Training to be a fighter pilot for WWII
December 15, 2005
Gerry Wergin was much like most people living in Wisconsin. He loved Wisconsin. He was proud to be from Wausau, he loved Wausau High School, he loved his country, and when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, he responded to the call to duty. He was intensely proud of his service, seldom complained about his sacrifices, yet always honored the sacrifices made by others.
"All the luck in the world to a boy who isn't an angel!" was what Dorothy said. Evelyn noted how he liked to argue in economics, and several others complained of the same. Jeannie said she always admired his wit. Kelly and Gerry apparently would "fight" a lot, and she called him a "pest," apparently a bit of a wise-cracker, while others were more kind, saying he was a "good conversationalist." But Peggy called him a pest as well. So did Marion, Eleanor, and Juanita. Gloria thought it was fun to argue with him, though she commented that she'll "get along without you very well."
Don told him to stay away from the women, Chap warned him to "watch out for that Tomahawk woman," and Mopey urged him not to let "any woman get her mud hooks on that gold boxing glove you'll be winning!" Toby recommended he become a woman hater.
Gerry Wergin, at home, circa graduation year, 1940. Photo courtesy of the Wergin family.
Anna Mae recalled one Sunday afternoon she'd never forget, and Katie mentions his "wonderful truck." He helped make his home room a "jolly place." Alice thought he was a great dancer. His pals in school found him to be smart, always able "to get on the good side of the teachers." Dave called him a math genius.
Perhaps June put it best: "I'm sorry I can't think of anything nice to say about you except that you're lots of fun and one big pest!"
Studies have been done of character traits of good fighter pilots. Fighter pilots have been described as people who have an "attitude," a "state of mind." They have a talent for flying by the seat of their pants. They are naturally aggressive. They want to be the best, they are highly confident, very competitive, and will always want to push the edge of the envelop. They like sports cars, and as was correctly said in the movie "Top Gun," they have a "need for speed." They like to call the shots, on their own. They have a fantastic capacity to meld into the skin of their aircraft, knowing it inside and out, top to bottom, an uncanny ability to envision the world in three dimensions. When the going gets tough, they use their attitude to get the job done. Their view is that their aircraft runs on a mixture of kerosene and testosterone. With a bit of drink in their belly, they can be real hell raisers!
This is a photo of Lt. Gerald Wergin, USAAF, sitting in the saddle of his P-47 "Thunderbolt II," known as "the Jug," circa summer 1944 through spring 1945, in Burma, by this time a hardened veteran of war. Smile on his face, thumbs up, always thumbs up, a domineering pest, one with his airplane, traveling, when he wanted, at a cool 400 mph plus with over 2000 horses in his nose, anywhere from 6-8 machine guns at his fingertip, and as much as 2,500 lbs of bombs on his wings. Young Dorothy in Wausau High School might have properly said he was no angel, but in this seat, the lad was in the 80th Fighter Group (FG) carrying the motto, "Angels on our wings" on his chest and fighting like a "Burma Banshee" by his gut.
How does a young man from Wausau get there from here?
Downtown Wausau, 1928. Photo presented by the Class of 1939, Wausau High School Yearbook, the Wahiscan.
Wausau High School, presented by the Class of 1940, Wausau High School Yearbook, the Wahiscan.
Gerry's father, Paul, had begun a home-building business in Wausau in 1900 and Gerry started working for him at a young age, doing so seriously at about the age of 15. Paul built the business from the ground floor up. It was very much a success story, known as a company that builds cities.
Following graduation from high school, Gerry continued working for dad. But then Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and the lives of many young Americans changed in a hurry.
Gerry had always been interested in airplanes. In early January 1942 he decided to respond to the call of duty. He got with Archie Towle, the manager of the Wausau Airport, an aerobatic pilot, and a flight trainer, and decided to pursue flying through the Army Air Force Cadet Training program.
Archie Towle where be belonged, in the cockpit of his aerobatic machine. Recalling what we just said about fighter pilots, can you read that confident smirk on Archie's face? That's what we're talking about. One with the machine. You know, this photo was taken around the 1940s Much like those big lug football players will always say, "Hi mom" when the TV camera points at them, Archie signed this photo, "With love to mother, from Archie." Photo courtesy of Bob Wylie and presented by the Wisconsin Aviation Hall of Fame.
