A Veterans Day Memoir
I Was Young, and Time Was Short
by Robert B. Bockting
My friend frowned as he waited for my answer. He prompted, “So tell me, how was it really?”
“I’ve wondered that too,” I said. “Let me think about it.” I took a deep breath and let my mind slide back 60 years.
The United States was at war, as was much of the world. Emphasis that year was on the impending allied attempt to invade Western Europe, held by the German army, air force and navy. The French coast had been heavily fortified against this expected invasion.
No military operation on such an enormous scale had ever before been undertaken. The war could be decided by its outcome. Allied strategists depended on overwhelming air superiority. To achieve this, the U.S. Army Air Corps was trying to train, in unprecedented and dangerous haste, enough pilots and air crews to man the thousands of aircraft pouring off U.S. assembly lines. It chanced that I was one of those student pilots.
Of those three years during World War II, two instances stand out: my first night solo flight, just after Christmas in 1943, and graduation from flying school on March 12, 1944. I’ll tell you why. First, that night flight:
The room was quiet as the officer finished speaking.
“They’re just trying to scare us,” said a voice from the back.
“Sure as hell wasting their time,” said another, “ I’m already scared.” So were the rest of us.
The late afternoon sun was setting out across the Kansas prairie. Fast-moving clouds showed a wind shift and the near approach of a cold front. Captain Ottinger had just given our air cadet class its final briefing on night flying. We were about to complete Basic Flight Training, which included three more tricky hurdles: a daylight cross-country, an instrument check ride and a series of three night solos, beginning tonight.
Tonight’s night solo loomed as the toughest and scariest. Once past these obstacles, we’d be on our way to Advanced Flight School and after that (nine more weeks, to be exact) graduation — if we made it. Not all of us would.
The captain’s closing remarks had not been reassuring. They weren’t meant to be. He was a tough old man — 26 or 27 at least — and director of flight operations. He wanted us to get serious about this and not bust up a bunch of airplanes and kill ourselves. You get to thinking that way when you make captain.
So why the big deal? Our class had graduated from Primary Flight School back in October. In that nine-week course, we had soloed the primary trainer (designated PT-19) and had practiced landing, taking off under varied conditions, some elementary aerobatics and short cross-country flying — all in daylight and good weather.
In that time there had been Betty and our brief, intense romance, cut short when our class shipped out. That was a few weeks ago. It seemed like years. Since then we’d all run up some 60 more hours flight time, with nearly half of it solo. The basic trainer, the Vultee Valiant — alias Vultee Vibrator — was not hard to fly. Its rugged frame could withstand rough landings. With a little practice, on a clear day, with no gusty cross-wind, there was nothing to it.
Nor was night flying really a problem, of itself — not on a clear, bright night, with the horizon forming a sharp black line to level on. If you were lucky, you’d be assigned a ship used for instrument training and forbidden for aerobatic practice, which goofed up the flight instruments. You could get along without them of course, but it was helpful to glance at the instruments now and then, and reassuring. Ideally, you’d fly your first night solo from the home field with its brightly lighted runway; not from an auxiliary field, lit only with flare pots.
Of course, none of this is too tough if you’re not scared half to death, have the constitution of a polar bear and you’ve had a few hours of night flying experience. But, as with most things in life, there’s got to be a first time.
This was war and a lot depended on where your name fell on some alphabetical list. Perhaps that’s how some of us came to be out in those wide, open spaces, at 2am, in western Kansas, in late December, 1943.
Glacial! Black as a hole in hell, and a wind gusting like I can’t describe. My regular instructor was down with flu. The one assigned to me for that evening was nervous, as you might expect, since we’d never flown together or seen each other before that night. This guy was taking no chances. We went up and shot a couple of landings. That is, he shot them, with me just lightly holding my half of the ship’s dual controls. Really, I couldn’t blame him. He was probably married with kids and didn’t want to make them widow and orphans right after Christmas.
