During the first two weeks of April, 1942, the war news was pretty bleak.
In Europe, Adolf Hitler was planning a summer offensive against Russia’s oil fields in the Caucasus and a move to seize Stalingrad.
In the Pacific, Japan was gaining control of the Philippines and, on the 9th of April, over 60,000 Filipino and American prisoners of war began a forced relocation that is now known as The Bataan Death March.
At sea, the Japanese Navy sank the Royal Navy cruisers, HMS Cornwall and Dorsetshire, the aircraft carrier, HMS Hermes, and the Royal Australian Navy destroyer, HMAS Vampire.
Maxwell Field, Montgomery, Alabama
On Friday, April 10th, 1942, a Pullman train carrying 20 year old Thomas A. Parks, Jr. and 169 other brand new U.S. Army Air Corps enlistees, left Union Station in Washington D.C. By four o’clock the next afternoon, they were reporting for duty at Maxwell Field in Montgomery, Alabama.
Their transportation orders specified that, “the (Army) Finance Department will pay, in advance, the monetary travel allowance… at the rate of $3.00 per day, for rations for one (1) day“.
A week after arriving in Montgomery, my father closes a letter to his mother with the following postscript about the $3.00 per day travel allowance outlined in those orders:
“There was a mistake about the ration, Aviation Cadets only get a dollar a day. This was issued in cash to pay for 3 meals on a Pullman diner. A fine war.” April 19, 1942
Maxwell Field was home to the Air Corps Replacement Training Center (Aircrew). This is where recruits who wanted to become airmen came to receive their basic military training. It was also where, they would also be assessed to determine which aircraft crew position they were best suited for.
My father was only interested in one position. He wanted to be a pilot.
Three days after the new recruits arrived, Maxwell’s commanding officer, Lt. Colonel, Louis A. Guenther, sent a letter to Private Parks’ mother.
It was a form letter. Every mother got one.
The Gunter Field Detour
At the beginning of 1942, so many Americans were enlisting, the training pipeline was clogged with new recruits.
Basic training for Air Corps cadets was divided into five weeks in a lower class and five weeks in an upper class.
When my father arrived at Maxwell, both the upper and lower classes were full. There was no room at the inn.
Immediately after disembarking the train from Washington, his group was put in trucks, transported to nearby Gunter Field, marched around a bit, and, finally, provided temporary housing… in five man tents.
Until the current upper class at Maxwell graduated and departed for their next training assignment, the recruits from Washington D.C. were stuck camping out at Gunter Field with no official class status.
However, they were in the Army. So, until the pipeline cleared…
Weekdays, reveille was at 5:30am and breakfast at 6:15. After breakfast, it was back to their tents to make their beds and clean their area. At 8:00 they assembled for an hour of calisthenics. At 9:00 they got 30 minutes to shower and change in preparation for an hour of marching before lunch.
Lunch was at 11:00. After eating, they had until 1:00 to rest and study.
At this early stage, their studies covered the military code of conduct, military rules and regulations, and how to recognize a superior officer.
In their first days at Gunter Field, that last item was fairly straight forward. If it’s yelling at you, it’s a superior officer. Now, the recruits were trying to learn the subtle distinctions of military rank and insignia in an effort to refine their identification technique and not get yelled at so much.
The afternoon schedule at Gunter was just a repeat of the morning.
“At one o’clock we go to the athletic fields for so-called games but it usually turns out to be a 3 or 4 mile run… After this workout comes another hour and a half of drill and then supper at 5:00.” April 19, 1942
Because they weren’t officially in a class, the recruit’s ability to move around the base, during what little free time they had, was severely limited.
“After supper we are free but there are so many restrictions and we are so tired anyway everybody goes right to bed” April 19, 1942
On weekends, the Army allowed cadets to sleep in… until 6:30am. After breakfast, they had inspection, all morning. Saturday afternoon and all day Sunday, they were free.