This is Archie Towle standing by his Taylorcraft BL-65 at Wausau's airport, either getting ready to go up with Wergin or having just finished. He's smiling, so they must be finished, Archie thinking, "Cheated death again!" Photo credit: Wergin family photo.
Wergin applied at the Post Office on First Street in Wausau, took physical and written exams, took flying lessons from Archie, made his first flight with Archie on February 26, 1942, and his first solo flight on March 27, 1942. He learned to fly a Taylorcraft BL-65 (65 HP) and the Waco F-2 with 165 HP. Keep those horses in your mind to compare with what the lad sat on top of in the Army Air Force!
This is a 1940 Taylorcraft BL-65, NC29670 belonging to Shirley Fraser and Stefan Winkler at Taunton, MA June 2001. Presented by Taylorcraftinfo.
This is a 1933 Waco UBF-2 (165 HP) owned by Chris Woods of Tiburon, CA. Photo courtesy of American Waco Club.
It's worth noting that many young Americans of the day who yearned to be fliers flew aircraft like these in the states and then joined the British Royal Air Force (RAF) because the US had not yet entered WWII. Once we got into the fight, they still were trained on these sweethearts. Most will tell you this Waco UBF-2, traditionally used for aerobatics, was a first-rate experience before jumping into the seat of a WWII fighter.
Fighter pilots back then discovered aerobatic flying was crucial to their fighting German and Japanese fighters. Flying a fighter is not only stick, rudder, throttle and trim along with the aircraft's lift, thrust, weight and drag. It also has a lot to do with how this kind of flying affects the body. Aerobatic flying involves G forces, gravity on the body. Fly straight and level, you weigh one G, no matter what your weight. Present-day fighter pilots have to stop at about 9 Gs, or they'll pass out.
We believe that WWII fighter pilots would max out at about 4 to 4.5 Gs, largely because they did not have anti-G suits in those days and were subject to blacking out because of abnormal blood flows at the higher G force levels. These kinds of G force levels would be incurred mostly by fighter pilots in dives, such as dive bombing, used to reduce their vulnerability to ground fire, and power spirals when the plane would get away from attacking enemy aircraft and they'd have to straighten her out.
Archie Towle is worth highlighting for a moment more. He was a significant person to Gerry Wergin and many others like Gerry, to the profession of flying, and to Wisconsin.
Archie was born in 1900 in nearby Merrill, Wisconsin. He died at the young age of 45 following a September 2, 1945 plane crash during an air show at the Alexander Municipal Airport in Wausau. Archie served in WWI. He was instrumental in early development of the Wausau airport, established in 1928. As a flying instructor, he logged over 3,000 flying hours. He has been inducted into the Wisconsin Aviation Hall of Fame. So too his daughter, Marie Towle Schuette, who took over the Fixed Base Operation (FBO) of the Wausau airport following Archie’s death and transformed his business into what became known as the Grimm Flying Service.
This year's Archie C. Towle Aviation Endowment Fund scholarship recipient pictured with scholarship advisory board members (left to right): Bob Wylie, Rose Towle, Logan Pittsley (this year's recipient), Marie Schuette (Towle), Dave Cabelka. Logan Pittsley is a 2002 graduate of Wausau East High School and earned his private pilot license at Wausau Flying Service last summer. He is currently enrolled in the Professional Pilot Program offered by the University of Minnesota, Mankato State, and in his first year has earned his multi-engine and instrument ratings as well as his commercial pilot license. Photo presented by Fly Wausau.
Archie took seriously helping young men like Gerry Wergin There is, today, an Archie C. Towle Aviation Endowment Fund promoting the advancement of aviation as a career for young men and women.
Archie's daughter, Marie, helped Gerry with the classroom stuff through a course known as the Civilian Pilot Training Program, or CPTP. The program was called a civilian one, but it was really intended to train young men to be military pilots before they entered the military. FDR launched the program in 1938. The military at first didn't like it, what with civilians training potential military pilots! But when Germany invaded Poland, the military saw it was very short on pilots, and soon let CPTP graduates proceed "do-eye-rectly" to pilot training.
