Recollections of an RB-29 crew in Japan

A Closing Reminiscent Story

As a child of the 1930’s, growing up in the small northern community of Park Rapids, Minnesota, inspired by stories of Charles and Anne Lindbergh, I dreamed of becoming a flyer. Fate and the insatiable appetite for service personnel, spawned by the demands of WW II, permitted me to qualify for aviation cadet training immediately after graduation from high school in 1943. There was a period, during this protracted training program, when I feared this dream of a lifetime would be shattered by one man who had almost total control of my fate for a period of a few months in the summer of 1944. As our crew successfully flew our classified reconnaissance missions almost ten years later, I thanked God, over and over, for helping see me through the trials outlined in this story, my final comment for this trip down memory lane.

“The Power of Prayer”

On this midsummer day, the sky was more beautifully blue and the clouds were whiter and puffier than I could ever recall. The joy of diving, climbing and turning through beautiful white canyons of clouds matched the inner joy in my heart. It was the summer of 1944. We were flying in the vicinity of Independence, Kansas. Off in the distance we could get an occasional glimpse of the Army Air Corps Basic Flight School where I had, within recent weeks, been assigned for further training as an Aviation Cadet. The thrill of flying was matched by the realization that I was living my boyhood dream, to become a military pilot.

We were strapped in the cockpit of a BT-14, an aircraft designed by North American Aviation Company. It was like a smaller but older brother to the new and more powerful AT-6, manufactured by the same company. BT stood for Basic Trainer. The AT designation was for the Advanced Trainer. The BT-14 had a 450 horsepower engine and a fixed landing gear, where the AT-6 had a 650 horsepower engine and a retractable gear.

BT-14 photo

With my fellow cadets, we were taking Basic Flight Training at the only remaining base in the US which still used the BT-14. All other cadets at this level, at other bases, were receiving their training in the BT-13. This trainer, in jest, known as the Vultee Vibrator, had the same size engine, but was more like driving a truck. We would move on to the BT-13 in our second phase of training where we would learn instrument flying. But, for the next few weeks, it was like flying up to heaven in the BT-14.

On days such as this, I had to pinch myself frequently to be assured it was not just a dream. Through the process of Basic Military Training, College Training Detachment, Classification, and Primary Flight Training I had seen close friends, many whom I admired a great deal, wash out. To wash out, when the aircrew training pipeline was becoming overcrowded, was an easy thing to do. Becoming sick while flying aerobatics, demonstrating lack of coordination, failing a test (in the classroom or in the air), to be caught cheating or lying, to incur the wrath of your instructor, or, on occasion, just to accommodate a need to reduce class size, you could be sent packing off to reclassification. One might then be trained as a gunner, infantryman, or whatever need was most paramount in support of the war effort, at the moment. My recurring thought was, “How can it be that I am still in the program, when so many have fallen along the way?”

My transition (visual flying) flight instructor was Lt. William Rounds, known as “Willie”. The fact that he had a nickname, in those times of rigid discipline, reflected the fine qualities he brought to his assignment as a flight instructor. “Willie” loved to fly and, if any student ever had doubts, he knew how to instill in them this same joy. He brought out the best in every student by sharing his skills and enthusiasm with a healthy mix of friendship and mutual respect, even to the lowly Cadet.

On this gorgeous day to be alive, flying with “Willie” teaching me the the finer points of loops, barrel rolls, Cuban eights and spins, I had my first contact with what was to become a nightmare experience. (In our tandem cockpit trainers, pilot and student could talk back-and- forth over the intercom, or, if we wanted to talk to another aircraft or the control tower, we would switch to broadcast.) Suddenly, through my headphones, I could hear an instructor screaming and swearing at a student. The vicious words and hate-filled voice came from a person who was certainly out of control of reason and normal faculties. As the meaning of hearing this humiliation and verbal abuse sunk in, my thoughts were, “How could I survive if assigned to a maniacal instructor like that?”

The days flew by. Our group of four cadets said our reluctant good-byes to “Willie” Rounds and expressed our thanks for his gifts and caring ways. Along with the rest of our class, we moved on to the instrument flying training phase.

Our first day on the flight line for instrument training slipped into gear quickly. We met our new instructor, Lt. McDougal, (not his real name). Without dialogue or fanfare, he fixed his gaze upon me and said, OK Stone, let’s go. We picked up our parachutes and walked to the aircraft without exchanging a word. He directed me into the rear cockpit and said, “Buckle up and fasten the hood.” (The instrument flying hood is a cover which limits one’s vision strictly to the inside of the cockpit instruments and controls. The flight instructor had the only view of the outside world.)

BT-13 photo
I could hear the instructor fire up the engine and soon heard him say, “Go ahead and taxi out for takeoff.” My reply was, “Sir, I can’t see where we’re going.” (I could hear dozens of other aircraft starting up and taxiing out to the takeoff position, but could only see my instrument panel before me.) His gruff reply was, “That’s OK, I’ll tell you what to do.” With his occasional grunting sounds in my ears and frequent kicks felt on the rudder pedals, we blundered to the takeoff position. He ran up the engine and checked the magnetos for correct operation. That done, he lined us up and said, “OK Stone, I want you to take off and climb out at 500 feet-per-minute. I’ll tell you when to turn and will look out for other aircraft.” Hearing the roar of other engines on either side of us, I said “Sir, I have never had any instrument flight instruction and do not know the procedure for an instrument takeoff under the hood.” He gruffly stated, “Don’t worry about that. I’ll keep you out of trouble and let you know when you make errors.” Having no other alternative, I moved the throttle forward and released the brakes. As I struggled to make sense out of the instrument data before me, and attempted to relate this experience to a visual takeoff, I could feel him bump and push the control stick in his efforts to assure his own survival.

