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A Continuing Memoir

Recollections chosen from a Fortunate Life

Quentin Richard Petersen

Between the years of1941 and 1944 it was necessary to recruit and train tens of thousands of combat pilots under conditions of a war emergency. This would be a daunting task even today; consider what it must have been like to create a system to accomplish that goal when there were no established standards, curricula, or facilities. Additionally, each pilot trained required the training of at least 20 more specialists, gunners, flight engineers, radiomen, bombardiers, navigators and a myriad of mechanical specialists. The basic question of what skills were necessary to survive as a combat flyer and contribute to the war effort was unknown. I will examine what it was like to be caught up, at the age of 19, in such a system.

My brother Bertram had enlisted as an Aviation Cadet in the Army Air Corps early in 1941, as much to escape the Depression as anything else, but now we were at war. It was a popular war, certainly the last just war this nation's soldiers fought.

I reported to Ft. Hayes on March 2, 1943, almost a year after I had enlisted in the Army. The bureaucracy was major shock for an 18-year old boy from Trenton. I can't remember where I slept or ate. Only where I went poo-poo, would concern me for the training years.

At Ft. Hayes I took tests in enormous rooms with enormous numbers of people. Placed on a train I was taken to a place where I would see palm trees for the first time in my life. In March yet! I had arrived at the San Antonio Aviation Cadet Center, SAACC, for Preflight Training. I would spend other significant portions of my Army career at SAACC.

As we chugged into the base, the cry that was to become familiar with each base change rang out; "You'll be Soooorry!" Here we drew uniforms, mailed our civilian clothes home, and learned barrack life.

For the first week or two we had all kinds of fairly elaborate tests: physical, psychomotor, and psychological. Failure of any of these would lead to elimination from the Aviation Cadet Program. Each morning names were called for rechecks on certain tests. This lasted for some time and we got used to hearing: Smith, L. S., Physical recheck, Jones, R. G., Psychomotor recheck etc. People you had gotten to know a little just disappeared! I thought it was over when I heard, Petersen, Q. R., Psychological recheck, the only such recheck I recall ever having heard!

Thinking back to my original psychological test I remembered elaborate questions concerning girl friends and what we did. I suspect that we did what every other teen-aged couple did, at that time, nothing, but they lied about it! Then there were lots of questions about what I would do if ordered to strafe a line of refugees. I replied that I would obey orders, but I certainly wouldn't like it.

The "recheck" was something else! The large room was darkened, behind the desk was a Lt. Col. and there was a noisemaker on. The topics were pretty much the same. However, at the conclusion, he said, "I'm going to let you go through, but you'll never make it." I asked why he said that I seemed too effeminate to him.

I confess that in the remainder of my military (in contrast to my academic) career I never met anyone who struck me as effeminate. He was correct, however. I didn't make it through pilot training.

Discipline (hazing?) in the Cadet corps was severe. There were just three permitted answers to any question asked by an upperclassman or an officer: Yes Sir, No Sir, or No Excuse Sir. Each of these had to be shouted. Any violation of this or any other rule resulted in the awarding of an arbitrary number of "gigs." Each gig was most commonly paid for by an hour-long solitary march around the parade ground in full-dress uniform and rifle. These "tours" were executed during leave time, very early morning or after duty during the evening. When we went into Albuquerque, San Antonio, or Kingman we commonly left a long, single-file of these miscreants.

The rest of the time at SAACC was essentially basic training, learning to march, sing, and obey orders until we were ready to ship off for Primary Flight School.

Training of pilots was done in four stages. First, Preflight, the Air Corps equivalent of Army Basic Training.

Following was
Primary Flight School where one learned to fly the Stearman biplane in standard procedures of take off and landing, spin and spin recovery. I thought it curious that all the instructors were civilians.

Graduates of Primary went to Basic Flight School where heavier, monoplanes were used. In Advanced Flight School, heavier aircraft and more sophisticated techniques, such as blind flying were taught.

A little over half of the Cadets entering Primary won their pilot's wings. The remainder failed, or "washed out," at some point.

