Training pilots for war: Marana and WWII - The Explorer: Import

Training pilots for war: Marana and WWII

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Posted: Saturday, August 27, 2005 11:00 pm | Updated: 7:50 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

August 10, 2005 - They glisten and gleam in the sun, sticking up out of the desert like row upon row of bright white shark teeth.

Anyone driving on Interstate 10 south of Picacho Peak can't miss them - the tails of dozens of huge commercial aircraft sticking up three and four stories high from the creosote-besotted desert floor.

Airlines from around the world have chosen Arizona's dry climate to store airplanes they don't currently need, but may someday. And to keep them safe and ready to fly, they've parked them at the mysterious airfield called Pinal Air Park - an airport that is part storage center, part U.S. Army helicopter training base and part civilian aviation airport.

Thanks to those jagged shark teeth and the location next to I-10, most Southern Arizonans know there is some kind of airport just south of Picacho, though they probably don't know what it's there for.

Most of those whizzing by the turnoff to the airpark are unaware of the vital role the airport played in the war against fascism many decades ago and of the meaning it has for some veterans who are still in Arizona today.

This week marks the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II and the unconditional surrender of Japan on Aug. 14, 1945. That action brought to an end the most devastating and brutal conflict in the history of the world.

The United States played a part in that devastation for nearly three years, bringing to bear on the Axis powers the full might of its people and their massive industrial infrastructure.

Among the dozens of bases built by the War Department in Arizona from 1942 to 1944 as part of that immense mobilization was a dusty airfield just south of Picacho Peak.

Though now known as Pinal Air Park, during the war it was called Marana Army Air Field, and it was the largest basic flying school in the world, according to research done by the Phoenix Regional Airport Museum.

Tucson resident and docent at the 390th Bombardment Group Museum at Pima Air and Space Museum DeWayne "Ben" Bennett was one of the thousands of pilots trained at Marana before being sent off for further training in the planes they would eventually fly in the war, be it transports, fighters or bombers.

Bennett remembers well those hot days spent learning the basics of combat flying and loves to speak of them to his visitors at the museum.

But to tell his story about his time in Marana, you have to start in California.

Bennett's part in World War II began in the dead of night, as he stumbled off a train in Santa Ana, Calif., to begin his basic Army training in the early part of 1943. He and his fellow recruits had been on the train for days, coming from cities and farms throughout the country, some men a few months removed from being called boys, some a few years short of being called old.

As they stumbled in the dark, laden with duffle bags and luggage, on their way toward the barracks and the rickety cot and foot locker they would be calling home for the next eight weeks, they began to hear a chorus of a 1,000 men rumbling like thunder through the rows of barracks.

"You'll be sorrrrry!" rained down on them from every barrack window, a sadistic chant of welcome from the almost soldiers to the soon-to-be soldiers - welcome to the U.S. Army Air Corps.

That scene at the Army Air Forces West Coast Training Center in Santa Ana experienced by Bennett played out similarly across the country from 1942 to 1945 as America mobilized for World War II and put three million men in uniform.

To win the war, the United States would need guns, trucks, tanks, ships and planes - tens of thousands of planes. As the nation's industrial might roared to life and began producing hundreds of fighters, bombers and transports a day, so, too, did the armed services begin providing the hundreds of thousands of pilots and air crews needed to fly and support them.

The War Department picked the desert Southwest and its nearly year-round flying weather and wide-open spaces as the spot where most of those men would receive their training.

Nearly 200 airfields and strips were built in the Southwest, from West Texas to Southern California.

Santa Ana was the place where most of the Army's air corps members would begin their training. From there, they would be shipped off for primary, basic and advanced air training around the West. A large percentage of them ended up in Arizona.

More than 60 airfields and strips were built in Arizona between 1942 and 1944, the majority in central and southern Arizona (see map page 26).

One field, though, was a little bigger than most. Built just south of a rocky volcanic spire called "Picacho" and just north of a dusty farming town called Marana, the Marana Army Airfield became the largest basic flying school in the world.

