(Editor’s Note: Dr. Wayne Shearer, 95, 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 This is the 24th in a series of regular excerpts from his as yet unpublished book, “Under This Arch.”)
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Setting: Grider Field in Pine Bluff, Ark.
March 2, 1944:
This mid-morning (Thursday) in a very early spring thunderstorm, another cadet was killed.
No one knows what happened, but believe he got caught in the quick storm and, maybe, his plane went into a tight spin that he couldn’t recover from and he jumped out. His body was found 100 yards or so from the crashed PT-19. His parachute had not been opened. I did not know him; but someone said he was left-handed. This would explain why in a panic his left hand fingernails dug through his heavy leather flying coat into his right chest skin. The parachute pull ring is on the left side of the parachute harness, being easy for a right-handed person to pull for opening the chute.
A lot of silence at lunch and supper as the sadness of sudden death enveloped us again. We hear about crashes from friends who are military pilots and we read daily in the newspapers of air crashes. Someone said we knew of the dangers when we volunteered to fly, so we all need to adapt to a more fatalistic attitude. We’re beginning to believe more all the time that we’re expendable like the airplanes.
At the time of the crash I was flying solo in plane No. 99 and saw the quick thunderstorm buildup between Grider Field about 25 miles distance and myself. My instructor had told us to never go into a thunderstorm, but to fly around it or continue practicing until it has moved on. I continued doing “Lazy 8s” until it moved past where I knew the field was and all the while worrying I was in trouble by not being back at noon. My gas gauge was getting close to empty!
In the meantime, a farmer called Grider Field telling them that a plane had crashed in his field with a dead pilot a hundred yards or so away. He was asked what was the airplane tail number and in his excitement, not noticing the wrecked plane was upside down, he said “No. 99,” rather than “No. 66,” and gave road directions of how to get to the farm. On the stagehouse chalkboard, it listed Shearer No. 99 as solo pilot.
Shortly after the report was received, I’m landing No. 99, not knowing what had happened and taxiing into a wing-tip-to-wing-tip parking position on the ramp. Apparently, my fellow cadets saw me taxiing No. 99 and told our instructor. Just as I climbed out of the cockpit, I noted they were running to the plane with our instructor. My first thought, because I was late, was that I’m in deep trouble. My instructor grabbed me with a big hug, saying they thought I’d been killed. His hug and saying that he was glad I was OK meant a lot to me, since I hadn’t thought he even liked me! He, shortly, explained what must have happened, saying it was a mistaken crash identification. It was scary. I’m glad to be alive and feel sorry for the family of the dead cadet. Four cadets escorted the body home to Nebraska.
The Pine Bluff Commercial in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, on Friday, March 3, 1944, said: “THIRD NAZI OFFENSIVE IN ITALY FAILS.” Many German dead lay sprawled on the battlefield. After the failure of all of his attacks, which began Feb. 29, the enemy did not resume his strong offensive against the Allied beachhead forces yesterday. Our positions remain intact. Heavy losses were inflicted on the enemy. The Allied air strength over the beachhead yesterday was made up of large forces of heavy bombers, medium bombers and fighter planes.
Other news headlines from that day’s paper: “ONE-THIRD OF THE ITALIAN FLEET WILL BE TURNED OVER TO THE RUSSIAN NAVY.” Our acting Secretary of State Stettinius will go to England representing President Roosevelt in the discussions transferring roughly one third of the surrendered Italian fleet to Russia.
“AVIATION CADET AT GRIDER FIELD KILLED NEAR REYDEL.” A 20-year-old aviation cadet who was in training at Grider Field was killed yesterday morning about 11 o’clock when his trainer plane crashed about 7 miles north of Reydel. He was on a routine training flight. The accident occurred near Reydel and couldn’t be reached by plane. The rescuers were forced to make the trip by car. It was the second crash in three days involving cadets from Grider Field.
March 4, 1944:
At the meals today (Saturday), the atmosphere is still subdued. We’re all getting in as much flying time as possible so that we have the required 65 hours. Due to the bad winter weather, most of us will be short. We are working on precision piloting. By this time in our training, no one forgets to fill out their airplane’s Form 1, which goes with the airplane with comments, etc. We feel like we’re ready to move on.
We have a new flight instructor for the rest of our primary flight training. Our regular instructor this week was commissioned a second lieutenant and awarded the aeronautical designation of Service Pilot. His wings are similar to the regular Air Corps’ pilot’s wings, except his has a capital S in the middle of the wings. He said he’s been assigned to fly transport airplanes. We’ll miss him. I just need to learn from our new instructor.
