Usually I write about my travels and adventures. But today, I took a journey without ever leaving my home. You see, I seem to be the designated family historian, and when I opened a box I recently obtained from my grandma, I discovered a treasure trove of letters (along with a few random bullets) and I time hopped back to the era of mid 1937 to early 1942.
I never knew this man, but I have zero doubt that I would have really loved him. He had a zest for life. He traveled. He did what needed to be done, but made time for plenty of fun. He was born in 1919, and grew up poor, on a country farm. He graduated in 1937 from high school and moved to the city. Kansas City, that is. And through his letters, I am able to picture his life, imagine the places he’s traveled to, and feel his exuberance at young adulthood.
Above Photos: The family farm homestead. / Entering Young Adulthood.
On August 1, 1937 he wrote: “Dear Mom, Dad, and Merle… Well, I have finally stayed one night away from home… This certainly is like a mansion. They have three floors and a basement, grounds that cover many acres, and lots of beautiful trees, chairs, lily ponds, and fish ponds…. Last night I sat in the yard and watched a few cars go along. There is a continual string of them. About ten times as many as go by 36. There are two night clubs just a block from here.” I do not know where he was staying, as that’s not specified, but I imagine it was quite different than what he was familiar with. I also have little doubt that he visited those night clubs.
He started working, and was quite the budgeting person. On February 12, 1938 he wrote, “I get paid $30 Tuesday and it really will come in handy and I am just about broke now. You see I have 12 dollars every 4 weeks for room, $14 for board, $4 for lunch, $5 for carfare, $4 for enjoyment, $5 for clothes, and $5 for saving, the rest for incidentals.” Sounds like a pretty good budgeting plan to me!
His letters indicate he was quite the networker, always meeting managers and people in high places of companies he hoped to one day work for. He was a socializer, too, always going somewhere, or meeting new friends. He went to the Golden Gloves Tournament, tennis tournaments, country clubs, met H.G. Wells, went to shows.
He took classes at Rockhurst and the KC Business College. He mentions that tuition to start was $7.50 at Rockhurst, and that he’d later owe another $7.50 for the next semester. In another letter he mentions that tuition was only $40 and books were another $2. In one letter he chastised his younger brother for not working harder on his English classes, even though it wasn’t an easy subject.
In early 1939 he writes that he got another job and will receive $20 salary each week. He was very happy with that pay. The company was Stewart Sand and Material Company, located at 18th and Grant on the 3rd floor of the City National Bank Building. He says that Stewart Sand is the largest company in KC in regards to sand, stone, tile, rocks and that they do a million dollars in business each year. He writes that he “secured the job through my personality.” That made me laugh.
He got a promotion to a new position, and writes on March 4, 1939, “Got paid last Tuesday. Certainly like the larger salary. I continue to like my new position as much as possible. My boss is exceptionally nice and friendly. I am so much happier now. I was almost despondent before when I had my other position and just setting still. Now I am jubilant. I really do believe I got the best position I ever applied for.” People don’t talk like that anymore… despondent, jubilant, best position ever.
He moved boarding locations several times, and writes at one point that it cost $2.20 to have a delivery company move all of his stuff. All he had to do was pack it up. Things sure have changed… I’ve moved 13 times, and can’t even fathom how much money it’s cost me over the years.
If you are familiar at all with your American History, you will know what’s coming. World War II began. We hadn’t entered it yet, but it was only a matter of time.
On May 20, 1941 he writes that he will be enlisting at Ft. Leavenworth and then will report to Oxnard, California, on June 4th. “Oxnard is about 60 miles north of Los Angeles on the coast. Population of town about 9,000. There are 7 other boys from Kansas City going to this same school at this same time.”
June 15, 1941: “Boy, I certainly have been putting in the days. The Air Corps have a system of demerits that are given for various things you do wrong, for instance making your bed, finding dust on the top of your door, being late to a formation, etc. I spend about 2 hours daily making my bed just right and dusting the room and keeping everything in order. If you get over 5 demerits in any one week you are not allowed to go out over the weekend.”
