The World War II Recollections of Paul W. Fleming
At that time Panama was still a strategic position that had to be defended at all costs. They were anticipating an attack on the canal, because that would have been devastating to the United States. There was a great deal of army activity there, both in terms of combat-ready troops and airplanes, and the navy had a lot of vessels and was sending out planes every day to look for submarines, that sort of thing. So they were knocking themselves out to make sure there would be no attack, and to do that they had these squadrons of fighter planes. I ended up in one of those -- the 24th Fighter Squadron, part of the Sixth Air Force, which was based in Panama.
At least for the first year I was down there, there was still feverish activity to defend the canal -- they were playing it pretty hardball. German U-boats were very active in the Caribbean and the Atlantic Ocean, but we had these patrol boats going out every day, and motor torpedo boats, and airplanes flying around looking for any possibility of a submarine. The pilots were on combat alert all the time. At first we had P-39s, then we eventually went to P-38s, and then to P-40s. We had all three of them at one time or another.
I was at Albrook Field for quite a while, and then Howard Field, and then for about a year we were out in the jungle at a place called Madden. Anyhow, these bases were all real close to the canal -- right on top of it, in fact. And the army was always holding practice alerts: the sirens would go off and these guys would hustle into the planes and away they'd go. They were having those all the time. Myself, I was in communications, so I was in charge of the control tower. We had an air-raid warning system, AWS, which used code, and we had a communications section. About half the guys were assigned to air-raid warning duty, and they had code contact with other air-raid warnings in the area, for an attack that never came -- but that's probably why it never came, because we were ready for it.
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So what was it like to spend the war down there? Mostly I was so damn bored: tired of that heat, tired of everything. You couldn't ever get promoted. I was communications officer and I was frozen in grade because there was no table of organization that called for anything more than that. So there I was, stuck at first lieutenant. You knew you'd never get any credit for having helped win the war down there, but you did what you were assigned to do, and you did it as well as you could.
Here's a typical story. We had these IFF (Identification Friend or Foe) radios in these fighter planes, and they were tricky little things that got out of tune and always had to be hauled out of there and retuned. One of the problems was that we couldn't tune them on the bench where we normally repaired things, because when they got back in the planes it was different, with all the metal around them and all that other stuff. So some guy who was a civilian, just a young guy in his thirties, came down there from the Bell company. They hated him because they were working for about one twentieth of what he was getting, and here he comes down there and starts telling them what to do. They didn't want to be told anything by him. They referred to him as "that high-paid son of a bitch."
I wasn't there at the time, but this guy burst in on our communications section, and he tangled with the sergeant in charge and some of the other guys, giving them his ideas of what should be done. Among other things he wanted us to tune these IFFs in the planes. Well, this would have been a heck of a mess, and we'd have had to haul all kinds of stuff out there. So we pretended we were doing something while he was there, but then we didn't really cooperate with him, and after he left, we just didn't do it at all. He got mad and went to Colonel Logan, this Sixth Air Force colonel in charge of communications who was a command pilot too, and he told him how he'd been treated badly by my section, and that he had made some positive suggestions that were shot down, and so on. I was afraid that something like that was going to happen, but I was just glad to be rid of the guy because the enlisted men just hated and resented him so much.
And so, the first thing you know, we got a call from Colonel Logan. He wanted to see me and the section chief, who was a master sergeant under me by the name of Jim Walker. So, geez, we put on our best uniforms and got all shined up and we marched in there and saluted him, and stood at attention. He said, "You two fellows are in real trouble! Here these experts come down from the manufacturer, and make positive suggestions about how we can improve what we're doing, and you practically threw him out, insulted him. Isn't that right?" I said, "Well I don't know, sir, I wasn't there. . . ." The colonel growled back, "Isn't that right?" And Walker said, "Well, partly, sir. . . ." So the colonel said, "Well, I want you two to know right now: I can make privates out of you. If you don't want to do what's right around here, and take care of your section the right way, well, that's what I'm gonna do to you. Now you go back there, and you carry out those orders about tuning those IFFs in the planes." "Yes, sir!" Fsshht -- we were out of there!
So we went back and we created a cart for the instruments and the electronic gear we needed to tune those damn things, and we hauled it out to the planes, and made a pass at a couple of them, just enough to cover our butts for a couple months. Meanwhile, I got in touch with the guys who had a similar job to mine in these other squadrons down there. I told them what was going on, and they were mighty glad to find out, because forewarned is forearmed, you know.
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One of the guys who went down there with me from Belleville was a young second lieutenant named Bussman. Believe it or not, he was the heir to that Buss Fuse Company fortune in St. Louis. One time he was in one of those small training planes, with a pilot from his squadron, and the damn thing went down over the jungle -- it just kind of crashed in a little field there. They managed to make an emergency lan ding, and he wasn't killed -- in fact he wasn't even hurt, but they were stuck out in that jungle for a couple of days before they got found.
Those kinds of things were common. Under war-time conditions, of course, these airplanes weren't serviced the way they would be in civilian life, and there were a lot of accidents. Pilots were always getting killed in these training accidents.
