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: Bernice Wilson

 

Date: March 24, 2004

Report No:  97

Interviewer: Judy Mayfield

 

Place: Tulare County, CA

Place of Interview: Visalia, CA

MRS. WILSON’S WORK AT RANKIN FIELD, 1941,1942

SECRETARY TO COMMANDER OF RANKIN FIELD

MET HUSBAND, WHO WAS A CADET AT THE TIME

JM: This is Judy Mayfield, and today I will be speaking with Bernice Wilson. Mrs. Wilson has agreed to share her memories of the years 1941 through 1946, for the Tulare County Library Oral History Project, Years of Valor, Years of Hope, Tulare County and the years 1941 through 1946. Today is March 24, 2004, and we are at Mrs. Wilson’s home in Visalia, California.

Would you start by telling me when and where you were born, and how long you’ve lived in Tulare County?

BW: I was born in Los Angeles, and the depression came along and my father, Harry Cederlind, was an architect, so we moved up to a ranch in Tulare, in 1934. So, I finished grammar school in a little country school called Buena Vista, and then I started Tulare High School, and graduated in the class of 1938.

JM: So, how old were you at the beginning of World War II?

BW: I was 20 years old.

JM: Were you working or at school?

BW: I had moved to Los Angeles to go to college, after I graduated in 1938. When I graduated from Los Angeles City College, I worked for a law firm. Then my friend in Tulare telephoned me and said there was an opening as secretary to the Commander of Rankin Aeronautical Academy at the training base in Tulare. So I came up and I was accepted, and I moved up here in March, I think, of 1941, to be the commander’s secretary. His name was Captain Charles Daly.

JM: Okay. Do any events stand out in those years, or in the months preceding the war, when you were working there?

BW: Yes, we started out in offices of a hangar on Highway 99, and they were kind of decrepit, but they were building the new buildings. Tex Rankin, a former Hollywood stunt flyer, was the man who was providing the civilian service to the primary training cadets. It was called the Army Air Corps at that time. So we stayed there, such as it was, until the nice buildings were finished a few miles to the east of ’99.

JM: Okay, and the purpose of Rankin Field, at this time, was a training center?

BW: Yes, for their primary flying training. The cadets had to be college graduates and single and they came from all over the country to be trained there. Many thousands were trained there through the years.

JM: So, can you remember their training was about how long? This was the first training?

BW: Their training for primary was two months, and then they would go on to basic training, which was over at Lemoore. Many of them went to Lemoore, and then they went to advance training. I had met and married a cadet, Myrt "Scotty" P. Wilson and he went on to Williams Air Force Base, in Chandler, Arizona. He received his wings when he finished there.

JM: Do you know of other training centers around this area?

BW: There was one in Visalia. I think it was called Sequoia Field. It was also a primary training base. Now, when they have reunions, the Rankin personnel, both civilian and military from both of these training bases, get together for reunions.

JM: So, you were the secretary or an assistant to the commander.

BW: To the commander. First, it was Captain Daly, and he was promoted to colonel later on. Then another man came in, they were both West Point men, and they had their flying training at Randolph. The other one was Colonel Frank Sturdivant.

JM: Okay, where were you when Pearl Harbor was attacked?

BW: I was home, Sunday morning, staying with my mother, Myrtle (Hanson) Cederlind and dad, out at their ranch. They had house-guests from Los Angeles, and the visiting guests heard it first on the radio, and I heard them all excited in my home.

JM: What was the reaction of the people at Rankin Field?

BW: Well, of course, they were all excited and I remember, they issued guns to the cadets and they had to march around the perimeter of the base, which is very, very large, and I don’t know if some of these cadets had ever fired a gun before, but there they were. They took different watches to watch for the base, because we did not know what was going to happen next. So there were many things going on.

JM: How did you feel when the announcement of war came?

BW: I suppose my reaction was more like most everybody. I was upset about it. I had met and dated a sailor in Los Angeles and he was on the Arizona and was killed, so I felt very bad about that.

JM: Now, you were living with your parents during this time?

BW: In the beginning I did and then I shared an apartment with a woman, Florence Wilhelmy who had graduated from the University of California at Berkeley. She was in charge of the lab at the Tulare County Hospital, which was in existence in Tulare at the time. We had an apartment together and in the morning I had to take a bus, run through the park and catch a bus downtown to take me out to the base everyday.

JM: In your family, were there changes in the situation?  In your housing situation, other than you moved out? Did other people come and live with your family?

BW: No. I had a younger brother, John Cederlind, who went into the Air Force about two years later. He flew out of England and he was killed in the war in Germany .

JM: So, the war definitely did affect your family. Did you have other people in your family that were serving in the military at the time?

BW: I had some cousins.

JM: How about just economic circumstances, did you notice any trouble getting food or clothing or consumer goods during that time?

