13: The Army Air Corps Pre-flight School

Maxwell Field, Montgomery, Alabama
July-August, 1943

Maxwell Field was hot, muggy and miserable. We were told that it was supposed to be that way. The idea, they said, was that no matter how tough things got later on, we could always say that Maxwell Field was worse. I am certain that we attended classes on airplanes, but these are long forgotten. The other stuff remains in my mind.

We new arrivals were “lower-classmen”, which meant that we were in for hazing by the “upper-classmen”. They were three weeks ahead of us in the training, but there was a world of difference. Their purpose was to make our life a living Hell, and they did a good job. Whenever we were not in class, they were on us, like a pack of wolves. We ran all kinds of crazy errands, never stopped doing push-ups, cleaned their shoes, and stood at attention (“Brace yourself!”) endlessly. (Of course, when they were graduated, we became the upper-class, and passed on to the new boys that which we had learned- in spades.)

Physical training was a major activity. Our “instructor” was Bulldog Turner- a former Chicago Bears football team tackle. In fact, I had seen him play about five years earlier. From our seats, he had looked enormous. However, now we were not football fans in the stands, he looked even larger and he was completely in charge. In the hot Sun, we ran for miles and miles and then we did calisthenics for hours at a time. Bulldog was a huge, muscular man. He would continue to do every exercise until we were totally exhausted. To my surprise, I found that while I was not good in doing push-ups, I could run with the best of the guys, in fact beating most of them, and most amazingly, I could really do sit-ups. The goal was to do 120 sit-ups within a certain amount of time. After several weeks of Bulldog’s training, I could do this and more.

When we ran in formation, Bulldog wanted to hear us sing the songs he liked- which were the “fight” songs of the mid-western colleges and universities. We learned the songs of Michigan, Ohio State, Illinois, and other schools, and sang them endlessly.

At Maxwell Field, I encountered active racial prejudice for the first time. All of our officers were from the South, and they let us know exactly how they felt about African-Americans. One of the cadets had pasted a photograph of Lena Horne, a beautiful black movie star, on the inside of his locker door. They made him take it down. It was one thing for me to have heard about racial prejudice in school; it was quite another to feel and hear the outright hatred and disdain that these white officers had for the “coloreds” (They used another word.).

Also for the first time, I encountered Southern African-Americans. All of the people who served us at the mess hall were black. They seemed to be much darker in appearance than the black people I had met daily at the South Orange, New Jersey railroad station when I picked up the newspapers to bring to our candy store. What was more surprising to me was that although I listened as carefully as possible, I could not understand what they were saying. This was a completely different English dialect from that of the Southern cadets. It emphasized the difference in cultures, not only between the two Southern groups, but also with Northern white people.

In my entire almost three years in the Army, with one minor exception, the only black soldiers I saw were enlisted men. There were none in the Air Corps cadet program. This did not surprise me, since the cadets came from college and there were very few black students in college in those days. That exception: as a group of us cadets were walking the streets of some city, two black Army officers came toward us. I was so surprised at the sight that I almost forgot to salute. Later on, my reaction was one of pleasure- that the Army had made some strides, however small, toward racial equality.

Every day at Maxwell Field was stressful. Outside of classes and physical training, there were long marches and parade drills. I do remember a major parade on a very hot day. We stood at attention for several hours; every now and then, a cadet would collapse. The order was whispered through our ranks: “Let them lie there! Nobody moves!”

One morning, I awoke in the barracks to the sound of church bells. I had heard that when the First World War ended, church bells rang across the country. I prayed that this war was over. No such luck.

While at Maxwell Field, I received a memorable letter from a girl I had fallen in love with during that last semester at Montclair State. We had exchanged letters after I went into service. My letters were tender, hers were cool. However, this letter began with her saying that she loved me and missed me greatly. The first page was filled with loving thoughts. On the second page, she wrote that she knew that I had hoped to receive a letter from her with the words of the first page, but that she just did not have these feelings. She was sorry to disappoint me. I was totally crushed and walked about in a stupor. Mail call had been the one ray of hope in the daily grind, and now that was gone.

Somehow, we survived Maxwell Field. Our shipping orders were secret, but we were going to primary flight school somewhere. As they had said before we got to Maxwell Field, nothing thereafter could be worse. We boarded the train happily!

Published in: on July 13, 2006 at 3:21 pm  Comments Off on 13: The Army Air Corps Pre-flight School  
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