After the 312th left Hunter Field, they moved on to De Ridder Army Air Base, which was approximately 50 miles north of Lake Charles, Louisiana. While living at this smaller base, the 312th learned more about supporting ground units in combat. Through this training, they realized how much they needed to work on coordination between operations, intelligence, and communication personnel. Aircrews practiced various dive-bombing techniques and small groups of pilots and intelligence officers spent time with Army units learning about their strategy and tactics.
The Group stayed at De Ridder until they received orders on March 27, 1943 to pack up and move to their next base, Rice Army Air Base, in southern California. It took about two weeks for them to get everything ready for the cross-country trip. During this time, the Group had to deal with their first and only loss at De Ridder: 1/Lt. Elmer R. Cawthon had climbed into an A-24 for an unscheduled flight after leaving a gathering at the Officers’ Club. Cawthon’s plane never returned to the base. The plane wreckage was found near Camp Polk and it appeared that the Cawthon failed to pull the plane out of a steep dive.
Once at Rice, the Group discovered that the living conditions there were a far cry from the comforts they first experienced at Hunter Field. Here, the men lived in tents and endured desert temperatures of over 120 degrees. They couldn’t work between 12:30 and 5:00pm because planes, tools and vehicles were too hot to touch.
At Rice, the 312th’s training included lectures and drills with weapons instruction to sharpen their soldiering skills. While practicing the dive-bombing, the crews got bored bombing disks painted on the sand, so they scrounged around the desert and found abandoned cars from the 1930s. They also practiced attacking railroad centers, crossroads, and supply areas to improve their navigation and bombing skills.
In April, the 312th received their first Curtiss P-40 Warhawks. The A-24 was weak against the Japanese Mitsubishi A6M “Zeke” fighter in combat, so the group transitioned to the P-40. This single-seat, single-engine plane had six .50-caliber machine guns in the wings and held a 500-pound bomb under the fuselage.
The pilots had to get used to a few differences when flying the plane through a bombing run. There were no dive brakes, so pilots would reach nearly 500mph in a near-vertical dive. When approaching the target, the pilots had to quickly pull out of the dive and this was a very dangerous task. They switched from dive-bombing to glide bombing to keep planes at a 45-degree angle. While sorting out the differences between the two planes, the crews had a couple of other problems to deal with. The intense heat at Rice caused the P-40 engines to regularly overheat and the rubber on the landing gear to soften when the planes would land. Sand covered the runways and abraded the tires on landing. Because of this, P-40 tires were only good for about six landings.
In May, the 312th lost two members of the Group. 2/Lt. James N. Goe was flying an A-24 and demonstrating dive-bombing to his passenger, 1/Lt. James P. Matthews, when the plane inverted as it was coming out of the run and crashed into the trees.
By the time July rolled around, another move was imminent. This time to Salinas Army Air Base, 400 miles northwest of Monterey, California. At the new base, the 312th would have to work harder for proficiency in flying and maintaining the P-40, something they didn’t quite pass at Rice.
The Group was happy to be out of the scorching desert and back in the barracks at Salinas. Of course, the men were kept busy learning interception tactics and taking part in military training. While at this base, the 312th lost two more men. On September 12th, 2/Lt. William H. Gillette was flying a P-40 near Point Sur when he collided with another plane. Both pilots bailed out, but Gillette died of hypothermia. A week after Gillette’s crash, 1/Lt. Jay E. Gowers died when his P-40 crash-landed at Stockton, California. In September the Group started to prepare for the overseas voyage that would soon come. The 312th marched and hiked, practiced first aid, learned how to move up and down ship ladders and were taught censorship regulations and emergency procedures. On November 1, 1943, the Group left San Francisco aboard the S.S. Nieuw Amsterdam. They didn’t know where they were going until close to the end of the trip, but they knew they were heading to war.