We landed and parked. I climbed out of the front cockpit, crouched on the wing and waited for his verdict.
“Okay, you can go,” he said. “Go get your airplane and take her around a few times, but watch yourself.” He meant it. He didn’t want to see this kid get killed. I didn’t either, come to think of it.
But what I really didn’t want to do was to screw up and wreck an airplane and maybe wash out of the program. It had been 16 years since my father had read those headlines to his four-year-old: Lindbergh Lands in Paris. The inspiration had not dimmed. My mother, widowed for 13 of those years, had — reluctantly and at my insistence — signed my enlistment age waiver. The goal was getting close. Lately, when I’d look in the mirror at my left shirt pocket, I could almost see those silver wings.
“Yes, sir,” I shouted at the rear cockpit. I jumped off the wing.
Somewhere down that quarter-mile of dim shapes on the ramp at Auxiliary Number 3 had to be airplane number 1-L-943. The batteries in that flashlight! You had to look straight into it to see if it was turned on.
The ship parked next in line was idling. The instructor and student seemed to be arguing, shouting to be heard over the engine noise. I passed behind them, ducking and squinting against the blowing dust. I could make out a tall form in the dark but couldn’t recognize the voice. Somebody from C -Squadron, I thought.
“I’m not flying,” he yelled, “I’ve had it.” His voice was loud but calm, decided, final. Just like that he’d washed himself out, refused to fly. I shook the flashlight into a feeble half-life and headed down the line of planes.
There it was, 1-L-943, next to the far end. The frozen canopy latch required some banging and some profanity. I checked the switches, controls and gauges. It was an aerobatic ship; the flight instruments were a disaster.
As I fastened my seatbelt, the little pellet of fear, like an acorn of ice that had ridden in my stomach since afternoon, now swelled to the size of a golf ball, then to a baseball. It made me shiver, though I was sweating in my sheep-lined leather flying suit.
I began the starting routine. The engine caught on the second try. She took a few minutes to warm. I mused about the guy back there refusing to solo. Only two months to go! Too bad. Well, the flag had been half-staff about once a week since the weather turned bad: two cadets and one instructor plus plenty non-fatal accidents and a lot of close calls.
Well, kid, I said to myself, if you were going to quit, now would be the time. You might not get another chance. I thought about it a minute, about tomorrow, about writing home. Mother and friends would be relieved of course. Proud? Not likely. I took the easy way. I unlocked the brakes, nudged the throttle and started to roll.
The radio worked. Along with static, the night was full of scared, boy-like voices. They came from all those tiny red and green lights circling up there, preparing to come in and shoot practice landings. Other planes, the last of the early flight, came in, one after another, only seconds apart. These dark shapes swooped in, touching down alongside the control truck, which was parked just off the end of the runway. They’d land — if you could call it that — bounce, land again, roll a few yards, then gun it and take off again. All this time, the lieutenant on the radio in the control truck was screaming orders, advice and a lot of cuss words. He’d sound a little shrill every time a plane would seem about to hit his truck.
Taxiing was mostly instinct. Nearly all the flare pots marking the taxiways had blown out. The ground crews had their hands full relighting enough pots to mark the landing strip. Finally, at the take-off point and ready to call the control truck, I ran up the engine and recited to myself the take-off procedure, Controls, instruments, gasoline, flaps — and Hail Mary, full of grace — please don’t let me sound as scared as that last kid. Then I pushed the mike button.
“Number 3 Control, this is 1-L-943, ready for immediate takeoff, over.” Firm and clear — not a quaver — hot damn! The frozen baseball riding in my middle started to shrink as I pushed the throttle and the ship began to roll. It picked up speed. The engine, a Wright Whirlwind, howled up there in the dark, its exhaust stack sending back a stream of yellow-blue flame. The tail came up and I eased back on the stick, pressing the right rudder to hold my heading against the torque of the propeller and the now-steady right cross-wind. She came off and climbed smoothly as I held the right wing a little low against the drift.
