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Authors: Walter J. Boyne

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BOOK: Air Force Eagles
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As Bandfield chewed this over, Ruddick went on. "Remember that the 332nd was an elite, segregated unit. Segregated Negro units have done well in every war since the War Between the States. But today the issue isn't proficiency, or bravery, or even patriotism. The issue is integration—when, how much, and where."

Varney's face was now even paler; he was openly apprehensive, like a child caught smoking behind the barn. Bandfield feared that he might be on the verge of a heart attack.

"Are you okay, Sam?"

Varney nodded, and Frank said, "Mr. Ruddick, I'll be glad to work with you, to find out all I can and give you an opinion. But I can't tell you how much confidence to place in it."

"Don't worry, you won't be my only source."

Bandfield stood up and turned to Varney, who seemed to be recovering. "Where do I start?"

"I'm sending you to North American first, to check out in our first jet bomber, the B-45. Then it'll be Convair, Martin, and McNaughton. Somewhere along the line, I want you to spend time at Lockbourne Air Force Base—that's where the majority of the segregated Negro units are located now."

"Great. My buddy Marshall is at Muroc—working for McNaughton of all people. I'll try to get some background from him. What else have you got for me?"

Ruddick handed him the bulging briefcase. "Here's the Gillem Report, with the back-up documentation. When you digest that, I'll have more."


En route to Lockbourne Air Force Base, Ohio/ September 6, 1947

In splendid solitude, far above everyone in the sky, their four jet engines churned out long white trails of vapor glistening in the sun, an endless cone of icy crystals tracking the silver bomber's path. Below, brilliant alpine cloud tops belied the black turbulence they concealed within. John Marshall lolled in the back seat of the bomber, glad to have this unexpected respite from the demanding research flying he was doing at Muroc.

"Well, Bandy, you must have a lot of pull to get a plane like this for cross-country work. I'm glad you decided to take a poor old reserve lieutenant along for the ride."

"Just part of my job. How does this bucket compare to your rocket plan?"

"Like the Queen Mary to a Chris Craft."

Silent as a sailplane, the XB-45 flew at eight miles a minute, six miles above the ground. From behind them, rays from the setting sun gave a feathering of orange and purple to the line of thunderstorms percolating on the horizon.

Marshall's voice suddenly lifted an octave. "Holy-moly, check the fuel gauges!"

Bandfield glanced down; the main tanks, one-quarter full only moments ago, were registering empty. He glanced at the "how-goes-it chart" on his clipboard where he had carefully plotted the fuel consumption for their four-hour flight out from Muroc. Everything was on the button—either they had had a sudden massive fuel leak, or the gauges were out.

Marshall echoed his thoughts. "Might be the gauges."

"Famous last words."

Bandfield had taken a cram course on the aircraft systems at the North American plant, followed by a three-hour check-out flight in the local area. But the XB-45 was a complex airplane, and he still had a lot to learn.

"What do you want to do, Bandy? We're only a few minutes out of Lockbourne."

"Nothing right now. Can you see if we're streaming fuel?"

Marshall, seated behind Bandfield in the narrow cockpit, turned and searched behind them, craning his neck to see out of the long slender canopy. "Nothing out there. I just wish I was home with Mama."

Bandfield's direction-finder needle began to move as they crossed over the Lockbourne ADF facility. He called his position into Lockbourne as he cranked the bomber into a holding pattern.

He was furious with himself as he visualized the blueprint for the accident unfolding, a series of small mistakes. First, he should never have taken an experimental aircraft on a cross-country flight when he only had a few hours in the plane. Second, while Marshall was an experienced test pilot, he'd never flown in the XB-45 before. And stupidest of all, they'd overflown Scott Field, confident that there was plenty of fuel. That's how accidents happened—not one thing, but a series of minor quirks that added up to a catastrophe.

The airplane was wonderful, fast, smooth, powerful, and easy to fly, a tremendous advance over any bomber he'd ever flown—when all was going well. But he was far from proficient in it, and things were beginning to unravel fast. His flight plan called for an hour's fuel remaining when he arrived, and now the tanks were bumping empty and the field was socked in with a stack of traffic waiting to land.

