California Council for the Humanities

California Stories Initiative

Years of Valor, Years of Hope

Tulare County and the Years 1941-1946

Tulare County Library

The Friends of the Tulare County Library

And the Tulare County Historical Society

Interviews in 2003-2004

Interviewee: Bruce Baird

Interviewer: Karen Feezel

Date: 2/16/04

Tape # 42

Place: Tulare County, CA

Place of Interview:Mr. Baird’s home in Garden Grove, California

 

PLACES WHERE INTERVIEWEE LIVED DURING 1941-1946

Sequoia Field in Tulare County, California

OUTSTANDING POINTS IN THE INTERVIEW:

Experience at Sequoia Field

A cadet in the Army Air Corp.

8th Air Force B-17

Tex Rankin

KF: It’s February 16, 2004. I am at the home of Bruce Baird in Garden Grove, interviewing him for the Years of Valor, Years of Hope project. Bruce, the place I would like to start with you is before the war. What you were doing before the war and what you were doing at the time of Pearl Harbor?

BB: OK, let’s see, my family lived in the valley in Fresno when I started school, and I went to grammar school through the low 4th in Fresno and then my family moved to the San Francisco Bay Area. I was in high school just a month from starting my senior year when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The following year, about three months before I graduated from high school, I took the Army Air Force Aviation Cadet examination, the written examination and a physical and received a little card saying I was qualified when I was 18 to go into the Army Aviation Cadet program.

I graduated at the end of January in 1943 and went into the U.S. Army Basic Training in early April 1943. I entered the Aviation Cadet Pilot Training Program in September of 1943. The large pre-flight school for the west coast was in Santa Ana, and there all of the Army people that had passed the written and physical examinations came together for two weeks of aptitude, physical and mental aptitude tests which classified you to go into training as a pilot, a bombardier, or a navigator. I entered pilot training, the pre-flight phase of it; I think it probably was early October of 1943. That was eight weeks of schooling that was really ground school down here in Southern California, and then our squadron was sent to Visalia to begin flight training in early December of 1943.

KF: Now I think there’s a family history of flying, isn’t there?

BB: Yes. My father and mother were from Seattle. My father, Earl L. Baird, was an athlete. He was an amateur boxer in the Seattle area when he was in high school and when he was in college at the University of Washington. That was before World War I, and the University of Washington didn’t have a boxing team, so he boxed amateur under the sponsorship of the Seattle Athletic Club. He won the national AAU Championship. He was the first athlete from any sport from the Pacific Northwest to win a national amateur championship. When World War I broke out he entered the field artillery and then he transferred to the signal corps for pilot training. He went through the World War I pilot training program and graduated from March Field down here in Southern California two days before the World War I armistice. I believe it was November 9, 1918 and he returned to Seattle and my mother, Ruth Charlotte Bailey, and he were married on December 2, 1918. Then he came back to Southern California after his leave; he was discharged from the service and he turned professional. He boxed in the Golden Era of boxing. He boxed in New York until he retired when I was born and then my family moved here to the West Coast.

KF: There was an interesting story about height, I think.

BB: Oh, yes, my father was about an inch taller than I am. He was 5’ 4" and the minimum height requirement in both World War I and World War II for pilot training was 64 inches, 5’ 4". So when I was a senior in high school I was 5’ 3" and when I took the examination for aviation cadet training. During that period aviation cadets could either be trained as a pilot which had a minimum height requirement of 64 inches, or as a bombardier or navigator which had a minimum height requirement of only 60 inches. So when I qualified for cadet training I was hoping that I would grow the other really half inch before I entered classification so that I would be classified as a pilot and go into pilot training rather than bombardier or navigator training.

KF: And you made it.

BB: Well, yes, I didn’t grow the extra half-inch. When I came to pre-flight training for classification in the physical, the doctor measured me at 63 " and he told the enlisted man that was writing down the information that I was too short for pilot training and not qualified, so I really gave up about half way through the two weeks of classification tests, hoping to classified as a pilot trainee and set my hopes on being classified as a navigator trainee. But at the end of classification, when the announcement was made of which type of training a person would be assigned to, I found that I was assigned as a pilot. I never complained and I went all the way through a half inch too short. When I graduated I received my physical, the day I got my wings they gave me all the paperwork that covered my training period, and it did have on the physical from pre-flight training, it did have two paragraphs on the back side that called out why I wasn’t qualified for pilot training because of my height. I guess it was an error of some sort that got me through.

KF: Why don’t you tell about your beginning experiences at Sequoia Field. Who was there? We’d be interested in knowing some of the differences between Sequoia and Rankin.