When these guys became cadets, they occupied a most interesting position. If they completed the program, they would be commissioned second lieutenants and awarded their silver pilot's wings. However, while they were cadets, they were lower than dirt. They were supervised and disciplined by corporals and sergeants, though managed by officers. If for some reason they decided not to finish the program, or if they washed out, they were staring at converting to the infantry as new enlisted men. That was the hammer.
There were normally five stages in the Aviation Cadet pilot training program: classification, preflight, primary pilot training, basic pilot training, and advance pilot training. Each cadet had to make it through all the way, and washing out occurred all along the way. For some, there were surprises waiting at the end even if they made it all the way. We'll touch on that later.
All that said, it was an honor to be an aviation cadet, because the training was challenging and demanded a high caliber student. Gerry's strengths in math and science stood him well.
Following his enlistment at the Elks Club, Gerry had to go to basic training. We are not sure where he went, but the good news is he made it through that grind. Once done, he went to Nashville, Tennessee in January 1943 where he underwent classification testing. John Christian has described this first phase as follows:
"The Classification stage was where we were examined and tested mentally and physically (psycho-motor exams) for a wide range of attributes. The outcome was that we received three ratings, each on a scale from zero to nine, as to our suitability for service as a Bombardier, as a Navigator, and as a Pilot. Then we waited (about two months) for the next opening to go to the Pre-Flight stage. While we waited, we were kept busy with physical training, guard duty, K-P (working in the kitchen and the mess hall from before dawn until after dark), and other duties as assigned."
AVN/0 Wergin arrived at Maxwell Field in Montgomery, Alabama, on January 31, 1943. and went through preflight training there through April 3, 1943.
During early 1940, aviation cadets at Maxwell Field received 60 hours of intensive physical training before entering primary flying training. Photo presented by Maxwell AFB, Alabama.
Maxwell Field also hosted a 500-man mess hall, now Bldg. 500, which served cadets. Notice how stiffly they sit to eat, and the enlisted soldiers walking around observing the cadets to assure they conformed to the rules. The West Point class system was used to enforce discipline. Photo presented by Maxwell AFB, Alabama. I must say here there is some dispute as to whether these are aviation cadets. Aviation cadets were to become officers once they won their wings, and one who has gone through the program has told me there was no way enlisted men had any say over the aviation cadets.
During his preflight training at Maxwell, Gerry flew the Vultee BT-13A "Valiant."
Vultee BT-13A "Valiant," two seat trainer used for pilot training at Maxwell Field during WWII. Photo presented by the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian.
One could only hope that Archie Towle had trained young Wergin well, because the Vultee's Pratt & Whitney radial engine had about 450 horses, capable of maximum cruising speeds of 155 mph, and altitudes to about 20,000 feet. So if these young guys had a "need for speed," and some acrobatics to boot, including dive bombing runs, they got it at preflight training. Some pilots have said the Valiant resembled the Japanese "Zero."
Accommodation was for a crew of two, seated in tandem under a continuous canopy, with dual controls and blind flying instrumentation standard. Instead of the usual fixed pitch propellers, the Valiant had a two position, variable pitch propeller demanding greater skill to fly.
The student pilots nicknamed her the "Vibrator!" The radial engine was noisy and vibrated the large canopy and glass, and the "Vibrator" was known to shake glass windows of buildings when she flew by as well. The young pilots noted she was "smelly," which might be attributable to the aerobatic and dive bomb training right after breakfast or lunch. All students were told that, if caught in a predicament their stomach couldn't handle, to eat their breakfast twice or clean it up!
This was their first serious introduction to that famous clan of warriors known as the crew chief. The crew chief shown here is Sgt. Sol Greenberg, 504th FS with his P-51, "Beaver Chant." Tradition still has the pilot's name and that of his crew chief painted on the fuselage. The pilot might have the rank, but the aircraft belonged to the crew chief, and every crew chief made sure his pilot took good care of the chief's property! Crew chief ownership of the aircraft later became an Air Force tradition written into concrete, a great source of pride for them. Quite often these crew chiefs were and are young airmen and low ranking sergeants. Back in those days, one of the distinguishing features of a crew chief was how he bent the beak of his cap upward; this tradition grew out of the need to keep the stupid beak out of his working area.
