The 312th Across the US

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.

rice air base

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. P-40

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.

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The Early Days of the 312th Bomb Group

Sixty-seven years ago, the newly formed 312th Bomb Group was stationed at Hunter Field in Georgia. Hunter Field was a new Army post with comfortable barracks, a chapel, tennis courts, baseball diamonds, and clubs for the enlisted men and officers. In the relative comfort of this base, the 312th men learned what they needed to do to function as a bomb group. Everybody from maintenance to the parachute department was kept busy fine-tuning their various skills.
Hunter Field

An aerial view of Hunter Field in January 1943.

The Group started training on the Vultee A-35 Vengeance dive-bomber, a very troublesome aircraft for pilots and mechanics alike. The A-35 was a single-engine plane that held a pilot and rear gunner, six .50-caliber wing-mounted machine guns and a single .50-caliber machine gun in the rear. It could carry a bomb load of up to 2000 pounds, but the aiming system was terrible and caused the crews to miss their targets by as much as 100 yards. A-35

The A-35 Vengeance dive-bomber: a troublesome but easy-to-fly aircraft.

When pilots went to land their planes, they hoped that the landing gear wouldn’t collapse on them because it was so poorly designed. As problematic as the plane was, it was easy to fly and fairly stable. The maintenance crews also benefited from the challenges of this aircraft by gaining substantial experience dealing with all the problems. The men worked on and soon perfected their navigation skills and flying in formation.

The 312th BG flew the A-35s until they received the A-36 Apache dive-bomber in late November. This plane was a version of the P-51 Mustang with lattice-type dive brakes in the wings and would not exceed 300mph with the dive brakes extended in a vertical dive. Unlike the A-35, pilots actually enjoyed flying this aircraft. Not long after they started training on these planes, the 311th Bomb Group took them to India. The 312th then flew the Douglas A-24 Dauntless dive-bomber, a slower plane that allowed the crews to train for providing closer support to Army ground forces.

A-36 A-24

(Left) The A-36 was used by the 312th for a short time. (Right) Once the 311th Bomb Group was sent to India, the 312th started flying the A-24.

November 23, 1943 was a tragic day for the Group. While returning to Hunter Field from Little Rock, Arkansas, two members of the 388th Squadron, 1/Lt. Reynolds H. Middleton and M/Sgt. David L. Dean, crashed near Macon, Georgia when they flew into a severe thunderstorm. They were the Group’s first fatalities.
The 312th rotated to Statesboro, Georgia for ten days to practice maneuvers and experience life in the field. Working and sleeping in tents at Statesboro was the first taste of Army life for many men. As the months progressed, the Group continued and finished their training at Hunter Field by the middle of February 1943. From there, they moved to De Ridder Army Air Base and later Rice and Salinas air bases in California, where they transitioned to the P-40. Salinas was the final Stateside training base for the Group.