Training: Rapid City
Upon arrival at this new base, duty assignments for the officers of the Headquarters Detachment, 96th BG, were listed as follows:
Lt. Col. Archie J. Old Jr. Group Commander
Major Luther J. Fairbanks Deputy Commander
Major Alexander S. Moffett Group S-1
Major Reynolds Benson Group S-2
Captain Ben DeJohn Group S-3
Captain Louis Kohn Group S-4
Captain Elbert Hennessee Asst. S-4
Captain Henry Schlesinger Group Flight Surgeon
1st Lt. Thomas F. Kenny Asst. Group S-3
1st Lt. Harold V. Hansen Communications
1st Lt. William Deppin Armaments
2nd Lt. Buster Peek Asst. Group S-2
2nd Lt. Edward Bernard Statistical Officer
2nd Lt. Edward Rosen Special Services Officer
W/O John H. Cole Group Aircraft Inspector
Army Air Base Rapid City, South Dakota, was one of several "firsts" for the 96th in that the group was the first to occupy the base. In a sense, the group almost built the base. As we'll see, this happens several times to the outfit - in the States and in England too. Here the group was to enter the third phase of combat training which emphasized navigational flights, many of which included flights over large bodies of water. Formation flying was emphasized more than ever and a general polishing for combat efficiency was the order of the day. Long flights to Tampa, Florida by way of San Antonio, Texas were scheduled. About this time, a group of bombardier cadets were attached to the unit and much practice bombing was on the daily agenda. The surroundings were great compared with Walla Walla. Most men enjoyed their stay. All personnel lived in two-storied barracks, with the last indoor latrines the group would have before deployment. This indoor latrine feature was a morale booster. Anyone who has had to walk a quarter of a mile or more through the snow in order to shave or shower will recall this Rapid City "perk" with deep appreciation.
Both supply officer 2/Lt. Ehrenreich and mechanic's helper Sergeant Curtis Powell treated this new base well with their diary entries: "It's clean and fresh and new," Ehrenreich noted.
"The field is laid out in compact fashion and the buildings are painted cream with red roofs. There isn't any dust, which is a godsend. Out toward the horizon are the Black Hills -- and 25 miles or so from here is Mount Rushmore where the faces of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt have been carved out of rock by Gutzon Borglum ."
"I remember the frosty mornings," Sergeant Powell wrote. "The cock pheasants all around the base would call out with a sound that, being a country boy from southern Missouri, I had never heard before. Those early Dakota dawns were fascinating. I also remember the close guard that was kept on the Norden Bombsights. As the 17's landed from a training run, the bombsights were taken out immediately and stored in a well-guarded stockade that had an underground bunker. And I remember," Sergeant Powell concludes, "that it was while in Rapid City that I wrote my folks to send me my guitar." Indeed, Powell's guitar would serve the 96th well throughout the war.
However, no sooner had the group settled in when the fine records it had set while in Walla Walla were doubted by training supervisors. The group was called to the carpet by the Second Air Force. Lieutenant Peterson and M/Sgt. Woodrow Hilton from group operations were dispatched by Colonel Old in one of the B-17's to 2AF headquarters in Spokane.
"We reported to a major who was the head of Statistical Control," Sergeant Hilton writes. He immediately told us it was physically impossible to do some of the things we had reported. He opened his reports on all similar heavy bomb groups. These were contained in a big accounting-type ledger within which many pages were marked with red flags. He told us these flags marked errors or false reports neither of which he would tolerate And, he said, he was seldom if ever wrong. He seemed to want to appear intimidating. However, thanks to remarkably efficient training methods we had good group records all supported by squadron reports. I defended our case using these records and divulging some of our areas of time-saving ideas and showing how we had efficiently used out-of-commissioned aircraft for certain training objectives. Actually, the major had had a point because our records indicated that we had put in more hours than our operable aircraft could supply." In the end, all the 96th red flags were eliminated and 2AF recognized the outfit as full of ingenuity and the desire to achieve.
A healthy group esprit de corps began to develop through intersquadron rivalry. At Rapid City, the 413th, whose emblem was a black cat riding a bomb with its back hunched in anger, broke the ice by publishing a newspaper, The Cat's Meow. The first issue appeared Friday, October 9th, and it soon became a weekly matter of interest throughout the group. Besides small feature articles, the paper's personnel column, Prop Wash provided a mixture of gossip, humor and human interest. For example, the first issue noted:
"Pvt. Darrel W. Carter had an unusual surprise when his wife, Wanda, came to visit him Tuesday. Should you drop by the orderly room and see a red headed clerk bending over a typewriter, you'll know that it is Carter."
