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Graduation day from advanced flight training at Lubbock Army Air Base was April 22, 1943. Graduating members of Pilot Class 43-D were appointed Flight Officer or commissioned Second Lieutenant. We were extremely proud to be wearing the Silver Wings of a Pilot in the United States Army Air Corps. Each of us was given preference to some extent as to the type aircraft we wanted to fly, and if practical, we could choose an air base that would be nearest to our home town.

The B-17 “Flying Fortress” was my choice of aircraft and Pyote Army Air Base was the nearest B-17 base to home. War time cantonments were hastily constructed by necessity so Pyote was no exception. Tar paper BOQs built on desert sand dunes with cactus everywhere, rattlesnakes, scorpions and hurricane velocity sand storms. There was nothing but prairie as far as the eye could see -- just endless space.

My wife was expecting in July, 1943 and naturally I wanted her with me. Pyote was a crossroads with a gasoline station and cafe on one corner and a dry cleaning shack on the other. That was it -- period!

The closest town to the air base was Monahans, about 15 miles away. As the day for reporting in to our first duty station came closer, Monahans began to overflow with flyers and their new brides. All of a sudden the town was inundated with newly-weds. Every newly-commissioned flyer had a wife waiting for him, and they certainly wanted to be together.

Rooms were extremely scarce, apartments or houses were practically non existent. If by some stroke of luck - one could be found, they were prohibitively expensive.

I found a bedroom in a small frame house owned by a couple with 5 small children. The youngest one wasn’t house broken, so we had to be careful about walking anywhere in the house.

The time had come to report to the adjutant of my new duty station at Pyote. It was somewhat of a surprise to me to see that the adjutant was a master sergeant. He was also a rated pilot. Sergeant pilots, navigators and bombardiers were an integral part of the early Army Air Corps. Most had flown in the Pacific area after the U.S. declared war on Japan.

The training personnel at Pyote had been members of the famous 19th Bomb Group, some of whom were at Pearl Harbor during the Japanese bombing there.

After checking in with the adjutant, I went out to the flight line to look over the aircraft I had chosen to fly into combat. It was a frightening experience to sit in the pilots seat of the biggest bomber in the Army Air Force Arsenal and visualize being in command of the thing.

The huge control panel was covered with dials, switches, levers and knobs from left to right - bottom to top as well as panels on both sides of the cockpit and overhead. I was 6 foot 4 inches tall and the cockpit swallowed me. A mechanic was sifting astride the number 3 engine nacelle and was looking at me grinning like a possum.

I was startled because his face looked so familiar. I scooted over into the copilot seat, opened the side window and asked, “Are you Mickey ?“ “Hernandez,” was his reply. He climbed through the window as I moved back over to the pilot seat. We embraced and I said, “You’re supposed to be a Japanese PW, Mickey.”

He brought me up to date on events after I transferred to the Army Air Corps. A battalion of my former outfit, the 13 1st Field Artillery of the 36th Infantry Division had been sent to Java shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

The 19th BG had been in the Philippines and left for Java shortly before the Japanese took Corregidor and the Philippines. The Japanese invasion of Java was imminent. The 19th Bomb Group was desperate for B-17 gunners and asked for volunteers from the artillery unit. Several gladly made the change, one of which was Mickey Hernandez. They had flown many missions with the 19th from Australia before coming back to Pyote as a training cadre.

It was good to see Sergeant Hernandez. There were several more men there from my former outfit, a few of whom I had the pleasure of seeing and some I missed because of the accelerated training program we were involved in. They were fortunate to have escaped the Japanese torture that was the fate of the rest of the Artillery Battalion that was captured when Java fell to the Japanese Imperial Army.

One of those captured was Sergeant Frank Fujita, a Japanese-American, one of the best soldiers our army ever produced. Frank has written a book titled “FOO” that should be mandatory reading for all Americans.


Next... A B-17 is Government Property


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