On December 7, 1941, while the sky was turning black and American blood was turning the water red in a tiny spot in the Pacific, I was home alone studying. I was a college student at New York University getting ready for my first semester final exams.
I decided to have some food, and turned on the radio for some music, when the announcement came on that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor.
It took a while for the news to sink in and for me to realize that life would never be the same for me. I was eighteen years old and although eligible for the draft, I was in school and would probably be able to complete the year.
I listened to the radio news for the rest of the day while I tried to study. The news kept getting worse as the day wore on. That night I could not sleep, and I continued to monitor the news. It seemed as though the entire world was awake waiting for the other shoe to drop. It was hard to believe what had happened at Pearl Harbor and I thought that this was a nightmare from which I would awaken. It was not a dream.
As I predicted I was in a special category that left me exempt from the draft. I completed the year at college and attended summer school to speed up my education. We were spending the summer at Long Beach, Long Island, and I was having a great time. After returning from school each day I would walk the short distance to the ocean for a long swim, dry off in the sun and return home to study. If there was time in the evening I would spend some of it with my buddies. The war was far away and it seemed that I would not be involved at all, since we were certain that it would be over before long.
My best friend, Jimmy Kennedy told me that he was going to enlist in the Naval Air Force to become a pilot. He asked me to join him so that we could train together. I told him that I knew nothing about flying and that if I had any intention of enlisting my mother would probably put a stop to it. I continued at school and completed the year.
We were now on an all out wartime environment. Many things were rationed including gasoline, tires, and some foods. It wasn't bad, but there was a great deal of complaining. I was feeling guilty for not doing my share of the fighting. Some of my friends had already left for the service, but I continued with very little change in my life style.
My friends were all talking about enlisting in the Army Air Force. They were always humming "Off we go into the wild blue yonder", and with all the news of the Japanese and the German atrocities, it began to get to me. We were always discussing how much better the army planes were. After all, who would want to be out at sea all the time?
By the end of the summer of 1942 I decided that I would enlist in the Army Air Force for pilot training. Among other things I felt that if I were going to war I should also learn to fly. I also felt that by the time I was finished with the training phase, the war would be over and I would be able to continue my life.
My parents wanted me to complete college, but when I showed them some articles in the Reader's Digest about our nurses being raped by the Japanese soldiers, and about what was happening to the Jews and other minorities in Germany, they signed the necessary papers.
There was about a six‑month wait before there was room for me in the Army Air Force Cadet Corps, and I made good use of the time. I attended summer school and made up a semester doing that. The next regular semester I carried an enormous number of credits at school, and had completed another semester when I was called up.
At this time even though I had enlisted as an aviation cadet for pilot training I was brought in as a private in the army. I went through basic training in Atlantic City and then to Penn State College for more schooling until there was room at the testing base at Nashville, Tennessee. The time at Penn State was a rescue operation to keep us from going into the infantry.
I am getting ahead of myself.
The basic training was a rough way to get initiated into the army. It was a damp, cold winter in Atlantic City. We lived on the eleventh floor of one of the hotels. We were not permitted to use the elevators, and had to double time up and down the stairs at least a dozen times a day. Also, after a tough day marching and exercising we would be aroused by the fire alarm in the middle of the night and had to double time downstairs and assemble in the street. After making sure that we were now fully awake we were again rushed upstairs to our quarters and allowed to try to fall asleep again.
The hotel rooms had been modified to accommodate the Army. The carpeting was removed leaving a bare concrete floor, and the furniture was changed to make more space in each room for more men.
I was assigned KP duty [kitchen patrol] by my sergeant whom I was sure had taken an immediate dislike to me. The sergeant placed me at the rear of one of the large hotels [Chalfonte] where the dirty garbage cans were placed. He told me to make them shine inside and out using a scrub brush, soap, and hose, and that he would be back in a few hours to check on me. It was seven AM and it was cold.
I immediately began to tackle the job. The garbage cans were greasy and dirty, and it took a good half hour to do each one. More and more they began to pile up behind the kitchen. After about three hours I was totally soaked, both from sweat and from the garbage cans. At first I had a problem with the smell along with the cold, the water, and the work. After a while the smell disappeared, but the water and the cold never let up.
