The above picture was taken at Carlstrom Field sometime in late August or September of 1942.
In the photograph, aviation cadets, Rodney L. Due (Left) from Chicago, Richard B. Bixler (Right) from Annville, Pennsylvania and their instructor (center) leave the flight line after putting in some time in the dual cockpit PT-17 Stearman in the background.
On the back of the photograph, my father titled the scene, “That’s enough for today.”
Carlstrom Field – Arcadia, Florida
Late Friday afternoon, August 7th, 1942, a private Pullman train arrived at the railway station at Arcadia, a small south Florida town of about 3000 residents, 50 miles east of Sarasota.
The 284 aviation cadets who disembarked were headed for primary flight training at nearby Carlstrom Field.
The young men on the station platform had just completed 86 days of basic training at Maxwell Field in Montgomery, Alabama.
Most of them were from states east of the Mississippi, most of them were in their early twenties, and all of them wanted to be Army pilots. The Air Corps was giving them 63 days to learn how to fly.
It was going to be a hard two months. One cadet in four wouldn’t qualify and three of them would die.
The War – August 1942
In Europe, Hitler’s forces continued to advance on Stalingrad. It was not yet winter so things were still going well for the Germans on the Eastern Front.
In the Pacific, American Marines invaded Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, in Washington D.C., six German saboteurs were executed, and on the 17th of the month, twelve B-17s from the 97th Bomb Group took off from an airbase in England and headed east across the Channel. It was the 8th Air Force’s first combat mission of the war.
Their target that day was the railroad marshaling yards at Rouen, France. All twelve bombers and their 10-man crews made it to Rouen and returned safely. It was a modest beginning.
By the time my father began flying missions with the 8th Air Force, formations of four and five hundred bombers were flying to targets in Europe. Towards the end of the war, raids of more than a thousand B-17s were not uncommon.
Over the next two and a half years, the Mighty Eighth would fly 985 more missions over Europe. Not many of them would end as well as the first one to Rouen.
Before the end of World War II, 40,000 American airmen would be killed in action and more than twice that number would be captured and held as prisoners of war. The newly arrived cadet class at Carlstrom Field would contribute to both of those terrible categories.
Aviation Cadet classes were identified by the year and the order in that year which they would graduate. Graduates of Class 43-B would be the second class in 1943 to get their pilot’s wings and commissions as 2nd Lieutenants.
Prior to arriving at Carlstrom Field, most of the members of 43-B had never even been in an airplane . My father and a few other cadets had a leg up on the majority of their classmates. They already knew how to fly.
Well before the United States joined the war, America’s leaders recognized that our involvement was inevitable. They also knew the country was going to need pilots. In December of 1938, three years before Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt unveiled the Civilian Pilot Training Program.
The CPTP provided 72 hours of ground school and 35 to 50 hours of flight time for qualified college students, all at government expense. That sounded like a real deal to my father. So, in the summer of 1941, while attending the University of Minnesota, he signed up to learn how to fly a Piper Cub. He was nineteen years old.
The Pilot Factory
The pilot training program at Carlstrom Field was run by the civilian flight school, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical Institute. During World War II, Embry-Riddle was contracted by the US Government to train as many Army Air Corps pilots as they could in the shortest time possible.
At Carlstrom, cadets were under military command but the school and its instructors were civilian and the business of training pilots was completely under their control.
At Carlstrom, the cadets began their day at 6am.
After breakfast they headed out to the flight line with their assigned instructors to await their turn in the plane. Each instructor was responsible for a “flight” of 5 students and would take them up one at a time in the dual cockpit PT-17.
That first week of flying was an eye-opening experience for the young trainees. Nine days after arriving at Carlstrom, Cadet Parks wrote his parents…
“Some of the boys are dropping out already. Either get airsick or decide they don’t want to fly after all. It really hurts to see them go after being together so long and the ‘washing’ process has just started” Letter to Parents – 08/16/1942
After lunch there were classes in navigation, meteorology, theory of flight, and aircraft engines. Three days a week, after classes, there was an hour of calisthenics, the other two days, swimming.
