Discovering the Logbooks of a Life Rarely Discussed
Covid sequestration is, it turns out, an inescapable cloister (especially now, with Wisconsin’s record-setting infections), perfect for undertaking long put off tasks you’ve always meant to get to when you had the time. In this unpredictable year, such efforts can be rewarding surprises and poignant lessons for our future understanding of our present existence.
My dad, Morris Henry Spangler, died on April 26, 2008. He was a World War II naval aviator, a part of his life he rarely discussed beyond a few anecdotes and his good fortune that the war ended before he put to sea with a just-forming fighter squadron that ceased to be. He heard of a bombing squadron needed pilots, so that’s how a fighter pilot ended up flying Curtis SB2C Helldivers. Oh, and flying open cockpit biplanes in Minnesota was cold.
My mom, Dora Elisabeth MacDonald Spangler, died on March 3, 2012. Not long after that, my sister and I cleaned out the family home and, in time, sold it. Piecing through the things they’d accumulated during their lives, we had to determine what went in the dumpster, what went to the estate sale, and what needed closer inspection. One of those things needing closer inspection, a green US Navy Seapack suitcase, has been waiting in my basement ever since.
It weighs maybe 50 or 60 pounds, not surprising for a man who grew up during the Depression in Maryville, Missouri. Like many of his generation, he saved almost everything. Popping the latches, I didn’t know what to expect. My dad was an unusual man, a tranquil introvert, meticulous and always composed. He was an artist and an engineer, and from an early age, it was clear to me that both sides of his brain communicated in synchronized harmony.
After the war, my dad earned a degree in fine arts from the Chicago Art Institute; that’s where he and my mom met, in the life drawing class, she told me. When I opened the Seapack, lying between the covered compartments was a self-portrait painted on Masonite. Unusual for him, he did not date the artwork; in my lifetime, he signed and dated all of his drawings, sculptures, and furniture he created.
Opening the covers that hid the weight in the Seapack’s top and bottom compartment revealed a carefully packed collection of drawings and plans. My dad was industrial designer, and many of the drawings were of items I grew up with, a desktop radio, a gas stove, the bathroom clock. Buried beneath them was the treasure, a letter-size Wilson-Jones Red Rope wallet secured with a tie string.
Inside were three pilot logbooks, a gold-embossed leather tag bearing the name M.H. Spangler USNR under the Navy’s wing’s of gold, and a small leather bifold that held a certificate that on 25 April 1945, Morris Henry Spangler, Ensign (A1)L, USNR, was certified as Naval Aviator C-26307. Opposite were two faded red United States Navy and Marine Corps Restricted Instrument Rating cards. They were good for a year, the first one expired on 27 October 1945 and the second expired on 4-9-47.
With them were a couple of pamphlets, Notes for Ensigns and Clear the Deck for Action, that prepared him for fleet duty and how to get his affairs in order before reporting aboard. There were souvenir photo packs and postcards from the Naval Air Training Center Corpus Christi, Texas, “The University of the Air.”
There were two blank announcements that the sender “has been commissioned Ensign in the United States Naval Reserve and designated Naval Aviator.” Then came a mailable collection of five “genuine photographic postcards” of the USS Wolverine, the Lake Michigan training carrier that qualified 18,000 or so aviators for shipboard operations. And there were two Christmas Cards, with the photo of an SB2C Helldiver on the front that wished the recipient a “Merry Christmas and best wishes for a Happy New Year” from Bombing Squadron 17.
Earning His Wings
In a small envelope were three sets of wings. The smallest was a small shield with an aviator’s wings between NAVY and V-5, a set of Skelly Jimmie Allen Flying Cadet wings, and aviator wings wearing the patina of time.
Before opening the logbooks that would reveal his unspoken aviation life and my aviation ancestry, I had to answer the questions posed by the smaller sets of wings. The V-5 program was for naval aviation cadets who were between 19 and 25 and had at least two years of college. That would be my dad, who graduated from Maryville High School in May 1941 and enrolled in what is now Northwest Missouri State University that fall (and where my oldest son started his collegiate education).
Wikipedia told me the Air Adventures of Jimmie Allen was a serial radio show broadcast from 1933 to 1937. Targeting a young audience, Jimmie was a 16-year-old pilot, and the 15-minute episodes recounted his flying adventures around the world. It was first broadcast by WDAF in Kansas City, which is south of where my dad grew up. Sponsored by Skelly Oil, the flying club wings were one of its promotions that listeners could apply for at any Skelly gas station.