"John, I'm sorry about this—I'm too old for this kind of shit. I should never asked you to come along."

Marshall ran his finger around his new hard hat trying to ease the pressure points, yearning for his old leather helmet, and ill at ease only because he couldn't help.

"Listen, this is a great experience for me. I'll see how an old pro handles a problem."

A few weeks before, Bandfield had rung Marshall up at McNaughton's Muroc flight test facility as soon as he'd left Varney's office. Marshall was glad to work with him on the integration issue, and he suggested that they visit Lockbourne together, to show him exactly what segregation meant in the service. Varney sent orders authorizing them to use the XB-45 for some cross-country work. It sounded like a good idea, killing two birds with one stone, but now Bandfield realized that he should have known better. The airplane had completed its company test program, but it was too new, too trouble-prone, to take this sort of liberty with it.

"You going to declare an emergency, Bandy?"

"Not yet. If we've got fuel that's not showing up on the gauges, I'd just as soon hold here until we're cleared. We might ... oh, shit."

They both watched the engines' RPM counters begin to spool down as the tanks ran dry, first number three, then one, then two and four together.

"Lockbourne Approach Control, this is Air Force Niner Four Eight One over the beacon at thirty thousand. We've just lost all four engines."

"Roger, Eight One, are you declaring an emergency?"

Over the intercom Bandfield called, "No, you stupid fucker, I'm diverting to Honolulu." But on the air he said, "Ah, Roger, Lockbourne, we're declaring an emergency, two souls on board, zero fuel remaining, descending now through twenty-eight thousand."

"Maintain a minimum rate of descent until I can clear the traffic out below you, Eight One; I'm going to have to divert half a dozen planes in the holding pattern."

Marshall's voice was cheerful on the intercom. "Well, Bandy, at least I can get into the Lockbourne club with no problem; we'll have to buy a few drinks for all the guys we're delaying."

Bandfield was too busy for the comment about segregated clubs to register, and he mumbled, "How does it feel to be in the biggest, fastest glider in history?"

Lockbourne Approach came back on frequency with the weather.

"Eight One, Lockbourne reporting one thousand scattered, two thousand broken, light rain, wind variable, gusting fifteen to twenty. Cloud tops reported at angels twenty-two, with turbulence and lightning in all quarters."

"Roger." Not good, but not too bad, and it didn't make any difference, they were going to have to make it on the first approach. He wasn't about to bail out of a prototype, especially since the handbook had warned that the airplane was not easy to leave.

Silent as a shadow, they slipped into the cloud layer at twenty-four thousand feet, plotting an exacting orbit around the station, two minutes out, 180-degree turn, track back in, 180-degree turn, then two minutes out again, descending all the while at a constant one thousand feet per minute.

"Lockbourne, Eight One. How you doing on the traffic, I'm passing sixteen thousand now."

"Roger, Eight One, you're cleared for approach and landing, runway twenty-three, emergency equipment standing by, runway wet with standing water at approach end, braking action reported poor."

The cockpit lights dimmed as Bandfield cranked the big jet around to its final approach.

"We're losing the battery, John. I don't know what that'll do to the gear and flaps. Strap yourself in tight, babe, I may have to belly

Even as the needle of his automatic direction finder turned as they passed over the beacon at 1,700 feet, Bandfield reproached himself again for not knowing the airplane well enough, trying frantically to recall the emergency procedure to lower the landing gear—there wasn't time to look it up, and the hydraulic system was complex. A little back pressure brought the nose up, slowing them to 130 miles per hour, just as they lost all of their electrical power, lights going out, gauges sticking or flopping like dead ducks. Then, as if on cue, the clouds parted and he saw the welcome convergent white streaks of the runway lights ahead.

"Field in sight."
Marshall spoke for the first time in minutes. "I'll bet old Daddy Johnson will be there to meet us."
"Gear going down."

The silence was agonizing as the landscape slid toward them, seeming to roll up, the trees at the edge of the runway rising, the lights getting brighter, aircraft and trucks now visible on the ramp. Bandfield's hand automatically went through what he remembered of the emergency gear-down drill.

