Wings and Warriors: My Life As a Naval Aviator


In this account of his first twenty-five years as a naval aviator, Engen vividly recalls the slow start, heroics, and hardships of the golden age of jet airplane development. Flying from bases and carriers throughout the world, Engen and his fellow pilots achieved new heights, speeds, and distances in death-defying tests that epitomized a period of exhilarating experimentation. By the mid-1960s, when Engen assumed command of the Navy's largest and newest carrier, USS America, jet blast deflectors, angled decks, ...
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In this account of his first twenty-five years as a naval aviator, Engen vividly recalls the slow start, heroics, and hardships of the golden age of jet airplane development. Flying from bases and carriers throughout the world, Engen and his fellow pilots achieved new heights, speeds, and distances in death-defying tests that epitomized a period of exhilarating experimentation. By the mid-1960s, when Engen assumed command of the Navy's largest and newest carrier, USS America, jet blast deflectors, angled decks, steam catapults, and mirror visual landing systems enabled the near-simultaneous launch of four planes per minute. This capability provided the United States with a powerful, flexible peacekeeping force. Recounting with understated humor the challenges that military life posed to his family, Engen conveys the adventure of flying the world's fastest and most sophisticated airplanes. Replete with detail, his memoir charts his individual flights, his extraordinary career, and the progress of naval aviation.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Aviation aficionados will recognize the author as the director of the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum. Less known is that Engen has also served as administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration and as deputy commander-in-chief of two key Navy postsall of which goes to underscore his unique qualifications to recount his part in the golden age of jet aviation development. His anecdotes highlight the Navy's part in its evolution. As a carrier-based pilot on the USS Valley Forge in 1950, Engen and his fellow jet pilots struggled to fly their mission while under the control of officials who harbored dangerous misunderstandings about the new technology. Expensive jet engines were gummed up with toxic lead by-products when crews filled the tanks with standard aviation gasoline instead of jet fuel. Maintenance crews cleaned out the jet engines by tossing walnut shells into the air intakes, so that the crushed shells would scrub clean the turbine blades. Tales such as thesetold within the context of both the Cold War and the meanderings of the Engen familymake for a thrilling account that any aviation fan should enjoy. Photos. (Oct.)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781560987956
  • Publisher: Smithsonian Institution Press
  • Publication date: 8/17/1997
  • Series: Smithsonian History of Aviation Ser.
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 6.27 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.18 (d)

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix
Prologue 1
1. Challenge 5
2. Training to Stay Alive 20
3. Combat 40
4. Change 70
5. Jets 87
6. War Again 111
7. Test and Test Again 130
8. Tactical Development 154
9. Return to the Fleet 172
10. The Mach 2.4 Barrier 197
11. All-Weather Demon 225
12. CAG 11 244
13. Penance for Flying 266
14. Black Shoes 284
15. America the Beautiful 300
Epilogue 327
Glossary 329
Index 333
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First Chapter



The early morning sky was a brilliant blue as we flew across the Philippine Islands and over a few bright white cumulus clouds forming over the islands of Leyte, Cebu, Negros, and Panay. It was August 21, 1944. Ten Japanese freighters, our intended targets, were anchored in the blue waters of Iloilo harbor just ahead of us, their crews oblivious to what was about to happen. So far, this attack was to be a surprise.

Our twelve SB2C-3 Helldiver dive bombers from USS Lexington and VB-19 were picking up speed, tail high and nose down, as we descended through 12,500 feet for a high-speed entry into our dives and the first U.S. attack in the central Philippines. The coordinated attack was planned to be completed in three to five minutes, and very soon the idyllic harbor scene below would be shattered. With no air opposition yet, our SB2C-3s had just left the protective weaving cover of the accompanying VF-19 F6F Hellcat fighters, now diving to strafe the antiaircraft (AA) guns on the ships. Six TBF torpedo planes from VT-19 had already dropped lower to begin their own glide bombing attack. Our SB2C-3s, led by our executive officer, Lieutenant Don Banker, were in two divisions of six airplanes with Lieutenant Bill McBride leading the second division. In McBride's division, Lieutenant Emil Stella USNR, second section leader, gave me a right echelon signal. I slid my Helldiver down and behind Stella's tail, crossing under Ensign Al Emig's airplane to take my new position on Emig's right wing. My propeller moved inches below his underfuselage as I purposefully flew close. We both did this for fun. I knew my maneuver would raise his airplane a little for him to feel my closeness and smiled to myself. The signal from Stella told us both that we would be entering our dives to the left. There was no radio talk. I could see a small rivulet of red hydraulic fluid seeping from the hinge line of Emig's right bomb-bay door, and I made a mental note to tell him when we returned to the ship. Helldivers leaked hydraulic fluid like sieves.

