The Hostile Sky
James W. Vernon
| || Enjoy this excerpt from the book 'Hostile Sky' written by Jim Vernon, one of our hellcat flyers. You may purchase the book by clicking on the photo or title .
Civilian Pilot Training
In early May, 1945 the aircraft carrier USS Ticonderoga (CV14), the Big T, stood out to sea off Pearl Harbor and shaped a course to the war zone in the western Pacific. I was aboard as a fighter pilot in Air Group 87. After a short stop at Ulithi atoll in the western Caroline Islands, to join Task Force 38.4, we transited to Okinawa, where many of us first tasted combat.
When Okinawa had been secured we moved offshore from the Japanese home islands, where we remained, making frequent strikes against airfields and anything that moved. After the atomic bombs were dropped and the surrender signed, we entered Tokyo Bay.
Nothing in the two years of training had prepared me for the realities of war, the terror of brushes with disaster, the fatigue and boredom of flying over the endless ocean, and the deaths of flying mates.
Back in the spring and summer of 1942 the course of the war in the Pacific had shifted in our favor when our carrier task forces smashed the Japanese fleet at Midway; the heroes had been naval aviators in a war at sea in which aircraft carriers and their planes had replaced battleships as the main striking force. The Philippines, Singapore, Hong Kong, and the Netherlands East Indies had fallen to the Japanese, but our side was holding its own in New Guinea and winning the battle for Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands.
At my age, nineteen, military service had been inevitable. I felt no impatience that it might all be over before I got into action. "Just take things as they come," I told myself, "and cover your backside." I had just completed two years of engineering at the Montana School of Mines, and I wanted a break from school, to do something different and stimulating. Military flying intrigued me. Although before the war I had had only a distant interest in flying, I decided that, since I had to enter the service, I should get involved in the rapidly evolving field of naval aviation.
Aviators, it seemed to me, had attained a status like locomotive engineers, stagecoach drivers, steamboat pilots, and ships' captains before them. They had captured the public's admiration because they had the power to push to the ends of the land and sea. A locomotive engineer in his high-crowned, striped cap leaning from his lofty window while controlling the raw power of whirling wheels and thrashing driveshafts with one hand, had awed me when I was a child. But now the roar of engines, the flash of propellers and silver wings overhead captured my imagination, as the aviator, unseen but potent, swiftly soared above and beyond the horizon. I sometimes wondered whether I dared to aspire to join their exclusive cult and whether they would let me in. But deep down I knew they were mere men--not much different from me. I was stimulated by the challenge and attracted to the drama of war in the air.
My decision to enter pilot training was mainly cerebral, colored by escapism, a sense of adventure, and yes, patriotism. I had never been in an airplane or even touched one on the ground. In the '30s I had visited a small airport in my hometown of Fargo, North Dakota, and seen a Ford Trimotor with its peculiar corrugated exterior, and I had walked in the shadow of its wings. I'd seen planes in flight, like the Douglas DC-2, which had a flight schedule through Fargo. I remember being with a group of boys on a country road near Fargo when one those planes flew over. "Give me a ride!" we screamed, like desperate castaways.
I hadn't read aviation fiction and I'm certain I never saw Dawn Patrol or any other movies about air combat in France during World War I. Model airplanes held no interest for me. During high school I had not considered joining the aeronautical program the school offered. Although I had become keenly interested in the air war being fought over Western Europe, it hadn't seemed relevant to me personally until Pearl Harbor.
In the summer of 1942 I enlisted in the Naval Aviation Cadet program and discovered that within the past few months the academic requirement for the program had been lowered from two years of college to high school graduation. That meant many of my fellow cadets would be fresh out of high school and a year or two younger than I. The full significance of this change wouldn't strike me until I went on active duty.
The Navy, having signed me up, then sent me home to Mother's dreary walk-up third floor apartment near Golden Gate Park in San Francisco to await orders.
Mother, in her early fifties, was just under five feet, with a well-proportioned figure, large blue-green eyes, regular features, and graying hair. What didn't show was the tenacious will that had enabled her to raise four children while in conflict with a strong-willed, intelligent husband, and then support herself after their separation.
Her apartment house sat in a row of common-wall buildings adjacent to the sidewalk, with an open space at the rear separating it from the back of apartment houses facing the next street. A clothesline running through pulleys stretched from a window in her living room across an open space to the rear wall of those apartments. Mother's apartment had two bedrooms, a living room, kitchen, and bath. Furniture, tacky but adequate, reflected her small salary from the marine supply house where she worked. She fixed a bed for me in a barren bedroom with a streaky window looking into a bleak light shaft, and I settled in with her and her yellow tomcat. Mother seemed pleased that I wouldn't be shipped out immediately.
