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Reality of boredom in WWII.

Byline: Albert B. Southwick


It was while I was watching "The Pacific" - the splendid series produced by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg on the war against Japan from 1941 to 1945 - that I realized that one aspect of World War II cannot be caught on film: The boredom, the endless waiting, the mind-numbing routine of those weeks and months and years in the barracks.

War is mostly waiting for something to happen. At least that's the way I remember it. Few of us 16 million Americans who served during World War II saw the kind of violent action shown so graphically in "The Pacific" and "Saving Private Ryan." My own experiences show some of the complexity of World War II - I served on 11 different bases before the war ended - but most of it was far less dramatic.

I enlisted in the Navy right after Pearl Harbor with the aim of becoming a carrier fighter pilot. Over the next year I was turned down three times for pilot training because of low blood pressure.

In December 1941, the Navy had fewer than 800,000 in its ranks. By 1943, it had more than 3 million. After Pearl Harbor it was swamped by so many enlistees that it did not know what to do with them. After boot camp at Newport, R.I., I opted for training in Norfolk, Va., as an aviation radioman. That took three months, at the end of which the Navy found that it had a surplus of aviation radiomen. Then I went to Jacksonville, Fla., to train as an aviation radar man.

But at the end of three or four months of radar training the Navy decided on a new priority - ground combat. So I and some others were shipped to a base in Georgia for training as commandoes. We were to go in with the Marines on one of those bloody raids in the Solomon Islands. I learned how to disassemble and assemble a machine gun and was also schooled in the various ways to kill a man with bare hands.

Three days before we were to ship out from San Francisco, I was notified that I was to report to a Navy base in Louisiana for preflight training. Apparently some Navy doctor had perjured himself to overlook my low blood pressure. I have often wondered if that last-minute change of plans saved my life.

I reported to a converted community college in Natchitoches, La., for primary instruction in navigation and meteorology. After that it was on to the Naval Air Station in Dallas, where we flew the N2S trainer - the yellow open-cockpit biplane fondly called the "Yellow Peril" - and learned the basic stunt maneuvers.

Next it was on to Saufley Field in Pensacola, Fla., where I flew the SNJ advanced trainer and learned what all the worry was about low blood pressure about. When I pulled out of a dive at, say, 250 knots, I grayed out and sometimes blacked out. My brain wasn't getting the blood it needed. After pondering the implications, I went to my commanding officer and told him about my low blood pressure. His advice was to switch to big planes not subject to violent maneuvers. So I abandoned my dreams of being a dashing fighter pilot shooting down Jap Zeroes and became a patrol bomber pilot. We flew the famed PBY seaplane and spent hundreds of hours over the wrinkled, gray Atlantic, looking for German U-boats.

But by the summer of 1944, the U-boats had been pretty much eliminated, so the Navy shipped a group of us seaplane pilots to Kansas for training in the Army B-24, a four-engine land-based bomber that was the mainstay of the 8th Air Force in Europe. It was a new experience to land on an airstrip instead of on the St. Johns River at Jacksonville or on Pensacola Bay.

After a few weeks, we were flown to Whidbey Island, north of Seattle, to fly the Navy version of the B-24. The PB4Y-2 was a low-altitude patrol bomber designed to replace the old PBY. Because of a sprained thumb incurred while playing basketball, I was unable to complete my final checkout on schedule and was put back a few weeks. The result was that my original squadron was shot to pieces over Okinawa, whereas I went out with a different squadron to the Aleutians. Despite the dangerous weather, we did not lose a man or a plane. Another fluke - a sprained thumb! - probably saved my life.

We flew out to our base on Shemya Island on the western end of the Aleutians where we flew air cover for the North Pacific fleet and prepared to bomb Paramushiro, the Japanese naval base in the northern Kuriles, 800 miles away. On Aug. 14, 1945, my plane was headed for Paramushiro with a load of bombs when the radioman burst into the cockpit with the news that Japan had surrendered. I'll never forget that moment.

I probably sound like some decrepit old bore nattering on about those events of almost 70 years ago. I am trying to point out that World War II was a hugely complex undertaking and those who served underwent many vastly different experiences from those shown in Tom Hanks' movies.

Some of those men at Omaha Beach, Okinawa, Guadalcanal, Attu and similar hellholes were real heroes. But there was not much heroic about what most of us experienced - just plain boredom as we played poker, listened to the news bulletins and waited for mail call.

It's nice to hear talk about "The Greatest Generation," but we veterans of the great war don't think that we were much different from any other generation. Given the shattering challenge of Dec. 7, 1941, I think any cross-section of Americans would have responded in the same fashion as we did.

Albert B. Southwick's column appears regularly in the Telegram & Gazette.
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Title Annotation:COMMENTARY
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Geographic Code:9JAPA
Date:Apr 22, 2010
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