s home cooking is the best of all and I’m feeling a little lonesome for home!
November 26, 1943
Dear Mother and Dad:
Today (Friday) was back to the regular routine. It was an enjoyable Thanksgiving Day yesterday. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen such a mixture of food and so much of it at one time. Everyone ate a lot!
Mother, I missed your sweet potatoes with marshmallows and the divinity candy you make on holidays. Most of all I missed being with you, Dad and my little sister, Norma. This was the first Thanksgiving I haven’t been home.
Yesterday, I discovered that the mess hall oranges and grapefruit were grown in Texas! This is a big beautiful state with a bit of everything.
Keep writing, as I look forward to mail call every day, and give Norma a hug for me.
Your loving son, Wayne
The San Antonio Evening News from San Antonio, Texas, on Saturday, November 27, 1943, announced: “CRUMBLING BERLIN BOMBED AGAIN.” The R.A.F.’s heavy armadas struck Berlin, the greatest of all German targets, a third great blow with heavy burdens of explosives and incendiaries Friday night in the campaign to rubble it out from Adolf Hitler’s Reich. Air ministry announced the losses were 32 bombers from both the simultaneous Berlin and Stuttgart raids.
On the same day the greatest force of Flying Fortresses and Liberators ever employed flew against Bremen and with their escorts totaled nearly 1,000 planes. They lost 10 fighter escort planes and 29 bombers but destroyed 56 German defending aircraft.
Another news headline from that day’s paper: “MARINES’ LOSSES AT TARAWA HEAVIEST IN HISTORY.” At the highest blood cost in the history of their corps, U.S. Marines broke the back of Japanese resistence in a 60-hour battle on Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands chain.
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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.