While we know that Gerry was a bit of a court jester at Wausau High School, we'll emphasize that there was no fooling around at Maxwell Airfield, and there was no fooling around at basic training before this. This is what makes training fighter pilots hard. You've got to tame them down and bring them in line, but you've also got to be sure not to wipe out their attitude or completely ruin their confidence. The student too had to learn what lines he could cross and which ones were locked in concrete. Ray Levine of Brooklyn, New York wrote a memoir about his pre-flight training in early 1943 and showed a photo of 13 cadets, of whom six washed out, and this was only pre-flight training, stage two of five. So, like we said, this was serious business.
Following preflight training, with virtually no break, Wergin headed off to Souther Field in Americus, Georgia for primary flight training. One of Souther's claims to fame is that Charles Lindbergh did his first solo flight from this field in May, 1923, with only 20 hours instruction under his belt.
Aviation cadets arriving at Souther Field, Americus, Georgia for primary flight training. Presented by Near Plains Georgia
Much of the flight training here was done by Graham Aviation, a civilian aviation company, though the AAF had officers and enlisted men there to take care of military discipline and paperwork. Remember, AAF pilots were in very short supply. Most primary flight training for military pilots was done by civilian companies. General "Hap" Arnold, a consummate planner, put a lot of these companies "under contract" without having contracts or money to pay the companies. He anticipated WWII and the urgent need for pilots, so he successfully pleaded with 10 civilian contractors to get going and he'd catch up with the money later. They did so, and he did so.
The Boeing Stearman PT-17 "Kaydet" was the primary flight-training airplane of World War II. Built similarly to those flown at Souther Field, this PT-17 was photographed in Texas during World War II. At the controls sits an aviation cadet. Photo courtesy of Scott Hedgland, presented by The New Georgia Encyclopedia.
While at Souther, Wergin flew the Stearman PT-17 employing the Continental radial engine. Her maximum speed was 125 mph. She too was a two-seater, in tandem. Her wings were wooden and covered with fabric. She was a nimble bird, and is often used as a stunt plane today. So there was more aerobatic training.
Ground school at Souther Field during primary flight training. Presented by Near Plains Georgia
As you see in the photo above, there is a lot of school work involved. You will recall that Gerry was strong in math and science, and that proved most helpful in the classroom, where students needed to understand aerodynamics, angles of attack, what their plane would do and would not do, how to make it do what you wanted it to do, how to position for an air-to-air kill, how to think three dimensionally, and how to pull out from a sure crash scenario. Gerry benefitted again from early flight training with Wausau's Archie Towle, who was an aerobatic flier and training professional. Most of the other students might have been strong in math and science as well, but had little more than a casual acquaintance with the idea of flying. Most of them had never flown an airplane before, and many of them had never even flown aboard an airplane.
One of the more hair-raising lessons in the PT-17 was to take her up to about 5000 or 6000 feet, and turn off the fuel and ignition, shutting her down at that altitude. The prop would not stop immediately. The time it took to completely stop turning depended on the state of engine compression. The better the compression, the faster the propeller stopped. This is important, because the aircraft is losing altitude while the pilot is waiting for the prop to stop turning. Pilots have said it could take 2000 or 3000 feet for the propeller to stop, meaning that the cadet did not have much airspace left in which to effect a re-start. Once the prop stopped, he was to make a clearing turn, turn on the fuel and ignition, point his nose straight down until the prop started to windmill at which time the engine re-start sequence had better re-start. All cadets were told to have a backup plan in case she didn't start, like having spotted a place to glide her in and land if they could not get the engine to restart in time.
Pilots nicknamed the PT-17 "Yellow Peril," partly because she was tricky to handle on the ground, many Army versions had brightly painted yellow wings, and the Navy painted nearly the entire aircraft yellow.
With primary flight training under his belt, Wergin went immediately off to basic flight training at Courtland Army Airfield, Alabama.
