Serving His Country: “One Man’s Work” Part 5

As a little girl, I loved looking at Dad’s military scrapbook — I still do today. The book is all black, with descriptions, notes and sketches of airplanes and soldiers created in white ink. The black and white photos are held in place with black paper corners. Dad looks so handsome in his Air Force uniform, and I can see the pride he felt in serving his country. It shines in his eyes and smile. Today, Dad says those were some of the best years. His three-year stint came between two battles, World War II and the Korean War. Serving during peace time meant dad remained Stateside. Here are memories of his travels and adventures as a member of the newly formed United States Air Force, another chapter in the story of “One Man’s Work”.

Robert Harris Wilson tried to enter the military at 17, but had to wait a year.

Robert Harris Wilson tried to enter the military at 17, but had to wait a year.

Dad graduated from high school at 17, the same year as Brother Bill, and tried to enlist in the Air Force. World War II had ended, but patriotism ran high in the United States and quite a few of Dad’s classmates also signed up for military duty. Dad was refused over an unconfirmed medical issue, but he returned at 18 and was accepted into the United States Air Force in 1947, where he served for three years.

Dad has many fond memories of his years in service to his country.

“When I joined, I got transported to Indy to be sworn in. Then, a train took us all to San Antonio, Texas, Lackland Air Force Base. At Lackland, they told me they had lost my records and couldn’t ship me out until they found them. Well, they found out I could type and that was what they needed badly  –  typists  –  so they didn’t graduate me. They made me stay there until I rebelled enough that they let me take my tests all over again. That time, I didn’t put down that I could type.

“Once I graduated, I was shipped off to Scott Field, an Air Force base in Illinois, across the river from St. Louis, Missouri, for radio school. At Scott Field I had the pleasure of being in St. Louis quite frequently. It was an interesting town. I’d go down to the Mississippi River. The big arch wasn’t there when I was there. The whole waterfront was nothing but one lonely little church that set there. The USS Admiral, a paddle boat, was docked there and you could go on it. Then there was Petty Flying Service. You could pay to go up in a pontoon plane. I would go into town and I’d go down there. If the pilot was there I’d give him my $5 and he’d take me up. We’d fly all over St. Louis and he’d give me the controls. Of course I couldn’t try anything funny. We’d take off under one bridge, gain altitude and go up over the other bridge. Coming back we’d do the same thing. The guy said ‘Why don’t you just take lessons from me and get your license?’ I said I was having trouble with radio school.”

Dad was at Scott Field two months before he “washed out” of radio school. St. Louis is where he started the habit of looking up the roller skating rinks everywhere he went.

“The guy at the rink in St. Louis would open up, put the music on and let me skate, even if there wasn’t anyone else there,” Dad says.

Dad’s next assignment was Roswell, New Mexico.

“I got to Roswell in 1947, shortly after the aliens got there,” jokes Dad. “I was assigned to 393rd squadron, 509th bomb group working on the flight line on the B-29. I worked there for quite a little while before I found out I was in same squadron and same bomb group as Enola Gay was in.”

(The Enola Gay was the first aircraft to drop an atomic bomb as a weapon of war during World War II. The bomb targeted Hiroshima, Japan.)

“One day there was a lot of ruckus down at the main terminal,” remembers Dad. “Turns out Charles Lindbergh had been given the honor of flying the Enola Gay back to Roswell, where it had come from, and then he flew it to The Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. I found out I was in the same squadron. That was pretty nice.”

Lindbergh had flown his monoplane, The Spirit of St. Louis, solo across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927 and was one of Dad’s heroes.

Dad likes to tell a story that came through a friend about Charles Lindbergh’s visit to The Smithsonian.

“This fella was working one day (at the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum) and Lindbergh came in and said ‘You know, I’d like to have you do me a favor. You got a long enough ladder to reach the Spirit of St. Louis? Put it up there and let me get in then take it away.’ He did and Lindbergh just sat there for a long time.”

At Roswell, Dad got on-the-job training for everything related to bomber maintenance, from tires and wheels to brakes, hydraulics to electrical system.

