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In Hostile Skies
An American B-24 Pilot in World War II
By James M. Davis, David L. Snead
University of North Texas Press Copyright © 2006 James M. Davis and David L. Snead
All rights reserved.
It was four O'Clock in the morning on December 7, 1941, when the alarm sounded. Dr. C.L. Prichard, a close personal friend and our family doctor, and I had driven from Abilene to Harper, Texas, to spend the weekend with my sister Frances and hunt deer and turkey on a ranch north of town. We decided we would get up early on Sunday morning and hunt for a couple of hours before we returned. After hunting and deciding the turkeys were too smart for us, we put our guns in the car and drove to my home, which was about five miles east of Abilene. As soon as we arrived, my parents met us and asked if we had heard about the Japanese bombing Pearl Harbor. We had not. They said that several of our warships had been sunk and thousands had been killed. While I had never heard of Pearl Harbor, the news impacted my life significantly. This event meant there was no longer any question about whether I would have to go into the service. I had registered for the draft after Congress had passed the bill requiring all young men to register at the age of eighteen. Now, it was no longer a matter of if, but when and where I would serve.
I had been working at the Quartermasters office at Camp Barkeley since September 1940. Colonel E. C. Adkins, the quartermaster, and H. M. Bauer, his assistant, had both said they would like to have me continue to work for them and would help me join the service and get assigned to their office. I appreciated the fact that they wanted me to work for them, and it would have been an excellent situation for me since I could have continued in the same job and served my military duty at home. However, after giving it serious consideration, I decided it would be best to delay my military career. My parents were building a new home on the north side of our farm, and since dad was not in good health, I felt it would be best for me to help them until they could move into the new house. I had also recently bought some steers and had them in the feedlot. I feared I would not break even financially if I sold them. Additionally, I believed I was already doing my part for the war effort with my current work at Barkeley.
I had worked at Camp Barkeley long enough to know that I did not want to serve in the infantry or artillery. The one thing I really wanted to do was join the aviation cadet pilot training program. All my life I had loved airplanes. Ever since I saw my first one, there was hardly a week that went by when I did not build some type of plane. The planes, when mixed with my desire and imagination, would take me soaring through the clouds. I felt being an aviation cadet and an officer with silver wings on my chest would be the greatest achievement a man could attain. However, I realized my chances of becoming a pilot were slim at best—you had to complete two years of college just to apply. Since I had not been to college, I had little hope.
The months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor were a real challenge. I did not want to be drafted, but I knew that unless I enlisted, it was inevitable since I was twenty years old at the time. I had made up my mind that the U.S. Army Air Forces would be the best place for me. Before I could enlist, I had to help my parents finish their house and then sell the steers I had recently purchased. It was during this time that a surprising and exciting development occurred. The Army Air Forces eased its requirements for applying for aviation cadet training. Anyone who had completed high school and could pass a test based on a two-year college level would be accepted for cadet training. That was great news for me. After about a day of excitement, the reality hit that I would have to pass the test. I knew it would be difficult, because at best I was an average high school student. In spite of the odds, I intended to make the attempt as soon as possible. I went to the Army Air Forces recruiting office and signed up to take the test. The list of applicants was long, and the office only had facilities to handle about thirty a day. I was told I would have to wait ten days. I was afraid that I might get my draft notice before I could take the test.
The day I was scheduled to take the test finally arrived. I got to the recruiting office early that morning and joined a large group of young men who were standing out front. We all went in and took a seat. Finally, they announced that we were to report to a sergeant who briefed us on what to expect. As soon as I started, my confidence vanished. I had absolutely no hope of passing. Several hours later, we completed the last section. The recruiting officer excused us for lunch and told us to return to have our papers graded. I was so discouraged that I thought about just going home. Changing my mind, at one o'clock I returned. Finally, one of the sergeants called my name, and I sat across from him while he graded my test. I began to think that I had probably made the lowest score ever recorded. It did not take him long to check all the answers and to add the score. I could not see the totals, but after he completed the grading, he started back through the test, grading it again. I wondered if I had gotten any of the questions right since he was taking so long and doing so much checking. He apologized for taking so much time, but he wanted to re-grade the test since I had scored a seventy-nine and a grade of eighty was passing.
