Read an Excerpt
By Roger G. Smith
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2011 Roger G. Smith
All right reserved.
Chapter OneGUPPY PILOT
"What position do you play?" I had just told my father that I had enlisted as a Naval Aviation Cadet (NAVCAD) for 5 years after finishing college in 1953, and this was his response. "What doyoumean, position?" "On the ball team, do they have you handle the ball?" Well, no, actually it had never been found that I could be depended on to catch it, hit it, or throw it accurately. That was why I was a long distance runner, and not an exceptionally good one at that. I made the fifth man to fill out a cross country squad. My father had made his point. Hand-eye coordination would be essential for survival in Naval Aviation. "You'll kill yourself, and your mother will be distressed." My mother adopted the contrary view and encouraged my enlistment. Her reasons were not very complimentary to my self—image. It was already a done deal in any event. I had taken the oath. It was that or be drafted into the army for two years. Korea was then a "police action," and nobody could predict if it would flare again. The truce continued for decades to be a prolonged nuisance in the Far East. For my part, I had graduated from Brown with a B.A. in English and American Literature and had no job offers. All I knew how to do, and that wasn't marketable, was how to sit for an examination. I was reasonably good at that.
In the summer of 1953, the Second World War had been over for 8 years. The police action in Korea, signifying the reluctant resolve of America to continue a military response to the threat to human freedom, was over its active phase. The draft still demanded service of men reaching 18 or finishing school. Nobody went abroad to avoid it. Politicians did not yet find it expedient to betray America's interest by truckling to an unwillingness to serve, and rationalize it with religious scruples or liberal dogma. Wayne Morse was still a Republican, and Mark Hatfield was Secretary of State in Oregon. Over the next ten years America would weaken from within. A discreditable and discredited philosophy that failed every time it was applied to the improvement of the human condition would be invoked over and over in thousands of variations as an excuse for not accepting the challenge of freedom and the opportunity that is America. After Korea there would be a period of relative absence of war for America and its Navy during the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower. After that the tragedy that would be called Vietnam would involve the navy in a new chapter in the great epic of civilization. The exercise for the participants is to derive the lesson of that chapter.
At the opening of this era I was offended that my University offered an honorary degree at a special convocation to a man (Philip C. Jessup) whose only merit was that he had been accused by Senator McCarthy, apparently correctly, of membership in 26 Communist front organizations, and had in consequence resigned his ambassadorship-at-large. Although I was active in the campaign to make Senator Taft president, I came to realize that General Eisenhower served America well as President though I had had doubts because of his accommodating attitude toward the Russian totalitarians at the end of World War II. The country under him knew itself with pride and sureness. After that confidence would be undermined by egalitarianism, and Luddism would sap the will and strength of this great nation. The search for equality has always led down and never up. The patriotism of World War II would become an object of scorn and the organs of propaganda, theTV, radio and print press, would be increasingly mobilized in support of what would be mis-named liberalism. Back in George Washington's day, Alexander Tyler put it succinctly:
"A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves money from the public treasure. From that moment on the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most money from the public treasury, with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy followed by a dictatorship. The average age of the world's great civilizations has been two hundred years. These nations have progressed through the following sequence: from bondage to spiritual faith, from spiritual faith to great courage, from courage to liberty, from liberty to abundance, from abundance to selfishness, from selfishness to complacency from complacency to apathy, from apathy to dependency, from dependency back to bondage."
I had gone up to NAS Squantum, just south of Boston, one Sunday in April to enlist and take the physical. Actually I was pretty well hung over from a college party that first appointment and flunked the blood pressure test. The corpsman said, "Hey, guy, you got high blood pressure." "The hell I do," I replied. "Either that or you've been out drinking all night." He could probably taste my breath. The corpsman went to his officer and soon came back with the word to report again next Sunday, this time sober. That was a lesson. I was pronounced fit the next week and took the oath. Naval aviation seemed a way of satisfying the military obligation we all had in those years that combined excitement, camaraderie, travel and the acquisition of a skill that would stand one in good stead all one's life. That turned out to be right. There were risks that were not appreciated at the time, but I was lucky in being able to avoid them.
It was late August before I reported aboard NAS Pensacola and the Naval Aviation Basic Training Command, and joined the class numbered 37-53—the 37th class of that year for, as my orders stated, "Duty involving flying." A new class began weekly comprising some 60 cadets. I had spent the summer mountaineering in the west with friends and mostly camping out. We had climbed the east face of Longs Peak, and all the summits of the Teton Range. I was in pretty good shape physically. For the next 4 months the cadets of 37-53 would live in the great Georgian brick barracks, which is still there 50 years later, and suffer through the espirit building experience, which Marine Corps gunnery sergeants know so well how to supervise. It was called preflight.
