High Desert Hangar Stories with Bob Alvis

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Courtesy photograph

Better red then dead!

Military pilots in World War II had many obstacles to overcome before shipping off to war, and sometimes the obstacles were self-inflicted.

Case in point was P-38 training at Muroc Army Airfield and a very unlucky pilot who, in a lapse of judgment, ended up having a story that would be one for the ages. Even if he never served in combat, this stateside training story would carry him through any hanger flying story session at a social gathering.

This story came to me via World War II P-38 Pilot Fred Nichols many years ago. It made such an impact on me that I now find it a real joy to retell this story for a new generation.

Lieutenant Quackenbush was of medium height, with a slender, well proportioned, athletic body. He had reddish hair and exceptionally fair, almost pinkish skin that suggested he may have been one of those freckled faced, towheaded kids when he was younger.

He had been reared in Florida and had taken advantage of Florida’s water wonderland, becoming one of the best and strongest swimmers in his local high school. As it turned out, this training became one of his greatest blessings and it for dang sure saved his life.

P-38 lightning formation over the southwest.

Low-level navigational training flights were of a high priority, as flying in combat would require exceptional “on the deck” flying ability.

The student combat pilot would spend many hours on the deck in our southwestern deserts honing those skills. Lieutenant Quackenbush was part of a four-plane training mission that would leave Muroc, head to March Field, Palm Springs, then southeast to the Salton Sea and Mexicali, west to San Diego and then back north to March Field and finally home to Muroc.

Flying number four, or “tail-end Charlie” as they say in the flight, the team settled in for the long journey on the deck.

Quackenbush was a good pilot, and like all good fighter pilots, if the training assignment called for low flying then by God, he flew low! It was a hot day in June as the flight hit 230 feet below sea level and lined up for a pass right down the middle of the Salton Sea. It must have been stifling in the cockpit. Quackenbush was a couple of plane lengths behind the number three man, flying a few feet lower. The immense heat, in addition to the boredom of crossing the Salton Sea, was not very conducive to bright-eyed and bushy-tailed flying.

“Quack” relaxed his attention momentarily and let his plane sink an additional foot or two. There was a spray of water, like flying through a waterfall, and the counter-rotating props of the P-38 broke off at the hubs and went dancing across the water to the right and to the left. Over-revving engines blew up, and a very busy Quackenbush, now facing the task of an emergency water landing in just a few seconds, had no time to call his flight leader. He could only hope another pilot in the flight had seen what had happened. But they were busy themselves, concentrating on their own low-level flying challenge.

After a successful crash landing, Quackenbush was afloat in the middle of the Salton Sea with no plane, no Mae West life jacket and no dinghy. Those items did not make the packing list for the trip, as the mission was over land, not the ocean.

Lieutenant Quackenbush quickly surveyed his situation and did what he felt was best and necessary. He knew there was a highway near the west shore, so he removed his flight suit, shoes and socks and, only wearing his shorts, he started swimming.

P-38 near Palm Springs, Calif.

Upon turning west at Mexicali, the flight leader became aware that Quackenbush was nowhere to be found.

He turned around and flew a straight line down the middle of the lake, 10 miles across from shore to shore. After flying the length of the sea, he saw no sign of their tail-end Charlie. Meanwhile, our lieutenant faced a five-mile swim to shore in the bright summer sunshine, with the heat and intense, abrasive, saline solution taking a heavy toll on his body. Quack reached the west shore late in the afternoon — his skin burned to a flaming red; and blisters and salt sores were forming on his face and shoulders. He pushed his burning feet across the salt flat west of the sea and arrived at U.S. Highway 86 about an hour later.

He flagged the first car that came by, but they took one look at this red monster and sped away.

The second car full of Mexican workers was full and also sped away.

The next vehicle was a pickup truck, in which the driver indicated he was going to Palm Springs. The salt water had dried on Quackenbush’s body, cracking his skin, and the after-pain was setting in. The pain was so severe that he couldn’t bear to sit on the seat with the driver, but the pickup had a canvas cover over the bed. Quack rode in the back, in the shade, on his hands and knees all the way to Palm Springs. Transferred to an ambulance he was taken to the hospital at March Field where it took more than two weeks before he could even get back into a set of clothes.

The March Field Hospital where Lieutenant Quackenbush was treated and released.

Amazingly, he had survived an ordeal that would have killed lesser men. It was an experience he never took lightly when briefing fellow squadron mates about being aware of your surroundings, the job at hand and your ability to overcome adversity. Two weeks after he was released from the hospital, he was off to fly combat in North Africa.

A very burnt and scary looking airman looked up from his bed and through swollen eyes, seeing a gathering of three fellow airmen at the foot of his bed. No words were spoken for a few moments. Finally one of the pilots spoke up and said. “Dang, Quack, we’re really sorry we lost you — but it’s the government paperwork and the lost plane that is really causing us grief! Because we lost you on that mission and your lack of ability to use your swollen hands, we had to fill out all that paperwork!”

Lieutenant Quackenbush, through swollen lips, just uttered the phrase, “Cry me a Salton Sea.”

Until next time, always check your six for your friends — and Bob out!