“That completes a pretty full day and there’s no trouble getting the lights out by ‘taps’ at ten.” Letter to Parents – 08/16/1942
The average aviation cadet soloed after nine hours of flight instruction.
On Monday morning, August 17th, 1942, Cadet Parks took a PT-17 up on his own. He’d been at Carlstrom Field for ten days and had received a total of 4 hours and 25 minutes of flight instruction.
A Bunch of Other Guys with Goggles on their Foreheads
Parks was the first solo in his five man flight and the third in the entire class.
Rod Due, who had also participated in the CPT program before the war, soloed immediately after dad. Russ Dougherty soloed three days later after 7 1/2 hours of flying with an instructor.
A little over a year after soloing in the PT-17 in Arcadia, Rod Due was flying with the 388th Bomb Group out of Knettishall, England. On October 13th, 1943, while on a test flight, the four-engine B-17 bomber he was flying crashed near the runway at the base killing four of the five crew members aboard. Even though, the flight engineer, Sgt. Ray Stanton, survived, I could find no record of what caused the accident.
Later that month, 2nd Lt. Rodney L. Due became one of the first members of 43-B to be laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery.
Around the 10th of September, 1942 cadet Parks wasn’t feeling well…
“I’m terribly sorry I haven’t written for so long. I’ve been grounded for over a week and really been feeling tough. I started out last week with a slight sore throat and when it steadily got worse through the week, I went to the doctor. He immediately grounded me. The infection had started into my ears because of the flying (changes in pressure) and over the weekend I was pretty miserable. Then my throat began to get better but I had an awful head cold. This is the first day I’ve been able to breathe. It seems to be quite an epidemic because over half of flight 5 has been grounded this week. Yes, Russ too. We even get sick together. We’re mostly worried now about whether we’ll be able to catch up on our flying time. Expect to start flying again tomorrow.
Rod (Due) is still here and going strong. One of the few who are flying. He’s passed his forty-hour check already.” Letter to Parents – 09/17/1942
On weekends, cadets could go off post. Their freedom started at 6:30 Saturday night and ended Sunday night at 10:00. Arcadia was about 7 miles away…
“…after supper we went over and played tennis until dark, then went into Arcadia about 9:00, went to the show and came home. Spent Sunday just playing a little tennis, swimming and laying around on the post. Can’t you just see us doing that at Maxwell! But it’s so swell here and Arcadia has so little to offer, we’re perfectly satisfied.” Letter to Parents – 09/06/1942
Not everyone found Arcadia boring. In my research, I came across a Florida marriage certificate indicating that, during the class of 43-B’s two months at Carlstrom, at least one cadet met and married a local girl.
He was an already divorced 26 year old aviator. She was 17 and in 11th grade.
Combining war and the threat of imminent death with snappy uniforms and the raging hormones of youth produces an extremely potent emotional cocktail. This kind of thing was happening all over America.
Cadet Parks’ Social Situation and Cookies from Home
If you have read the posts to this blog, “Enlisting in the Cause – Early 1942” and “Learning the Art of War – Basic Training” you will be aware that, to date, the girls in dad’s life are Bette B____, Gerry B____, and Peggy W____.
None of the letters from Carlstrom mention Bette, Cadet Parks’ girlfriend from the University of Minnesota. But, he doesn’t seem to be suffering from the neglect…
“I wrote to Peggy W____ and had another letter from her with a snapshot. She looks and sounds like a plenty cute “gal”. Thanks very much. You can give me connections like that just any time you want. I’ve had another letter from Gerry and she’s doing quite well with the telephone co. I’d appreciate it if you’d send the big picture of her. We’re allowed to have them here and a fellow needs one!” Letter to Parents – 08/16/1942
Then, three weeks later he wrote…
“The picture (of Gerry B____) came and I certainly appreciate it. Had another letter from Peggy W____ and she said you had been in to see her.
I would be very glad to have some cookies. We get very good food but something from home always tastes a little different.” Letter to Mother – 09/06/1942
Eleven days after asking for cookies, Parks wrote his mother…
“The… cookies came and were very welcome. We all appreciate them.” Letter to Mother – 09/17/1942
Two days later, my grandmother would decide that baking cookies for her son and his comrades was not a sufficient contribution to the war effort…
His Mother Joins the Fight
When the United States entered World War II, Cadet Parks’ father, Tom, Sr., was working for the Coca-Cola Company and his mother, Virginia, was keeping house.
