A Ground School Instructor…
In August of 1942, as my father began his Primary Flight training at Carlstrom Field in Florida, J.D. Salinger, the future author of “Catcher in the Rye“, was arriving at the Army Air Force Basic Flight School at Bainbridge, Georgia. He would be stationed there for the next nine months.
The twenty-three year old writer had been drafted earlier that year and subsequently assigned to the Bainbridge Army Airfield as a ground school instructor.
In the biography, J.D.Salinger: A Life, author Kenneth Slawenski writes that Salinger, although “not mechanically inclined“, somehow found himself teaching young pilots the inner workings of aircraft engines.
In October of 1942, two months after Salinger became an instructor, Cadet Parks and the class of 43-B arrived at Bainbridge for their Basic Flight Training…
That’s right… There is a distinct possibility my father learned about aircraft engines from J.D. Salinger.
War is strange business.
My grandmother used the envelope at the top of this story to send a personal letter to her son while he was doing his Basic Flight Training at Bainbridge.
She typed the letter while she was at work at the Fort Washington Post Exchange. She used a Fort Washington Exchange typewriter and wrote the letter on Fort Washington Exchange stationary. Then, she put the letter in a Fort Washington Exchange envelope, and stamped it “Official Business“.
I knew my grandmother pretty well. None of that seems out of the ordinary. Her only child was risking his life for the United States of America. She would have felt that providing a typewriter, an envelope, and some stationery was the least the Army could do. And, if stamping a personal letter to her son, “Official Business“, would help speed it on its way, then, she was damn well going to stamp it.
Late Friday afternoon, October 9th, 1942, aviation cadet class 43-B left Carlstrom Field and headed north for the Army Air Force Basic Flight School at Bainbridge, Georgia.
“We stopped in Tampa for two hours Friday night after leaving Arcadia and two hours in Jacksonville the next morning. Wandered all over Florida getting up here but the stops helped to break the ride. The officer in charge let us go in town when we stopped.” Letter to his parents – October 20th, 1942
In 1942, a train on the Seaboard Air Line would have taken the trainees from the station at Arcadia to Tampa. From there, the Seaboard line ran northeast to Jacksonville and then directly west to Tallahassee. From Florida’s state capitol, Seaboard tracks ran north, across the border and straight to the station at Bainbridge, Georgia.
It is hard to imagine that there was a time in America when so much of the country was accessible by rail.
Welcome to Bainbridge
Located in Decatur County in the extreme southwest corner of the Peach State, Bainbridge is thirty-five miles northwest of Tallahassee.
In December of 1941, as the United States entered the war, there was no military facility at Bainbridge. In the ensuing scramble to ramp up its pilot training program, it wasn’t long before a level area outside of town caught the attention of the Army Air Corps.
Perhaps sensing there might be an economic benefit in having a military base with a revolving population young recruits in its backyard, the City of Bainbridge and Decatur County bought a little over 2000 acres of land out near the Seaboard Airline tracks. They promptly turned around and leased the land to the US Government for one dollar a year.
Ground was broken for the Army Air Field at Bainbridge on Friday, April 3rd, 1942. That was seven days before my father left Washington, DC for Maxwell Field in Montgomery, Alabama. The entire base was finished before he began his primary flight training in Florida in August.
Ten days after arriving at Bainbridge he wrote:
“Got here late Sat. night and had to find our barracks in the dark. The post is spread over acres and acres of Georgia woodland and it took a long time to find the places in the dark. The whole place was built from the time the first ground was broken until flying started in 90 days! And we are the third class to come here, so you can imagine what it’s like.” Letter to his parents – October 20th, 1942
“We have a big P.X., Theatre, and chapel right on the post. Not much reason to go in town if we ever have time for it. We hear Bainbridge isn’t much anyway.” Letter to his parents – October 20th, 1942
“When these (barracks) were built they were meant to have one man to a room. I was lucky enough to get one to myself but some of the boys had to double up” Letter to his parents – October 20th, 1942
Getting to Work
My father and his fellow cadets arrived at Bainbridge late on a Saturday night. On Sunday morning, they assembled for welcoming speeches. After lunch, the cadets went out to the flight line to meet their instructors. And then…
“Monday morning we started ground school and that afternoon we went to the flight line for five hours. This schedule went on through the next Sun. with no break. And yesterday we started flying mornings. However we expect to have next Sat. afternoon and Sun. off. That’ll be 13 days of flying straight. Boy!” Letter to his parents – October 20th, 1942
“We alternate flying mornings one week and afternoons the next. The other half of the day we have ground school and calisthenics.” Letter to his parents – October 20th, 1942
Meanwhile, Back at the War…
As dad began flying in Georgia, in Russia, the German Army’s advance on Stalingrad was slowly grinding to a halt. Just as Hitler’s forces had failed to take Moscow the year before, they were failing again at Stalingrad. It was going to be a second hard, horrible winter on the Eastern Front for everyone involved.