Courtland Field, Alabama as it looks now. It is an abandoned airfield that developers are trying to turn into an industrial park. Photo presented by Economic Development Partnership of Alabama.
At Courtland, it was back to the complex BT-13 Valiant "Vibrator." Far different than what was experienced at BT-13 preflight training, the lads would now get a workout with this bad boy that they did not see at preflight training.
Flying now was more precise, challenged to hit higher altitudes within 10 feet, turn at three degrees per second and, on landing, turn off at the first turn off. Night flying and night soloing were now on the agenda as were cross country flights, often through bad weather, instrument flying and a thorough study and application of aerial navigation flying. They also learned formation takeoffs, formation flying, and short field landings.
Practicing spins was always a heart-throbber. The challenge was to recover her out of a spin and avoid going much more than two spins; a third spin meant you had to start thinking about bailing out. Bill Goodman, a veteran cadet of this phase of "Vibrator" flying, talks about how he could not recover out of a spin, his instructor bailed out, and then Bill somehow tamed his aircraft and brought her home safe and sound. But then there was "Mitch," who tried to take his BT-13 off with his propeller in the "high pitch position," crashed and disintegrated. He also talks about how 40 percent of his original class washed out and went into the infantry as new enlisted men. He said the men were either afraid of their airplane or their instructor. Goodman went on to pilot the B-25 "Mitchell" bomber in round two of his WWII experience, after first serving as a bomber navigator.
Charles E. Dills, a retired professor of chemistry at Cal Poly, and a WWII Mustang fighter pilot, has written about his experiences at Courtland with the BT-13. He focused on the night flights, especially a night solo flown by a cadet with the last name of Langley. He described it this way:
"There is a maneuver called a 'power spiral.' If one wing dips, you start turning in that direction. You may not realize you're in a turn but you notice the slight loss of altitude. So you pull back on the stick. But this tightens the turn and you lose more altitude. You pull back again and if you don't correct the turn you can stall and spin. Most people recognize what is happening rather quickly. But if it happens at night, on one of the blackest nights there is, only 400 feet above the ground, you have no margin for error. Langley got into such a power spiral, recognized what was happening, corrected and just clipped the top of a hill and was killed. The 400' he had was not enough, particularly for a novice."
In looking at flight training manuals, a power spiral means the aircraft is in a dive at full power, banked one way or the other. The only way to pull out of this is to roll the plane to level flight. If the aircraft remains banked, it will continue its downward spiral.
In Gerry Wergin's time, Courtland had four active airstrips and 500 aircraft, with heavy-duty north-to-south winds and strong east-west winds as well. The four strips enabled pilots to use a runway that would handle the winds, but there was a lot of flight activity going on at one time.
Well, Gerry made it through this training, so off he went to Craig Field in Selma, Alabama for advanced fight training, flying the North American AT-6 "Texan" and the Curtiss P-40 "Warhawk." We'll highlight again that there were no breaks for him between training sessions. He simply went from one to the other.
North American AT-6 "Texan" advanced trainer.
The AT-6 was a tandem two place aircraft, low wing monoplane with fixed undercarriage, and a Wright Whirlwind R-975 radial engine with about 400 horses that could push her to about 170 mph cruising, 212 maximum, service ceiling of 21,500 ft. The aircraft was built in the 1930s. The Texan was tough to handle on the ground, and few student pilots had a good time flying her either. She was a deliberately a challenging aircraft, and the student pilot had to be on his toes every second of his flight. Mental and physical exertion were the names of the game. A pilot had no choice but to become a better pilot with this aircraft, or wash out at the final stage. Bud Davisson gives you a most exciting description of what it was like to handle this beast.
And then, the P-40, which the student pilots knew was a combat aircraft, so exhilaration levels rose high when driving her through holes in the sky.
Curtiss P-40 "Warhawk." Presented by Wikipedia.
The P-40 "Warhawk" would be one of the aircraft that Gerald Wergin would eventually fly in combat as a "Burma Banshee." It was a single engine, single seat, all metal fighter meant primarily for ground attack. She was officially called a fighter-bomber, meaning that she was good for air-to-air and air-to-ground.
