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After nine grueling months of training, the US Army Air Force gave my father and his fellow pilots a 14-day leave. 2nd Lt. Parks traveled from Lockbourne Army Air Base in Ohio to his parents’ home in Accokeek, Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C.
On Sunday, the 9th of May, the young Lieutenant’s mother and father took him into Washington for one last outing before he left for the war.
The headlines in the Baltimore Sun that Sunday would have been encouraging.
As they strolled the grounds of the United States Botanic Garden, they had no way of knowing the war would last two more years and just how personally it was going to touch the three of them.
In those days, the entire country moved by train. It was a truly isolated community that didn’t have some nearby access to rail service.
2nd Lt. Parks had been ordered to report for duty at the Army Air Base at Moses Lake, Washington “no later than 0900” on Saturday, May 15, 1943… But first, he had to see a girl in Minneapolis.
So… On Monday, May 10, 2nd Lt. Parks went to Union Station in Washington, D.C. and boarded a train bound for Chicago. Eighteen to twenty-four hours later he arrived in Chicago’s Union Station and switched to a train headed for the Twin Cities.
The Girls… Bette and Gerry
Before the attack on Pearl Harbor, my father had been attending the University of Minnesota and was dating Betty “Bette” Bugbee. Almost two years older than my father, Bette was an extremely good-looking red-head and a druggist’s daughter from a small town north of Minneapolis who dreamed of a career in show business. She would end up in New York City, modeling, teaching acting, and garnering a couple of mentions in Walter Winchell’s gossip column. Including the one below which links 25-year-old Betty with 52-year-old former heavy weight champion of the world, Jack Dempsey.
Bette and my father had what is best described as a tempestuous, on-again, off-again relationship. Judging from letters home while attending the University of Minnesota , it appears, my father couldn’t afford the kind of evenings out Bette felt she deserved. From his later letters it appears, during the entire first year of his training, their relationship was definitely off.
But, now, on his way to Washington state, there was a planned meeting in Minneapolis. This would be the first time they had seen one another since my father left school to join the Army in December of 1941.
Two days after arriving in Moses Lake, my father wrote his mother to bring her up to date on his cross country trip. There is no detailed record of what transpired between the young couple in Minneapolis’ Great Northern Depot but the two sentences he devotes to the meeting confirm the tenuous nature of what ever it was they had.
“Bette was at the train to meet me and we both enjoyed seeing each other. Got along well for some reason“
And then there’s the postscript at the bottom of page two of the very same letter…
“Send my pictures out. The big one of me to Gerry. Miss Gerry Bock, Leamington Hotel, Oakland, Calif.“
Gerry Bock had been my father’s girl friend when he was in junior high in Burlington, Iowa. They hadn’t seen one another for six or seven years and, much to his mother’s surprise (and, I believe, chagrin) they had started corresponding somewhere around the time her son joined the Army Air Force.
After high school, Gerry had left Burlington and gone to California to work as an telephone operator for the phone company. Those were the days when there were telephone operators and there was only one phone company.
Before 2nd Lt. Parks left for England and the war, Gerry would come to Walla Walla for a weekend visit with her former junior high sweetheart. As with the meeting in Minneapolis, there is no detailed record of what transpired over the course of that weekend in Walla Walla other than this single sentence he wrote his mother.
“We had a swell time and it was great to see her again. She’s quite a young lady now.” – Letter to Mrs. Virginia Parks July 18, 1943
Beyond that line in that letter, Gerry is never mentioned again. However, as we shall see in future episodes, the thing with Bette persists.
Moses Lake, Washington
After the brief visit with Bette in Minneapolis, 2nd Lt. Parks boarded a Great Northern train heading west. He and thirty-nine fellow pilots from Lockburne arrived at Moses Lake on the 15th of May. According to his letter to his mother, their crews were waiting for them. Parks also mentions in his letter that there were only seven B-17s at the base… for thirty-nine crews. There was going to be a lot of sharing.