In the Pacific, US Navy ships dealt a crushing blow to a Japanese fleet headed to reinforce Guadalcanal.
And on the home front… At 4:30 Saturday afternoon, October 24th, American Airlines flight 28 left Burbank, California, bound for New York. Forty-five minutes later, over Palm Springs, a twin engine Army bomber collided with the east bound airliner.
The two Army airmen in the bomber successfully landed their damaged aircraft. The American Airlines DC-3 crashed a mile west of the desert resort killing all nine passengers and the crew of three.
Captain Charles Pedley (42) had 17,000 hours flying experience and had worked for American for twelve years. His First Officer, Louis Reppert, Jr. (26) had 800 hours experience and had been with the airline for six months.
The pilot of the Lockheed B-34 bomber was Lt. William Wilson (25). He was attached to the Air Transport Command based in Long Beach, California. His co-pilot was S/Sgt. Robert Leicht (25), also stationed at Long Beach.
The crash investigation revealed that Lt. Wilson, the bomber pilot, and Louis Reppert, the co-pilot of the American flight, knew one another.
The evening before the collision, they met in a cafe in Long Beach and discussed the possibility they might see one another in the air the following day.
On the day of the crash, Lt. Wilson was keen to make that meeting happen. S/Sgt. Leicht testified that Wilson had told him he would like to fly close to the airliner and “thumb his nose at him“.
Lt. Wilson, left Long Beach for Palm Springs Army Airfield before the American flight. To give his friend’s flight time to catch up, Wilson circled March Field in Riverside a couple of times. He then turned east and made the rendezvous as the two planes approached Palm Springs.
Flying alongside the DC-3 at 9000 feet, Wilson rocked his wings in greeting. Getting no response, he sped up and crossed in front of the commercial flight and then slowed down to let it overtake him.
While maneuvering to signal his friend a second time, the 25 year old bomber pilot misjudged the distance between the planes. His right engine clipped the tail of the DC-3, destroying both the vertical and horizontal control surfaces. With that kind of damage, there is no amount of flying experience that could have saved the passengers and crew of the American Flight 28.
The Four Stages of Flight Training
During WWII, every Army Air Force pilot, whether they flew fighters, fighter-bombers, bombers, or transports, went through the same four phase program.
Primary Flight Training – This was prospective pilots’ introduction to flying. Cadet Parks flew the Boeing/Stearman PT-17, a dual cockpit bi-plane with fixed landing gear and a 240 hp engine.
After 60 hours in the PT-17 they moved on to…
Basic Flight Training – During this second phase, trainees flew the Vultee BT-13. It had an enclosed cockpit, fixed landing gear, and a 450 hp engine.
“They seem like a mechanical monster after the PT. Gadgets all over the cockpit. We’ve counted 20 different things you must do before starting the engine even. But it’s fun and seems like a real Army airplane at last. By the way I soloed Sat. in four hrs.” Letter to his parents – October 20th, 1942
In Basic Flight, cadets were taught aerial navigation as well as, instrument, night, formation, and long distance flying.
The BT-13’s official name was the “Vultee Valiant“, but the cadets who flew it, almost universally, called it the “Vultee Vibrator“. From everything I’ve read, the nickname was well deserved. When approaching stall speed or during aerial maneuvers or while simply taxing on the ground… the Vultee vibrated.
It was during this 2nd phase of flight training that cadets were given the chance to express a preference for what kind of training they would get in the advanced phase. It seems my father was already planning a life after the war…
“I have made application for twin-engine advance. Don’t know whether I’ll get my preference or not but have a good chance. Russ and I feel that this training in heavier ships will be more useful in the future.” Letter to his parents – November 18th, 1942
My grandmother was thinking her son should fly heavier planes too… But for an entirely different reason.
“Honey please try to get assigned to one of the Fortresses when you do fly something that means fighting, for they seem to take the punishment and come back for more. They are wonderful and we hope you can fly one of them.” Letter from his Mother – November 9th, 1942
They both got their wish.
But that was still in the future. First, my father had to finish Basic Flight.
Once trainees had a total of seventy hours in the Vultee, they moved on to…
Advanced Flight Training – This is where training branched.
Cadets who were assigned to fly fighters and fighter-bombers went on to single-engine advanced. There they flew aircraft like the North American Aviation AT-6 Texan.
Cadets, like my father, who would fly transports or bombers went on to twin-engine advanced where they flew aircraft like the ones pictured below.
With retractable landing gear and two 295 hp engines, these advanced trainers brought another increase in complexity. During advanced, Cadet Parks would fly both aircraft.
