James Leslie Dilworth’s motto is, emphatically “it is not the years in life that count – it is the life in the years that count.” He certainly has lived his life accordingly. Leslie, as he goes by will be 100 years young on January 27, 2015. His life is a celebration of the endless possibilities for achievement through hard work and determination.

In Texas the Depression didn’t start in 1929. For rural Texans, times were tough long before the stock market crash of 1929. Leslie was a child of those times. His mother, Beulah Hodges, and father, John Marion Dilworth, were from the Belmont area, where John was a rancher and livestock trader. Leslie’s only sibling, his sister Grace Loise, was ten when he was born. His dad moved the family from Belmont to Luling where he also went into the feed and grocery business. Sadly, Leslie’s mother died when he was ten. When Leslie was fourteen he lost his sister. Loise and her husband were visiting in Arkansas when she became gravely ill. John took the train to see his daughter, and then sent a telegram to Luling for Leslie to come as well. Loise, knowing she was dying, wanted to see her baby brother. Leslie’s first trip from home ended abruptly in Northeast Texas when another telegram was received telling him to return home. His sister had died before he could see her.

            Leslie doesn’t remember not working. John Dilworth bought and cottonseed in his small grocery store, which required stirring to avoid spoiling and spontaneous combustion. By the age of ten, Leslie was turning cottonseed after school, and ‘there was tons of it.’ At twelve he became a Western Union messenger using his new bicycle. When school was out for the summer he chopped and picked cotton and hauled hay, many times for an African American gentleman and friend of the family, Henry Hutcheson.

            John Dilworth remarried a couple of years after Beulah’s death. Leslie and his step-mother weren’t very close. Leslie’s step-mother did not drive. Wanting to visit some of her family in Dallas, John solved the problem by assigning Leslie as her chauffeur.  Although never before having driven outside of Caldwell County off he went to Dallas.  He was fourteen. There was a bright side – he got to go the Texas State Fair.

Leslie attended schools in Luling, but did not finish the 9th grade as “the Luling schools felt they could do better without me.” I get the impression that he must have been a handful to deal with! His maternal aunts decided he needed some better supervision than what was being offered in Caldwell County, so off he went to live with one of them in Galveston, where he says he “coasted for a while.” That is hard to believe. Soon, he was back in Luling, and with no school to distract him, was delivering 50 pound blocks of ice. He moved back to Galveston where he worked 72 hours a week in a filling station, then on a dry-dock, and finally at the Buccaneer Hotel as a bellboy, where he often made 5 dollars a day in tips!  This was a princely sum.


                      Buying and Selling Cattle – 1940                              19-luling-auction-barn 

1974-In Business in Luling

Returning to Caldwell County, he first worked on a pipeline crew and then went into the cattle and hog business with his father. He also got married in 1939 to Lennah Martha Bright. They were life partners until her death in 2001.  Leslie and Lennah moved to San Antonio, where he worked for the Union Livestock Commission, while also taking care of his own cattle in Caldwell County. He and Lennah lived in San Antonio for 49 years, most of the time at 540 Westminister.

At Armor School

In 1940 time came for all young American men to register for the draft. As Leslie was married, he did not receive a call-up notice until 1943. He could have claimed a deferment, but instead answered Uncle Sam’s call on May 18th, 1943. His initial training was at Republican Flats adjunct to Ft. Riley, Kansas, a Cavalry Replacement Training Center. Once through basic and advance training, he was promoted to corporal, and then to sergeant.  Because of his maturity and an excellent training record, he was assigned as a training sergeant, where he met many interesting men, including fighter Joe Lewis.

After Ft. Riley, he was transferred to Gainesville, Texas for additional training. He applied for airborne training. The Army in its wisdom instead decided to make him an officer and a gentleman in its Armor branch, and sent him to Ft. Knox on November 27, 1944 to in its officer training program. He graduated on May 5, 1945. While at Ft. Knox, Leslie made friends with some Colombians, who would eventually return to their country. He was promised a high-paying position in the Colombian Army, once the war was over. He politely decided against that, a         13-tank                              Training Men on Armored Reconnaissance              

17-guarding-convoys                                                        On Convoy Duty

decision he still is relieved to have made. As a freshly minted second lieutenant, he was re-assigned to Ft. Riley. There, he briefly trained soldiers in armored reconnaissance and operation of various types of tanks. As a tank commander perched in the cupola, he would signal the driver-trainee with foot pressure to his back. Left foot in back – turn left. Right foot to the driver’s back – turn right. Stop – both feet to the back. You get the idea. One of his trainees wasn’t paying attention and headed for a precipice. Left foot – nothing. Right foot – nothing. Leslie used both feet to signal stop. Nothing. Then both feet HARD! Nothing. Almost crushing the driver with his feet, the tank continued over the precipice, with the cupola ring bruising Leslie badly. “I’m glad I didn’t see that fellow again.”

By now the war in Europe was over. All eyes turned to the Pacific, where the war with Japan still raged. America and its allies began preparation for invasions of Japan’s home islands. Bloody battles on Iwo Jima and other islands had left thousands of young American boys dead and wounded. On and in the waters around the island of Okinawa, the Americans were locked in the most brutal land and sea battle of the Pacific Theater. In the meantime, 2nd Lt. Dilworth was shipped to Ft. Ord, California for invasion training. Assigned as a transportation officer, he spent 30 miserable days on a troop transport, landing in the Philippines in late July, 1945. Like every other soldier, sailor and marine in the Pacific he dreaded what was about to occur. Harry Truman is Dilworth’s favorite president. Without question, he believes that President Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bombs on Japan saved his life and those of millions of others. He was at Base

15-with-tribesmen                                   With Bontoc Tribesmen in the Highlands      

12-some-fun-in-philippines                                                 It Wasn’t All Hard Work

