Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Chapter 17

            On the 15th of March [1941], I lined up with about 30 other complete strangers to take the oath and we were little tin soldiers.

Vern's ROTC Picture, 1941
          The new cadets came from all three Utah Universities. Some of them were college grads, some were big name athletes and some were younger kids from the country like me, or from the city. We all received orders to leave on the train the next day for Santa Maria, California—Hancock Field—where we would begin pilot training. We traveled across Utah and Nevada during the day, but I had seen the desert before. We slept through the Sierras and San Francisco and were traveling down the coast when daylight came. It was, of course, the first time I had seen California and there is no place so beautiful and green as California in the early spring. Everything was lush green, except for the flowers and they were a symphony of colors. Unbelievable to an old desert rat.

            When we arrived at Santa Maria we were greeted by a large gray covered truck which was to transport us to the field. Only the truck was already about loaded with cadets just arriving from Texas. We were all crowded on the truck and started for the field. As we rolled along, I was talking to a cadet from Utah I had gotten acquainted with, when from the front of the truck, this Texan proclaimed in a loud, loud voice: “Where’s that damn Yankee? I’m going to whip his ***!” Of course, this added tension to the excitement. When we reached the field and piled out, I kept my eye on him, just in case, and he turned out to be very small, 5 foot 6” and about a hundred and twenty pounds. He made no attempt to carry out his threat. We were all lined up and welcomed in and assigned barracks. The barracks were half full of upper-classmen desiring to make life miserable for new cadets and consequently to teach us military discipline. The training was to start immediately. We were issued bedding and told to make our beds. In the next few minutes, I learned to make a bed you could bounce a quarter off from. Each new cadet had a watch dog who made it his business to see that we learned everything to perfection.

            The field was a beautiful place. All the buildings were white stucco with red tile roofs. There were ample lawns and beautiful flowers everywhere in the living area. On the easy side of the living area, along the ramp was the mess hall and the headquarters. Each was flanked by a row of hangers. The aircraft were parked on the ramp in front of the hangars and the ramp area in front of headquarters and the mess hall were reserved for drill and walking.

            Our military education began formally the next morning and continued for the most part of two days the same way all military careers have begun since they began: March, March, March, March, 1, 2, 3, 4. All underclassmen were required to march to classes or to meals or to the flight line even though they were all within a block or two, but marching we learned.

            The mess hall was a very pleasant surprise. I had heard so much bad about military mess halls I couldn’t believe ours. It was immaculately clean, the food was excellent with all the milk and ice cream we could eat every meal. Of course, there were always upperclassmen to spoil life’s little pleasures. We soon learned to eat a slow roll or a loop and to ask for and pass food properly and all the other little games generations of military students have devised to keep new recruits in line.
            Flying actually started the following Monday morning. We all donned flight suits and helmets and marched very properly out to our assigned hangar. From which we flew each morning one week and each afternoon alternate weeks alternating with one flight of the upperclassmen. We were each assigned to an instructor along with four other cadets alphabetically. In my group were two people with a lot of flying time and another with a private license and me. I had never been in an airplane before. Because I was first alphabetically, I was chosen first to fly.

            We talked on the way to the plane after drawing and fitting parachutes. He explained this is a stick and that is the throttle and here is the switch and we were off. As soon as we were at a safe altitude, he turned the aircraft over to me and we started flying.

            I had been assigned to an instructor, a young man not much older than myself named Larry Shapiro. He was a good-looking fly-guy. He talked me through the gausport and talked me down almost to the ground before he took over and landed. That afternoon, I went to my first ground school on being a pilot. All went well for three or four days until we started working on landings. Then the instructor wasn’t happy at all. He talked to me seriously after each of two flights and I knew I had drawn pink slips. Three and your out. On the next day we went back upstairs and things went better. After a half hour, he said, “Let’s go down to that auxiliary field and have a smoke. So he let me land the plane completely by myself and we parked by the wind tie. I waited for the ax to fall. He waited a minute and asked, “Didn’t you bring your cigarettes?” I informed him I didn’t smoke. He stated, “Neither do I.” He then said, “I think I can make a pilot out of you yet.” I began breathing again. “Your trouble is you are ground shy, so we are going to get you over being ground shy.” After some more small talk, we got back into the bird and took off. He directed me to fly down to 50 feet over a river on the edge of the flying area and fly up and down the river making turns to stay right over the stream and I went on my first buzz job. After a few days of buzzing and practicing landings, I soloed. Once you solo, you have a 50-50 chance of making it. So I was half way.

            After a few more days of buzzing and aerobatic work, he told me one day, we had been reported for a violation of flying too low over the river. In about two more days, he wasn’t at the flight room when we reported. There was a notice that the other three of Mr. Shapiro’s students reassigned to various other instructors, but nothing on me. My heart sank again as I learned Larry had been fired for buzzing to “make a pilot of you, yet.” He sacrificed his job for me. I sat about the flight room waiting again for the axe to fall and in about 30 minutes, Mr. Ed DeRosa, the wing commander came into the room and walked over to where I was sitting. I popped to and waited. He simply said, “Get your parachute. I’m going to teach you to fly.”

            Ed DeRosa was internationally known as one of the best of the old barnstormers and had won stacks of awards for stunt flying competitions. I was to be his only student.

            After that I had no trouble. All of the check pilots were very flattering in discussions after all my check rides and I progressed very nicely. As long as Ed was my my instructor, I don’t think I ever got a 1000 feet high again. One of the greatest lessons I received concerning flying came from Ed. “If you’re buzzing along and you come to a telephone line and there’s any question of whether to fly under or over it, always fly under. Then you won’t fly through it while you are making up your mind.” In other words, plan your reactions before the emergency exists.

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