Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Chapter 26

In due time Britt was old enough and Sybil well enough to travel so we started to get our family back together again. Sybil and the baby were to leave Merced on the airlines, change planes in Los Angeles, and fly to Albuquerque. I was to drive to Albuquerque to meet her. The plane was scheduled to arrive in the middle of the night so I, after arriving in Albuquerque, got a room in the Franciscan Hotel and after dinner, went to the room to await Sybil. About 10 p.m. the phone rang, “This is Transworld Airlines calling for Mr. Vern Bryson. Your wife has been ‘bumped’ off the flight in Los Angles.” During those war years, official travelers had priority over civilians and she had been put off the flight. However, the Airlines had quartered her in of the patio cottages at the Ambassador Hotel in L.A., at their expense. The airlines had called every hotel in Albuquerque until they located me. Then they connected me there on the telephone so I could talk to her. It would take several days for them to get another reservation, so I had to leave the car with our friends, Jim and Nadine Burton, for her when she arrived in Albuquerque and I took the bus back to Roswell. Sybil finally arrived a couple of days later with the baby all in good shape and we were happy again.

Since we were only family with a house, our house became the social oasis for all our friends. We bought a big radio-phonograph, so we had music and the others would bring records and enjoy our house with us. One friend practically lived with our phonograph and we had records around for years that he had brought and left at our house.

There wasn’t much social life in Roswell. There seemed to be only 2 things to do: go hunting, or go swimming, and both offered pretty good facilities for each. The swimming lake, located 7 or 8 miles east of town, was a hot spring. The water smelled slightly of sulfur, but if you ignored that, the water was just a nice temperature and with gas shortages and rationing, there weren’t many people there, so we would often pool rides and go swimming.

Roswell is fairly flat, slightly rolling country with miles and miles of Lincoln County cow country. It had lots of huge ranches infested with squirrels, rabbits, and coyotes, which the ranchers were glad to have killed. This gave us lots of hunting opportunities.

One day I was in the local hardware store trying to buy shells for my guns, but when I asked the clerk, he said they were out of shells. A middle-aged Spanish man was there buying something from another clerk and he said to sell me some of his supply. Without a by your leave the clerk went and got just the shells I had ordered. The gentleman asked what we were hunting and invited me up to his ranch to hunt and gave me directions to his ranch up near Readoss. While I was finishing up my purchase, he left, and I asked who he was. It turned out that he was one of the biggest, richest ranchers in the State and if he said to sell me shells, I got shells. I wish I had had time to go to the ranch hunting, but it didn’t happen.

About this time each of the people who had volunteered for the P-38 squadrons received a personal letter from General Barlon K. Yount, commander of the Air Corps training command apologizing to us for a snafu in our assignments. It seemed 80 brand new lieutenants out of Yuma Adriance Flying School had been assigned to command our squadrons. The 80 of us senior officers had been sent to fly bombardiers where they should have been sent. It stated that a personnel clerk had reversed the two lists of officers and it cost each of us our assignment for which we had volunteered. The letter concluded  that threw would be no more fighter squadrons formed and we could either volunteer for some new B-24 or B-17 Bomb groups that were being formed. I chose B-24 because of the bad reputation the B-17s stationed at Roswell. I soon received orders to report to Kirtland Field, Albuquerque, New Mexico for B-24 transition training.

           With a new baby and the big radio and all we had accumulated, we had too much stuff to crowd into our little old Chevy. So, before leaving Roswell, we purchased a sturdy little 4’ x 6’ x 2’ high, two-wheeled trailer. Into that, we stuffed the radio, crib, etc. And with a flat plate of plywood to form a crib for the baby in the back seat of the car, we took off for the trip to Albuquerque. We arrived Friday in September 1943, found a nice motel on the west side of town, when to Church Sunday, and prepared to report to Kirtland Monday.

