Doris and Ray at the Replacement Depot
|Chapter 6 - Transition Training - B-17 Flying
Fortress / The Big Bird
After two weeks of rest and recuperation in the bosoms of our families and visiting the
highlights of what New York had to offer a newly commissioned second lieutenant with
pilots wings, we regretfully headed south to my new assignment. 4 engine transition school
(B-17). Frankly, Doris and I had enjoyed the respect and envious glances which came our
way. I had removed my uniform hat grommet to allow the 50 mission crush to develop as the
periphery drooped. It had a practical aspect to it; this enabled keeping your hat on while
wearing a head set(ear phones). It was a privilege Air Force personnel were allowed;
secretly we all thought it enhanced the glamorized image of the flight personnel. In
combat we were happy to replace the 50 mission crush with a not so glamorous steel helmet
which could possibly protect your head against flak (shrapnel).
The transition school was located near Sebring, Florida which was lake resort prior to the
war. The town was on the shore of a delightful fresh water lake over which the sunsets
were eye catching. There was the usual hassle of finding a place to stay. After a few days
we located a room in a house on the lake or I should say a hallway that had been blocked
off with a door on each end. Happy to get it since the attic was already occupied. The
women owner slept on the porch. We never could decide whether she was patriotic or cashing
in. Considering the price we paid, guess it was the later.
It didnt take long before I was immersed in the training routine; shepherding 4
engines instead of two; emergency procedures when losing an engine on takeoff, on two in
the air, one on each side; or two on one side; landing with 1,2 or 3 out. More instrument,
formation and night flying. The B-17 wasnt designed for 5 foot 6 inch pilots but two
extra back pillows solved that problem. Lots of muscle was required to fly this aircraft
but you developed these as you go along.
Doris had her own problems adjusting to being an officers wife. Many of the newly
commissioned officers wives played it by the book. clinging together which wasnt
Doris style. Fortunately one of our house mates was a lovely Creole girl married to
a New Jersey sergeant. Doris and she hit it off. Apparently, her color shade was the
source of trouble to her. We were color blind and spent many hours on the lake front
together watching the sunsets. An amusing incident occurred after a swim one night. We
were in our room (hallway) undressing and neglected to lock the doors. So lo and behold
the door opens, it had started to rain and one of the occupants of the house looking for
shortcut opened it catching Doris with her bathing suit, around her knees. With a loud
`uh, ah he retreated quickly but not before Doris was visibly red faced.
We were able to spend many Sundays in town, enjoying the Seminole, Indians visiting and
the beautiful environment. Of course the realities continued to intrude. On a cross
country night training flight, with myself another pilot and a flight engineer; after
climbing above the overcast the flight engineer started pounding my shoulder and pointed
to the left wing; number one engine was on fire. With beating hearts we went thru the
engine feathering procedure and hit the fire extinguishers. To our chagrin the blaze
continued lighting up the entire wing. We had to get on the ground quickly. Our gas supply
was located in the wings behind the engines. To our embarrassment none of us now knew
where we were. I let down slowly thru the overcast and was delighted to spot a airport
beacon. Although we didnt know its location we made a fast pass over the tower,
entered the traffic pattern and landed, although the runway was shorter than I would have
liked. A fire truck made short work of the blaze and after discreetly asking for a phone
to call our field and incidentally spotting our location (hot pilots are not supposed to
get lost) we let our squadron know where we were. The only question asked was the
condition of the aircraft. I guess it was more important than two fledging pilots. This
incident helped our confidence, particularly after getting back, the squadron commander
stating, "Good work, Levine". Of course he was never told that we had been lost.
After completing 125 training hours in the B-17, Doris and I went on to Plant Park, Tampa,
Florida where replacement crews were assembled. My crew consisted of myself, a copilot,
navigator, bombardier, top turret gunner, radio operator, ball turret gunner two waist
gunners and a tail gunner. Norris the copilot was the oldest, 27 years, a quiet steady
fellow married for a number of years and satisfied with the copilots position. The top
turret gunner Flynn, who was also the engineer, was a bright young man about 20 years old,
the bombardier Chapman was about the same age, a quiet reserved midwesterner, engaged. The
navigator was a mature 25 years old, excellent at his job as I later found out, married
and quite affluent; owned a convertible. Apparently, his father was a big time clothing
manufacturer in New York. The rest of crew were unusual as they were all transferees from
the infantry, qualified as gunners. Demarco about 19 years old, the radio operator had
also transferred from the infantry. The ball turret gunner was, Agantovish, 22 years old
from a steel town in Pennsylvania, a small happy go-lucky fellow. Tail gunner was Corning
about 26 years old, a Wisconsin farmer, strong as a mule, stolid and reliable. We learned
to appreciate his mothers cheeses which came weekly. Aldrich and Laferty were the
waist gunners both about 23 and heavy drinkers as I later found out. Apparently there had
been a shortage of Air Corps gunners and my gunners seized the opportunity to transfer
being promised eventual promotions to sergeant. They couldnt have foreseen the
future unfortunately. Flynn had also switched from a previous assignment to my crew to
help a friend of his. In retrospect Ive been struck by the arbitrary nature of the
selection process by which crews were formed. Powerful crew bonding was necessary to
permit them to face death together with the reasonable expectation that each would perform
as required, without this bonding organizational teams could not survive.
Doris and I remember the two weeks in Tampa as the hottest, most humid assignment thus far
and spent most of it hopping from one air conditioned location to another. As luck would
have it my crew was assigned to Drew Field just outside of Tampa for operational training.
During our stay in Tampa we had had some lengthy discussions about the importance of this
training phase and reluctantly decided that Doris would return to New York so that I could
focus on training my crew for our combat assignment. In addition we had developed a money
shortage due to overspending for air conditioned hotel rooms and a month in New York
earning a New York salary would be helpful. This all sounded very logical at the time but
shortly after we parted I felt so lonely I started a flow of letters to Doris expressing
my feelings asking her to return sooner.
A couple of excerpts from these letters follow:
Its been a week now since we parted - Ive counted everyday. Hated to see them come
since it was just another day of work, toil and strain yet their passage meant one day
less until your return.
Couldnt face the empty barracks so as tired and as sick as I felt I got dressed and
went into town.( Got some typhus and cholera shots today which made me feel woozy).
I ended up at a show wishing you were here.
Went into Tampa tonight and here I am back early as usual. On my way back on the bus I
unconsciously found myself looking for a place you would like to stay at. Since I wrote
that letter yesterday asking you to come back to Tampa early Ive been wondering how
I could be so selfish. I know youd be better off at home yet I just dont feel
too conscience stricken.
|Evidently Doris was also lonely so before long we were
reunited and managed financially somehow. I anticipated Doriss arrival and went to
the Elks Club rental bureau and inquired about the availability of a room. Was overjoyed
that there was a room available with a Mrs Maney. A phone call confirmed it. I will never
forget the question put to Mrs. Maney 'This officer is Jewish, do you mind?' Mrs. Maney
did not and since rooms were scarce and I needed the room I ignored the question but was
reminded that prejudice could rear its ugly head at any time - even during wartime.
Mrs. Maney turned out to be a delightful warm young women whose husband was in the Navy.
When she got to know Doris better she asked her if she had horns, one of the eternal myths
that southerners had been exposed to. Laughingly, Doris lifted her curly hair from her
forehead and said 'See for yourself' and they both had a good laugh.
The stay at Drew Field added much to our memory book and we continued to expand our view
of the world.