Another person and friend that will be missed is John, our fellow student cadet. He was eliminated several days ago. We thought he was doing all right, but we knew he had failed his last civilian instructor progress check ride. He was “washed out” by the Army check ride pilot. Our three remaining cadets have been combined with our new instructor’s three cadets.
We’ve been told that our last day flying will be March 10. We are to report to our Basic Flying School, probably at Independence, Kansas, on March 12. I feel like I will be on those shipping orders because of such a good instructor who has been largely responsible for my going from a dodo to soloing the PT-19. Thanks Mr. Ingle!
March 6, 1944:
Today (Thursday) at the evening meal, I noticed more friends and familiar faces are gone. I don’t think that more than 11 or 12 percent have been “washed out” since we started Primary. In the next few days, we will finish the academic exams and the 11th will be the last day of flying. I will not have 65 hours.
I flew twice today, being in the air an hour each time. When I returned from my second flight, there was excitement in the stage house. Bob was telling that he and two other cadets formed up into a loose V formation with Leon in the lead. We’ve been told since we’ve been flying to stay out of those large fluffy, white clouds that look like they would be fun to fly into.
The three cadets couldn’t resist the temptation, so into the clouds they flew knowing they could be ‘washed out’ or killed. Bob said it was rough inside the clouds and they were bounced every which way. Upon struggling out the other side, Leon was upside down. In a PT-19, you can’t fly inverted long due to the type of carburetor the engine has and then the engine quits. After rolling the plane half a roll to level normal flight, he couldn’t get the engine restarted. He landed in a farmer’s field while Bob flew cover and the third cadet flew back to Grider Field to report it. The cadet was not injured and only suffered damaged landing gear on the airplane. The poor farmer was scared out of his wits and the cadets have gigs to walk off.
The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tennessee, on Thursday morning, March 9, 1944, stated: “MIGHTY YANK AIR FLEET CARRIES THIRD LOAD OF DEATH TO BERLIN; JAP COUNTER-ATTACKS BEATEN BACK.” United States Flying Fortresses and Liberators with a tremendous fighter escort, making up an armada estimated at between 1,600 and 2,000 planes, struck at Berlin Wednesday for the third time in five days with the American communiqué from London calling “good results.” Out of the huge fleet, 38 bombers and 16 fighters were lost, but our fighters alone knocked down 83 enemy aircraft.
Ineffectual Japanese attempts to seize the offensive in the battle for Los Negros Island in the Admiralty group was battered down by American troops who have killed at least 1,500 of the defending garrison, Gen. Douglas MacArthur reported today.
Other news headlines from that day’s paper: “SENATE GROUP VOTES RESTRICTIONS ON TVA.” Senator McKellar of Tennessee’s amendments he sponsored provide that all TVA income shall be placed in the Federal Treasury, with the authority getting the funds through appropriations by Congress.
March 9, 1944
Dear Mother and Dad:
Today is Thursday, and I’m shipping out on Saturday for Basic Flying School Most of us think it will be to Independence, Kansas, but we never know until we are on board the train. I’ll send you the new address when I arrive.
Due to the bad snowstorms and much rain, most of us are 20 or so hours short of the desired 65 hours of flying. They are allowing us to fly Saturday morning and then boarding the train after lunch. The early spring weather with flowers and blossoming trees has been wonderful the last several weeks. I’ve completed successfully all the academics and am ready to leave. Give Norma a hug from her big brother.
Your loving son, Wayne
The Commercial Appeal on Friday morning, March 10, 1944, stated: “UNCHALLENGED YANK AIR ARMADA DEALS BATTERED BERLIN NEW BLOW; REDS STRIKE IN SOUTHEAST UKRAINE.” Another powerful armada of Flying Fortresses and Liberators set new fires in still-burning Berlin Thursday, dealing the battered German capital a second killing blow in two days. No enemy fighters were in opposition. The bombs were dropped through a heavy overcast and for a record low in losses of only seven bombers and one fighter airplane.
Moscow announced Friday that a 105-mile gap has been driven through the German lines in the Southeastern Ukraine.
Another headline from that day’s paper: “U.S. WAR CASUALTIES NOW EXCEED 162,282.”
March 11, 1944:
This morning (Saturday), I flew solo for 30 minutes. After lunch, we were loaded on the Grider Field buses to the Pine Bluff railroad station. Our orders say we’ll arrive at Independence Army Air Field, Kansas, for Basic Flight Training in the morning. Goodbye Grider Field! You’ve been good to me!
The adventure continues!
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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.