NATTC, Chicago – 1943
When I arrived back at the Naval Aviation Technical Training Center at 87th and Anthony ins South Chicago, the first man I encountered was an old shipmate from VP-11, J.P. Byrd. With him was another VP-11 man, Rineman. We checked in together and were assigned adjacent bunks in the second story barracks level of the huge training complex. We would be in the same class.
J.P. Byrd was (and still is) quite a character. He had a tall, spare, long-legged, but footed frame and shambling gait. He was easy going and a shock of tousled brown hair topped an ever-present friendly grin on his lean face. He was soft spoken with a sort of southern drawl and hardly ever spoke without a pun or a joke. In his tight-fitting tailor-made dress blues with the badge of an AAM1/c, “J.P.” projected the image of the typical absent-minded professor dressed up as a sailor. J.P. was not actually lazy, but professed to be an advocate of conservation of energy—save it because you never knew when you might need some!
Bob Rineman was a shorter man with black hair above a pleasant face. He was also an agreeable shipmate and the three of us were to be frequently liberty companions with our first class petty officer “crows”, aerial machine gunner emblems, and campaign ribbons identifying us as veterans of the Pacific theater of war, we were accorded some degree of deference by our fellow trainees. More often than not, they also resulted in civilians in bars insisting on buying us drinks or driving us in their cars wherever we wanted to go. It no doubt made us a bit cocky but, with sarcastic humor, we kept each other in perspective.
Since we were, indeed, real veterans and the memories of war were still fresh, we were to be a bit embarrassed the first morning at NATTC. Barracks were the wide open second floors of the two or three large buildings. At each end there were large double doors leading to large landings at the wide stairways. The three of us were assigned bunks not far inside the entry doors. It seemed to be a convenient location but we were to find one bad flaw in it.
We did not know that first night that reveille at NATTC was held by what amounted to a small drum and bugle corps. About six musicians, three drums and three bugles, would assemble outside the entry doors. On the stroke of six, the doors would be thrown open and the band would cut loose while they marched the length of the long barracks down a wide central aisle way.
We were sleeping in blissful ignorance that first morning at reveille. When the drums and bugles cut loose it was such an unholy din that shattered our slumbers that both Byrd and I thought we were in the middle of a Jap attack. Before we were awake we hit the deck and were ten yards down the aisle ahead of the band running for cover when we became aware of where we were. We went sheepishly back to our bunks to get our clothes to the laughter and kidding of our bunkmates. After that episode we would hear the sounds of the band assembling outside the doors and could prepare ourselves by buying our heads under our pillows when the loud music started.
Although I continued to have ambivalent feeling about my engagement to Shirley Mills, shortly after my arrival in Chicago I decided that if it were to stand it should be formalized with a ring. I rode the El to the loop, found a reputable jewelry store, and although my savings was dwindling, spent two hundred dollars on a small diamond rind. (That was in 1943 dollars. It was, I think, something less than a half carat and would probably be worth ten times that today.)
After a few drinks on the way back to 87th & Anthony I decided that the ring should not simply arrive in the mail. I gift-wrapped it and mailed it to my brother Rex with the request that he hand-deliver it with some flowers. He did so.
Despite the urgency of war for more trained men as the might of the United States began to flex its muscles, our classes at NATTC were on a five-day week and we had liberty every weekend. Byrd, Rineman, and I found the classes relatively easy after our training at North Island and our two years of practical experience in VP-11 and the engine change shop on Ile Nou so we made the most of liberty in Chicago.
During our first liberty weekend, we explored the Chicago Loop area in the city, but other than movie houses and two large ballrooms, the Trianon and the Aragon, I believe they were, downtown had little more to offer than the South Side. One weekend we did go to a professional football game at Soldier Field. In the main we made liberty at an area of small night clubs, movie theaters, and bars at 63rd and Cottage Grove.
In the days of World War II, The Chicago South Side was still thriving. We could walk a few blocks east and catch the train that ran between the Chicago Loop and through Gary to South Bend, Indiana.
Our favorite watering hole was a small night club on Cottage Grove called “Crown Propeller Lounge”. (The sign outside was a neon airplane propeller.) It was run by a retired Irish cop and featured a small live combo. Sometimes there was a small “floor show” by an aspiring singer, magician, or standup comedian. The waitresses were friendly, the drinks relatively cheap, and the owner always bought every second or third round for men in uniform who were veterans of the War in the Pacific. The bandleader soon learned our favorite songs and would stop a piece and shit to one when we came in and took a table—more often than not “Sentimental Journey” which I liked and often requested.
We felt comfortably at home at the Crown Propeller Lounge and knew that we could always count on getting back to the barracks at 87th & Anthony. On the occasions that we celebrated too much and the staff of the lounge thought we might run into a Shore Patrol or have trouble finding our way, the Irishman would call a cab at closing time and make sure we had enough money for the ride back.
Although we never got into trouble that might land us on report or in the brig, the three of us “old salts” had some high old times. There was on chubby little waitress called “Dutchy”, a brown-haired woman about thirty, who took a liking for me. Sometimes at the midnight closing time for bars, Dutchy and a friend would take us to one of the many illegal after-fours bars in the city.
I recall one after-hours joint in particular. From the outside the place appeared to be nothing but an abandoned ice cream parlor. Behind the counter the door that once led to a kitchen opened into a draped anteroom and then into a very nice nightclub with a bar, dance floor, and very good band. Dutchy liked to dance and it was her favorite place to relax after work.