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HERMAN SCEARCE WAS SIXTEEN YEARS OLD when he lied about his age and joined the Army two weeks after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Herman's mother had a little brown mantel radio, bought on credit along with everything else in her rented house, and that December when Herman switched the radio on and fine-tuned the local frequency, it buzzed with news about the attack and speculation about what the Japanese might do next.
Scearce had never heard of Pearl Harbor. He couldn't remember whether he had even heard of Hawaii. Maybe it didn't matter, because he did understand that Americans had been killed and U.S. Navy ships had been sunk. Geography certainly didn't seem to matter to the young men forming lines at the U.S. Army enlistment center at the Danville, Virginia, post office, just a half mile walk from his home.
* * *
Marvin Marshall was Herman Scearce's cousin, his mother's sister's boy. Both were sixteen, worked dead-end jobs, and they were bored. One of them, Scearce doesn't remember who, suggested they should go join the Army, that day, right then.
The cousins walked down the hill to the post office and got in line. Marvin was ahead of Herman, so he got to the recruiter first.
"Eighteen," Marvin lied.
Marvin shrugged. He couldn't prove he was eighteen. The recruiter handed Marvin a form and told him to come back after he got his momma to sign it. Marvin grinned sheepishly at Herman, stepped out of the line, and turned to walk home. Scearce stepped up to the recruiter.
Without looking up, the recruiter gestured Scearce along and his enlistment began. As his cousin returned to Danville's dull routine, a doctor gave Scearce a quick physical and, on December 22, he boarded the silver Richmond-bound bus at Greyhound's Main Street terminal. Uncle Sam covered the $1.95 one-way fare. From Richmond, a waiting Army bus took him to nearby Camp Lee to be sworn in to the United States Army.
"How do you say that?" a supply clerk asked, looking at Herman's name on a clipboard on front of him.
"Scearce ... just like the word scarce," Herman replied.
"Well, Scearce just like the word scarce, these ought to fit." And soon Scearce had all the clothing and bed linens and toilet articles the Army thought he needed.
The Army issued high-top shoes to the new soldiers and sent the men on a long hike. Soon Scearce was in the base hospital, his left ankle badly swollen from hiking in his stiff new Army shoes. While he was treated in the hospital, the men who entered Camp Lee with him shipped out to their basic training locations and a new group moved in. When Scearce was finally returned to his barracks from the hospital, he found himself feeling out of place and awkwardly self-conscious in a barracks full of experienced soldiers who had been called back to service.
If his youth was going to catch up with him, this seemed to be the most likely opportunity. His mother might think he had gone back to Roanoke Rapids to stay with his father, but she was bound to find out sooner or later that he had joined the Army. Scearce was still fairly sure the Army would discover, one way or another, how old he was and send him home, even if his mother didn't call for him.
But the experienced returning soldiers at Camp Lee weren't concerned about the raw recruit's youth and the Army's induction process resumed as soon as Scearce's ankle healed. Scearce traveled by a passenger train crowded with civilians and young soldiers to Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, for four weeks of basic training filled with marching, drill, learning how to salute, more marching, and more drill. The recruits were anxious for basic training to be over, and spirits rose as the fourth week began. Soon they would move out and get to their "real" training, training for the jobs they would do.
The high morale of the fourth week gave way to disappointment and consternation. Word was that they weren't going anywhere because there was an outbreak of meningitis, and the Army planned to keep the men contained on base until the danger of disease passed. With nothing better to do with the group, the Army put them through four more weeks of basic training filled with the same marching, drill, and saluting, spiced with salty gripes and flat jokes about having gone over this already. Scearce stayed at Jefferson Barracks a total of ten weeks.
Following basic training, Scearce assumed he would go to truck driving school, because he felt unqualified to do anything else. He had taken some tests while in basic training, and he was pleased with himself when he noticed "140" in the score box for his I.Q. Scearce felt very good about this result until he realized that the number wasn't a score after all, and the box he thought showed his I.Q. was actually a record of his weight.
Back in Danville, Scearce once worked for a man with a stovewood truck, hauling stovewood around to customers who complained about the bundles being too small or the wood burning too fast. Even then, most of Scearce's wood-hauling experience had been loading wood into the truck or sitting in the back throwing the wood off like a paper boy tossing the daily news.
