Friday, August 19, 2005

He flashed, "UCLA, '37"

The Stockton Record

Paul Weeks

Vintage column for May, 2003


They call it "embedding" reporters into military units nowadays. I was "embedded," too, in World War II -- an enlisted soldier, writing for the Army Air Corps in what the military called, "public information."

But the only combat I covered was the football, basketball, baseball and boxing events for the athletes at an Army Air Corps base. Its commandant had an itch for winning on the athletic field as well as in the wild blue yonder.

Ted Shipkey had won a captain's commission in Albuquerque to direct the physical training program at nearby Kirtland Field. He'd been an All-American football player in the days of Pop Warner at Stanford, and later coach at the University of New Mexico in an era when UNM actually won football games.

First, I had a few weeks of training, picking up cigarette butts on the lawns of the reception center at Fort Bliss, Tex., and then in an Air Corps base in Roswell, N.M., where I encountered the obstacle course.

Captain Shipkey had never seen an obstacle course. "Private Weeks," he said, "you design us one for the bombardier cadets training here."

I had never fashioned anything more complicated than a sling shot..

When Kirtland Field's completed course lay in the splendor of the desert sun, I couldn't help but admire it. The first obstacle loomed maybe 12 or 14 feet high. You were supposed to run and leap to a toe hold of a board mounted across the face of the structure, then spring to the top and drop to the sawdust on the other side.

"Awright, kid," leered Shipkey's big Texas assistant, Lt. Ted Wright, "you designed it -- YOU RUN IT!" I ran, jumped and fell; ran, jumped and fell -- couldn't make it up to the toe hold. Wright guffawed. I wish I'd had my slingshot then.

Soldiering could be arduous, though, even at Kirtland Field. When the sports-minded commandant moved on, I was transferred to the regular public information office..

No, that wasn't so perilous, but did you ever try to operate a "china clipper" - the dish-washing machine in the mess hall, or break 30- or 40-dozen eggs for breakfast without breaking a yolk?

That's what I was doing on "KP"-kitchen police -- the morning of a solemn tribute on the parade grounds to the fallen President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. You know how it is: Someone has to stay in the kitchen to cook and wash the dishes.

Interviewing combat returnees to ply the civilians with stories of heroism fell to my lot. My favorite one never left my old Underwood typewriter. It could have been interpreted as making our guys the enemy, and an enemy a nice guy:

The returned flier slouched in a chair as he talked:

"The men flying B-24s out of New Guinea ran into a nest of Jap (excuse me, but that's the way it was said then) Zero fighters. One of ours was crippled so badly that he had to limp home and let the others high-tail it ahead."

I was glued to the story -- awaiting what heroism I was to retell to the awaiting press.

"The Zero made a pass at the crippled bomber, and the crew thought they were about to buy the farm" -- a quaint expression to describe a fatal plunge to earth, but hardly applicable to the wild blue Pacific.

The lone Japanese flier made two or three more passes, my returnee said, his voice growing more tense.

"But he never fired a shot."

"Why?" I blurted.

"Well that sonofagun just flew up alongside and flashed a light signal in Morse code," the officer said.

"What did he say?" I awaited, breathlessly.

"'UCLA 1937."

Apocryphal? I'll never know - unless someone who reads this vouches for it.

The B-24s found that "UCLA 1937" continued to frolic with them on later missions, and they played along - carefully analyzing the Zero's capabilities.

But one day, the officer continued, a new B-24 crew entered the game, and didn't know it was for keeps. A gunner brought old UCLA down.

I have more war stories to tell. And if I haven't bought the farm in the meantime, I'll get back to them.

But you wouldn't believe them anyway.



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