Training: Pocatello

At Pocatello, the 96th still didn't find a base of operations that was completely established.  Once more they were opening up a place where the construction, although 50% complete, had not yet finished the runways.  The temperature often dipped to -15 degrees and, to make matters worse, some Army engineering whiz had constructed the barracks and buildings out of tar-paper -- only a half-step up from tents!

"Once the temperature dropped to 30 below," Curtis Powell recalls.  "We couldn't start the engines on a B-17.  At another time when I was attempting to repair a hydraulic line on an engine and needed a blow torch for soldering, I had to take it inside a line shack to get it ignited.  When I stepped back outside, it was so cold I could hold my hand within twelve inches of the torch and still not feel the heat."  But Powell had happy moments too.  "It was so cold we got lots of sack time and frequent passes into town.  My future wife, Kay, came to visit.  By this time, I had become acquainted with a few more string musicians.  We began to hold jam sessions for the group."

There were blizzards, and snow would not melt for several days.  In fact, there were three snow storms between November 1 and 9.  An article in the 11/7 issue of Cat's Meow read:  "Since we have stoves in the middle of the barrack's floor, there are many 'Hot Stove Leagues' being formed.  A visit to barrack 342 will always find Corporal Bourne, Pfc. Pitkin and Pvt. Brandt swapping tall tales while huddling about the stove."

However rough life on base was, most 96ers really appreciated Pocatello and its citizens.  The local bowling alley was practically commandeered by the 337th while the Shamrock Club became synonymous with the Group S-5 detachment.  The only gripes against the town seemed to be taxi fares and dry-cleaning prices.  Pocatello was where Bob Mahan had his first martini.

Railroad station and the USO at Pocatello.

"The Chamber of Commerce invited us to a reception and upon arriving we found two tables arranged in a 'V'-for-Victory and completely covered with martinis . . . some of the men folded their tents before 8 pm.  Somewhere else that fantastic evening, I remember asking a girl in a bar if she'd like to go dancing.  She must have been at the martini table too for I soon found out she had only one leg."  Bob Mahan has memories of Pocatello that were fashioned through a more domestic perspective.  "I remember Lt. Charlie Graham and his wife and little girl who were so kind to me with home-cooked dinners and companionship.  Charlie and his dad owned the San Francisco Seals baseball club."

As Stan Hand remembers, another great advantage to Pocatello was the fact that wives could visit again.  "Getting the gals back was great.  Mine was expecting and I was eager to see how things were progressing . . . After living in a hotel for two weeks at $4.00 a day (a bunch of money then)," Hand writes, "Marjorie and I finally got an apartment."  While some men were reunited with their wives, others got married.

Around Thanksgiving, Sergeant Cliff Byrd was overjoyed when his fiancee, escorted by an aunt, visited him from Seattle.

"On November 26th," Byrd writes, "we were married at Trinity-St. Andrews Church (Episcopal) by a priest who came down from the nearby Indian Reservation."  Cliff's pilot, Captain Ralph Ward, was the best man and the crew were witnesses.  "After the ceremony," Byrd recalls, "the crew escorted us over to a large hall where the entire group was holding a Thanksgiving party.  We walked in and were greeted with 'Here Comes the Bride.'  Both my new bride and I went into shock, especially when we had to waltz alone around the periphery."  [At the printing of Snetterton's Falcons in 1989, the Byrds were approaching their 50th anniversary.]

So were Doctor Sam and Margaret Hartman.  The Doc joined the outfit here as flight surgeon for the 337th, and his wife, a nurse, visited the base and became a charming and dear friend to officers and enlisted men alike.  Captain Hartman maintained a diary from 1942-45 which encompassed his 96th experiences and we shall refer to it time and again.

Jack Wagner of WABBIT TWACKS next to the USO at Pocatello.