When Scearce received an assignment to Radio School, he figured the Army must have plenty of truck drivers already. He would be one of 349 men in the August 1942 Radio Operator-Mechanics Class, #35. His mother had owned a radio, the little brown one on the mantel, and Scearce knew how to turn it off or on and tune in a station, but that was the extent of his expertise with radios.
Radio School at Scott Field, Illinois, was mind-numbingly boring, with row upon row and table after table of khaki-clad men quietly copying Morse code three hours a day and studying radio theory the rest of the day. As they were copying code, each student wore a headset and received coded messages that they diligently wrote into a log. When they became proficient at a rate of five words per minute, they would move up to ten, from ten to fifteen, and so on.
Scearce hated it. He wondered whether the school was specially designed to be boring, testing whether a man could stay awake enough to be a radio operator. He imagined the Army had special clocks built to move at half the speed of time. But once in a while, the monotony was broken by a visit from officers or enlisted men from one of the various organizations within the Army. Already enlisted, Scearce found himself being recruited, because the men giving these pep talks wanted the future radio operators to apply to their part of the Army.
On one of these special occasions a couple of Air Corps guys came into the school's assembly room. They talked about flying, and how the Air Corps needed radio operators. These airmen wore crisp, pressed khaki pants with a razor's edge crease down the front, shiny black shoes, and the best looking leather jackets Herman Scearce had ever seen. The jackets were brown leather, short waisted and broken-in enough to make the men look experienced. The jackets exuded cool confidence. It said these guys were Army, but they were in a special club just the same.
An incentive for volunteering for the Army Air Forces was getting out of radio school. If Scearce got his code speed up to twenty-five words per minute, he was done, radio school was over. Freshly motivated by the visiting airmen, Scearce achieved the target speed quickly and applied for gunnery training to get on a flight crew. It was understood among radio school students that it was a good thing to get on a flight crew because the pay was better: if you were on flying status, you got your base pay plus half again. Besides, Scearce really wanted one of those leather jackets.
The physical exam for gunnery school was tough, the same physical that pilots had to pass, which didn't make a lot of sense to Army Private Herman Scearce. He knew plenty of guys who could have been good gunners, except they weren't physically fit enough to be pilots.
Scearce was assigned to gunnery school at Harlingen, Texas, and felt fortunate to get Harlingen. A lot of men went to Nellis Field, in the Nevada desert, the Army Air Forces' original flexible gunnery school. Scearce liked the idea of gunnery training over the Texas coast better than gunnery training over the hot desert.
During the first few weeks of gunnery school, an Army Private's pay went from $21 a month to $50. Scearce and his single-striper buddies couldn't believe the government could afford to pay them so much.
The Army conducted flight gunnery training in AT-6 Texans, socalled because most of them were built in Dallas. Texans are single engine planes, its wing mounted forward and low on the fuselage. Texans have a wingspan of 42 feet, and are 29 feet from propeller to tail. The AT designation is for "Advanced Trainer," advanced because the AT-6 has retractable landing gear and was faster than other basic flight trainers at the time. With a nine-cylinder radial engine rated at 550 horsepower, the AT-6 Texan was a powerful plane. Gunnery school Texans had a flexible .30 caliber machine gun mounted at the rear of the cockpit. The gunnery student sat behind the pilot, in tandem, except that the gunner faced rearward in a seat designed to rotate forward or aft.
Walking toward an AT-6 for the first time, Scearce eyed the plane, trying to hide his apprehension as if the aircraft might sense it, like a dog smells fear. He reassured himself that the last guy must have survived, so he'd make it too. Herman Scearce was about to fly, for the first time in his life, in a shiny silver AT-6, facing backwards, gripping a machine gun. With his slender frame strapped in place, and the pilot seated behind him, Scearce took a deep breath and waited.
The radial engine roared to life and the plane vibrated and bounced forward, until the pilot advanced the throttle and the plane accelerated on its take-off roll and soon lifted away from the white concrete runway.
There is nothing quite like facing backwards in an airplane as it climbs away from the ground. As they lifted off and the ground fell away below them, the horizon suddenly rose, the tail of the plane tilted beneath his feet, and the airfield filled Scearce's field of vision. Scearce was thrilled and terrified at the same time.
They leveled out at 2,000 feet and Scearce soon understood why it was special to be on a flight crew. The view was amazing. Below, the Texas coastline bent to the north and east, and Mexico was just across the river visible on the opposite side. As they sped across the beach and flew over the gulf, the water was first green, and then dark blue. Boats, tiny as ants, hugged the shore, white wakes marking their paths through the water. Scearce felt the cooler air of the altitude and realized he was very wet with sweat, his back cold against the padded seat cushion behind him.
