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2014, Aaron Elson


Love Company

By John M. Khoury

online edition

2014 John M. Khoury

Chapter 4

Air Corps Basic Training

    The Air Corps was a vacation after the Armored Force. I had a second basic training at the Gulfport Air Base, Gulfport, Mississippi, where there were no bivouacs, maneuvers, obstacle courses, or long marches, though the rain came down in torrents almost every day. Short five mile hikes and calisthenics were the most strenuous workouts we had. The weapons on which I had to qualify were a Colt .45 caliber pistol and the .30 caliber M1 carbine which I had previously learned to service and fire. The most difficult part was the week of rigorous physical and mental tests I had to take at nearby Keesler Field, but I was passed for training as navigator and bombardier. I probably did not make a passing grade for pilot because of my depth perception and weak vision.

    It was Christmas 1943 and on the Gulf Coast there were busloads of soldiers and airmen from many outfits streaming into New Orleans. At the local USO club, there was a sort of hospitality desk where civilians could offer to entertain servicemen at their homes. Most of them offered a family dinner because they had someone in the service and wanted to have a replacement join them. I was with two other airmen and we asked if there were any invitations for three servicemen. "Yes. We have a request for two tall men and one short." We did not fit the bill because we were of the opposite assortment: one tall and two short. I sometimes wonder what we had missed. Nevertheless, we went on to visit the famous French Quarter where the streets, bars and night clubs were packed with servicemen. There was a non-stop party every place we went.

    After a dinner at one of the famous restaurants on Bourbon Street, we dutifully returned to the base with the sound of New Orleans jazz echoing in our heads.

    In January 1944, there were many thousands of air cadets waiting to start training and the Army Air Corps lacked adequate facilities. I was among a group sent to Mission Air Field in Mission, Texas, to work as ground crews until we could start our training. Fighter pilots received their final training there. They had to fly solo in a P40 fighter plane as their final qualification. This plane was used by General Claire Chennault's "Flying Tigers" group in China. It had a very long engine in front of the cockpit, which was situated toward the rear edge of the low-slung wing. The landing gear consisted of two wheels under the wing and a wheel on the tail. Landing this plane was very difficult because the pilot had to judge the distance to the ground by looking between the fuselage and the wing from his seat, where the angle was more forward than downward. As a result, many of the novice pilots bounced the P40 fighter plane like a rubber ball before they were able to roll it down the runway to a stop. When the cadet pilots made that solo flight, they graduated to second lieutenants and received their wings.

    The advanced fighter training plane was North American Aviation's AT6, which the Japanese copied for their famed Zero fighter. I learned to ground service the AT6 training plane. I would start the engine by priming it, turning on the magneto, and adjusting the throttle when it had ignition. It was good fun to have that engine roar while you were in the pilot's seat and let it warm up so that it was ready for takeoff. There were rows of these planes wingtip to wingtip being serviced with gasoline and started.

    One day another cadet who was warming up an AT6 plane forgot to check to see that the wheel chocks were in place. He revved up the engine and the plane rolled forward. His propeller totally destroyed the tail section of the plane in front of him. He was probably just 18 and did not even have a license to drive a car. Shortly after that incident, we were ready for another assignment. Orders came in for us to move on for training as airmen.

    My group boarded a troop train from Mission Air Field, in the depths of the Rio Grande Valley, and headed northward. The train took two days to pass through Texas because of so many stops along the way. I was in a coach passenger car, where I tried to sleep during the night crunched up in my seat. To get a better night's sleep, I copied another soldier and climbed up into the overhead baggage rack where there was more leg room. It was not too uncomfortable.

    I finally arrived at the "College Training Detachment" unit at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio, where all cadets had to take courses to achieve a college level of proficiency. The Jesuit brothers, who ran the university, were conscientious about teaching the courses and did not emphasize religion or try to convert any of the non-Catholic cadets. The courses were not difficult, and the lay professors were very liberal in their marking of homework. I was happy when a professor told me that my writing was very good, which indicates how easy they marked our assignments. We had formations every morning on the campus, and I was made an acting corporal, which was a promotion from my current rank of Private First Class that I received when I finished basic training at Fort Knox. When several hundred of us would jog around the city streets in sweatpants and T-shirts, the girls would come out to watch and shout at us. It was a little embarrassing, but all the guys enjoyed the attention. Cincinnati was a great town for young men because we were outnumbered by women who were not shy about approaching a soldier. This was complete role reversal at that time because it was customary for the boy to approach the girl. But most boys got used to it.

    Then it was also impossible to buy more than one drink at a bar because civilians would immediately tell the bartender to give us another drink. Sometimes several drinks would be set up at one time. After one or two drinks we would have to leave because we could not possibly accept all the drinks offered. This was Cincinnati in 1944. It was also a time of euphoric optimism. Although it was wartime on a mighty scale, the average American had just lived through a devastating economic depression that sapped his feeling of self-worth. He did not see a future for himself in his work and or in having a family. Not many young men or women could afford to attend college, and if they did, the opportunities were very limited upon graduation. Now, the people had a grand purpose in life: to fight for America and show the world how great a people we are. Patriotism was the word, but it hardly described their enthusiasm.

    About the middle of March, the program for air cadets came to an abrupt halt when orders came in that they were no longer needed. Instead, ground units had to be strengthened with more soldiers, and we were to be assigned to ground forces. The cadets on the campus were in a state of deep depression. The life at the college was a lark. The training was fun. The city was a huge party for the cadets, who were the darlings of the town. Nevertheless, there were still military procedures to be carried out. We still had to do guard duty and carry a sidearm at night. It was one hour of duty and two hours off all night long. I was assigned a tour of guard duty just before the end of March. I had been out on the town and reported for duty at 2000 (8 p.m.). I had had a few drinks, but I was quite sober.

    As I marched along, on my post, I passed the windows of the dormitory rooms where there were parties of cadets getting very drunk. When I came to an open window, I looked in and was immediately offered a beer. I thought for a minute that I should refuse, but this was a farewell party so I did have the beer. I had several more beers, and I reeled along on my post. When my relief came on to take over my guard post, I barely remember exchanging orders. Instead of going through the door of the building, I climbed through an open window and joined the drunken cadets. When I had to return for my second hour of guard duty I was sprawled out on a bench completely out. According to the Army code of conduct, I could have been court-martialed and shot for dereliction of duty while on guard duty. The only thing that happened was that I was no longer an Air Cadet and no longer an acting corporal. I was just one of about 100,000 airmen who were shipped out of the Army Air Corps on 1 April 1944. Most of us went to infantry divisions.

Contents                       Chapter 5

(If you would like to order an autographed copy of "Love Company," please contact the author, John M. Khoury)