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My Service in the Military

After graduation (June, 1940) there were very few jobs available; I took a lengthy written exam for the position of Junior Astronomer at the Naval Observatory, but only placed third. So I played baseball for Denver of the Western League; however, I was soon drafted into the army (August 18, 1941--this is the kind of date one easily remembers), and sent to the Field Artillery. I took my basic training at Fort Sill, Oklahoma as a member of an instrument and survey battery; the work was actually very interesting, though I realized the seriousness of it. Astronomers are very useful in the artillery, because they know practical astronomy, can do surveying, and are acquainted with trajectories. However the Air Force began to advertise various cadet training programs, and I applied for the one in meteorology. In the meantime Pearl Harbor was attacked; in fact I was on K.P. duty the morning of December 7, 1941. Shortly thereafter I was transferred to the Headquarters Battery of the 33rd Division, an Illinois National Guard outfit stationed at Camp Forrest, TN, with members mainly from Chicago. I recall that we went on some maneuvers that took place in wintry conditions at a field artillery range located on mountainous terrain covered with felled trees. Conditions were hardly propitious to do anything other than stand around freezing our feet!

My transfer to the Air Force arrived shortly after we returned from the so-called maneuvers, and I was sent to U.C.L.A.(March 16 to November 30, 1942), where some 80 of us cadets spent our time in Meteorology Class III learning the art of forecasting. I was told later in a letter from a former artillery comrade that the 33rd Division had joined the Allied army that invaded Africa and fought against Rommel's Afrika Korps.

It so happened that several of our meteorology professors were from Norway, having escaped the Nazi invasion of their land, and included Jacob Bjerknes, who had invented the frontal analysis method regularly used for forecasting purposes on all weather maps, and Jörgen Holmboe, who gave beautiful lectures on dynamic meteorology. Holmboe used vector analysis throughout, and I vowed to master it. Eventually most of us emerged as second lieutenants, and then were scattered to the four winds. In my case I first spent five months at the Topeka (KS) Army Air Base. The training that we had received at U.C.L.A. did not adequately prepare us for the realities of practical forecasting insofar as aircraft were concerned, especially for a locale like Topeka that can experience quite violent weather and dangerous icing conditions. However, as Winston Churchill said: "Play the game for keeps and you learn to play the game!" Our generation grew up quickly.

Early in 1943 I was sent overseas to England, and spent most of the next three and a half years there as a weather officer for the 384th Bomb Group (B-17's) that was based at Grafton-Underwood, near Kettering. Eventually I became Captain in charge of the base weather station. Our combat crews flew over 300 missions, and suffered numerous casualties: of the 65 original crews (ten men each) only three or four were not shot down, though several crew-members returned safely after evading the enemy with the help of the "underground."

The very first mission I was involved in as a Weather Officer was to Schweinfurt, and five aircraft out of the eighteen furnished by our group were shot down (by the end of the war our group would be able to contribute as many as fifty aircraft per mission). The weather in England was very often difficult to forecast accurately, which put great strain on everybody, including weather personnel, the Flying Control Officer and especially the Group Commander (a full colonel). It must be remembered, too, that radar units were not commonly placed aboard airplanes. Very exciting episodes could occur during takeoff (when the aircraft were heavy with bombs, fuel and 50-caliber ammunition), or landing (when fuel tanks were practically empty), not to mention when the B17 formation was over enemy territory contending with Nazi flak and fighters. It always astonished me that young men in their early twenties could be so capable and responsible!

Our base was fairly close to Cambridge, and on a couple of occasions I visited Trinity College. I was even invited to eat at the faculty "high" table (it was set up on a platform elevated about six inches above the general level of the floor). This table was quite long, extending the width of the dining room. I sat adjacent to the acting Headmaster, a history professor, who was seated at the very end, and Sir F.W. Aston, the inventor of the mass spectrograph, at my left. He was a Nobel Prize winner, but that didn't pose any difficulties in conversing, because he was very friendly and knew more about the United States than I did. The main course for the dinner was hotly spiced curried rice, and it must be pointed out that the civilians were necessarily subjected to severe food rationing; we in the military were given ration coupons to use whenever we travelled away from our base. The primary topic of conversation happened to be Thomas Carlyle, the famous Scottish essayist and historian, and the professors knew all about him in surprising detail. Dr.Aston pointed out to me Sir Arthur Eddington, who was seated at the far end of the table. The latter was working hard on a book which he called Fundamental Theory, and was too busy to see visitors, but later I was able to meet his sister, who was also his secretary. She was very tiny, I remember, and patiently answered my several questions.

I must mention that Dr. Storer spent the war years teaching celestial navigation to military personnel, in addition to his usual courses, and even spent some time working at the Hercules Powder Plant located east of Lawrence; Clyde Tombaugh, on the other hand, was at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico designing and using optics to follow rocket flights.