FOR A FIGHTER PILOT IN THE MIGHTY EIGHTH, DEATH WAS ALWAYS A HEARTBEAT AWAY.
When the skies of Europe blazed with the fiercest air battles in history, fighter pilots like Norman “Bud” Fortier were in the thick of it, flying four hundred miles an hour at thirty thousand feet, dodging flak and dueling with Nazi aces. In their role as “escorts” to Flying Fortresses and Liberators, the fighter squadrons’ ability to blast enemy aircraft from the sky was key to the success of pinpoint bombing raids on German oil refineries, communication and supply lines, and other crucial targets.
Flying in formation with the bomber stream, Fortier and the rest of his squadron helped develop dive-bombing and strafing tactics for the Thunderbolts and Mustangs. As the war progressed, fighter squadrons began to carry out their own bombing missions. From blasting V-1 missile sites along France’s “rocket coast” and the hell-torn action of D day to the critical attacks on the Ruhr Valley and massive daylight raids on German industrial targets, Fortier was part of the Allies’ bitter struggle to bring the Nazi war machine to a halt. In describing his own hundred-plus missions and by including the accounts of fellow fighter pilots, Fortier recaptures the excitement and fiery terror of the world’s most dangerous cat-and-mouse game.
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Norman “Bud” Fortier was born in New Hampshire in 1922. In January 1942 he joined the Army Air Corps and became a fighter pilot assigned to the Eighth Air Force’s famed 355th Fighter Group. He flew 113 missions and rose to squadron command. He is officially credited with 5.8 aerial combat victories during the war.
After the war Fortier graduated from the University of New Hampshire and went on to fly for Northwest Orient Airlines. Recalled to active duty in 1947 for the Berlin Airlift, he remained in the air force. After retiring from the air force in 1964 as a lieutenant colonel, he became an elementary school teacher and principal.
On January 21, 1942, I raised my right hand at the army recruiting center in Manchester, New Hampshire, and was inducted into the U.S. Army Air Corps as a flying cadet. I didn't look closely at the "Agreement to Serve" I signed. I agreed to serve for "the duration of the war plus six months," but I also agreed that I would not marry while still a cadet. According to my pre-induction physical, I was 5 feet, 7 inches tall and weighed 135 pounds.
The finality of what I had done was beginning to sink in. I was alone, and for the first time in my life, cut off from the security of home and family-and I was scared.
Within two hours, I was on my way to Maxwell Field in Montgomery, Alabama, along with Clarence (Bo) Beauregard from Marlborough, New Hampshire; Maurice (Moe) Cashman from Franklin, New Hampshire; Jim Owens from Haverhill, Massachusetts; and Henry J. (Hank) Pascho from Somerville, Massachusetts. At twenty-six, Bo was the oldest of the group; at nineteen, I was the youngest.
We didn't get to know each other until after we changed trains in Washington, D.C., and found ourselves in adjoining berths on the Seaboard Atlantic Railroad headed south. We had two small compartments, each with pull-down bunks and enough room to sit around and socialize before bedtime.
We were playing cards early that evening in one of the compartments when someone suggested that we might be able to get a bottle of whiskey from the porter. "I'll see what I can do at the next station," he promised. After the next stop, we had a rather expensive bottle of rotgut whiskey and a bottle of ginger ale to help chase it down.
I was out of my element. I was not a drinker. I hadn't had anything stronger than a glass of wine in my life. But I was now in the army. And army people drank liquor. So I had a few whiskeys and ginger ale, and soon the small compartment became a more pleasant place. I was no longer with strangers, no longer scared; I was among friends!
We played poker, for small stakes because none of us had much money, but we were in the army now, and our perception was that army people drank whiskey and played poker. I did not win any money that night, but I did learn three valuable lessons: Never drink whiskey when you play poker, never play poker with people who really know how to play the game, and there's no such thing as "a friendly little game of poker."
About noon on January 23, the porter came through the cars announcing that we were approaching Montgomery, Alabama. We gathered our luggage and stood by the exit as the train lurched to a stop. As we stepped down, a tall, rugged-looking sergeant directed us to a waiting army bus. We were surprised that about thirty other cadets were on the same train. With more than thirty cadets and their luggage, the bus to Maxwell Field was full.
We didn't quite get to Maxwell Field. The bus stopped in front of an old, shabby-looking two-story building. "This is where you get off," said the sergeant. "Welcome to the Old Mill."
The Old Mill was an old textile mill, condemned as unsafe and closed-until the crunch of hundreds of cadets exceeded the capacity of Maxwell Field to absorb them. This was a "temporary" facility: two floors with roughly fifty cadets on each floor, in two-tiered bunks. We were issued sheets and blankets, and a bunk number: A was bottom bunk, B was top. Bo and I shared the same bunk number; he chose top.