When my orders arrived, they directed me to report for civilian pilot training (CPT) at Lassen Junior College in Susanville, California, a hundred miles northwest of Reno. That disappointed me because I thought I would be sent to preflight school first. Since my old Chevy still ran reliably, I drove to Susanville, across the Central Valley, over the Sierra, and north along its eastern slope. Susanville sat in an irrigated farming area in a broad, semi-arid valley surrounded by sparsely forested and sagebrush-covered mountains. Single-storied, plate glass-faced businesses looked out onto the main street. Residences were mainly wooden, some two-storied. Cottonwood and elm trees, now denuded by early autumn frosts, lined the streets. The junior college consisted of an old, two-story; gray masonry building, which had once been the high school.
I was to begin my naval aviation career in a remote farming town not too different from others I had known in the West. When I checked in, I was assigned a bunk in the improvised military barracks: a separate, spacious, one-room frame building with a high ceiling and wide door. I guessed it had once been a warehouse. On the main floor, bunks were arranged in rows, and a community lavatory occupied one corner. It turned out to be more comfortable than bunkhouses I had slept in at several of Dad's mining camps.
I found my bunk hung along the wall of a six-foot-wide mezzanine and looked around. Sprawled on nearby bunks were a couple of cadets; one, a powerfully built man, stood up and offered his hand and a salty "Welcome aboard. I'm Emmitt, just came in from Oakland. That's Bud over there. He's from Richmond. Where're you from?" Bud stood up smiling shyly and shook my hand; a shorty like me, he moved like an athlete, on the balls of his feet. "Don't listen to that guy;" Bud said. "He went on like that on the bus all the way up to this cow town, except when he sketched anyone who'd sit still."
We sat on a bunk and got acquainted. Bud, tough as the port city of Richmond, boxed as a golden glover, and Emmitt had played high school football in the Bay Area. We all spoke jockese.
"What do you say we check out the town?" Emmitt said. We walked the length of Main Street, picked out a bar, had a couple of drinks, told each other a few lies, and then wandered back to the barracks in the dark. Sleep came slowly that first night. My mind kept drifting to the future. Could I adapt to flying? And to the past, to the day my father and I had parted in San Francisco.
In my mind's eye I could still see Dad staring straight ahead, silently chewing a cigar, as I drove through hilly San Francisco and down Market Street to the Ferry Building, where he would catch a ferry to carry him across the bay to a train that would take him back to Montana. He cautiously broke his silence. "Jimmy, your mother doesn't care for me any more. We've been separated too long. It doesn't look like we'll get back together." He rolled down the window and tossed out his cigar butt. "I wish I hadn't come to visit." I had sensed his visit with her had not gone well, but it surprised me that he would talk about it. It saddened me to have my fears confirmed--that their marriage was nearing an end.
At the Ferry Building we stood silently on the curb as streetcars rattled past. His short compact body seemed to sag as the ferry's whistle moaned. We turned toward each other, made eye contact, shook hands, and hugged briefly. He paused, glancing pensively at the people boarding the ferry. Stealthily wiping his eye and then his glasses, he looked at me again and whispered, "Please be careful, Jimmy. Flying in the Navy will be dangerous."
I looked into his wet eyes--the first time I had seen him teary-eyed since our old dog had died from falling down a mineshaft-firmed my lips, and nodded. He swallowed hard took a deep breath, squeezed my arm as though to assure me and himself that my entering the Navy was right, turned away, and picked up his suitcase. Squaring his shoulders and straightening his fedora, he strode away, head high, confident and defiant. The crowd swallowed him.
My imminent entry into the Navy was as close as he would come to war. He had missed World War I because he was overage and had a wife and two children.
I felt sorry for him, a strong and lonely man, and to me, a tragic figure. I wished I could catch him and tell him everything was OK with Mother again, but I couldn't. He had become a loner, single-mindedly pursuing mining, the occupation he loved, but it had cost him his marriage and family life. Now I, too, had passed beyond his experience, into a world he could never know.
Fifty men trained at Susanville, a mixture of naval aviation cadets, still in civvies, training to be pilots, and Army Air Forces enlisted men in uniform, learning to be glider pilots. We cadets came mainly from the Bay Area and towns in the Central Valley: Madera, Sacramento, Stockton, Oildale, and Button-willow. We were strangers thrown together in an unfamiliar place, many away from home for the first time.