That cold glob of fear gave way to elation so intense that I stuck my head out of the cockpit and gave a wild yell into the night. The slip-stream nearly yanked off my helmet. In a minute or two, I’d climbed to take my place in the daisy-chain of planes circling the field. That’s about the time Captain Ottinger took over the radio in Number 3 Control. The ring of confidence in his southwestern drawl seemed to pass through our headsets and into those nerve centers that control the instinct to fly. That string of airplanes began to behave a lot less erratically.
During the next hour, all 20 or so aircraft in the late flight made a half-dozen landings and takeoffs. Each was smoother than the last. The wind got worse, but we got better. Taxiing in, I could feel the crinkle of Betty’s letter in my shirt pocket. I’d read it once, hurriedly. Mail call had been held in the shack on the flight line, just minutes before our trucks pulled out. I wondered for a moment when, if ever, I’d see that little gal again.
There’s a war on, soldier, I said to myself. Que sera, sera. No use looking back or too far ahead. I parked, set the brakes, ran up the engine and cut the switches.
Officers and Gentlemen
On that Sunday morning, more than 100 bomber pilots in Air Cadet Class 44-C were to graduate from Advanced Flight School at Altus, Oklahoma as, get this: Officers and Gentlemen (by act of Congress), and Bomber Pilots, (by act of God, luck or fate) — take your choice. It chanced that I was one of them.
This action took place in a ceremony in the post theater. All of us gazed raptly at the assembly of officers seated on the theater stage. Looking around, I couldn’t discern then — nor now, 60 years later — what went on in the minds behind those sober young faces. A brief review of the past year plus one month of our lives passed across my consciousness. The organization we’d been part of had been unique.
A formation of air cadets appeared different from that of other soldiers. All were young: ranging in age from 19 through 25; all slim and erect from rigorous exercise, constant drill, marching or running. Most military units showed considerable variety in the men’s size and general appearance. Not so the air cadets. Lined up, a unit looked like a picket fence.
Though we had been recruited into the Army Air Corps from all parts of the country and varied economic backgrounds, once in service, we had shared identical experiences for these 13 months. All had volunteered for this program in hope of successfully completing flight training to become pilots, bombardiers or navigators and to be commissioned as second lieutenants. The Advanced Flight School at Altus exclusively produced pilots for multi-engine aircraft, most likely bombers.
We had spent our early months, from call-up in late February 1943 to the fourth of July, as cadet candidates, passing our days and weeks in drilling, physical training, cross-country running, some college courses, physical and mental tests — all to determine our aptitude and mental attitude and possession of the potential to pass the rigors of pilot training.
On the fourth of July, 1943, our class ceased being candidates and became full-fledged air cadets in San Antonio, Texas. At this point, we faced a total of four, nine-week courses, at four different locations: Pre-Flight School. Primary Flight School, Basic Flight School and Advanced Flight School, where you graduated — if successful along the way.
These school titles are almost self-explanatory. The aircraft got larger and faster, the flying more technically difficult: aerobatics, night-flying, instrument flying, formation flying, short field landings and take-off, forced landings, emergency procedures. Training got progressively more difficult and, in turn, we got more proficient. There had been little time for leisure or social life, but for what there was, we learned to make the most of it.
The saying went: You’d graduate if you didn’t: 1. Wash out in Primary — get dropped from the program for not learning fast enough. 2. Get killed in Basic — night flying or bad weather could do that. Or 3. Screw-up in Advanced — get overconfident, break rules, get in trouble. Avoid those things, and you’d probably make it. This Sunday morning, we were about to.
My thoughts slid back over the last couple of days. My friend Antonio and I had had some close calls. We’d flown together, alternating as co-pilot for each other. Our class was hard pressed to complete our flight time. Bad weather had set us back. Now we made it up and everyone was exhausted, Tony and I included.
