The RAF in the USA

by Donn Hale Munson

The British have arrived and they love it. US Army and Navy schools train Royal Air Force pilots as well as Americans.

The reception they received when they ended their 5,000-mile trip from England to Florida was typically American. Ninety-nine fledgling Royal Air Force cadets grinned through their travel grime and forgot about red eyes and weariness from two days and nights of day-coach travel, when the little cow-country town of Arcadia turned out almost en masse to welcome them.

The last group of 550 to detrain, the Arcadia boys could not restrain their eagerness to get into the air and as hospitable southerners served them with refreshments the question on every pair of English lips was the same:

"When do we fly?"

Some of them had been with the RAF nearly a year, others only a few months, yet the question provoked real American reaction. Said one youngster:

"It didn't seem but a few minutes after we first asked that question here when they had us all out to the field — and there we were, face-to-face with the training ships."

Now, after nearly a month of primary training, most of them have soloed. The group came to Arcadia via Detroit, Cincinnati, Chattanooga and Jacksonville after weeks in a Toronto manning center. Other groups dropped off in seven other of the southeast's elementary flying schools. Operated under direction of the War Department, they are at Albany, GA, Americus, GA, Lakeland, FL, Camden, SC, Jackson, MS, Tuscaloosa, AL, and Coral Gables, FL.

Arcadia's Embry-Riddle school is typical of similar schools, perhaps a bit more elaborate and favored with better weather. Training berths in eight schools were opened June 4, when the War Department made public the fact that Britons were to be trained; it was just five days later that the fledglings were in the South beginning their training.

When Arcadians had completed their welcome to the boys and when the last Britisher had exchanged smiles with the gayly costumed cowgirls of the section, the RAF lads settled down to the routine. They gaped in awe at the Arcadia layout: Carlstrom Field, the big shining metal hangars, the 65 or more Stearman PT-15 trainers, the $300,000 worth of barracks, swimming pools, tennis courts, canteen, recreation hall, mess hall and other facilities.

"I say!" breathed one lad in amazement, "the RAF will turn green with envy when it hears about this."

He couldn't believe the spacious sleeping room in the spotless new barrack was to be his and that he had to share it with but three other cadets. He cautiously tried out his bunk, peered into the showers and sucked a tasty orange.

"It's heaven," he said.

The system is simple. The 550 Britons simply became lowerclassmen in American flying schools. At Arcadia, the present upper class is made up of 250 cadets of the US Army Air Corps. The RAF men, ranging from 18 to 30 years of age, live in one big barrack and the Americans in another. All cadets use the same mess hall and recreational facilities.

Albert I Lodwick, co-owner of the civilian-operated school, explains it this way:

"We are making every effort to provide British students with various kinds of food and other things to which they are accustomed at home. For instance, we have purchased many of their favorite phonograph records of the songs they like and are used to singing. As many of the boys are fond of darts, we have equipped our recreational rooms with these games. We have arranged contests and games of various sorts between the Americans and the British."

The group at Arcadia is a cross section of English life. In civil life the boys who now are devoting their times to spot landings and climbing turns were hunched over desks, standing behind counters, working in factories, ringing doorbells as salesmen or collecting bad bills. Practically every profession is represented. Take Douglas May for example. Thirty years old and married, the father of a little girl, he's admittedly no youngster. His helmet covers a bald spot and his khaki covers a slender frame. He was manager of a London clothing store when he joined the RAF.

"Why did I leave 'em?" he answers when asked why he left his family to come 5,000 miles to learn to fly, "There's a job to be done and I'm just doing my bit."

May, like many of the others, doesn't even bother to read American papers to see how his countrymen are doing in the battle of Britain. To date he hadn't had a letter from home. He'd had one cablegram to the effect that all was well at home and that's all he is interested in.

"What can I do but induce worries if I read the papers? I'm much too busy learning to fly and to fight. If anything happens to my family I'll hear about it. Meantime what I, and all the rest of the boys, are learning here will soon be put to work and we'll have first hand information on what's going on. For we'll be right up there, you see."

Despite all the efforts on the part of Embry-Riddle officials to make the Arcadia field and barracks as English and homelike as possible, the Britishers are not terribly concerned. They are in love with America and Florida.

"I've never dreamed there was such a big, lush, wonderful land," Yorkshireman Alec Barrett says in his thick brogue. He flies, studies, he snoozes in the hot semi-tropical sun and he ogles at America. Like most of the 99 others, he's never without an American cigarette in his hand or within reach. The RAF boys are passionately fond of the popular brands of American smokes. They have become attached to soft drinks, hot dogs and hamburgers. The canteen at Arcadia is usually full to overflowing with hungry Britishers and the sign on the cigarette machine warns:

"Money of Canada and Britain will not fit this machine!"

