The Big One
Raid on Palau
Run of Hollow
Like About Bob
Preface & Reader Response
"I wouldn't take anything for the experience, but I wouldn't give a nickel for it again!"
A Paradox of History: The Unseen Present
FLYING BLIND [*]
A Former WWII Pilot's Long Look Backward to See the Big Picture
by Jackson N. H. Murley
Wars are complex phenomena. Worldwide war requires a multitude of perspectives for fuller comprehension of causes, courses, and impact. History weaves various stories and perspectives into a more unified pattern of the past, a pattern from which one may learn lessons. World War II left no continent untouched, so thousands of perspectives must be collected and analyzed to create a clearer portrait. This is a story about one participant's perspective and what he knew and did not know about the bigger picture.
Robert W. Hulme (Bob) was a World War II bomber pilot. Born in 1919 in Tennessee, he struggled through the Great Depression, working hard to help support his family. Three months before Pearl Harbor, he was drafted into the United States Army on his twenty-second birthday for what was supposed to be one year. Eventually, he served in the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) for a little over five years, and after the war he served in the United States Air Force reserves for twenty-one years. He raised four girls on his farm outside Franklin, Tennessee, and has seven grandchildren. Now, at 81, he has many stories to tell about the Great Depression and World War II.
When he was drafted in 1941, the Great Depression was still severe; it was hard to get a job and wages were very low. After high school, Bob made $11 per week for his family doing construction work for the telephone company. With room and board provided, U.S. Army pay was "a raise"; throughout his time in the army, he sent checks to his family.
Bob was eating lunch on December 7, 1941 with cousins in Mineral Wells, Texas (near Fort Worth) when "my feathers fell." Upon the announcement of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Bob knew he was in the army for the long haul. Soon he entered a New York City army unit stationed in California. Bob could not understand all of the "Yankee talk" of his fellow soldiers; at times he felt like he was in a foreign country. Hundreds of similar veteran accounts detail first encounters between Yankees, Southerners, Italians, Jews, and other disparate groups, revealing the strong sectionalism of pre-World War II America. Bob knew there would be orders in the next few weeks to ship out of San Francisco to the South Pacific, but he wanted to transfer to the U.S. Army Air Forces, because he thought "flying is better than walking."
A shortage of money and imagination crippled the air forces before Pearl Harbor. The military establishment believed, as Alfred Mahan espoused, that a strong navy was essential, not strategic air bombing. The air forces were small and rather exclusive. But during World War II the old principles were disproved, particularly at the Battle of Midway. The strength of the air forces tripled from mid-1940 to mid-1941 and then quintupled from mid-1941 to mid-1942, expanding in part by extending admission to those who only had a high school diploma (rather than only those with two years of college). Despite his enthusiasm, Bob had to struggle to even obtain the opportunity to take the written entrance test; he had no choice but to go AWOL (Away Without Official Leave) – the only time he did so during the war – to hitchhike to take the test. He arrived hours late but still passed, submitting all of the necessary paperwork just minutes before the admitting officer left for the evening. The next morning, as his Army Ground Forces unit was preparing to ship out, Bob was pulled aside and notified of his transfer to the Army Air Forces.
Before being trained, Bob was given four consecutive 28-day leaves because the training schools were full. New trainers and equipment were required before additional trainees could be accommodated. A glance at the USAAF training numbers of the period confirms that Bob entered the USAAF simultaneously with thousands of others. The number of graduates boomed, septupling from 27,531 in 1941 to 192,468 in 1942. This boom in graduates may have been in part a result of less strict and more disorganized training. Bob's early training experience certainly reveals some disarray. Instructors often forgot about trainees. Bob had to largely teach himself how to fly, listening at night to what other trainees did and practicing the techniques the next day. Bob was prepared for his basic examination, but his examiner did most of the flying, passing him anyway. Luckily, Bob became an excellent pilot and a bomb group leader, but the training processes of the Army Air Forces did not work as intended in 1942.
Soon Bob was sent to the South Pacific. Flying heavy bombers (B-24s and B-25s), he and the rest of the 5th Air Force fought its way up the island chains from New Guinea to Borneo to the Palau Islands to the Philippines. Initially there were some defeats and disasters, such as "Black Sunday" in 1943, when most of the 5th Air Force scrambled to land at a single strip. But soon the tide turned. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt created a new Office of War Mobilization with Former Supreme Court Justice James F. Byrnes at the helm; this office successfully produced an American war machine that surpassed those of Japan and Germany. By 1944, the U.S. Army had fully organized and mobilized in the Pacific. The Pacific Air Force, utilizing the renowned B-25, had many successful bombing runs in the Philippines during the Luzon Island Campaign, paving the way for General Douglas MacArthur's glorious return to the Philippines. One of Bob's most harrowing missions at that time was a successful bombing run of Clark Field, formerly an American field, on Christmas Eve 1944, in which his radio operator was killed and the hydraulics system on his plane malfunctioned, causing the brakes and flaps to break down.
