Saturday, September 29, 2007

Little Eddy #4, "Nothing Can Stop the Army Air Corps . . ."

The most life altering experience of my young life came at age 18 when I enlisted, and was later called up to serve in the United States Army Air Corps. World War II had begun when I had been a sophomore in Mirabeau B. Lamar High School in Houston, Texas. I'll never forget the morning of Dec. 8, 1941 when F.D.R.'s voice rang forth over the school intercom announcing, “Sunday, December 7th, 1941, is a day that will live in infamy,” (it sure as hell will!) and further announcing our entrance into World War II.

Three years later I graduated from Lamar at age sixteen (It was an 11 year curriculum back then.) They graduated us at midterm so that we could get some college in before we trundled off to war. I chose enlisting in the Army Air Corps rather than letting myself get drafted into the infantry. I figured being flown was preferable to slogging on the ground. What did I know?

Anyway, after a lonely overnight Pullman ride to San Antonio, Texas, I went into the Army Air Corps in October 1944 at the tender age of 18, inducted in Ft. Sam Houston. I was immediately shipped to the Air Corps basic training facility in Amarillo, Texas. There we were assigned to whatever our specialty was going to be for the rest of our service. As for everything in the service, we formed a long line. The man in line before me had been a truck driver all of his civilian life. He was assigned to the kitchen detail as a baker. I had two eyes and a trigger finger, and I was destined to be a gunner. The man in the line behind me had been a chef for all of his working life. He was assigned to drive a truck. Situation normal.

What I remember most about basic training was the plain cake doughnuts in the in the PX vending machine, doughnuts which the machine made from scratch. They tasted incredibly delicious with the PX coffee, and I have been chasing plain cake doughnuts ever since. I even made my own for awhile from an old Vermont recipe, but strangely none of them have ever matched my memory of those Air Corps vending machine doughnuts of basic training.

My dear late mother had a thing about bowel movements, she lived in constant fear of missing one herself, and she consumed laxatives often and administered every kind of laxative known to civilized man/woman to me, all the while espousing that not going for as much as three days was sure to lead to grave infirmity if not my actual demise. Well, I went into a kind of shock when I went into basic training, and did not move my bowels for 16 days. Really. I counted. I had one mighty jam up down there when things finally began moving again, but that incident rather punctured Ma's myth about the necessity of daily bowel movements and I have never taken a laxative since. Nor have I ever had a problem with constipation. It’s all in the mind?

Memories of basic training have now become blurred, but I ended up learning one thing there that has served me well through the years, and that was how to correctly fire an M-16 rifle. You take a normal breath, exhale half of it, then gently squeeze the trigger while sighting down the cross-hairs before exhaling the rest, making sure to follow through your squeeze as it fires. I have not fired a rifle since basic training, but I found that formula essential in the taking of good, clear photographs. Sight through the view finder what you want in your photograph and focus. Brace yourself against something if possible, take in a breath, let half of it out, then gently squeeze the camera's trigger, not forgetting to follow through after the lens is tripped. This is a formula which if adopted is guaranteed to make you clear, razor sharp photographs, providing of course you also focus and expose properly.

Legend has it that the only thing between Amarillo and the North Pole is a barbed-wire fence. I was stationed there in the fall, and you couldn't prove that statement by me, but I believe it is probably true. Fortunately by winter the gods of the Army Air Corps had sent me south, about as far south as I could go and still be in Texas. I was assigned to a B-24 air crew as a Sperry Ball turret gunner and was sent to Harlingen, Texas for crew assignment and initial training. Ah, the sun soaked Rio Grande valley, the only Air Corps base I'm sure with an orange grove taking up much of its real estate. I could tell you about Rosita, the famed exotic dancer from across the Rio Grande in Matamoros, Mexico, who used muscles most females never even dreamed they had, but, alas, this is not that kind of post. Besides, I was a good boy, I never actually saw Rosita, only heard about her. From all accounts though she really was the stuff legends are made of.

