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The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor of December 7, 1941, dealt a heavy blow to the U.S. Pacific Fleet, destroying four of its eight battleships and heavily damaging the other four, together with three cruisers, three destroyers, and several support vessels. Also, ninety-two Navy aircraft were destroyed, and at nearby Hickam Field, ninety-four Army Air Corps aircraft were lost. Three days later, two British battleships, HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse, dispatched to defend Singapore, were sunk by Japanese aircraft off the Malay coast, and within weeks still more Allied naval forces in the Pacific were sunk off Java. The situation worsened as the Japanese in quick succession conquered Hong Kong, the Philippines, Malaya, Singapore, and Burma and landed in New Guinea, thus posing a threat to Australia. Also, the islands of the Marianas (except Guam) were captured by the Japanese, and in June 1942 Japanese forces occupied Attu and Kiska in the Aleutian Islands near Alaska. Good news was scarce, although in April 1942 a force of sixteen B-25 bombers launched from the USS Hornet and led by Lt. Col. James Doolittle bombed Tokyo. This caused little physical damage, but struck an important psychological blow that put the Japanese on notice of what the future held for them. In May Allied forces prevailed in the Battle of the Coral Sea, frustrating a possible Japanese invasion of eastern New Guinea, and in June a Japanese attack on Midway Island was turned back. By December 1941, German forces controlled virtually all of Europe, had occupied most of the Ukraine, and were within twenty miles of Moscow. By mid-1942, the Germans had pushed deep into the Soviet Union and were on the road to Stalingrad, on the Volga River.
The forty-five newly appointed aviation cadets who boarded the train at Richmond's Broad Street Station on June 10, 1942, were in high spirits, pleased after so many weeks of waiting to finally be on the move. Soon after boarding I discovered that other contingents of cadets had come aboard in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., and as we proceeded south still others joined us in Raleigh and Columbia, with the total reaching over 400 by the time the last group boarded in Atlanta. Our destination was Maxwell Army Air Field at Montgomery, Alabama.
The train's coaches were worn and soiled from years of hard use. Cinders and soot from the coal-fired locomotive swept in through the windows and doors, and the temperature rose steadily as we rolled toward Alabama. It was an uncomfortable trip, but there was little complaining. The changing scenery and endless talk and speculation about our immediate future occupied the hours, and in the process I got to know many of the cadets in my car. Included were two from Lynchburg-Edwin J. White Jr., a casual acquaintance, and John D. Ripley, whom I hadn't met before. Both were as surprised to see me as I was to see them. Ironically, except for our first ten days together at Maxwell Field, I never served again with either of them and it was not until after the war that we saw each other again.
It began as the train began moving out of Richmond-Rebels! Yankees!-and it continued all through our cadet training. It started when a cadet from New York referred to my group of Virginians as "Rebels" and then someone in my coach called attention to the "Yankees" in the car up ahead. It was all very friendly, but I hadn't expected that the characterizations of the Civil War, ended seventy-seven years earlier, would take hold so readily. The sharp differences in regional speech were what set it all in motion. Not many of us had traveled widely, and few of the Southerners had heard a real, live New Yorker talk, much less a Bostonian. For most of the cadets from those areas, this was the first personal exposure to the Southern drawl. So there was a tendency to attach a label of Rebel or Yankee, not as an expression of animosity but rather as a good-natured, friendly way of identifying those strange-sounding other fellows from above or below the Mason-Dixon Line. Over the months that followed, there were many comments about Civil War battles lost by one side or the other and about Sherman's march through Georgia. I don't know how the Northerners reacted to "Yankee," but I got the feeling that the Southerners were rather pleased with their "Rebel" label. While speech was the most obvious dissimilarity, there were also differences in the cultural, economic, and education backgrounds of the cadets, as well as in age, which ranged from eighteen to twenty-six and a half. But despite all these differences, we all got along well.