14-sign                                               Dangers? The Sign Says It All               

            16-japanese-prisoners  Supervising Japanese Prisoners of War

“M” near Lingayen Bay on Northern Luzon when Japan surrendered. Assigned to a truck platoon of the 869th Heavy Automotive Maintenance Company, Leslie helped ensure that the neglected and war-battered Philippine transportation system functioned. Huge amounts of equipment were being moved to ships to be returned to the US and convoys had to deal with an often non-existent infrastructure. Leslie recalls when a tractor-trailer rig got stuck trying to make a curve on a mountain road. When efforts to free it failed, the men just jacked one side up and rolled it off the road and down the mountain. It was that kind of time and place. Japanese POWs, awaiting repatriation were used to build and repair roads. The Americans hired Filipinos to work in many capacities. The mountainous areas of Luzon were populated by many different tribal groups, including the Igorot people. Comprised of several sub-groups, including the Bontoc, they were small in stature. These remarkable “mountain people” or Cordillerans, were former headhunters. They worked closely with Americans as guides, porters and laborers. Leslie’s photo scrapbook shows his deep interest it their lives, and the mutual respect this American and his Bontoc friends had for each other.

By 1945, there were several guerilla groups fighting the Japanese, collaborators, and sometimes, each other. One very large group was the predominantly Marxist Hukbalahap (“Huk”) movement. Ray Hunt, an American who led a band of guerillas, had little use for the Huks. He was quoted by William Breuer in The Great Raid: Rescuing the Doomed Ghosts of Bataan and Corregidor:

My experiences with the Huks were always unpleasant. Those I knew were much better assassins than soldiers. Tightly disciplined and led by fanatics, they murdered some Filipino landlords and drove others off to the comparative safety of Manila. They were not above plundering and torturing ordinary Filipinos, and they were treacherous enemies of all other guerrillas (on Luzon).

There were tens of thousands of Japanese in the Luzon mountains on VJ Day. Most surrendered. Some did not. The “Huks,” as they were called, often asked for American weaponry and equipment to assist in hunting down rogue Japanese in the mountains. As the Philippines were to be given its independence in 1946, the Huks rightly feeling they were not going to be given a role to play in the new democracy, also began attacking American convoys. Leslie was in charge of security on some of the convoys, which were moving American supplies back to ports for trans-shipment to the United States. One time, he and other Americans got wind of the location of a possible weapons cache in a village. Filipino houses were built on platforms. As Leslie was about to enter one of the village’s houses, its owner became quite excited and began shouting loudly in Tagalog, the chief Filipino language. Not understanding Tagalog and convinced by the man’s behavior that he was on the scent of contraband, Leslie entered the house, only to fall through it. The man had merely been trying to warn him that his floor was rotten!!!

There was not a day that went by that Leslie did not face Luling, and wish that he was home. Once discharged, Dilworth returned to the profession of cattle buying.  He owned and operating
auction barns and feed lots all over Texas. He partnered in ranches in South Texas, and appraised herds for the Houston Agriculture Credit Corporation. Leslie helped Gus “Pinkey” and John Brown re-open the Luling Auction Barn in 1974.

With Governor Dolph Briscoe

His work schedule never remotely came close to an eight hour day. Often up at 3 am, he would move cattle, work with auction houses, and care for his own cattle in Caldwell County. The profit margin on cattle is at best a slim one. Leslie transported, bought and sold thousands over the years. He was a savvy businessman who wasn’t afraid to take chance on a new project – as long as it involved cattle. A friend to ranchers all over the state, he has known some quite prominent ones, such as Dolph Briscoe. All the time he was a loving husband to Lennah and father to his only child Virginia (Sofge). Virginia grew up asking, “Why don’t we keep the pretty cows and calves, dad?” His answer was simple – the pretty ones sold better.

Leslie “retired” at the age of 80, and tended to the home place in Caldwell County and its cattle until the age of 95. He would still be working and tending his cows, except that his legs quit cooperating with him a few years back. He has had to pass those duties along to his daughter and her husband. He herds a wheel chair now, and resides at Lockhart’s Parkview Nursing Home. Looking and acting like a man thirty years younger, this proud father, grandfather and great-grandfather will celebrate his 100th Birthday with a party on the 25th of January at Parkview. If you get a change, come by and see him some time, and congratulate this remarkable man on a life well lived. And thank him for his service to our country during World War II.

AUSTIN PITTMAN – From Marauder Pilot to Patriarch



            Austin C. Pittman favored me with two interviews over the last two years, and I finally am putting the wealth of information he provided me to good use.            He is the oldest child of Lenford and Lillie (Harris) Pittman, both from long-time families in the Dale area. Austin had two younger brothers, Lonnie and Charles.  Lenford Pittman had a variety of careers as Austin was growing up. Among other things, he ran a cotton gin and store for John Horner, and later owned and operated a dry goods and grocery store. In the early 1920s, he was a streetcar operator in the state capital. Austin was born there on November 13, 1922. The family lived most of Austin’s early life at 602 S. Commerce in Lockhart. Although raised as a Baptist, he became a member of the First Christian Church in 1939. He and Eleanor attend there today.

            Like everyone else in the Depression, when he wasn’t attending school he was working. After graduating from Lockhart High School in 1941, the first year it went through the 12th instead of the 11th grade, he went to work full-time as an assistant manager of the A&P Grocery Store in Lockhart. Knowing he would be subject to the new peacetime military draft, and along with several of his classmates, Austin travelled to San Antonio, hoping to qualify for the Army Air Corps’ pilot training program. The Air Corps’ requirement was that a young man have two years or its equivalence in college to become an officer and pilot. Austin passed the equivalency tests, as well as the physical tests. In late 1941 he became an unpaid reservist in Uncle Sam’s Army Air Corps. Told he had to wait until there were training slots available, he returned to the grocery business. The Luling A&P store lost its manager, and at the ripe old age of 18, Austin became that store’s manager, riding his Cushman motor scooter to and from Lockhart every day.