The sergeant must have forgotten about me because he didn't reappear until five in the evening. I had worked without stopping for lunch and must have cleaned at least fifty cans. The sergeant was impressed and brought me inside for some hot soup and food. He sent me to my room and told me to take a hot bath or shower as soon as possible, and not to stop to talk to anyone before I had bathed. I ended up in the hospital two days later.
With the icy winter rain and the lack of sleep, the awful food, and the garbage cans, I had to spend two or three days in the hospital with the flu. Most of my buddies had the same experience. The army called it a flu epidemic, but it really was due to the so called training.
After the hospital interlude we were initiated into close order drill. This meant marching, marching, marching. First we marched on the beach, then we marched on the street, then we marched to Brigantine Beach.
Brigantine Beach was sort of a suburb of Atlantic City. There was a huge parking lot which was not paved where we marched every day for the entire afternoon. It was good exercise, but total boredom. It seems that the army was looking for a way to keep us busy until they could find a slot for us where we could really begin our training.
I was now fully indoctrinated into the army's way of doing things and I was not very happy. Flying an airplane seemed far away. I felt that I would probably end up as a foot soldier and that would be bad news.
However, after a very uncomfortable three weeks we were transported during the night to State College, Pennsylvania, the home of course, of Penn State College.
It was a fun time and made up for the Atlantic City agony. We lived in a brand new fraternity house which had been evacuated to make room for us. I knew that the fraternity "boys" who were to move were furious and left some evidence of their feelings when they had to evacuate, no pun intended. The countryside was also beautiful. The Nittany Mountains surround the town of State College, Pa. The entire town was and still is devoted to the University.
The fraternity "mother" was hired to do the cooking for us. Every evening we were individually asked what we would like for breakfast. The lunch and dinner meals were equally great.
The curriculum was easy and since I had taken some of the courses during my brief college career, I was made a tutor and given a temporary rank which allowed me to leave the house some evenings. I would wander down to the women's dormitory where I knew some of the female students from my hometown.
As a matter of fact during the first week at Penn State while we were marching to class a very attractive girl rushed up to me and threw her arms around me and proceeded to kiss me. She was one of the girls I had dated from back home. I had attended her going away party before she left for school, and I hadn't seen her since then. This is how I found out about the other girls from my hometown.
I was embarrassed, but also pleased that she had shown so much affection in front of my buddies. I took a large amount of ribbing over this incident, especially from our sergeant.
I also met a distant cousin who spotted me and he helped make life more interesting.
Weekends were great! We were invited to picnics, and even to one of the fraternity houses, which had not been evacuated, for their Saturday night parties. These parties were wild! I was not prepared for what was happening at these fraternity houses where the bedrooms were comfortable and the drinks were plentiful. It was almost natural to adjourn to one of the bedrooms after having some drinks. I felt sort of cheated that this had been going on while men were giving their lives to protect the country. I also felt that I had been naive to think that going away to college was anything but hard work. I was comparing this with my own college experience, which had been all work and no play.
The campus was beautiful, and with the mountains as a background, I thought of how lucky I was to be in this paradise. Since it was wartime, there were many more women than men. This added to the excitement and to the pleasures that I had never had at home.
Since we were in the army, we were forced to stay in uniform which made it easy to be dressed properly for any occasion that presented itself. We were dressed for picnics or parties without worrying about being dressed for “the occasion”.
The regular students had already paired off before we arrived at the college. However, there were plenty of females to go around without anyone feeling stepped on. Besides, the females knew that we were there on a temporary basis.
This wonderful existence lasted for two months, after which a group of us were sent to Nashville, Tennessee for processing. I was sorry to leave this wonderful existence, but I was eager to see what was ahead.
At Nashville the first sorting out was done. This was the real army, with marching again and with no more good times. It was a full day with no time for anything but testing. The only pleasure was to fall into bed at the end of the day, and fall asleep. Those who passed the testing were divided into three categories, pilots, navigators, and bombardiers. I made the pilots list and was very pleased with myself. The testing took two weeks of day and night work. We were tested for every conceivable situation including reflexes, aptitude, coordination, manual dexterity, etc. We never did get to see the city of Nashville.
Now that I had been selected for flight training I began to develop an interest in reading about aviation and airplanes. I knew that I wanted to learn everything that I could about my new adventure.
I wanted to learn the new language and to experience the sensations of piloting an airplane.