Army trucks transported the group from the Montgomery railway station to Maxwell Field and deposited us on the roadside in front of a large group of pyramidal tents, a form of shelter I would get to know well in the months ahead. As the newest arrivals, we ended up under canvas because the base was jammed with cadets. After a roll call and brief welcome, we were shown to a tent and instructed to pick a cot and then gather up all our civilian clothes and assemble outside. As we marched off to the quartermaster warehouse, we were a ragtag group-more a mob than a military formation-awkward in responding to marching orders, many out of step, and no two dressed alike. All that would soon change. After we stripped to the skin and placed our civilian clothes, shoes and socks included, in a bag with an attached tag addressed to home, we were issued cadet uniforms, summer and winter, together with underwear, handkerchiefs, shoes, boots, socks, raincoat, mackinaw, and a duffel bag to carry whatever wasn't being worn. As we were handed the various items of clothing, starting with underwear, we redressed, and by the time we reached the end of the line we were fully clothed as aviation cadets. Though a bit rumpled and not sure how to wear our caps, we felt for the first time a part of the army. After dropping off the bag of newly issued clothing in our tent, we were marched to the barber shop for a quick five-minute scalping. Marching, I soon discovered, was a way of life for cadets; we didn't walk anywhere as individuals but marched in formation, with the commander counting cadence. Starting on our second day, we were introduced to cadence marching songs, and often sang them as we marched about the base.
Our orders assigned us to the Army Air Forces Classification Center where we were to undergo the screening and classification tests that would determine our future. The burning question for all of us was whether we would be classified to enter pilot, bombardier, or navigator training. A few wanted navigator or bombardier training, but the vast majority wanted to be pilots. We had completed what we thought was a thorough physical examination before being accepted as aviation cadets, but apparently the army wasn't satisfied. We were examined again from tip to toe and, in addition, underwent a psychiatric evaluation. The physical exam wasn't of particular concern to me, but I got a little tense when asked to interpret a bunch of mysterious ink blots and answer strange questions posed by a four-eyed MD.
My real concern was the aptitude tests, designed, I was told, to assess our coordination and our ability to quickly and accurately adjust to constantly changing stimuli-whatever that meant. Also, there would be tests to evaluate judgment and resourcefulness in solving practical problems, measure our ability to read and understand technical information, and assess our general knowledge of mathematics and mechanical principles. Based on reports by cadets who had taken the examinations, I decided that the psychomotor tests were the most critical, or at least they appeared to be the most challenging. They involved a host of electromechanical devices (some akin to pinball machines), while others resembled an aircraft cockpit with a control stick and rudder controls. All had blinking lights and buzzers. The whole examination process took about a week to complete, and at the end, when the results were posted on the bulletin board, we all rushed to see how we had fared. I was ecstatic to be among those selected for pilot training. For me, this represented a successfully negotiated hurdle of the many I would encounter in my quest to be a fighter pilot. Ed White, much to his disappointment, was on the bombardier training list, while John Ripley qualified for pilot training.
For those selected for pilot training, the first phase of the nine-month training program took place at the Pre-Flight School (Pilot) on Maxwell Field and lasted ten long weeks. My group of 600 cadets was designated Class 43C, signifying that we would complete the nine-month program and be commissioned in March 1943, if we were successful.
The Pre-Flight School was a combination boot camp and officers' candidate school. The first priority, it seemed, was to instill discipline and whip us into shape physically. Concurrently, we studied the basic military skills required of commissioned officers and attended classes to refresh our understanding of some basic academic subjects.
Constructed on the site of Orville and Wilbur Wright's flying school, Maxwell Field was one of the Army Air Forces' oldest bases and home of the Air Tactical School where officers studied air tactics and strategy and learned to plan large-scale air campaigns. It was a beautiful base, and still is today, with handsome brick buildings, including a fine officers' club and spacious quarters, but other than observing these facilities from the outside, I had little time to even reflect on such things.
We were housed in wooden barracks, four to a room, with each room opening onto a screened porch that ran the length of the building. Cadets were awakened at 0600 hours by a bugle sounding reveille and assembled thirty minutes later for reports and announcements, after which we marched to the mess hall for breakfast.
