Those were the days: An Oregon Airman remembers the Oregon Maneuver of 1943

  • Published
  • By Commentary by Army Air Corps Tech. Sgt. Fred Parish, research by Lt. Col. Terrence Popravak, jr. (ret.)
  • 142nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs History
Aug. 1 marks 70 years since the start of the largest military maneuver ever held in the Pacific Northwest - the Oregon Maneuver of 1943. This is my recollection of the events of that maneuver, which lasted for 90 days, from Aug. 1 to Oct. 31, 1943.

I was an original member of the 123rd Observation Squadron of the Oregon National Guard. Through prior training in emergency services and leadership training in the Boy Scouts of America, I was able to advance fairly steadily as a medic in the Army Air Corps.

After entering federal service with the 123OS, I was transferred to the newly-created 26th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron to organize their medical detachment. I then attended the School of Aviation Medicine in Texas to become a certified flight surgeon's assistant, and then transferred to Headquarters, 70th Tactical Reconnaissance Group, as medical section chief for the group. My job was to coordinate and administer the medical services for all of the squadrons in the group. It was in this capacity that I participated in the Oregon Maneuver.

One Man's Recollection
The following includes some of my observations and experiences. Some are of general interest, some humorous, some painful, some troublesome and some rewarding. I either participated in or actually witnessed these events. Some incidents were told to me by others and I cannot guarantee their accuracy because it is hearsay. Since it has been 70 years since these events took place, I ask the reader's indulgence with the accuracy of my memory. Someone else might have a differing version.

For Oregonians familiar with the beauty and attractiveness of our central Oregon area, it may be difficult to imagine how that picturesque portion of our state accommodated such a huge military undertaking. Imagine if you can, adding more than 100,000 soldiers and their war equipment to that sparsely populated part of our state. Think about the impact on our secondary roads and important highways. The adjustments in the lives of the local ranchers, business people and other residents were capably handled in true American style. Also consider the logistics of providing food and other services for all those soldiers preparing for battle. It was quite an endeavor!

More than 10,000 square miles of snowcapped mountains, forests, sagebrush, beautiful lakes, rushing streams, volcanic wasteland and desert became occupied by wall-to-wall army troops - military forces including infantry, armor, artillery, engineering and air support personnel. The area involved or touched seven counties and four national forests including Deschutes, Ochoco, Fremont and Malheur. Vast tracts of sagebrush and juniper land administered by the government were involved. It was a gigantic undertaking in preparing our troops for war.

Redhawks at Redmond
The Oregon National Guard's first aviation unit, the 123rd Observation Squadron, participated in the Oregon Maneuver. After going on active duty in late 1941, the unit was re-named in April, 1943 as the 123rd Reconnaissance Squadron. On or about the commencement of the maneuver, the designation was changed yet again to the 35th Photo Reconnaissance Squadron. The 35PRS later became known as the Red Hawks. There is no doubt that the training and experiences of the Oregon Maneuver better prepared the 35PRS for their later duties in China, where they served with pride and distinction. Today (2013), the squadron is part of the 142nd Fighter Wing at the Portland Air National Guard base and is now known as the 123rd Fighter Squadron.

In the Oregon Maneuver, the 35PRS, together with the 26th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron, the 116th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron, and the 112th Liaison Squadron, was part of the 70th Tactical Reconnaissance Group. The group was commanded by Lt. Col. G. Robert Dodson, who was the first commander of the 123rd Observation Squadron and one of the founding fathers of the Oregon Air National Guard.

As I remember, our aircraft included P-39 Airacobra fighters and B-25 Mitchell medium bombers flown out of Redmond Army Airfield, and L-5 Sentinel liaison planes flown out of Camp Abbot (now known more commonly as Sunriver Resort).

The purposes of military maneuvers are to test the effectiveness of men and equipment under realistic battlefield conditions - to train and exercise soldiers and commanders in the most effective ways to utilize their forces. The rugged terrain of central Oregon presented some severe challenges to mimic actual battlefield conditions.