In the main, the stay at Pocatello was happy.  Many men were able to find apartments, rooms and even houses in town for wives and family visitors.  The local churches threw open their doors for visiting family members, and the Young Business Woman's Service Club added to the hospitality for lonely 96ers on pass.  The Cat's Meow of 11/13 saluted the Pocatello Service Club thus "Fellows are grateful to Mrs. Earl Sturman, mothers and auxiliary members who maintain this service club.  This is not a USO club but is operated and financed by mothers who have sons like us in the services and it is a non-profit enterprise --"

 

On November 30, Lt. Ehrenreich's diary notes the arrival of the veteran 19th Bomb Group.

"They have returned after having fought the Japs in the Philippines, Australia, New Guinea, the Solomons, Borneo, Java and Sumatra.  Rumor says they may take over for us here when the Harris Group departs for Caspar, Wyoming."  (Throughout the stay here, the 96th was providing First and Second Phase Training to The Harris Provisional Group, a unit of some 30 crews under the command of Lt. Col. Hunter Harris.)

In another entry, Ehrenreich refers to a 96th bail-out incident.  "It involved Captain Lambert and Lieutenants Mooreland and Hodson," the diary reads.  "But we don't know how they are yet."

Garey Lambert, the pilot, fills in the details.  He was sent to Oklahoma's Tinker Field with a skeleton crew to fetch back an overhauled B-17E.  Even when Lambert's men got there, repairs were dragged out.  It seems that foremen from the outgoing shift never melded cards with the foremen on the new shift.  Eventually the plane was rolled out and, because of strong headwinds' predictions, it was fitted out with a tank in the bomb bay capable of holding 500 extra gallons.  West of Denver, Lambert found himself in an unpredicted front of heavy snow.  He considered diverting to Salt Lake because that base announced an 8000 foot ceiling.  But suddenly his radio went out, and his plane began to spark and sparkle from nose to tail with the rare, astonishingly electrostatic display known as St. Elmo's fire.  This made the plane glow like a neon sign while little whisps of light flew in kaleidoscopic fury about the cockpit like legendary gremlins. 

Lambert switched to the improvised tank in his bomb bay.  No results!  When the crew chief reported that the connections to the tank were incorrect, they tied him with a rope and he descended into the open bomb bay to battle the wind chill miles above the earth until he finally despaired.  By then the inboard engines had quit, and Lambert had to order the crew to bail out.  Navigator Bob Hodson was first (it would not be his only jump).  By now Lambert was flying on fumes, and when the two outboard engines quit, he trimmed the controls to stabilize the plane and made his way to the open bomb bay.  He couldn't get through the bomb racks with his chute on.

 

"I had to take my parachute off, squeeze through and then rebuckle the leg straps.  I finally jumped.  It was snowing hard when I descended," Lambert concludes.  "I couldn't see anything, but I could imagine rocky crags on sawtoothed mountains.  Finally I hit.  Flat on my back in two feet of snow.  Then I heard the plane; four dead engines fanning and apparently heading directly for me.  She was coming in with her lights on.  I couldn't move -- I was so numbed by what had already happened and so fascinated with what was obviously about to do me in after all.  The plane passed directly overhead by only some thirty feet and then struck the canyon 100 yards away.  There was a heavy explosion and a flash of light.  Then nothing.  I unbuckled my chute and staggered stiffly toward the wreckage.  That damn bomb bay tank was burning beside the aft end of the fuselage.  I warmed myself by the fire and yearned for a cigarette."

 

The terror of the event was not quite over.  As the fire petered out, Lambert could make out scores of glowing eyes.  Wolves!  In near panic, he kept throwing bits of wreckage at the myriad sets of eyes.  Then the moon broke through broken clouds, and in the increasing illumination, Captain Lambert found that he was surrounded by jack rabbits!

 

Hiking across rugged terrain to where moving headlights indicated a highway, Lambert came upon a ranch.  The rancher's wife told him that her husband and just about every man in the area was out on horseback looking for him and his crew.  Using the phone, Lambert reported to Salt Lake and then accepted the invitation to have a smoke, eat a bite and have a nap.  Before an ambulance and a staff car arrived the next day from Salt Lake, searchers had rounded up his skeleton crew and herded them to the ranch.  No one was seriously injured.  The crash had occurred about 35 miles northeast of Randolph, Utah.  The Board of Inquiry found the cause of the crash to be a combination of inadequate weather information and faulty equipment.