Incidentally, Darrel's brother Merald would soon join the group and like the Bresons, Howard and Carl, they would be among the few rare sets of brothers in the group. The Carters would rise in rank to Master Sergeants in the ground echelon with specialties in administration while the Bresons would make their contributions as line chefs.
The October 16th issue of The Cat's Meow took the opportunity to introduce the squadron commander: "Through the aggressive leadership of Capt. Stanley I. Hand, the 413th takes its place along with the best. Capt. Hand, a native of Louisville, Kentucky has had a varied flying career, and his schooling background qualifies him well for his present duties, After attending the University of Kentucky, Capt. Hand enrolled at the Lincoln Aeroplane Flying School in Lincoln, Nebraska. Upon completion here, he went to Randolph Field and graduated from there in June of 1940 and pursued his flying ambitions by going on to Kelly Field where he was awarded his lieutenancy in August '40. On March 28, '42 our commander was made 1st Lt. and he advanced to Captain on 28 July '42.
As we shall see, Captain Hand would distinguish himself as a squadron commander and as a pilot's pilot. When Archie Old advances to Commander of the 45th Combat Wing (45CBW) he will turn to Stan Hand for the development of a Pathfinder Force.
And here, while at Rapid City, the 96th would discover another long-time key person in 2nd Lt. William V. Conlon. A Manhattan native, this burly soldier would advance from the 413th mess officer to Group Mess Officer. And, in addition to his other duties, this solid Irish-American would shine as the group Athletic Officer.
No matter where stationed, the 96th would always adopt and spoil pets of some sort. Here at Rapid City, they were two dogs as The Cat's Meow of October 23 attests: "We almost had a major casualty the other day. 'Rum' and 'Coke,' our mascots, were almost separated from each other. 'Rum' tried to pit his strength against a truck and came out the loser. But it is reported that the patient is improving."
From this South Dakota base, the group had its second experience with Hollywood stars. Three crews were put on TDY in order to provide flying sequences for the movie BOMBARDIER. The male leads for this film were Pat O'Brien, Randolph Scott and Barton McClane. The female lead was played by Ann Shirley while minor roles introduced Eddie Albert and Robert Ryan. The three 96th crews were those of Francis Madson, Jim Irish and Ralph Ward. The filming location was the bombardier cadet school at Kirkham Field, Albequerque, New Mexico.
Captain Ward's engineer, Cliff Byrd, writes that either en route to the site or coming back his crew led him astray with whiskey in Phoenix. John Latham, Bombardier on Jim Irish's crew (who was destined to distinguish himself as one of the best bombardiers in the entire Eighth Air Force) remembers the Temporary Duty as a time of humor and joy.
"Every night, the movie people had a dinner party and invited us -- plenty of grog and food. Each party ended in a fight between O'Brien and McClane who seemed jealous of each other and got skunk drunk."
Jimmy Stewart, then a sergeant at Alberquerqe, often dropped in on the set. Stewart, too old for the cadet program, was taking flying lessons to chalk up 2,000 hours so he could earn a commission as a service pilot.
By the close of the month, the unit was performing well; perhaps too well. For then the blow fell. Colonel Old had to summon his staff and announce that the 96th had been designated as an Operational Training Unit (an OTU). This meant that it would likely remain in the States until December of '43 -- more than a year away -- for the purpose of training combat crews for overseas. At this juncture, the 96th became introduced to provisional Training Units, clusters of B-17 crews with a provisional commander. It would be the 96th's task to "mother" these provisional units through training. Training of such groups was to start at the Army Air Base, Pocatello, Idaho. For a few, this news was a relief. But for the most part, it was a bitter disappointment; especially to Colonel Old. Once more the packing of boxes began. Everything was crated and restencilled. The long Union Pacific trains wound westward in a slight snowstorm on October 28. Aloft the air echelon headed in the same direction. The 96th was on the move again.
Mess personnel posing by their truck in Rapid City. L-R: S/S Freeman; Pvt. Ray Davidson and cat (no, he didn't cook it); Sgt. Jack Jacobson; Cpl. Anderson and Sgt. Huen.