I was 5-years old when World War II began, however I have some lasting memories of that time. Talk of war was always on everyone’s mind, and we were glued to the radio every night listening to Gabriel Heater and Walter Winchell telling us the latest news about the war. They were talking about strange things like… the allied troops were fighting in the “Pacific Theater”.
I wondered why they didn’t go outside to fight. They talked about places like Indo China, but they never said anything about Outdo China. We had to black-out our windows at night so that enemy planes could not see our lights from the air. Both my dad and mom had to take turns several times a week to sit in a watch tower, looking for Japanese planes. We had a large poster in our house with silhouettes of various Japanese planes. My brother, Melvin, was in the navy and we were all worried about him.
Every afternoon, school kids listened to radio serial adventure programs like Captain Midnight, Sky King, and Hop Harrigan. They always offered some great stuff for free, by just sending in a couple Ovaltine labels or Wheaties box tops. I ordered a signal mirror from one of the programs and it arrived a couple weeks later.
I was thrilled with it. It was actually the same mirror that was issued to the service men, with a lanyard that I could hang it around my neck. I spent the day learning how to use it and aim it by lining up a tiny dot of light on my cheek that comes through a small opening in the mirror, with the object that you want to signal. It can be aimed very accurately, even by a 6-year old kid.
Rankin Field was located about 6-miles north of our ranch, which was a training base for cadets learning to fly. They had about 200 Stearman bi-planes with two opencockpits. They were flown with a stick and pedals. Since our ranch was in the normal flight path for Rankin Field runway, we had hundreds of these planes flying at a low altitude overhead every day during the war. The photos in this article are of the actual planes that were from Rankin Field in Tulare, California that flew over our ranch.
After school every day, I would go outside and stand in the pasture and try to signal those planes. It actually worked! I would signal a plane, and they would respond by tipping their wings. I would signal another one, and so on. Every cadet would acknowledge me. I was communicating with those pilots. I was having the time if my life. I would do this every afternoon after school until I was called for supper.
One afternoon, I was doing my signaling, when one plane broke away from the squad and flew directly to where I was standing. It dropped altitude and circled low several times directly above me. The pilot waved at me and pointed downward. I couldn’t understand what he was trying to tell me. The next time he came around, he dropped a brown paper bag not far from me. I ran and quickly found the bag. Inside were his leather aviator’s helmet and his goggles. I put them on immediately, looked up and waved to him the next time he circled. He waved back and returned to his squadron.
I wore that helmet and goggles to school every day. I was the most popular kid in school, and everyone wanted me to tell the story over again, even my teacher. I even slept with that helmet and goggles at night, but my mom would come in and remove them after I was asleep.
About a month later, something very terrible happened. Two planes crashed head-on about 1000 yards from our house. They nearly hit our barn. Both cadets were immediately killed. Within minutes, our yard was filled with dozens of military cars and trucks. A military officer came in the house and talked to all of us about what happened and tried to comfort us. It was traumatic for all of us, especially for me. I am certain that I had signaled both of those cadets, and they responded to me. One of them may have been the cadet who gave me his helmet and goggles. By early evening, the wreckage had been loaded on flatbed trucks and hauled away. Nothing remained but the charred earth, and the heavy sorrow. The crash was not reported in the news, since we were at war.
After the plane crash, I stopped signaling the cadets and I put my signal mirror, helmet and goggles away, and I never wore them again. The planes continued to fly over the ranch until the war was over, but I tried not to notice them.