After 75 to 80 hours of flight time in twin-engine trainers, cadets graduated as pilots, got their “wings”, and were given commissions as 2nd Lieutenants.
At that point, the only thing standing between them and the war was…
Transition Flight Training – In this final phase, pilots trained in the actual aircraft they would fly for the Army Air Force.
For Cadet Parks, that would mean his mother’s favorite, the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress. With four 1000 hp Wright Cyclone engines and a crew of ten, it was, at the time, one of the largest and most complex airplanes in the world.
During transition training, 2nd Lt. Parks would be required to learn everything he needed to know about the huge bomber to keep himself and his crew alive once they began flying combat missions in the deadly skies over Europe.
The Army Air Force would give him three months to complete that critical task.
Nine Months, Four Increasingly Complex Cockpits
NOTE: It comes up in this next section, so… FYI – Almost everyone who served with my father in the Army Air Force called him “Tap“. It came from his initials, Thomas A. Parks…. TAP.
In the letters my father wrote and received while training at Bainbridge, there is only one mention of any of the three girls he was corresponding with while at his two previous posts, Maxwell and Carlstrom Fields. It shows up in a letter written by my father to his mother mid-November 1942.
“Gerry“, his high school sweetheart from Burlington, Iowa, was now working for the telephone company in Oakland, California. After losing track of one another when dad’s parents moved away from Burlington, Gerry and Cadet Parks had only recently re-established contact.
The topic of the paragraph in question is shopping for the coming Christmas holiday:
“Russ smokes Camels and I think that would make a nice present. If you find a little something I could send Gerry let me know. I don’t have a chance to do any shopping.” Letter to his mother – November 18th, 1942
It appears Cadet Parks had reconnected with Gerry to the degree a Christmas present was required. And he needed his mother’s help.
As is often the case with only children, dad grew up a little spoiled. Grandmother loved her son more than life itself. If he needed her to “find a little something” for that girl in Oakland, she would find something. In fact, knowing my grandmother, she found something really nice.
Peggy W_____, the photography studio clerk from Washington, DC his mother set him up with, has dropped off the radar. After a flurry of letters at his last two training bases, she is never mentioned again. I have no idea what happened there.
None of dad’s letters mention Bette B____, the girl he was dating at the University of Minnesota when America entered the war… the same girl who stopped corresponding with him while he was in training at Maxwell.
However, a letter after Christmas from the Camel smoking, Russ Dougherty, contains a small but ominous indication that she is, somehow, back in the picture. (For background on Bette see: “Pearl Harbor & Going to War“, “Enlisting in the Cause – Early 1942“, and “Learning the Art of War – 1. Basic Training“)
On New Year’s day 1943, Russ wrote his friend:
“So you have been seeing ‘Ghosts’ huh? I think I know exactly what (Bette) does to you–I must have known several like her. Don’t let the Ghost Walk, Tap.” Letter from Cadet Dougherty to Cadet Parks – January 1st, 1943
Whatever was going on between my father and Bette, those four intriguingly cryptic sentences make it pretty clear, Russ was against his buddy pursuing it.
My father didn’t listen to Russ. This particular “Ghost” would haunt him for another four years. Right up until that moment, in mid-February of 1947, when my father drove by my mother on Peachtree Street in Atlanta. I will, inevitably, get around to telling that remarkable story.
As 1942 came to a close, Cadet Parks was not the only service man at AAF Bainbridge having troubles with women.
Ever since J.D. Salinger arrived in Georgia, he had been writing long love letters to his girlfriend, Oona O’Neill. Often mentioned in the New York gossip columns with her gal-pals, Carol Marcus and Gloria Vanderbilt, Oona was the lovely dark-haired daughter of the playwright, Eugene O’Neill.
In 1942, Carol Marcus was the eighteen year old girl friend of author, William Saroyan. She would marry Saroyan twice and actor, Walter Matthau once. Reportedly, Carol was Truman Capote’s inspiration for the character of Holly Golightly in his novella, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s“.
Gloria Vanderbilt was… well… Gloria Vanderbilt.
As Private Salinger sat in his barracks in Bainbridge writing letters to Oona, newspapers were reporting on her evenings out at fashionable New York nightspots, sometimes with other men. Sometimes there were pictures.
In late 1942, Oona decided to go out to Hollywood and become an actress. By January 1943, she was testing for a studio contract with 20th Century and had dropped J.D.
Salinger, trapped in Georgia, was devastated.
By February 1943, Oona was dating film legend Charlie Chaplin. It was a match made in Hollywood. He was fifty-four. She was seventeen.
Their relationship blossomed quickly and, in June of 1943, the couple married… a month after Oona’s eighteenth birthday.