Bennett, fresh from roaring his own chorus of "You'll be sorry" to raw recruits in Santa Ana, arrived at Marana just after the war's heartbreaking setbacks of 1942 had passed and the tide had been turned in both theaters of war; the Allies advancing, the Japanese and Germans retreating.

Ben, as he likes to be called, was eyed for combat duty as a pilot, and already crowding 24, an old man to some of his younger peers.

He had done his first flying at Thunderbird II near Phoenix, which was one of several primary training bases in Arizona where the Army learned whether a recruit could learn to fly (he didn't vomit in the cockpit every time the plane made a turn). Bennett learned to do solo flights and spins in the PT-17 (Primary Trainer 17) a good old-fashioned biplane.

"Open cockpit. The wind would rush by your hair and you would think you were in the dawn patrol during World War I," Bennett said.

Though Bennett loved to read, and learn from, the dime novels about fighter aces from that earlier war, becoming a fighter jock was not in the cards for him.

"I was not a good prospect as a fighter pilot because my reactions were not like that. When I drove a car, I obeyed the speed limit. The young kids that came out of high school and drove their cars 90 miles an hour down the road, had wrecks and everything, those were the ideal kids for fighter pilots because they reacted quickly. And quick reactions in a little fighter plane is what kept them alive. So I was classified out of Santa Ana as a bomber pilot."

After finishing up at Thunderbird II, Bennett and a herd of other would-be pilots headed south to Marana Basic Flying School, part of the growing Army Air Force Flying Training Command.

The Marana base was built in just three months, transforming what was mostly farmland surrounded by desert into a bustling Army airfield, albeit with a "lean-to" kitchen and small shacks with screenless windows and of 1943, the base was in full swing.

The Army Air Forces West Coast Training Center was made up of many bases located throughout the Western United States, and the Army Air Forces Basic Flying School in Marana would grow to mammoth proportions. Not only was there the main base, but there also were several satellite fields used strictly for landing and takeoff known as Picacho Auxiliary, Rillito Auxiliary, Coronado or the Red Rock Auxiliary, Avra Auxiliary and Sahuaro Auxiliary (see map page 26).

They weren't the only ones. Just around Tucson, more than a dozen airfields and auxiliary strips surrounded the city of about 60,000. By 1944, Saturday nights found thousands of airmen on weekend passes crowding Tucson bars 10 deep.

The once quiet skies were now filled with thousands of planes training pilots for B-17s, B-24s, B-29s, and every conceivable fighter coming off the industrial line.

"The instructors have five cadets (to train), they would take you at an hour at a time. Then when you got good enough, you could go by yourself and you would practice this stuff that they had taught you," Ben says.

"You're way out some place, you look around and you don't know where the hell you're at … then, Picacho Peak, there it stands in all of its glory.

So you turn and go to Picacho Peak and there is the air force base or a satellite field.

"You could never get lost at Marana, at least not during daylight," Bennett added. "We did short, navigational trips in daytime at Marana. We would go to Safford, Columbus, New Mexico, or fly over to a certain point on your map and then you would come on home across country. They were trying to teach you to navigate with a compass.

"The important landmark was Picacho Peak. When you flew out on instruments or you're out there practicing and you get yourself messed up, you looked around until you saw Picacho Peak. You fly right to it."

Bennett said his instructor was Jeffrey Lee, a British Royal Air Force combat veteran. While many other instructors did their best to flunk out two or three of their charges from each cadet class, Lee made sure everyone of his cadets got through, Bennett said.

"He wanted us to make it in order to fight the Germans or Japanese," Ben said.

The training period lasted nearly three months. By the fourth week, the new pilots had been familiarized with the BT-13 to the point that night flying was the next step, and a frightening one at that.

"You're scared when you take off because it is pitch black out there in the desert. There are nine million stars but pitch black! There are no lights, like there is now all over the damn country. But after you get up a certain ways you can just faintly see the horizon and you've got your instruments and you're up in the air. But now when you start to let down to come back to the field, you pull back on the throttles. In a radial engine like that, gas loads up in the cylinders and when you pull back on the throttle, gas comes out of the exhaust and ignites right by the cockpit and flames four feet high come out," Bennett said as he burst into a good, hard laugh. "And Jesus, you thought you've just blown up! You're just scared totally crapless!"