Hazing was conducted by upperclassmen as a way of imbuing discipline. Upperclassmen addressed us as "Mister," usually in a sarcastic tone, and we were required to march everywhere, squaring our corners at every turn. Minor infractions invited an order to "hit a brace," a position of rigid attention with several chins showing. Mealtime didn't provide a respite from hazing. With two upperclassmen at each table, the torment continued without letup.
Some 360 hours of instruction constituted our preflight training program, of which 110 hours were devoted to basic military and officer training. Fifty-five hours were for close-order drill, interior guard, ceremonies and inspections, small-arms familiarization, and squadron administration and command; and fifty-five were given to the customs and courtesies of the service, military law, military organization, military hygiene, first aid, chemical warfare defense, citizenship, and current events.
The least popular activity was the hour a day devoted to physical conditioning. But one of the most demanding for many was the daily session, totaling 48 hours, of instruction aimed at achieving proficiency in reading Morse code, visually and aurally, at the rate of six words a minute-a requirement for successful completion of preflight training. Despite my earlier Boy Scout training in sending and receiving in Morse code, I found this a difficult subject to master. Refresher courses in physics (24 hours) and mathematics (20 hours), and classes in map reading (18 hours) and aircraft recognition (30 hours) rounded out our academic studies.
The rumor being passed around was that two years of college studies were being squeezed into ten weeks. Given the pace of instruction, I didn't find any reason to disagree with that assessment. We were given a test every day in every subject, as well as midterm and final examinations. Fifty percent of the average of the daily test grades combined with fifty percent of the average of the midterm and final examination scores produced the course grade. The passing score was 70.
Academic subjects kept us busy during half of each day, either morning or afternoon, while the physical aspects of our training occupied the other half. Study assignments were accomplished during the evening hours. Inspection of our rooms usually took place on Saturday mornings, while inspections in the ranks could occur at any point. Observed infractions of the rules (late to a formation, uniform worn incorrectly, and the like) resulted in demerits that had to be walked off in a designated area while toting a heavy World War I rifle. Guard duty was an integral part of our training, and I moaned about having to walk a post during the wee hours of the morning just as my father had described twenty-four years earlier in a letter he wrote to his mother from Camp Lee. On the other hand, despite our grumbling about the summer heat, parades had a way of lifting our spirits as we demonstrated proudly just how much we had progressed in learning to march and maneuver with precision under the leadership of our own cadet officers. These were colorful and impressive affairs with an array of flags and pennants whipping in the breeze and a band playing lively marches, while hundreds of cadets massed on the drill field and then passed in review, squadron by squadron, marching with the perfection of veterans.
The very worst time to undertake a rigorous physical conditioning program in Alabama is midsummer. We confronted this repeatedly as we turned out under the blazing sun for calisthenics and close-order drill.
Always demanding, our daily physical-conditioning sessions sometimes pressed us to the limits of our endurance, and we came to view our physical instructors as sadistic monsters who seemed to enjoy torturing us. I remember well the blistering day in August when we jogged four miles or so around the outer perimeter of Maxwell Field to within sight of our starting place, and then to our disbelief and dismay the instructor turned the group and we double-timed back the way we had come. At the end of such sessions, we were so dehydrated that a glass of swamp water would have been welcomed if that had been all that was available. However, my mind hadn't been on water but on the beverage machine located on my barracks' porch. It wasn't functioning properly, and the contents of all the bottles of soda came out frozen, which I found to be excellent for cooling down quickly.
One of the most enjoyable facets was our training on the firing range. Here we received instruction in the care and handling of the .45-caliber Colt semiautomatic pistol. Although I had had some experience with shotguns and had done a fair amount of target practice using a BB rifle, the Colt .45 was something else. It was so heavy that I didn't see how one could possibly achieve a lot of accuracy with it. Nevertheless I did surprisingly well.