The Army and the Locals
Before the troops arrived for the maneuver, Army public relations had contacted literally all of the local property owners, ranchers, and business owners and told them what they could expect during our stay in their area. The locals were advised that there could be possible damage to their fences and properties due to military activity. They were provided with claim forms on which they could list the damages and the cost of repairs or restorations once the maneuver was over, but I never heard of a single complaint. This is a testimony to the wholesome attitudes of the public in their support of our military during World War II.

As we arrived at our assigned bivouac area, it was obvious that the Army had already arrived and had pretty well taken over a large portion of central Oregon. Troops were everywhere, and there were tents and military equipment scattered from Madras to Burns and from Sisters to Valley Falls. Wherever one looked, the entire countryside was filled with troops - some 100,000 men. There may have been women, too, but I don't recall seeing any during this maneuver.

Upon arriving at Redmond, we set up our bivouac area adjacent to the Redmond Army Airfield. Medics were put in charge of establishing the various sanitary, hygienic, waste treatment and garbage disposal facilities necessary in a field bivouac environment. Of course, one of the very necessary jobs was to provide the pits for latrines and wastewater disposal.

Not long after crews were dispatched to dig the pits, we learned that the crews could only dig to a depth of 18 to 24 inches before running into a layer of impenetrable volcanic lava rock. This information came in from several locations so a call was put in to an engineering unit, which sent a crew to drill dynamite holes into the lava and create the pits with the use of explosives. Their first attempts were unsuccessful because, in some cases, the explosions blew downward into fissures in the lava. The explosives sergeant then had his men drill shallower holes, still resulting in latrine pits of considerable depth. Other crews erected rough, temporary latrines over these pits and everyone was happy.

The weather was quite hot in August and the guys unfamiliar with central Oregon grumbled quite a bit about expecting to have trouble sleeping at night due to the heat. Little did they know that in the high desert of Oregon, temperatures generally plunge at night and, as predicted, their sleep was disturbed - not from the heat, but rather from them being too cold. A line formed at the supply tent the next with morning with soldiers seeking additional blankets.

Rattlesnakes and Scorpions
Because of the arid nature of central Oregon, it is home to rattlesnakes and scorpions. We cautioned the men to always be on the alert to avoid these critters. It is known that rattlesnakes love to crawl into warm boots at night, so we had them drive two stakes into the ground near their sleeping area on which to hang their boots upside down. We also got into the habit of shaking out boots in the morning just to be sure they were free of unwanted critters, and checked sleeping bags and/or blanket beds before climbing in at night. There was more than one instance of a snake or scorpion in someone's bed.

In reality, we did not have a snakebite incident with our Air Corps troops during the entire maneuver, although one poor fellow was stung by a scorpion while answering a call to nature.

The pain must have had been incredible because - on a scale of one to ten - his vocal utterances were at least a fifteen. I think they must have been heard in Tokyo. Under our field conditions, we did not have the facilities to deal with this case so we packed the affected area in ice and transported the patient to the field hospital at Camp Abbot. He recovered, but the word got around and our men became much more vigilant.

In another memory, some of the men wanted to go swimming so we found a suitable swimming spot on the Deschutes River. I was designated a lifeguard and was equipped with a long rope tied to an inflated inner tube to be used in the event anyone got into trouble in the water. Also, a loaded rifle was part of our gear just in case of snakes. After I issued warning instructions to the men regarding the buddy system and what to do when the whistle blew, they enjoyed a great and refreshing swim. At some point, a snake was spotted swimming from the opposite shore toward our swimmers. Three blasts from the whistle resulted in about 25 men departing the water faster than the F-15 Eagle fighter jets piloted by the Red Hawks. Then we had the fun of trying our marksmanship on that poor little snake. We emptied the rifle, but as far as I'm concerned, that snake may still be alive today.