Our transition school was mostly ground school and PT. I think in the next month, I flew about 3 or 4 times with an instructor pilot and in conjunction with 7 other guys had a B-24 solo. In other words, we soloed each of us shooting one landing from the left seat and then flying co-pilot in the right seat for someone else’s one-pilot landing. I think I ran more miles than I flew. When we weren’t flying, we were in ground school which included P.T. One month and we were declared B-24 pilots and reassigned to Boise, Idaho.

Since Utah was halfway between Albuquerque and Boise, it permitted a weekend at home before we reached Gowen Field. The trip was memorable for only two things. One, the folks had sold the ranch and retired to a home in Payson and two, Sybil saw her first snow storm. She had seen snow before and had even skied, but her acquaintance was a warm sunny day’s trip to the mountains and return. She was fascinated by the snow. She was out running in the yard, trying to catch snowflakes as they fell, having the time of her life. Little did she dream how that white stuff would challenge her before the year was over.

After a weekend home, we travelled on to Boise. We found a motel with a kitchenette and prepared to enter first phase crew training. This command was 2nd Air Force, a part of the Strategic Air Command. They did things a little different here. We flew a lot more, went to school a little, and were expected to keep in physical shape as we went.

The first day we were assigned to a flight squadron and as soon as we reported, we were assigned to an instructor. Within one day, we were checked out and soloed. The next day I was assigned a co-pilot and a crew number, 44. My co-pilot was named Florian E. George, a smallish fellow several years older, but less experienced in flying than I. George ad been a first pilot in a previous class, but didn’t complete the class and was reassigned as my right seat arm. After a couple of flights, he seemed content to build a good, solid, well-trained crew and thus increased both of our chances of survival.

We flew at least three times a week, but had plenty of time to spare during the days. However, we worked seven days a week.

On several of our first flights, we were assigned a flight engineer named Harris. He was an instructor engineer at the school but had not yet received any students, this class. He up and volunteered to be our crew engineer and I was pleased to accept him. He was a real sharp mechanic and knew the B-24 from long experience.

The next project was to a get a bombardier because a good deal of our training was bombing. Because I was an older pilot in experience and had been around the Air Force some, I found a friend in the crew assignment section who gave me an opportunity to select my own crew members. In going through the bombardiers available, I came across a senior Second Lieutenant who had been an instructor in one of the Air Force bombardier schools. A flight or two proved him to be an excellent bomb dropper and he was pleased to find an experienced pilot who new how to work with a bombardier. We very quickly developed into a very accurate bombing team.

His name was Bob Catlin. He was from Cleveland, Ohio, where his father owned a couple of factories and had had too much money for Bob’s good. He was a fun guy to be around, but was irresponsible in his love life. He was engaged to a girl from Cleveland, married to and living with a girl from New Mexico and found a new love life in every station, all of whom he was madly in love with.

The next addition to our team was a friend of Sgt. Harris who was a radio operator. His name was Ball and he had been an instructor radio operator of the field. Because Harris had talked of our crew, Ball decided to join us.

The four gunners were assigned without my choice, but I couldn’t have done better if I had picked them all. Bill Beggs was the nose gunner. He was a 6 foot 2, 220 pounds ex-footballer from Santa Clara University, college graduate and an outstanding man. His one idiosyncrasy was sleeping. When he went to sleep, he wouldn’t wake up on anyone’s schedule but his own. If someone tried waking him, he would come up swinging and with 220 pounds behind him that was trouble. Many a time I had to wake him up because of the rest of the crew couldn’t or didn’t dare try.

Begg’s buddy, who had been with him since they enlisted together in Los Angeles, was Allen Corbin. He was about as big as Beggs, but not as good looking, or as aggressive.

            O’Brien and O’Niel were friends from back East who had been together since civilian days. Here again, O’Brien was good looking, aggressive and a good athlete, while O’Niel was quiet and refined, but a good man too. They were all four big men, athletic, and capable, but none of them would fit into the ball (belly) turret of the ship.  We made some adjustments and Ball became the ball turret gunner, O’Brien in the top turret, O’Niel in the tail turret, Beggs in the nose turret and Corbin and Harris at the waist guns.

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