Officially known as Class 42-A, the boys quickly became acclimated. Flight schedules began on June 11 and progress was the same as in any US Army flight school. Treated exactly the same as our own flying cadets, the British must pass the same physical examinations, must obey the same regulations and a few additional and typically English regulations, have the same privileges, and their experiences seem to be the same.

Typical of how they came from their homes in England is the story of Thomas D Leslie. A resident of Surrey, a few miles from London, he dashed to the recruiting center when war was declared by England. For many months he waited, still retaining his job as an insurance salesman. The war was far away for him, despite the Stukas that swept down on his area and despite the bombs that fell "within a hundred yards or so, old, boy. Really nothing to worry about. They don't hurt 'til they hit you."

Leslie, who is 20 and on the tall side, was playing tennis when the Germans bombed Croydon airport.

"We were batting the ball about when we heard some planes approaching, quite low. We couldn't see whether they were German or English,"he recalls, "so we just kept on playing. The courts were quite close to Croydon and slightly higher, so we had a perfect picture of what was happening. The ships came closer and we suddenly realized they were Jerry. They swept down with terribly fascinating beauty and gave the 'drome hell. I was so close I could see the bombs leave the racks and splash on the field."

Leslie tells the story as coolly as if he were relating a family incident. His reaction to the bombing is, in itself, illustrative of how all 99 of the Britons react to the war. The only thing exciting to them is that they are in America, the country with all its strange ways of living, with all its richness and novelty. Then there is the thought of the future.

"I want to be in fighters," says Leslie.

"Rather!" drawls Barrett.

"Same here,"echoes Fred Chesney, from Sunderland, County Durham.

"I say, chaps,"interrupts May, a Londoner — the man with the family at home — "I prefer patrol work, you know. Sitting up there in a Short Sunderland, doing a bit of coastal defense."

The others scoff at him, reminding him it's old man's work, patrolling the sea. May, grinning, reminds them he is old.

The boys have seen action. Yet they haven't taken an active part. May says:

"Soon after the fall of France I enlisted, although I was exempt because of my wife and child. Lots of other lads joined up at the same time and while they were put on active duty, manning machine guns around airport and other defense places, the RAF left me at home. Then, quite suddenly and without warning, I was called up and told I was going to America. I was properly thrilled, of course, because I'd always wanted to see the United States — the movie versions excited me."

En route to Canada and protected by cruisers and destroyers, their transport was said to be the object of the German battleship Bismarck.

"One day," May says, "some of our escort just turned tail and left us. Soon afterward the wireless told us about the sinking of the Bismarck. Neat work, what?"

"It was a Catalina (PBY flying boat) that really got her in the end,"another Englishman reminds May. And while they are devoted to the RAF, all think highly of the Royal Navy. "Doing a splendid job,"they say.

"Just look at this,"one remarked, waving his hand at the Embry-Riddle school in general. "At home this would have taken years. The speed here is terrific, as you Americans say. I understand that at Christmas time last year (1940) there wasn't anything here except an old cement building. Now just look at these barracks, the swimming pool, the tennis courts and the classrooms and hangars. It's simply amazing."

On the flat land, used extensively for cattle grazing and far from Florida's largest towns and almost inaccessible by car and plane unless you make yourself thoroughly known to the many armed guards who surround the base, Carlstrom Field has been practically deserted since the first World War. With typical Florida boom strides the base sprang up magically; out of wasteland grew a mile-square flying field as flat as could be desired and as close-cropped as your front lawn. Five auxiliary or practice fields range the main field and all are in constant use. Flying starts soon after sunup and the long semi-tropical day permits many hours of flying. Night flying isn't included in the primary training.

The kids who sit in the cockpits of the trainers have a tough assignment ahead of them and they know it. Already aware of what they have to face when they are sent home, they are grimly determined to prove worthy of all the expense their government and ours have taken.

"Mind you,"declares one, "I'm not throwing a line. But after all this (gesturing to the air school) we'll make Jerry run."

The RAF lads have watched dogfights, have watched Stukas sweep across their homes and have watched their comrades come spinning down in combat.

"They're wonderful,"says Cadet Leslie of the English fighter pilots, and there is nothing but sheer admiration in his voice. He forgets that soon he, too, will be up there over England as "wonderful"as those boys already on duty. "They come whipping into huge masses of Heinkels and Dorniers and you wonder how the poor chap is going to handle them. But somehow he always does. I've seen three Hurricanes go slamming into 50 Nazis and they always seem to scatter them."

On the other hand, they've watched Spitfires and Hurricanes come down.

"One poor chap got it right in front of me. The Jerry had driven him down quite low and he was putting up a scrap, I'll tell you. They cut his wings off and the Hurricane came crashing down in the street very close to me. The pilot bailed out, of course, and I believe he made it all right."