 

Great news came at the end of November.  The group was to be relieved of duties as a "training-mother."  Freed up for combat, its own overseas training would continue once its responsibilities to the Harris Group were completed.

 

On December 3, that which had become known as "The Great Jap Scare" entered the annals of the 96th.  To best appreciate this incident, one must keep in mind that on December 3, '42, when the alarm sounded in the wee hours of the morning, Pearl Harbor was not quite a year old.  Blackouts were in effect to some degree throughout the United States.  In major metropolitan areas and around defense installations from Newport, R.I. to San Diego, blackouts, air wardens and other civil defense measures were a way of life.  The west coast especially highlighted this wartime lifestyle.  Yes, German U-Boats were scoring victories in the Atlantic.  But Japanese progress toward America through the Pacific made the threat of enemy bombing on the west coast more of a threat.

 

Understanding those circumstances makes one better appreciate the panic that hit the 96th when it received this very first summons to potential combat.  William Campbell, a waist gunner on Winston Coy's crew, gives us an insight into the panic that spread among the crews whether they were in town on pass or not.

 

"We were suddenly routed from hotels and motels in Pocatello by MPs who escorted us back to base.  We were restricted there for two full days, and the word was that we were on standby because a Jap fleet was approaching the west coast.

 

Although Sergeant Campbell's crew was one of many restricted to base, three of the four Fortresses which the 96th had for training were actually dispatched to the coast in a frenzy.  The pilots were Lt. Col. Old, Lt. McClatchey and Captain Walter Flagg.  Each pilot selected line crew chiefs, the cream of the crop, for their in-flight mechanics.  Colonel Old selected the Breson brothers, Howard and Carl.  The latter writes "the planes were loaded with the only live bombs we had at that time, the old orange type."

Another crew chief, the late Al Ruby, remembered flying with Lt. McClatchey and Captain Hays.  Walter Flagg, pilot of the third plane, writes:

"According to the briefing, we were to assemble with other bombers at March Field, and we were told that we might have a Jap fleet to reckon with.  But enroute we were diverted by radio to Wendover, Utah . . . There had to be other groups involved, but since I don't recall them landing at Wendover, they must have been diverted to other points."

T/Sgt. Ruby recalls that 96ers were quickly ushered into a theater at Wendover where some general got up on the stage and said "Good show, fellows.  We just wanted to see how many and how fast we could muster in case of an emergency."  Then the men were fed, refueled and returned to Pocatello.

Had the general told the truth?  Was it all only a drill?  Legend says no.  Legend says that some ham radio ops intercepted transmissions from an approaching Japanese fleet and reported it.  The Air Force reacted swiftly by trying to commandeer as many bombers as possible for defense.  The same legend concludes that the planes were diverted, and the mission aborted, only when further investigation revealed that the intercepted transmissions simply represented communications between Japanese-American fishing trawlers out of San Francisco.

Pocatello Mess Hall -- Christmas, 1942

On January 3, '43, ground personnel left by troop train for a new base and a warmer climate.  It was about time.  96ers had had their fill of bases where two foot icicles, ten foot snowbanks, three-day blizzards and below zero temperatures were orders of the day.  This new place, Peyote, was down in Texas and seemed to promise heavenly warmth.  And evidently the group was going to go overseas.  Its training was to continue because, although the Harris Group had departed for Caspar, the 19th Bomber Group units traveled to Peyote with the 96th.

Lt. Ray McKinnon, Bombardier aboard Bill Hartman's crew, left Pocatello with the air echelon.  "On the morning we were about to leave, the runway had to be plowed and it was bitter cold.  Several engines couldn't be started.  Ours finally did but the heaters were out.  So I sat on my hands and bundled up as best I could all the way to Tucson.  There the warmer air was like a miracle.  We had a night on the town."