After retaking the Philippines, Japan was the next target, but any need to bomb and invade Japanese cities was obviated by the introduction of nuclear weapons, which took Bob by surprise, and prevented, in his words, "a real rough scuffle." Following the surrender of Japan and an additional year in the USAAF, Bob returned home, married Roberta Jane Wright (whom he met during initial pilot training at Chickasha, Oklahoma), and returned to his job with the Bell Telephone Company in 1946 for $6000 per year (compared to $572 per year pre-war for construction work for the same telephone company).
As the post-war years passed by, Bob's ideas about the war changed. During the war he neither knew a lot about the other theaters of war nor thought much about the bigger picture. According to Bob, "When I was actually in the service, I was just concerned about where I was. I wanted to do all I could to help win the war, and then go home. Of course I was concerned about what was going on elsewhere, but we had no means of finding out. We didn't have any radios in the Southwest Pacific. Occasionally, I'd hear news about Europe in letters from my family, but they didn't know what was really going on either."
Since retiring from the Bell Telephone Company, Bob has had time to read several histories on World War II and biographies of Truman and Roosevelt, among others. He also regularly attends reunions of his 22nd Air Force Squadron. One may think that since he was a participant, stories about WWII might not be surprising to him. But that is not the case: "I'm appalled when I read now about what actually happened." He realized that FDR and his commanders often made mistakes – the Japanese forces were underestimated, and initially the heavy bombers in Europe were placed in unreasonably perilous conditions. But Bob's respect for Truman increased after reading about Truman's early life as a farmer, his character, and his wisdom in office.
After many discussions with European veterans, Bob concludes that he was lucky to be in the Army Air Forces on the Pacific Front. In Europe, the Germans were ready when Allied planes crossed the English Channel, Bob says; they were defending their homes. But on the Pacific, targets were widely spread and far from Japan. Bob had less to fear from the Japanese Zeros and Kamikazes than from the weather and anti-aircraft fire. Ninety-five percent of his flying was over water, so the main fear was of becoming "shark bait." (He laughs at this expression of grime wartime reality.) Other accounts (particularly the statistics of the USAAF) support Bob's observations. From 1943 to 1945, the ratio of heavy bomber casualties to heavy bomber arrivals in the Pacific and Far East was about 18 percent – for Europe and the Mediterranean, it was about 32 percent.
One striking example of how little information Bob had during the war is that he did not know the full harrowing story of his tent mate until decades after the war. At the time the scene seemed taken out of Joseph Heller's Catch-22. As Bob tells it today, "We just assumed that he died. We had already divided up his stuff when he returned."
Robert W. Hulme's experiences offer an important perspective on the USAAF during World War II. But during World War II Bob was not aware of the "big picture" and many aspects of the general course of the war. He did not fully understand the war until reading history provided him with a patchwork of perspectives on other fronts. His experiences reveal basic paradoxes of World War II, such as the mix of horror with courage and pride and the creation of lifelong friendships in the midst of detachment from larger realities. These paradoxes explain the common sentiment, expressed simply by Bob, that "I wouldn't take anything for the experience, but I wouldn't give a nickel for it again!"
* * *
* This story is an excerpt from a high school paper submitted in May 2001. It is printed here as a remembrance by a grandson of his grandfather and neighbor who died at 91 in January 2011.
Hulme, Robert W. Interviews by Jackson Murley. Franklin, TN: May 6 and 13, 2001.
The basis for most of the paper. References to "Robert W. Hulme" or "Bob" refer to what was discussed during the interviews.
Terkel, Studs. The Good War. New York: The New Press, 1984.
A thorough and excellent collection of personal narratives that provide a plethora of perspectives into World War II. Several echo or confirm Bob Hulme's assertions.
U.S. Army Air Force. "Personnel, Training and Crews Tables." Army Air Forces Statistical Digest – World War II. (www.au.af.mil/au/afhra/wwwro..._tables_personneltrainingcrews.html) (5/18/2001) 1-5. [Since this research was conducted, these online tables were relocated. As of January 2011, they could be found under the heading "Army Air Forces Statistical Digest World, Part I" at http://www.afhra.af.mil/timelines/index.asp.]
Official Air Force statistics that support Bob by revealing the rapid increase of the air forces during WWII.
Astor, Gerald. The Greatest War. Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1999.
A flowing combination of historical and personal narratives detailing the course of the war and its effects on the soldiers, providing individual perspectives alongside the "big picture." Used to compare with Bob's stories with those of other veterans and fit them into the larger spectrum of opinions and harrowing stories.
Boyne, Walter J. Clash of Wings: Air Power in World War II. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994.
A detailed air history of World War II focusing on the relative strengths of the different air forces and the general course and campaigns of the war.
Keegan, John. The Second World War. New York: Viking Penguin, 1989.
An in-depth narrative and analysis into the course and battles of World War II. A general military source.
Wheal, Pope & Taylor. Encyclopedia of the Second World War. Edison, NJ: Castle Books, 1989.
A general source about all aspect of the war, including places, battles, people, and weapons. Used to confirm details about events, people, and campaigns.