Selman Field, Monroe, Louisiana
This was a twelve-weeks course in various types of aerial navigation. If we passed, we received navigator’s wings and either the rank of second lieutenant or warrant officer. The types of navigation included: dead reckoning, line-of-sight, celestial, and radio. There was a considerable amount of math involved, especially in celestial navigation. Classes were held both at day and night; there was a lot of homework. Much of the time was spent in the air, flying in twin-engine Hudsons, especially equipped for navigational training. There was a college-like, rather than military, atmosphere.
Our class consisted of cadets who had washed out of pilot training somewhere in the country. Of course, we had great stories to tell each other. I took special pride in the fact that I had washed out on PT-19s, rather than the lowly PT-17s flown by the other guys. We all had gunner’s wings and so we were different from all the other cadets, who had come directly from the Classification Center into navigation training. The Army had its own way of making sure that everyone knew about this difference: while our textbooks were the same as all the others, the covers were marked with large letters: “NAVIGATION FOR WASHED OUT PILOTS”.
We sort of took this recognition as a challenge to be different. Whenever the entire school marched on the parade grounds, the various squadrons would sing songs in strict military time. We learned a version of “Rosie the Riveter” that had a syncopated beat. As we came close to another marching squadron, we’d break out into “Rosie the Riveter”, and throw them off stride.
There were about twelve guys to a barracks, but five of us became very close: Lester Hershey, Bob Hedden, Aldo Ricci, Murray Schwartz and I. We considered ourselves to be the top students in our flight (class)- getting marks of 90 and above on every test. Al Ricci was the sharpest. The rest of us sat on the four sides of his desk. One never knew when a little “help” might be needed.
Les and Bob were our BMOCs (Big Men On Campus). They understood how to get women. While the rest of us might go into town and come back at night, Les and Bob were often invited to spend a night somewhere. I remember walking in Monroe and seeing the two driving by, in a red convertible, with female companions. “School teachers,” Les confided, in answer to my question.
Maury was our comedian and resident gambler. Always joking, he had a great smile and a wonderful way of laughing. He was forever borrowing money for a barracks card game or craps. My folks would often send me large packages of goodies. Maury would ask me for some candy and then sell it in order to get into games.
I did fine in school- so long as we stayed on the ground. Being in navigation school in no way altered my basic handicaps: fear of height, constant motion sickness, and “directional dyslexia” (I could not tell left from right.). In summary, my ground test marks averaged about 96, my air test marks averaged about 56. Adding the two scores together and dividing by two, produced an overall passing grade of 76 (96+56=152/2=76). It was the Army way.
The first time in the air, we flew into Texas and I discovered something: everything looked the same. Contrary to those geographic jigsaw puzzles, there were no dividing lines or difference in colors to identify one state from another! I could see that would present a navigational problem. That was about as much as I could absorb before reaching for the throw-up bag. I didn’t want to look out anyway.
It was clear that my being constantly airsick would be disastrous. My parents came through. My mother sent me a supply of “Mothersill’s Sea Sick Pills”, hoping that they would help. The package came just in time. That afternoon, I was scheduled to be the navigator on a training flight. The route was an easy one, taking us out about a hundred miles and then returning to Selman Field. Just before we took off, I took one of the pills. However the flight was bumpy and it shortly became very clear that I would needing the throw-up bag. So I took another pill. For some reason we hit a patch of smooth air, and I was able to actually concentrate on navigating- sitting at my desk, calculating time, speed and distance and then giving the pilot directions. It was just like being on the ground. In fact, after a while, it was even better than being on the ground. I had a feeling of elation, of joy, of happiness. I got up and walked up behind the pilot and actually looked out and down! No problem, no fear- and no air sickness! I began walking up and down the airplane, singing. The pilot kept waiting for my further directional instructions, but none came. I didn’t care. So, on we flew into the night, finally landing at some airport that he found, far inside Texas. We spent the night there and the next day the pilot brought us back home, using his radio compass. My responsibilities were over.
For celestial navigation, we learned to use sextants to “shoot” the stars, just like the naval navigators of old. Somehow, we were to get readings which we then used to develop our location, referring to large star manuals. It just seemed to me that this whole procedure might work for the navy, when ships were moving at 20 miles per hour, but we were moving at seven to eight times that speed. By the time we figured out where we were at the time of the reading, we were now from 60 to 75 miles past that point. Moreover, while a naval vessel can be fairly stable, our planes were bouncing all over the sky. It was almost impossible to get any kind of an accurate reading on the sextant. I regarded the entire procedure as a sort of frustrating game, but “Mothersill’s Seasick Pills” made it tolerable.
Then our training was over. We had taken our final exams, we had passed and now we awaited word as to whether we were second lieutenants or warrant officers (a lower, strange grade, neither an officer nor an enlisted man). We were told that we should wait in our barracks and that the names of those becoming warrant officers would be called off on the camp loudspeakers. It certainly was tough on those whose names were called. And, of course, we had no idea of when the name-calling would stop. It was a long day. Finally no more names were being called, and we knew that the five of us had made it.
The next day, we received both our gold bars and our navigator’s wings. We were told of our new uniform allowance and our much higher rate of pay. We raced to the uniform store and bought some basic officer uniforms. Since we did not know whether we would ultimately be going to the Pacific or to Europe, with much different weather conditions, we only bought a minimum amount of new clothes. Then followed our pinning of each other’s bars and wings- and much practice return saluting.
It was a good day- with one major exception. Every graduating class before us had received a 21-day leave- a chance to go home, to show off and celebrate before going to bomber crew training and combat. We were told that there were no leaves and that our travel orders had been cut. We were to report for bomber crew training almost immediately. It was hard, telling our parents that we weren’t coming home after all.
Maury Schwartz and I found that we were both being assigned to an Army Air Corps base at Tonopah, Nevada. We decided to go there the safest way, by railroad.
© Steven E. Schanes 2001
April 6, 2000