BB: Oh sure. When I was in pre-flight training the different squadrons all competed in various activities including athletics and parade and received points. You could vote and express a preference for one of the twelve primaries that were pilot training airfields in the West Coast training command. I was with a group from the San Francisco Bay Area and we wanted to go as close to the Bay Area as possible, so we were hoping we would go actually to the one farthest north which was Dos Palos (ed: Eagle Field in Dos Palos), nearest to San Francisco Bay. We ended up at Visalia and we were happy that we were close enough so that if we ever did get a three-day pass we could go on home.

During World War II a lot of rolling stock from the old railroads and the buses, everything was surface transportation primarily, so we took the train from Santa Ana to Visalia. It took about 24 hours because we kept getting sidetracked for trains with higher priorities. We arrived at the old Santa Fe Depot down in Visalia on December 7 1943. Visalia was a small town in 1943. I believe the population was 7,500.

In my squadron, the entire squadron from Santa Ana was sent as the lower class cadets entering Sequoia Field for pilot training. We were about 350. We were bused from the railroad station to Sequoia Field which was I think about nine or ten miles from town. When we arrived at Sequoia we were greeted at the gate by jeering upper classmen who had all soloed, but they had really just arrived five weeks earlier. It was a very accelerated training program. The three stages of it each lasted nine weeks. There was twenty-seven weeks total from the first time you got into an airplane until you received your wings and were graduated if you were still with the program.

I’m virtually certain that we didn’t receive any leave to go into town for two weeks and we were there nine weeks, so there were just seven weekends when it was possible for us to go into town. Let’s see, after the first two week period we were off from noon on Saturday until about six on Sunday evening and you could spend the one night in town. I think we as a group usually pooled our money and got hotel rooms some place in town. There was a large hotel I believe on Main Street, near the Fox Theater. I believe it was about two blocks south of the Fox Theater in Visalia, which was the popular place to stay overnight. Well, let’s see, everyone was very young. Everyone was under a lot of pressure during the week with academic courses and flight courses, so the weekends were really very wild. There was a lot of drinking and Don’s Place was a favorite watering hole.

There were a lot of things that the city people did for the aviation cadets. There was a United Service Organization (USO) which was open I think every night of the week probably. It was not just for cadets but for other personnel, Army personnel that worked in the program. It was loaded on Saturday night with cadets and the girls that lived in town went to the USOs as hostesses and there were dances that were put on. A lot of the people had cadets home to dinner on the weekends. I don’t remember a lot about what we did in town because it has been so long ago except that I was just 18 and most of my friends were 18 and 19. If you looked 21 you could buy a drink. I didn’t look 21, but my friends were all big enough so they would buy drinks at the bar and give them to me. (See note at end.)

I do remember on Christmas 1943, there were four of us that were very close and one, James Brien, was married, a schoolteacher, we called him Gramps because he was 25. He had no children, but his wife, Pat, also taught school and she was able to get the gas somehow to drive down to Visalia for our Christmas celebration in 1943. She put a Christmas tree up and we met and exchanged gifts in the hotel and then we left the Briens’ who were married and went to one of the USO dances where we met some local girls that invited us home for dinner the following day which was on a Sunday.

In general it was a wonderful period, because everyone had the same view on the value of the war and the sacrifices that were being made. Everyone supported all of the efforts in the war,the training efforts and all the efforts of production. So we started flight training the second or third day that I was at Sequoia Field and the lower classman in the beginning flew in the mornings and the upper classmen who were five weeks ahead of us flew in the afternoons. Then when we became upper classmen it was reversed and we got to fly in the afternoon.

It was wintertime and we flew a small open cockpit trainer without radios.

KF: What were they called?

BB: We flew a low-wing monoplane trainer that was called a Ryan. The trainers, the instructors sat in the front seat and the cadets sat in the back seat and the instructors communicated with the cadet through what was called gauss ports. It was a speaking tube that had a Y connection that fastened into either ear of the cadets and the instructor spoke into what looked like a funnel. They were called gauss ports. I believe they were used in training in World War I and that the word gauss port is French, I’m not sure. It was very cold in December and January at 5,000 feet in the San Joaquin Valley. We did wear very heavy clothes. We were issued, at the flight line, parachutes and wool lined leather pants and jackets and boots if we chose. I didn’t want to wear the boots because they looked too heavy and I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to feel the rudders with my feet, so I always just wore my light shoes and I remember my feet being very, very cold most of the time I was flying in Visalia that winter.

