From Civilian to Heavy Bomber Combat Aircrew
B-24 Liberator Flight Engineer/Waist Gunner
Prior to December 7th 1941 the United States government’s War Department was gearing up for war. Many men had already volunteered. Many more would be needed. Getting the volunteers would not be the problem. The Japanese made sure of that. Training hundreds of times the normal number of men in a shortened amount of time would be the issue. To make matters worse the USAAF training was very technical in nature. The training was very different then that of the regular Army. How would the Air Corps figure out who would be good at what job? Before the ASVAP test was created the military had to rely on other methods to figure this out.
The AAF used a more rigorous course of testing to figure out who would do what then the regular Army. Because of the lengthy complex technical training that was required to maintain aircraft the AAF needed to be sure that the airmen would not only finish but succeed at their new jobs. The prospective airmen would be tested for mechanical aptitude, math related to flight and overall intelligence. After the test results were known they would be interviewed to determine their interests, hobbies and past jobs. Then the interviewer would place them in an initial career path. This method seemed to work.
In 1940 the first Basic Training Center(BTC) dedicated to the Air Corps was created at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri. By the Fall of 1941 BTCs were activated at Keesler and Sheppard Fields. These locations were selected because they already had established aircraft mechanic schools. Today they’re referred to as maintenance or technical schools. Eventually there would be 13 BTCs located around the country. These BTCs were just to support the AAF. At the peak of training there were almost 100,000 trainees in basic. In the first year following the attack on Pearl Harbor and Germany’s declaration of war, basic training lasted four weeks max. Many airmen were showing up to technical schools not knowing nearly enough about military life. By the close of 1942 the BTCs were running a similar six week program. Trainees at the BTCs in Miami Beach and New Jersey were housed in beachfront hotels. Many hotels were used during the war as barracks of one form or another.
My wife’s Uncle, Irving Saarima, went through basic in the Spring of 1943. By this time the AAF basic was set at eight weeks and for the first time the curriculum was very consistent between all the centers. I’m still researching but I think he went through basic and engineer school in Amarillo, Texas. He accomplished Flexible Gunnery Training at Camp Kearns just outside of Salt Lake City, Utah.
From there he took several trains to Davis Monthan, Arizona. Here he was assigned a crew and got trained as FE on the B-24. From mid November until early March the crew trained at DM. For the first few weeks S/Sgt Saarima trained with an instructor. He flew 10 training missions as an FE student. He and the other gunners from his crew flew several gunner training missions. With a few exceptions they trained as a hard crew from the last week in December until early March. That is when their aircraft commander, Lt. W. T. Hilfinger, was given a sealed envelope and they were told to pack their bags. They were to fly to West Palm Beach, their Port of Embarkation (POE). Training over. They didn’t know where they would end up either Africa or England. They would find out sooner than later.
Irving was in the USAAF for about 9 months and he was heading to war as a fully qualified flight engineer/waist gunner on the B-24 Liberator. My story was a bit different, to say the least.
Part 2 to follow …