This suggests that my dad had an unspoken interest in aviation before he joined the Navy, through the V-5 program, it seems. Without a doubt, dad was taciturn, especially about his life as a boy, but he did tell me that he spent many an afternoon at his dad’s service station making car batteries. Now I can see him listening to Jimmie Allen on the radio. (And I can listen to 123 episodes, too, on Zoot Radio, an online audio museum.)
According to the faded blue-ink cursive on the cover of the Civil Aeronautics Administration Pilot Rating Book for Navy, my dad enlisted on 11-27-42 and became a member of class 44-D at the Iowa Airplane Company, flying at the Municipal Airport in Ames, Iowa. “This rating book is for use in the Controlled Elementary and Secondary Flight Courses for Navy given under the supervision of the CAA War Training Service.”
H.L. Fisher gave my dad his first flying lesson in a 65-horst Luscombe 8A, N 25152, at 1430 on 10/4/43. They flew for 43 minutes. He scored 1s (excellent) for cockpit procedures, taxiing, take-offs, traffic pattern, straight and level, confidence maneuvers (?), normal and steep turns, approaches to landing, and landing without power. He earned 3s (average) for aptitude and judgment. And he had “some over control on st & level.”
Flying almost every day, he met the stall on Lesson 6, and his instructor remarked “too tense and tight on controls. Must relax!” On Lesson 8, he met cousin spin, and his instructor wrote, “This ride much improved over the last few.” On Lesson 12, he made a 15-minute solo flight in Luscombe N25152 on 10/23/43, after 8 hours and 10 minutes of dual instruction. Scoring 2s and 3s, his instructor, H.L. Fisher said he made “nice solo landings.”
Dad graduated from Stage A on 11/16/43, with 14:02 in his log after his 27th flying lesson. He started Stage B two days later. On it, he was approved for solo spins. To this point, except for the frequency of flight, his pilot training and mine were alike right down to the spins. Stage B introduced S-turns, figure 8s, and rectangular courses. After 19 Stage B lessons, he passed his flight check on 11-29-43 with a grade of 80%.
Aviators Flight Log Book
That’s odd. There is no log for my dad’s training in the N2S Stearman at Naval Air Station Minneapolis, just a total-time tally for Stage C (12 hours dual and 12 hours solo) and D (11.5 dual and 16 hours solo). I’m guessing it taught him the aerobatic maneuvers listed in the CAA log, and formation flying, because there was a D Form box with 7.5 hours of dual, 6 hours solo, and 1.5 hours of checkflights. M.A. Seckinger approved the log tallies on 7/21/44, so my dad did, indeed, log 65.6 hours of Minnesota winter flying in an open cockpit.
In a Vultee SNV-1 (aka BT-13 Valiant or “Vibrator”), my dad made his first training flight at NAS Corpus Christi on August 2. He flew two and three times a day, but what he learned was “instruction,” and the remarks on the 22 flights he logged by August 15 are three flights with cryptic alphanumeric codes, two A4Xs and an A9X.
With 135.9 hours total time, he advanced to the SNJ (T-6) on September 10. Again, the remarks on what he learned are cryptic alphanumerics, but the down pointing arrows at RX suggest that things did go well. Flying just once a day, my dad logged 17 flights in September, but only four flights in October, another four in November, and seven in December 1944. Hurricane’s maybe?
His training resumed on January 2, 1945, and he logged 26 SNJ flights by the end of the month. Often flying three times a day, he logged 27 flights in February. The pace continued with 221 flights in March. Somewhere I must be able to find a copy of the training curriculum. Training slowed to 10 flights in April, with his last Corpus Christi flight five days before he received his wings on April 25 with 299.4 hours total time.
In Sanford, Florida, after two 1-hour solo flights in an SNJ, my dad soloed the FM-2 Wildcat on May 16. The cryptic remarks are gone. Three FM-2 flights are remarked “Form,” and I’m assuming formation flights. The flights on May 26 and 28 say “camera,” and in the folder were two rounds of black and white 16 mm film that appears to be from a gun camera. Might this be his operational training? His flight on May 30 says “primary combat.”