            Austin received his orders to report for training on January 26, 1943. Another Lockhart man, Newton (“Doc”) Wilson, who would later become President of Lockhart State Bank, also received his orders that day. Reporting to San Antonio, he stood in formation when the commander of the training battalion told each of the new recruits, “Look to your left. Now look toward your right. Only one of you will be left and successfully finish flight training.” Austin was determined to be the one left. Because of the continuous ramping up of the war effort, aviation training was often backlogged. So, after brief (and somewhat brutal) basic training at Wichita Falls, Austin attended “Pre-pre flight training” on the campus of Kansas State Teachers College in Emporia. The local residents opened their homes to the young cadets, and Austin has fond memories of the Kansans’ kindnesses. Then it was off to El Reno, Oklahoma, for Basic Flight Training, then to Enid, Oklahoma for Primary on a Fairchild PT-19 “Cornell,” then to Altus, Oklahoma for Advanced. Austin was an “Altus Ace,” as they dubbed themselves. He received his commission as a 2nd Lieutenant and his wings in April, 1944. His mom and dad drove to Oklahoma to attend his graduation ceremonies.pt-19-cornell

 Austin always wanted to fly a P-38 fighter. His second choice was to pilot a Martin B-26 “Marauder.” He got his second choice, and never regretted it. The B-26 was a ‘hot’ aircraft. High wing loading and a tricycle landing gear required faster than normal landing speeds. Early versions of the Marauder were dangerous in the hands of inexperienced pilots, earning it nicknames such as “Flying Coffin,” and “Flying Prostitute” (because it was so fast and had no visible means of support). Structural modifications, stronger engines, and better pilot training reduced training deaths, but it was no aircraft for a novice. Despite bad press, the Marauder was a highly effective mid-altitude bomber, and racked up impressive records in both Europe and the Pacific. Bombing accuracy was far better than the higher flying B-24s and B-17s.

 Austin transitioned into B-26s at Laughlin Army Airfield at Del Rio, Texas.  At Barksdale Army Airfield, Louisiana he met and trained with his new crew. Each of the six men knew that their lives depended on working smoothly and efficiently.


By late 1944, the Army Air Force deemed 2nd Lieutenant Austin Pittman and his crew ready for combat. The next challenge was getting a B-26 and its crew from the United States to the European Theater, where they had been assigned to the 597th Bombardment Squadron, 397th Bombardment Group, Ninth Air Force. It was not an easy process. Austin and his co-pilot flew to Baltimore to pick up a new aircraft, then to Savannah, Georgia and on to Morison Field at Palm Beach, Florida where they picked up a celestial navigator. In the meantime, the remaining four crew members crossed the Atlantic Ocean by ship.

There were two main routes from the U.S. to the European Theater. Both were fraught with danger. The Northern Route, through Greenland and Iceland, had been closed to twin-engine aircraft since late 1942 because of high number of losses (and disappearances) due to bad weather. ascension-island-ww2The Southern Route, through South America, was somewhat safer, but not by much.  Six B-26s were send south on December 13, 1944. While not flying in formation, they were following the same route. First stop: Puerto Rico. Then it was on to British Guiana and then down to Belem, Brazil. Somewhere over Brazil, two of the six aircraft went down in the jungles, and the planes and crews were lost. Austin’s most vivid memory of the flight was the enormity of the Amazon River. After refueling in Natal, Brazil, Austin piloted his aircraft toward a speck of land called Ascension Island, in the middle of the South Atlantic. Finding the three by five mile volcanic island by primitive radio direction finders gave everyone reason for re-affirming their religious beliefs. After successfully landing at “Wideawake Airfield,” it was on to Roberts Field in Monrovia, Liberia. Then up the west coast of Africa to Dakar and Marrakech, Morocco. Winter storms kept them grounded in Morocco for over a week. In the meantime, other aircraft stacked up there awaiting clearance for England. Finally, two days before Christmas 1944, huge numbers of aircraft were released toward England. The result was, to put it gently, was ‘interesting.’ Slower aircraft had been sent out first, with faster planes staggered out later. They all appeared over the socked-in island at the same time. Unable to find the ground, Austin’s B-26 gingerly descended into the clouds, popping out nearly at building level. Because of air traffic, he had to take the plane out to sea and approach again, trying to land. After three tries, and about out of fuel, he dodged church steeples to land safely in England on Christmas Eve, 1944. It had taken the air crew eleven days to fly from the U.S. to England!


The B-26 crewmen who arrived in England by ship were aware that two B-26s had been lost in the jungles of Brazil.  Because of the weather delay in Morocco, the four were not even sure that they would see their pilot and co-pilot again. They were pleasantly relieved with Lieutenants Pittman’s and Twining’s re-appearance.

Almost immediately after settling in, the Pittman crew and their aircraft was moved, along with most of the other 597th, to forward bases in northern France. He would fly from there and after its capture, from Venlo, Holland.  Over the next four months, Austin flew twenty-two bombing missions against the enemy. Many missions were against rail yards and ammunition dumps. Some were in close support of advancing Allied troops, entangled in combat with Germans defending the Fatherland. German fighter aircraft had all but disappeared, but anti-aircraft flak could and did take a heavy toll, especially since B-26s flew at lower altitudes. Combat formations included on aircraft that discharged ‘chaff’ –aluminum strips – to confuse enemy radar. Some times it worked. Some times it didn’t. The Marauder could take punishment. After one mission, Austin counted 123 holes from anti-aircraft shrapnel in his aircraft! No one was injured, and the plane was patched up and flew again. Austin has vivid memories of two “very good days.” The first was when he was part of a mission tasked with finding and destroying a huge enemy ammunition dump near the Swiss border. Carefully avoiding neutral airspace, he and his crew unloaded their ordnance on what they suspected was the target. All hell broke loose. They had destroyed the target! Elated, he buzzed the mess hall. The Inspector General was present and was not impressed, and Austin received a small fine. A small price to pay for a highly successful mission. Austin was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for this mission.

