A PAIR OF SILVER WINGS
After the classroom fire, they broke the class up and put us in different classrooms wherever they could find the room. That was fine for most of the other cadets, but it was tough for me. I no longer had my notes, my records, my study books, and I was struggling to keep up with the class room work. I was certainly among the youngest in my class, and I had had no college at all. Many of the men studying with me had had at least two years of college, and were therefore that much more ahead. What kept me aloft, I believe, was my work in the air. I was pretty good there and even in strange circumstances---and we had a lot of those--could get my plane where it had to be on the correct course and ETA(estimated time of arrival.
Strange things happened in the air, I remember. One of my fellow cadets suffered from chronic air sickness. Even when it was smooth as a land-locked lagoon, he would get into the observation dome which was a Plexiglas bubble on the top of the Beechcraft that we used for celestial navigation, with his sextant to shoot a star-line. He would stand there, making his shot, start to perspire and gulp, go back to his seat and throw up into a bag he brought with him.
We kept that experience from the instructor. Chronic airsickness would get a guy washed out. I don’t know what happened to him later, I lost track. (But, I wonder what would have happened to him had he been assigned to a heavy bomber squadron and gotten airsick at altitude. It would be a terrible mess to barf into your oxygen mask. Without the oxygen a guy dies pretty quickly at altitude.}
There was the night we were flying across Texas, heading East, back to Monroe from Big Springs I think. I looked out of the dome, and saw a strange orange glow in the sky. I couldn’t identify it. It was huge, like a forest fire. And bright. I asked one of the other guys to check it for me, and he couldn’t tell what in the world it was, either. We kept trying to decide if it was a huge fire or a brilliant UFO. (UFOS, Unidentified Flying Objects had just become part of our awareness. They had not existed before the war, so far as I knew.)
Our instructor that evening was one of the dour ones. A guy who seemed unkind by nature and unwilling to be helpful under most circumstances. He walked around, and behaved as if he had a pine cone stuck up his behind. In the little twin engine Cessna’s and Beechcafts we trained in, the navigation instructor sat in the right seat, the co-pilot’s seat of the airplane. Finally, in desperation we called him on the intercom.
Yes. What the hell is the matter? What do you want?”
“Sir. What is that big thing out there?”
“Out where, what are you talking about mister?”
“Dead East sir. That big, orange glow. Can you tell us what it is, sir?”
“What is wrong with you mister? Do you have your head up your ass?”
“No sir. We just can’t find it on our charts sir. We would like to
“Mister, you’re an idiot.”
“It’s the moon, you jackass. How do you expect to be a navigator if you can’t recognize the moon?”
We were stunned. The big orange glow was indeed the moon, slowly coming up over the horizon. It looked huge, and at that moment it was a completely foreign object to the four cadets in that airplane.
Twenty minutes later, we knew he was right. But for a time we just didn’t know, couldn’t tell. And for a time we felt that we would be severely punished for the failure to identify the moon in the sky.
Fortunately, we weren’t.
We were about two weeks away from graduation from Navigation school, getting ready to order out officer’s uniforms and make the transition from Cadet to Officer, when I was called into the chief instructor’s office.
“Sit down mister.”
“Son, I have bad news for you.”
“Yes sir.” My heart fell. Was there a problem at home? Someone sick or in trouble?
“We’ve evaluated your work here, Mister and your class room work is not up to our standards. You do great in the air, mister, but your work at the desk is sloppy and not easy to read.”
One of my lifelong problems has been my handwriting. It is dreadful and has always been. I sometimes think I was born a lefty, but the schools never tolerated left handed kids, and so was forced to learn to write with my right hand. The results was a handwriting that would shame even the most casual doctor.
“The Army has too much invested in you for you not to continue, mister. So we are going to move you back one class. You will graduate in June instead of with your current group.”
“Yes sir. I understand sir.”
And so, I was set back about six weeks. But, I was going to make it. Some benevolent deity was watching over me. I could have been washed out right then, and sent to serve as a gunner. Anything could have happened, but I was going to survive, providing I could clean up my act and do better in the classroom.
I worked as hard as I could, and had no further academic problem. It may have been that different officers saw me differently, it may have been that the y didn’t believe I was not responsible for the fire, it could have been all types of things, but I survived. I made it to graduation.
I think I was very lucky. I have since talked to many guys who got washed out within weeks of graduation from flying school. Pilots who had all the time they needed, to earn their wings were just dumped summarily, and without explanation. So, I was lucky. Very lucky. (This may seem strange, and it was. I have even met a man who had all the dual engine time he needed to get his wings, but washed out days before graduation. He was sent to a crew as a gunner. He was flying combat, when his pilot was injured and his copilot killed. He got into the pilot’s seat and flew the airplane back to England. successfully. Only then did they recognize his training and promote him to lieutenant and let him fly combat, as a co-pilot, in a bomber.)