"I can tell youse gennelmans is gennelmans by the gennelmans stickers on youse gennelmans cars, but youse gennelmans don't march like no gennelmans!" I can hear the drill sergeant yet. This was the system that had expanded a force of 6000 Naval Aviators at the start of World War II, and geared up to crank out 30,000 pilots a year beginning in 1942. In 1953 the system was fueling the Navy, Marine, and Coast Guard need at less than a tenth of that and turning out some Canadian and French navy pilots too. Ten years earlier, in 1942, after a 20-week preflight course at Great Lakes or Memphis or Asheville, cadets went to Pensacola for 11-15 weeks in the N3N biplane (lovingly known as the "yellow peril.") They then went to intermediate training in the SNJ "Texan" trainer for 22 weeks. The survivors of that were commissioned and sent to advanced operational training in the fleet aircraft they would fly in their squadron. Ten years later we preflight cadets went through 18 weeks of ground school right there at Mainside Pensacola. We went to class in the morning and to physical training in the afternoon. In between we marched and stood inspection and did the military thing. We learned military etiquette, small arms use, swimming, obstacle course, boxing, wrestling, shoe shining to a fare-thee-well, and studied theory of flight, reciprocating engines, jet engines, navigation, Morse code on a blinker light, weather, aerology, military justice, aviation ordnance, aircraft identification, Navy regs, survival and much more. It was intensive and it was challenging. When it was over we graduated to Whiting Field out at Milton, Florida, some 20 miles east and settled down to learn to fly the SNJ. When girls asked what that was we told them it stood for Secret Navy Jet. J is the designator for the North American Aircraft Corp. which built it, and SN is navy code for a scout trainer. It was a retractable taildragger with a lot of power and acrobatic capability. When you got to Whiting Field you pinned a bar on your shirt and were one bar cadet after you had soloed. A cadet soloed, did small field precision training and acrobatics at Whiting, then moved on to Saufley Field for formation (nearly my nemesis), to Barin Field for air to air gunnery and FCLP, and last to Corry Field for instrument and night flying. After that he pinned a second bar on his shirt and was a two bar cadet and went to Corpus Christi for advanced training in fleet type aircraft (or Hutchinson, Kansas, for multiengine training.) A two bar cadet lived in a BOQ, not a barracks and ate in the Officers Mess, not the enlisted mess. After advanced training at Corpus Christi one was commissioned an ensign, or second lieutenant in the Marine Corps, and received his wings of gold and orders to a fleet squadron. We'll take you there.
There was a story I learned years later about one of my boyhood heroes who was a Naval Aviator, Ted Williams. He had had combat experience in World War II, taking time out from his extraordinary career with the Boston Red Sox, and eager not to lose such an asset, the Navy had shipped him back to Pensacola to do flight instructor duty before the end of the war. The drill was that pilots completing the syllabus went into a pool at Pensacola until they received orders to a squadron, and were then awarded their wings and commission and sent to duty. When the war ended abruptly in August 1945, there were no more squadrons to assign pilots to. The squadrons were rapidly decommissioned and the pilots headed home, but the training command was still cranking out pilots until there were a thousand guys in the pool waiting their commissioning and wings. What to do with them? Some admiral had the bright idea of administratively discharging the problem by assigning a hundred flight instructors to take 10 students each out for a half hour flight, find them unsatisfactory, and wash them out. Ted Williams was assigned this duty. He made a phone call to a friend, and then went to call on the Admiral to ask him to change his order. The admiral was at first pleased to meet the famous ball player under his command, but when he learned what was being requested, and already embarrassed at what he saw he had to do, he expressed some anger and told Captain Williams that a Marine Corps captain does not make suggestions to a Navy rear admiral that he change his orders. "Is that understood, Captain?" "Yes, sir, Admiral," replied the left fielder, unimpressed, "but if I don't call Walter Winchell back in half an hour he is going to tell the story on the radio and use your name." A thousand guys got their wings and commissions, and I knew of some of them who flew in Korea. Ted Williams was not a man to tolerate fools or injustice. Neither was his friend, Winchell. Remember him? "Hello, Mr. and Mrs. North America and all the ships at sea, let's go to press! This is Walter Winchell."