Each of us was now busy with our predive rituals as we flew in close formation. On the intercom, I reminded my gunner, Aviation Radioman Second Class Ted Stevenson, to clean up before our dive, but it was not necessary. He had rotated his seat 180 degrees to the rear and locked it in place to man his twin .50-caliber machine guns. I heard him cook off a couple of rounds as I opened the bomb-bay doors, set the selector switches, and armed the 1,000-pound semi-armor-piercing bomb. I recharged my two forward-firing 20mm cannon one more time just to be sure they would work.

McBride flew to bring our target ship into sight along his left side in the notch where the wing met the fuselage. When the target got there, he peeled off, rolling up and to the left and then down to drop away from us. His two wingmen followed smoothly. Immediately Stella turned, patted his head, pointed to Emig, and kissed off, pulling up and slowly rolling left until he disappeared. Three or four dirty, black puffs of five-inch AA blossomed off to the left of Emig and me. Seconds after Stella had kissed off, Emig looked at me and gave me the standard hand pat on the head and pointed forefinger, then hand to the lips to blow a kiss. He rolled left and quickly dropped below me as I watched his dive brakes open, noting the telltale red paint inside. In almost the same motion, I followed--the last one down. As I rolled inverted, I hung in my seat belt and watched with pride as all twelve of us plummeted simultaneously in our vertical dives in the classic helix formation that we had trained so hard to achieve.

McBride adjusted his dive slightly to pick our target, and we six drifted slowly away from the others, still flying vertically in close formation. I could see the fighters completing strafing runs and passing over and around some of the ships below, and now 40mm tracers were beginning to float up at us in their classic, detached sort of way. This was no longer a surprise party. I saw one or two torpedo planes low on the water, and then Banker began his pullout followed by the rest of his division.

Having no time to look at what they were doing, I placed my reflective gun sight pipper on the stack of the 15,000-ton freighter that McBride had picked and began tracking carefully. No wind. This attack was a piece of cake. McBride started his pullout, with streamers coming off each wing tip as his bomb went off amidships. The first bombs looked like hit, hit, close miss, as I released my bomb at 1,600 feet and pulled smoothly but hard into 5 g's. My vision grayed out slightly, and as soon as I saw I had it made, I released back pressure on the stick to come out of the dive right on the water. We headed northwest out of the harbor. Stevenson called that our bomb had hit amidships. I took a quick look over my left shoulder and saw the large freighter engulfed in dirty gray and black smoke and the boiling water of exploding bombs. The ship would sink.

I turned my attention to getting out of the harbor, but everyone was pulling away from me. I could not figure out why. AA projectiles were flying through the air like golf balls, seeming to pass over and under my wings as their incendiaries burned out ahead. It was also unduly quiet! I checked the manifold pressure and rpm gauges to see with great consternation that I had 54 inches of manifold pressure and only 1,200 rpm. I should have had 2,400 rpm, and I was overtorquing the engine badly. If I did not do something quickly, I would blow a cylinder. I pulled the throttle back to 20 inches of manifold pressure to assess what was going on and reasoned that the Curtiss electric propeller must have oversped, hit the high stop, and bounced back to 1,200 rpm. Trying to increase rpm manually brought no response--the prop lever did not seem to be attached to anything. I tried the electric control toggle switch. No increase, but it would decrease--and did--another 100 rpm to 1,100! I was now stabilized at a maximum airspeed of 90 to 95 knots and in deep trouble. The Philippine Islands and 200 miles of Pacific Ocean were between me and Lexington.