Of course I began to worry about whether I would be able to handle this totally new world that I was about to enter. I had heard about the high wash-out rate. This was a challenge, and I did want to see if I could make it. I did have confidence in my abilities, but I had no experience in flying and I knew that some of my buddies did have some flying experience. Anyhow, I was game to give it a try.
The next step was a two‑month stretch at Maxwell Field in Alabama for "pre‑flight training". We studied aircraft recognition, math, survival, officers training, including how to eat with proper etiquette, etc. We also were given intensive physical training to get us in good shape. It was summer and in this part of the country the heat was unbelievable. We were forced to run instead of walking to classes or wherever we were headed. Our uniforms were always wet from sweating. There was no air conditioning and sleeping was a problem. They probably exercised us so much so that we would be able to fall asleep at night from exhaustion, without paying attention to the heat.
One of the daily duties that we were put through was a run through a section of forest that had a trail through it. It was about a three‑mile run and was called "The Burma Road". It was cool enough while running through the forest, but when we emerged from the forest and had to keep running until we reached our barracks, the heat became overwhelming. One very hot day during this run one of the cadets was overcome by the heat and went into a coma and died.
The first month was tough! We were the underclassmen, and we were constantly hazed by the upperclassmen. We were good sports and let them have their fun, knowing that when we would be upperclassmen in a month that we would have our turn. However, that was not to be. There was an enquiry by the congress concerning the hazing and it was prohibited when our turn came.
Also, we were kept on base that first month, and when we were allowed into town, we really let loose. It is interesting that the waitresses in the mess hall looked prettier each day, until we were allowed off the base.
This second month was much easier since there was no hazing and we were becoming accustomed to the routine.
One of the experiences that we had to go through was the decompression chamber. This chamber was similar to the compression (hyperbaric) chambers used for medical purposes. Instead of increasing the atmospheric pressure as in the compression chamber, this decompression chamber decreased the atmospheric pressure to simulate flight at high altitude. Since all of the aircraft that we were to fly were not pressurized we had to wear oxygen masks to supply the supplemental oxygen that we needed as the atmospheric pressure in the chamber was decreased. We were given writing exercises to do with and without the oxygen, and as the altitude increased and the pressure decreased, the writing deteriorated when we were not wearing the masks.
On one of these decompression exercises, as we passed through about 30,000 feet, I developed a case of the bends. It hit me in the wrist. The pain was severe. It felt as though I had been stabbed. I was brought down to about 20,000 feet and the pain disappeared. That was the only such episode that I had.
Incidentally, the math officer turned out to be my math professor at college. He remembered me and told me that he had been drafted and because of his civilian job he was assigned to teach at this pre‑flight base. He was married and had his wife with him, and he seemed to be enjoying his tour of duty.
This part of the program was to also teach us to become officers.
I still had not seen an airplane, and I was becoming impatient. The war was going on and I was still wondering if I would be able to hack it. Although we went through all of the testing, none of it could predict if we would be able to handle the flying and the combat. I was anxious to get started.
Apparently the army felt the same way and we were now sent to a primary flying school. We were never told where we were going, probably for security reasons. However, we did our traveling by train. The trains in those days were just beginning to become modernized. These modern versions were for civilian use. For troops they utilized the steam engines pulling old trains with nonadjustable seats and no air conditioning. The steam engines were coal burners which left a trail of soot. Since there was no air conditioning, the windows had to be left open. By the time the trip was over we were dirty, sweaty, and coughing up black soot. The trips were usually overnight since we were not top priority and had to spend some time on sidings waiting for clearances up ahead.
However, we were all young and healthy so there were no complaints. We were headed for a new adventure and that was what we were all thinking about. I was ready to accept the new challenge and all of the potential problems and the excitement that I knew was to come.
The airplane that we flew was an open cockpit, tandem seated (front and rear) airplane with fixed landing gear (non retractable). It had a nine cylinder, radial, air cooled engine that turned out 220 H.P. The army designation was Primary Trainer 23 or PT23 and it was manufactured by the Fairchild Corporation.
This airplane was designed for a much smaller and lighter engine. Since this was a tail wheel airplane, the heavier engine gave it a tendency to nose over if the brakes were applied too strenuously. The extra weight also caused the landing gear to collapse if the landing was too hard.