On the morning of June 6, l944, I remember hearing on the radio the news of the landings in Normandy . There was excitement everywhere that day. I remember asking an officer if he thought the war was going to be over almost immediately. It sounded as if it would be, and that we would never get to see combat. He said, correctly, that it would be a long hard battle. He was right.
Four days later, on June 10, 1944, I got my silver wings as an aerial navigator. I had heard that Gloria Benson, a pert young blond girl who had gone to high school with me, and lived across the street from the house I lived in was attending college not far away from Monroe. I never did find out how a girl from Flushing, New York got to go to college so far away, especially when travel was so difficult. Louisiana was at least a two day train trip sitting in a coach car all the way. In 1944, commercial aviation was not an everyday thing.
Gloria and I had dated and knew each other quite well. I called her, and invited her to pin my wings on. She agreed.
It was a brilliant day. Gloria pinned the wings on, and went back to school. In the morning, I packed my Val-pak. I had graduated from the barracks bag to a officer’s val pack and a foot locker, and took the train home for a two week delay in route. I had orders to report to McDill Field in Tampa, Florida for assignment to a combat crew in two weeks.
For many years, i wondered about what may have happened to Gloria Benson. I finally located her and called her at her home in Florida. She was very pleased to hear from me, but she didn’t really remember who I was. She confused me with several other swains she had had. I had had the illusion that I was unforgettable. Oh well, such is life.
The military then, (and now) sometimes did dumb things. One of the most dumb, in my opinion, was a program that graduated a small percentage of each cadet class to the rank of Flight Officer. Instead of a gold bar, the Flight Officer got a blue and gold bar, much like the bars on a warrant officer. The rate of pay was the same as the other cadets, the responsibility was the same, but the rank was different.
I was graduated as a flight officer. It made very little difference to me, I had gotten through and was on my way to combat, I guessed. I had no idea what that meant, but I was on my way. I got my wings on June l0. By June 13, I was home in Flushing, New York, and riding in a taxi down the main street of town.
Things had changed, things had remained the same. For me it was a homecoming. I had left in January of 1943, and it was now almost 18 months since I had last been at home.
I think I had money in my pocket, and two weeks to spend it and do things that I had thought about doing.
My younger brother, Ralph was not yet old enough to go into the service. He was about six months away, and he would have a deferment anyway since he was accepted to a veterinary medicine school. Ralph was still in high school, a senior I think, and about to graduate. He had a lovely girl friend named Jean. It happened that Jean had a sister who was just three years older than she, as I was just three years older than Ralph. Jean’s sister had no allegiances at that time. I was introduced to Grace, Jean’s sister, and we hit it off.
We went to New York City together, we went to fancy restaurants, Broadway shows and had a very good time. I was among the lucky ones and able to get tickets to see “Oklahoma”, right there on Broadway very soon after it opened.
Flushing High School from which I had graduated was literally across the street from my family home. I decided, as so many of the recent graduates had done, to visit the school.
My math teacher was amazed to see me wearing Navigator’s wings. She had given me up as a person who had no math skills at all. Everyone knew that the Navigator had to have math skills. When I walked in, one of those people she viewed as a mathematic illiterate, she was dumbfounded.
After her initial shock, she wanted to know if I would talk about aerial navigation to her math class. I agreed, and she was even more amazed to realize that I really knew what it was all about, and how math was an integral part to navigating a bomber. Her consternation is such a pleasant memory that I have preserved it all of these years.
My leave went quickly, and I departed for Tampa, Florida on time. Goodbyes were tearful, with my family and with Grace. I left Flushing with a picture of her in my pocket, that I was to carry with me all the way through combat and beyond. Grace was now the girl I had left behind, but we had no commitments, no agreements. How could we in less than two weeks?
I arrived at McDill field in Tampa as ordered and was, after a few days to be shipped down to Avon Park, Florida where I had a crew assignment.
While I waited to ship out I got to go to some of the Ybor City and Tampa night spots Tampa was a tantalizing place, and Ybor city was wide open excitement. We young flying officers were pretty well fixed for money. We earned, with flight pay, $225 dollars a month, at least. In the America of l944 that was pretty good money. We had to pay for room and board, but that wasn’t much. Average American family income in those years was probably less than $5000 a year, so we single fellows were not too badly off.
My birthday is the first of July, so I think it was just a day or so after that, after I turned 20, that I arrived at the base in Avon Park, and was taken to my barracks to meet my fellow crew mates. They were flying a training mission, so I unpacked my foot locker, taking the seven or eight books I carried with me and stacking them on the bunk to wait for my new crew mates.