I radioed Lieutenant Banker to tell him of my situation. He sent Ensign Bill Good back to escort me, while the group of F6Fs, SB2C-3s, and TBFs formed up to return to Lexington to meet the landing time and to be ready for the next strike. Bill began to weave above me so that he would not fall out of the sky, and I began to navigate through the Philippine Islands like Magellan did more than 400 years before, because I did not have the power to climb above 500 feet or fly over any island. We flew north around Cebu and then south into the Camotes Sea, passed south of Leyte, and flew out through the Surigao Strait trying to be unobtrusive. Fortunately, we saw no Japanese airplanes nor did they see us, and we departed the Philippines for Lexington and Task Group (TG) 38.3. With great fascination, I could almost count the propeller blades as they turned at 1,100 rpm.

Reaching the ship, I had another problem. My airplane would not stay in the air with both the wheels and the flaps down. The ship took Bill Good on board and asked me if I wanted to land in the water. That did not sound like a good idea to me, so I proposed an alternative. I would fly a loose pattern with my gear down to the cut and then throw my flaps down to make the landing. If I could not make the deck, I would make a water landing off the port side. The landing signal officer (LSO) and I had a little conversation about that, but he bought it, and I did just that. As I flew up the carrier's wake to the cut position with the landing gear down, the LSO threw a quick cut at me; I banged the flap lever down and pulled my throttle off. The flaps were still coming down as I caught the number 5 wire, and Stevenson made some comment such as "this was much nicer than landing in the water." In fact, we saved an airplane for another day and another strike. At the far end of the pipeline that can be important. As we were towed to the forward elevator to be sent to the hangar deck, I relaxed and thought of lots of things; one was how lucky I was to be in VB-19 and in Lexington. My mind drifted back....

In the fourth grade I announced to my parents that I wanted to be a naval officer and go to sea. That became my goal in school. I had no great desire to be involved in aviation, but like every boy I was fascinated with it. My paternal grandparents lived in San Fernando Valley near the Burbank airport, where I frequently went to see Roscoe Turner with his lion Gilmore and other notable aviators. One night I even sneaked out of the house to watch Jimmy Doolittle take off in his GeeBee during one of the Bendix Air Races. In 1933 my father took me to Mines Field in Los Angeles for the National Air Races. There on the grass field in front of the Spanish-style control tower, Ernst Udet picked up a handkerchief with the wing tip of his biplane while flying inverted. That was thrilling. But I still had not put flying together with being the naval officer that I sought to be.

In May 1941 I graduated from high school in Pasadena, California, at the age of sixteen and set about obtaining an appointment to the Naval Academy from Carl Hinshaw, our Republican congressman. My father allowed me to attend a summer cram course at Mead Preparatory School in San Marino to prepare for the academic merit examinations for appointment to the service academies, after which I took the September competitive exams that were administered at the Federal Building in Los Angeles.

While waiting for those results, I enrolled for the freshman year of college at Pasadena Junior College, where I met Mary Baker and fell in love. She was sixteen and I was seventeen. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Sunday, December 7, 1941, my parents, my brother, and I were preparing for church as we heard radio station KNX dramatically describe the attack that galvanized the United States.

Just five days after December 7, Representative Hinshaw sent a letter saying that he had awarded me a third alternate appointment to the Naval Academy. I also learned that, because of the war, I would probably gain entrance, provided I passed the entrance examinations. I was elated and continued to study for the examinations, which I took in late February at the Naval Reserve Armory in Los Angeles.