In addition to the normal routines of honing flying skills in two new aircraft that would closely resemble what they might get to fight in, the cadets now did serious work at the bombing and gunnery ranges. Night cross country flights were longer, often 300 miles. Some airfields were lit only with flare pots. In-flight maneuvers had to be perfected and included lazy 8s, pylon 8s and others. Each cadet received instrument training, closing the student in so he could not see outside and forcing him to rely completely on his instruments. The training was tough, and most advanced training fields have cemeteries for those who couldn't pull their machines out. Night flying was particularly a problem. Engines would wear, tires would go flat, and wing tips often were bent.
Link Trainer was a mechanical simulator of the AT-6 cockpit and instrument panel with a lid closed over it so that the pilot could not see out of it. Presented by John Christian.
Ground school training went over everything they had learned during their previous training, over and over. They concentrated on code, weather, internal combustion engines, physical training, intelligence, aircraft and ship identification. Ground school also included the Link Trainer, a mechanical simulator of the AT-6 cockpit and instrument panel with a lid closed over it so the pilot could not see out. Many flying techniques were simulated in the Link.
Interestingly, it was more rare to see a cadet wash out in this last phase than in any other. The feeling was that the men who made it this far had what it took, and issues and problems were generally ironed out.
Aviation Cadet Gerald P. Wergin completed his flight training on or about September 30, 1943, having raised his right hand to enlist in the AAF on May 14, 1942 at the Marshfield, Wisconsin Elks Club. All together, about 17 months in training. These kinds of guys were clearly not produced over night, even when the AAF needed them all yesterday. Former cadets will tell you graduation was a very big day.
On September 30, 1943, Gerry was honorably discharged from the Army at Craig Field. So he was no longer an enlisted man. Major B.L. Stringfellow signed the discharge and 2nd Lt. N.C. Schmidt paid him his final enlisted pay of $97.25.
"Graduation completed flight training. I am now an officer and a gentleman - Curtis P-40 ... Ken Mosely and I graduated and were commissioned together in the Class 43I."
It's too bad his identification card is not in color. That single lieutenant's bar he is wearing on the right shirt collar is gold, for second lieutenant, fondly known as the "butter bar." This photo of him shows about as new a butter bar as you can get. That "AUS" on his "nametag" stands for Air Corps.
We'll talk more about Ken Mosely later. They would meetup with another fighter pilot, Mike Navarro, later, and together the "Three Muskateers" flew together, fought together, got drunk and in mischief together, and remained good friends for the rest of their lives (Navarro has since deceased).
While Lt. Wergin had little to note in writing about his graduation and commissioning, Headquarters Army Air Force Southeast Training Center at Maxwell Field had quite a bit to say about these events, in writing, to each new officer. The typewritten "love note" on USAAF letterhead went something like this:
"The Secretary of War has directed me to inform you that the President has appointed and commissioned you a temporary Second Lieutenant, Army of the United States, effective this date (1 October 1943). Your serial number is shown after "A" above. This commission will continue in force during the pleasure of the President of the United States for the time being, and for the duration of the war and six months thereafter unless sooner terminated. There is inclosed herewith a form for oath of office which you are requested to execute and return. The execution and return of the required oath of office constitute acceptance of your appointment. No other evidence of acceptance is required. This letter should be retained by you as evidence of your appointment as no commission will be issued during the war."
In reading this, you might wonder whether Gerry did have a chance to beat feet between his discharge as an aviation cadet and commissioning as a second lieutenant. The answer remains no. In his records, for example, we found an order issued by the Army on September 25, 1943, a week before discharge and formal commissioning, which locked him in as a "butter bar" and a pilot even before the ceremonies took place. Ya gotta love the Army! The Army always knows how to make a guy's heart and mind follow.
P-40F "Warhawk." Presented by Ron Dupas Collection.
