A PIECE OF THE ACTIONby Bob Holliday
As a kid I liked to build model airplanes and I remember buying those rubber-band toys that really flew. I also remember looking up and seeing strange mechanical birds flying by. Some of them had open frameworks for fuselages-those may have been Bleriots. I can vaguely remember the excitement when Lindbergh flew the Atlantic in 1927--I was five at the time. In the early thirties my grandfather took me to the Bendix Trophy Races at Clover Field (now Santa Monica airport). I watched Gee-Bees whiz around the pylons.
My best friend Tom Sturgeon and I used to ride our bikes out to Clover Field in Santa Monica. We would ride right out to the hangars and watch the Navy biplanes being assembled by Douglas Aircraft. Yellow and blue they were.
The real excitement came when my mother decided to treat Tom and me to an airplane ride in an old Waco biplane. That was in 1933 and I think it cost her five bucks apiece. We sat side-by-side in the rear cockpit and took off with a satisfying roar. The pilot made some steep banks as we wheeled over Santa Monica. All very stimulating, especially when we landed and discovered that we had not fastened our seat belts. It's a lucky thing that pilot didn't try any upside-down flying!
I used to read all the adventure books in the Santa Monica Library, Children's Department, especially those about Rhodes of the 94th, an intrepid flyer during World War I. And I loved movies about aviation, especially as we moved into the thirties and forties and we saw John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart flying into battle.
I started at UCLA in February 1939, majoring in English and Music but not really having any definite goals. I must say, though, that those P38s buzzing the campus really caught my attention. In 1940, at my mother's suggestion, I spent the summer working my way through Willis Business College as a janitor and learning to type, take shorthand, write business letters, and do rapid arithmetic. Then fate stepped in. Late that summer we learned that Douglas wanted some young male typists. At that time the only women at Douglas were the executive secretaries. I decided it would be good experience to take some time off from college and work at Douglas. In October of 19401 was hired as a typist in Experimental Planning, Department 32, located in the Big Hangar where the B19 bomber was being built. That was really exciting because the B19 was the largest aircraft ever built. I remember that its tail was 42 feet high, its wingspan was 212 feet, and it carried as much fuel as a railway tank car, around 11,000 gallons. I typed many of the shop orders for the B19, then went on to chase after machine tools, blueprints, and parts. My interest in aviation was being honed, and I realized the importance of the engineers at Douglas.
But I couldn't make any long-range plans because I was due to be drafted into the service. Meanwhile I returned to UCLA during the day and worked at Douglas at night. One semester I carried a full course load of 15 units, including ROTC and physical education, which involved getting ready for the military by running obstacle courses and cross-country. At night I would walk as much as twenty miles looking for parts. I don't know how I handled that but it sure prepared me for the military. Sure enough, I reported to Union Station in February 1943 and was shipped to Lincoln, Nebraska for boot camp. I was classified as an Aviation Student, someday to be a cadet.
From Boot Camp to Preflight
Military life was different, for sure. It was fourteen degrees below zero in Lincoln and the Army was out of uniforms for the first few days, so we tried to get by with our California sportswear and some towels. I remember standing in line for chow and passing out because of the cold. I came to partly, but everything was blurred as 1 went through the chow line. It would take more than that to make me miss a meal!
We had a mean little corporal marching us around and getting us up at 4 am for barracks parties—which meant scrubbing the place down. One time he asked those of us with ROTC training to step forward and we wound up on latrine duty. What a come-down from those heady days at UCLA and Douglas! Actually, life had become easier because I was in great shape.
I remember one incident at boot camp that illustrated how stupid the Army could be. We finally had our uniforms, complete with overcoats and gas masks. Immediately after we went through tear-gas training, and were soaked with the stuff, we were herded into a theater for a lecture on how to avoid syphilis, or something like that. We all sat there with tears streaming down our faces and nobody cared.
Some of the meals were unbearable, like smelly fish with the heads still on. I was to learn later that the mess officer at Lincoln was court-martialed for buying cheap food and pocketing the difference.
Anyway, in May 1943 I was shipped to a College Training Detachment at Montana State College in Bozeman. What a change! We lived in student dorms and were treated like VIPs, even entertained by local folks. It was still snowing in May but we found time to attend our first ground school classes and take our first airplane rides. Some of the classes had an engineering flavor because they were taught by engineering instructors. However, this was just a way of keeping us in the pipeline until there was space for us in the real aviation cadet program. It was a pleasant interlude.
By summertime I was a real cadet marching around Santa Ana Army Air Force Base back in Southern California. This was called Preflight and there was no flying training, just ground school and lots of marching. It was so hot there that passing out on the parade grounds was fairly common. I had my Model A Ford parked there and was able to drive home to Santa Monica several times. My girl friend's folks started calling me their Soldier Boy.