In early 1942 Southern California was in turmoil and near hysteria. One or two submarine-launched Japanese airplanes had attacked a coastal refinery. The entire West Coast of the United States was blacked out at night, and automobiles were not driven after dark or, if they were, only with parking lights or taped headlights. There were no street lights or illuminated advertising signs, and all store and house windows were carefully covered. The Army had deployed a few AA guns and large megaphone ears designed to detect aircraft engine noise, so that the searchlights, which were placed in strategic vacant lots and near large plants such as Firestone and Douglas Aircraft, could find the airplanes. The Army troops living in tents near their AA guns were stark testimony that we were at war. Rumors abounded, and the principal fear was that the Japanese would attack at any time. Men of all ages lined up to volunteer and fight.

The Japanese Americans on the West Coast were relocated, a euphemistic word for sent, to camps in the high desert. It is difficult today to understand the paranoia that was felt about the Japanese Americans. As a person who had grown up, been friends, and gone to school with many young Japanese Americans, I identified with them and could not believe that they or their parents were really threats or should be treated in this way.

In early April 1942 my world collapsed. I had failed the chemistry test on the entrance examinations and as a result could not enter the Naval Academy. I was determined to try again. However, in late April the Navy Department lowered the age to sign up for naval aviation from twenty-one to eighteen and also reduced the academic requirements from two years of college to a high school diploma. My immediate goal before my eighteenth birthday became to gain my parents' permission to join the Navy and to be at that recruiting office ready to sign up on that day. I talked incessantly of my goal with Mary Baker and with her father as well. He had been in the Great War of 1914-18 and was a strong but passive ally as I tried to gain my parents' permission to enlist in the naval aviation program.

Finally, my campaign proved successful. On my eighteenth birthday, May 28, 1942, with a handwritten note of permission from my parents to enlist as a seaman second class in the V5 Naval Aviation Cadet Program, I went to the recruiting office in the Los Angeles Federal Building on South Spring Street.

At the Navy recruiting office, after I took a series of written tests to determine aptitude, the recruiter said that the Navy was interested in me but that I must now have a comprehensive series of physical and psychological tests. If I passed those, I should bring to that office letters of recommendation, along with my letter of permission from my parents, and then I could enlist. Over the next week I dutifully went through the tests. Weight was my biggest challenge--I was skinny. But with the assistance of a propitious toe on the scale by an obliging corpsman, I made the minimum weight, after which I gathered letters of recommendation and appeared before a three-officer screening board of review. I met the board's criteria and enlisted as a seaman second class in the Navy's V5 program on June 9, 1942, and went home to bask in the glory of acceptance. I was to be told later where and when I would be sent.

The Civilian Pilot Training (CPT) program had been organized under the newly formed Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) in 1939. CPT, as it was called, was the brainchild of Robert H. Hinkley, the first chairman of the CAB. Seeing that there were just 21,000 civilian pilots in the United States, Hinkley persuaded President Roosevelt to develop a much larger pool of pilots to enhance air commerce. After 13 colleges demonstrated the success of such a program, a total of 400 universities and colleges eventually developed programs under the CPT umbrella. By mid-1942, CPT, which was part of the initial training process for Army and Navy aviation, enabled the services to cull the lowest 10 percent of the pilot candidates, thus enhancing the success rate of the more rigorous military flight training that followed.

In Southern California CPT was conducted at Santa Ana, Chaffey, Long Beach, and Pasadena Junior Colleges and provided seventy-two hours of ground instruction along with thirty-five to fifty hours of flight instruction, which led to a private pilot's license. In early spring 1942 Nick Lentine Flying Service contracted to supply Pasadena Junior College with CPT and moved its flying operations to Silver Lake, a dry lake near Baker, California, the southern entry point for Death Valley. Silver Lake was 100 feet below mean sea level, and the sun-baked surface was exceedingly hard and flat. There, it was not unusual to have clear weather with visibility of 70 miles.

I was told to report for ground school at Pasadena Junior College on Monday, July 6, 1942. Reporting in, I found I would be one of twenty-five primary CPT students. Earl Howard Floyd taught math and physics, Waldo Waterman taught civil air regulations, and Leland McAuley taught physical education and also tried to teach us to march in a semblance of order. Waldo Waterman had worked for Glenn Curtiss in San Diego in 1910 and had given my mother her first airplane ride 1921 in a J4 "Jenny" at the Long Beach airport. He was a colorful character, whom we worshipped!

