By Jack Sheridan
From They Never Had It So Good
In these excerpts from his book, Jack Sheridan tells of being quickly converted from mechanic to clerk of the 350thSquadron. One of his first duties was to keep the squadron journal, usually a depressing record, kept in grudging compliance with regulations. Jack’s earliest entries became the first chapter of the book which was distributed to all the 350th people and paid for by the slush fund, fed by a one-armed bandit in the day room. Jack, who at this writing, works for a Lubbock, Texas newspaper, has had several novels published here and in England. These selections provide a squadron’s-eye view of the early days.
As In storybooks and in the movies, it was a collection of bakers and butchers, clerks, and mechanics, salesman and farmers, schoolboys and vagrants, all banding together to do a work strange and ill-fitting. The officers at their head were painfully awkwardly new. The men were new. The job was new. Everyone was bewildered and unsure. Everyone was stepping on everyone else’s feet. But on paper they were the beginnings of the 350th and the seeds of their loyalty had been sown on fertile ground. So they got ready to grab their pencils and paper, their tubes and their trucks, and their wrenches and their charts, and dug in. on the first night the company clerk, Sergeant Kenneth R. Peterson hauled out his typewriter – one on which the "R" key always stuck – and wrote on a clean page the Morning Report – October 27 350th Bomb Sq. (H) activated as part of the 100th B Gp (H)." The 350th was on it’s way.
And so while I was on intimate terms with the B-17 in Burbank, California, these things were coming about in Boise, Idaho. Thus the new 100th Bombardment Group (H) was born and came into being. Thus the 350th Bombardment Squadron (H). On the morning of October 29, 1942, two days after they were activated, the Group left Gowen Field by rail for their first training station. There is an entry in the 350th Squadron’s Morning Report that covers it well: "Left Gowen Field, Idaho, by troop-train at 0945. arrived AAB Walla Walla, Washington, 2350. Morale excellent.
In those days of training a Group underwent about three phases. In the first phase, immediately following the activation of the unit, they went off, comprised only of their ground echelon, the maintenance and administrative personnel. There were no aircrews assigned to them as yet and their initial training was to learn to administer themselves and how to coordinate their efforts so that when the aircrews were assigned they would be ready and know what to do. True there were a few planes. The Squadron Commanders were flyers as well as the Group Commander and such personnel as the Operations Officers. But all in all it was ground units in the beginning phase. The plan called for a setup like this. First month: stationed at a field for preliminary and administrative training as above. Second month: assignment of aircrews and coordination between air and ground crews with accent on practice bombing and accurate maintenance of aircraft. Third month: further all-around training and preparation for combat. After that – overseas and the job. Each month was to be spend at a different airbase in some part of the western states. This is about what any of them knew was in store for them at that time.
And so they came to Walla Walla for the first month’s training, the first phase on a the road to a war that seemed awfully far away and unreal. They first met Darr Alkire, Colonel, A.C., who arrived at Walla Walla a few days after the Group. Alkire was vitriolic of speech and quick-witted, stinging on occasion like a smarting lash. He soon made his future course known to the Group under his command. His methods were sure and swift, his purposes solid and unwavering, and his ultimate destination – as he bluntly told the wide-eyed Group in their first meeting was murder. Literally he hated the Axis and before the meeting came to a end, Alkire’s men knew that and felt the 100th Group and it’s squadrons were "in the business of blood!" The Colonel’s tongue stirred the eager blood of the men who heard him, and his purpose began to fire and to glow as a common goal within the Group. The war wasn’t quite as far away as it had been.
Captain Cleven had one of the Forts off the ground one afternoon and the weather suddenly turned to a pea-soup fog, one of those clinging fogs that held to the ground with a terrible and final destiny. And when the fog was the thickest and most impenetrable was the time Cleven choose to come in. Word flew around the squadron and the entire personnel headed for the ramp. From the unknown overhead came the steady drone of the Fortress’ engines. Through the tower radio they advised him not to attempt the landing. "I’m coming down," Cleven laughed slightly over his radio, "I got a date." Finally down through the veil came the black shadow of the slowly settling plane. The men ranged on the edge of the ramp held their breaths, and crossed their fingers, straining to see through the fog, but it was impossible. Down he came, down some more, down and suddenly through a crack in the fogbank they saw him. Onto the landing the big ship settled with ease and care. There was that hesitant sigh as the wheels touched the ground and the little rubbing scruff of the tires, and the triumphant singing roar of the engines bursting forth; then throttling down as he taxied toward the hanger. The men smiled a little at each other and went back to work.