Another instance was more mundane. His B-26 took off in formation for a mission. Upon the formation’s return the control tower had every aircraft lower its landing gear, as one had left a tire on the runway on takeoff. Sure enough, 1st Lieutenant Pittman’s plane had a shredded tire. Approaching gingerly, Austin and his co-pilot made a perfect landing, wheels down.

As the Allies advanced into Germany, airfields were quickly constructed. First priority were the runways. Housing was primitive. The men lived in tents, slept on cots, and endured miserable winter weather as best they could. Horrible weather, typical of northern Europe, and required down-time allowed aviators and crews time for some leisure activities. Austin’s sideline was playing bridge for money. And he was good at it. Sending his winnings home, he compiled a nice nest egg.

One of the saddest incidents that Austin endured was the death of two of his crewmen. On April 19, 1945, Austin was not scheduled to fly. Billy Thornblom, his RTO, and Casimir Sjaz, his bombardier, were assigned to another aircraft for a combat mission. At 4:06 p.m. a B-26G, aircraft # 43-34450, piloted by 1st Lt. Elmer Frank, took off from a field at Perrone, France.  It was loaded with bombs. The pilot apparently lifted off too suddenly, not using the full runway, and pulled up into a stall. Trying to recover, the aircraft was hit with prop wash from other bombers. The Marauder ‘mushed’ downward and pancaked 100 feet from the end of the runway, bursting into flames. Sjaz was killed in the crash. Thornblom and one other crewman escaped, but Thornblom was grievously burned. Austin was able to visit him in the hospital before he died on April 26, 1945.


Austin’s 22nd mission was on the morning the war ended in Europe. That afternoon, he had loaded with bombs for his 23rd 597th-patchwhen he was told the war was over. Because he had over 20 missions he was given the choice of transferring to the Pacific Theater, or coming home. He chose to go home. However, before he could do that, he and his aircraft participated in a huge victory celebration fly-over at Paris. He felt that getting all those aircraft where they were supposed to be was as dangerous as a mission over enemy territory. Sadly, his beloved B-26 was relegated to a mothball fleet, somewhere in France, and probably scrapped.

Loaded on a ship, Austin came home. He says that re-adjustment to civilian life came easy. He went back into business with his father and brother Lonnie, selling dry goods and groceries. Deciding to leave the family business, Austin moved to Port Lavaca where he met and married Eleanor Paul, the love of his life, in 1952. Austin owned and operated grocery stores in Lake Jackson, Angleton, and Bay City. He sold his stores and returned to Lockhart in 1967, settling on land he had purchased in the 1950s.

Eleanor heard something in the hairdresser’s (where else in a small town?) about the owner of the White’s Auto Store wanting to sell. So, almost immediately, Austin “un-retired” and successfully operated that store (and was a Cushman dealer also) until selling out in 1980. When he and Eleanor returned to Caldwell County, they found that they couldn’t drill a successful water well on their property. The solution – create a water supply corporation to that for those in the area. Austin is still chairman of the board of the Polonia Water Supply Corporation, which provides safe water to many customers north of Lockhart.

Austin Pittman attends American Legion meetings regularly. He and        Eleanor remain active members of First Christian Church. He will tell you that his has been a wonderful life. While rightfully proud of his role as an aviator in World War II, his proudest achievement is being the husband to Eleanor, and the father to six fine children – Paul, Martha (Sanders), David, Mary (Voigt), Gary, and Austin.

Next time you see him, remember that he is part of the Greatest Generation, and thank him for his service to our wonderful country.

L.C. “CHUCK” FORESTER – From covert missions to refueling B-52s

  forester-one-as-sgt chuck-forester-cropped



By Todd Blomerth

Chuck Forester was born on November 23, 1931. He was the son and middle child of Charles Forester and Myrtle (Belt) Forester. His dad was a roustabout for Magnolia, and the family lived in the shotgun housing provided to the company’s workers near Stairtown. His older sisters Maxine (Beyer) and Margie (Beyer) have passed away. Younger brother Bill died in 2014. The youngest of the family, Charles Jr., lives in Canyon Lake.

The post-war National Guard accepted Chuck well before he left high school or turned eighteen. “The War had gutted the 36th Division,” he says. “Maybe that is the reason I was able to enlist so young.” The $30 a month he earned was needed by the family, and he enjoyed the comraderie of Luling’s Company I, 141st Infantry, 36th Infantry Division. He also thought highly of the unit’s commander, Captain Bob Allen. Chuck graduated from Prairie Lea High School in 1949 and  he and three buddies decided they were going to make their fortune on a seismograph crew near Saskatoon, Saskatchewan Province, Canada. “That lasted until the first cold weather,” he recalls. The four (Chuck, Jerry Sanders, Louis Green, and Ray Griffith) decided to head south and join the US Air Force, which they did. Chuck enlisted on July 1, 1950. It was a time of great uncertainty and no little amount of fear. North Korea had invaded the south, and a patchwork of United Nations forces, overwhelmingly American, were trying desperately to avoid being pushed off the peninsula. The Soviets had infilitrated the American atomic bomb program at Los Alamos, created their own nuclear weapon, and exploded it in Kazakhstan. Mao ZeDung’s Chinese communists had pushed the Nationalists off mainland China and onto the island of Formosa, and were in the process of killing and enslaving millions of their countrymen. In Europe, Stalin had instituted a reign of terror in the occupied areas of Eastern Europe. All in all, a most ‘interesting’ time, and an exciting time for a young man to be in the US military.