“You had to learn everything so you could maintain the thing. Change oil, change tires. Put new oil in. I got to fly with my aircraft, one I was assigned to. They took us along because there were always things you had to do. It was a B-29. We were always in the aft. There was oxygen and it was pressurized. You had to crawl through a tunnel to up front, to see what things looked like up there.”

Dad was able to use his previous work experience with the U.S. Post Office at Roswell. “I installed a complete post office on the base. They found out that I had worked at a post office before enlisting. I worked it some, but eventually somebody else got the job of running it,” says Dad.

There was still more for Dad to learn in the Air Force. Before his tour of duty was up, he gained a skill he would use throughout the rest of his life.

“I had a chance to put in for drafting school. They had a deal they advertised. Anybody interested, sign up. I did. I applied for it and they put me on an airplane and flew me to Cheyenne, Wyoming – Fort Francis E. Warren. They had schooling there for all kinds of stuff. A fellow graduate was a teacher at the base, Lloyd Holt. I got there in July, just a day or two after the big rodeo, Frontier Days.

“The new students were mustered off to an area of barracks where everyone going to drafting school lived. We were schooled in anything to do with the Air Force, from the building of runways for airports, roads, bridges, building construction. We’d fly over an area and take pictures, a stereoscopic photograph pair. One set of photos put together become 3-D. It was called topography – making of contoured maps of all the elevations. You’d make up a mock of this area and you put in there according to what the photographs showed you. We’d make a replica of what was on the ground where maybe they wanted to send soldiers in so they can become familiar before they ever go in. We had a machine you could look through. You dialed it until the photos lined up, a three dimensional picture. We could create contour maps showing elevation so they could use them for the building of roads and runways, bridges.

“All that stuff they taught me there, the drafting skills, could be used for the Air Force and Army, but thing of it is, after I graduated they flew me back to Roswell,” remembers Dad.

When Dad walked back into the same barracks at the Roswell base where he had lived for nearly a year, he didn’t know a soul. Everyone in his squadron had been shipped out to Cape Cod, Massachusetts. So, Dad was sent to join them.

From Indianapolis to St. Louis, Roswell to Wyoming, back to Roswell then on to Cape Cod – Dad was seeing the country.

Dad set up the base post office at Cape Cod.

Dad created an office for his drafting work and took on design projects for the Air Force at Cape Cod.

“Well, I got up there and finally tracked down some of the guys in my squadron. They all had different jobs now. No more B-29s. They didn’t have a drafting setup at all. I found me a little location in the hangar, second floor. I set it up and organized all the stuff I needed to begin drafting. I ordered everything brand new. What it amounted to was that in a fighter squadron they always needed drawings made for stuff done on the aircraft – just a multitude of stuff. I did work for the aluminum construction office where they did all the metal work. Another section was all woodworking. They would submit to me what they needed or wanted and I’d draw up the prints that would be maybe a combination of aluminum and wood. I got to see everything come around and become a reality.

“The biggest job I ever had there was designing a portable aircraft control tower that’s on the ground in case they lost the control tower for some reason or other. It was completely equipped to handle all incoming and outgoing aircraft. They’d take it from one end to the other. Electronics, aluminum, metalwork, woodwork and plastic – I had to design this whole unit that was on wheels, portable so they could haul it. Well, they herded that off and hid it somewhere.”

Dad also designed a canopy for an open jeep.

“If there’s anything a GI don’t like is to ride around in an open jeep, especially in the winter. We made up a nice design for a canopy on a jeep. I drew it all up and thought maybe they can build one. They were all thrilled. It fit right on the jeep, sealed it all up, no cold air, When they finally got it all installed, they took it back to the motor pool. The next day we went to get it and found out the MPs took it. It was maybe the first enclosed jeep as far as I know. Plexiglas windows and all. We really did a nice job on it.”

Dad stayed at Cape Cod until he was discharged in April 1950, just two months before the start of the Korean War. He was asked to re-enlist to be sent as a civilian to Rio de Janero as a drafting instructor living in civilian quarters. He passed on that offer. Dad anticipated being called back into service, but Cape Cod was the end of his military career.

Next week: Dad returns to civilian life.

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