Last night, as usual, I woke at about four, too late to go back to sleep. The centrifuge that is my nighttime mind, started spinning. It often brings back the same day in July of 1943, in Ft. Myers, Florida. I was 13 years old and I was with my brother. We had just been given approval by the guard at the gate to proceed on to the Page Field, a US Army Air Force Base, after my brother showed him his ID card. Salutes were exchanged and my brother’s 1941 Mercury convertible took us to the temporary barracks building that was the officer’s mess.
The day started with a breakfast of powdered eggs, despised by all in the military, but I thought it was wonderful. My brother then learned his plan for the day had been revised. He thought he would have the day off and could show me around but the commanding officer decided that since they had time between groups of students, they should do some training themselves and do a group cross country.
Allison engines in Curtiss P-40s were started by crew chiefs to warm them up to proper takeoff temperature while pilots switched to flight gear: lightweight coverall flight suits with many pockets in various places that could be easily reached, sitting or standing. I was left to spend much of the day pretty much alone, wandering where I chose, listening to many Rolls Royce Merlin P-51 engines of the other RTU (Replacement Training Unit) squadron on the field. I watched the group’s P-40s, with cockpit canopies open for safety, take off one at a time to form up before heading to their destination. The runway passed close enough to my location that I could identify which P-40 my brother was flying.
I was there because my brother Bill had invited my parents and me to visit for a week between fighter students, and had rented a cottage for us that week on the beach at Ft. Myers. I don’t know what that beach looks like now, but I imagine million dollar condos have replaced the modest summer cottages sparsely placed along the beach then. Not many in the military had an opportunity like that but since he was in a relatively stable RTU, training fighter pilots to replace others overseas, it was possible. It would change when they were needed to form new ground support groups for the invasion of France with the best available pilots.
The day included close observation of three different types of fighters: P-40s, P-51s, and at the end of the day (after my brother’s group returned), their first replacement aircraft arrived, switching to P-47s. The pilots gathered to watch their first Thunderbolt land and taxi to the area where all squadron aircraft were parked. The canopy was already open for landing safety, then the pilot shut off the engine, unstrapped the seat belts and parachute harness, then stood up in the cockpit to exit. The pilot’s helmet was removed and long, blonde hair fell to her shoulders. The group saw their first P-47 and their first WASP. The pilots were slightly wary of the P-47 but if a girl could fly it, “It must be a piece of cake.” The WASPs served more than one vital purpose; one was moving airplanes and the other was encouraging guys to fly them.
The day had started when two other pilots from the group arrived at the cottage. We got into Bill’s car, which was full of tiny, nasty Florida mosquitos. At the direction of my brother, I jumped in the car and he started the engine and quickly started moving. He told me to hold the door open, which he was doing on his side. It created a vacuum and sucked all the mosquitos out. I learned another new skill from my brother.
The other two pilots in their car formed up in echelon next to us as though we were flying as flight leader and wingman. We occupied the entire country road from the beach almost to the airport. There was no other traffic or the formation would have been broken up. Their behavior was a little like boys playing at being airplane pilots, not actually being pilots of very lethal airplanes, and for the moment trying to forget it.
On that stretch of road I learned the meaning of an expression I had often heard. The interaction between my brother and the other pilots through the open car windows was a description of people being “full of life”. They were young and in their prime. They were boys getting to play for too brief a time with the best possible toys, 400 mph airplanes powered by 2000 hp engines. They were full of life, preparing themselves and others to go where the world was “full of death.”