When I say, “they were free“, I mean that, except for meals, which they were required to eat, they were free to stay in and around their tents. All day.
Maxwell Field – “Nobody Knows from Nothing”
On the 22nd of April, 11 days after arriving in Alabama, the D.C. group was moved from five man tents at Gunter to six man tents at Maxwell.
They weren’t particularly encouraged by the move because the next day Private Parks wrote his mother:
“Nobody knows what we’ll do here or whether we’ll stay or not. There are several groups ahead of us waiting to get into the lower class and even after you become a lower classman the training period here is ten weeks. Might be a month or more before we get started on that. But as I have said nobody knows from nothing.” April 23, 1942
A lack of knowledge about what a military organization has planned for the men and women serving in that organization is a very common occurrence and frequent subject of complaint.
In his letters home, Cadet Parks often writes about how little information he and his comrades were getting. For example: He didn’t know what was going to happen in Alabama until he got there. A week after he arrived, he wrote his parents:
“There is no flying at Maxwell. All military training.” April 19, 1942
That must have been a rude awakening for a bunch of young men eager to fly.
On May 10th, he writes his mother that he expected to graduate about the first of July. He wouldn’t actually graduate until around the first of August. Proof, once again, a soldier’s expectations rarely match what eventually occurs.
There are many letters in which my father eagerly anticipates an open post (a chance to go into town) that doesn’t materialize.
“…we didn’t get our open post yesterday and are expecting one tomorrow afternoon from 1 P.M. to 12 midnight.” April 26, 1942
He doesn’t even get this letter finished before those expectations are modified, as he explains in a postscript:
“Just got notice that we would have open post but only about 3 hours.”
Anyone who has been in the military, from the Spartans in ancient Greece to the men and women currently serving in America’s armed forces, would recognize my father’s, “Nobody knows from nothing“, assessment of his situation.
Entering the Lower Class
On May 3rd, after 11 additional days of running and marching and calisthenics at Maxwell, Pvt. Parks and his group officially became lower classmen.
Being lower classmen meant they got to move out of tents and into actual barracks. It also meant that they were subject to hazing by upperclassmen.
“We were moved into the lower class Sunday and we’ve been getting ‘hell’ ever since. The upperclassmen really ride us every minute of the day right until time to go to bed.” May 6, 1942
And there were some adjustments in their day to day schedule:
“We have to get up at five o’clock to shave and wash since there are six of us to use two basins. The room has to be scrubbed and dusted spotless for inspection every morning. We have to be in formation for reveille by 5:50. At 6:20 we go to breakfast then back at 7:30 to go to classes by 7:45.” May 17, 1942
The classes they were now taking included math, aircraft identification, Morse code, and basic military tactics.
However, classes only took up half a day.
“After lunch we have drill and calisthenics (already worn out a pair of shoes, we average about 15 miles walking and 3 running in calisthenics every day) and then 3 days a week the cadet corps has a dress parade and one on Sunday.” May 17, 1942
Study, Eat, Exercise, Sleep… Repeat
In Lt. Col. Guenther’s letter to the parents of the cadets under his command, he describes the training at Maxwell as featuring, “… a very carefully planned diet, wholesome exercises, and regular hours of sleep.”
We’ve already seen what Colonel Guenther’s idea of “wholesome exercises” consisted of. Here’s how Cadet Parks summed up the Colonel’s “carefully planned diet“.
“The food in the mess hall… must be the worst in the whole Army.” May 17, 1942
Parks quickly reassures his mother, telling her not to worry because, even though the food was awful, there was plenty of it.
As for the “regular hours of sleep” the Colonel tells parents their sons would be getting…
“The biggest complaint now is lack of sleep…” May 17, 1942
“Time is what we have the least of, even sleeping time. Six or seven hours a night just isn’t enough with all the exercise we have.” May 27, 1942
“I have a free hour every day usually spent in sleeping which we all do inadvertently in class.” June 15, 1942
My father’s military training would last another twelve months. For the next year, a good night’s sleep would be hard to come by.