BW: I didn’t particularly. I don’t recall that. I know things were rationed, but I didn’t have a car at that time, so I didn’t have to worry about gasoline. I ate at the base for lunch. I just never really did notice any sacrifice on my own part.

JM: Okay, very good. Do you remember anything that your family or friends did to support the war, like volunteer activities or the air patrol, watching, watch towers?

BW: Oh yes, some of the things I was totally unaware of at the time, but later on I’ve heard stories. Of course, there was a USO in Tulare and the single girls in town loved to go there, because on weekends the cadets, that gave them a little release from the strain of learning to fly. Many of them were "washed out." We had one major who was there, Roger Page, he was a check pilot. He was in the Air Force, the military, and he would "wash out" some of the cadets because they couldn’t fly in a military manner. I sat in on some of those sessions, when the cadet was called in and told that he was not going to make it. He would go on and become a navigator at another base; I think it was up in Denver, for the most part.

JM: So, they could continue in some capacity?

BW: Oh yes, but they couldn’t stay and become a pilot. And Major Page, they began to call him Maytag Page because he was really strict about whether he felt they would make a good military pilot.

JM: Okay, did you keep track of any of these pilots or cadets throughout, either after the war or during the war?

BW: Well, some of them went on for further bomber training in Shreveport, Louisiana, at Barksdale, where my husband went. So, we remained friends. I went to Shreveport with my husband on a train and we had to share a lower berth together, because I actually was not provided for by the government at that time. But I wanted to go and he wanted me to go, so I was on this train with all these Second Lieutenants with their shiny new wings, and headed for Shreveport. (chuckle) We shared a berth, so I could go.

JM: So, you met your husband and he was a cadet?

BW: Yes, he was a cadet. He came in 1942 and I met him and it was a fast romance and courting period. Everything had to happen fast then. So we married after he finished basic flying in Lemoore. Then he went on to Arizona and then I followed him there a few months later.

JM: Okay, one of my questions was did the war affect your dating and courting and obviously it did. (chuckle)

BW: I might say that the cadets were very well treated in those days. Mr. Rankin did a first class job in providing all the amenities, such as buildings, hangars, food, and everything was provided by him. The ground school instructors and the cadets certainly had wonderful meals. I remember they had a special baker who baked little pastries shaped like swans (chuckle) and were filled with whipped cream. I don’t think the military gets those these days. When they first came in, they were in powder blue uniforms too, but that changed later into the regular olive drab that the Army wore.

JM: Now, at this time, the Air Force was actually part of the Army.

BW: Part of the Army, yes.

JM: Do you know of any other wartime romances that took place?

BW: Well, I dated some cadets, you know, up to then. I didn’t get seriously involved, because of my position there. I had quite a nice position on the military side. We had some Sergeants in there and other officers. So, I didn’t feel it was appropriate for me to get too involved with the cadets. But I did date them. We usually went up to the mountains and showed them Sequoia and Rocky Hill and places like that.

JM: Did women’s roles and responsibilities in the families, that you knew, did they change during the wartime? Did more women go to work, for example?

BW: I didn’t notice that particularly in Tulare, being a small town, because there weren’t any factories there or anything. But I know many of them in their organizations would create things for the military men and care packages, etcetera. I know it affected so many of them and their own families; their sons were going off. So they did what they had to do, maybe even some of them had some husbands go. But there was no big factory in Tulare for them, you know, a plant like Lockheed. They couldn’t become Rosie the Riveter.

JM: How about neighborhood organizations? Do you know of any organizations that were formed to help the war efforts?

BW: Oh, I’m sure there were. Being so involved, we worked long hours out at the base. I was just so busy that I did not pay too much attention. I know this was going on and, of course, we had a Japanese detention camp in Tulare. I’m sorry to say, I didn’t know too much about it. You know, I knew it was there but I was doing my job, so I didn’t pay too much attention. I do know one time, one of these washed out cadets had been sent on down to Santa Ana and there was another officer who knew him personally and I had known him. So we decided, early one evening, to drive down there to see him and come back and be back in time for work in the morning. But we got halfway over the mountains on the ridge route and there was a blackout. All the cars just sat there in one big giant parking lot and waited for the blackout to be over in Southern California. So we had to sit there with no lights and wait. That was one experience that really made me know that there was a war on.

JM: Were there any blackouts that you know of in Tulare County?

BW: Not that I know of. There may have been, but I don’t recall any.

JM: Do you recall attitudes of yourself or your friends toward the Japanese or the Germans or Italians, during the war?