I should say a few words about the Sperry Ball turret. It was round, literally a ball, and when the plane was flying it sat completely outside of the airplane. For landing and take off it was cranked up inside the airplane. Once you entered it you lay on your back in a true fetal position, and you rotated the turret by way of the gun's triggers and you sighted your target through the gun sight between your legs.

The turret was fairly heavily armored, and the gunsight itself was about 8” square, it was an analog computer, and was reputed to be able to accurately mathematically figure the speed of your aircraft, and by your tracking of the attacking plane, the speed of the attacking aircraft. And supposedly it computed the correct lead for hitting the attacking aircraft you were tracking firing with the two 50 caliber machine guns you had at your fingertips. Fortunately I was never in a position to be able to test the accuracy of the computer gunsight.

At Harlingen they told us that in the European theater of operations crews used to pull the turret out, and replace it with a ring which held a machine gun with which you could try and shoot at planes coming up at you from below. No fancy computer to compute your lead, you had to guess. Also at Harlingen we were told the story of a Sperry Ball gunner while in training whose crew's B-24 dipped a little low on the gunnery range slightly scraping the ball on the ground. When they got back to the base, and cranked up the turret so they could land the plane, they found the gunner inside covered with sand, his hair had turned white, and he had lost the power of speech. Stories like that really prepared us well for the big war which lay ahead.

B-24's were large, bulky aircraft which when crash landed in water had a floating time of about a minute and a half (compared to a Boeing B-17 which had been known to float for up to thirty minutes upon a sea landing (in the vernacular it's called a ditching.) B-24's were known affectionately as Flying Coffins and were the gift of the Lockeed Aircraft Co. They stank of aviation fuel, were drafty, and were extremely conducive to air sickness. I didn't throw up during every flight, but it was pretty close, probably six or seven out of ten flights.

What I remember best about Harlingen was the orange grove on the base which took up quite a bit of the base real estate. On mornings when we were to be assigned duty I was very much in luck, my last name being Badeaux, it's prounciation seemed to lie beyond the skill of the average detail sergeant, and so in their embarrassment they would either skip over my name altogether, or else mangle it so badly it wasn’t recognizable. That enabled me to disappear into the grove when the sergeant wasn't looking where I would pick oranges for awhile, before ending up in the PX. In any case I was able to miss many a work detail. And I have been so thankful for my name ever since.

We practiced shooting at moving targets on the ground at Harlingen by shooting at skeets flying through the air using a shotgun mounted in the back of a moving truck. No fancy computational device in order to hit the skeet, you had to gauge the proper amount of lead to give the target yourself. It was weird, but kind of fun. We also fired at targets from our airplane with our 50 caliber machine guns. The targets were hauled alongside us by an airplane which pulled the target on a very long leash.

One day a farmer's cow was machine gunned (not by me), for sport I presume, and all hell broke use. Soon afterwards we were shipped to Muroc, California for more crew training. Now named Edwards Air Force Base (and an alternate landing field for the space shuttle) it was originally known as Muroc Army Air Field and was primarily used at that time for testing new types of aircraft. The most unusual aircraft I saw there was called the Flying Wing, and that is exactly what it was, a huge wing painted black with the crew quarters, the bomb bay, everything, inside this gigantic wing. It was a four engine plane as I remember, it looked just like some gigantic flying bat, and I had always thought that if the Air Force had built a hundred of them and flown them over Japan the Japanese would have been so terrified they would have given up the war on the spot. The air force eventually came up with an alternate way to scare the Japanese into surrendering, dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. My way would have been far less traumatic and injurious to the health of fellow human beings. But armies always seem to prefer overkill, and besides they were dying to test that awe inspiring weapon.

While we were stationed in Muroc we saw a couple of other test planes. The first one flew alongside our formation of B-24's while we were heading for gunnery range practice. The plane flew alongside us for about ten minutes, then suddenly pulled away, making us look like we were standing still. It turned out to be the XP-59, the very first jet fighter plane developed in the U.S. for the air force. The XP-59 never was put into use, and therefore never had the X (which stood for experimental) removed from its name.