On May 28th or 29th, 1942 Pvt. Parks and the cadets he arrived with, moved into the upper class. In a letter to his parents, Parks anticipates graduating in five weeks. Because of continuing clogs in the training pipeline, it would be closer to ten weeks.
The calisthenics and marching and running continued as before but their courses changed. As upperclassmen, they would study physics, the theory of flight, deflection shooting, and moving in 3 dimensions.
There were also some hard won privileges. Because they were now upper classmen, they would get more freedom to leave the base.
World War II was the height of the Big Band era and artists like Glen Miller, Duke Ellington, the Dorsey brothers, and Woody Herman were creating a soundtrack for an entire generation. My brother, sister, and I grew up listening to the music my parents loved. .
The summer of 1942, while my father was doing his basic training at Maxwell Field, Kay Kyser and his Orchestra had a hit with, “Jingle, Jangle, Jingle“. It was one of dad’s favorites. He always sang along…
“I’ve got spurs that jingle, jangle, jingle/ As I go riding merrily along/ And they sing, Oh, ain’t you glad your single/ And that song ain’t so very far from wrong.”
When America entered the war, my father was attending the University of Minnesota and dating a good looking brunette named Bette. One month after arriving in Montgomery, he closes a letter to his mother with the ominous…
“No word from Bette” May 10, 1942
Their relationship in college had been rocky and very much of the off again, on again variety. Judging from Bette’s lack of communication, they were in the off again mode… Again.
Not one to let grass grow under his feet, the very next week he writes to his mother:
“We had a nice entertainment last night, wiener roast, and 500 girls from Huntington a girls college near Montgomery. But not near enough to go around.” May 17, 1942
Probably because of the bad cadet to co-ed ratio, he closes the letter complaining that his buddy, Russ Dougherty, just sits around, talking about his long-time girlfriend all the time.
“I feel kinda low sometimes. Guess I’m better off not having one to moon about.” May 17, 1942
I am fairly sure his mood would have been sunnier had there been more college girls at the wiener roast.
And then, 10 days after the “nice entertainment” disaster, he writes:
“Russ and I had a couple of girls from town out last Sunday afternoon for a little while. Mighty nice to have feminine companionship after so long. We made dates for Sat. night, sure hope we get to keep them. The girls were ones we met last time we were in town… four weeks ago.” May 27, 1942
Russ and my father had only been off post once since they arrived in Alabama… on April 26th… for three hours… Apparently, those three hours were all the two cadets needed to meet some girls and make dates for the next time they were free. Which turned out to be a month later. Impressive.
In that same letter… in the very next paragraph… the paragraph where he talked about making the date with the girls, my father writes:
“I finally received a letter from Bette two weeks after it was mailed. She had written a letter before that that I never did get. No mention of the flowers.” May 27, 1942
I don’t know this woman, I didn’t send the flowers, and all this happened seventy four years ago… But, when I read that Bette didn’t even mention the flowers… I gotta admit, it stung a little.
He writes about her again, a couple of weeks later, in the last line of another letter home…
“Had a short letter from Bette but not much in it. Guess I better forget it.” June 15, 1942
Forgetting Bette wasn’t going to be that easy. For the next five years, they would never be quite done with one another. After the war, they resumed their relationship and continued dating… Right up to that moment in February 1947 when my father met my mother (in picture at left).
It’s not that he didn’t try to forget Bette. In the twelve days after deciding that putting her out of his mind was the way to go, Aviation Cadet Parks ran and marched and paraded and did calisthenics and went to class and still managed to arrange a date for a dance on the evening of June 27th.
Then, just before graduating from Basic Training, my father casually drops this sentence in to a letter to his mother:
“Gerry B___ is in Oakland, Calif. working for the telephone Co.” July 29, 1942
That’s it. There’s nothing about Gerry leading up to that sentence and nothing about Gerry following that sentence. It sounds like my father just wanted to let his mother know that some girl named Gerry was in California and she was working for the telephone company.