We studied at Pasadena Junior College for two weeks; then, wearing civilian clothes, we boarded buses on Sunday, July 19, 1942, for Baker, California, and arrived at 4:45 P.M. to find the temperature to be 109 [degrees] F. Each of us was assigned to one of three wooden-floored tents. I became fast friends with fellow primary CPT candidates George Kelly, Jack Barton, and Herb Biedebaugh. There was a secondary CPT, or advanced, class in Baker, as well. Among others in that class were Jack Scott and Ray Davis of Pasadena and Harry Evans of San Pedro. Baker had the distinction of being the only Greyhound Bus stop between Barstow and Las Vegas, and that was all it was--population 25, except for us.

Our routine was to rise at 0345, do calisthenics for ten minutes, wash up for another ten minutes, eat breakfast, and then ride a bus to the flight line on Silver Lake. There we flew between 0600 and 1030. That window of opportunity was small because the temperature rose to 125 [degrees] F by 1030, and the 65-hp Continental engines on our J3 Piper Cubs would not allow both an instructor and student to become airborne in the same airplane at such temperatures. Ground school and athletics filled our afternoons, followed by dinner and bed. We flew seven days a week.

Harold R. Knorr, a young, quiet, and noncommittal man, was my instructor. We flew together for thirty minutes each day, and he had his hands full with me. He wrote these comments in my logbook rather consistently: "rough and abrupt" and "eager to learn." Those were occasionally punctuated by "uncertain," "banks too steeply," and "altitude variable." Nevertheless, I did solo on August 6, 1942, after seven hours and forty-five minutes of flight instruction.

Gradually, my flight grades improved, and Mr. Knorr began to think that I might become a pilot--someday. Ground school was a chore. Air conditioning was a thing of the future, and our classrooms in the back of Fehling's Soda Fountain were only partially cooled from the Death Valley heat by an evaporative cooler. Slowly we mastered the intricacies of meteorology, learned to recognize U.S. and enemy aircraft, memorized Morse code, and fathomed navigation.

As we flew more, we became bolder. I reported to my mother and father on August 24 that I had had my first dogfight with another student. He and I used the bent-wire gas sight gauges forward of our windscreens for sights and set about to see who was better. We did not prove anything, other than that an instructor is always watching when you least expect it. We were taken to task for unauthorized maneuvers, but the admonishment was light.

On Wednesday, September 2, 1942, I had my final check ride with Louis Regan, a Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA) check pilot from Los Angeles. I was scared stiff but flew the one-hour flight as best I could. Mr. Regan passed me on that check ride, and at the end of thirty-six hours of flying I was qualified for a private pilot's license--which I neither applied for nor received. That would come thirty years later. Just as importantly, I reamed that I had "made the academic and flying cut" and would be going to the naval preflight school at St. Mary's College in mid-September. With that good news and not a thought about the 50 percent staying behind, I paid my respects to my instructors, bid them good-bye, and returned to Pasadena in the same yellow school bus that had taken me to Baker.

The ensuing two weeks at home passed rapidly, and I was notified to join a draft of men forming up on September 16 in Los Angeles's Union Station to proceed by train to St. Mary's naval preflight school near Moraga, California. On the appointed day we gathered in the cavernous Union Station lobby to bid our families good-bye. A Navy petty officer formed us into two rows and marched the loose semblance of an organization to the train, which then took some twenty-one hours to make the ten-hour trip to Oakland. Wartime train travel was a hazard when every other train seemed to have some mythical priority higher than that of the train in which you rode. Reaching Oakland at 1600 the next day, we rode silently in gray Navy buses to our new home.

St. Mary's College had been a De La Salle Christian Brothers school with the famous football coach Edward Patrick (Slip) Madigan. Three other Navy preflight schools had been established at the Universities of Iowa, North Carolina, and Georgia. Those four schools were modeled after MIT, which twenty-five years earlier, in World War I, had brought order out of academic chaos to Navy pilot training. The four colleges would turn out 5,000 naval aviation cadets every three months during the war. Eventually, a fifth preflight school was established in 1945 at the Del Monte Hotel in Monterey, California. The commanding officer at St. Mary's, whom, I might add, I never saw, was Captain G. W. Steele USN (ret), and his executive officer was Lieutenant Commander C. W. King USNR.