While the RAF lads work hard, they play hard. They are the favorite guests of civilians in the entire Arcadia section and civic clubs, churches, lodges and other organizations seek to make their stay here a happy one. Weekends are theirs to enjoy, so long as they are caught up on their studies and work. They have tasted all the "strange"American foods they can get their hands on and have sampled the various liquids. Used to their "pints," they are permitted beer off the post and are at all times conscious that they are Englishmen, gentlemen and potential officers. They conduct themselves accordingly.

On the base, they wear a simple khaki overall and are not permitted to wear their RAF uniforms off the base. In town they wear civilian clothes and, except for their speech and new sunburns, you can't tell them from other youths. When they "dress up a bit"on the base they wear simple khaki shirts, black ties, black shoes and RAF flight caps. They have Canadian khaki tunics with red insignias embroidered on them, but wear them only occasionally. The Florida heat, incidentally, makes them long for shorts.

"Wouldn't it be wonderful," they ask each other, "if we could fly in shorts? Just like the boys in the Middle East."

The United Kingdom cadets have a little private theory of their own about where they may eventually end up. "It does seem logical that while we are here in this climate that we may be getting our blood thinned out so we may be sent to the Middle East command, in Egypt and other African spots," they say. Issued to them was a sort of sun-helmet-flying hat combination which they wear only as a shade from the sun and not as a flying head gear, as originally intended. Some well-thinking individual in England issued the fancy hats, but Arcadia instructors turned thumbs down on them. They offer too much wind resistance while flying in open ships for one thing and the ear flaps can't accommodate American interphone earphones. So the boys wear them while strolling around the base.

First of the Englishmen to solo was Cadet Ray R Smart, of Sussex. He had just eight hours and 20 minutes' dual time when he made the circuit of the field. Many others were close on his heels. Smart, who was chosen to represent England in skeet shooting at the 1938 [sic] Olympic Games at Berlin but whose going was prevented by international complications, received the old Army business after soloing. The American cadets tossed him into the swimming pool to celebrate and the RAF boys all are now taking duckings on soloing.

Take the word of C A Zeman, one of the many instructors at Carlstrom Field, that the RAF lads are good pilot material:

"I have both Americans and Englishmen in my group," he says, "and they compare favorably. In fact, there isn't much difference."

Zeman's statement is enlightening on one subject: pilot requirements. A majority of the 99 trainees from England are not college educated and, in many cases, are grammar school or lower. The Americans are, as are all US flying cadets, graduates of high school and have at least two years of college or its equivalent.

"They were a bit fussy before the war,"Chesney says, "but when things picked up and the war gained speed, the RAF couldn't afford to be fussy and the non-university men were permitted to apply. Frankly, some of our best pilots are the noncommissioned officers, like sergeant-pilots."

Before coming to Canada, all of the cadets were trained at ground schools in England. They covered meteorology, theory of flight, navigation and allied subjects. Now, in the American schools, they are once again studying those subjects under the US Army system. They admit they are familiar with the subjects but, in the words of one of them, "you can't learn too much of the stuff."

Only the lighter side of life at Arcadia, the RAF men are not as Hollywood would have us believe Englishmen are — a little dull on the humor angle. The boys like their pranks, their practical jokes. One discovers an Americanism and turns it on his mates. It spreads like wildfire through the base and soon all the boys are trying it. The same goes for speech. American cadets are saying "By Jove!, rawther, quite, old man, etc,"while the Britons are convulsed at Dixie drawls. They are especially fond of double negatives. One lad was overheard walking along a pathway saying over and over again:

"Ah ain't got no cokes today, ma'am."

To a man, the Royal Air Force men will lend an ear to swing music and cheer. They call each other "Butch," because several witnessed an American gangster picture which tickled them. They are losing RAF slang for Southern "cracker"talk and on the distaff side they can only whistle in wonder when you mention American girls.

"I say! Exactly like Hollywood describes them," they comment.

All in all, the RAF men in Arcadia are literally having the time of their lives. Yet they haven't lost sight of what is to come. From Arcadia they go to a basic training school at Montgomery, AL. Then will come an advanced school. When their training is over, they will probably receive English commissions in Canada and start for home — and the job for which they are being trained.

Many of them plan to return to America as citizens when the war is over. Even now, as they fly, they are casting eyes on American businesses, memorizing techniques and practices so they will have more knowledge when they return. Many of them will take back to England some of the US's systems they have picked up. May, for instance, as a clothing salesman, is keeping a business eye on American civilian fashions and he promises some revolutions in British attire when he returns to civilian life.

None of them actually knows where he is going. None has ever been heard to voice an opinion other than he hopes it is soon. In any event, if the scheme continues its smooth, rapid pace, the 550 boys who now are in the United States will be in action by next spring and 4,000 of them will be turned out, the finished products of the finest aviation training in the world, each year. It's something for Adolf Hitler to think about.

This article was originally published in the December, 1941, issue of Flying and Popular Aviation magazine, vol 29, no 6, pp 48-50, 76, 78, 80. The original article includes 7 photos.
Photos are not credited.