Yup, I found a separate operational training sheet folded up in the back of the log. Flying with VF-6 at NAS Sanford, he made average to good rocket runs, high average run runs, average in combat tactics, and good glide bombing runs.
Things got serious in June. He logged 44 FM-2 flights between June 4 and 29. The remarks introduce oxygen, camera, advanced combat, run-in (whatever that is), nav, and rocket runs. That pace continued, with his last flight at Sanford on July 15 bringing his total time to 405.2.
On July 29, 1945, he made his first of five flights at NAS Glenview in an FM-2. He made the fifth, 1.5 hours, on August 1, with the Character of Flight listed as CL. Below it, a blue-ink stamp says: 1 AUG 1945 Qualified this date aboard the USS WOLVERINE in carrier landings in an FM-2 airplane. The log entries and total time tally of 412.2 hours is signed by F. Malinasky, Lt. Comdr, USN, Flight Officer.
World War II ended the next month, and my dad’s flight log resumes on September 14, with a 1.5-hour flight in SB2C4E, number 21070, with a passenger named Froven. The log doesn’t say how a fighter pilot ended up in a bombing squadron, but if my dad kept this part of life, maybe I can find the rest of it, his Navy record and orders in the stuff still waiting for me in the basement, and my sister’s garage.
Paging forward, he logged a dozen or so flights in the SB2C every month with VB-17, which I remember him telling me moved from NAS Fallon, Nevada, to NAS Brunswick, Maine, after the war. He ended 1945 with 447.8 hours total time. At the end of March 1946, he got some radar training in an SNB (Beech 18).
Things got interesting in June 1946. With Hansford in the backseat, my dad flew his Helldiver from Brunswick to Boston, to Long Island and back, to Floyd Bennett and back to Atlantic City, and on June 28, to Cleveland for the air show on June 29 and 30. He returned to Brunswick on July 2 in 3.5 hours. That my dad never mentioned that he was at the 1946 Cleveland Air Races, where the Blue Angles, not even a year old, introduced their new F8F Bearcats leaves me gob smacked—and envious.
The gap between July 1946 and the next page for March 1947 is unexplained, but he’s still flying the SB2C. The page after than takes him to NAS Glenview, Illinois, in June 1948. His dozen flights are about equally divided between the SB2C and SNJ. All I know for sure is that he’d logged 638 hours at the end of July 1948.
Looking at the 10 SNJ flights he made at Glenview in 1949, with the last one on December 15. It must have been his reserve obligation, but turning the pages, the mystery returns. He didn’t log any flights until September 15, 1952, when he made 21 SNJ flights that month. It started with a lot of cross-country, Glenview to Columbus to Edenton, North Carolina, to Norfolk-Cherry Point, and Nags Head. Then there was instrument flying, “local range,” and then flights from Edenton to Akron to Pittsburgh to Akron and back to Glenview. Dad, what were you doing?
Starting another logbook, that’s what. It fills in the gaps for 1950, 11 SNJ flights between March and July; 1951, 19 flights between March and November, with cross-countries to St. Louis, Milwaukee, and Burlington, Iowa. 1952 logged 25 SNJ flights between February and November, adding 19 hours for a total of 765.65. He made only eight flights in 1953, seven between March and November 21, three days before I was born, and another on December 19. My dad’s last entry was on January 23, 2954, a 2.5-hour SNJ flight for radio range orientation.
One of my life’s few regrets is that I never got to take my dad flying. We talked about it several times, but with the give and take of life and my currency as pilot in command, it just never worked out. To that, I add the regret of not being able to learn more about this part of his life, and the questions are racing in my mind now. Tell me about the Cleveland Air Show just raced past, followed by, as a reservist, why didn’t you get called up for Korea?
At the same time, I’m thankful that he saved this part of his life for my discovery, and it has shined a new light on the information I have to pass onto my kids. Fortunately, most of my life is recorded on paper, so if I don’t reveal it to my boys before I reach my expiration date, there is still a good chance they will find it if they look at things before carrying them to the dumpster. Those who keep digital records of their flying and terrestrial lives might not be so lucky. Unless they make plans to share their digital legacy, it will be lost to history, like it never existed in the first place. It is something to think about. – Scott Spangler, Editor
on Monday, October 5th, 2020 at 8:00 am and is filed under Aviation Education, Aviation History, General, History, Lifestyle, Military.
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