Chuck’s assignments were much more interesting than most. Afterb29a-580th-aerial-resupply-squadron   initial training at Lackland AFB, he was sent to gunnery school in Colorado, and then gunnery maintenance school at Randolph AFB. He then became a waist gunner on a B-29, America’s largest bomber of the time. Soon, he wound up at Wheelus AFB in Libya assigned to an Air Force unit innocuously termed “580th Air Resupply and Communcation Wing – Air Resupply and Communications Service.” Created in 1951,  it was nothing like its title. In his book “The Praetorian STARShip: the Untold Story of the Combat Talon,” Jerry Thigpen writes:

 In July and September 1952, the 580th ARCW…embarked its support personnel by way of ship to North Africa for its initial deployment overseas….Life at Wheelus AB [in Libya] was Spartan, at best, for the first six months of operations. Personnel lived and worked in tents enduring the sweltering summer heat of North Africa….A primary customer for the 580th was the 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) which was garrisoned at Bad Toeltz, Germany, in the Bavarian Alps. Tenth Group personnel would deploy to Libya for parachute and desert survival training.

Various Air Resupply Communication units were stationed in Korea and Southeast Asia as well. Psychological warfare, aid to anti-communist guerillas, insertion and extraction of military units, spies and defectors were all part of their role in the increasingly Cold War.

As described in “Twilight Warriors: Covert Air Operations Against the USSR” written by Curtis Peebles:

The B-29 was the only aircraft able to drop rangers and their supplies into the USSR. The aircraft had a range of four thousand nautical miles, a minimum payload of four thousand pounds, and the ability to fly low-level, long-range missions.


Suddenly, a newly minted Air Force sergeant was involved in something few of us have ever heard of – covert missions skirting the Iron Curtain countries. As he puts it, “We weren’t ‘supplying’ anybody!”                      

 Chuck found himself as a de facto jumpmaster, using the B29’s bomb bay as a jump door. The modified bomber, using a Norden bombsight, determined drop points instead of bomb release points. Chuck tells of getting the “go” sign from the cockpit and hitting each soldier on the helmet signaling them when to fall through the open floor of the plane. Amazingly heady stuff for a young man to be sure! After a fifteen month tour in the blazing heat of North Africa, Sergeant Forester rotated back to the United States.


     Chuck (back right) and Crew – B-29                                   Wheelus AFB – Early 1950s – Libya

During a trip home to Prairie Lea, Chuck attended a play performed at the high school He spotted a beautiful woman seated a few rows ahead of him. “She saw me in my dashing uniform, and that was all she wrote,” he chuckles. They were soon married at the Prairie Lea Baptist Church. Beverly (Nivens) and Chuck have been married for sixty-five years. They are the parents of  Marshall Bruce, Rodney Bill, Tommy Doak, and Charles T.

            During the 1950s, Chuck was transferred often. Perrin AFB in Sherman, Texas; Sheppard AFB at Wichita Falls, Texas; and Dyess AFB in Abilene were three of the bases where he served.  Chuck was steadily promoted while he was part of the Air Force’s massive nuclear deterrence program – the Strategic Air Command. The Cold War’s possibility of turning ‘hot’ with nuclear strikes by the Soviet Union,  and the fear of a sneak attack, caused the United States to keep strategic bombers and reconnaissance aircraft continually airborne, both near the Soviet border, and over the North American continent. “Operation Looking Glass,” with nuclear armed B-47s, and then B-52 Stratofortresses, became part of the grim concept of Mutually Assured Destruction. Chuck became an aerial refueling specialist. Fueling a fast flying aircraft was and is tricky business. He started out as a boom operator on a KC-97 Stratofreighter, propeller driven aircraft that mostly refueled jets. As the KC-97 was phased out, Chuck transitioned to the KC-135, a jet powered refueler, which is still in use today.

            Chuck’s assignment as a boom operator was one requiring great skill, and occasionally, nerves of steel. A KC-135 is a flying gas station, which, when fully loaded carries over 200,000 pounds of highly volatile jet fuel. A thirsty fighter or bomber (called the “receiver”) must carefully maneuver up to a boom which will act as a straw


M/Sgt L.C. Forester, SAC

from which to drink. The boom operator (“boomer”) has multiple responsibilities: he (and I am using the male pronoun here for simplicity, but certainly Air Force personnel can and are both males and females) has to communicate with his pilot and the pilot of the receiver, to ensure that safe closing speeds and protocols are being followed; he must use his “ruddervator” (a small wing-like structure on the boom) to ‘steer’ the fuel nozzle into the appropriate position while looking through a sighting window; he must ensure that the coupling is proper; he must control the flow of jet fuel into the receiver, usually at 6000 pounds of flow per minute; he must ensure that his refueler’s tanks are emptied in a balanced manner so that the tanker doesn’t become unstable; and he must disengage the boom and retract it after the fueling is complete – all while both aircraft are five miles in the sky, and flying at over three hundred miles an hour.


Boom Operator about to Refuel a Thirsty B-52 Bomber



K.I. Sawyer AFB, near Marquette, Michigan, and Barksdale AFB near Bossier City, Louisiana became the home bases for Chuck and his family in the late 1950s and 1960s. However, Chuck’s duties often took him far afield. One trip very nearly cost him his life.