I was pleased that I had scored so high but disappointed that I had not gotten one more answer correct. There were a number of questions that could have gone either way. As I left I felt fortunate to have come so close to passing. I also learned while there that I might have one more chance. The Army Air Forces was going to change the test and when it did, I would be eligible to take it. Unfortunately, no one knew when it would be offered, and I was afraid I would receive my draft notice any day.
There was one person who was glad I failed the test. My mother was not excited about seeing her son become a pilot. She believed flying would be the most dangerous thing I could do. While she never did tell me that she did not want me to join the Army Air Forces, I could tell she wanted me to choose some other branch of the military.
I decided to wait and hoped the new exam would arrive before my draft notice. I knew that as a last resort I could try to take the Navy flight test. I went by the Navy recruiting office, but just inside the door was a large picture showing an airplane landing on an aircraft carrier. All the water and such a small place to land had no appeal to me, so I turned around and left the building. I gambled that I would get to take the new Army Air Forces exam and plotted a strategy to do better than the first time. I had thought a lot about the test I had taken, and knew that if I were able to take another test, I would do it differently. Each part of the test had a time limit, and I tried to answer the questions in sequence. On my next attempt, I would skip the more difficult questions and come back to them if I had time. That would give me an advantage of answering more questions.
It was during this period that something unexpected happened. Each spring and summer I played softball with various teams in the local league as a pitcher and third baseman. I was playing on the base team with Leonard Antilley, a young man I had grown up with. We were both working for the Quartermaster's office when on one of our afternoon breaks we decided to go outside and sit on the front steps to drink a Coke. While we were sitting, two young ladies who worked in our office also decided to come out to drink their Cokes. We were passing the time of day when Leonard and I suggested they come out to see us play in the ballgame that afternoon. Since neither one of them had a car, we also agreed to take them.
That afternoon Leonard and I picked them up. After visiting a while on the front porch, we went to the car and faced a small dilemma—where would everyone sit? Since we were in my car, Leonard said he would sit in the back. The young ladies, Jean Ellis and Margaret Hester, asked where we wanted them to sit. We suggested that one sit up front with me and the other sit in the back seat with Leonard. They hesitated a minute and finally Jean said she would sit in the front with Davis. Everyone at the office called me "Davis." We were hungry after the game, and I suggested that we go to the drive-in and get a sandwich and a milk shake. We had a lot of fun that evening driving around town, even though gasoline was very scarce.
It had not officially been a date, but we really had a great time. A few days later, I summoned my courage and called Jean to ask her for a date. She said she could not go because she already had plans. Undeterred, the next week I tried again and almost fainted when she said yes. It was not long before we were going steady. It was great having something other than going into the service to think about.
Each day I would go by the recruiting office and check to see if a new test had been received. Each day I would get the same answer. I was beginning to think they would never get a new test. One day when I got home in August 1942, I had an envelope that I knew was a notice to report for a physical for the draft. It was, and now I was really desperate about what to do. If the Army Air Forces did not get the new exam within a week, I decided to take the Navy test. If I failed that, I would join the Army Air Forces as a private. On the last possible day, I went by the Army Air Forces office to check on the new exam. I had no reason to believe it would have arrived. When I asked and they said they had received a new exam that day, I did not believe them. However, it was true, and they told me that I could take it the next day.
I was there early the next morning ready to take the test. I gave the test my best effort, but I ended up with the same feeling I had before. I did not think I had done well and was really discouraged. We finished about noon and returned after lunch to have our tests graded. It was a long wait. Finally my name was called, and I went up and sat across the table from the sergeant as he checked each answer. It seemed to take forever. As he added the score I could not stand to look. Finally he said "Congratulations. You have scored an 87." At first I thought he was kidding, but he assured me I had passed. Only three of us out of the thirty who took the exam passed. We were asked to report in the morning for our physical, and if all went well, we would be sworn into the Army Air Forces.
I could hardly wait to tell Jean. I could not believe that I had passed the first hurdle to becoming an aviation cadet. Everyone was happy except my mother. She claimed she was, but I knew she had reservations. Jean and I celebrated that night. Even after the thrill of passing the exam, I thought this was too good to be true and was afraid that they would find something that would disqualify me during my physical exam. I was not aware of any physical problem, but I still worried about what they might find.
Once again I was in front of the recruiting station before it opened on August 19, 1942. I was anxious to take the physical. It took a lot longer than I had thought because it was very thorough. They were especially interested in your heart and eyes. Finally I was told that I passed the physical and would be sworn in that afternoon. It is impossible to describe my feeling as I left the recruiting office after being sworn in. We were told we would be put on ready reserve status and would be called to active duty before long, perhaps in two or three months. What a change my life had taken. At last now I knew the direction my military service would take me.