They lived in Accokeek, Maryland, just outside of Washington, DC. On Sunday, the 20th of September, 1942, Virginia wrote her son…
“Have some news for you. I’m going to work this week at the Post Exchange Office at Fort Washington. They told Dad Friday they needed someone. He mentioned me for the place and I went by en route to town yesterday and got the job. But they said I’d have to start immediately, so I’ve made arrangements with Lois (A family friend who was visiting) to leave her here and take the job while I can get it. It is the first one I’ve been offered that Dad has wanted me to take. The surroundings will be alright and the hours from 8:30 to 4:45…
…We had been discussing for a couple of weeks the possibility of me getting a job. I have felt I could do something to help out for the duration. Then, too, the Coca Cola business is getting more precarious every week. It isn’t classed an essential industry, so if things get to the “closing” state, Dad plans to join the “Specialist Corp”, if not before. This job will take care of us in either event and is convenient to home, which is important with transportation problems what they are. We are all going to have to pull together to win this war and we want to do what we can. Of course I’d rather stay at home, but we can no longer do the things we want to do.” Letter from his Mother – 09/20/1942
Grandmother worked at the Fort Washington PX for the duration of World War II. It connected her to what her son was doing. After he was shot down and became a prisoner of war, it provided her with contacts within the military who she could hound for information about her missing son. And hound them she did. Mercilessly.
Virginia mentions in the letter that Coca-Cola had been deemed an non-essential industry. It’s hard to imagine an America where Coca-Cola wouldn’t be considered essential.
This non-essential classification may be why, during the war, the President of Coca-Cola, Robert Woodruff, issued a company directive that “every man in uniform gets a bottle of Coca-Cola for five cents, wherever he is and whatever it costs the company”.
There is no record of how America’s women in uniform felt about this compassionate offer which, as worded, would seem to specifically exclude them.
In the states, in the 1940s, a nickle is what everyone paid for a bottle of Coca-Cola, so, what Woodruff was talking about was the company covering the costs to get Cokes to American servicemen overseas so they would only have to use 5 cents of their combat pay to get the “Pause that Refreshes“.
It is no small coincidence that this patriotic move would also help expand the international market for Coca-Cola after the war was over.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Coke. I’m just cynical by nature. I got that from dad.
A Trip to Tampa
Back in Florida, Cadet Parks recovered from his cold and resumed his training.
“I got to flying again last week and passed my forty hour check Wednesday so now I only have about 15 hours to go. Some of the boys have taken their 60-hour checks (they come at about 52 or so hours) and so can relax now. Sure am sorry I lost that week because I’d be through too. Will get the final check in about 8 hours then some cross-country and instrument to finish out the sixty.” Letter to his parents – 09/20/1942
On Monday October 5th, 1942, almost exactly two months after arriving at Carlstrom, Cadets Parks and Dougherty completed the last of their required flight time. The next night, dad wrote to his parents from Tampa, Florida.
Russ and I came over last night for a little vacation. Could have gotten three day pass but didn’t finish flying until yesterday morning, so we have until midnight tonight. We figured it was long enough to come to Tampa and see some bright lights for a change. There are two big airbases here so the town is full of soldiers and flying officers but only two cadets!
We’re about a hundred miles from Arcadia.
Yes I passed the 60 hour check Sat. and I’m all set for Basic. We are going to Bainbridge, Ga. and expect to leave Friday.
Well guess that’s all the news right now. I’ll write again when I get back to Carlstrom.
Tommy Letter to his parents – 10/06/1942
In Tampa, Parks and Dougherty checked into the Hotel Floridan. I think it’s a safe assumption, they also visited the hotel’s well-known bar, the Sapphire Room.
During WWII, The Sapphire Room was a popular nightspot for servicemen who were based at nearby Drew Field. Many of the young trainees were housed in temporary barracks located just a few blocks from the club at the old Florida State Fairgrounds’ racetrack.
Now, when I say the Sapphire Room was a popular nightspot, I mean it was a very popular nightspot.
