Written History of Bert N. Whitney
While I was at March Field I made several trips to San Diego on weekends, visiting my good friends there, especially one who ended up telling me she had found someone else since I had left there in 1942. It was my first experience of being dumped by a girl, and I really took it hard. I also went home many weekends so was on the road a lot. (Hitch-hiking was my mode of traveling; it was quite easy and fast.)
By this time I had found out what “cadets” really were and applied for pilot training. After extensive mental and physical tests, I was accepted and on Dec. 29, 1943, I was sent to Buckley Field, Colorado. I did receive a five day delay-in-route which I spent at home. It was bitter cold in Denver, but the living quarters were warm so it wasn’t so bad. The tests continued and some training began; it was quite exciting. In the meantime my friends from March Field wrote and told me they were packing up all their equipment and were being sent to New Guinea to build air strips there. I spent another two days on the train arriving at Minter Field, California on Feb 25, 1944. At this base I was taught how to start, warm-up and taxi small training planes; a fun thing for a teen-ager to do. Next came a phase of my military life that I enjoyed most. On April 10, 1944 I was sent to Washington State College in Pullman, Washington. (Arrived 4/10.) We were housed in the college dorms, and ate in the college dining hall. I remember that one of the cadet rules was to keep one hand in our lap all the time we were eating. It was a good life there compared to other military experiences. I kept company with a pretty college girl and courted her on public transportation. It never did get very serious.
While I was at Pullman I remember riding with someone to a university at Moscow, Idaho to hear a baccalaureate address by a general authority of the church. There was a small branch of the church in Pullman which I attended, but don’t remember too many details. There was athletic competition between the various cadet squadrons at the college, and I was on the cross country track team, the swim team, and could do more sit-ups than anyone in the unit. This proved to be my undoing; a cyst developed on my tailbone, and I was taken by ambulance to Fort George Wright Hospital, near Spokane, on June 14, 1944. But not before I had a chance to receive 10 hours of flight training in Piper cubs, handling the controls for many of those hours, though I never did solo.
The cyst on my spine was very painful, until it ruptured on the trip to the hospital. Surgery was performed by the staff at the hospital using a spinal block, so I could hear the cutting and scraping and conversation as they worked on me. Powdered penicillin was sprinkled on the wound, and they said it was the first time they had tried this. I spent several weeks in bed, but was well entertained by many visitors, some quite famous, because this was a hospital for returning wounded veterans from WW II. I was one of the few there with all my arms and legs, etc. When I was able to get out of bed, I got to use all the art and crafts facilities and to see as many movies as I desired. I had an unrestricted pass and rode the bus to church in Spokane and shook hands with President George Albert Smith at one fireside I attended. I wasn’t sick anymore but it wasn’t until October 12, 1944, that I was discharged from the hospital and sent to Santa Ana, California, to a cadet base that was just closing. Less than a week later I went to San Antonio, Texas to a cadet center where I was put on a long waiting list to start basic flight training. In the meantime we did menial tasks around the base like K.P. Every week we would hear a lecture on how radio operators, mechanics and other flight personnel were needed in the Air Force, and wouldn’t we like to enter training for one of those skills. We were promised two weeks delay-in-route as part of the deal. After two months I succumbed and signed up for radio operator’s school and was sent to Scott Field, Ill., near East St. Louis and arrived there Dec. 23, 1944, after spending several weeks at home in Las Vegas. I kept in touch with some of the cadets in my class, and they never did finish training, but were discharged after months of agonizing delays.
The usual military nuisance type life style prevailed at Scott Field, except that most of the day was spent in the classroom learning Morse code and radio theory. There was also a section on trouble shooting and repairing radio equipment. Probably the most exciting activities were the flights over the Chicago area where the skills I had learned were put to use. They even threw in some radio navigation. All of it was quite interesting and not particularly difficult, except that the receiving, transcribing and sending the code created a lot of nervous tension. The main problem was, however, that the school only lasted a few months and the agonizing wait to be assigned commenced, with the busy work that went with it.
Apparently it became evident that all those that had been trained were not going to be needed in the war effort, so other assignments were forthcoming. I was assigned to the base fire department which included the runway emergency operations. That’s where I learned to pitch horseshoes, play table tennis, etc. The work shifts were several days long, and I stayed at the firehouse around the clock, then was free for several days in a row, with a class A pass to leave the base at will. I took a job for my off days at Hunter Meat Packing Plant in East St. Louis, pushing carts loaded with hams and bacon around cold underground tunnels. The large iron wheels rattled on the cobblestone floors. At times a couple of us would go to the floors above where they made hotdogs, lunch meat and other ready to eat items and ate discards by the pound.
The sergeant in charge of night lighting for the airfield was being discharged, and they discovered through my records that I had an electricians MOS, (some kind of skills number) and so I was put in charge of that operation with a crew of several men. I also had a jeep to use so that we could get around to repair the clearance lights, the runway lights, etc. I was quartered (alone) in an office and operations room in the main hangar under the flight tower, where there was a huge emergency generator, which had to be tested every day. Most of the work was assigned to the crew, but there was one job that none of the others would do, so every time the beacon light on top of the water tower would burn out, I would climb that long, long ladder to the top, replace the bulb, and then sit there and meditate for many hours; that’s where I spent Christmas day of 1945.