Not knowing how long it might be before I would be called to active duty, I continued to work. Late that summer, Jean planned to take her vacation and visit her mother in Tyler, Texas. She asked me to come down and meet her family. Since I had never been to the piney woods of east Texas, it sounded like a great idea. I spent two nights visiting Jean's family and had a great time.
Jean actually grew up in Edom, a small community about eighteen miles west of Tyler. Her father died when she was fifteen years old and her brother was ten. She had to transfer to Van, Texas, since Edom did not have a high school. She graduated as valedictorian of her high school class, but finding enough money to go to college was almost impossible. Somehow she managed, and enrolled at Texas Woman's University in Denton, Texas, in the fall of 1940. During her second year in college she received a call from her uncle living in Abilene who told her that there was an opening for a secretary at Camp Barkeley. Since her family was poor and she wanted to serve her country, she decided to leave college. She boarded a bus to Abilene and got a job at the Quartermasters office. That is how we became acquainted.
Although Jean and I worked in the same office, we did not see much of each other, and because everything was rationed, we were not able to date very often. Gasoline was really hard to get. We would usually go to the movie on Saturday night and on Sunday we would sit on the front porch and visit. Occasionally, we could rake up enough money and gas to visit a local park.
By late fall I still had not received orders to report for active duty, and it seemed as if I was the only young man remaining in civilian clothes. I was a little embarrassed, because I believed people were wondering what was wrong with me and why I was not in a uniform of some kind. Thanksgiving and Christmas came and went, and there were still no orders. I dropped by the recruiting office to see why I had not received them, and the recruiting officer assured me that my time was coming soon. Finally, on February 4, 1943, I received my orders to report for active duty at the Army Air Forces recruiting office in downtown Dallas on February 17.
The night before I left, Jean and I ate out and went to a movie. I did not get home until after midnight. I do not think I went to sleep at all because of the excitement of what the future might hold. I did not pack a very large bag because whatever I took with me would have to be returned. This was the day I was leaving home, perhaps never to return. We got to the train station about nine that morning after I had picked up Jean. My parents, my brother Richard, and his wife Fern went to the train station to see me off. At this point, even though I was excited to go, I dreaded seeing the train come in. I was glad to see four young men I knew also taking the train to Dallas to report for active duty.
My friends and I found a place where we could sit together and spent most of the day talking about what we might expect and what we wanted to do. I enjoyed the train ride to Dallas, and after we arrived about 3:00 p.m., we walked to the federal building where we were to report. We were not by ourselves, as there were perhaps 250 other young men who had reported that day. We had to sign a number of papers and complete several forms. For the most part, I did not know what they were. We were also given short physical exams and asked to drop our pants and bend over seven different times that evening.
There was no question we were in the military now. We received a meal ticket that allowed us to go across the street to a small cafe and eat dinner. At this point we had no idea where we would be sent, but we knew the Army Air Forces had training centers in Georgia, California, and Texas. About ten o'clock that evening we were advised that we would be sent to the San Antonio Aviation Cadet Classification Center. Trucks took us to the train station that night, and we boarded the train about 2:00 a.m. Once on the train, we rode on day coaches, so sleeping during the trip was difficult. This was the second night in a row that I had not been able to sleep, and I was feeling the effects. We arrived at the train station late in the morning and traveled in a convoy of trucks to the base.
For the next three weeks we took every kind of test you could imagine. We were interviewed and analyzed time and time again. There were a number of physical exams. The doctors and nurses were especially concerned about our hearts, and they gave us complete heart exams several times. I was amazed at how the tests revealed many young men to have some kind of heart defect. Few knew that they had heart trouble prior to the exam. We lost young men not only to heart problems, but also to other physical disabilities. It seemed as if heart, eye, and back problems were the most prevalent disqualifying conditions. It was sad to see so many fine young men who had dreamed of flying suddenly be told they were assigned to ground duty. After all the tests, we received the usual military uniforms and had our hair cut so close that it looked almost like you had been shaved.
Excerpted from In Hostile Skies by James M. Davis, David L. Snead. Copyright © 2006 James M. Davis and David L. Snead. Excerpted by permission of University of North Texas Press.
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