The first month, the month of November passed. The weather was uniformly rotten and there was only one plane in the hanger. So there was actually little to do. The personnel grew in strength so that when the day came to move our of Walla Walla it was a far larger outfit leaving than it had been on arriving.
The Squadron moved out on November 27th and made an uneventful trip in two sections of a train, both leaving about 0800 that evening. Two day earlier a troop train borne me to Salt Lake City for assignment to my permanent unit as a mechanic. As a specialist on the B-17. As a very unhappy person. I knew I couldn’t carry the joke much further. It wasn’t so much me I was worried about. It was the lives of the crewmembers of what ship I’d be assigned to! The war was bad enough, something had to be done even at the sacrifice of my pride and dignity.
"Captain", I said, desperately, to the officer in the Salt Lake Base Office. "Somebody’s made a terrible mistake!"
"How?" he said quietly.
"I’m not really a mechanic. I don’t know anything about mechanical work." He looked down at my Form 20. It was all written on that damn card.
"But, you’ve been through two schools,:" he said, somewhat thickly.
"I know, I know all that. But the Army did it. I didn’t learn anything. I just can’t get mixed up in it." The last came from me in agony.
"Well," he continued to look at the card. "There’s nothing I can do about it. You should have said something before you got into these schools."
"Should have said something!" I just looked at him. Hell, I didn’t know I was going to school until I was in, and then it was too late. They kept saying after you got out of school you could do something. Well I was out and I still couldn’t do anything. I just looked at him.
He looked from the card and back to me. Then back to the card. "You’ve got enough qualifications for officers’ school," he said. "When you get to your permanent unit just tell them and apply for OCS. That‘s the way out.
It was the only way out. The next day this prospective officer candidate was place in a day coach and borne out from Salt Lake across acres of salt flats to the Utah-Nevada line to a stop called Wendover, which is in Utah but which lops over into Nevada. That’s the illegal end of town.
The first sight of Wendover Army Air Base, Utah, in those days, was not good. I have a hunch it still looks awful. There isn’t much man can do to a place like Wendover. Nature beat us to it. This is where they brought me, mechanic by training, officer candidate by desire, and destined to be a latrine orderly by command that same evening!
The next day was the 28th and spent the day wrapped in my thoughts, cleaning out a row of barracks for the impending arrival of the 100th Bomb Group to which I was to be assigned. I could do nothing until I was assigned. On the 29th my thoughts and I cleaned some more barracks, mopping and sweeping and making up cots. On the 30th I hit a new high. I cleaned, in company of three other mechanics, the foulest kitchen know to man. But so long as I was removed from the though of mechanical work I was willing. I personally volunteered to clean the stove, which I finished at ten-thirty that night to no thanks from anyone and one query from a bunk mate as to whether I had been down having a beer
The next day, December 1st I joined the 350th Bomb Squadron. Though, since I was there first and made all preparations for them, I preferred to think of it as the 350th joining me. Which ever way it was I was in like Flynn. The Group, officers and men alike took one look at the surrounding countryside and were unimpressed. They clambered from the trains and lugged their equipment down the dirt roads of the camp to the area that had been set aside for their use during the month. They grabbed bunks in the various tar-papered barracks, each department settling by itself. They tramped around the graveled area with dismay scrawled across their faces. Boy, this was a hole!
The little clump of new men who had spent the previous days cleaning up the place for their arrival were shepherded into the building that housed the Group Headquarters. From there they were assigned to the particular squadron that needed them. I went to the 350th. After I found myself a bunk in the long low barracks next to the same kitchen that I has industriously cleaned the day before, a kid named Ken Davis form the Orderly Room arrived on the scene to tell me that I was to go up to the officers’ quarters, make the Colonel’s bed and keep his fire going through the night. So I spent my first night in the 350th there in the corridors of the Colonel’s quarters. It was during my struggle to make the Colonel’s bed that I met the Group Commander. He wound up virtually making his own bed. He impressed me. I don’t think I impressed him.
I got back to the Squadron area the next morning. There was some guy in the barracks who said 1st Sgt Kirn wanted to see me. He’d been waiting to see me since the night before. I had coal dust on my face and needed a shave, but I had met Kirn the day before. My soldierly instinct told me I’d better go see him now.