In the next few days, we were subjected to a number of indignities: extra-short haircuts; clothing that didn't fit and had to be reissued; immunization shots to prevent smallpox, tetanus, typhoid, and yellow fever; and the ever-present drill sergeants who marched us to and from the mess hall at Maxwell Field three times a day. "Why can't you civilians understand what a column is? Don't you know how to stay in ranks? Do you really expect to be cadets?"
We learned. In a few weeks, we could march to and from the mess hall at Maxwell Field, about a quarter of a mile away, in some semblance of order but never to the satisfaction of the drill sergeant. We sent our civilian clothes back home: "You won't be needing those for a while," the sergeant told us.
Then came the lectures: military customs and laws, navigation, meteorology, aircraft recognition, and the like. What I remember most was the physical fitness routine. Every day, we had calisthenics: hop-straddle exercises and push-ups and all kinds of traditional drills designed to drain energy from young studs to make them more amenable to discipline. The ultimate routine was what we called the Burma Road, a tortuous two-mile run through the woods and swamps surrounding Maxwell Field, led by a physical fitness nut who set the pace while another brought up the rear to discourage stragglers. There were streams to jump over and hills to climb, but the worst part was the stretch along the edge of the golf course where we could see women playing golf in the distance. They looked young and attractive from our vantage point, but it may have been a blessing that we never saw them up close. We could dream.
At the end of the third week, we were given "open post" (permission to leave the base) while at the Old Mill. We went into town and I drank two "Zombies," strong rum drinks popular at the time. I have no recollection of getting back to the Old Mill that night; Bo guided me to my bunk. I do recall that the old building rocked and swayed and even did a few aerobatic routines that buildings are not designed to do, and I was sicker than I had ever been before. The next morning's calisthenics were brutal.
In late February we were assigned to Craig Field in Selma, Alabama. Finally, we thought, we were being assigned to primary flying school. We were wrong. At Craig Field, we were, as we called it, in "cold storage" until openings for primary flight training became available. There was no Old Mill at Craig Field. We were in cadet barracks, four to a room with adjoining bathroom facilities shared with the four cadets next door.
The routine was the same: Morse code, aircraft recognition, calisthenics, close-order drill, obstacle course, the "Burma Road" torture trail, and all the classroom lectures we had almost memorized by then.
On our second weekend, we were given open post and ordered to return by midnight. Bo and I found a small dingy bar in Selma. He ordered a rye and ginger. Still a neophyte at the drinking game, I ordered the same. I was three months shy of my twentieth birthday, but that didn't bother the bartender. I suppose he figured that anyone in uniform was old enough to drink. We had a few more. Bo had to help me home again.
The weeks dragged by. Craig Field was an advanced flying school, so we saw AT-6 advanced trainers taking off and landing, but we never got near the flight line. It was a frustrating and monotonous time.
We were in Class 42-K, scheduled to graduate in December 1942. When May rolled around, we figured that Class 42-K would be leaving for primary flight school soon. We were right. There was a problem, however. There were too many cadets in cold storage and not enough slots in primary flying schools. So half of the cadet corps went on to primary flight schools in the Southeast Training Command; the rest-including me-were reassigned to class 43-A and given a thirty-day furlough, whether we wanted one or not.
So four months after becoming a "flying" cadet, I was back home, without once having left the ground, except in the hop-straddle exercises of daily calisthenics. It was nice being home, of course, and I was treated like a hero even though I had done nothing approaching heroic.
The thirty days passed at a snail's pace, and finally I headed back to Maxwell Field for assignment to my first flying school.
Special Order 48 read, "The following named aviation cadets are transferred to AAFTD Embry-Riddle Company, Dorr Field, Arcadia, Florida," followed by the names of 240 cadets. We left Montgomery via troop train on July 5 and arrived at Arcadia at 10:00 a.m the next day. This was not an express train. We were tired and hot by the time we were loaded onto the army trucks for the trip to Dorr Field, about five miles east of Arcadia. This was cattle country; there was not a hill to be seen on any horizon.
Though technically an Army Air Forces Training Detachment, Dorr Field was an Embry-Riddle civilian flight school supervised by the Army Air Forces. All the flight instructors were civilians, but USAAF lieutenants were stationed there for the express purpose of weeding out the unfit. We called them the washboard; they gave the flight checks at the end of each training phase. If you had trouble on your first flight check, you were given one more, by a different lieutenant. If he didn't like the way you flew either, you washed out. Most of the cadets who washed out were reassigned to navigator or bombardier training.
