Chapter 2: Windsor Locks Airforce Base, Bradley Field, Connecticut
At the end of June,1942 I graduated from the "Academy Of Aeronautics" at LaGuardia Field, Long Island, New York as as an Airplane Mechanic, with a diploma from a Civilian School, having completed a 2 year course in just 6 months as a member of the U.S. Army Air Corps.
We then marched down 5th avenue in New York City on Army Day, and shortly thereafter my class of 24 (one of us flunked out), reported back to Mitchell Field,N.Y. from whence we had originated.
Army Day on 5th Avenue NY: the tradition continues
We found ourselves now in the 66th Squadron of the 57th Fighter Group. We had been sent to school from the Basic Training cadre, not belonging to any squadron. We found that the 57th Group had been formed on January 15, 194l shortly after we were sent to school. A number of men from the 8th Fighter Group formed the 66th Squadron cadre, which consisted mainly of men from Texas where they had been serving as ground-crew of army training aircraft. The balance of the squadron was made up of men from New England, who were quite surprised to discover that they were "damn Yankees”, (according to the Texans) ...
In August 194l the group moved to its new home at Windsor Locks, Connecticut, called “Windsor Locks Air force Base“, which had been constructed to base the 57th group. It was completely camouflaged (landing strips, hangars, and installations), so that from the air the entire area resembled one of the many surrounding tobacco farms. The base had been carved out of virgin woodlands and the only connection between all our barracks buildings were narrow paths.
At that time the squadron consisted of only four aircraft, three P-40s and one two-place trainer. Since gasoline and ammunition were scarce, few flights were made for training and gunnery. It was believed that we were not receiving the required amount of P-40s because they were all being shipped to China to be used by General Chennault’s "Flying Tigers", the A.V.G (American Volunteer Group).
We did eventually receive some aircraft so that all crews could get experience in servicing them. During one of the gunnery practice flights, Lt. Bradley’s aircraft crashed and he was killed. Thus it was that the name of the airfield was changed to "Bradley Field".
Bradley Field CT 1944
In the fall, the group sent 25 aircraft to Riverside, California on maneuvers, however disaster struck as they ran into inclement weather and only two out of the twenty five reached their destination. In exchange, a group of A-20 medium bombers flew to Bradley Field from Savannah, Georgia Air Base, and many of our ground crew assisted in their maintenance during their stay.
One morning while I was re-fueling one of those bombers, a Captain asked me if I would like to accompany him on a flight to New England. I said yes, and I climbed through the hatch in the rear under part of the plane. I could not figure out how to shut the hatch door, as I had never seen it before, and immediately we were taxing toward the end of the field to take off .
So, I sat in the only seat, which had a small windshield through which I could see the pilot and co-pilot and beyond them the bombardier’s "nose" position. In front of me was an instrument panel with many instruments, and I found rudder pedals , a flight control stick, a radio and oxygen equipment. In other words, in an emergency, the crew chief could fly the airplane!
We took off and made a 3-hour flight all around New England, passing over Cape Cod, and fortunately I was wearing fur-lined leather flying clothing, or I would surely have frozen because the hatch was open throughout the flight! When we returned and dropped over the edge of the runway, just before our wheels touched the ground, I noticed that the Airspeed indicator showed our speed as 220 Miles Per Hour ! We had been averaging over 300 Miles per hour during the flight, which is only what our pursuit planes cruise at! What a "hot" airplane it was!
Not long thereafter we were all called into a large meeting tent where we were addressed by Gen. Claire Chennault from a dais. Alongside him was a beautiful oriental lady who was introduced to us as Madame Chang, the wife of Generalissimo Chang Kai Shek (the emperor of China) who was in the US studyig for a Master's Degree. General Chennault told us that he was commanding the "Flying Tigers", a group of American civilian volunteers who were going to go to China, to provide air support for the Chinese Army which was at that time trying to repel the invading Japanese Army.
(Left): General Chennault (Right):Flying Tigers in China
He asked for volunteers, and said that we would be discharged from the US Army and would go there as volunteers. He showed us the pay scale, as best as I can recall it went something like $600.00 a month for Pilots and a bonus for each Japanese plane shot down. $200.00 a month for Mechanics (I was earning $30.00 a month at that time), so much for armament men, radio men, etc. I got on line to volunteer, and when asked for my date of birth I said May 30, 1921.
The man said I was under 21 and could not sign a legal contract. So I could not join the AMG and go to china. This is interesting because when I returned home after 37 months overseas in the middle east and European theaters, the AVG had just returned home from China After 4 years there, they were all moderately wealthy because they received no salary, but were provided with room, board and all expenses, while their salaries were invested for them by the American Volunteer Group. ! (Talk about being too young “)
The next important date there was Dec 7th, 1941 a date which I can never forget. Three of us clever New Englanders were given the task of maintaining the fires in the coal stoves in all of our seven barracks buildings, night and day for a period of 9 days. So we arranged for each of us to do the task for 3 days while the others went home on pass. Every 4 hours we had to tend the fires, and when it was my turn, after two days and nights, I awoke the third morning all alone in the barracks, and It was COLD! The alarm clock had rung itself out without awakening me.
So I set about starting seven fires from scratch, and when I had built fires in 6 of the barracks, only the Orderly room building remained to do. As I walked cross the parade grounds towards it, I saw the entire squadron lined up in front of the building and the First Sergeant was making a speech. I thought it odd that for the first time he was wearing a web belt, containing a Colt 45 Automatic. When he saw me he pulled out the Automatic and waved it in my face shouting “Schwartz, we are at war, and I could shoot you for this"! It was thus that I learned of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
That same evening, in a driving rain storm ,we packed up, loaded on to a train which moved us back to Mitchell Field, and we then occupied the same hangar where I had spent my 8 weeks of basic training.
Several days later, three DC-3 Transport Planes were taxied up near the hangar doors .The First Sergeant Read off 75 names and those men were sent to the Philippines. Those chosen were to take their “A” and “B” bags and load into the 3 Transports, and fortunately for me; they started the list from the letter "A". My family name being "Schwartz", they never got to the "S's”! One chap, who was a clever attorney in private life, responded that his “B” bag had a large hole in it. The First Sergeant then said “Cross him off the list, who is the next man”!
It was only some time later that we learned of the fall of the Philippine Islands, and of the horrors suffered by our troops during the “Bataan Death March”, and we whose names were not on that list realized how close we came to being killed or captured when the Japanese Army conquered the Philippines!
So ends Chapter 2 of my wartime memoirs.