In-flight gunnery training involved trying to shoot a target towed by another Texan flying off to the side. The target was a fabric sleeve about ten feet long, towed like the advertisements for restaurants and souvenir vendors towed behind planes at a crowded beach resort. The AT-6 had a sight mounted on its wingtip that lined up with the tow plane when the range was right. When the tow target was in range, the gunner started shooting at the target. There were no stops in the AT-6's .30 caliber gun, so the gunnery student could blast his own plane's tail off. But the shooting was done to the side, not toward the rear, and for the tow plane pilot's sake, his aircraft had a long lead on the sleeve target.
After Scearce fired 200 rounds on the towed target over the Gulf of Mexico, the planes turned back toward Harlingen. As he finally began to relax, take in the view, and enjoy the ride home, Scearce heard an alarming radio transmission that put his senses on edge.
"I've got an engine problem. I'm not sure I can make it back."
Scearce didn't know whether it was his pilot who had the engine trouble or the one towing the target. He wasn't experienced enough to know that the voice that sounded loudest in his headset was his pilot. The second pilot replied, "Set it down in that field over there and I'll get some help."
Scearce was relieved to see the other plane drop the towed target and descend, preparing to land in a farm field below. Both pilots seemed so completely casual about it, Scearce figured this sort of thing must happen all the time.
When they were finally safely parked on the flight line at Harlingen, Scearce was so eager to put his feet back on the ground that he let go of the machine gun without locking it down. As he started to climb out of the plane, the weapon swung around and smacked him hard in the head, possibly the only thing hit with the gun all day.
Gunnery school students fired rounds with bullet tips painted in lithographic ink, each student with his own color. The machine gun round left a circle of paint where it struck the target, and 5 percent hits was passing. After each flight the tow plane dropped the target at the airfield before landing, and gunnery school instructors counted the hits. In the final days of gunnery school, some students used rounds painted with another man's color in order to help him make the 5 percent grade; a poor shot could show very impressive improvement that way. Scearce assumed their superiors knew what was going on, but the practice was ignored. The Army needed gunners badly.
Gunnery students learned to recognize aircraft, friend or foe, in a split second. Silhouettes of aircraft were displayed on a screen, moving across, up or down, and the gunnery student had to fire, or hold his fire, with an electronic gun after immediately determining whether the plane was American, German, or Japanese. Students had to know them all.
The school was hard work and the pressure to perform well was intense, but Scearce thought it was also interesting and, in a way, fun, especially compared to copying code and studying radio theory at Scott Field. Students fired from turrets mounted on the ground and from moving trucks, took target practice, and shot skeet.
The skeet range was run by an Army captain who was a champion shooter. He had shiny little metal badges from shooting competitions pinned all over his gun vest. He was very much "by the book" on the range, no nonsense. He insisted that every student sight down the gun with it "broken" open before the shotgun was loaded, to make sure there was nothing obstructing the barrels.
There was one shotgun for every two students. Scearce's buddy shot first and then handed him the gun. Scearce put two shells in the gun, locked it closed, and shouted "PULL!"
When the clay target flew, Scearce followed it quickly with the gun and pulled the trigger. With a deafening BOOM! a ten-inch piece of gun barrel flew back, barely missing Scearce's head, and imbedded itself several inches deep in the side of a little wooden shack behind the shooting position. Scearce held the sad remains of the shotgun in his hand, a little dazed but glad to be alive, and saw the skeet range captain heading toward him fast.
"What did I tell you? What did I tell you?" The captain screamed, beet red from the neck up. Scearce, smart enough not to respond, could feel the captain's spittle hitting him in the face. "Come with me!" the captain hissed through his clenched teeth.
Scearce's mischievous skeet range buddy had pushed the end of the gun barrels into the ground, driving plugs of earth into each one. He didn't admit doing it, but it didn't really matter; Scearce was supposed to check the barrels before putting shells into the gun.
Excerpted from FINISH FORTY AND HOME by Phil Scearce Copyright © 2011 by Phil Scearce. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NORTH TEXAS PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted April 25, 2014
this is a fascinating story about personal survival and perseverance throughout the ordeal of floating 47 days after crashing and all the humane treatment meted out by the Japanese.
I grew up during world war ii. I know only about what was reported in the news. I thoroughly enjoy reading about the personal and events.