An adage has it that the prospect of something is always more pleasant than the reality. And so it was with Peyote, Texas. The base proved hotter than the previous ones had been colder, dustier than they had been, and flatter than they had been mountainous. After only a few days, half of the 96ers swore that Peyote was so "piss poor that it just had to be attached to the rest of the United States for rations and quarters." The other half took issue with that. To them Peyote was "the asshole of the universe." (Years later these same men would look back on their Peyote experiences with jocularity and pride.)
Ground Exec. Major "Sandy" Moffett leads the Peyote testimonials. "Between the uneatable food in the Officers' Mess, the perpetually wrathful base commander, the dust storms, the heat, and the mad rush for 7-day furloughs (for everyone except yours truly who was left to weather the base commander's inherent discontent) we spent two months here best characterized as being fraught by the fickle finger of fate."
M/Sgt. Woodrow Hilton flew to the new base with the air echelon. "There was bad weather with a low ceiling and minimum visibility, and to make matters worse, there was no tower nor any kind of landing aids at Peyote. As a result, the 96th planes had been scattered from the Phoenix-Tucson area to Pecos. I sent in our nightly status report from Albuquerque. Sometime late at night, I finally accounted for all our planes." Peyote too was under construction. Without such basics as a control tower or simple landing aids, the 96th, trying to come in at night, couldn't find it. Many wished later that they never had found it.
Bombardier Ray McKinnon and the rest of Bill Hartman's crew were "lost" overnight at the Basic Training base for air cadets at Pecos. The next day, they made the final hop into Peyote where before long McKinnon would note the following: "Here the water was impure, and we had to get into the habit of filling canteens at lister bags. Many crewmen encountered rattlesnakes on the way to the latrines. This got us issued 45 caliber sidearms." (Rattlers were everywhere. Some of the more hungry ones were actually shot on the steps to the Officers' Mess.)
"The town of Peyote," McKinnon continues "is only a wide place in the road, about two blocks long. With four thousand airmen assigned here, the town was off-limits. The nearest towns were Pecos, 22 miles west; Monahans, 15 miles east; Odessa, 50 miles further east right next to a bombardier training school at Midland; and El Paso, about 180 miles to the west."
And this was Peyote . . . All of it.
"The situation was so bad here that it bonded 96ers together better than any other circumstances could have done. The ground crews had a terrible time keeping the engines and armament free of sand. When the Texas wind blew, we would huddle in our tar paper shacks which had to be tied down with steel cables! Sometimes you couldn't see the barracks across the road."
And sometimes you could see for forty miles. Except that there was nothing to see! Although the official name was Army Air Base, Peyote, Texas, it wasn't long before everyone called it "Rattlesnake Army Air Base." In fact, the PX soon began selling stationery with that as a letterhead.
At any rate, the Carter Provisional Group moved in and began flying as 96th trainees. And the 19th Group moved in and began receiving medals. TIME magazine called the 19th Bomb Group the most decorated military unit. Anyone who witnessed the parades in the steaming heat Saturday after Saturday can attest to the truth of TIME's statement.
The 96th maintenance crews worked their fannies off at Peyote. Incredible as it seems, it fell to these men to keep three bomb groups worth of planes in operation! The Carter Provisional Group had no ground echelon, and veterans of the 19th had been returned to the Zone of Interior (ZI) for rest and relaxation after all the combat they had survived in the South Pacific.
Believe it or not, there were some advantages to Peyote not the least of which was the health of the unit as a whole. Beautiful as it was, Pocatello had been a pest hole of colds and flu. Peyote was usually favored by sunshine and many men made sunbathing an ongoing sport.
However hard the work was for ground crews, according to Joe Hudson, the navigators found Peyote easy on them.
"There was very little work for the navigators," Hudson told us. "A Carbon plant just off the base at Monahans poured a huge column of smoke that could be seen a hundred miles or more by day. At night, the natural gas flares in the oil fields, which were located just north of the base . . . could also be seen for many miles."