On the same day the pilots arrived at the base in Washington, in England, the 8th Air Force flew its 57th mission of the war sending 1900 airmen in 190 B-17s to bomb various targets in Germany. Six American bombers their sixty crewmen didn’t return.
The new pilots arriving at Moses Lake were badly needed in Europe. None of them knew it at the time but they would only be at Moses Lake for eighteen days.
2nd Lt. Parks’ flight record for May, 1943 shows that on the 15th of May, after reporting for duty at six in the morning, he spent four hours in a B-17, two as pilot and two as a passenger. The term, “passenger”, is a little misleading. It implies passivity. In a couple of months, they were going to war and anytime they were in the kind of aircraft that would carry them and their crews into combat, they were working hard to absorb as much knowledge as they could on the B-17’s operation, capabilities, and weaknesses.
As the certificate below shows, the two hours Lt. Parks spent flying on his first day in Moses Lake… after staying up all night changing trains… was his daytime qualifying check flight to determine whether or not he had what it took to be a B-17 command pilot. Apparently, he had what it took.
Two days later, on the 17th, he passed his qualifying nighttime and instrument check flights for the same command pilot certification. Twenty-one-year-old 2nd Lt. Parks was now, not just a pilot… he was, officially, a leader of men.
Twenty-six-year-old 2nd Lt. Ingram oversaw my father’s check rides. Ingram was born and raised in nearby Dayton, Washington and had gotten his civilian pilot’s license there in October of 1940. The next month, he enlisted in the Army. Three years later, Ingram was in Moses Lake, 12o miles from his hometown, training B-17 pilots. Richard passed away in 2011… in Dayton, Washington… the same town in which he was born.
In addition to supervising check rides, 2nd Lt. Ingram also administered the “Blindfold Test for B-17F“. For this test, the subject was seated in the pilot’s position, blindfolded, and then instructed to reach out and touch each of thirty-nine different cockpit instruments as they were called out by the examiner.
On Wednesday the 2nd of June, after eighteen days at Moses Lake… the thirty-nine newly certified command pilots and their almost complete combat crews were transferred 116 miles south to the Army Air Base at Walla Walla, Washington.
I say that the combat crews were, “almost complete” because… from the look of the following order dated June 2, 1943, the Army was waiting for a shipment of navigators.
Walla Walla, Washington and the Martin Provisional Group
The above orders assigning the pilots and their crews to Walla Walla also assigned them to the “Martin Provisional Group“.
In the context of this order, the word “provisional” is used in the sense of, “to provision” or “to supply“. And to be exactly and dramatically precise, here the word was being used in the sense of “RE-provision” The members of the Martin Provisional Group were replacement crews… And they weren’t replacing airmen who had finished the war and were headed home… All 390 of them were headed for England to replace bomber crews that were either captured or missing or dead.
2nd Lt. Parks arrived in Walla Walla, on Friday, June 4th. On the following Wednesday, he received his formation flight certification. This certification was critical because in combat he would be part of a formation consisting of hundreds of bombers. As the formation approached their target, pilots would be required to maintain a wingtip to wingtip distance of thirty feet between their bomber and the bombers closest to them in the formation.
Just before the Fourth of July, my father had a three-day pass and his former junior high school sweetheart, Miss Gerry Bock came up from Oakland, California for a visit. Keep in mind, they were both fourteen or fifteen the last time they saw one another.
Given how involved my grandmother was with her son’s love life and her unexplained concern about Miss Gerry in general… The two sentences her son devoted to the visit must have made his mother’s head explode.
“We had a swell time and it was great to see her again. She is quite a young lady now.“2nd Lt. Parks / Letter to his mother / July 18, 1943
In July, 2nd Lt. Parks flew nineteen days. On those days, he averaged at little over 4.6 hours of flight time per day in the B-17. Almost every combat mission they would fly over the European continent would be longer than that… Some would require them to be in the air for more than ten hours.