While at Craig Field, Wergin qualified in the P-40F after only 10.1 hours flying time in the transition from the AT-6. With the P-40F Warhawk, Gerry was most certainly in the big leagues. Forget that 65 horse bug he flew with Archie Towle in Wausau. He now had a 33 foot long bird powered by a Packard Merlin V-1650-1 twelve cylinder Vee liquid-cooled engine rated at 1300 horses for takeoff and 1120 horses at 18,500 feet, with a max speed of 320 mph at 5000 feet, 340 mph at 10,000 feet, 352 mph at 15,000 and 364 mph at 20,000 feet. He could jack this baby up to 20,000 feet in 11.6 minutes, suck in GI-issue oxygen, and fly there for 700 miles clean and up to 1500 miles depending on what kind of tank he carried. He could climb her to 34,400 feet. His armament started with six 0.50-inch machine guns in the wings, and whatever the boys hung from his wings, rockets or bombs.
Well, Gerry might have qualified in this machine at Craig, and he might have accumulated a grand total of 238 hours flight time since he began training, but the 10 hours he had in the P-40 were not good enough to go to war in Hap Arnold's Air Force. William Wheeler, a Tuskegee Airman with the 302nd Fighter Squadron, commented this way:
"The Warhawk was a gigantic step up from the North American Texan/AT-6. Once I soloed in the Warhawk, I knew I had 'arrived.' I was ready for bigger and better things.'"
After a week or so off to go home and see family in Wausau, it was off to bigger and better things for Gerry Wergin as well, starting at Dale Mabry Base at Tallahassee, Florida for two weeks and finishing up with intense P-40 flight training at Sarasota Army Air Base (AAB) in Tallahassee, Florida.
At Mabry, he received various orientation briefings, qualified with the 45 pistol, fired 600 rounds on the skeet range, learned about newly emerging identification friend or foe (IFF) electronics and underwent altitude chamber training.
All that done, he was assigned to the 98th Fighter Squadron (FS), 337th Fighter Group (FG) of the 3rd Air Force (AF) at Sarasota Army Air Base (AAB), Florida to fly the P-40 over and over for two months until he got it right. David Sommer, writing "The field of battle" for the Tampa Tribune published in June 2004, wrote this about the Sarasota "base:"
"H. Tom Harris (in July 1943) was a 27 year old fighter jockey from Tulsa ... 'The runways were all done, but there wasn't anything on the field but one tar-paper shack,' said Harris. Hungry for lunch, the airmen piled on the back of a flatbed pickup for a ride into Largo, about six miles away, Harris said. That night they were billeted at the Martha Washington Hotel in downtown St. Petersburg. A few days later they moved into two-man tents with shipping pallets for flooring. The airfield's first control tower consisted of a wooden box set atop four telephone poles with a ladder nailed on one side, Harris said."
While at Sarasota, Lt. Wergin accumulated just over 63 hours flying time in the P-40, flying combat formations, combat aerobatics, navigation, gunnery, instrument, night and bombing missions. Combat aerobatic missions were above 8,000 ft and above 20,000 ft. He flew low altitude (200-500 ft), medium altitude (1500 - 2000 ft) and high altitude (above 30,000 ft) navigation missions, he fired his guns at ground targets (strafing) and at aerial targets at varying altitudes to include low and high as previously defined, and he practiced dive, skip and low level bombing. His records say he fired 5400 rounds from his machine guns and dropped 34 bombs. He flew two missions fully loaded with belly tanks and bomb loads. Lt. Wergin, when finished in Sarasota on December 28, 1943, had jumped from 10 hours in the P-40 to a total of 73.
Please note no going home for Christmas! There was a war to fight and Wergin was sent back to Dale Mabry in Tallahassee to await his orders to go to war. He got 'em on January 3, 1944. Gerry's notes recorded the orders this way:
"To the Floridian Hotel in Miami, Florida to overseas shipment to ?????? (Meaning he did not know where he was going). Departed the USA on January 10, 1944 to God knows where ???? by Air Transport Command equipped with winter gear. Plane off ground and wheels up, we could now read our assigned destination .... 10th AAF, Karachi, India."
As is all too often the case, men like Wergin didn't like to talk much about their war experience. So our strategy in the next section is to pass on what he did note, but focus on explaining the history and environment that drove the mission tasking that Lt. Wergin and his 80th FG executed.