The athletic program, complementing the academic program, was the brainchild of Lieutenant Commander Tom Hamilton, who had arrived at St. Mary's in June 1942. He was a naval aviator and football coach at the Naval Academy and believed that body contact team sports such as football taught aggressive team spirit.

At St. Mary's a new cadet battalion of 200 men was formed every two weeks. On arrival in mid-September we were assigned to the 8th Battalion and quartered in Essex Hall, a new, three-story wooden barracks. Our first days at St. Mary's were a blur. Sore and light headed from medical shots and immunization, along with culture shock from strange surroundings and procedures, each cadet was an island unto himself, just trying to survive. One-half of us washed the windows on the previously unlived-in third deck, while the other half waxed and polished floors. We were taught to march in platoons, then companies, and then battalions.

The roster of cadets for each battalion was alphabetized with the As first and the Zs last. In this way I became fast friends with Gib Edwards, Harry Evans, Charles Epp, and others whose last names began with E. My former CPT compatriot, Irving Zelinka, from Los Angeles, was at the other end of the inoculation and pay lines and also at the far end of the barracks. He might as well have been in Russia.

After my swimming tests, I was placed on the St. Mary's preflight water polo team. Fellow cadet and former Olympic water polo player Deverre Christianson was to be the captain. It was not lost on me that only two teams would travel for games, the football team and the water polo team. I had already realized that we were to be in quarantine for four weeks and then have a six-hour liberty every other weekend. Clearly, we would not be going very far from St. Mary's unless there was some other way to do it. Water polo seemed to offer that opportunity.

The cadet routine was rigid: we rose at 0530 with fifteen minutes to shave and dress, marched to breakfast at the cafeteria-style mess hall, marched back to the barracks, dressed for gym, and performed fifteen minutes of calisthenics. Then one hour of organized team sports, such as football, soccer, combat track, or other body contact sports, was followed by one hour of individual sports, such as wrestling, boxing, obstacle course, or swimming. Then we showered and dressed and had an hour of military drill on the parade ground before marching to the mess hall for lunch. Following lunch, we marched to our classrooms for two hours of academic courses and then marched to the gym for two hours of our elected sports. We then showered and dressed to march to the mess hall for dinner. The food at every meal was high protein and plentiful. It dawned on us that we were not unlike cattle in fattening pens. We certainly put on weight and developed muscles. After dinner we marched to the barracks for two hours of individual study and finally thirty minutes of time to ourselves to write home. Lights went out at 2130, and I do not recall that any cadet had trouble sleeping. Our four-week quarantine period came and went.

A cadet's pay was $75 per month, and we were paid on the fifth and twentieth of every month. Being paid in the Navy was a time-honored ritual. The pay chit was a legal document, and woe be it to the cadet who did not meet the most exacting standards for filling out this 2 1/2-by-6-inch white paper form. Pay chits came in pads. We would line up alphabetically, according to the pay list posted on a bulletin board, and someone in the As would pass back a pay chit pad. Each cadet would tear off a blank pay chit and pass the pad farther back and, using the back of the cadet in front of him as a writing surface, would fill out his pay chit only in black ink. As each cadet approached the pay table, where the disbursing clerk, disbursing officer, and pay master sat like three Supreme Court justices, he pressed his right thumb onto a large ink pad on the table and then placed it on the pay chit in the small box for that purpose. We cadets believed that someone actually compared those thumb prints to some master file. For the slightest digression from the norm on the pay chit, the cadet would be given a withering look by the supreme pay court and his pay chit would be ceremoniously torn in half with gusto, while he was sent in disgrace to the end of the line to try again. Each cadet was required to buy one $25 war bond each month and was given a $10,000 U.S. national life insurance policy, with his parents as beneficiaries. There were neither places nor time to spend our pay, and we always seemed to have money left over.