Bennett added that the landing was the tricky part of the whole exercise, since they were stacked up for landing, like in modern airports, but using 1940s technology.

"I'm at 3,000 feet and circling until it's my turn to come down and get in this pattern to land. They let another guy down and then they let me down (via instructions from the now finished tower), but it was done too soon and I got too close. And instead of making a 360 degree turn to give him enough time to get on down, I pull back on my throttles and the damn airplane started to shutter like it was going to stall. I put the nose down and poured the damn coal on it and then did the 360 degree turn after I recovered," Bennett said with a sigh. "Had I stalled that thing at a thousand feet, I would have killed myself. It scared the devil out of me. I never did that again."

Life on the Marana Base was like any other: training, eating, sleeping and inspections. The summers were horrendous since the barracks had no type of cooling system besides opening the doors and windows, and the flies were unbearable. And yet on Saturdays everyone was expected to awaken early and clean themselves, their dorms and their uniforms, and then have inspections.

"A white glove inspection in the middle of this damn desert. Everything had to be polished and no dust," Bennett said with a laugh. But the inspections were no laughing matter. The bunk bed had to be made so tight that "a nickel could bounce" on it. It was 10 a.m. when the officers came through, literally wearing "white gloves," and made the inspection, checking the footlocker to make sure socks and all other clothing were folded correctly.

That would last until 11 a.m., "then they would take you out into the sun," Bennett quipped, to an area between the barracks where the roads came together and formed a large square, and then line the cadets up for uniform inspection. If they passed muster, which was pretty much standard, by noon they were on buses for a 24-hour furlough to Tucson.

Many times, the cadets would head to Tucson and obtain rooms in hotels, if any were available. Hitchhiking was strictly forbidden except from certain approved areas. The cadets at Marana were so keen on being able to get out for their furloughs that they actually built a "Thumbing Station" with benches and a cover, which looked much like a bus stop.

Once in town, the Marana cadets competed with all the other military personnel from around Pima County for bar seats, dancing space, movie seats and women. Some would even take time to head down to Nogales, though Bennett said he never did. You were expected back at base no later than noon on Sunday for a standup parade (not marching, but at attention).

Eventually, the cadets didn't have to leave the school just to meet women.

When the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps members finally arrived in May of 1943, the cadets were beside themselves, he said.

"The WAACs came in and they marched them down the street, and here's all these women with their butts swishing and every cadet is out there looking at them and someone lets out a wolf whistle and the old colonel heard it and never said a word," Bennett said.

But come the next Saturday morning, "they lined us up early and set up attention for three hours and cut out our leave and wanted to know who let out the wolf whistle. Well, no one would say so they left us standing out there in that sun and pretty soon you'd hear 'thud,'" he said with a hearty laugh.

Bennett added that he could feel the sweat flowing down his neck and back and that he started hearing a multitude of "thuds" across the parade ground as various cadets succumbed to the heat. For Bennett, having been an Iowa farm lad had helped build up a certain tolerance for the heat.

Thanks to Royal Air Force veteran Jeffrey Lee's instruction and Bennett's determination, this Iowa farm boy graduated from Marana and was sent on to advanced training in Douglas. He barely got along with his instructor there but managed to overcome that roadblock (thanks to the instructor being sent to B-29 training) and eventually flew 31 B-17 missions over Germany as part of the 384th Bombardment group, 545th Squadron.

Having returned to live in Tucson several decades later, in 1996, Mike Searle, a friend of his at Evergreen Aviation, which is headquartered at Pinal Air Park, called to say that they had a carburetor on a B-17 that his restoration company had been working on and that he wanted to know if Bennett wanted to go out to the field and sit in the cockpit while they "run it up."

"I jumped at the chance," Bennett said. Sitting in the pilot's seat, the big engines roaring, he was able to get the sound and the feeling back from the flying days more than 50 years later. He ambled out of the plane but the pilot advised him to "stick around," since they were going to take some people up later, and offered to take him with them. He stood between the pilot and the co-pilot as the plane pulled out onto the runway and as "we started down the runway and I looked up, and I mean tears came to my eyes because there it was, Picacho Peak, sticking up out there in the desert. And it really tore me up to see that."