We were climbing out and had completed our second turn to escape other traffic, probably at about 700 feet altitude. Suddenly, the control stick was being thrashed around the cockpit, by forces other than my own, and I could hear a strident screaming in my ears. The gyrating stick almost broke my wristwatch and the insane swearing in my ears shattered any sense of composure I had been able to maintain up to that point. Simultaneously, my subconscious was digesting the violent stick movements and sounds which assaulted my hearing. Then the realization dawned. That was the voice “Willie” and I had heard in that instructor’s accidental broadcast during one of our last transition training flights. That beast is sitting in the forward cockpit and he is my new instructor! The next two hours of my life were pure hell. This man was no teacher. He was some kind of a fiend who had taken control of my life, both present and future. The flight ended, leaving me limp and in despair. The instructor walked into the flight shack to find his second victim.

The terrorizing emotional climate within the flight briefing room (no preparation or dialogue with the instructor), and in the cockpit (screaming fits of anger and thrashing of the aircraft controls), were maintained with remarkable consistency. Comparing notes with my fellow cadets, I learned that he was treating his other three students in the same way. We discussed strategy, but concluded that if we were to complain, we would be washed out and on our way to reclassification. We counseled with “Willie” and he advised patience and forbearance. We struggled on, almost praying that he might die of an apoplectic fit or crash and kill himself, while whatever student who might accompany him would survive, unscathed. He didn’t, and the days dragged on. We strived to learn instrument flying techniques, in spite of our instructor.

As we moved from barracks and mess-hall to the flight line and back, Cadets marched in formation. Frequently, marching back in the late afternoon we would see the one AT-6 Advanced Trainer assigned to our Base take off and head for the other side of town. We heard that one of the base aircraft maintenance officers was checked out in the airplane and liked to get away from his office work to keep his hand in. We often saw this aircraft climb to altitude and circle over the other side of town. Through the grapevine, we also heard that his wife played a lot of golf and he seemed to enjoy doing aerobatics for her and her golfing companions.

AT-6 photo
It soon became obvious that one of his favorite maneuvers was the“vertical snap-roll.” To accomplish this, one had to go into a steep dive to pick up speed, pull straight up, then kick full rudder and pull the stick back hard. The result was a violent snapping or rolling of the aircraft, until it stalled out and began to fall back to earth. To say the least, it put a great stress on the airframe.

As we marched back from the flight line one clear and calm evening, we saw this ritual take place. This time he seemed to climb higher, dive steeper and then pulled up even more forcefully into the snap-roll. In horror, we saw part of the wing tear off and the aircraft pitch into a violent, flapping, thrashing fall to the ground. The pilot in the cockpit could make no move to save himself due to the G-forces which slapped him around in a death trap of his own creation. The vision of his final thoughts, and those of his wife and golfing friends, were added to my own agony of dealing with an instructor who really belonged in a mental institution.

With my morale and hopes for the future dragging rock bottom, I walked into the barracks after our evening meal. There, sitting on the edge of his bunk was John Harrell, a quiet and competent fellow cadet and friend. But, there was something about John which set him apart. He was less boisterous, more calm and unperturbed than most of his barracks-mates. I had always liked and admired him. John was reading his Bible.

With a deep need to share my problem, I sat down on his bunk and poured out my frustration and pain to him. Hearing my story, he asked questions about my spiritual life and background. In our discussion, it became clear to both of us that, although I had a spiritual upbringing, I had permitted the pressure of life as a Cadet to cause me to neglect that dimension of my personality and daily experience. We agreed that I should turn to God in daily prayer and bible reading to rebuild and reinforce my line of communication with our Creator.

Following through on this agreement, I began to find strength and hope. When my ears were assaulted with demeaning swearwords, my cockpit would become a place of prayer and relative tranquility regardless of what was going on around me. The words, “If God is with me, who can be against me?,” were repeated over and over again. I began to wear God’s promises to be within and around me like a suit of armor. The days passed. I settled down and learned enough to pass my final instrument flight check and eventually moved on to Advanced Flight School and the longed-for AT-6 Trainer.

Fortunately, my advanced flying instructor, at Foster Field, Victoria, Texas, was a gentleman and a warm, encouraging teacher. He helped me regain the joy of flying under both visual and instrument conditions. He made it possible for me to win my wings and graduate. In spite of the blessings that came from successful experiences and happier times which followed, I often found the face of Lt. McDougal staring out at me from the instrument panel while on extended flights in bad weather.

In the years which followed, while accumulating more than 3,750 military flying hours, that sense of peace, confidence, and security was always available whenever I took time to tune in to the correct spiritual frequency. God was my copilot through the power of prayer. During the Korean war, when I had a tour of duty as a twin engine advanced flight instructor, I lived up to my promise that if God would help me through this, I would treat my students in keeping with the example set by “Willie” Rounds.

Aviation Cadet Photo
A final comment: It should be noted that flight instructor behavior, such as described here, was not uncommon during that period, although usually less severe. As the pressures of wartime training were left behind, more humane personnel management systems evolved which were designed to weed out abnormal behavior in the instructor corps, insuring more standardized, disciplined, constructive and caring training and treatment for all student flyers.