Communication from the instructor to the student was through tubes from the front cockpit connected to the ear flaps of the student's helmet in the rear cockpit. The student had no way of speaking to the instructor. Also, because of the open cockpit and the noisy engine, much of what was shouted by the instructor was lost. A good deal of the communications was through inventive and often confusing hand signals.
The half day that was spent at ground school included studying aircraft and naval recognition, theory of flight, navigation, meteorology, survival, etc.
Physical fitness was also a part of the daily regimen. We ran, did calisthenics, and practiced hand to hand combat.
It was total immersion!
We were not allowed off the field for the first month, and only on weekends during the second month.
The airport itself was a fairly large grass covered field located in farming country. The town was very small without paved streets, and the residents of the entire area were handsome, intelligent, and friendly. They knew what we were there for and they were very appreciative.
It was necessary to fly solo within twelve hours or wash out (dropped from the program). The minimum time was eight hours.
After breakfast every day we were marched in formation from the barracks to the flight line. Our uniforms were green flight suits and canvas helmets and goggles. We wore the goggles around our necks until after we soloed. After we had soloed, we wore the goggles on our helmets.
Each day marching back to the barracks it was easy to spot who had soloed, both from the position of the goggles and the smiles on their faces. As the days went by there were fewer and fewer faces as the washout lists became longer.
Anyhow, I did get to solo after ten hours. I remember the intense feeling of excitement and fear when my instructor had me stop the airplane at the side of the auxiliary airfield where he climbed out of the cockpit, smiled, and waved me off. This was it! Taking off was easy. Getting the airplane on the ground safely was another matter. Flying the rectangular traffic pattern was no problem, but when I looked down at the grass field it looked very small. Now there was no one in the airplane to make corrections or to take over the controls if necessary. It was now all up to me. I had to make all the decisions. Make a mistake now and it could kill you, or worse than that, damage the aircraft.
That first landing was a tremendous effort. I was tense, with all of my instincts and reflexes standing by, ready to make any corrections or adjustments in a nanosecond. I touched down safely and looked over at my instructor who gave me an OK signal and motioned me off for another takeoff. Now I doubted that I could do it again. I really wanted to just go back to the home field to take a nap, but now I knew that I had to make two more landings before going back.
I made the necessary three landings with much trepidation, and we flew back to the base field with one very happy and very sweaty student.
On the next day we were scheduled to repeat the performance, but this time from the base field. After practicing a couple of landings with the instructor, I pulled over to the edge of the field to allow him to disembark. Now I had a problem getting the airplane to move again. It was necessary to use almost full throttle to start the airplane to taxi. The instructor had to push on a wing to help me start rolling. We both thought that it was the tall grass and the mud at the edge of the field that was impeding the movement.
When I lined up for takeoff and pushed the throttle forward the airplane stubbornly began to move forward slowly, and instead of holding right rudder to compensate for the torque effect as was usual, I found myself instead using left rudder to keep the airplane pointed straight ahead.
It took a long time to attain flying speed and lift off the ground. As soon as I was off the ground the airplane immediately picked up speed and I circled to make the landing.
I touched down in a perfect three point landing and almost immediately the airplane began turning to the right. I was holding full left rudder, but the plane kept turning right. It made a full 360 degree turn before coming to a stop. I could not get the plane to move now even with full throttle. I looked around and saw that the grass where I had landed was torn up from the point that I had touched down to where I had stopped.
The crash truck appeared at this point carrying my instructor who was screaming at me. He jumped off the truck and after examining the airplane looked up at me peculiarly. He motioned me to stay in the airplane while he climbed up on the wing and apologized for his earlier remarks. He told me that I had a locked brake on the right wheel, and that on takeoff the tire had been pulled off the wheel.
The brake had locked as a result of some air in the hydraulic line which had expanded when the air temperature had warmed up as the morning wore on. The problem was compounded when the brake itself heated up as the wheel rotated and then locked.
I had landed on the bare rim with the brake locked, but because I had made a good landing the airplane did not flip over and was intact.
The crash truck went back to the hangar and returned with a new tire and wheel which they quickly installed on the airplane. They bled the brake line and I was ordered to continue to complete my landings and takeoffs for the day.
My instructor was very pleased that the airplane was saved and a serious accident averted. He rewarded me by writing a very good report for my file. That report probably kept me from washing out at least during this phase of my training.
We now were all speaking a new language. We had a new vocabulary composed of aviation terminology.
