A caboose is a manned North American rail transport vehicle coupled at the end of a freight train. Cabooses provided shelter for crew at the end of a train, who were required for switching and shunting, and to keep a lookout for load shifting, damage to equipment and cargo, or overheating axles (hot boxes). Designs were originally modified box cars or flatbed cars carrying a cabin, but later became specialised vehicles, with projections above or to the sides of the car so crew could observe the train from shelter.
I flew my 32nd and final combat mission with the 359th Squadron of the 303rd Bomb Group (H) of the Eighth Air Force of the U.S. Army on April 17, 1945. The target was the railroad marshaling yard of Dresden. It seems ironic to me that my first and last combat missions should have been to Dresden, Germany. Given the guilt and shame I later felt over having participated in the Dresden Holocaust of February 14, 1945, perhaps the Lord was impressing on me the horror of war. The Group did not fly on April 18 or 19 but did fly on April 20 but I was not on that mission. The Group did not fly on April 21, 22, 23 or 24. On April 25 the Group flew its last mission to Pilsen, Czechoslovakia, bombing the Skoda munitions factory, but I was not on that mission which was the last of the War. On May 7, 1945 Germany surrendered. I had been scheduled to fly 35 combat missions but with the war ended my combat service ended also.
The prospect of remaining in England and of having the opportunity to visit continental Europe was very attractive to me. But it was not to be. On May 25 I was given orders to report to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas and it appeared to me that I was headed for the war in the Pacific. On May 27 I departed Burtonwood Airbase in England as the Flight Engineer on a B-17 and flew to Bradley Airbase in Connecticut following the same route I had followed coming to England: Iceland, Greenland, Laborador, Newfoundland, landing in Connecticut on June 2, 1945. From Bradley Airbase I went to Camp Miles Standish near Boston. On June 5 I boarded a troop train headed for San Antonio, Texas.
How can I ever forget that troop train. I am convinced that the passenger cars dated back to the Civil War. The seats were not cushioned and worse of all, the windows would not open and it was summer; hot in Boston and it was going to get hotter as we approached San Antonio. So, without even putting my bag down I started to walk back through the long train. All the cars were the same. Finally I came to the end and much to my surprise I found that the last car was a caboose. I do not know why the train had a caboose because there was no crew in evidence. I threw my bag up into the cupola where there was a bunk bed, climbed up, laid down and traveled from Boston to San Antonio riding in ‘comfort’ in my caboose. The windows in the cupola were open and I could not close them, but I did not mind since I had fresh air the whole trip. The only problem was that the locomotive pulling the train was a coal burning steam engine and so by the time I arrived in San Antonio I looked like an actor in an old-time minstrel play, I looked like Al Jolson in makeup.
I arrived at Fort Sam Houston, where my military service started, on June 8, 1945. I was immediately granted a 30-day furlough and went to Houston to be with my family. It was great to be home. My family was, of course, delighted that I had survived 32 combat missions over Germany unscathed and was home intact. The furlough went by much too fast and on July 8, 1945 I took a bus and went to Fort Sam Houston for duty. My new assignment was to Santa Ana Air Base where I was to received my final orders. I arrived at Santa Ana on July 12 and did not receive my orders until August 1.
My stay in California was very pleasant. I had a maiden great-aunt living in Hollywood and so I got a pass to go visit her. At the end of my visit with her I walked down to the street corner to catch a city bus to take me to the train station where I could catch my train back to Santa Ana. While I was waiting at the bus stop in full uniform with my decorations prominently displayed a big black limousine pulled up and the driver asked me if I needed a ride, I replied that I was on my way to the train station to catch a train to Santa Ana. The drive said, “get in, I will take you there” so I go into the passenger’s seat next to the driver. We had only gone a few blocks when a man in the back seat asked me if I would like to visit a movie studio on my way to the train station. I turned to reply and much to my amazement the man was Cary Grant. I replied that I did not have much time, but that yes I would like to see a movie studio.
We drove to the movie set where Cary Grant was making the film Night and Day about Cole Porter. I met Alexis Smith, Monty Wooley, Jane Wyman, Eve Arden and the Director, Michael Curtis. All of them were exceedingly gracious to this airman and expressed their admiration for what the 8th Air Force had accomplished in the war in Europe. After about a half hour the limo driver took me to the train station and I returned to Santa Ana Air Base.
On August 1, much to my surprise I was not shipped to the Pacific, but was instead sent to Amarillo AFB in Texas to begin qualification as a Flight Engineer on B-29 bombers. Up to that point I had only seen pictures of B-29 bombers. My first inspection of one was overwhelming. A B-29 made a B-17 look very small by comparison. But do not misunderstand me, the B-17 will always be no. 1 in my heart and memory.
I will not bore you with the complexities of the job of a Flight Engineer on a B-29, but if you are really interested you might enjoy watching this video in which Ronald Reagan narrates the description of the job of a B-29 Flight Engineer: https://archive.org/details/TF1-3354
On August 15 the Anola Gay B-29 delivered the atomic bomb to Hiroshima and the war with Japan came to an end. I knew that now I would be discharged in the near future and sure enough, on November 2, 1945 I was honorably discharged and returned to Houston to resume my education as an architectural engineer.
What do I have to say about my war experience? A lot!
I signed up as a member of the United States Air Corps Reserve while a Freshman at Rice University. At the time I was nineteen years old, very immature in many ways, not the least of which was physically. After my 18 weeks of infantry basic training at Mineral Wells I was beginning to become a man. Now at 20 years of age I was thrust into the bloodiest war in history and, while my experience of the war was infinitely better than that of the average GI fighting on the ground, the war completed the process of making a man out of me. There is an old Portugese proverb that says, “God writes straight with crooked lines!” While at the time I was frustrated at receiving infantry basic training, I now see that I matured physically during those 18 weeks and began to become a man physically. Ironically, when I arrived at Wichita AFB I had to undergo 8 weeks of Air Corps basic training; it was a piece of cake I may have matured physically, but I had a long way to become a man.
I had stopped practicing my faith, as happens to many college students, during my year at Rice. During my first year on active duty with the Army Air Corps I began to feel the void left in my life by the absence of a liturgical life. On Easter Sunday, while stationed at the Kearns AFB awaiting assignment to aerial gunnery school at Kingman AZ AFB I went into Salt Lake City to go to church. Because I had admired the Cathedral from a distance but had never I entered it. Now I entered it.
As the Lord would have it, I entered the Cathedral of the Madeleine as the Easter Sunday High Mass celebrated by Bishop Duane Hunt began. I occupied the last pew in the Cathedral. The Liturgy celebrated naturally in what is now called the Tridentine Rite, but at that time it was the only Latin rite, was beautiful. The music was wonderful. During the Bishop’s homily I began to cry. Without being conscious of it I had begun to experience the same awakening as the prodigal son. I realized that I had been hurting myself by having distanced myself from the Liturgy and had lost my direct contact with Jesus Christ. By the time the Mass was over I had experienced a complete conversion. I sat there in the now empty Cathedral for a long time confirming my resolution to ‘return to the Father.’
The process of conversion that began on that Easter Sunday in Salt Lake City (of all places, the Mormon capital of the world) was completed by my experience of the war. I did not experience a “fox-hole conversion” at 25,000 feet during a combat mission, I simply had the cumulative effect of becoming repulsed by the absurdity of war with its absence of any value being placed on human life. The war awakened in me the realization that life must be respected at all stages of the human person’s life.
Did the war change me? You bet it did!