He became a pilot. That same date he writes, “Last week we started flying. They have some pretty nice airplanes. Certainly enjoy flying. “
Above photos: July 1, 1941. In the cockpit of a Stearman at Oxnard. / July 1, 1941. In front of a Vultee plane at Oxnard.
July 13, 1941. “I made my solo airplane ride last Thursday. Did it quite well, wasn’t scared at all and really liked it. Friday and Saturday made my 2nd and 3rd supervised solos. Starting next Monday I will take a plane out by myself and practice different maneuvers. I have 14 hours in the air now. As yet we haven’t received uniforms here but understand we will soon. The class before us had to buy theirs, cost them $30, but I know we won’t. Sure have enjoyed myself when in L.A. on weekends.”
August 3, 1941. “Now have 49 hours of time in the air. Have been flying 3 hours or more every day last week. I will have my 60 hours check next week and if I successfully pass it will know I will get to the next school. Have been doing acrobatics this last week. Flying upside down, doing slow rolls, that is rolling the plane clear around up and over, loops, that is diving down and then pulling the nose up and coming over on your back. As far as I know there has never been a parachute jump at this school. The planes we fly are almost foolproof and safety is always practiced to the utmost. However, we wear parachutes at all times and they are inspected every 30 days to be sure they are in perfect condition.”
August 9, 1941. “I passed my final army check. I was sure glad to get by it. You have to pass 3 checks with Cal Aero and 3 with the army, by the time you have 60 hours. I have 32 hours solo now. None of the acrobatics are dangerous as long as you have plenty of altitude to go in case you fall out of one into a spin or something. Yesterday after I passed my check I went up to 10,000 feet. That is about as high as these airplanes will go…. I understand they have extended the draft to 2 ½ years. I still think I am much better off here. I was afraid of that extension of the draft, one of the reasons why I joined the Aviation Cadets.”
Above Photo: Sept. 15, 1941. Flying an echelon formation.
He moved on to Bakersfield for a few weeks. “Next week we will start flying and have ground school. We will fly BT 13A’s.” On October 24, 1941 he writes, “I have passed all checks ok. I really do like flying more and more. Have been flying formation quite a bit the last two weeks, and it is a lot of fun. We found out yesterday approximately where we would be sent next. I will go to a school that specializes in two motored plans, such as bomber planes. I am expecting to go to Sacramento, but I may either go to Stockton or Victorville Have been getting pretty good grades in ground school. Last week I ranked 5th in the class of 135.“
Above Photo: He wrote on the back of the picture: “View showing a few of instruments in cockpit of BT13A, ship which I am flying at Bakersfield.”
He moved on to Sacramento, at Mather Field. On November 21, 1941, he writes “I soloed in the planes we fly here last Tuesday. Have 8 hours in these planes now. The plane we fly here is about 20 mph faster. Also the landing wheels come up into the body of the plan after getting off the ground, allowing it to go faster…. We were issued winter flying equipment last week. It is all leather, fur lined, and is the very warmest material possible. I bought most of my uniform when I get to be an officer. I am paying $45 for my blouse and $16 for pants, and $2.75 for flight cap. Sam Brown leather belt $11 and saber chain $2.50. Also have to get various other articles such as poplin shirts, dress shirts, air corps insignia, ties, socks, shoes, a raincoat or officers overcoat. I will get the $150 from the government to pay for it probably about February 15.”
He also met a girl. “I had a very swell Thanksgiving dinner yesterday at some friends of the girl that I go with here in Sacramento. I met the girl when I was up to Yosemite Park last August. She and her parents are very nice and I have been at her house several times for meals. She is a graduate of the University of California.”
November 29, 1941. “Have 21 hours flying time in the airplane that we are flying here. Last week I flew up to Lake Tahoe, up northeast about 100 miles. It is very pretty from the sky, had to get up to 12 to 14,000 feet to get over the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Also went down to San Francisco over the ocean a little ways in the airplane. Started formation flying yesterday, and my instructor soloed me after a few minutes as I flew it pretty good as had quite a bit of formation flying at Bakersfield. You see 3 ships fly together, take off and land all together.”