BW: I think it was questionable about the Japanese. We didn’t, you know, this would have been such a sneaky, sneaky thing that they did to us, that we didn’t know what they were going to do next. Unfortunately, we detained them in those camps and that was really a shame, but then on the other hand, I always say, we did not know what they were going to do. I never felt any animosity toward either one, because of their race. We were stationed in Germany over eight years, later on, my husband and I. And, even though they had killed my brother, I met many fine Germans. You just have to reach a good balance on your opinion, is my feeling. I am still close friends with Germans that I met when I was over there. I never had any personal relations with Japanese, other than friends in work or socially. I’ve been to Japan and I admire them.

JM: Did you notice the different ethnic groups that were in the community at the time? Were there difficulties in race relations during that time?

BW: Not to my knowledge. I was so involved with my work and doing other things that I had to do. When I wasn’t working, my total life was all involved with the base and socially in town and that was it.

JM: How did the community, in general, react to the war? Do you have any memories of that? Did they support it?

BW: They supported the war and they wanted to do all they could. Everybody. In those days, it was not a volunteer, it was a matter that the young men had to go, but they all seemed quite willing to go and do what they could. My father was in World War I, and I think they felt the same way then, the young men that went over.

JM: How did you find out news of the war? Of course, you were working in a place where you probably heard more than some.

BW: Oh, yes, it was very visible from where I was working. I just remember everybody having a good attitude and being enthusiastic and doing what they had to do. From the parachute rigger to the flight surgeon, everybody was doing their part.

JM: How did you feel about the dropping of the bomb, the atomic bomb?

BW: Well, it was deplorable, but in the long run, it ended the war. I think it saved many lives. The Japanese were really atrocious to us in the war, to our prisoners, and we had to stop it.

JM: Were you back in Tulare County during that time or were you still. . .

BW: Yes I was. My husband had to go off to North Africa as a bomber pilot and by that time in 1943, I had a little baby girl, Jennifer. So I took the train all the way from Louisiana across country. I came and stayed with my parents for a while and then I took an apartment. Then I went to Los Angeles and stayed with my grandfather for a while. So my primary attention, of course, was to worry about my husband and take care of my baby. So, that went on until he came home. The war was still on and he came home in 1944 and we were stationed in Louisiana at Lake Charles Air Force Base. I was there with this little girl. And so we were there until the war ended in ’45.

JM: Do you remember how the community reacted to the end of the war?

BW: Well, of course. I was at an Air Force Base and everybody was very happy. They could all go home, except those who were regular officers or a regular part of the service. I remember one memory: at the base we had a very large terrace, at the officers club, and they had a big party. Everybody was singing and just very, very happy. I came on home because I was pregnant with my son then. I came home with my little girl, Jennifer, and then my husband, after all the paper work was taken care of, he followed me. Two years later, however, he went back into the Air Force as a regular Air Force Officer. So we had more military ahead of us. My son, Scott, was born in Los Angeles in November 1945.

JM: So a couple of the questions of this project that they are wanting us to address are: in particular how do you think the World War II years in Tulare County affected you? That’s the first one.

BW: Well, the only way I can answer that is what happened with me as I came up here; the job sounded exciting. I could do my part and I met my husband, of course. So I think the good Lord meant that to be. Of course, I had many friends and family around and I observed how it affected them, which I don’t retain that much at this point, that was a long time ago. The war was a turning point in my life because of my marriage and, even working at the prime rate, it was called some kind of a detachment on the military side. It had another name. I don’t quite remember, but it was something that I’ve always felt very proud and very excited to be a part of. To observe all of the enthusiasm and the expertise that all of these people put into it.

JM: There at Rankin Field?

BW: Yes.

JM: The other question that we want you to address is: how do you think the World War II years affected the way Tulare County is now?

BW: Times have changed so much that it’s difficult to say. I know, during that time, everybody was of one mind, and we did it enthusiastically and sacrificed. I think that bonding is still with us and it’s too bad that it’s not there today. For what’s going on in the world, it saddens me to hear all the dissention and the arguing back and forth. I think why do they do that?

JM: Do you think that Tulare County changed in any way, as a result of the Second World War?

BW: Well, it brought, of course, thousands of people into Tulare County because of their training or for one reason or another. So, I suppose part of that is how it’s been growing. It had a part in it, because it’s brought people from every corner of the United States here during those years. There are many people here now with their grandchildren and great grandchildren, perhaps.

JM: Is there anything else that you’d like to add about your job or about what was going on in the community that you can think of?

BW: Well, there are many little stories, but that’s not what you’re after, you know. I will mention this one Chief Master Sergeant, who was in the office when I first came. His name was Sergeant Sharp and he was a grumpy old man. He’d been in the cavalry and had ridden horses for many years. He was bow legged and you never knew whether you were going to be his buddy or he was going to make a pal of one of the other employees. So, when we were in that old building there on the highway, which still is there, it was cold and muddy around there and we’d come in and he’d have the dirty rug under our feet. We had a heater during the good days. I think we inherited all these metal desks from World War I, old Army, olive drab colored.

