Have you ever stopped to consider where we are today? Just look at the technology we carry in our pockets. The processers in our smart phones today are several times more powerful than the targeting computers of early airborne bombers and the first ballistic missile systems. Along with progress in technology has come progress in thinking. Tactics have evolved significantly since the days of carpet bombing the enemy and hoping they don’t have the finances or the will power to continue. When Bob Dylan sang the famous words to his song The Times They Are A-Changing back in 1964, no one really knew just how true they were! Today, with talk of a sixth generation fighter on the horizon and fighter jets carrying lasers, it’s worth a brief look back at our past to appreciate just how far we’ve come.
My grandfather flew the B-25 Mitchell towards the end of World War II. I’ve recently had the privilege of going through some of his memoirs and found evidence of a much simpler past. Just prior to attending primary flight school, my grandfather was assigned to train at Santa Ana Army Air Base (SAAAB) in Costa Mesa, CA. I found a pamphlet that appears to be some sort of souvenir for trainees that passed through SAAAB. It looks like it was meant to be sent to the trainees’ families as a means to tell them about the base and the local area, and it does so in the form of a “Letter to Mom”. The photos and captions contained in the pamphlet really give you a feel for the mindset of the day. After flipping through the pamphlet, I did a little research on SAAAB that helped put this little piece of American military history into context.
Santa Ana Army Air Base
Santa Ana Army Air Base was activated by the Army Air Corps in January 1942. It was meant to be the headquarters for the West Coast Air Corps Training Center (WCACTC) – the equivalent today would be Air Education and Training Command. All aspects of flight training in the Army Air Corps were overseen at SAAAB, but the base provided only a combination of Basic Training (basic indoctrination into the military) and what they called Basic Flight Training. Prospective pilots, navigators, and bombardiers would attend introductory flight training classes and were required to pass a series of tests before progressing to Primary Flight Training. The results of the tests would “classify” a student as a pilot, a navigator, or a bombardier. Students were taught Morse Code and Jiu Jitsu in addition to a variety of other topics.
The base didn’t have any aircraft, runways, or hangars, yet the love of aviation and the anticipation to get into the skies seems obvious in each of the faded black and white photos printed in the pamphlet. SAAAB, along with Maxwell Air Field and Randolph Air Field, saw the training of 30,000 pilots annually between 1942 and 1946. Significant plans for expansion were in the works until the war was over, at which point SAAAB was essentially cleared out and turned back to the city.
From a Pile to a Pilot…Almost
As the “Letter to Mom” progresses, you get a sense that the trainee enjoys his time studying and participating in many leisure activities. With the base’s proximity to Hollywood, the pamphlet makes it seem like everyone hung out with Hollywood celebrities in their free time. Things were certainly different back then! Even the Air Force Song (which apparently started as the Army Air Corps Song) was a little different back then too.
The last page on the inside of the pamphlet depicts a strong young man bravely strapping on his flight helmet as he looks to the skies with a distant look in his eye. The caption reads, “I’m all ready now, Mom, to fight for you and Uncle Sam. And this is how your son looks now.”
Fast forward to today’s military training. Flight training is much more in depth, the aircraft more complex, and the road to becoming like that brave looking young man on the back page is equally available to both women and men. Much more time is spent in vaults studying the constantly evolving tactics, Rules of Engagement, and weapon system upgrades. I’m glad we had a simple past. Those early aviators wrote today’s tactics with their blood. They were brave patriots who served their country well. Today’s combat pilots are their kindred spirits. Although the technology and mindset of today’s Air Force has evolved significantly, the character and spirit of the pilots remains unchanged. One thing is for sure, today’s Air Force is not your grandpa’s Air Force!
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