A week later I was scheduled for a routine check ride with an Army examiner. This was my first check ride and I was up tight.
The examiner was in the front seat and I was as usual in the rear seat. He motioned me to take off and I began the takeoff roll. Before the airplane had lifted off the grass he began to yell instructions at me. "Climb to 2,000 feet and do a power on stall to the right, then do a 60‑degree turn to the left, then do a spin to the left", . . . and on and on.
I was concentrating on the take off and only heard about one half of what he was saying. I remembered the 2,000 feet and when we were at that level I immediately began the power on stall to the left. He grabbed the controls and pointed down to show me that I had begun the maneuver in the traffic pattern of the airport. I was embarrassed!
He kept the control of the airplane and landed, taxied to the operations office, climbed out of the airplane and yelled to me to "go up and practice".
I was certain that I would be on the washout list that evening, and I wondered why he let me take off again.
After practicing some stalls, spins, and other maneuvers for an hour I returned to the field and landed, thinking that this was probably the last landing that I would ever make in an airplane.
I taxied over to park the airplane and saw my instructor waiting for me. He was grinning from ear to ear! He put his arm around me and told me that the examiner had given me all A's, and he was proud of me.
I explained to him that I had made a fool of myself and that I should have flunked the check ride. He laughed and said that when the examiner had read the report of my accident he felt that I deserved to pass for having saved the airplane. He also felt that the examiner knew that I was uptight, possibly from the incident a few days ago.
The most important lesson that a novice pilot must learn is to pay strict attention to airspeed. If the airspeed drops below the stall speed for that aircraft, it will quit flying, go into a spin, and head for the ground. If there was not enough altitude to recover from the spin and the stall, then there would be a crash. In this case the pilot could probably be picked up with a blotter.
This lesson was indelibly written into my brain!
Soon after soloing I was out practicing some maneuvers. When I came in for a landing, I noticed that on my final approach using the correct airspeed that I was moving over the ground at a much slower speed than usual. I became nervous about stalling out and aborted the landing. The second time around the same thing happened and again I went around. On the fifth attempt I decided to increase the airspeed and go for it. I landed, but not before floating half way across the field, close to the ground, until the airplane finally quit flying.
My instructor had been watching me and asked me why I had gone around four times before landing, and why I had landed like a fighter airplane. When I told him what had gone through what substituted for my mind, he laughed and said that I had learned a very important lesson. He reminded me that there was a stiff breeze blowing, and that accounted for the low ground speed, and had nothing to do with my airspeed, and that it was the airspeed that was important to keep the airplane flying, not the ground speed. He also said that if I hadn't landed that he was getting ready to look for a gun to shoot me down.
We were required to do several cross country flights. The countryside in Tennessee was beautiful and since these were open cockpit airplanes it was truly a pleasure. I couldn't believe that life could be so beautiful. Also, since these airplanes had no electrical system, we had no radio contact with the base, and no radio navigational aids. The navigating was strictly dead reckoning and pilotage. That means that aside from watching the compass it was necessary to watch for landmarks on the ground to compare with the charts to know where you were. If necessary, you could always find a water tower with the name of the town on it and if you circled it counter‑clockwise you could read the name. Since there were so few towns in this part of the country it was easy and very pleasant.
Of course I had written home to tell my family that I was progressing in my training and that I had soloed. Of course I received a letter by return mail from my mother telling me to fly low and slow. I showed this to my instructor and he in turn wanted to tack the letter on the bulletin board.
We did not fly nor have ground school on weekends. I spent most of the weekend studying textbooks and manuals. I wanted to learn as much as possible about flying.
By the time that I had completed the two month course I was very comfortable flying this airplane. I no longer became sick from the flying or from the fuel odor. I awoke every morning happy with the thought that I would be flying, particularly when the flying was in the morning. I also enjoyed the wonderful countryside and the clear fresh air that was a part of Tennessee; and that feeling endures to this day.
For me this period of training (two months) was exciting and it gave me a great deal of self assurance. I was so involved with the flying that I rarely left the base. I studied, and for relaxation I would walk over to the ice cream bar for a chocolate ice cream soda, and after staring at the female attendant I would return to the barracks to continue my studying. I felt that I had control of myself and when we moved to the next phase I was ready for it. This next phase was called Basic Flying School and it was located in Newport, Ark.