Note: In 1942, there was only one phone company…Bell Telephone… so, you didn’t have to say, “Bell Telephone“, everyone knew who the telephone company was.
Having received the information that Gerry was working for the phone company in Oakland, my grandmother only had one question for her son, which she asked in her very next letter:
“Are you writing to Gerry B___ again?” August 6, 1942
I don’t know the whole story with dad and Gerry but, I do know there is more to it than those two sentences suggest.
Sixty years after the fact, when I asked him about it, my father just grinned and told me he and Gerry were “school sweethearts“. That was all I could get out of him on the subject.
But here’s what I have learned from the box of letters. In 1937, the Parks family had moved to Burlington, Iowa so my grandfather could help the Coca Cola bottler there get his business going. My father was 16 and in 10th grade. Gerry B___ also lived in Burlington and was also in the 10th grade.
Eventually my grandfather moved the family from Burlington to Rock Island, Illinois so he could help the Coca Cola bottler in that city.
From the correspondence between my grandmother and her mother around that time, it appears the relationship between the two 10th graders was more intense and worrisome than the word, “sweethearts” implies. There are no details in the letters but, the adults seem greatly relieved that the move to Rock Island was putting some distance between my father and Miss B____.
Now, 5 years later, America was at war and Tom and Gerry were back in touch.
On the 29th of July, my grandmother took the above picture of her son into Washington D.C. to get it framed. A week later she wrote to him:
“While I was looking at several places for a suitable frame, I was quite the proud mamma over the Ohs! and Ahs! from the young ladies helping me… I gave one cute little blond your address and told her to write to you (since boys in the service get lonely and loved to get letters). She was new at the Palais Royal and I bought a frame from her.” August 6, 1942
The picture of the Air Corps cadet with the boyish good looks combined with my grandmother’s pitch must have worked because, before her son got her letter, he received one from the cute blond from the Palais Royal photography studio. He promptly wrote his mom:
I got a letter from a girl, Peggy W____, who waited on you at the Palais Royal when you went down to get a frame for my picture. She sounded very interesting and wanted me to write to her. Let me know whether she was cute, etc. She’s a major’s daughter!” August 4, 1942
My father met and married my mother after the war. He was devoted to her for 65 years.
However, the evidence in the box of letters is very clear. As a young man, he was probably a little shallow, “Is she cute?“, possibly a little bit of a social climber, “She’s a major’s daughter!“, and definitely playing the field. This kind of thing goes on for the duration of the hostilities.
My father’s combat record is not the only part of his World War II experience that fascinates me.
The man who raised me was thoughtful, disciplined, and self-assured. My father felt strongly that his experiences during World War II had an enormous positive impact on his life.
He readily admitted that, as a young man, he suffered from a lack of focus and direction. Just prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, he was contemplating his second withdrawal from college in three years.
The letters from Maxwell reveal he truly enjoyed the rigors and discipline that are at the heart any military training. The letters also reveal the beginnings of the man he would become.
“We’re really on a full schedule. The boys resent it sometimes but after all it’s war… Personally I’m getting a kick out of it. Feeling better than I have for a long time.” April 19, 1942
“I’m rather proud of the grades I’ve been making in school… We have a quiz in every subject every day and only a few below 100, and these were 90’s.” May 17, 1942
“We’re getting a good high school course in Physics in twenty hours and some of the boys are having a pretty tough time with it… Really glad of my preparation now.” June 15, 1942
Pvt. Parks had found a home in the Army.
By Thursday, August 6th, 86 days after arriving at Maxwell Field, Private Parks had successfully graduated basic training.
That afternoon he and 270 fellow cadets boarded another train and, once again, headed south. This time their destination was Arcadia, Florida.
Fifty six miles east of Sarasota, Arcadia was home to the primary flight training base at Carlstrom Field.
After almost three months in the United States Army Air Corps, they were finally going to fly.