According to my research, among the servicemen stationed in and around Tampa during WWII, the Sapphire Room’s wild reputation had earned it the nickname, “The Surefire Room“.
Yeah, my father and Russ went to Tampa to “see some bright lights“.
Monday night, October 5th, the same night that Parks and Dougherty took the train to Tampa, three of their fellow cadets drove to Sarasota.
Walter S. Rhoads (25) and Robert Morris, Jr. (22) had both been star athletes at Harrisburg Academy in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania but because of their three year age difference, they did not know one another until they met during training.
Traveling with them was Bradley C. Parker (21), a physician’s son, from Scarsdale, New York.
It is impossible to know whose car they were in that night. The asterisks by their names on the orders moving class 43-B from Alabama to Florida, indicate all three cadets were authorized to forego the train trip and travel to their new post in privately owned vehicles.
On that Monday, the boys would have been in a celebratory mood. They had just completed Primary Flight Training. The following Friday they would move on to their next assignment.
The fifty-two mile drive from Carlstrom to Sarasota would have only taken an hour or so. Once the cadets got to town, they were joined by a local resident, twenty four year old bank employee, Margaret Taylor.
Margaret had been born in Alabama but her family moved to Sarasota when she was a young girl. Her father sold feed and fertilizer to the local farmers. At the time of the 1940 Census, her older sister worked as a stenographer in a law office and her younger brother was in school.
Sometime during the evening of October 5th, Margaret and the three aviation cadets decided to drive out to Lido Beach. On Lido Key, at the end of the Ringling Causeway, their car left the road and slammed into a tree. All four died.
The Taylor family in Sarasota, the Rhoads and Morris families in Harrisburg, and the Parker family in Scarsdale received the news and mourned, but they were not alone. All over America, families were beginning to get similar notifications on a daily basis.
For the cadets of 43-B, the loss of Parker, Rhoads, and Morris was just death’s opening salvo. Over the next 3 years, accidents and combat would take the lives of many more of the young men who went to Florida in August of 1942 to learn to fly.
For families around the country, this was the beginning of what would soon turn into a slow moving avalanche of bad news.
Moving On – October 9th, 1942
Four days after the car accident on Lido Key, Cadet Parks and the remaining members of class 43-B who had qualified for Basic Flight Training boarded a Seaboard Air Lines train and headed north for the newly opened Army Airfield at Bainbridge, Georgia.
A Note on Risk and Military Aviation Training
In a letter written soon after he arrived at Carlstrom Field, Cadet Parks reassured his mother that the training program there had the best safety record in the Southeast.
Looking for accounts of the auto accident that killed his classmates in Sarasota, I used Newspapers.com to search all newspapers in Florida during the month of October 1942 for articles containing the word “crash”.
I easily found the articles I was looking for but the search results also contained a lot of stories about crashes involving military training aircraft. Curious, I expanded the search to cover the time my father was at Carlstrom Field.
For those sixty-three days, just looking at newspapers in Florida, I found stories about thirty-six fatal military plane crashes around the United States. Those thirty-six crashes killed 136 airmen.
Seventeen of the crashes and forty-nine of the deaths happened in Florida.
All over America, they spun in, they nosed dived, they crashed on take offs and landings. One guy flew into a tree, there were four mid-air collisions, and two trainees in Tampa died when their planes collided while they were on the ground.
On August 27th, 1942, fifty miles north of Carlstrom Field, Lt. Claude R. Jackson (22) survived a crash, near Mulberry, Florida, that killed the other six members of the crew and two civilians on the ground.
Thirty-six days later, at the Akron, Ohio Municipal Airport, Lieutenant Jackson was in the cockpit of a twin engine B-26 Martin Marauder that lost power in one engine on take off.
The young, ill-fated Lieutenant, and the six airmen with him, perished in the ensuing crash.
And… just when you think these stories can’t get worse… they do.
Jackson’s father, who had come to the airport to see him off, witnessed the accident.
During the two months Cadet Parks was in Florida learning to fly, at least one hundred and thirty-six young men died on “routine training flights“.
To get to the part of the war where people would be actually and actively trying to kill him, all my father had to do was survive eight more months of instruction.