When I Landed The War Was Over

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The Army instructors at Sill were a lot tougher than the civilians at Fort Hays. The Army instructors had a terrifying habit of chopping the throttle back just as you lifted the airplane off the ground and then pounding on your shoulder and yelling, “Where you gonna put it? Where you gonna put it?” The answer was, in deeds, not words, straight ahead, even if straight ahead was a tree line. Attempting a turn at low altitude and low speed was wrong, wrong, wrong , and by God, don’t you forget it. On these exercises the instructors would jam open the throttle again just as disaster loomed, and snarl, “All right, take it on up. ” You got to hate people like that, but of course they were right. The Army, I gradually learned, was always right.

Not all of us at Fort Sill could get it right. Much of the training involved taking off and landing over “obstacles,” which required a certain judgment of height and distance. The obstacles were two upright bamboo poles with a rope tied between them, rags fluttering from the rope, and many a time one saw L-4s staggering through the air, trailing poles, ropes, and rags from the tail wheel. That meant the student had misjudged his take-off: those who misjudged their approach and landing were often saved by two haystacks, one on each side of the obstacle. If the airplane stalled out as the student was trying to slow it down as much as possible, the L-4 fell off on one wing and flopped into the haystack. Since the stalling speed was about thirty-five miles per hour, this was usually not fatal, although it put the instructors into a terrible temper, and people who fell into the haystacks were washed out and sent elsewhere, never to be heard from again. Some 20 per cent went that way, as I recall.

Others went the hard way. The Army did not make it a point to tell us about fatal crashes, and with some two hundred pilots in training it was hard to keep up with everybody, but young men died often enough in those harmless-looking little airplanes, without ever seeing a German or a Japanese. I was sitting in the waiting room of the base hospital one day, waiting to be treated for some minor medical problem, when I noticed a terrible odor. I asked the orderly what it was, and he said the lab was boiling the brain of a student who’d been killed that morning, to see if there was any alcohol in his system. Rumor had it that if you were killed with a hangover, your insurance was canceled. Since we were restricted to the post all during the week, this was rarely a problem.

On the weekends a lot of us did overdo it in the fleshpots of Lawton, Oklahoma, which has been catering to soldiers since before Custer and the 7th Cavalry were stationed at Sill. We even sang songs, just like soldiers in the movies. There was a song about us, to the tune of the “Artillery Song,” the one where those caissons go rolling along, and so on, only our song went something like this: “Over trees, under wires, to hell with landing gear and tires, we’re the eyes of the artillereeee. We don’t mind the mud and sand, we don’t need much room to land, we’re the eyes of … et cetera. ”

Those of us who survived the Short Field Course were finally graduated, complete with a ceremony in which wings were pinned on our chests: it was pretty much the way Hollywood had told us it would be, except that we had to sign for the wings, as Government Issue property. That was a letdown, but before I had a chance to brood about it, I was assigned to the 93rd Armored Field Artillery Battalion, no longer a learner but a professional, or so the Army hoped, anyway.

Two pilots were assigned to each artillery battalion, but the other fellow gave me so much trouble I’m going to leave his name out of this. Anyway, the 93rd did not know what to make of two Piper Cub pilots, two airplanes, and a mechanic. The officers of the 93rd thought that L-4s were “vehicles,” with the accent on the first syllable, and while we remained at Fort Sill they were forever after us to grease our uehicles. Since we were only staff sergeants, we would look busy, but you don’t really grease an airplane; you don’t even wash it very often. Still, the 93rd believed in washing all üehicles, including Sherman tanks, so we washed the L-4s. That did not end our stateside misunderstandings with the 93rd Battalion, however. As pilots, we were issued aviator’s sunglasses and leather flying jackets, and the 93rd didn’t like that. The sunglasses were invaluable when you were called into the battery commander’s hut to be reamed over some infraction or other, such as not wearing your leggins (and the word was leggins , not leggings ). You stood there at attention in those dark glasses, your eyes roaming all over the room, avoiding the stern glare of the C.O. with no trouble whatever, and there wasn’t a damn thing he could do about it: the glasses were, after all, Government Issue: G.I.