Saturday, April 16, 2011

Something Dad Forgot to Mention About World War II: He Had Wings!

My father on Ie Shima with some of the men of "C" Company, 1902 Aviation Engineer Battalion.  Behind him to the left you can see the sea, and, beyond that, Okinawa.  To the right, the American flag flies over the residue of the battle: a new military cemetery.

I've spent the last few months trying to find out more about the history of my father's unit during World War II.  Since I found the letters he wrote home to my mother during the war, I've been working on the outline of a book.

He was an engineer.  He graduated with an Army ROTC commission.  I thought he was in the Corps of Engineers.  But I was wrong. Or at least--sort of wrong.
With all the On Line resources available, I nevertheless could not find anything out about his unit.  I've read numerous histories of the Battle of Okinawa in which he served.  I've searched through the National Archives, I've trolled through Abe Books.  I've checked Army unit histories.

Nothing.  It was as if his unit had not existed.  But I knew it existed. I have his letters and his photos.

That's my father at the orderly room of his unit on Ie Shima, where he worked on air fields and other construction projects, adjacent to the Island of Okinawa April 1945 through the end of the war.

Doing historical research is like a treasure hunt.  When you come up against an empty file, it doesn't mean there isn't something to find.  

I don't know what made me think of it.  But I decided to try the Air Force archives.

When World War II began, the Air Corps was part of the Army.  During the war, responsibility for military aviation was shared:  the Army handled land-based operations, the Navy, sea-based operations, and the Marine Corps, close air support.

There was not a separate U.S. Air Force until 1947. 

And yet, by 1945, when my parents met, my mother told a friend in a letter that my father--her fiancee-- was "with the 4th Air Force."  She didn't use the term "Air Corps."  I think that must be why I finally tried the USAF archives.

Since I've been transcribing my father's World War II letters, I feel I'm getting to know that pyramidal tent of his.  He spent six months living there on that tiny island in the East China Sea.

And that was the key that helped me find the treasure.  The Air Force History Support Office (AFHSO) let me know via email that the history of my father's unit is indeed in the Air Force archives at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama.

I can purchase the two rolls of microfilm that contain the unit's history.  My local library has the equipment that will enable me to read the microfilm.

AFHSO sent me a picture of my father from the microfilm reel.  He was the commander of Company "C."  I didn't, of course, need the photo to confirm that we had the right guy.  But it is an amazing thing, considering all the millions of people who have served in the U.S. military and all the years that have passed since World War II--that an archivist in Washington D.C. can find my father's photo on an old piece of microfilm less than 24 hours after receiving my email.

I don't know why he never mentioned this.  He earned his pilot's license when he was just twenty years old and loved aviation.  Maybe he blocked it out because he was in the Air Corps but had to stay on the ground building runways for the flyboys.  Or maybe he just forgot.  

Anyway, in the photo from the microfilm reel: there, on my father's left shoulder are the wings of the Air Corps. And there he is, for all time, in the photo album of my nation's history.
P.S.  It is Sunday, the day after I filed the above report, and I promised myself I'd get my files organized today for this book outline.  In doing so, I found a version of that photo that appears to have been taken on the same day though I don't think they are exactly alike.   It says on the back it was taken at Geiger Field, Spokane.  That was in early 1945, just before my father left for Ie Shima.  

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Steven said...

Good points, but a few need clarification.
1/Close Air Support (CAS) missions were not uniquely USMC. Navy and Army Air Force pilots flew many, many CAS sorties. Marine Air Wings were usually forward-deployed to provide CAS and interdiction in the Pacific (cf., the Guadalcanal "Cactus Air Force"), and to this day, mud-Marines much prefer CAS being flown by their own, rather than AF or Navy pilots--though USAF ANG A-10s are the best-suited a/c in our current inventory for CAS, at least among the so-called "fast movers" (jets).
2/The "4th Air Force" was actually the "Fourth Air Force" by 1945, when your mother wrote that your father was a member thereof. If he was in fact at Ie Shima as part of the Fourth, there is an interesting back-story, because at the time, the Fourth was a CONUS (Continental U.S.) air-defense outfit. In any case, keep in mind that at the time, the Air Corps was part of the "U.S. Army Air Forces"-- plural-- which is why my father, for example, had flown combat missions from Guadalcanal in 1943 as a pilot in the 75th Bomb Squadron, 42nd Bomb Group, 13th Air Force, but was later a pilot in the Fourth Air Force (test-flying B-25s in S.C.).
3/Your father, while CO of Charlie Company, might indeed have been temporarily "owned" by the AAF, but he was not commissioned in the Army Air Corps--rather, the Corps of Engineers. Officers "in" the AAC, whether "rated" (that is, "winged") or not, wore the round winged-star Air Corps patch on the left shoulder and Air Corps brass on lapels or collar (said brass being the AAC prop-and-wings).
4/The postwar reshuffling of service roles-and-missions consequent to Truman's signing of the National Security Act of 1947 included the eventual creation of USAF-specific civil engineering detachments, which were called, during my time in the Air Force (Vietnam era), "Red Horse" dets. These engineers were fiercely proud of their identity, and able to construct, ex nihilo, anything needed by the USAF, anywhere, anytime--just like the Navy Seabees (Construction Battalions, or "CBs") and Army Corps of Engineers. Your father and his comrades in WWII cemented the legacy of combat engineers that our young military men and women are continuing in our nation's far-flung operations worldwide.

Robin Chapman said...

I discovered in my research just what you have said about the "Fourth Air Force" i.e. that is was a Continental U.S. air defense and training force, which was really puzzling and explained to me only where he was attached when he was training at Geiger Field, Spokane, Washington and met my mom.

When his 1902 unit was formed (or he joined it) as he headed overseas to Ie, it must have reported up somewhere else, and that is one of the many things I hope to discover in the unit history. The decision to put his unit history into the very early Air Force archives (look at the roll numbers!) is fascinating to me, and it is fascinating too that I found them where I did.

So much I wish I could have asked him. But, I'm learning a lot anyway.
Thanks for the detail help.

Robin Chapman said...

Just realize I didn't include the microfilm roll numbers in the story. People might be interested: they are A0292 and A0293.

Robin Chapman said...

Since I posted this, I've received an email from someone who identified the man in the bottom row, center, as his grandfather, Adolphus L. Stroud.