A longtime Oklahoma farmer who flew with Winfield's Ed McComas in China in World War II was a member of the first class of aviation cadets at the just-opened Strother Army Air Field.
George Meacham of Clinton, Okla., recalls arriving at the training field with some 40 other cadets in the winter of 1942.
"It seems to me that our wooden barracks were covered with black paper or felt and heated with coal stoves. It was very cold, and we had to take turns putting coal in the stoves through the night," he recalled.
"I remember how good the food was for the first week or so and how, toward the end of each month, it seemed to run out. I think the mess stewards were having to learn how to spread out their allotted funds for the period.
"On one of the first Saturday nights, our commandant ordered us to put on Class A uniforms and load up in Army trucks for an undefined destination. We were unloaded at what might have been the Arkansas City Country Club and were met by a group of the local girls, one of whom turned out to be the daughter of one of my many older cousins, Ethel Cullers.
"That party was probably the beginning of a romance that led to the marriage of one of my classmates, Sipes, to another young lady. I heard much later that Sipes was killed in a P-47 crash and that his widow eventually married Myron Morphew, who was one of my roommates at Advanced Flying School at Foster Field, Victoria, Texas.
"One of my lingering memories of my training at Strother is of the solo, night cross-country flights over Kansas. After all the farmers went to bed, there were no lights visible and it was a lonesome world flying over the dark countryside. When I fly commercially now, the lights over the area are so widespread, it is hard to believe how it has changed.
"Our instructors were older and probably wiser than some I had in other places, and I have often thought about how my instructor once took me on a training flight where he had me fly on instruments through the overcast and we broke out in bright sunshine above the clouds. After some exercises, he did an instrument let-down. As we broke out below the overcast he was uncertain where he was, and I was certainly lost.
"Ever resourceful, he taught me how to orient myself in Kansas. He flew down a railroad track until he came to a station, read the name painted there and told me where I was. I used that trick several times later in my stateside training, buit it was of no value in China later.
"We received our first instrument training during that time at Strother. We were taught to orient ourselves on the radio beam and come in to a cone of silence over the station at Wichita. Modern pilots may have never heard of a radio beam or a cone of silence. Modern air navigation technology is a miracle to pilots of that generation.
"Probably more members of my class of cadets later lost their lives as a result of poor navigation than from enemy action."
A farmboy from Clinton, Okla. - "out in God's country," he says - George was a sophomore at the University of Oklahoma and barely 19 when he entered cadet training. With civilian pilot training already under his belt at OU, he took primary training at Park Air College in East St. Louis, Mo., and was able to solo after six hours.
"My class had its first encounter with death in basic training at Winfield. We were taking off for our first solo cross-country flight. We were in our BT-13s and lined up in alphabetical order to take off at two-minute intervals. Everything we did was in alphabetical order, and I had spent a lot of time next to Kenneth Merlis. He was just ahead of me in this lineup, and I was waiting to take off behind him as he began his takeoff run. I noticed his plane waver as it got off the ground, and as it dropped a wing it crashed. He was killed in the crash, and our flights were cancelled.
"Since I had ridden in his back seat on an instrument training flight the day before while he took the plane off and I had made a comment about it to another cadet, the investigators quizzed me about his competence. I was as close to him personally as anyone, though I really didn't know him very well, and the commandant asked me to accompany his body to his home. He was from the Bronx.
I knew his father was Jewish and felt that one of the several boys with us from New York who were more familiar with that scene than a 19-year-old country boy.from Oklahoma could probably handle that task much better. The commandant apparently agreed and sent a native New Yorker who was anxious to go home to make the trip.
"The first death of a member of our class brought home to all of us that we were becoming engaged in a very serious training process. In our preflight training at Kelley Field, we had been subjected to vigorous and long periods of close-order drill where we learned to march by flights and squadrons in perfect formation and to pass in review in our best uniforms. When we went to primary flight school at Parks Air College at East St. Louis, that part of our training had been de-emphasized.
"Then, in basic training at Strother Field, we had again begun to spend a lot of time, even in the bitter cold, on the parade ground. Reflecting on Ken Merlis' death, I finally saw the purpose in the grueling parade ground training. The discipline of the drilling carried over into tough situations. You continued to do a task to the best of your ability regardless of what might happen. There were some cadets who wavered along the way, and they were "washed out" and sent to other duties.
In an article on Dec. 14, 1942, the Courier reported the arrtival of the first class of cadets adding, "The boys represent about every state in the union, from Maine to California and from North Dakota to Louisiana. This class of cadets holds the highest scholastic record at Parks Air College of any class."
And under a bold headline on Feb. 10, 1943, and sparing no adjectives, the Courier reported: "On February 13, exactly one year from the day that Capt. Donald R. Strother heroically gave his life in the Java struggle, a vengeful group of American lads will become the first class of Uncle Sam's aviation cadets to complete its basic training at the air base so recently dedicated to the memory of the valorous young airman.
"These high-flying cadets .... have spent nine and a half weeks here learning to fly 450 horsepower "Valiants" by day, by night, in formation, under all conditions, and are now ready to move on to the cockpits of the faster advanced trainers .... only one step away from silver pilot's wings and a commission in the U.S. air corps."
George saw considerable active duty in China with Gen. Claire Chenault's "Flying Tigers" and for some time served in the P-40 squadron commanded by Winfield's Ed McComas. He left military service when Japan surrendered, and since 1946 he and his family have farmed some 3,000 acres in the Clinton area.
(Column note: Many thanks to researcher Bill Tharp for uncovering the World War II Courier articles on the Strother Field activities and graduates.)
New restaurant - That long-awaited Mexican restaurant on East Ninth is going to be quite fancy! I peeked through the boarded-up entrance and was pleasantly surprised by the transformation already under way. There's a beautiful cleaned-up, original stonework wall floor to ceiling on the west side. Rodger Steffen told me the ceiling will be of reproduced antique tin and the floors will be of oak.
Column response - The Jan. 13 article about Lorita (Baker) Robertson's diaries has brought responses from former neighbors. Harold "Dusty" Rhodes says he and his parents, Joe and Bertha Rhodes, lived on a farm in the Prairie Ridge community two miles north of the Baker place. "They were good neighbors," he said. And three-quarters of a mile west of Dexter was the farm of William J. and Vera (Sandstrum) Darst. Their daughter, Wilma Jean Wood, who now lives at Cumbernauld Village, said the farm of 800 acres is still in the family.
Frankie's page - Bill Bottorff is in the process of working up a Web page in memory of Frankie Cullison. Take a look at what is on it so far: www.ausbcomp.com/~-bbott/cchm/frankie/fasc.htm. Bill would appreciate more photos. "Anyone got any old albums?" he asks. How about snapshots of Frankie's activities with the Girl Scouts? Bill would be happy to hear from you. Just e-mail him at email@example.com.
Treasure goes home - When Bonnie Hittle read my column about Dr. Fay Greene and his daughter, Laura, she contacted Laura and arranged to send something very special to her. Many years ago, Laura's grandmother, Edith Riley Greene, gave a set of miniature stoneware jugs to Bonnie. Laura was thrilled to receive them. In commenting on the column about Lorita Robertson's diaries, Laura wrote, "Please let her daughters know it meant so much to a perfect stranger."