"And where in the hell have you been?" Kirn jutted his jaw and stood just behind the wooden railing that separated the squadron from the orderly room personnel. He waited for his answer.
"You sent me to take of the Colonel’s fire all night," I said, meekly, Kirn was a large man, about six foot, with thinning brown hair and large Germanic features. He also had a very loud voice which he was to use in the months to come.
"Lieutenant Bartlett want to see you," he said abruptly, and pushed the swinging gate open to let me in. He pointed through the office to a little alcove where a lanky Lieutenant sat back, his feet propped against the desk. I heard Bartlett’s voice before I met him.
I stepped in, saluted and got ready to apply for OCS. Bartlett reached over and got my Form 20 and gazed at it for a moment. I shifted and waited. After a moment he looked up at me,
"Will you tell me in hell you got into AM school?’ he said with apparent interest. I splayed my finger out at my side.
"I don’t know, sir. I just did.
"Do you like mechanical work?" The tone of Bartlett’s voice implied I didn’t, that I couldn’t.
"No sir," I opened my mouth to apply for OCS.
"We need a man with experience in the orderly room. Want it?" I did.
And I went to work in the orderly room. I got to know everyone in the orderly room, naturally, before I knew anyone else. There was the CO, Captain Cleven, but he flew a lot and was in and out and I never knew much about him, except that he liked candy, movies, and flying, and everyone who was in the squadron at Walla Walla seemed pretty sold on him. The Adjutant whose room was just beyond the big open office, Lieutenant Varian, I got to know fairly well. He was young man who worked very hard and late at night. He was the one the Captain called "Little Chum." Lieutenant Bartlett, who was the statistical officer, dropped in and out of the office and seemed to be the guy who did most of the assigning of new personnel. He was dry and personable and quite unperturbed about assigning mechanics to be clerks and cooks to be latrine orderlies. Everyone else seemed to think he was doing all right and I knew he’d done okay by me. Lieutenant Tienken had his supply room on the other end of the long building from the orderly room and when I picked up my blankets he was buried in a pile of dirty bedding, being extricated by his two assistants, a tall spindly southerner named Thomas Whitmire and a little fat Pennsylvanian named Jimmy Rinaldi. The orderly room force I got to know as I worked with them.
There was Kirn, the king pin, the first soldier, who had been in the Army for what was a long time then, had been in Honolulu and all over the States. He knew probably more about what was going on around him than anybody else, officers included. Everyone knew it a left him alone. He had things pretty much his own way. Kirn had a remarkable brain. He went plowing around the squadron area getting all the new men in the right barracks, in the right beds, his brain full of charts, forms and things that had to be done. At first he had a staff which didn’t know anything, aside from Harold Garic, who did know his payroll, and Peterson, who handled the morning report. But the rest of them sat around waiting for Kirn to explain what he wanted done, to give them a shove. So he had all that to cope with. He also felt it necessary to keep a weather eye on what Lieutenant Varian and Bartlett were doing with personnel assignments. He lost his temper frequently and loudly as First Sergeants generally do.
The Groups next station, the last of the scheduled three was Sioux City, Iowa. Accommodations on the troop train were excellent. The Orderly Room clerks had nabbed off a car of compartments and bedrooms, offering the feeble excuse that they had to have a private room in which to do orderly room work. As if any of them ever worked on train! Except Peterson, who typed, "No change in the Morning Report" and tucked it away. Morale was good, even if you had to wait until it was your car’s turn, then file down through the reconditioned baggage car with your mess kit and cup, praying all the time some jerk didn’t spill his coffee all over you, then stagger back through the swaying train to your seat with a plate heaped with food and always, ever-menacing coffee. There was no work to do. The Squadron sat back in their seats and watched Wyoming slip past. Some of them gathered around Johnny Riffle who had a guitar and sang all the old West Virginia favorites like "Precious Jewel" and "Wabash Cannonball." Some of them played little minor games of poker and blackjack; others read, others sat of slept. All of them waited.
The train hit Laramie the next the next morning and then swung off to Denver where it laid over for an hour to let the crew clean and re-water. The fact they laid over too far from town to give the men a chance to get into the city was probably a good thing. As it was one man missed the train. Late that night a feverish Lieutenant Varian gave a sigh of relief as he watched the lone figure gallop up the station platform in McCook, Nebraska to rejoin the outfit. At a reduced grade, rock-bottom.