One day all the flags on the base were flying at half staff. I asked one of our officers what happened, and he said President Roosevelt had died. A short time later the flags were flying at half staff again and this time I was told they signaled the end of the war in Europe.

A couple of weeks later our crew was on a photography mission (our turrets were loaded with cameras loaded with film, and when we reached our target we were to photograph it. The film would later be processed and our accuracy determined.) At any rate on that day another strange looking aircraft flew alongside us. This plane was really sleek looking, and after flying alongside us long enough to attract our attention, it too flew away, this time at a speed so great it made us look like we were flying backwards.

Some fool, as I remember it was me, took pictures of that mysterious apparition with the film destined to be used on our targets. (This plane turned out to be the highly secret XP80 which did later get the X dropped from its name, and was put into service late in the war), and that night when our film was developed the base notified the Inspector General's office in Washington that pictures of the Air Corps newest secret weapon had been developed in their darkrooms, and a couple of days later we had several FBI types disguised in Army Air Corps uniforms trying to find out what lout had had the gall to photograph this highly secret aircraft.

Paranoia was the order of the day, the rumor mill had some Japanese agent riding rampant over America's secrets (he would have been German had not the war in Europe ended). As far as I know they never found the culprit (me), and if you ask me it was the usual complete waste of the army's money. Don't fly strange exotic airplanes by us when we have loaded cameras if you don't want some damn fool to take pictures of it. We never heard anything more about it, and they never caught up with me. I don't know if that incident had anything to do with what came next (I very much suspect it did), however a few days later all of our crews were transferred to Tonopah Army Air Force Base near Tonopah, Nevada.

If there was one geographic characteristic you could count on it was, next to every large mountain the air force would build an airfield. I suppose the rationale was to keep the pilots sharp and on their toes. And it put the Fear of God is those of us non flyers who were reluctantly along for the ride. Tonopah, like Muroc before it, was desert. Pure desert. On other bases when they wanted to manufacture pointless work they formed grass cutting details. At Tonopah we painted the rocks that lined the pathways white. The two bases were nothing alike. Muroc was all air force, and it was an important cog in the wheels of the air force. Virtually every plane that was developed for the Air Corps was tested there. Still is. Tonopah, on the other hand, had an old Calvary General as its commanding officer, and the Air Corps be damned, he was bound and determined to run the base as a traditional Army base.

The usual missions we flew from Tonopah were called Navigation missions, where the navigator plots the course and the pilots fly it. The course consisted of flying north to Reno, then west to San Francisco, then south to Los Angeles, and then east to Las Vegas and finally North once again to Tonopah. Since we flew the same course every damn time I fail to see how the Navigator got much hands-on experience by charting an identical course ad infinitum. The trips were interesting, though. Especially when we got near the ocean near San Francisco. One of the sights I will never forget on those missions was seeing the giant fog banks off in the ocean rolling into San Francisco in the late afternoon. If the fog had already rolled in, which happened once or twice, you couldn't see San Francisco at all except for a few tall buildings poking through the fog.

Through either some miracle, or some oversight, I had actually made corporal by this time, but one day when the automatic heated gloves and shoes on my flight suit didn't work, I was so cold and miserable I unplugged my oxygen mask and passed out. And I got busted. Actually there were two of us back in the waist who had passed out. We had oxygen checks every five minutes while flying, and when our station didn't answer they sent the engineer back to find out what was what. We both got busted. I like to think that that oxygen deprivation had no long term effect on my brain, but come to think of it that might explain a thing or two.

