12: The Army Air Corps, Nashville

Nashville, Tennessee
May-June, 1943

The purpose of the Nashville Classification Center was to sort us into specific training for one of the three flight officer positions: pilot, navigator or bombardier. This involved a series of tests, all of which could have been completed in three days or less. However, we were there for about six weeks.

Bakery Detail

We lived in barracks, a severe comedown from the Penn State fraternity houses. There were about twenty men to a barracks. It rained a lot and we drilled in the mud. We also had various daily details, the main one being KP (kitchen police). I learned how to peel potatoes most efficiently. One day, however, things changed. As we lined up for daily duty assignments, the sergeant called out: “I’m looking for two volunteers for bakery detail!” Anything would be better than KP. I raised my hand immediately, as did the fellow next to me. Being the shortest in the squadron, we were in the front row so we caught the sergeant’s eye first. “OK. You two report to the bakery right now. Double time!” We ran to the building housing the bakery.

Another sergeant was waiting for us. He told my companion to wait outside, while he took me inside the building. All that I could see was a wide aisle of low boxes, walled in by stacks of containers. There were bright floodlights above the line of boxes. “Sit down here.” he said, pointing to a stool at the front end of the first box. “Put on these gloves.” He handed me a pair of white gloves. I put them on. “Now,” he said, “with your great Air Corps officer-eyes-to-be, you should be able to see that this box is filled with oil. Notice, that the box right before this one is slightly higher. It is also filled with oil. And so is the box before that one and the each one before that. If you will continue to look up the line of boxes to the far wall, you will see that the first box is fairly high up and that there is a thing that looks like a faucet above it. Do you see the boxes? Do you understand that there is oil in the boxes?” Do you see the thing that looks like a faucet?”

“Yes sir,” I answered. “Yes sir, what?” he asked. “Yes sir, I do see the boxes and I do understand that there is oil in the boxes. I can see the faucet.” “Good,” he continued, “It is very important that you are clear on these basic concepts” “Now, listen very carefully. From the faucet will come a limited amount of raw dough in the shape of a doughnut, which will fall into the first box of oil. Two of such globs will come out at a time. These raw doughnuts will then float on the oil, moving from box to box, until they reach you. By the time they get to you, they will be warm, fresh doughnuts. You will then lift the two doughnuts from the box and you will place them in a cardboard carton.” (Motioning to my right) “That case contains cardboard cartons. Each cardboard carton holds twelve doughnuts. When you have filled a carton, fold the cover over it and place it in this empty case. (Motioning to a box on my left) Is this clear?”

I repeated his instructions to his satisfaction. “Good,” he said, “I’ll be back in time to give you a break.” Then he left. I was alone.

For about ten minutes or more, I sat in total silence. Then, I heard “Putt-putt”- and from the faucet at the other end of the building came two white blobs of dough. They bounced on the oil, slowly floated to the edge of the box, and then they tumbled over into the next box. Again, they floated slowly, tumbled, and dropped into the third box. It was an interesting process. As they moved toward me, I could see that their color was changing. They were becoming doughnuts. I was fascinated and I awaited their arrival with some anticipation. When they reached my box, I let them float to my edge. Then I reached down, lifted them up and placed them carefully in the carton. I had made two doughnuts. This was a significant improvement over KP. I had been told never to volunteer, but this proved that advice was worth as much as you paid for it.

“Putt-putt”- and two more globs began their voyage. As this pair reached the mid-point of the boxes, the faucet said “putt-putt” and two more globs were on their way. Then, before the first pair reached the next box, the faucet went “putt-putt” again. And “putt-putt”, “putt-putt”, “putt-putt”…… Coming toward me was a river of doughnuts.

I could see that one carton was not going to hold the doughnuts, so I reached into the case at my right and pulled out two more cartons. As the first doughnuts arrived, I placed them alongside the initial pair. It seemed to me that while I would have to move fairly fast, I could handle the job. And when the “river” began to reach my box, I found that I could slide them into the cartons fairly easily. Of course, I had to get the filled carton into the empty box on my left and I had to get more fresh cartons, but this was merely a question of smooth coordination of movements. I adjusted my movements to the beat of the faucet; we were in sync. Man and machine working together in smooth efficiency.

Then the faucet changed its beat, going from “putt-putt” to “puttiputt-puttiputt, puttiputt-puttiputt….” The globs of dough began to overlap each other as they pushed their way toward me. The river of doughnuts had become more like the mad rush of lemmings, racing toward the sea. I began to work hard, pulling cartons, filling them and placing them in the empty box. The doughnuts were not sitting as prettily as before, but they were in cartons. And then the faucet again doubled its rate of output and I knew that I was in trouble.