Cadet quarters were in rectangles, four quarters to a side. Each quarter had eight cadets, four in each room connected by one bathroom to the next room. There were thirty-two cadets on each side of the rectangle.
As usual, quarters were assigned alphabetically, so I was in a room with Bob Damico, Vic DeSoto, and Carmen Felice. Carmen was one of those people who look like they need a shave one hour after they've shaved. He was also one of those cadets who seemed to be marching out of step even when they weren't. For some reason, when his feet were in step, his head wasn't, so his head was always bobbing up when the rest of the heads were bobbing down. "Keep in step, Felice!" the drill instructors yelled.
"Yes, sir!" he would respond, though he was convinced that he was in step.
Vic DeSoto was from Tarrytown, New York, and his accent sounded typical Brooklyn to the rest of us. He was short, probably close to the lower limit for acceptance in the Cadet Corps, and stocky. He was a worrier. He didn't have much confidence that he could get past primary flight school. He was well liked, and when his own worst scenario came true and he washed out, we were all sorry to see him leave.
Bob Damico was the quintessential character. Always good-natured and upbeat, he was the constant provider of funny stories, pranks, and good cheer. It didn't take long for his reputation to reach the upperclassmen, and he soon became one of their favorite targets.
Hazing of incoming cadets by upperclassmen was a tradition in the prewar flying cadet program. It consisted entirely of drill-instructor-style, in-your-face shouted commands and comments designed to humiliate and demean the lowly incoming cadets. Physical abuse was never permitted-upperclassmen were even required to ask permission to touch another cadet-but underclassmen were expected to obey all reasonable commands of their tormentors. The favorite expression was "Hit a brace, Mister!" A brace was an exaggerated position of attention. The victim was then subjected to verbal abuse and commands such as "Suck that gut in, Mister!" and "Get those shoulders back! Keep your head up, Mister!" and "Don't look at me, Mister! Eyes straight ahead!" An underclassman had to hold that position until he appeared to be on the verge of fainting, at which time the upperclassman barked, "At ease, Mister!"
In primary flight school, hazing by upperclassmen was not officially permitted, but was not discouraged either. After the evening meal, they were allowed to roam the quarters of newly assigned cadets, making life miserable with their overbearing orders and comments. Hazing time was limited to one hour, however, because everyone needed time to study or just relax.
Bob Damico was a favorite target, which was not good for the rest of us, because he always came up with a funny remark that started us giggling, and that brought down the feigned wrath of the upperclassmen, who also had great difficulty in trying to keep from laughing. One evening when he heard upperclassmen coming, Bob squeezed into one of the clothes lockers. He was in his underwear, but it was still a tight fit. "Close the door," he told us, "and tell them I'm not here." As expected, three upperclassmen came into the room, looking for Damico. After putting the rest of us in a brace, they demanded to know where he was. We maintained a stony silence.
After about five minutes of badgering, we still hadn't given him away, but he was quite uncomfortable in the locker and started squirming to ease the strain. They heard him. One of them walked to the locker and yelled, "Are you in there, Damico?"
In a high falsetto, Bob replied, "Ain't nobody in here but us clothes."
That broke us all up, even the upperclassmen, who quickly recovered their composure and laced into us with renewed vigor. It was mid-July and hot. They left him in that locker for about ten more minutes. When he finally was released, he could hardly stand at attention, much less in a brace. The upperclassmen roasted him a bit, then departed. After all, they enjoyed him too much to make him really angry.
The hazing rankled, especially in view of the fact that the upperclassmen were only about one month ahead of us in the training schedule. Some of them were washing out of the cadet program at the time they gave us grief. We put up with it, believing we had no other choice. A month later, when we were upperclassmen, a few of our classmates took up the practice, but most of us felt it was silly and we left the new cadets alone. Hazing was officially prohibited shortly thereafter.
Bob and I became close friends. Felice washed out soon after DeSoto did, so Bob and I had the room to ourselves. We spent our off-post time together, but there was little to do in Arcadia on weekends.
Neither of us had any difficulty with the flying program. The primary trainer was the Stearman PT-17, exactly the same as the PT-13 except that the PT-17 had a Continental engine rather than the Lycoming engine in the PT-13. It was also nearly identical in appearance and performance to the Waco UPF-7 that I had flown during secondary CPTP back in New Hampshire. I had more than forty hours in the UPF-7, and there were no maneuvers in primary that I hadn't done before, so I had no difficulty completing the flying phase in the PT-17. The washout rate was nearly 50 percent, most of them in Phase One, during which the student was expected to solo.
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