Saturday, April 18, 2020 - 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 This is the 36th in a series of regular excerpts from his as yet unpublished book, “Under This Arch.”)
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After pilot school graduation in August 1944 and due to the various assignments, most of us never saw each other again. I was always making new friends.
At this stage of the war, there was such a glut of pilots that at times the “powers in command” didn’t seem to know what to do with us. I went from the B-24 co-pilot school, briefly into training for the A-26 (a sweet airplane), and last into the B-29 flight engineer/co-pilot training. Then in July 1945, all training more or less ceased.
On August 6, 1945, when the first atomic bomb mission to Hiroshima, Japan, made news, and three days later on August 9, 1945, when the second atomic bomb mission to Nagasaki, Japan, took place, we began to understand the reasons for our training to have gradually ended.
Around the first or second week of September 1945, my group of B-29 trainees were called into the chapel by our commander. He said, “Now that the war is over you have three options: resign for convenience of the government and go home, sign up to be in an Army Air Force Reserve or Army National Guard unit and go home, or stay on active duty with no promise to fly as a pilot again, since we have so many experienced combat pilots to fill the cockpits.”
Most of us went with the first option and resigned. I officially became a civilian on November 15, 1945, and was home for Thanksgiving three years after my last civilian Thanksgiving. Since I had not been in combat, it was hard to consider myself a veteran; but I had done what I was ordered to do.
As I looked back on my service, I realized that, during World War II, our Army Air Force selected top quality young men to enter pilot training. Most of us built model airplanes and considered World War I pilots our heroes. Many of us had never flown in an airplane.
That $1 flight as a 10-year-old with my dad in a Ford Tri-Motor plane that landed in a local farmer’s field in Cordele, Ga., inspired me with the desire to be a pilot.
In our excellent training, the Army Air Corps turned all of us raw material aviation cadets into “the Best Damn Pilots in the World.” Yes, the sign above the arch entranceway to the San Antonio Aviation Cadet Pilot Preflight School was true.
The Aviation Cadet program no longer exists; only commissioned officers are now trained as pilots.
During that segregated time, we cadets heard rumors that black Aviation Cadets were in pilot training at an airfield in Tuskegee, Ala. After the war, I learned that they flew honorably as AAF pilots supporting our wartime missions!
Once home after leaving the service, I enrolled for the Winter Quarter 1946 in the University of Georgia’s Pre-Medical/Pre-Optometry studies. We frequently were having our eyes and vision examined while flying and I decided that this is a needed profession to help others.
I applied and was accepted at Southern College of Optometry in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1947 after finishing the required pre-optometry courses. Before long I met a smart and beautiful University of Tennessee School of Nursing senior student from East Tennessee named Velma Jordan. We got married in 1948 after she graduated. I graduated in 1950 with the Doctor of Optometry degree.
After the Korean War started, I received a form letter from the Air Force Personnel Center at Denver, Colo., asking me to be re-commissioned for active duty and fly again. I didn’t but it caused me to consider joining the Air Force Reserve once I was settled in my optometric practice, which I did.
I was assigned in the early 1970s to be a liaison officer to the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado. At around the same time, my fellow cadet at Independence Army Air Field, Kansas – Fred Olivi of the 1945 Nagasaki atomic bomb mission – was also assigned and we reconnected with each other. We had corresponded after the war.
I continued my Air Force Reserve duties with the Air Force Academy, retiring after 30 years active and reserve duty in 1984 as a colonel (O-6).
Over the years, in looking back at the history and results of World War II pilot training, I came to realize more fully how difficult, dangerous and challenging it was.
In some 1993 correspondence with M/Sgt. Dave Manard, USAF Retired, from the Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, he wrote, “The successful completion of pilot training was not an easy task. During the period of January 1, 1941, to August 31, 1945, there were 191,654 cadets who were awarded pilot wings. However, there were also 132,993 who ‘washed out’ or were killed during training, a loss rate of approximately 40 percent.”
Velma and I had two wonderful children – Cathy Morris, born in 1956 – and John Shearer, born in 1959. My wife and I had a happy 64 years together before she died in 2012. We were blessed with three grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
Most of the former aviation cadets I’ve kept up with over the years went on to lead good and productive lives after the war. In my Cordele High School Class of 1942 and with two good friends from the Class of 1941, for example, one who had been a valedictorian became a PhD rocket scientist at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Ala. Three others became doctors and two became lawyers.
One, Mac Hyman, wrote the well-known book, “No Time for Sergeants,” which was later made into a movie and helped propel Andy Griffith’s acting career.
One other high school friend from Cordele who went through pilot training sadly died of an apparent suicide shortly after the war from domestic problems. Two of these seven were navigators and five were pilots; all from a high school class of 70 students.
Sadly, two members of our Class of 1942 died in combat in the South Pacific islands fighting.
These brief statistics seem to point out that we were the “pick of the litter.” Since it has been 75 years after the war ended as I write this in 2020, most of us are gone now. But we were present when needed by our country and proudly served!
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Final note: Thanks to all the readers of my World War II memories of pilot training and especially to those who sent me nice emails. I am proud to have served my country in World War II!
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To see the previous entry in this series, read here.
Dr. Shearer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org