From San Antonio I was sent to flying school in Sikeston MO, but I never got through Primary. The document I received said that had I washed out because of "dangerous flying." Dangerous to myself, that is. I was never permitted to solo.

Needless to say, I was very disappointed, but I didn't cry in anyone else's presence.

Washouts were sent back to SAACC to see what could be found for them. After substantial KP time in Tent City I was sent to Aerial Gunnery School at Kingman, AZ. I graduated without particular problems, but a not without a type of military experience that justifies relating.

As we arrived at Kingman Army Air Corps Flexible Gunnery School we were lined up by height and I, not surprisingly, was at one end of the line. The Lieutenant in charge instructed the drill-sergeant to take that half of the line to his left to Martin Upper Turret training, and those to the right to Sperry Lower Ball Turret training.

His left and the sergeant's left were reversed, of course, and I went completely through and graduated as a lower ball turret gunner although I was so crammed in that I could reach only one trigger in that turret. Poor Shorty Spires, at the other end of the line had to chin himself on Martin Upper Turret until he graduated!

After graduation I may have been returned to SAACC or I may have been shipped directly to Kirtland Airfield in Albuquerque, NM for Bombardier Training. I entered with Class 44-3 but missed a week or so due to illness and was shifted to 44-4. Here I met my two closest Army buddies, Al Pierard from Arma, KS and Paul Regnier from Minneapolis. We spent what free time we had together.

Each bombing training mission involved a pilot and the two cadets he flew over the targets. One would drop practice bombs on a target and the other photographed the results from a hatch in the waist. The cadets would then change positions. A Cadet's success was evaluated from the films.

I knew that my cousin Emory Nielsen and his wife Barbara (Life with Father) had moved to Albuquerque from the East Coast some years back, but I called them only when I had been there about a month and again felt better.

It will be hard to do justice to the Nielsen's generous hospitality, entertaining not only me, but Al and Paul as well, at every opportunity.

A revealing episode worth relating concerns Barbara's assumption that the three of us would have Thanksgiving dinner with the Nielsen family. When this became explicit, I told Barbara that I was disappointed, but we had to fly on Thanksgiving Day. She was outraged and said, "Harry (the base Commanding Officer) wouldn't do anything like that!" I responded by just saying we were all sorry.

When I got back on base I thought, "Harry???", and laid a few bets that, in spite of the schedule, we would not fly on Thanksgiving. In addition to a marvelous dinner, I picked up a few bucks.

While in Bombardier training we had several weeks of Dead Reckoning and Pilotage navigation instruction that increased our value to an aircrew.

While there we spent a week or two on bivouac, which prepared us for some of the rougher life we might meet in a combat theatre. It came in handy and we had a lot of fun (remember, we were all kids!)

Al Pierard, with whom
we were so close in Albuquerque sadly. remained in Class 44-3, graduating some weeks ahead of 44-4 and thus was not with us on bivouac or other final activities

During the four months at Kirtland Field I had some further adventures in which "Harry," as our CO, played a role. First, I was gigged for not saluting Harry's staff car as it drove by me, though it carried only the driver.

Then, by some process I never understood, I was nearly eliminated from the cadet corps because the photographs I took of my bombing partner's hits were not satisfactory! It was absurd, but a big deal, just short of a Courts-Martial!

My cousin Emory was not only big in the New Mexico Republican Party, he was also in charge of War Bond sales in the State. As I reflect on this period of my training, I suspect that our Thanksgiving-day caper success was a function of Harry's political acumen, but he never forgave me for making him change his training schedule.

When Class 44-4 graduated, Emory and Barbara were present to pin the wings on my blouse.

Then Emory, ever the peacemaker, introduced me to Harry who offered a handshake. I responded with a salute and then immediately took his hand. Though without military experience, Emory recognized that this response had elements of disrespect in it and he never forgave me. Five years later, when my wife and I visited the Nielsens, he was still angry about the episode.

I next went home on leave to show off my uniform, gold bars, and silver wings to my family, my Rohm and Haas coworkers and Betty Anne. Everyone else was gone in some war-related activity.

