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   351st Bomb Group
an Overview
 bt13B Trainer
USAAF Officer welcomes new Air Corps cadets
    1942-1943 Pilot Training

December 7, 1941 with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and its military facilities the world fabric, as we knew it came apart at the seams overnight. Barely 20 years passed since WWI came to a close. Sept. 1, 1939 Germany invaded Poland and destroyed its Air Force in a few days. For two long years England’s young pilots had been flying combat against Germany’s bombers and fighters.

Upon hearing radio reports and seeing newspaper headlines thousands of men reported to Army recruiting offices to sign up. The call for experienced fliers went out but it was a call left unanswered with respect to immediate mobilization of pilots in numbers. Post-Depression America in 1939-1940 had a pitifully small and woefully under equipped Air Corps consisting of antiquated aircraft like the Stearman and Brewster Buffalo biplanes and few uniformed instructors. Airfields in use at the time were small and few USAAF facilities were initially earmarked or built for mass pilot training. Another problem became glaringly apparent after a few months of aerial combat. US pilots were up against the Axis' best trained and most experienced pilots. These deficiencies were about to change in short order.
The Western Technical Training Command was established for training of aircrew and ground mechanics to order to fly and service B-17s and other aircraft. Overnight the small towns of Phoenix, Yuma and Kingman, AZ became centers for training Allied airmen owing to excellent flying weather and interior security. Luke Field and Falcon Army Air Field in Phoenix were a mecca for US Aviation Cadets. Under Gen. Hap Arnold and Jimmy Doolittle the new Army Air Force took shape.  Recognizing the need for combat skills and tight bomber organization experienced British and Canadian fliers advised and assisted the fledgling Army Air Force in getting airborne.

From Civilian to Qualified Pilot
The typical WWII pilot had limited or no experience with aircraft prior to his ETO service. Depending on the nature of being selected as Pilot [AVCAD] Bombardier, or Navigator, the service schools generally ran eight - ten weeks. Between schools, transfers and reporting for duty the normal bomber pilot evolution was approximately eight months in duration. Some cadet candidates with civil flight experience came from private colleges or universities and progressed through the system with many becoming senior officers and base unit commanders at a young age. One of the 351st BG Squadron Commanders, Col. Hatcher, was 26 yrs. old.
With the end of the war in sight, the USAAF cadet-training pipeline began filling up and then slowed to a crawl. Most flight schools and academies ceased training operations within a year with the last airmen graduating in December 1944.


Martin B-10s and B-18s were phased out in early in the war
The B-17 Flying Fortress became "Queen of the Skies"
Two Types of Army Air Corps Schools
Civilian Air Training Academies
By early 1942 so critical was the need for qualified pilots that many contracted civil flight academies and Air Corps fields went on a 7 days a week, three shift training schedule. One of these contract facilities was Eagle Field in central California. The most famous WWII civil air academy was Alabama’s Tuskegee Aeronautical Institute home of the Tuskegee Airmen.
Many do not realize this school also trained the first all black aircraft Service Group. These schools operated under strict military discipline and guidance.

US Army Air Corps Fields
In contrast the Air Corps established its own schools for B-17 pilots and aerial gunners at Las Vegas, NV  and Amarillo, TX in May 1942 (ground mechanics).
Due to an early war time shortage of pilots available to patrol US Interior and coastal areas the Civil Air Patrol was founded the week before Pearl Harbor. The pressure was on to develop skilled pilots efficiently and quickly. These dual functioning training schools at Amarillo, Eglin, Sumter, Tuskegee and a little known place called “Las Vegas” (a hot dusty village of 9,000 souls in 1941) were notable for their graduates excellent combat record and for turning out motivated pilots and aircraft mechanics in great numbers.


LVAAF photo courtesy USAF
B-17 Cockpit
AVCAD Ground School courtesy OWI

“A Western Air Express dirt runway, a  water well and a small operations shack 8 miles north of Las Vegas was the setting of the original site of today's Nellis Air Force Base. 
On January 25, 1941, Las Vegas mayor John L. Russell signed over the property to the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps for the development of a flexible gunnery school for the Army Air Corps. The mission of the new school, the Las Vegas Army Air Corps Gunner School, (later renamed the Las Vegas Army Air Field) was defined as "training of aerial gunners to the degree of proficiency that will qualify them for combat duty." 

A detachment of five officers took up residence in a small basement room in the Las Vegas Post Office Bldg. In May 1941. They were staff officers of the 79th Air Base Group, commanded by then Lt. Col. Martinus Stenseth. A month later the military population of Las Vegas Army Air Field more than doubled with the arrival of five administrative NCOs and other enlisted men. 

During those first few months, there were no services or facilities at the new base. Enlisted men were quartered in the Works Progress Administration barracks in town. Its initial motor pool consisted of 6 vintage trucks and a semi-trailer often found parked by the barracks. Supply and logistics had not yet been organized and mechanics had to borrow nuts, bolts, and old parts from service stations in Las Vegas. Gasoline and oil was borrowed from the Civilian Conservation Corps 
Constructions of permanent base facilities began in earnest in mid-1941 with barracks to house 3,000 people. In February 1943, the first aircraft hangar was completed at a cost of $190,000. The 3,425-foot runway was extended the same year.  