Once I even had a close call myself. We had this one guy, a pilot everybody called "F. O. Undie" because his name was Flight Officer Underwood. F. O. Undie. I had to fly somewhere for some reason or other, and he was going to take me. He had an AT-6, an "advanced trainer" -- it looked a little like a fighter plane except kind of crude, and it had two seats, a front and a back, whereas the fighter planes only had one. So I was in back, and we went down the runway to take off, revving up the motor to beat hell, but as we were getting near the end of the runway, the plane just wasn't going up. All the sudden he slams on the brakes and we almost did a flip. He turned around, and then he pulled some tech manuals out of the pocket there, and started reading them, and finally he said, "Yeah, now we're OK." He never told me what was wrong -- he just didn't know how to get the thing airborne, I guess. And so we taxied back to where we started, and we took off, and went to where we were going, and came back, no problem at all. Stuff like that was happening all the time.
Late in the war I was working out of the control tower at France Field, and that was when one of the worst things I ever saw happened. We had a whole squadron out there, about sixteen planes, not just one flight of planes. I'd been in charge of the tower at these smaller bases, like out at Madden, but not at France Field, which was larger. They put me in a jeep with a large signal light, red on one end and green on the other -- kind of a big flashlight. When the planes were approaching the runway, I was supposed to flash green if the wind was from a certain direction, red if it was not. If it changed from the other direction then they had to come in the other way, so I was to go down to the end of the runway and signal to come in from that direction.
Now, they would have these tow planes, which took off with targets trailing about fifty yards behind, and the other planes would make passes at them and shoot at them -- aerial gunnery practice. So it was a common thing for a tow plane to take off. On this particular day I was sitting in a jeep, and I think I'd given the last green signal to the tow target plane to take off. Then the wind changed direction. We cranked up the jeep and we were heading for the other end of the runway, when all of a sudden there was a loud noise. I looked up and to my horror saw that two P-40s had been coming in to land, close together, and they both crashed into this tow plane, about a hundred yards up in the air. I hadn't given them any signal, they were just trying to land. There was a great big ball of flame, and then pieces of airplane started dropping down to the ground as this enormous ball of fire descended. It was horrible.
I was in a state of shock -- at the moment I felt responsible, because I had given the tow plane the green light! My commanding officer, Major Herron, came tearing out there, and I went over to him, half crying, half hysterical, and I told him, "I was just going down to the end to change the signal, because the wind had shifted!" And he said, "Oh, shut up, Fleming, it didn't have anything to do with you." And it didn't. It was a screw-up by the tower. Or maybe these two P-40 pilots -- they evidently didn't wait for a radio signal to bring them in; they just decided to land.
Then there was another tragic incident that took place between the surrender of the Germans and the surrender of the Japanese, in the summer of '45. The commanding officer of the base, Taylor, was a command pilot, with wings and everything else on his uniform. A full colonel. He had a Piper Cub there, which was supposed to be his personal plane, and he decided he wanted it to have pontoons so he could use it for fishing on Gatun Lake. So the colonel sat at his desk and he doodled and drew specifications for the pontoons on this plane, and when the guys saw it they were horrified that he was going to try to adapt that Piper Cub and make a seaplane out of it. I heard a lot of talk about this around the officers' club. "Boy, I hope I never have to get in that thing" -- talk like that.
But anyhow, he had the plane hauled into base engineering, and there was a pilot officer by the name of Olsen, the base engineering officer, who had a degree in aeronautical engineering. He was an older fellow, older than most of us, over thirty years old, pretty bald, and kind of quiet, but he was a regular army guy, a major. Of course he had no choice but to go ahead and have those pontoons made and put on that plane, and being an aeronautical engineer he had grave doubts about the whole thing. But it was too bad -- he couldn't tell Taylor, because Taylor was about to retire from the service and was due for a promotion to brigadier general when he got back to the United States and a discharge with a big pension.
So the airplane was built, and we'd see Olsen in the officers' club, you know, and he was starting to look a little pale around the gills. The guys would kid him and say, "Oh, you're so lucky, Olsen, I think the colonel is gonna choose you for his co-pilot." We started calling him Lucky Olsen. And the guy would just cringe -- he didn't feel lucky at all, he didn't want any part of it, but he didn't know what to do about it, and the last thing in the world he wanted to do was cross this colonel.
And then the day came, and sure enough, Taylor picked Olsen for the "honor" of flying the plane with him. They had the thing hauled out to the lake, and were going to take off at about nine o'clock the next morning. All the guys were laying bets about what would happen, saying, "Well, I think they'll spin in," or "I don't think they'll even get the thing off the lake," or things like that. We all got up on top of the hangar to see what was going on.
The motor revved up, and the thing started taxiing along the lake, and made quite a nice take-off. They came up and flew over the hangar, and they were jauntily waving at the guys, everything was going fine, and they buzzed around for about a half an hour -- over the base, and over the water a little bit -- and then they came in for a landing on the water. Of course, now they had to land on the water, since they didn't have any wheels left. So, the thing came in, and approached the water, and started mushing along a little, and then it got a bit rear-end heavy, and all of the sudden it went pshhhh! and just took a terrific dive, right straight down to the bottom of the bay. We all thought that these guys might have a chance to get out, but evidently the thing dove so far and so fast that even if they did get out, they couldn't make it to the surface. Or they could have bumped their heads awful hard when the plane dove, and just been semi-conscious when the whole thing happened. Anyhow, they both drowned. I don't think we even recovered the plane. I never found out what happened, whether the bodies were still in the plane, or what.
Boy, I felt sad about that, because this poor guy Olsen didn't want any part of all this and everybody knew it, but he never would say a word because he didn't want to cross this colonel. I'll tell you, retribution was swift and certain in those days for anyone who crossed a superior officer.
© Michael Fleming