So, you thought it was gonna be a good day and then he would come over and he’d be really nice to you, ‘cause he was in charge of the offices, as far as the workings of it. Then another day, you’d come and the rug wouldn’t be there and the heater wouldn’t be there and it would be over by some other employee’s desk. And he wouldn’t speak to you all day (chuckle) for no reason, except he was an old bachelor and I guess he was so used to being around horses, (laughter) but we’d all joke about him because he was really basically a good guy. He really knew his work, but we got a kick out of him (chuckle).

And then the cadets would come in, you know, in their flight clothes and that was exciting and the officers would come in and we had many wonderful, sharp people. If anybody says anything against the military, to this day, I’m really up fighting for them. I’m very loyal to them, because I know how wonderful they are and how hard they try to do the right thing.

JM: Those kinds of stories are fun to hear. Any other little stories you have about the people or things that went on there?

BW: We would see Tex Rankin come and go and their offices were on the other side of the building. He was a very nice man and became quite well known in Tulare. He had a nice family and so that was very nice. It was kind of a coup to work next to Tex Rankin. He was very close to some people in Hollywood and he brought up Bob Hope and Bing Crosby to entertain us in the very early years.

It could have been almost one of the first times that Bob Hope and Bing Crosby appeared. Bing brought his sons with him and so they entertained the cadets in the large mess hall. But he was a very kind man.

JM: Now, was he a military person?

BW: No, he was civilian. He had formed a contract with the government to provide the training. The instructors were civilians, except the check pilots were military, to check them finally to see whether they could pass on to the next training at Lemoore. That was basic training they got. They were flying PT17’s at Rankin. That was the first plane they would fly and they had the two wings. They flew around like bumblebees. I remember the first officer that crashed in the training. He was up with a cadet and he was a lieutenant and I think he graduated from ROTC in the university. That’s how he became an officer and I knew him. He would come in and out of the office and that was my first taste of somebody being killed in the military. That was kind of a sad day. That happened in October of ’41, before Pearl Harbor.

JM: So, these young men hadn’t had any flying training at all? This is where they learned?

BW: For the most part, no. My husband had training. He had gone to the University of Oregon in Eugene. He lived in Portland. His father, Roy Bell Wilson, was one of the chief engineers of the building the Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River, so they lived in Portland. He had taken some lessons and Tex Rankin had come from Portland originally. It happened to be that he took some lessons from Tex Rankin in the early years. That was a coincidence. I suppose some other cadets had taken private flying. But flying in a military manner is different.

We did have an interesting Jewish man, his name was Abraham Dreisezun and he came and he could not fly in a military manner. So, they held him up from going to another base and he stayed there for quite a while and worked in our office. He was a very nice man, very intelligent. And later on I ran into him, when we were stationed in Germany , and he was a Three Star General. Not as a pilot, but in a financial area. I think he’d been at the Pentagon Office. That was his story and I haven’t seen him now for years so I don’t know where he is. I thought that was interesting.

JM: Well, you have a lot of good memories and things to share.

BW: Oh, yes.

JM: If you can think of anything else?

BW: As the years went on, when I was with my husband in the military in the Air Force, we would run into different men who had gone to Rankin or Sequoia, or…there were many training bases. That was a special time of those people’s lives. They would always remember it with much sentimentality and they would love to talk about it, because they were young then and learning to fly and everybody had the right spirit in those days. They just remember it with great fondness and if anybody even mentions it, they are very willing to go on and say I remember this and I remember that, because it was so wonderful for them.

JM: Do you remember going to reunions?

BW: Yes, Tulare has not had too many reunions. I went to one a few years back, when I stilled lived in Redondo Beach, and I think I’ve gone to a couple of them. You know, outside of perhaps the civilian personnel that worked there, it’s very difficult to bring cadets back from wherever they are. The distance is so great, because they’re not just from Tulare. They could come from New York and then, of course, a lot of them were killed. It is hard to have a reunion. The classes moved along every two months, so quickly, that they didn’t all know each other. But they still remember it with great fondness, because the training was excellent and the rapport was excellent with the other classmates. As we went on through those years, by then, we would run into somebody who was a cadet. My husband happened to be in Class 42-I, but they would always say, "Oh, I was in Class 41-G," so then they have all these stories to tell and they tell it with great fondness.

JM: Okay, well, we’d like to thank you for participating in this Tulare County Library project. We appreciate your time and I’m sure that others will enjoy listening to your tape and hearing your stories.

Thank you.

J. Mayfield/ Transcriber: pd 4-27-2004/ Edited by JW 10-15-04

Editor’s note: Words in italics are the result of a phone interview with Bernice Wilson on October 22.