Sunday, September 29, 2019 - by Dr. C. Wayne Shearer
(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 25th
in a series of regular excerpts from his as yet unpublished book, “Under This Arch.”)
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Setting: Independence Army Air Field, Kansas
March 13, 1944:
As the train on Saturday pulled out of the Pine Bluff station heading west, the sky got drearier and colder; an ill omen of what the future held for us. The passenger cars never got any real heat in them as we chugged through the black night.
Arriving at Independence, Kansas, around noon under an overcast sky and in the military buses driving us to Independence Army Air Field, someone said, “We left springtime flowers at Pine Bluff and arrive here in the bleakness of winter.” Upon entering the base, the buses went to the base chapel and our 200 or so cadets from Grider Field crowded into the chapel. We were all thinking that this is very unusual because we always officially first report with our orders to cadet headquarters. We soon knew the foreboding significance.
We waited a short time talking among ourselves when “tenshun” was loudly called out as the colonel (base commander) entered with five or so officer subordinates. The colonel gave a short discouraging welcome to the base. He told us we were back on a real military airfield, where all military rules and customs would be enforced. He quickly ended his talk with, “Misters, the Army Air Force does not need any additional pilots, so most of you cadets will not leave here for an Advanced Flying School.” We were dismayed! You could hear the heartbreak of us startled cadets. Stunned and shocked best describes us. We were formerly wanted and needed. Now we have complete discouragement at this change in the need of the military.
This was not the usual encouraging welcoming speech. Before, we felt like we were wanted, but yesterday we were told we’re not needed. Some of us will move upward to an Advanced Flying School, even though the Army Air Force’s requirements for military pilots is not what it was last year when I started my training, but I intend to be in that decreased number of pilots. I’m keeping that P-40 in my future. The sky will be blue again with blossoming spring flowers!
From the chapel we were driven to spartan, one-story barracks with a coal-burning stove in the middle for heat. I had heard about Kansas winds and, upon seeing these temporary type barracks with steel cables on each long side tied to the ground, I knew it was necessary but ugly appearing. We took our bags into this typical military open bay barracks. We got spoiled with our “country club” quarters at Pine Bluff.
We were marched to the cadet headquarters to individually report in per military tradition with our orders. There were several officers at different desks. Our flight lined up in single file at the other end of the room until our turn. I marched to the open desk in as sharp a military bearing as I could muster after the night train ride and saluted the captain, loudly saying, “Sir, Aviation Cadet Claude W. Shearer reporting for duty.” Still standing at attention, he took the orders, marking my name off of a master list, saying, “That’s all, you’re dismissed.” I tried to do a snappy “about face” and exited.
March 15, 1944:
We have the outside bulletin board at the orderly room as usual, but here at Independence Army Air Field we constantly hear orders over a loudspeaker system. You can’t get away from the garbled words, since loudspeakers are everywhere.
As usual, we received various pieces of flying equipment and met our flight instructor. He appeared to be in his late 20s with an unfriendly, dour expression. We four cadets -- Clarence, Jerry, Lamar and I – thought that, due to his un-shined, cruddy-appearing 2nd lieutenant bars, that perhaps this unhappiness was because he had been passed over several times for promotion. From the looks of his old-looking brass, he needs to “blitz it.”
This BT-14 is larger than the PT-19A and has a 450-horsepower engine. It’s made by North American Aviation Co., which likewise makes the more powerful AT-6. The noticeable difference is that this Basic Trainer has a narrow, fixed-landing gear prone to ground loop easily. The AT-6 has a similar width but retractable landing gear. This BT-14 also has a lot more instruments to learn than the Primary Trainer. These BT-14s were transferred here from Randolph Army Air Field in Texas. This is the only base that has them.
March 16, 1944:
There is always coal smoke in the air from the stoves that are the responsibility of the cadets in each barracks to keep burning. At both Preflight and Primary, natural gas kept us warm. This is a barebones, temporary type of wartime base like most training fields.
We are busy every minute after reveille at 5:30 until the squawky loudspeaker says lights out at 2200. This morning we made the classrooms and met our instructors. The same ground school classes as in Primary continue with the addition of flight instrument courses and radio navigation procedures. These seem to be professional academic teachers.
This afternoon the four of us met Lt. “Rusty Bars” at operations for our orientation flight in this monster of an airplane compared to the PT-19A. We also came up with this nickname for our instructor. He’d wash us out in short order -- if he ever heard his moniker from us.
