High Desert Hangar Stories: The Major’s hat

The Major’s Hat. (Courtesy photograph)

Edwards Air Force Base is home to the 412th Test Wing, which has a full schedule of flight tests and evaluations taking place around the clock, seven days a week.

But there was a time when bomber operations at Muroc (the pioneer name for current day Edwards Air Force Base) far exceeded current-day operations. Today Brig. Gen. E. John “Dragon” Teichert has his hands full with many cutting edge programs and operations; but looking back to the year 1945, then-base commander Col. W.A. Maxwell had a different mission that was asking the base and its personnel to perform at its very best, as the nation looked to them to help train men to bring an end to a very costly war.
Air operations at the base had just transitioned from B-24 Liberators to B-29 Superfortresses, reflecting the need to train aircrews en masse for the final push to cover the skies of Japan with Superfortresses, in preparation for what was going to be a very brutal invasion of a difficult battlefield on the islands of Japan.

This is where I pick up the story of a special hat — a meaningful talisman to some aircrews and instructors at Muroc Army Air Field.

Traditions and superstitions in the Air Force have been around since the first aviator painted a picture on his aircraft. Muroc instructor Capt. Russell J. Smith liked to share stories of his time flying combat over Japan in a B-29 called City of Hollywood. Smith crossed paths with one Maj. Milton R. Kirms of Hollywood, a novelist and scenario writer. As luck would have it, he was working for Air Force Magazine when he met up with Smith and his crew before they shipped out to New Guinea, and he managed to talk his way on board to fly some of those first missions over Japan. Wherever Kirms went, an old uniform hat went with him. Crew members called it the “Major’s Hat,” or the “High Hat.” It was just an old, regulation officer’s green hat, and on those first missions it was soaked with New Guinea sweat and mold but, on those missions the hat — and the City of Hollywood — made it home unscathed.

This article was found in a copy of an original Muroc base paper publication. (Courtesy photograph)

When it came time for the Major to move on, the hat became the property of the crew and the City of Hollywood, where it hung in a spot of honor over the pilot’s seat. Why did they think it had some special powers? On that very first mission, City of Hollywood was trailing another B-29 called the Queen, when tracking lights picked up the bomber formation. For a brief moment, the lights engulfed City of Hollywood, then tracked forward to the Queen in front of them. All hell broke loose, and in an instant the Queen was engulfed in flames and drifted below the Hollywood and, in a massive explosion, it was gone — along with all its crew. During the moments this all played out, the Major discovered that his hat had fallen off and was missing. It was only when they landed that the flight engineer pulled the hat from his pocket and told the Major he was sorry — he had used it to wipe away the sweat from his eyes during the encounter, after he picked it up from the floor of the plane. This was the real beginning of the hat’s journey to bring comfort to crewmembers.

After a few more missions, Krims came over to the crew of the Hollywood and told them he was leaving for another assignment. Somebody on the crew asked him for the old New Guinea hat. “Sure,” the Major said. “You’ll need it more than I will.”

The City of Hollywood and its crew, in theater. (Courtesy photograph)

When the magic stateside orders came for Smith and the crew of City of Hollywood to come back home to help new crews prepare for combat over Japan, the hat that had hung in the plane for every mission was looked upon by the crew with reverence. It was then passed off to another plane and crew, to hang in its place above the seat of another pilot and bring its special gift of deliverance in combat.

During an interview he gave to a military journalist at Muroc, Captain Smith along with three other members of his crew from the Hollywood -– Lt. Carlysle Schnelle; Lt. Raymond Yeager, and Sgt. Boyd Mericle Jr. -– had a moment when the silence was broken when the captain said the words, “Later today or tonight, the Major’s hat will be swinging in the pilot’s cabin of some other B-29 as it turns in to its bomb run over one of the island targets. Damn, I sure hope that hat makes it home.”

With that being said, the group broke up and headed to the flight line where young airmen waited to gain the knowledge of these seasoned combat veterans, and the passing of their own hats for good luck. Times have changed out there on the dry lake bed from the war years, but those old ghosts sure can share a yarn or two when the afternoon winds blow and the memories of hundreds of airmen can be heard among the Joshua trees, in the place they called home for a short time.

Until next time, Bob out …