Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Chapter 29

Early the next morning we were off and flying on our way to South America proper. We landed in Belem, Brazil, near the mouth of the mighty Amazon River and very near the equator. In March the sun is directly overhead, which made it hot and humid. The jungle was everywhere that man did not fight to keep clear, and of course, a point of intrigue to all us North American kids. After a few questions to the permanent part, we told that there was a good stream which was only a couple of hundred feet from the road. We followed a path through the jungle to the stream and you couldn’t believe the beauty of the stream. It was perhaps 10-15 feet wide and generally only a couple of feet deep as it tumbled over moss covered snow-white rocks, forming deep pools big enough for a us all to swim in. Then the water would tumble over some more rocks, thick with moss. We soon found we could slide down the rocky falls from one pool to another like a group of otters. There were flowers of all colors along the banks and in the trees, and everywhere was this dark green moss. It was beautiful and we were having a ball swimming across the pools and sliding down the slippery cascades. As we reached on cascade, we heard girls giggling. Some of us stopped to see what was going on but some of the fellows didn’t hear the laughter and went head first down the cascade into the next pool where a group of older men and a couple of girls were also swimming. Now we all had bathing suits but they didn’t. We excused ourselves quietly and started walking our way back up the stream to the road. That night as we were having dinner, the base commander and some other officers were having dinner with a couple of Red Cross girls, and sure enough they were our jungle friends.

Again, the next day were off and flying on our way to Fortaleza, Brazil. By this time, I had determined that our fuel consumption wasn’t what it should have been and reported the fact on to maintenance in the Form 1. This stopped our progression for a couple of days while the maintenance officer double checked my conclusions. Then we were off to Natal where they had better maintenance facilities for changing the carburetors on our engines.

While we waited at Fortaleza, we were introduced to pineapples. We again had gone swimming, this time in the Caribbean ocean and to a group of small boys were around hawking ripe pineapples. They were a nickel a piece and when you bought one, the boy would hold it by the tope and lop off the skin on the side of the pineapple with a machete. Then you ate the fruit like an all-day sucker. They were very ripe and very sweet and very good.

The Caribbean Sea has got to be one of the most beautiful bodies of water in the world. It is generally very shallow and the ocean floor is white stone, quite irregular so in flying over the ocean at relatively low altitude, on can see the very pale blue water and the pattern of the white ocean floor all animated by million or even jillion of tropical fish all fighting the law of survival. Many of the fish are sharks of the predatory variety so one has to swim with caution.

Natal is a short flight south-east of Fortaleza along the Brazilian North Coast. Here our aircraft went into repair and a recheck to determine the fuel consumption was now correct. They filled each tank right to the top and then flew for an hour. Upon landing, they refilled the tanks right to the top again to determine the consumption. Sure enough, all four engines were right on. They screwed the gas tank caps on real tight and notified me my plane was ready to fly. This was all early in the morning and that afternoon my crew went out to double check the bird to be sure she was ready to fly the big pond [Atlantic Ocean]. But there she stood, spouting gasoline from every tank. In Brazil, the sun is very hot and that hot sun on the wings of the plane caused the gasoline to expand and rupture every tank so we sat in Natal another week, waiting for maintenance to change a complete set of wing tanks.

Again, we swam a lot but the base was a little farther from the beach and harder to get to and Natal is right at the point where the Caribbean and the Atlantic meet so the swimming was not so good.

The north coast of Brazil is populated by blacks, mostly a cross of native Indians and Negro slaves imported from Africa to work the sugar plantations. Just south of Natal is Recife, a resort town popular to Brazilians. At Recife, black Brazil and white Brazil, to the south, meet in common population.  North of Recife, white or blonde people are rare.

While I was Natal, I ran into an old friend from Moffet Field and from Merced Field, who had married one of my wife’s friends. Most transient crew personnel are not allowed off the various bases as we travel to our combat area, but Capt. Cole obtained a pass to permit him to take me to town for dinner. The night club where he took me was one of the few places were Americans were allowed to eat for sanitary reasons. We did obtain a good steak at fair prices. The feature of this club was a dancer and singer called the “Blonde Brazilian.” She was fair of complexion that most of the natives and with the help of lots of peroxide, managed to be blonde. She could neither sing, nor dance, in my un-humble opinion, but she starred just because she was blonde. One night in town was enough and the rest of the time we spent at the Officers’ club reading, playing ping-pong or pool and listening to a stack of worn records.

The Officers’ club at Natal deserves special recognition because of its collective character. The club took the attitude about being very selective about its associates. It [has been] reported to have begun when Tommy Harmon, the erstwhile football jock tried to be a pilot. He had been washed out of cadets only to be reinstated because some high person in Washington thought it would be bad publicity for anyone as famous as Harmon to be washed out of the Air Corps. This, of course made him a marked man because of political interference. Before we went to South America, he had been flying B-25s in Brazil. He ran into trouble and bailed out of his aircraft. Nothing wrong with that except he left the crew in the plane, which crashed into the jungle and killed all four crew members. A pilot bails out last, after all others are safely gone. Well the Air Corps had found the lost plane in the jungle, identified it as Harmon’s and recovered the bodies of the crew. Later when he came walking out of the jungle and was taken to Natal Airfield, he reported that the crew had all bailed out. As the story goes, when he entered the Officers’ Club, every man got up and walked out of the club.

The custom was then adopted as a standard rule that anyone who brought bad publicity to the Air Force received the treatment. There became a regular rogue’s gallery of persons who had been ostracized at Natal’s club.

After all the delays at Fortaleza and Natal, we were anxious to catch up with our group. As soon as the bird was well, we took off for Africa. As we climbed out and established our assigned altitude, I set up the auto pilot and put the plane on auto pilot (George) and told the co-pilot to take over while I caught a little nap. It was always emotionally exhausting to get everything in order and make the take-off without mishap. After I relaxed, I became very drowsy.

           Off the coast of Brazil was a stationary weather front that had horrendous thunderstorms and we had been warned to avoid them at all costs. The next thing I knew, my big nose gunner was banging me on the side of the head quite excitedly. When I recovered my senses, he was really giving me and the co-pilot what-for. Seems the co-pilot got drowsy too, and with George doing it’s job, flying becomes very dull, so he accidently fell asleep. We had successfully circumnavigated all the storms in the tropical front while sound asleep, much to the anger of one Sergeant Beggs. The rest of the trip to Africa was very peaceful as it had been the first for Lt. George and I, and we landed at Dakar, Senegal, West Africa. It was also hot and sticky and a very uninteresting place to us.

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