"Brace yourself, John, I can't verify if the gear is down or not."

Hands sweating, Bandfield mouthed a silent prayer that the fuel had really burned off and wasn't pooled in the belly, a bomb waiting to go off when they touched down. He leveled off just short of the runway, slightly nose high, and when the big jet's main gear kissed the runway the two pilots bellowed in relief.

As the nose gear touched down, Bandfield eased on the brakes to roll out on the taxi-way leading to the ramp where the fire trucks and ambulances were now converging.

"Good job, Bandy, but now you're really in trouble."
"Hey, babe, after that, nothing's going to seem like trouble."
"Oh, yeah? Look who's waiting for us."

At the side of the runway, West Point training showing in his ramrod-stiff stance, was the base commander. Colonel Joseph J. Johnson—"J-Cubed" to the troops—had led the all-Negro 332nd Fighter Wing into combat. Utterly demanding of himself, uncompromising with others, he got results.

Johnson took their salute, ignoring their outstretched hands. Then, in a clipped voice that brooked no nonsense, said, "Into my car, gentlemen. Mr. Marshall, running out of fuel is the one unforgivable mistake. I hope you flight-plan better for McNaughton than you did for this trip."

Johnson was only slightly more relaxed when they met again the following morning in the freshly painted Headquarters building. His adjutant came in with some urgent papers to be signed, and Bandfield had time to study him. He was very tall, six three at least, with closely cropped hair and coffee-colored skin. Eyes dark as black olives were wide-set in his oval face, and he had the barest trace of a mustache beneath his patrician nose. Johnson tore through the papers, occasionally looking up at the adjutant to ask a question in a quiet, commanding voice. He was obviously in top physical condition, without an ounce of surplus flesh.

When he handed the papers back to the adjutant, Bandfield sought to break the ice with a compliment.

"That's a beautiful bed of red flowers outside, Colonel."

"They're called flaming salvia, and I planted them myself, part of the base beautification program. This is the only Army Air Force base in the country run by Negro officers, and I want it to look good."

He paused momentarily and went on. "We can have anything we want here—as long as we provide it ourselves."

After talking with Marshall about his test-flying, Johnson was listening to Bandfield's explanation of his assignment from Ruddick when a secretary came in to serve coffee. She was heavyset, close to sixty—and white. She slowly set the tray down on Johnson's desk while Bandfield's face betrayed his surprise.

"Mrs. Blodgett, could we have some cream and sugar for the coffee?" With a sigh the woman turned for the door as if this irrational request was the last straw in her sad life.

"Colonel Bandfield, I can see your surprise that we actually have white employees working for us! You'll note that I was careful to choose a"—he groped for the right word as he watched the door for Mrs. Blodgett's return—"mature woman for my secretary."

Johnson was silent as the cream and sugar was brought in, then went on. "The truth is, the good people of Columbus, Ohio, would rather not have a Negro unit here—but they'd rather have a Negro unit than no unit. Now we're getting to be just like Patterson Field, with Negroes working alongside whites with no problems." He sipped his coffee and added, "At least not on the job. Your friend Mr. Ruddick would be quite upset, I'm sure."

Bandfield plunged in. "Are you for integration or for the segregation of Negroes, Colonel Johnson?"

"Not a very astute question, Colonel. I've accepted segregated units because I've had to, and because they at least give my people a chance to show how they perform. But no American citizen, white or Negro, should accept anything less than complete integration. Any man should be able to take any job, any place in the country, on the sole basis of his performance in that job." Even though it was obvious that these were words he'd used often, his correct military manner didn't conceal his suppressed anger.

"Marshall, did you ever tell Colonel Bandfield why you left the Army?"

"No, not exactly."

"Then I will. John Marshall here is as fine a pilot as there is in the world. But there was no place for him to go at Lockbourne. We were short then—and we're short now—on planes, on mechanics, and on pilots. But the real problem is that we are short on a mission. We're just quota-fillers, without a real role in the war plan. It's a political ploy, giving Negroes enough to say 'we've had a chance,' but not enough to do a job."

BOOK: Air Force Eagles
10.35Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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