The train crossed Nebraska during the second night. Shortly before Omaha it swung north, confirming all rumors as to where the Squadron was going. I say, Squadron; actually there were two Squadrons on the train. And another two of the Group following on the train behind. About noon the train crossed the Missouri River into a sleety, snowy, windy Sioux City. Hope ran high; for at least Sioux City was larger. After Wendover it looked like Manhattan. Pfc. Arnold C. Creighton was happy, he lived in Sioux City. The train went though town and finally came to a halt for moment beside a small highway hamlet named, picturesquely enough, Sergeant Bluff. Then slowly it warped and crawled along the curve of a spur into the Base. A large well-ordered base. From the train windows, from the steam-heated interior of the train, it looked pretty promising this 3rd of January.
The day after the ground personnel had settled in Sioux City, Captain Cleven brought in the air echelon. Once again the Squadron was complete, ready for business. This was the beginning of the third and final phase of work. This was the threshold of war. This was the last stage of training. From Sioux City the Squadron was set to proceed to a staging area and from there it was business. The Squadron was ready for it. Most of them that is. During the month came the issue of tin hats, which slipped down over their ears, looked ridiculous and felt like they weighted a ton. We got other hunks of equipments. There could be no doubt the American Army was the best equipped in the world. And there were times in our careers when we figured we had the most of it. They took away our khaki clothes. There was a lot of talk about how and when the move would come. This was the one time, and only time, that rumors seemed a little stagnant. And for good reason too…
Sioux City was a good town. The boys got along well and going into town became a habit instead of the occasion it had been in Wendover. The dances at the Skylon ballroom, the drinks and the girls at the Rathskeller, the good beds at the Martin Hotel, the wild trips across the line into South Dakota, became the attractions. They began to know each other, to like each other. They worked very well, indeed….
Along towards the end of the month there came a restriction. Suddenly the suspense broke with the announcement that all members of the command, the whole of the Group personnel, were to meet in the theatre building for a few well-chosen words from Colonel Alkire. Alkire did not make it a practice of calling meeting unless it was to explain a point that vitally affected the entire unit. The men remembered his fiery training for murder speech in Walla Walla. Those who had not heard him deliver that one had heard the tales from those who had. Everyone went to the meeting with enthusiasm, with a great deal of curiosity. They did not have to wait long – Alkire let them have it. The Colonel stepped before the microphone on the stage of the theatre before the black-framed screen to speak briefly and to the point. All plans for overseas duty had been suspended for ninety days. The men thought of their tin hats, of overseas equipment, of their wives in town. Some of them were mighty glad. Others had gotten ready mentally and they were sorry. But most of them were puzzled and watched the Colonel as he spoke.
The Group was to proceed from Sioux City to a new base which had been established at Kearney, Nebraska. There they would settle down for ninety days. During this time they were carry out the business of processing other groups en route to the combat zone. This meant checking all records, equipment and personnel for final recording prior to takeoff for the combat areas. It was a sort of come-down job for a unit supposed to ready for combat itself. A sort of military valet service. The Colonel was obviously disappointed with the orders. Delays were not in his thinking line. But he was no more disappointed than the majority of the men. His announcement met with silence. The Colonel proceeded to give a little off the record talk to the Group on Kearney itself and methods of conduct which were so important. Kearney, he said, was a little farm town tucked away in the west of Nebraska and Kearneyites were none too sure they wanted any part of this great sprawling air base that has mushroomed up out of their cornfields. They had had a corps of unprincipled and badly disciplined construction troops already. The Colonel had remedy for this.
"Act like gentlemen – at least for the first two weeks!" he begged. The house roared….
The Major thought things had come along right well with his unit so far. It had too. It was decided that before the unit went to Kearney they’d have a party. The ballroom at the Martin Hotel was reserved and lot of girls were invited through the Sioux City clubs. The great night finally rolled around. It was a good party. There was lots of liquor and a lot of girls of all kinds; the food was good and so was the orchestra. It was a huge success. A lot of people kept disappearing upstairs for a little while during the evening and popping back down to the party with regularity. A lot of others apparently got the mistaken idea the party was held in the hotel bar. A lot of people did nothing but eat. Some just danced with their eyes closed. Some just sat on the sidelines and watched. Some went to sleep on the divans in the lounge. Every man did what he wanted to do. Everyone had a good time.