I managed to pull off one other real gaff which would have gotten me busted if I hadn't been busted already. When an officer came in the barracks the first person to spot him was supposed to jump to his feet shouting, "ATTENCHUT!" Well, one day our captain came into the barracks, and I looked at him, and he looked at me, and not a word did I utter. Much less shout. In truth I was philosophically opposed to calling a barracks full of tired crewman who had risen at 4:30, been briefed at six, and flown from 7 until 1:30 to attention just because an officer happened to come into the room. I'm not sure who was more embarrassed, the captain or me. At any rate, the sergeant in the top bunk across from me happened to look up, saw the officer, and shouted "ATTENNCHUT!!!" on his way down as his feet hit the floor. The men, as a man, hit the attention stance, me included. I didn't object to standing at attention, only to calling the others to attention. Needless to say my time off hours for the next few weeks were occupied in white washing the rocks that lined the walkways. Such did I serve my country? However, a short time later I did some job for another Captain, and he was so pleased with my work that he insisted on inserting a letter of commendation into my official record. That must have confused the hell out of them at command central.

I ended up flying 256 hours in the Air Corps. It wasn't much fun. The planes were cold and drafty and reeked of gasoline. I got air sick on most flights. I'll never forget the day I ate a pint of strawberry ice cream just before take off, and not 30 minutes later at 20,000 feet every last ounce of it had come back up, refrozen onto my oxygen mask, looking exactly as it had looked before I had eaten it. The only difference was it reeked of the odor of bile.

Another thing that was unnerving was when the engines torched in flight. An engine torching meant that it was playing like it was a comet and shooting a tail of fire out it's exhaust, and because all of the gasoline for the flight is stored in that same same wing with the torching engine, the whole event was just a wee bit unnerving. B-24 engines would torch frequently, but I remember the worst torching incident happening after dark when we were on a night Navigation mission. The engine was not only torching, but orange flickering flames were licking their way across the very wing in which all of that gasoline was stored. The tail gunner and I both had our parachutes on, and we were standing beside the bomb bay in case there was an evacuation in our future. He was praying, and I was trying to remember how to. How did the pilots put out the torching engines, you might well ask? They did it by blowing out the fire, which meant revving the engine up to its maximum capacity in hopes the ensuing wind would blow out the fire before it ignited the wing tanks. Fortunately on that night blowing out the fire worked, allowing me to keep my parachute jumping record at Zero!

In the town of Tonopah virtually every third establishment was a gambling joint. There was one three day period while I was there when a blizzard prevented all means of transportation into or out of the town. As a result the Friday night base payroll would not be able to be met. You might not believe this, but when it became evident that the army's payroll wasn't going to be able to be met the town's gaming establishments all got together and put up the entire payroll for the base. They weren't exactly being patriotic, they did it so that the men could come into town that night and lose a great deal of their pay back to their benefactors. Ain't free enterprise great?

The war with Japan ended the night we graduated from crew training. We were given a delay in route on the way to where else, the east coast for deployment to Europe? The war in Europe had ended months earlier, but there's army logic for you. I spent VJ night in Las Vegas, Nevada, waiting up all night to catch a morning flight to Houston. I could not buy my ticket in advance, so I had to spend that entire night surrounded by crap tables and slot machines, all crying out loudly for my flight money. I gingerly fed a slot machine here and there, and went to an all night movie theater to kill a few hours. And when the next morning finally came around I made it safely to the Las Vegas airport and I was only a few dollars short for my ticket, but luckily they had a fund to help GI's pay for tickets home when they were short of money. They are realists in Las Vegas.

After my delay in route I took a bus to Greensboro, N. C. for the ORD (Overseas Replacement Depot) which was to send us to Europe. When you came into the town of Greensboro your duffle bags were confiscated by the Air Corps base, no matter what branch of the military you were in. Every duffle bag, whether it be soldier, sailor, marine, or air force, it mattered not, wound up at the base. It was government thievery pure and simple. To reclaim your gear you had to go out to the base and look through moutains of duffles. Well to make a long story interminable my bags were nowhere to be found, and I had to get all new issue, and at that point the army was winding down, and all they had in the way of clothes were terrible fits.

