- Historic Sites
An Airman’s Sketchbook
December 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 8
On April 6,1942, I joined the 40th Squadron of the newly formed 35th Fighter Group then being assembled at Bankstown, New South Wales, Australia, a suburb of Sydney. The 40th was flying training missions in P-39s, for which I for one was duly thankful, since I had only four hours of flying time in the plane we were expecting to fly in combat and I had never fired the guns.
From Bankstown we were soon sent to Townsville, Queensland, on the northeast coast of Australia. We traveled by train, which at one point had to back up for fifty miles because another train was coming from the north on the same track and we were nearest the only place where there was a parallel track to allow it to pass.
At Townsville we were driven out to a landing strip called Antil Plains that had been constructed in the bush by bulldozing down the gray, clay termite hills that stood like so many tombstones in the scrub grass. There we set up tents for our camp and started training in earnest, flying formation, doing some ground gunnery, and dropping a few practice bombs on a rock offshore in the Coral Sea.
When we had been at Antil Plains only ten days, I awoke one morning with chills, fever, and a monstrous headache. Another pilot, Wally Schroeder, and I were taken to the American hospital that had been set up in a row of private houses built on stilts for ventilation and joined together by wooden ramps. There we were examined, and an American doctor who had spent time on maneuvers in Louisiana told us that he thought we had contracted malaria. The Australian doctors acknowledged that there were malarial mosquitoes, but only on the coast. Later we learned the disease-bearing bugs had come in from New Guinea in the transport planes that made regular runs.
So Wally and I, achy and generally debilitated, were confined to the hospital and put on a regimen of quinine pills that made our ears ring. While there we made the acquaintance of the Australian nurses and even managed to date some of them. Motor-pool transportation was scarce, especially for private social use, so in order to get transportation for a picnic, we rented a horse and buggy to take our nurse friends to the excellent beach at Townsville. All went well until it was time to go home. After we had delivered the nurses to their quarters, we were hurrying to return the rented equipment when the horse ran off, the buggy hit a bump in the road, and I was thrown out and my left arm broken.
At the hospital it was first assumed that I had been in an aircraft accident; when the truth became known, it was treated as a great joke. But unfortunately my arm had a compound T fracture of the humerus split down into the elbow joint. Trussed up in a wire Thomas arm splint with a Kirschner wire keeping my elbow in traction, I was loaded onto a train with other patients and shipped back down the coast to a suburb of Brisbane, where an American hospital had been set up in a former boys’ school at Indooroopilly.
Many weeks later, when I was discharged from the hospital, my arm was so wasted I could close my thumb and fingers around my bicep and the elbow joint was almost frozen at a right angle. I was given a volleyball bladder to squeeze to restore my left hand and spent hours in the nurses’ recreation room at the piano practicing boogie-woogie; its repetitive bass beat proved to be very useful physiotherapy. I also had daily exercise sessions with a two-hundred-pound physiotherapist nurse, aptly named Miss Hand, who arm-wrestled me and lent me her copies of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past.
While at Indooroopilly I made several sketches of things around us and continued doing so when I rejoined my squadron. I had spent my college years and four more at Cooper Union in New York City studying art and had brought some sketching supplies with me. The illustrations that accompany this article were made in situ at Antil Plains, Indooroopilly, and later in and around Port Moresby, New Guinea, where the 35th Group went into combat.
In the squadron I was something of an anomaly; no one took my off-duty pastime very seriously. “There goes Pierce with his paint box” was the general attitude of my fellow pilots, who had other occupations for their time off: poker; bridge; a game of battleship played on mimeographed squares furnished by the Special Services officer; Monopoly, played on a strange English board with Bond Street, Fleet Street, Park Lane, Piccadilly, and other British nomenclature printed on it.