Surgery by Flashlight
One evening, a bunch of guys came to the medical area with one of their buddies who had sustained a laceration on his ear. We never did learn whether the injury was the result of a fall or whether it may have been the result of a brawl.

After examining the wound, the flight surgeon, Capt. McGregor, decided that, although the wound was in a tricky area, he could suture the ear back together on site and avoid a trip to one of the field hospitals. But the inside of a medical tent is quite dark so we found a number of flashlights to focus on the injury while the worked.

Meanwhile, several medics were directed to locate a field generator (also called a put-put) to provide better lighting. It didn'tt take long for them to find the needed generator and, although they were difficult to start, our guys finally got the thing going. The lighting improved for the surgeon, however one of the characteristics of those generators was to quit running at the most inconvenient of moments. You guessed it - the surgeon had to finish the job by flashlight.

Of Sage and Searches
One night, I remember our flight surgeon received a report that a B-25 aircraft (probably one belonging to the 35PRS) had developed a severe vibration problem out over the desert region near the tiny town of Wagontire, population 2, along Highway 395 between Bend and Burns. The pilot, not knowing the cause of the problem, ordered his crew to bail out and he then gently coaxed the plane in a large circle and was able to land safely at Redmond. The problem proved to be minor and the repairs simple, but we credit the pilot with saving a valuable airplane. But then we had the challenge of locating his missing crew.

Before departing for the bailout area, we loaded two ambulances with extra blankets, rations, water and first aid supplies. Our goal was to find the five fliers and, if necessary, to get them into field hospitals as quickly as possible. Capt. Leo F. Rogers, our group's dentist, rode with me throughout the search.

When we arrived at the bailout area, we found that the commanding officer of an infantry outfit had witnessed part of the bailout and had already dispatched several two-man teams in jeeps at quarter-mile intervals to head off into the sagebrush on search missions. They were to search for a distance of about two miles cross-country away from the highway, make a left turn and proceed for a couple hundred yards, turn left again, and return to the highway. It was a well-organized search plan in the dark of night.

We joined the search with our four-by-four ambulances and really gave our mechanized equipment a workout as we bounced over the rough terrain. As daylight approached, we still had not found our fliers. Since my gas tank was running low, Dr. Rogers engaged a sentry guarding a gasoline dump while I filled a couple of Jerry cans and managed to get us refueled so we would not be stranded in the high desert.

As soon as there was enough light to see, a couple of L-5 liaison planes with the 112th Liaison Squadron joined the search and located all five of the men. First aid kits were dropped as close to these men as possible. We had no radio communications with the aircraft so the pilots waggled their wings to indicate the individual locations of our fliers. Two of crewmembers required transportation by ambulance. I had one man in my ambulance with a broken leg and one who had sustained a minor but bloody bump on his head.

With the two downed Airmen, I was soon on the way to Camp Abbot's field hospital. In that area, the highway is straight for miles. I cautioned the patient with the head injury, who was riding in the passenger seat beside me, to keep track of my driving because I was quite tired and sleepy after the long night of searching. He later awakened me because we were approaching a curvy portion of the road. I asked him how long I had been sleeping and he said that I had been asleep for about ten minutes and that he had been steering the ambulance with his left hand.

We finally made it into Bend, where I downed a quick cup of coffee to jolt me awake and then proceeded to the hospital. Once I delivered the patients, I headed back to Redmond, but before getting back to base, I pulled off the road for another short cat nap. It was only minutes before the MPs came along and ordered me to wake up and get back to the Redmond Airbase.

Venison Vittles
One of the daily activities of our mess crew was to have one of their guys take a six-by-six truck to Bend each morning to get our food supplies. One morning on a return trip, they accidently hit and killed a deer. Not knowing what to do, they threw the deer into the back of the truck and brought it to the base. A couple of our medics gutted and skinned the deer and turned the meat back over to the mess crew, who cooked up a venison feed for our evening meal.