In ground school I discovered that the courses, aimed at the level of high school graduates, provided a review of mathematics and physics to cope with navigation and aerology. I also discovered that only I had studied these subjects at the college level.
When the class caught on that I already knew a lot about these subjects, Bud, Emmitt, and others began to ask me for help with the daily assignments. That flattered me, as I had struggled to stay in the middle third of the class at the School of Mines. I realized then that, at the Mines, I had competed against the top 10 to 15 percent of the graduates of the high schools in Montana. I began to recover from a feeling of academic inferiority.
Academic knack, however, without flying aptitude wouldn't guarantee success in this program. In flight training you either passed or failed. Those who failed were "washed out." That sounded like you were rinsed, wrung, and hung out to dry like drop-seat longjohns. It really meant they gave you a one-way ticket to Great Lakes Naval Training Center near Chicago where they turned you into a deck-swabbing enlisted seaman. It was the dreaded elephants' graveyard for failed cadets.
The airport, a mile from town, had one runway, an undulating dirt strip scratched out of the sagebrush, alive with skittering jackrabbits, which adjoined another clearing where the airplanes were parked. Squat frame buildings served as the administration office, ready rooms, maintenance hangar, and refueling station. A faded windsock flapped lazily on a post near the runway.
The flight school operated seven Piper Cubs, one Waco biplane, and two others of obscure lineage. Its training staff was organized on a temporary paramilitary scheme set up by the Array Air Forces. The principal owner of the school, a short, grim, taciturn man, had the rank of major with Army Air Forces insignia, a leather jacket, and olive drab pants. The head instructor sported the bars of a captain, and the other instructors were first and second lieutenants. Despite this camouflage they were just civilian aviation buffs, "airport bums" or possibly crop dusters, dressed as military aviators. They could teach us the rudiments of flying and cull out those of us who couldn't adapt. We were supposed to salute these people, but enforcement was nonexistent mainly because neither they nor we knew how or when it was appropriate.
Marty, rumored to be the brother of a major league baseball player from a somewhat earlier time, became my instructor. In his mid-thirties, strong, silent, and prideful, Marry had, I sensed, a hidden envy of us beginners who were destined to go on to a level of flying and possible glory he could never attain. He would still be flying Piper Cubs when we were flying Grumman fighters from aircraft carriers.
Before my first flight, an event remembered vividly by all pilots, Marty showed me around a Piper Cub like a used car salesman pointing out the positive characteristics and minimizing the negative. This close inspection of the Cub, rather than reassuring me, heightened my apprehension. Nothing he said could change my impression that this was an exceedingly flimsy craft in which to trust my valuable life when out of contact with the ground. A better approach would have been to put me in the plane blindfolded.
I rode in the rear. Marty's broad back and the nose of the plane blocked the forward view. The herky-jerky motions while taxiing over the rough ground, the thumping of the little wheels on bumps, the thin snarl of its small engine (that must be why they called it a Cub), the birdlike flutter of the wings, and the chorus of rattles made me wonder why I had become involved in this activity.
Marty aimed this turkey into the wind. Holding the brakes, he revved up the engine and tested the magnetos one at a time.
The engine stumbled on one magneto, which he ignored, mumbling what I took to be, "She'll be OK when she's a little warmer." He slowed the engine, released the brakes, and we lurched forward, gradually but bumpily gaining speed. The tail came up, lifted by the streaming air. I could see forward, and the rattles muted, then stopped. We were off the ground in the weakly supporting, untextured air.
The ground sped past, reminding me of my Chevy going downhill. In a few seconds, the apparent motion over the ground slowed to a pedestrian pace. Marry reduced engine power and it became surprisingly quiet. As we climbed, the ground seemed to stand still. My visual aspect had shifted 90 degrees. I now looked at the tops of objects instead of their sides. I had to learn to recognize familiar objects like trees again.
From the ground a tree is a thing of beauty with limbs, trunk, and foliage in relief against the sky. From the air it's a green smudge, like a splat of spinach on the kitchen floor.
Susanville seemed startlingly small in the palm of the valley. As we labored for altitude, the green fields and blue gray sagebrush flooded out in all directions to the mountains, the ragged edge of the earth. We could peek into people's lives from above. Maybe I shouldn't have been looking. Vehicles crawled like ants on the roads. I felt detached from the earth, no longer part of it, hanging in a void, devouring a new world.
Marty had me follow through stick and rudder movements to feel their effects on the aircraft. "Jeez, take it easy, for Christ sake," he yelped. "The stick's not a damned baseball bat. Handle it as gently as you do your dick. The rudders ain't soccer balls, press 'em gently like you would a girl's tits."