Sequoia Field was the main base and we had five auxiliary fields that were located within a ten to fifteen mile radius of Sequoia Field. The one that was farthest east was in Three Rivers. I don’t remember where the other auxiliary fields were, but we did always start out the morning from the main base of Sequoia Field and then our instructor was assigned an auxiliary field some of the time which he could use to train the cadets in take offs and landings.

There was no radio communication, so all the air traffic was controlled from a tower with flashing red and green lights, but when you got in the aircraft and the engine was on, you had to wait for someone in the tower to flash a green light at you before you could taxi out to take off. When you got into position to take off, you had to wait in position for a green light and if you were entering some space on the field that you weren’t allowed to taxi in, then you got a red light from the tower. When you were ready to take off, you waited for the green light and we would take off. The lights were aimed from the tower. They were mostly young women that worked at the field in air traffic control that were trained to use the lights to control traffic both in the air and on the ground. After you got a green light and took off and left the area to practice, when you returned you got into the traffic pattern, and you could see the lights from the traffic pattern. Before you could make your turn for the final approach you would have to wait for the green light. If you got a red light you knew you had to go around until you got a green light and then you could make the final approach if you got the green light to land.

The aircraft were primitive by today’s standards, but it was a lot of fun to fly those little airplanes. The Valley, there was no smog at that time, so the Valley was a beautiful place. When there wasn’t fog or rain, everything was clear and you could see for miles in the Valley.

KF: Did you fly a lot in fog?

BB: We didn’t have the instruments to actually fly in the fog, but when the fog was close enough to the ground that it was dangerous, we didn’t have to fly. Or when it was raining we didn’t have to fly.

The living quarters in primary were wonderful for Army living quarters. I think there were twelve cadets to a room and there were bunk beds, but they had innerspring mattresses and there was a communication system in the room, so before reveille they would start playing music. Ten minutes before you had to fall out, fall in for reveille. They would play songs that were popular on the hit parade at that time on the radio and I think Oklahoma was popular on Broadway and the songs from Oklahoma were very popular. They would begin playing the songs very softly at 10 minutes to reveille and the person on the microphone would start out and say, "Ten minutes to reveille," and turn on the music, and then he’d say, "Nine minutes to reveille," and he’d put other songs on, and then eight minutes and no one stirred until one minute and then everybody jumped out of bed and got dressed as fast as they could and ran to fall in because of demerits if you weren’t dressed and didn’t have your tie on and were late to fall in for reveille.

The nice thing about it: when I was there it rained a few times, but not very many, so we didn’t lose very many hours. The program was a very big program; they were training pilots all over the country and it was coordinated. I was in class 44F, and F stood for June. It was the fifth month of the year and I entered in October in 1943 and all over the country cadets entered the class 44F the same time that I did. And when I went to primary, cadets all over the country went to more than 60 primaries on the same day. When I finished and went to the second phase it was early February and cadets all over the country moved in February. I graduated in late June of 1944 and cadets all over the country graduated in late June. And the weather was different in different parts of the country. Where there was too much bad weather, cadets still had to make up this time and often they flew cadets down to the desert from places like Chico. At Visalia I have heard, not with my class but with other classes, they flew them over into the Owens Valley area, so they could get in . . . you needed sixty hours to finish primary phase of pilot training. So it was a remarkable program in that everyone did stay together and moved on the same day and they did find a place where the weather was good enough to fly for cadets all over the country to be able to stay together and move at the same time.

KF: Do you feel you were well trained?

BB: Yes, the training was very good, especially the flight training. I had thought the academic training . . . I was planning to go to the University from high school and would have gone into UC Berkeley directly from Berkeley High School had it not been for the war. I had three years of algebra, geometry, and trigonometry in high school and I didn’t find any of the academic courses difficult except for one course at Visalia’s Sequoia Field which was in aircraft mechanics. In that they covered everything in so much depth and so fast I knew that I hadn’t absorbed very much of it and I didn’t think many people had absorbed much of it. The night before the examination, somehow, some of the cadets showed up with the answers to the exams the next day. That was a severe offense to be caught at cribbing, but I didn’t think I could pass the exam and most of the cadets didn’t think they could pass the exam. So almost everyone went in with crib notes and I used them and I had figured out later on that the people that taught that course had to have been responsible for the crib notes. It was the only course that was very difficult and it was the only course where I saw that happen. So, at any rate, I did think the ground school work was about high school level and the flying training was very accelerated and we had good pilots for instructors. We were allowed about ten hours to solo. Almost all of us hadn’t been in an airplane before we arrived. About a fifth of us didn’t make it through primary . . . maybe more than that. The wash out rate was the highest was in the first stage of flight training. So you had to solo in eight to ten hours and then there was a big twenty-hour check ride by one of the civilian flight instructor supervisors and then at forty hours there was an Army pilot that gave you a check ride. When you passed the forty-hour check ride, you had twenty more hours to go, but from there on it was all down hill and you knew you were going to graduate unless something really unusual happened. I thought the program was extremely well done.

