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Changes in the Air 1942-43
by  Carl Baumann,  BHS '43

The war, which for us began on December 7, 1941, called up to duty most all the young men of the nation. They had previously been thought of as boys, most of them, but now they'd suddenly become "young men," ready or not, and my Bergenfield High School classmates and I would soon be joining them. It was an exciting prospect, and most of us were eager to go off and do battle against the bad guys.

Then, as now, the young didn't know any better, which is why they were the first to serve, in fearless ignorance. The moms & dads of the day did know better, having grown up a part of  "The War to End All Wars" just 20 years earlier. But they held their fears and apprehensions in silence lest they seem unpatriotic.   There really was an evil let loose in the world, and it really had to be defeated.

My older friend and role model, Dick Brown, had already answered the call to become a Naval Aviator, and was in advanced flight training when the war began... He would soon "Win his Navy Wings of Gold" (as the recruitment poster said it) and be sent off to his first duty assignment with the Atlantic Fleet.

The news reports during the early months after Pearl Harbor were pretty grim, so most of us males from the class of of 1943 had little doubt about what we'd be doing  after graduation... Since my heart and mind were 
already in the sky, I'd planned to enlist in the Army Air Corps as soon as I came of age.

On March 10, 1942, a telegram came from the Navy Department:  Ensign Richard Brown had been killed --- lost at sea on an anti-submarine patrol somewhere near Bermuda. There were no explanatory details, but the finality of death didn't need them. My admired friend was gone forever, and my spirit sank to the lowest 
level it had ever known... I went to school the next day, but walked out after the first hour and wandered aimlessly around town, trying to come to terms with what had happened... My world had changed. There was nothing that could be done about Dick, but I decided that day to switch my enlistment plans from Army to Navy.  I, too, would become a Naval Aviator, God and the Navy willing, and take the place of my friend... For many years thereafter I had this recurrent dream:  Dick would be walking towards me, dressed in his Navy uniform, and smiling as if to say he hadn't really been killed, but had just been lost and now was found.

Meanwhile, back to the reality of my senior year in high school, life went on, and I was re-absorbed with the immediate interests of the time. By now my model trains & planes were gathering cobwebs in the basement workshop. They'd been replaced by football, basketball, girls & cars, as much for the associated peer-group status as for themselves. Except for the cars. They were a true heart's desire, as were the airplanes to come.

In early January 1943, the Navy announced a new Aviation Cadet enlistment opportunity for 17-year-olds. One still had to be 18 to begin actual flight training, but they would send you as an Apprentice Seaman to a Navy College Training Program  for a year till you came of age. Before the war they'd required at least a year or two of college to be eligible, so they were just keeping up their standards. It could also save you from the clutches of the "draft," which nabbed everyone not already enlisted by their 18th birthday.

I would be 17 on January 31, but couldn't  contain myself for the three whole weeks till then, so I went to the recruitment office in New York City a week early. Although I was still only 16, they allowed that it would take at least a week for the various tests to be taken, by which time I'd be of age, so they let me begin.

The mental aptitude test was a breeze --- my mind was well attuned to what they wanted. I was in good shape physically, too, except for a small matter of  20-some dental cavities that would have to be fixed before they would pass me... Then came the final psychological interview with a battery of naval officers, mostly aviators. They noted approvingly my participation in high school team sports, military aviation being a team endeavor, not in need of individualistic hot shots. (I kept my self-image as a "loner" to myself!)  Then they asked, "Why do you want to be a Naval Aviator?" My answer came easily: "Because I want to fly, and because I want to replace my lost Navy Flyer friend, Dick Brown." These were the best of answers, and they rightly approved my application... I was ecstatic!.. And now to get those rotten teeth fixed, and sign on the dotted line.

I'd been to our family dentist, Dr. Fisher, many times. In fact, due to a calcium deficient diet, I was one of his best customers. For some reason he never quite explained, he didn't believe in using novocaine, so almost every visit to his office was an ordeal.

"Dr. Fisher," I said, "look into my mouth and tell me how long it will take for you to fix every cavity you can find, and all in one sitting!"  Over the years I'd learned , as a matter of self-preservation, how to somewhat psych  myself  against his tortures, so I decided I'd rather suffer one big extended ordeal than a dozen or so shorter ones. I'd avoid all the anxious anticipations of pain between appointments.  Besides, my  eagerness to complete my enlistment in my heart's desire  was greater than my fear of Dr. Fisher's drill.

He was somewhat startled by my request. After a lengthy inspection he said, "Well, I count 23 cavities, but some of them are relatively small, so maybe with some mass-production techniques I can do them all in about four hours." 

So an appointment was made for two days hence, from 9 a.m. - 1 p.m., and the awful deed was done, and within the time he had predicted... He said then, "That was far and away the record for cavities drilled & filled in one non-stop session."  I'll bet that record still stands today!

At about 1:30 that same afternoon, lunchless and with aching mouth, I was back on the bus to the recruitment office in New York City, where I presented my repaired teeth to the Navy doctor who had the final  word on my enlistment... He , too, was surprised at how quickly I'd had all that dental work done, and signed off on my last roadblock to the sky... Three days later I returned as directed, along with a dozen or so other lucky fellows, to be sworn in as an Aviation Cadet in the U.S. Navy,  just two days after my 17th birthday... Oh, Happy Day!..

From that day forward, the last few months of high school were a blur of anticipation. Most everyday things and interests seemed trivial, even cars and girls. I retrieved the keys to my father's car from their two-year exile over my bedroom door and got my long awaited license to drive. But with gas being rationed at 3 gallons per week per car, there was literally no place one could go... I took solace in the fact that I'd eventually get to use that saved gas in the Navy aircraft I'd be flying a year later...I dated some and went to the senior prom, but spent most of my spare time reading up on "The Theory of Flight" and such, and embarked on a strenuous regimen of calisthenics in preparation for the rigors of pre-flight training soon to come.

Final approval of my enlistment depended on me successfully completing my schoolwork, and I did pretty well --- except for Spanish. I was not a "foreign language person," and was going into the final exam with something near an F+ average... I pleaded with our Spanish teacher Miss Bartly, in the cause of National Defense, to let me pass!... I don't know how I did on that final exam -- she didn't return the tests. But my final grade was posted as D- and I was overjoyed!..

I was out of there, a week after graduation, and happily off to

"The Wild Blue Yonder."

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