On our last night cross-country, a round robin, to Fort Worth, Texas, then Gage, Oklahoma, then back to Altus — maybe a six-hour flight — they’d given us caffeine pills. He and I, smart asses, hadn’t taken ours. On the last leg of the flight, we both fell asleep at the same time. Good way to kill yourself. We awoke, both at the same time, over the home field and in the traffic pattern. We didn’t hit anybody. Just luck. Guardian angel, I suppose. We slid in among the other planes, made our approach and landed. Nobody seemed to notice. Maybe the guys in the tower were tired, too.
Now you’d have thought we’d not have stretched our luck after that, not tempted fate any further. Yeah? Now hear this.
It chanced that a few nights before, I’d been on duty as CQ, charge of quarters. That’s a clerical job: Answer the phone, call the Officer of the Day in emergency, the fire department if one breaks out or an ambulance if someone is taken ill. Late that night, while talking to our squadron mascot (a huge boxer bull pup), I glanced into a desk drawer at a book of blank off-post passes. I helped myself to a couple, just in case. To pass the time and entertain the dog, I practiced forging the signature of some officer. I became fairly good, the dog seemed to agree.
The Saturday night before graduation, the entire class was restricted to the post. No passes permitted, for obvious reasons. The post commander and staff wanted everyone rested and sober, with no one picked up by military police in some bar or dance hall. A lot of places were off-limits to military personnel. Those were late-night spots where soldiers tended to get into fights with swing-shift war plant workers over things like girls, tables, nasty remarks. Air cadets were warned to avoid this sort of thing.
Cadets — soon to become lieutenants — Antonio and I had become acquainted with two local young ladies. We wished to see them on our last night in Altus and to properly bid them good-by. We did meet them. We were off base on our forged passes.
Tony and I and our dates chanced to go to a skating rink, turned into a dance hall on Saturday nights. This emporium, located a few miles outside town, had been placed off-limits to military personnel. The dance floor was huge, slick from powdered wax. The place was packed. The music was good. The beer so-so. The bootleg whisky what you might expect, as Oklahoma was then a dry state.
Around 10pm, at intermission, Tony and I excused ourselves for the men’s room. Maybe the luckiest thing we’d ever do in our lives. As we reached the lavatory door, there was a commotion in the crowded lobby. Army Military Police and Navy Shore Patrol had blocked all the doors and were rounding up all military personnel and herding them outside and into paddy wagons. As cadets, we’d be court marshaled, tossed out of the Cadet Corps and into the stockade, and just one day — rather one night — short of the goal that Tony and I had worked over a year to achieve. And, I thought, this was mostly my fault, that we were here and been caught. Or were we?
We slipped back into the men’s room, locking the door. The window was small but not too high and opened easily. We went, in turn, out that window, clattering into and through the pile of empty whisky bottles outside. We hoped there was too much noise inside for anyone to notice. We crouched and ran toward the parking lot, which fortunately, no one was watching. A cab had just pulled up. We kept low and moved alongside as its arriving occupants got out. We slipped aboard, ducking into the back seat and told the driver to take us away from there and back to the airbase. He did.
At the base we paid the driver and passed the guard shack, flashing our phony passes. Soon we slipped into our bunks to sleep the sleep of the just.
Sunday, we each in turn smartly saluted the officer as he presented our second lieutenant’s bars and pinned on our pilot’s wings. We accepted our engraved commissions in the Army Air Corps and gravely reseated ourselves to hear the speeches. These were to the effect that we were to be congratulated on successful completion of our training, and that we should now go forth and win the war.
Sixty years later, I now could answer my friend’s question. “Yeah, it was all worth it. Would I do it all again? Yeah.”
||About the Author
Bob Bockting, 81, survived the Army Air Corps and retired from the Army Corps of Engineers to write from Bethesda and sail from Deale. His last piece for Bay Weekly was Sailors Are Made, Not Born, in October of 2002.