At the Graduation Depot

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 didn’t 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 wasn’t 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 officer’s wife. Many of the newly commissioned officers wives played it by the book. clinging together which wasn’t Dori’s 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 didn’t 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 cheese’s 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 couldn’t have foreseen the future unfortunately. Flynn had also switched from a previous assignment to my crew to help a friend of his. In retrospect I’ve 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:


Hello Kid,

Its been a week now since we parted - I’ve 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.

Couldn’t 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.




Dear Doris,

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 I’ve been wondering how I could be so selfish. I know you’d be better off at home yet I just don’t feel too conscience stricken.





Evidently Doris was also lonely so before long we were reunited and managed financially somehow. I anticipated Doris’s 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.
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