KF: Was it dangerous?

BB: Yes, it was very dangerous. The Christmas that we were there, we had arrived on December 7th and a few of us had soloed. When we returned from Christmas an upper classman, Wendell Kent, who probably had about thirty hours was killed making a landing at Sequoia Field. I think there were probably thirty cadets and instructors were killed in the three years that Sequoia Field was open. There was a lot of pressure on everyone and there were a lot of accidents.

KF: The work was easy on the ground. It was harder in the air. What else did you do?

BB: Let’s see. We had a lot of physical training. That was very much emphasized, calisthenics and running and every morning there was at least an hour of physical training. There was military drill, parade. I think probably half an hour a day was spent in parade ground activities and I believe for the most part these occurred in the morning along with the academic programs. I think there was probably two hours of classes and then there was homework in the evening after dinner and at 5:00 . . . Let’s see, there was parade formations in the morning at reveille which was at 6:30 or 7:00 and then there was a retreat ceremony, which was a parade ceremony at 5:00 before dinner. Then primarily from 7:00 to 9:30 or 10:00 o’clock people were doing homework and I think lights out was at 10:00. The flight activities were half a day, either in the morning or in the afternoon and of course you marched out together in flight clothes to the flight line and then I think you flew an hour a day, so you spent four hours on the flight line and you were waiting a lot of that time. I don’t remember, you may have been flying more, when you were solo, you may be been assigned a plane for two hours at a time. I think the solo instruction . . . there were five in a flight assigned to one instructor, so he must have flown about forty five minutes with each cadet. After you soloed, then when the instructor was instructing, then you were flying solo. I do remember it was either the mornings or the afternoons that you flew, but I don’t remember what else you were doing other than waiting when you weren’t flying.

KF: Was there much camaraderie there? What was the atmosphere as far as the social?

BB: There was a lot of camaraderie. Everyone supported the war and I had year to go in high school when Pearl Harbor occurred. There was already a military draft and everyone knew after Pearl Harbor that if you were physically fit you were going to be in the service when you graduated from high school. When I went into the Army I met a lot of my high school friends in the program, particularly this occurred in the pre-flight which was here in Southern California. People came together for classification. I think I met probably ten of my high school friends in the early stages of training before I started flight training. You made friends in a hurry. You made fast friends. I am still in touch with some of the people that I met, probably a half a dozen or so from that period of flight training.

KF: You have a book about Sequoia Field. Would you tell just a little bit about how that got put together, when it was started?

(ed.: Propwash is the name of the book edited by Bruce Baird)

BB: Sure. Let’s see. After World War II ended I went to UC Berkeley and graduated in 1950 and then worked in engineering a few years in the Midwest and then in Southern California in the aerospace industry. I didn’t return to Visalia until I had finished working and retired. I was about 70 years old when I returned for the first time. There were four of us that were in flight training whose last names all began with B that went through all four stages of the program together. Three of us stayed in contact with one another, Turner Brashear, Jim Brien and me. One of them we lost touch with. I did write to the Veteran’s Administration some time after I retired and they sent me a letter. I asked for Forest Baker and gave his name and his approximate age and said I thought he probably had Veteran’s insurance and asked if they could give me his address. They said that if I would write a letter to him and send it to the Veteran’s Administration, they would forward it, which I did and I received a letter back from him sometime around 1995.

When I went back to Visalia around that time for the first time since I left at the end of January 1944, I asked lots of people in town about Sequoia Field and I didn’t find anybody who knew where it was. Probably for about two hours I asked different people and somebody told me there was a jail where Sequoia Field was now and it was really known as the jail. If I had asked where the jail was, they would have been able to tell me. They directed me to Sequoia Field and I did find it and it looked to me like not very much had changed. So I had found Forest Baker’s address and I wrote to him about our having a small reunion, just the four of us in Visalia. I think it was 1995 that we all met and we stayed at the large hotel in Visalia,the Radisson, which wasn’t there when we were in flight training. While we were there, we took a trip out to Sequoia Field and we went into one of the two hangars that are still there and were there during World War II. There’s a company called TBM that leases the hangar and they fly the converted military aircraft that are used for fighting fires during the summer. I met a man by the name of Ken Stubbs, whose son, Norm, operates TBM and he had been a flight mechanic at Rankin Field which was in Tulare, the city of Tulare, which was the closest primary training field to Sequoia Field during World War II.