December 7, 1941 is a milestone date in American history. He writes home, “I suppose you heard the news today that Japan has declared war. It’s too bad but I can’t see where she can do too much by herself as long as Germany and Italy are not actively engaged. Time can only tell what will happen…. I do not know nor do I have any idea as to what will happen when I get my commission in January. I hardly believe I will be sent directly into a tactical unit in the Pacific after getting commissioned in view of the little flying time I actually have in comparison to those who graduated before me, many of whom are instructors now. I truly believe almost all of us graduating when I do will be made instructors for some time until we build up our flying time and get more experience… We have been flying all weekend. I took several cross countries aggregating 5 or 600 miles. The planes I fly here are all single motored, but have half as many horsepower as those at basic training. The ones I fly now have 650 hp.”
December 15, 1941. “Today 35 or 40 pursuit planes came in here, which I understand are to be stationed here as protection against the Japanese. They came from the middle west and are the fastest planes in the world, cruising at over 400 miles per hour, and that is really fast. They are to be used for protection.”
He spent Christmas with his girlfriend and her family, saying how nice it was and how much he liked them all. Her father was an electrician with the Pacific Gas & Electric Company, and they had built their home only a couple of years prior. His journal entries state “I can’t get her out of my mind. I am in love with her.”
He was happy.
December 27, 1941. “I still firmly believe, and even more so now, that I would much rather be in the Air Corps making a decent salary and having some sort of position than being a common soldier with no pay and certainly no position, even though I am taking more risk now that we are at war. At least I am seeing the country. In my position as a Lieutenant I will meet and associate with the best class of people wherever I may be, just as I have been as an Aviation Cadet. I know it to be a fact that there is nobody of young men in the world that can compare to the physical and educational or heritage qualities of my classmates here in the Air Corps, unless it be in the Navy Air Corps, which is very similar except they are in the Navy and I am in the Army. I consider the Air Corps to be on par with West Point or better. It looks to me as though this war will take anywhere from 2 to 5 years and I know were I in the draft it would change my entire outlook on life and I would have missed the part of it that I could never enjoy. So, please do not worry about me too much because I am happy and I am enjoying life and going to keep on doing so while I may.... We will be commissioned January 9th, a week from this coming Friday. I do not know where I will be sent nor whether I will be made an instructor or go into a tactical unit after that.”
January 11, 1942. “We had graduation Friday. It certainly feels great to be a second Lieutenant and having all the enlisted men saluting you and everything. My officer’s uniform certainly does look nice if I do say so myself and it feels better, too. There were 155 of us new Lts. We got our travel orders to repost at new stations. 70 of us are going to Long Beach. 4 to Wichita, 11 to Michigan. The other 70 are staying on at Mather Field as instructors. I am going to Long Beach. All of us that are leaving Mather are going into the Ferry Command, which is flying new ships to different parts of the U.S. after they have been built at the airplane factors. I am really the happiest I have ever been in my life as this Ferry Command is the best in the whole army. I expect to take many trips east to New York, going through Kansas City en route. I can hardly wait until I get to Long Beach Tuesday the 13th.”
January 15, 1942. “I understand we are to leave tomorrow to ferry some ships anyplace in the U.S. We never will know where we are going or when. It is quite possible that I may get to fly several thousand miles on this first hop. We fly only during the day time and you are the sole judge of weather conditions and whether you want to fly in unsettled weather or not. After delivering a ship at the end of the trip we catch the first airliner coming back to Long Beach.”
And that was his last letter he ever sent. He never did get to make a several thousand mile journey ferrying an airplane. He died on January 19, 1942, just two days after his last letter, upon takeoff in Selma, Alabama, on his first ferry flight. I imagine his parents received notification of his death before they even received his last letter.
While his death was a tragedy, his short life was well lived. That’s more than a lot of people can say. He worked. He studied. He traveled. He served. He fell in love. He was 22 years old when he died.
He was my great-uncle.