The last week that the Martin Provisional Group was at Walla Walla, the pilots and their crews flew down to Hammer Army Air Field just outside of Fresno, California.
From Hammer Field, Monterey Bay and the Pacific were 100 miles due west and for six straight days the pilots and their crews flew an average of 4.8 hours a day to acquire some experience flying over water. They would all soon find out that flying over the Pacific off the coast of California in July is entirely different from flying combat missions over the English Channel and the North Sea as winter descends on Europe…. And winter was coming.
Just before shipping out, my father’s original co-pilot, 2nd Lt. Tommy Hudson was replaced by 2nd Lt. Earl Bason. You can read more about them in the post, Watching Hogan’s Heroes with my Dad.
While going through the box of old letters that were the genesis of this blog, I came across the following newspaper article from May of 1943 that my grandmother had clipped and saved during the time her son was in Washington state preparing for combat… A familiar name had turned up in the news.
In the 1930s, my grandfather, Thomas A. Parks, Sr., worked for the Coca-Cola Company helping bottlers improve their sales operations. Between 1934 and 1940, his work took him and his family to Omaha, Nebraska, Burlington, Iowa, Rock Island, Illinois, and Jamestown, North Dakota.
In Jamestown, my grandfather worked for John R. Bernabucci, an Italian immigrant who had moved there from New Britain, Connecticut in 1927. By 1940, Bernabucci owned his own Coca-Cola bottling business and was living the American dream.
In the 1940 census, a Jamestown doctor listed his 1939 yearly income as $3000, a local stenographer, $800, a manager at a lumber yard, $1200, a deputy $1460, and a public school teacher $1030. One maid in a private home in Jamestown listed her income for working 52 weeks in 1939 as… $200. In 1940, Bernabucci listed his income for the previous year as $7200… Adjusted for inflation that’s $150,000.
In January of 1943, John Bernabucci was arrested by United States Marshals and charged with hoarding sugar, an important war time commodity that also happened to be critical to Bernabucci’s Coca-Cola bottling business… And his profits. Specifically, the charges against Bernabucci were that, the previous year, he had declared that his bottling business had seven tons of sugar on hand when, in fact, it had more than twice that amount.
When Bernabucci was brought up on the hoarding charges, he promptly pleaded, “not guilty“. By May of that year, having either seen the error of his ways or, more likely, the extent of the government’s case against him, he changed his plea to, “guilty“. According to the article, Bernabucci’s lawyers’ current position was, “sure our client’s guilty but he didn’t mean to do it…”
I do not know why my grandmother saved this clipping. Her son probably met Bernabucci when the Parks family lived in Jamestown and his father worked at the Coca-Cola Bottling Plant there. But I think it was more than interest in someone the family knew.
I believe she clipped and saved the article because of the contrast between what this particular guy was doing during the war and what her only child was doing. My grandmother was very proud of her son’s decision to enlist. To help contribute to the war effort, she, herself, had taken a job as a Post Exchange clerk at a nearby Army base. In the face of the sacrifices being made both overseas and on the home front by Americans in general and her only child in particular, Bernabucci’s hoarding would have filled her with a terrible-to-behold, white-hot, unforgiving rage.
However, after the war, in spite of the charges and the guilty plea and the fine and the absence of forgiveness from my grandmother… The Bernabucci family continued to prosper. John’s son, Jack took over and expanded his father’s Coca-Cola Bottling operation, got into real estate, served in the North Dakota House of Representatives, and was a member of the Republican National Committee for his state.
It is here that my Bernabucci research took a slightly head-spinning turn. I discovered that, in his later years, Jack and his wife moved to nearby Palm Springs where he became a founding member of the Palm Springs Air Museum. The Air Museum is one of our favorite places to take visitors so they can see one of its most prized exhibits… An excellently restored Boeing B-17.