Occasionally, Hudson recalls, air crews engaged in the tomfoolery of buzzing the windmill near Andrews or stampeding herds of cattle near Ft. Stockton. There was one particular night in the Peyote era, however, when neither the carbon plant's smoke nor the natural gas flares made flying easy. Coming back from a cross-country flight, Lt. Bill McKell's Big Chief lost touch with reality. Bad weather had really socked the base in to the point that all planes were diverted to El Paso. But, since McKell's substitute radio man for this training mission was code-deaf, his seven man crew continued on towards Peyote and received permission from the Link radio beacon boys for an approach on instruments. McKell began his descent. Bombardier Al Anderegg tells what happened. No matter how much they descended, those natural gas flares were not to be seen. Despairing of ever seeing them and sensing that something was drastically wrong, Anderegg switched his gaze from below where the gas flares were supposed to be to ahead where his altimeter was. It showed 200 feet! His shout for McKell to pull up was too late. Big Chief whacked upon the desert and scraped along in a shower of sparks which set fire to #4. The second airmen emerged in a stupor, extinguished the fire, but soon built one of their own hoping that it would warm them and help headquarters find them. But co-pilot and navigator Bachtelle and Sweeney elected to walk to the base. Two cars passed them on the only Texas desert road but neither stopped in spite of their shouts and screams. "And, no wonder," Anderegg laughs when interviewed, "yelling like Banshees dressed in all that flight gear at 3 in the morning they must have seemed like men from Mars." Bachtelle and Sweeney walked nine miles to the Main Gate. There was no help here either. It was dawning when they finally arrived at Post Operations and made their report. Soon after that, Colonel Old sped out to the crash site to fetch the others and review the quarter of a million dollar pile of junk which only hours before had been Big Chief.
By Air Force policy, Anderegg reminds us, survivors of a crash were to have thorough physicals immediately. Doc Schlessinger, the Group Flight Surgeon, seemed to have allegiance to an abbreviated edition of that policy.
"Anybody hurt?" he asked with paternalistic concern.
"No," the seven men chorused.
"Just a little cut," one man murmured.
"Nothing, really, Doc," McKell confirmed.
"Good. Good," Doc Schessinger beamed as he patted a few backs. Before dismissing them, the Doc gave them the thumbs-up. "Keep 'em flying!"
So much for post-crash physicals. Immediate? Yes. Thorough? Eh.
The most important thing on every mind was: When do we go overseas? When finally the Carter Provisional Group left, it was not replaced by another. Just about that time, it became obvious that the unit was combat-bound. Naturally, because of all the desert training, rumors determined that the 96th was headed for India or Africa or the South Pacific.
However, before leaving Peyote, the Group brushed against Hollywood again. Having already been involved in the filming of "Bombardier," the unit was tapped for participating in the final shootings. Sergeant Bill Morgan of Walt Flagg's crew tells us of this last diversion to the bombardier school at Kirkham Field. The stars were gone because only some flying sequences were left to film. Even so, Captain Flagg's men had the thrill of flying to the Albuquerque location in the 19th Bomb Group's famous B-17 Suzy Q. This movie, besides being featured on late, late TV is also available for rent through video cassette outlets. "Incidentally," Sergeant Morgan writes, "if you watch real close, you can see me kick the chocks away -- for all of two seconds."
At long last, actual aerial combat was in the wind. The air echelon left Peyote by train 14 March '43. The 337th and 413th squadrons were dispatched to Walker, Kansas, and the 338th and 339th were sent to Salina Kansas. Here they would receive new B-17s and fly them into some theater of operations. This left the ground echelon at Peyote for five more weeks of grueling hikes and hand-to-hand training under the fierce Texas sun. On April 16, the ground echelon troop-trained it to a Port of Embarkation (POE). And although the POE was kept secret for security reasons, there could be no doubt that the Great Adventure was underway. Both air and ground units were ready to do a fantastic job. And, as we shall surely see, THEY DID.
Lt. Stevenson, Provost Marshal and Walt Fields, 338th