For the first flight, I sat in the back cockpit but will be in the front cockpit in the future. We have an interphone system, so the cadet can ask questions and be able to answer the instructor. After I was buckled in and started remembering the PT-19 incident of the loose seat, I made sure the seat height adjustment screw was tight.
The pilot then said before starting the engine, “Yell switch on,” as a warning to anyone close to the prop. The large radial Pratt & Whitney engine roared to life. We taxied out to the runway, parking at the usual 45-degree angle for visibility. My instructor asked the control tower for take-off permission; and this is a new procedure to do. This engine propeller has a pitch control of low and high. The low pitch is for take-off and climbing.
It was a smooth take-off. We flew over several auxiliary landing fields with him pointing out various landmark boundaries. He mentioned that sometimes, when there are numerous airplanes in the landing pattern, the base leg is over Oklahoma. He had me do some turns and a straight-ahead stall, and my 40-minute dual flight was over. He’s not going to be a talkative instructor. The airplane is always parked wing tip to wing tip with the other trainers on the ramp, same as in Primary.
March 16, 1944
Dear Mother and Dad,
My group of cadets arrived at Independence, Kansas, on March 12 and got checked in all right. Independence is in the Southeast corner of Kansas. I’m back in winter weather!
I had my first flight in the BT-14 today. I’m going to enjoy it. I’m in a barracks with some of the same cadets I’ve been with since Preflight. We were told the AAF doesn’t have the need for pilots now as previously. I’m going to work that much harder. Give Norma a hug and write soon to the new address.
Your loving son, Wayne
March 17, 1944:
Today (Friday) while waiting in operations for our instructor to return, several of us overheard an instructor talking with another instructor about an incident with his cadet. He said he told the cadet to do a 2½-turn spin to the right. The cadet put it in the spin at 14,000 feet and went past the recovery point, and in the mirror the cadet’s eyes were bugged out in a panic. He said he grabbed the stick but couldn’t move it because the strong farm boy had it in a vice-like grip. Yelling into the radio and pulling on the stick brought no response.
In looking at the ground rushing up to meet them, he decided to jump, opened the canopy and was up on the edge of the cockpit. When in looking at the kid, he knew he couldn’t leave him. He sat back down, with both feet on the stick and, pushing with all his strength, broke the hold! He got the plane out of the spin as it dove straight down past the red line of 240 and thought the wings were going to be peeled off. He pulled back on the stick, and the BT shook fiercely with ripples appearing on the top of the aluminum wings. He got it under control and was flying straight and level about 30 feet above the Kansas wheat field. Further, he said, “I’m turning this cadet in for an elimination ride and I don’t want to ever fly with him again.”
Hearing that story shook us cadets up, but we were still looking forward to our instruction today. I got an hour dual time and think it went OK. For about an hour, I sat in one of the trainers learning where each instrument gauge and control is located, so I can pass the blindfold test.
The Tulsa Sunday World, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on Sunday, March 19, 1944, said: “RUSSIANS REACH RUMANIA.” Reds wipe out Nazi 6th Army of 50,000 Germans in 11 days. Stalin forces pour unchecked through the broken enemy front to take Yampol on the river border.
Other news headlines from that day’s paper: “U.S. PLANES HIT KURILE ISLANDS.” Our Army and Navy wingmen carry the fight closest to the heart of Nippon since the Doolittle raid by hitting Matsauwa only 960 miles from Tokyo. The Jap airplanes refused to give battle.
“BOMBS RAIN ON GERMANY.” American Fortresses and Liberators in great strength escorted by Thunderbolt, Lightning and Mustang fighters plunged deep into Southern German today to pound Augsberg, Friedrichshaven and other targets. They plowed into heavy opposition that cost 43 U.S. bombers and 10 fighters. Between 1,500 and 2,000 planes participated in the tremendous widespread attack. In Bern it was disclosed that 16 American bombers came down in Switzerland early this afternoon.
“RECRUITING WAR TRUCE DECLARED.” A Washington communiqué from the War Manpower Commission decided today to recognize the WACS and WAVES as “essential activities.” The Army and Navy in turn will stop recruiting women in labor shortage areas.
“U.S. LOSES TWO MORE SUBS.” The Sculpin and Capelin with 150 crewmen reported sunk in the Pacific.
“NEW COLD WAVE HITS OKLAHOMA AND KANSAS AREAS.” The forecast calls for freezing weather with 35-to-40-mile-per-hour winds with snow for typical late winter blizzard for next few days.
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To see the previous entry in this series, read here.
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Dr. Shearer can be contacted at email@example.com.