When several thousand young men participate actively in body contact sports that require great physical coordination, bones will be broken and ligaments torn. We had a goodly percentage of cadets limping or hobbling in casts or on crutches, wearing slings, or lying in bed, and the orthopedic doctors had a great learning opportunity. The walking wounded, as they were known, marched in their own formations to not slow the others, and those formations looked like a picture of dispirited retreat by the North or the South in the Civil War, which, incidentally, was still hotly debated each night after the lights went out.

The founding fathers of St. Mary's College had placed a large wooden water tank on the top of a commanding hill that overlooked the campus. That old water tank had stood for many years near a majestic grove of eucalyptus trees for all to see. By day no guard was required; no watch was set. From sunset until sunrise, though, was another matter, and pairs of cadets maintained a continuous watch over the tower at four-hour intervals, as if our very lives depended on our diligence. To fall asleep on watch was unthinkable and would have imperiled the nation and the entire Western world, along with earning a cadet eight demerits to match his heinous crime.

In October we learned that because of losses of pilots in the fleet our training would be accelerated and we would have our wings in six to nine months and be in the fleet soon after. On Friday, November 13, one-half of the 7th and the entire 8th Battalion were merged to become the 7th Battalion with a strength of 300 cadets and a graduation date of November 24. Several days before that date, I was told that I had been selected, along with Jack Scott, Jack Barton, Harry Evans, and fifty-six others to go to the Naval Reserve Aviation Base at Los Alamitos, California. We packed our bags and said good-bye to those who were going to the other elimination (E) bases (E bases were established under the Aviation Cadet Act of 1935 to weed out those who could not adapt to flying because of air sickness or lack of coordination). Jack Scott and I left St. Mary's by Navy bus for the Oakland airport at 0600 on November 25 to fly in a Western Airlines DC-3 to Burbank, California.

Eight days of leave in Pasadena with my family passed rapidly, while Mary Baker and I went on dates to Earl Carrol's Dinner Theater in Hollywood, to the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, where Tommy Dorsey's band played, and to Pasadena Junior College social functions. After the regimentation of St. Mary's, it was hard for me to adapt to the looser routine of life in Pasadena.

On December 3, 1942, my father drove me the 20 miles from Pasadena to the main gate of Los Alamitos, using one of his valuable gas-rationing B coupons. The route was the familiar one we had traveled to the beaches in previous years. Now, driving south on Bellflower Boulevard, we saw lines of Navy SNV trainers on the airfield behind the Vultee plant. Occasionally, we would pass a group of U.S. Army trucks and an AA gun or searchlight in open fields, with tents nearby for the soldiers. The two-lane road to the main gate at Los Alamitos went through open farmland. My father said good-bye and left me at the gate because neither he nor I knew how to get a car pass. Carrying my bag, I walked down barren and treeless Lexington Drive the quarter of a mile to the administration building to report for duty.

The Naval Reserve Aviation Base had recently moved from the busy Long Beach airport to its new location at Los Alamitos. It was built on land appropriated from the Bixby Ranch and consisted of one large hangar with a control tower perched on the southeast corner, a just-completed administration building, a combination mess hall and enlisted barracks, a two-story aviation cadet barracks with four wings, a small bachelor officers quarters (BOQ) for the instructors, and a classroom building. A broad parade ground lay between Enterprise and Yorktown Roads, as well as a large supply warehouse, but not much else. Most importantly, thirty-five to forty bright yellow N2S and N3N biplanes were smartly lined up on the concrete ramp just to the south of the hangar.

We cadets from St. Mary's made up all of class 12A, the first flight class of December 1942. Half of us had been placed in the left wing--as class 12A L--and the other half in the right wing. On Sunday, December 6, we were given the option of going to Long Beach for church or remaining on the base without attending church services. Jack Scott, Mike Spooner, and I chose the better alternative, going to Long Beach in search of a church service--a form of freedom that we had not seen at St. Mary's.

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