From this humble beginning, Las Vegas Army Air Field (LVAAF) grew rapidly until 1942 when the first B-17s arrived, giving students their first chance to train in the gun turret of an actual combat plane and providing aircraft to train co-pilots in ground and transition school. At the height of World War II, 600 gunnery students and 215 co-pilots graduated from LVAAF every  
five weeks.”  Excerpt courtesy USAF *

Flight Engineers
Radio Operators
Ground Mechanics
Waist Gunners
TT / Ball Turret Gunners
Likewise there was a critical need for trained aircraft ground mechanics and aerial gunners. TT Gunners were dual qualified and assisted the copilot in keeping the B-17 or B-24 trim and flying right as Flight Engineer. Radio Operators behind the bomb bay bulkhead were also cross-trained as gunners.
In combat if an airman was paying attention and eager it wasn’t unusual for a future Sgt. to go from Private to Corporal to T/Sgt. or S/Sgt. in less than a year.

Flexible Gunnery and Aircraft Mechanic schools were no picnic. Classroom facilities were rough, sparsely heated in winter and stifling hot in summer. States like Arizona, Nevada, Texas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Kansas, South Carolina, and Florida gained an entire new population overnight.  Recruits reported for duty at little known places like Yuma, Kingman, Lincoln, Tonopah, Las Vegas and Rapid City. Gunnery school morale was high and candidates were inclined to give it their best effort rather than become a foot soldier.

One of the biggest challenges for the waist gunners was the -57 F wind howling near the waist of the bombers. To counter the extreme cold waist gunners were outfitted with a heated flying suit, a fleece lined leather jacket and pants with heavy boots and gloves. Imagine operating a heavy machine gun under such grueling conditions!


Courtesy USAF Museum
Future RO/TT Engineers grumbled at having to undergo Army basic training with its drilling and saluting but most of these former gas jockeys, store clerks and farm boys advanced into the USAAF organization with good results. Many privates were only 18 yrs old upon entry into the Air Corps. The Radio Operator was also trained to serve as the crew’s First Aid man.
Ground Mechanics & Engineer personnel studied every aspect of the Wright Cyclone R-1823 and its systems, engine changes, fuel transfers, plane loading, fire safety, first aid and provided critical support to the combat crew like quick sheet metal and electrical repair. Top outfits like the 8th Air Force 447th Sub Depot at Polebrook were equipped to do major airframe repairs on battle-damaged B-17s.
LVAAF's Winged Horned Toad mascot


Ground practice first with M2 .30 cal. Courtesy USAF
The Browning Machine Gun was originally designed at the close of WWI but did not see service in that conflict. It was an excellent and rugged design but as the Royal Air Force found out the .30 caliber round didn’t have the hitting power of the high velocity M2 .50 cal. (12.7 mm) API cartridge. Firing tests demonstated the massive .50 cal. API bullet could penetrate an engine and tear off huge chunks of a fighter’s fuselage and control surfaces quickly bringing it down.
By 1942 the Army Air Force switched to .50 caliber BMGs usually in twin mounts except for waist and cheek positions. Sperry Ball Turrets were used to great effect in combat. Gunners of the
351st BG at Polebrook accounted for the downing of 303 planes.
Aerial Gunner Training Procedures
This was on the job training in its finest hour. After basic Army drill and military courtesy new gunners dove into daily practice with shotguns shooting skeet from moving trucks. Twin 12 gauge shotguns in an open moving turret mounted in truck beds simulated the real thing. Next came airborne gunnery at towed targets. Progress using these methods was quick and demanding. “At the height of World War II, 600 gunnery students and 215 co-pilots graduated from LVAAF every five weeks.” [Official Nellis AFB history]  This form of moving target practice continued at the base unit level overseas as new gunner replacements arrived.

Upon transfer to an Operational Group in the ETO gunners were highly skilled and knew their aircraft inside and out. To prove their proficiency with the deadly Browning M2 “Ma Deuce” machine gun Flexible Gunnery School graduates were required to strip and reassemble their weapons  while blindfolded and wearing gloves. One of these grads, Sgt. "Snuffy" Smith, won the Medal of Honor for saving his crew and plane by putting out a terrible fire with his bare hands. Of all airmen serving in the war aerial gunners sustained the highest number of combat casualties.

Late Developments 1944-1945
Additionally aircrews were taught procedures for crash landing and ditching a heavy bomber at sea. Directional beacons and radios were tested by 8th Air Force pilots which brought improved bombing accuracy by reducing navigational error. Special ‘H’ ships were outfitted with radomes underneath to enable radar guided bomb runs.
Towards the last few months of the war in the Pacific a special lightweight Air Crew Ration was developed, tested and accepted for use on longer B-29 flights. By Jan. 1945 B-29 crews were being trained in the use of automatically-fed remotely controlled gun turrets.

351st Bomb Group Links
Welcome! Come on in ....
351stBG Base Admin-Maint.
Station Life at Polebrook, England
351stBG Internal Page Links
lots of great Polebrook info, WWII history, images
351stBG Spot Jammer L. Winker
Magic Carpet in action
351st Pilot Lt. Thomas Kucskar 511thSQ
Biography and Mission Log
351stBG Sponsored Memoirs
Shared Combat & Training experiences

B-17 Combat
WWII USAAF veterans
Last Enlisted Pilots (Gen. Chuck Yeager was one)

Rob's 351stBG message board
Welcome to the 351st Bomb Group Message Board

Text Copyright 2002 Robert Needham
No part may be reproduced except by written permission
* History of LVAAF produced by Nellis AFB staff
Photos courtesy USAF Museum, USAF, and
OWI archives, US Army Museum,
Scott Burris of Heavy