I was skinny, I went into the army weighing 118 and came out weighing 128. The waists on the clothes I was issued were huge, they were for soldiers much fatter than I. I wore them anyway though, and repeatedly got stopped by officers who asked me where I had gotten my uniforms. I explained how my bags had been confiscated when I had arrived in town, and had been subsequently lost, and these clothes I was wearing were what I had been issued. They asked me why I hadn't gotten them altered, and I told them I couldn't afford it on my private's pay. They tsked, tsked, but not a one offered any government assistance in the costs of alteration. Once we had gotten to the base the army figured out our points and decided we had too many of them to be dispatched to Europe. So they made us what was called permanent party in Greensboro.

Free enterprise lives on even in the oppressive throes of the USAAC. Greensboro was an Overseas Replacement Depot, the men there were restricted to quarters at night, they weren’t given passes to town. A buddy and I went into town, bought much bread, mayonese, mustard, lettuce, lunchmeat and cheese, and we made sandwiches which we went through the barracks selling to the men who were restricted to their barracks. It was quite a little business, the men appreciated our freshly made sandwiches. We weren’t the only permanent party doing this however, and the PX ended up complaining to the MP’s that some soldiers were free lancing and ruining their business (our sandwiches were freshly made and consequently a lot better than those dry, stale ones the PX sold), and so one night, catching sight of roving bands of M.P.’s we decided to bring our little bit of free enterprise to a screeching halt.

Several months later after a furlough and another trip home, the army added up my points again and decided to give me an honorable discharge. They sent a whole train load of us dischargees back to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. Our troop train had an overnight layover in New Orleans. We were allowed to go out on leave for the night, and for what was probably the first time in history of the army, not one soldier missed getting back to that train on time the next morning. They staggered back in all stages of inebriation, many in the company of their connubial partners of the night, but come back they all did. Not a single one missed that discharge train.

I was discharged from the A.A.C. on August 11, 1946. I had served 1 year, 10 months and 21 days. My service number had been 18228386, a number which I remember to this day. However my story has two postscripts. I would have you know that 10 years later, in 1956, an army vehicle pulled up in front of 1608 Haver St. in Houston, TX, and a young soldier brought two mostly empty duffle bags to the front door. Every bit of the GI issue had been removed, not one sock or pair of olive drab boxer shorts remained therein, all that was left were a few musty possessions of long ago, an electric razor, a long dried out fountain pen, a box of yellowed stationary, and what not. I have often wondered how much money had gone into tracking me down 10 years later so that the army could return those few mostly worthless personal effects. And gee, wasn't that a super idea in the first place, confiscating all of that G.I. luggage?

There is a second ending to my story. In 2003 I was diagnosed as having Chronic Myeloid Lukemia. There is one drug for this, Gleevec, which costs $3,000 a month. My youngest son, Joel, who is taking his residency as a doctor, got me to enroll in the VA. When the clerk accessed the VA computer, there I was. This was all true. I really had been in the Army Air Corps just like I had said. And I was eligible for health care via the Veteran's Administration. As part of their treatment the VA oncologist did another bone marrow scan and found that I had been misdiagnosed the first time around, and that I did NOT have lukemia. I never found out whether the VA would have paid for that $3,000 a month medication, but I strongly suspect that it would not have. But it is nice to know that at 81 years of age I now have only two conditions to worry about, type 2 diabetes and osteoporosis. With just a touch of Acid Reflux on the side.

When I stop and think back on it, there is nothing quite like the army. We had a saying, there was a right way, a wrong way, and the army way. And SNAFU stands for Situation Normal, all Fucked Up. And it always was. Every day and in every way. The book "Catch-22" by Joseph Heller, published in 1961, sums up life in the Army Air Corps in Europe during World War II more lucidly than any other account I have read. In my mind Catch 22 should be required reading for all, and from all I can gather from the current news media things haven't changed an awful lot, military wise. Read the book. It's an education. Never before has so much truth been written so lucidly. It ought to be taught in the schools. Having it compulsive reading in our High Schools might even save our country from future disasters like Vietnam and Iraq. Peace in the world, or the world in pieces, that’s my motto.

The Real Little Eddy

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