Chuck’s Pictures of refueling a B52, an RF4, and a B58 “Hustler”

            On May 10, 1965 the 11th Air Refueling Squadron, with its newly supplied KC-135 Stratotankers, received orders for temporary duty to Okinawa. At 0030 hours (12:30 a.m.) on June 18, the crews were rousted out of bed and told to report to the base operations center. Some thirty bombers, each with its KC-135 tanker, were going to participate in the first massive B-52 bombing of Viet Cong concentrations in the Binh Duong Province northwest of Saigon. Given the complexity of the operation, and an impending typhoon, Chuck, like many others, felt that “this was going to be one hellacious fiasco.” Dubbed Arc Light One, the original mission had been laid on in February for an attack of North Vietnamese air defenses near Hanoi. Delays caused by many things, mostly political, resulted in a compromised mission with limited goals. The approaching typhoon caused problems with the timing for refueling. Lumbering B-52s flying from Guam were spaced at five-hundred vertical intervals, much too close. The bombing “cells” consisting of three aircraft, were also in too-tight horizontal intervals. It was a recipe for disaster. Timing for re-fueling was critical, and the first cell of bombers, pushed by the typhoon’s tailwinds, arrived nine minutes early at the refueling point. Rather than swinging out of the way, the lead aircraft led his cell directly back down toward the oncoming formation – and directly into the path of other bombers and tankers. When not refueling, Chuck would sit in the instructor’s seat in the cockpit. He and the pilots spotted red and green lights off the nose in the distance. It turned out aircraft were coming toward them!  He went back to his station. His B-52 receiver, some eighteen miles behind him and just below was coming up fast. He visually picked it up at some five miles away. As the receiver approached his boom, Chuck saw something that gives him nightmares to this day. The back-tracking B-52 lead aircraft collided with the B-52 some 300 feet below him, shearing off the top of the plane, and losing its own right wing. The closing speed was probably 800 miles an hour. “I can still envision those boys being sliced to pieces,” he says. “[The collision and ensuing explosion] lit up the whole damn sky. How the other planes avoided collisions I’ll never know.” His pilot took the KC-135 to 46,000 feet, dumping 120,000 pounds of jet fuel as it went and turned toward Okinawa – it had no one to refuel. Chuck’s receive plummeted into the South China Sea. There were no survivors. Four men on the lead plane survived.

            Chuck’s crew was de-briefed by a high ranking officer, who did not like what was told him – that the planning and execution was poor, had cost eight men their lives, and could have been much, much worse. Two days later, Chuck and crew, with oral orders only, flew to Bangkok. For the next two months, their KC-135 flew 13 refueling missions all over Southeast Asia. F-4s, F-105s, and any other aircraft needing a drink used their services. Arc Light One still bothers him. “Yesterday [June 18],” he told me on Sunday, ‘was its anniversary. I think about it all the time. I can still envision those boys [in his receiver] dying.”

Returning to the U.S. Chuck and family made their last transit to Barksdale AFB. For the next three and ½ years, he flew to SAC bases all around the world with the 1st Combat Evaluation Group, inspecting and evaluating re-fueling specialists.

I asked Chuck, “Why did you retire from the Air Force?” “I got tired of flying,” he told me. Besides, he had a family that needed him. Master Sergeant L.C. Forester hung up his spurs. He and Beverly had purchased a house in Prairie Lea in anticipation of retirement, and moved there in 1970. Chuck could not stay idle long. He went to work for the Texas Agriculture Department, first as an inspector, and then supervising a fire ant eradication and control program. Then Chuck decided to really stay home, and supervised the Tri-Community Water Supply Corporation in Fentress for fifteen years. He then ‘retired’ for good, although keeping up with over a dozen grandchildren can hardly be described as sedentary.

Chuck’s life has come a long way from a roustabout’s shotgun house near the oil fields in Caldwell and Guadalupe County. And it has also come full circle, as he now lives not far from where he was raised. He will be the first to tell you that he continues to enjoy it to the fullest.

(A good book to read on the mid-air collision in 1965, written by Don Harten, co-pilot of the back-tracking B-52, is Arc Light One, Turner Publishing Company, Paducah, Kentucky 2003)

Bobby G Balser – What a life it has been


  Lt. Bob Balser – F4U Combat Pilot – Korea 1952                        



    Bob Balser – 92 Years Young – 2016


From a Tough Childhood to the Best Life of Anybody-

And What a Life It Has Been

Bobby Balser is the third of four sons of Edward and Nora (Schulz) Balser. His oldest brother Clarence is 94. Older brother Stanley and the youngest of the four, Charles, have passed away. Bob (as he is also called) was born on a farm six miles northwest of Lockhart in 1924. Soon thereafter, his father bought a 250 acre farm in Karnes County, Texas. Tragically, in 1930, his mother and father died within six months of each other – Nora from tuberculosis, Edward from pneumonia.  The four Balser boys were raised by their grandmother and a maiden aunt, Lonie Shulz in a house at 633 Pecos Street, just two blocks from the high school they would attend. Summers were spent working on various family members’ farms.  He recalls the tough times of the Depression. Bobby’s childhood was not a very happy one. “No one had any money,” he says. “I don’t have too many ‘good’ memories” of that time he recalls. Perhaps not, but he was an honor roll student in school. In 1938, Bobby “Speed” Balser drove his “White Comet” to victory at “Dump Hill” in Lockhart’s first Soap Box Derby race, besting his life-long friend Jack Forrest Wilson. Deeply affected by the loss of both parents, and somewhat unsure of himself however, by the end of his schooling, Bobby was anxious to find his niche elsewhere. There were no jobs, and food was scarce. He graduated from Lockhart High School one month before his 17th birthday, and with Aunt Lonie’s permission, enlisted in the United States Navy. It was June of 1941. Less than six months later, America was embroiled in World War II.

After completing basic training, he became a Pharmacist’s Mate 2nd Class, and wound up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania assisting with physical exams at a Navy recruiting station. It was not something his enjoyed. The Navy needed pilots, and, though doubting he had much of a chance at being accepted into the flight training program, he applied. Much to his surprise, he was accepted. Even better, he breezed through flight training, and gained an huge dose of self-confidence, which has stayed with him to this day.