They screamed down the runway, and once the pilot had hit 1,000 feet, he told Bennett to "take it over." He was told to take it to 4,000 feet and make a 360-degree turn and then take it to 5,000 feet. "Well, my turn was not too good, but I really wanted to roll it out at 5,000 feet. Not at 4,500 or 5,100. I wanted to hit 5,000 feet. My 360 degree turn was lousy, but I rolled it out right at 5,000 feet."

Bennett has since been asked by Evergreen to return to the base to help find some of the old barracks, the marching fields, the playground and the swimming pool. They have maps with some of the items on them, but not all. He was able to locate the last row of barracks he and his friends were in, and after that, "there was nothing but desert. All that is left is some foundations. They've moved most of the buildings."

Though few of the buildings remain, many of the Army air bases are still in use today. Ryan Air Field southwest of Tucson now houses planes for private use. Douglas Auxiliary Field Number One trains pilots for missionary work. Davis-Monthan, Luke and Williams became major Air Force bases, though Williams has since been shut down. And many of the other bases became centers for aviation work and construction.

Marana's main field, now Pinal Air Park, is home to an Army National Guard helicopter training base that also trains Singapore Army helicopter pilots, houses a federal law enforcement training center, serves as a storage facility for major air carriers (including 747s, 737s and DC-10s), and is home to Evergreen Aviation.

The town of Marana acquired its municipal airport from Pima County about six years ago. The former Marana Auxiliary Field No. 2 is now a burgeoning general aviation airport, which the town hopes will become the economic engine that drives the town. Marana would like it to become as successful as Falcon Field in Mesa, a Royal Air force training base in World War II, which is now one of the largest general aviation airports in Arizona and one of the largest commercial airports.

But the largest contribution the aviation war effort had on Arizona can be seen in every part of our state, just by its growth. A large segment of America was introduced to Arizona and its ideal flying climate. As a result, many aviation companies came to the state, as did those who had served in the military.

Today, there's a very good chance that many of World War II's former Army Air Corps service men and women now retired in Arizona once spent part of 1942, '43, '44 or '45 suffering through insufferable heat, fighting off flies, jostling for a seat in the Pioneer Hotel bar and looking out the cockpit window for their old friend Picacho Peak to guide them home.

Veteran helps families find missing soldiers

One of the jobs that DeWayne "Ben" Bennett does today out at the Pima Air & Space Museum is locate information about those who served in the Army Air Corps during the war.

They want to find out about "their dad, uncle, cousin, brother, boyfriend … just people who come in here," Bennett said. "All (the information) they ever heard was a telegram from the War Department saying your son or uncle is missing in action, and maybe later on they get another telegram that tells them that he was killed in action and that is all the service ever told them. They don't know how he died; they don't know where he died."

"If they know the Missing Crew Report number, fine, but they have to know the pilot's name and the group he was attached to and preferably the day he was shot down so they can find that information. Having a little information to help the National Archives find the Missing Air Crew Report without a lot of research is a great help," Bennett said.

Bennett likes to help people today because it means "closure for some," even these many years later. In one case, a woman wrote to him from South Carolina asking about her uncle, who had been her father's older brother. Her father had been 14 at the time of the war and his older brother had joined the Army Air Corps. He was killed on his first mission over France, and that is all the family was told.

Ben was able to locate the information about what town in France the plane had crashed near, and he found out that, to this day, the town's people still honor those killed 60 years ago. Once he was able to relay this information to the woman, the whole family went to France to observe the ceremonies at the town and then proceeded to Normandy, since the bodies had been removed from the local cemetery for reinterment at the American Cemetery.

Eventually, the whole family came to Tucson and spent three days visiting Bennett. "And when (the younger brother of the killed crew member) left, he put his arms around me and cried like a baby and said, 'This is the greatest thing that ever happened to me,'" Bennett said. Bennett and the family remain close to this day.

To reach Bennett, call the Pima Air and Space Museum and ask for the 390th museum, where Bennett is a docent.

© 2014 The Explorer. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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