KF: Was Rankin the same type of program?

BB: Rankin was exactly the same type of program, except they flew a different type of primary trainer. They flew a two-wing, a biplane flight trainer. In my class, 44F, the squadron went to Rankin and trained with us at Santa Ana and then they were assigned to Rankin Field,Tulare when we were assigned to Sequoia Field,Visalia. It was an identical program. Same number of hours, it was the same fundamentals that you learned in primary flight training, but a different training aircraft.

So when the four of us went to visit Sequoia Field, the former mechanic, Ken Stubbs had said there had been a reunion for Rankin Field three years earlier and asked why no one had ever gotten together a reunion for Sequoia Field, so that’s what started me thinking about it. I had met a flight instructor at Sequoia Field that had copies of all of the class books from Sequoia Field and each class left with a book that had every cadet’s picture and his hometown in it. I did borrow his set of books and I had names of thousands of cadets that had trained at Sequoia Field. We did search for flight instructors because we had their names because we had the names of ground school people and administrative people and cadets. We did have a reunion in 1997 and for that reunion I found a small desktop publishing company here in Los Angeles that took a real interest in the program and they went through all of the class books and organized the first half of the book, taking reproductions from the class books. There was about 100 pages of reproduction from actual class books and the remainder of the book, I had asked people who had written things about their experiences of World War II to send them to me and they were compiled into the second section of that book. So that’s how the book came about ,for the reunion in 1997.

KF: Are you continuing to stay in touch with many people?

BB: Yes, actually we expanded the reunion from just Visalia to include Rankin Field and I got a lot of help from the Tulare Historical Society who had organized the Rankin Field reunion that I think happened in 1992, five years earlier. So we had both Sequoia and Rankin Field people at the reunion and we had events at both locations and we bought historical plaques for Sequoia Field, bronze historical plaques for Sequoia Field and Rankin Field and we had a surplus of money at the end of the reunion and that was used . . . we donated about ten thousand dollars.

With the money that was left over from the 1997 reunion, we did donate, I think it was over eleven thousand dollars to the City of Tulare Cultural Arts Foundation towards the Rankin Field mural in the City of Tulare. The Tulare County Deputy Sheriff’s Association is an association of charitable and recreation and it’s primarily members of the Tulare County Sheriff’s Department and their families. They own a portion of the land that Rankin Field was located in the city of Tulare and they restored part of the old parade ground and some of the other buildings on Rankin Field and they mounted the bronze plaque on the original flag pole on the parade ground that we raised the money for at the 1997 reunion. The mural was completed in 1998 and we did have a dedication of the mural in December 1998 and there was gathering of probably two hundred people from Rankin Field that came at that time and we did have a testimonial dinner for one of the Rankin Field cadets, actually it was Tex Rankin’s son, that was killed flying P38’s in France about a month after D Day.

At Sequoia Field we gave the Board of Supervisors five thousand dollars for materials to build a small memorial park at Sequoia Field, the centerpiece of which would be the historical plaque. In 2001, the park was completed and we had a second,it was the 60th anniversary of the opening of Rankin Field in Tulare and Sequoia Field in Visalia, and we did have another gathering that was centered at the City of Tulare Historical Museum. We had events at Rankin Field, Sequoia Field and downtown Tulare. We finished that,it was a three-day event with the book fair at the Tulare County Museum in Mooney Grove Park. So, the 2001 affair was coupled with an air show in Visalia at that time. It happened that September 11 was 2 weeks before the event, and the air show was almost cancelled. We did have a pretty successful reunion although we had a lot of cancellations due to the additional security that was put in place immediately after 9/11.

I still have a long mailing list, a long data base of names and addresses so people that were associated with either Rankin Field or Sequoia Field. I’m still in touch; a lot of people have passed away since the list was first entered in the data base. Right now I’m in contact with people to see if I can raise the money to maintain the mural in Tulare and the memorial park at Sequoia Field in Visalia.

KF: I think this is where we should stop. This gives us a lot of information.

BB: I know we have covered a lot of ground. It sounds to me like where we should stop also.

Karen Feezel/ Transcriber: Jan Chubbuck 3/18/04/ Edited JW 8/02/04

Ed: The italic information in this interview was added as a result of a phone interview when this was edited. Also, some people have said there was no USO in Visalia. There was one in Tulare. Cadets often went to the Sierra Ballroom in Visalia, which was just east of Bridge and south of Acequia or to the dance floor on the second floor where the shoe store is on the SW corner of Locust and Main Street.