New aviation cadets with little or no college had to receive some burnishing, so that they could eventually, if lucky, be called ‘officers and gentlemen.’ Bobby spent the next several months taking courses at, among other places, the University of Washington, St. Olaf College, and Minot State Teachers College. Because of the rubber band effect of too few young men in pilot training, and then too many, what should have been a six-month training regimen lasted almost a year-and-a-half. Bobby qualified at Minot, North Dakota in a Piper Cub. Next stop – the University of Iowa for pre-flight training. Then, Naval Air Station (NAS) Grand Prairie, Texas, for primary flight training. Then south to Pensacola and Melbourne, Florida, where he transitioned to more complex aircraft, the Vultee BT-13 (nicknamed “the Vibrator”), and the much beloved SNJ “Texan.” Finally, he moved into the Navy’s primary carrier fighter in World War II – the tough Grumman F6F Hellcat. On October 12, 1944, the Lockhart Post Register reported that Cadet Bob Balser was now Ensign Bob Balser. The newly minted officer had 300px-hellcats_f6f-3_may_1943discovered his life’s calling.

To get into the war in the Pacific Theater, new Navy fighter pilots had to be able to take off and land on aircraft carriers. This was (and is) dangerous and not for the faint at heart. In order to get the huge number of potential carrier pilots trained, the Navy improvised. Combat-ready aircraft carriers of all types were precious, so the government purchased two freshwater, side-wheel powered excursion steamers and stationed them near Chicago, Illinois. Rudimentary flight decks were added, and they were renamed USS Sable and USS Wolverine. Take offs and ‘traps’ (landings) were conducted seven days a week. Aircraft carrier landings require sufficient wind over deck (WOD). The two ships were slow, so if there were not strong enough winds on Lake Michigan, training was scrubbed, or the new pilots had to qualify in SNJ Texans, which required lower headwinds. Ensign Balser passed the tests, and by early 1945 was ready to get into the war. He would up in a replacement unit in Hawaii in March of that year. The beaches were closed, so apart from too much time at the Officer’s Club, all he and others did was fly, fly, fly. But Hawaii was far away from the islands being invaded by the Marines and Army. Bob opted for a photo reconnaissance class, in hopes of improving his chances of seeing some action. Off he went, to Guam, where he waited – again. Finally, he became of one of America’s Fast Carrier Task Forces. Stationed on various CVEs (smaller escort carriers, nicknamed “jeep” carriers), he became a member of Task Force 58. Combat and close air support missions were being flown – but Bob and others in photo recon, when they tried to ‘sneak’ out on combat missions with other squadrons, were told they were overqualified and ‘too valuable’ to be lost in combat. Basically, he and thousands of other American fighting men were expected to participate in the planned invasion of the Japanese main islands. The U.S. anticipated horrific losses of personnel when that happened. Everything changed when two atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Suddenly, the war was over.

Lt. (j.g.) Balser rotated back to the states, and after some time spent at NAS Corpus Christi, was released from active duty. Taking advantage of the GI Bill, Bob enrolled in the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, and became an illustrator for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where he was associated with Ray Sprigle. Sprigle had won a Pulitzer Prize in 1938 for uncovering that President Roosevelt’s nominee for the Supreme Court, Hugo Black, had once been a member of the Ku Klux Klan. (Sprigle did undercover stories, and in 1948 won international acclaim for a 21 part story – “I was a Negro in the South for 30 days.” His story can be found at http://old.post-gazette.com/sprigle/). Bob eventually decided that being an illustrator was not what he wanted to do with the rest of his life, but one has to be envious of his experiences with Sprigle and other reporters of such quality.

Bob remained in the Naval Reserve, flying with a squadron (VF 653)f4u-korea-50 stationed in Akron, Ohio. The unit flew the gull-winged F4U Corsair. F4U Corsair was (and is) a thing of beauty. It would prove an ideal close air support fighter bomber in America’s next conflict. On June 25, 1950, communist forces from North Korea struck south, surprising and nearly overrunning poorly trained and armed Republic of Korea forces. President Truman rushed American forces to the peninsula, and eventually, American and UN forces pushed the North Koreans back – almost to the Chinese border. This brought in hundreds of thousands of Mao Zedong’s Red Army forces, and the Korean conflict settled into a proxy war of sortswinter-on-valley-forge pitting the United States and others against the communist regimes of North Korea, China, and the USSR. In the rush to downsize the military after World War II the overall ability to react quickly had reached shamefully dangerous levels. There were shortages of trained men, aircraft, and warships. The Congress authorized the calling up of reservists, including Bob’s squadron, which was assigned to Air Task Group One (ATG-1), and USS Valley Forge (CV 45), an Essex type carrier, slated for its third deployment in the icy waters off the coast of North Korea. The carrier launched Corsairs, A-1 Skyraiders, and jet-powered A-9 Panthers. Although Valley Forge had a steam-powered catapult, most of its ‘cat’ shots were reserved for its jets. Sailing from San Diego in August 1951, the ship arrived off North Korea with Task Force 77, on December 11. VF 653’s Corsairs took off from near mid-ship. They had 450 feet to get airborne. The Corsair was powered by a twin radial engine that put out over 2100 horsepower. It could carry eight bombs or rockets under its wings, and one 1000-pound bomb and drop tanks under its belly. Its armament was either .50 caliber machine guns or 20 mm. cannons in the wings. Needless to say, Bob preferred the 20 mm cannons.