Gone was any idea of neatness. I was grabbing cartons, shoving in doughnuts and throwing the filled cartons into the box. Meanwhile, the oil had soaked my gloves and my hands, and was now permeating the hair on my arms. I could feel the slippery stuff entering my pores. I reached for a carton and it slipped from my grasp. As I bent to pick it up, two doughnuts hit the floor. I scooped them up and caught the next two as they fell. I shoved the four into a carton. However, that did not save the next two- they hit the floor and rolled away. No time to retrieve them. No time to even think about them. New doughnuts were pouring over the box edge. I thrust a carton under them, caught four and lost the two that bounced out. I shoved the four to one side of the carton and caught another four, again losing two. Not too bad a ratio, I reasoned, so I did this maneuver one more time, with the same results. Reality hit me when I had to reach for an empty carton, and four doughnuts went over the side.

“Hey!” I yelled, “Hey! Help! Hey!” No one answered. It was just “me versus the machine” and I was losing badly. Realizing that no help was coming, I did my best, shoving some of the doughnuts into cartons, while almost an equal number landed on the floor. The oil smell filled my nostrils. I made the mistake of wiping my face, and now oil coated my cheeks and entered my mouth. I peeled off the more than useless slippery gloves; my fingers worked better without them. I looked up at the flood of approaching doughnuts: it was an avalanche. I was drowning in doughnuts. Perspiration flowed down my arms and my body and somehow, perhaps by osmosis, the oil seemed to come up my arms inside my shirt and then down my body.

In short order, I lost all sensation of meaning and purpose. I was just grabbing, shoving, and throwing with no thought of accomplishment or care. Doughnuts were everywhere on the floor. In fact, they were beginning to pile up around me- little piles, little menacing piles. I did not look up at the doughnut stream; that would have been too much. I just kept grabbing, shoving and throwing. Every now and then, I yelled “Hey!”.

Suddenly silence. The faucet had stopped. I looked up. The doughnut stream stopped moving. Four more doughnuts hit the floor, but the rest just sat there in the oil box. This was my golden opportunity. I began scooping up the doughnuts that were on the floor and placing them in cartons. After a while, I got up and began looking for doughnuts that had rolled away. Finally, I could find no more. I reached into the oil box and stored the doughnuts closest to me. Then I just sat there, my mind a total blank.

The door opened and the sergeant walked in. “We’re a little late,” he said. “You’ve missed mess, so just go on back to your barracks.”

I wasn’t hungry, so missing mess did not bother me. I found my barracks, walked in, lay down on my bunk, fell asleep and dreamed of doughnuts: Mountains of doughnuts, smelling their oil smell. The next thing I knew, it was night, I was outside the barracks and two guys were holding me. I had walked out of the barracks in my sleep. The same thing happened the next two nights.

I later learned that 25,000 doughnuts were made in that camp daily. I do not know whether I had actually processed 25,000. I do know that I have not eaten a doughnut since May 1943. The mere sight makes my skin crawl as I sense that oil enveloping me. Of course, I have always hoped that no one became sick because of the ones that rolled on the floor that day.

Cultural Differences

For the first time, I shared quarters with boys from other parts of the country. Our barracks had representation from three distinct areas: New England, New Jersey-New York, and Southern states. While I had some difficulty in understanding either the New England and Southern boys, they found it almost impossible to communicate with each other. So, we with the New York accents became the interpreters for the others. This produced a great deal of laughter as we learned each other’s English.

Since we were all college boys, we were used to “bull-sessions”. Every evening there was a heated discussion about politics, morals, religion and, of course, sex. I still remember one argument: Should you marry before you had a job that could support a family? The New Englanders, evidently coming from wealthier backgrounds, said that the answer should be “No”. It was clear that they had no doubt about their ability to obtain such jobs. The rest of us, coming from lower economic backgrounds, said, “Yes”, fearing that if we were to have to wait for such a job to develop, we’d never get married. The diversity and strength of opinions and attitudes on every subject discussed opened my eyes.


Finally, we were advised of our classifications. I had qualified for the position I wanted the least: Pilot. First of all, we cadet pilot trainees were to go to the pre-flight school at Maxwell Field, Montgomery, Alabama. I had heard about Maxwell Field. None of it was good news.

Published in: on July 13, 2006 at 3:21 pm  Comments Off on 12: The Army Air Corps, Nashville  
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