Within a couple of weeks I was in Lincoln, NE, assigned to heavy bomber crew #4748.

In an unusual configuration, Jack McAullife, our Airplane Commander and First Pilot, was not a commissioned officer, but rather a Flight Officer, the Army Air Corps equivalent of an Army Warrant Officer. Bob McFall the co-pilot, Judson Campbell, the Navigator and I, the Bombardier were all 2nd Lieutenants.

Pilots were commonly graduated with the Flight Officer rank for reasons unrelated to flying ability. Perhaps for matters similar to my problems with Harry.

On our first meeting of the crew's officers in Lincoln, Jack asked if anyone had problems with having his commander at a lower rank than himself. He said if so, he would ask that they be assigned to another crew. No one complained.

The crew then traveled to Davis-Monthan Field in Tucson, AZ for a couple of months of staging training in B-24's. This is where we learned to function as a combat crew and get along with one another.

Jack was a heavy drinker. An alcoholic? At least, he didn't know when or how to stop once he got going.

Over these months there were times when the crew would refuse to fly with him, he was so hung over! Fortunately, bad weather saved him and we got an idea of why he might have been a Flight Officer!

Still, we were close friends and had many good drunken discussions about sex (I was a virgin) and combat (who will be responsible in various situations) in Tucson bars.

Two stories of payday remain with me. First, on payday the bartender at our favorite bar would hold our money for us as we drank, and give it back the next day! We really trusted him. I think, appropriately. Then, as depression children, we never saw so much money at one time. I placed the currency on the bed and we rolled around in it! In addition to many practice missions, we had some fun in Tucson.

As a crew we played golf and went boating on a nearby lake.

In this picture, going from far left to right are Cliff Benson, our Flight Engineer, Jack Winder, Tail Gunner, Jack McAullife, First Pilot, Harry Polofski, Upper Turret Gunner and Charles Fox, Nose Turret Gunner. I, of course was taking the picture.

Our Navigator. Judson Campbell, had his wife with him in Tucson. Showing more sense than most of us, she talked him and our commanding officer into removing him from the crew for "medical reasons."

Paul and I recognized that we had not seen a dentist since entering the Army and it would be a good idea to do so before we went overseas. and made appointments with a civilian dentist we found in the Tucson Yellow Pages.

The waiting room seemed dingy and was occupied only by nervous-looking young women.

Paul wen into the office first and reported that the dentist's tools seemed almost rusty, but the room had signs of fresh blood in a number of locations. The dentist cleaned his teeth and said that nothing more needed to be done. When he came out, he concluded that we were in an abortion "clinic!" I agreed, and left without seeing the "dentist."

Remarkably, we took it upon ourselves to report our experience to the police! Naive city!

Paul and I had dates with local girls and took picnics up on "A" mountain.

The end had to come, of course, and on June 30 we entrained for Topeka, KS where we took possession of our shiny new B-24 and had the picture, seen at the start of the next memoir, taken (sans Campell.)

We had a few days before we were scheduled to fly it overseas. Like many other flyers leaving for the shooting war, I called my girlfriend, Betty Anne and asked her to come out for a final farewell. Her mother, wisely, said no.

McAullife, Polofski and I took a train from Topeka to Kansas City to find some excitement. We had hotel reservations and, after settling in, Jack went out to look for sex. As he left, I said, "Send me up a blonde."

A short time later, answering a knock on the door revealed a blond. She was not a prostitute, which wouldn't have surprised me given Jack's sense of humor. We did do a little light necking on the bed but this babe was not about to take my virginity easily. While we were fooling around, the phone rang and it was Paul in Topeka.

Paul Regnier
Al Pierard

His girlfriend's nother did not say no and she was arriving on the train from Minneapolis and he wanted me to pick her up at the KC train station and see that she got to Topeka. I told the blonde I had to go and picked up Paul's girlfriend. She stayed for a couple of days, but nothing happened!

We got a new navigator, Clifford Bennett, assigned here but did not have a chance to get to know him before we left.

The day we were waiting for finally came, and on July 14, 1944 we left Topeka for Overseas.

Recollections chosen from a Fortunate Life
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