Many of VF 653’s pilots were World War II combat veterans. Almost all but Bob were married. Given their anticipated duties, few had any misconceptions of the dangers they were about to face. David Sears writes:


In North Korea, the reservists would become bridge, road, and rail busters. Because that country lacked an industrial base, most of its supplies were hauled overland from Manchuria and the Soviet Union. Task Force 77 aviators specialized in the arduous, dangerous mission of destroying shipments and supply lines that coursed through the North’s rugged terrain. Day after day, they attacked railroads, roads, bridges, and the locomotives, trucks, and even ox carts moving along them.

Reserve Lieutenant Joe Sanko, married with one small son and another child on the way, wrote home that his chances of getting shot down would be “much greater than in the war with Japan.”  Further, if he had to ditch, it would be in waters where “temp (sic) gets so low that a pilot can survive only five to eight minutes without a submersion suit.”  Lt. Sanko would be killed when his aircraft was shot down by anti-aircraft fire on May 13, 1952. He never got to see his newborn daughter.

VF 653’s tour coincided with the horrible Korean winter of 51-52. Takeoffs and landings are dangerous at best. The squadron’s aircraft often came back with shot-up hydraulics, or ordinance that failed to release under the wings.  Pilots would fly mission after mission, then the carrier would rotate to Japan for ten days of R&R. Then it was back into the grind of daily danger.  Fortunately, in the words of Sears:

the squadron was skippered by a hotshot Navy aviator named Cook Cleland, who, during the Pacific war, had flown Douglas Dauntless SBD dive bombers from the decks of the carriers Wasp and Lexington. After the war, Cleland, based in Akron, took up pylon air racing, initially flying production models of the Corsair but switching to a better-performing version of a Goodyear-manufactured Corsair purchased as surplus. Flying three of these muscular Super Corsairs, each sporting a 3,000-horsepower Pratt & Whitney R-4360, Cleland’s team snatched a record-setting 396-mph victory in the 1947 Thompson Trophy Race. Beaten by Army aircraft the following year, Cleland’s team bounced back to sweep first, second, and third places in the 1949 race.

VF 653’s pilots had the flight helmets painted red with white polka dots. Then, because he was an illustrator, Bob recalled, “I had the job of sketching out a template for a grinning clown. The template was then hand-painted on the side of each pilot’s helmet. Because Ray Edinger was XO and was in charge of squadron discipline, his helmet got painted differently. His was a frowning clown.”


Smiling clowns belied the reality of VF 653’s existence. Pilots were killed or badly wounded. Pilots crash landed. Some were rescued. Some were not, and spent the remainder of the war in a North Korean POW camp (James Michener was imbedded with the Task Force, and efforts at rescue helped inspire his novel, The Bridges at Toko-Ri). Ground fire was an ever-present danger. Bob recalls, “We sometimes would attack behind the jets, which arrived at the target area first. We knew what we had to attack because we could see the antiaircraft bursts ahead of us!” Planes and pilots were lost to ack-ack and small arms fire. “I flew sixty combat missions,” Bob tells me. “My ship came home damaged in twenty of them.” Again, David Sears:

VF-653’s Korean War losses—13 pilots missing, killed, or severely injured, about 46 percent of the number first deployed—represented almost half of those sustained by ATG-1. As measured by total sorties flown, the results are equally stark: ATG-1’s airmen flew a combined 7,113; VF-653’s rate of losses per missions flown was twice as high as the air group’s overall rate.



Remains of a North Korean train – from Lt. Balser’s F4U Camera

The losses got to them all. “What was hardest was that we had flown together. I knew most of these men very well. It was very painful when we lost one. I lost two of my wingmen. Both bailed out and were captured.”

ordeal-squadron-pilots-631-jpg__800x600_q85_crop-wowThe squadron pilots pose on Valley Forge in July 1952, with 13 flight helmets for their fallen colleagues. Among the survivors are Cleland (back row, middle), Edinger (to his immediate left), and Balser (to Cleland’s right). (US Navy)

VF 653 rotated home in mid-June 1952. Its war was over. Lt. Bob Balser spent a year or so at Kingsville NAS, and was able to visit home. The Post Register of 25 December 1952 reported that the Balser sons had gotten together at Clarence’s house in San Antonio, and that “[t]his was the first time in about six years the family had been together.”

balser-men-1Bob applied to Trans World Airways in 1953. He started out as a $250-a- month co-pilot on a DC-3. He mandatorily retired in 1984, at age 60. By that time, he was a captain flying Boeing 747s to several continents. Belying the archaic FAA age rules, Bob continued to fly until he was 90. He sold his Cessna 177 two years ago.

220px-l-749a_constellation_n6022c_twa_heathrow_09-54Bob married at thirty-three to Jacqueline (Jackie) Geffel, a beautiful Italian-American from Pittsburgh. They eventually settled in Scottsdale, Arizona. They had two sons. Jeffrey died 220px-twa_boeing_747sp_fitzgeraldtragically in a vehicular collision in 1977. Stephen has followed in his father’s footsteps. He flies for American Airlines. Jackie passed away in 2015. Fortunately, Bob’s son and daughter-in-law Eileen live nearby. Bob is blessed with four grandsons. Don’t think he lets grass grow under his feet. After ‘retirement’, his group of friends tested every whitewater rafting area they could find. When you talk to him, you sense his spirit of adventure is still alive and strong.  He is a joy to visit with. However, if you go too long, he will borrow his brother Stanley’s expression to sign off: “I’ve already told you more than I know.” His life exemplifies the courage and honor of the best of the Greatest Generation. Caldwell County should be mighty proud of Bob Balser and his achievements.


The story of Bob’s time in Korea comes from interviews with him, as well as Smithsonian Air and Space’s article of January 2013 – “The Ordeal of VF-653: From a Navy Reserve pilot’s letters home, a picture of the darkest days of the Korean War” by David Sears http://www.airspacemag.com/military-aviation/the-ordeal-of-vf-653-127029178/?page=1