A friend from Massachusetts has written to me about Ted: "About twenty years ago, The Jimmy Fund had a fundraiser honoring Ted at the Wang Center. I got seats way up in the third balcony with a friend and we listened to Pesky, Dom DiMaggio, Yaz and other notables told Ted stories, but best was from Senator John Glenn, the astronaut who also was Ted's commanding officer in Korea. Glenn said his hot-shot pilots would go in low on bombing missions and Ted would go in even lower before pulling out, just to be very sure he hit his target. After one such mission Ted returned after a successful run with the tail of his jet scorched from the blast. Glenn said he was his best pilot, fearless, steady, but had one flaw—he was a Republican!" (Sen Glenn failed to realize that with that remark he characterized himself as soiled goods.) Glenn was a disappointment and later a disgrace as a Senator. He claimed a joy ride on a NASA mission as a political payoff from LBJ.
The day we all assembled at Preflight cadet barracks we underwent the change to military life. We were issued khakis, and outfitted with uniform clothing from the skin out. My most vivid memory of that is being introduced to the concept of boxer type undershorts. Good-bye Fruit of the Loom and no more rash. It wasn't just clothing, but how to behave. "There's only two kinds of sailors that whistle," we were told, "Fairies and bosuns, and none of you is bosuns." That was before the Navy went p.c. and allowed sexual fantasy to be confused with peoples' birth characteristics. One of our cadets was Len Clother from Buffalo, N.Y. He went through the group while we were selecting bunks and chatted with the rest of us while we were moving our belongings in. He then proceeded to tell us all where we came from on the basis of his voice and accent. It was a virtuoso performance. Some wondered if he had discovered a list of names and hometowns and memorized it. "O.K," he said, "If any of you are from Brooklyn, I can tell you where you live within 6 blocks." None of us was from Brooklyn. Later we visited another group of cadets some weeks into their training and one of them was a Brooklyn boy. There was no opportunity for him to pre-screen this group and he repeated his identification of home states and communities. The difficulties he did have were with guys who had lived about the country in various places and this he acknowledged. The Brooklyn lad he did spot within the prescribed 6 blocks. I lost track of Len after Preflight and do not know where this voice and accent artist performed in later days. One of the guys tried to fool him by imitating the accent of a Maine woodsman, but he spotted the phony immediately, and said, "Talk like you usually do."
The uniform we were issued was an officer type with hats and caps and not sailor suits. We wore shoulder boards with a fouled anchor insignia. We had khaki for daily wear and blues for dress and a Navy blue greatcoat. We also had wash khaki slacks and shirts with a black field scarf (necktie). Our Marine Corps drill instructors took us in hand organized us into a military formation. It was nowhere near so bad as portrayed in some movies. I think they were amused at dealing with college boy types who had a certain self-confidence that the typical marine recruit may lack. All of us had at least two years in college. The college graduates like me were a minority who had opted for the cadet program rather than an OCS commission first in order to be sure of getting a flying billet. The OCS graduates at that time who were physically qualified for flying were being selected for Pensacola one out of three. We were organized into watches and assigned duties as MOD (mate of the deck) with some trivial duties, which nevertheless must be performed according to strict rule. We were introduced to marching in formation with traditional Parris Island phraseology, "Hup, lop, tree, fo, your other left, Cadet!" "Now line up alphabetical by rank according to height." Can you feature a group of 30 of us in B Section trying to comply with that one? We at least were all the same rank. Seniority comes later. Even among ensigns there is little distinction. I can recall someone saying later on that there is no such thing as seniority among ensigns, but of course, there is.
Once standing in formation the sergeant called out, "No talking in the ranks. I can see who's talking in the ranks. I have eyes in the back of my head!" A disguised voice promptly intoned, "Potato head." Nobody confessed, of course, and we spent an extra hot hour marching up and down in formation on "the grinder." We took turns being leader and calling the cadence. One cadet in his turn varied the routine phraseology to, "Hippety hop, section stop." We all suffered together for that indiscretion too. There were demerits assigned for lapses in discipline and you couldn't afford too many of them or you would wash out. Inspections of person and kit were made every morning before marching to breakfast. Those of us who did not shave yet were compelled to do so anyway and spit shines were graded for quality. George Parker, who eventually joined the Marines, and who was killed in a collision with a mountain later on, did the best spit shine, and we all envied his expertise and took lessons from him, but none of his students ever equaled the master's touch. Before morning formation and the march to breakfast we had calisthenics.
Excerpted from Guppy Pilot by Roger G. Smith Copyright © 2011 by Roger G. Smith. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.