The O’Neill/Chaplin marriage was big national news. There was no way Salinger could have avoided it. The coverage was made all the more sensational by the fact that Chaplin was concurrently involved in a lurid paternity suit involving Joan Berry, a young actress who, like Oona, was more than thirty years his junior.
J.D. attempted to ease the pain of his breakup with Oona by courting a local beauty who worked at the base Post Exchange. Like the girl who had just dumped him, the Georgia Peach was also seventeen years old.
Unfortunately, the young PX clerk ‘s mother did not approve of Private Salinger. By May of 1943, J.D.’s new fixation was engaged to a Lieutenant from New York…an officer Salinger both knew and disliked.
For J.D. Salinger, these two women were just harbingers of things to come. Married three times, when he was fifty-three, he would also have a relationship with a woman who had written for Seventeen Magazine. She was eighteen.
It just goes to show, being a famous writer doesn’t automatically make you a genius when it comes to women.
“On a Routine Training Flight”
During WWII, when aviation cadets made mistakes that made the papers, the most common phrase in the stories covering those incidents was, “ on a routine training flight“, as in, “They died while on a routine training flight“.
The banality of the phrase, “routine training flight“, only magnifies the tragedy of these accidents. All over America, young men, most of them barely out of high school, were being hurriedly taught to fly the newest, most technologically advanced aircraft in the world. There was nothing at all “routine” about what they were doing.
The Army bomber that collided with American Airlines Flight 28 over Palm Springs was on routine flight. Twelve people died.
Flight is an unforgiving undertaking. A small miscalculation, a moment of inattention or indecision, a critical mechanical failure and your life… and the lives of people with you… and the lives of people in the airspace around you… and, sometimes, the lives of people on the ground… are all at risk.
I set up a Newspapers.com search looking at all newspapers nationwide from October 10th, 1942 to December 17th, 1942 for articles containing the phrase “on a routine training flight“.
For the sixty-eight days my father was flying at Bainbridge, the search turned up 325 newspaper stories containing that phrase. In almost every story, at least one aviator died.
Out of those sixty-eight days, there were only eleven during which America’s newspapers didn’t contain a story about the tragic end of a “routine training flight“.
In the first six months of 1943, American newspapers would run an additional 1377 stories about fatal crashes involving military aircraft. Thousands of airmen died in those accidents.
For Army Air Force fliers, only aerial combat was more dangerous than routine training flights.
Another Death Separates Friends
On April 11th of 1942, Russ Dougherty and my father established an immediate friendship as they were inducted into the Army Air Force and left Washington, DC for Maxwell Field in Alabama.
My father’s parents considered Russ a second son and traded letters with him throughout the war.
During the seven months Russ and “Tap” were training together, it was a rare letter from my father to his parents that didn’t contain news about his friend.
“Russ and I are still in luck, in the same flight again. But different barracks.” Letter to his Parents – October 20th, 1942
On October 17th, Russ’ father, Ewell, took the train from the family home in Glasgow, Kentucky to Bainbridge to visit his son for the weekend. It was the last time Russ would see his father alive.
On November 27th, Ewell Dougherty died of a sudden heart attack.
Russ was given an emergency twenty day bereavement furlough. Those twenty days would disrupt his training cycle, move him back one class to 43-C, and separate him from “Tap” for the duration of the war.
Their paths would have diverged sooner or later, but the two young cadets had been eagerly looking forward to finishing advanced training and becoming 2nd Lieutenants together.
Next Stop – Columbus, Mississippi
On Thursday, December 17th, 1942, Cadet Parks departed Bainbridge for Advanced Flight Training.
Five days earlier, Collier’s Magazine published the short story, “Personal Notes of an Infantryman“. It had been written by Private J.D. Salinger while he was a ground school instructor at AAFBFS Bainbridge.
Cadet Parks moved on to Columbus, Mississippi. Private Salinger would be stationed in Georgia four more agonizing months.
The Darkness at the End of the Tunnel
For the young trainees, moves would now come faster and faster and the flow of information to be absorbed would become torrential.
My father’s letters to his parents became shorter and less frequent. The ones he does write are apologetic and always contain an explanation about how much work they have to do and how little time they have to get it done.
As Cadet Parks got closer and closer to the war, the reality of the responsibilities he was taking on began to sink in.
And the war was getting very close…
In August of 1943, seven months after leaving Bainbridge and exactly one year after soloing in a bi-plane, 2nd Lt. Parks would be aboard a troopship zig-zagging across the North Atlantic toward England.
Once there, he would begin flying combat missions over Europe as a twenty-one year old command pilot of a B-17 heavy bomber. His life and the lives of the nine men flying with him would depend on how well he learned his job in the coming months.