As you already know, the Army mess kit is divided into two sections, but most meals involve more than two items. Consequently, it is necessary for those two sections to accommodate several kinds of foods. It always amused me that some very strange food combinations were served one on top of the other in our mess kits. My personal favorite was a combination of roast beef, mashed potatoes, gravy, vegetables, bread and jam with a very nice helping of Jell-O or canned peaches over the top of everything. To this day, it doesn't bother me to have my food mixed together and my family thinks I am nuts. Doesn't everyone do this?

Mitchell Medical Mayhem
I remember once, upon the return from an air mission, when our B-25 Mitchell bomber parked on the tarmac and the crew climbed down from the belly hatch to the tarmac. The crew chief was Master Sgt. Bill "Rocky" Rockwell, another original member of the 123OS, and he was the last to leave the plane. As he descended, he missed the step and fell through the hatch onto the concrete below. I saw him fall and upon reaching Rocky, I knew instantly that he was badly hurt. His ankle was obviously deformed, and the lower end of his leg bone was badly damaged and twisted to one side. Capt. McGregor was on the scene almost at once and tried to re-position the ankle, but the pain was so intense that the doctor decided Rocky should be transported to a field hospital so the ankle could be realigned under a general anesthetic. Our flight surgeon diagnosed the injury as a Colles' type fracture of the ankle.

We packed the ankle in ice to control swelling and put Rocky on a stretcher for transport aboard our four-by-four ambulance. We arrived at the field hospital near Sisters and encountered an irritable Army doctor who had a lot of nasty things to say about the "...dumb Air Corps doctors" who failed to reduce the fracture before transportation. That was one instance when I almost lost control of my wagging tongue and placed myself in danger of significant military discipline. Of course, I knew better than to verbally cross the line in the sand, but that is one time when my feelings almost got in the way of good sense.

Note: Because of the seriousness of his injury, Rocky was moved from hospital to hospital and received a series of surgeries over a period of several months. His injury later prevented him from serving overseas in the war, but he stayed with the Army Air Corps (later called the Air Force) after the war and served out his time. He retired in California.

Desert Rock and Roll
As the Oregon Maneuver wore on, some of our Master and Technical Sergeants (including me) got a bit careless about showing up on time for roll call out on the flight line early in the morning. The first sergeant was not amused by this and naming names, he instructed all of us offenders to report to his tent immediately after breakfast one day. Each of us had other additional duties, but the first sergeant was not interested in our excuses. He took us on a detailed walk around and through the bivouac area and pointed out the driveways and pathways that he wanted outlined with the red volcanic lava rock that was prevalent in the area. We were instructed to report to him when we were finished, although he intended it to be a big job lasting most of the day.

One of the other "guilty" Master Sergeants was motor pool chief. When the first sergeant disappeared into his orderly room tent, the motor pool sergeant hot-footed it to the motor pool and returned with a jeep towing a large, heavy-duty trailer. We rambled out through the sagebrush and juniper trees to load the trailer brimming full of the required pumice and then commenced to outline the driveways and paths as ordered. Whenever possible, we stretched the space between the rocks. We loaded the trailer several times and worked very hard and fast to complete the assigned work by about 10:30 a.m. that morning. If we had not had the Jeep and trailer, it would have taken us most of the day. We got rid of the mechanized equipment before reporting that our work was complete, and the first sergeant was dumbfounded that we had completed the project so rapidly. We each returned to our sections and normal duties but attendance at roll call was much improved afterward.

One of the real challenges of the ground troops was the very fine volcanic (pumice) dust stirred up by the mechanized equipment (principally tanks) as they went about their activities. It was reported that there was a dust cloud up to 4,000 feet. This dust was particularly hard on both men and equipment. The men had to adjust to wearing tight-fitting goggles and breathing through paper masks. The dust required air cleaners be cleaned or replaced frequently and the grit deteriorated moving parts rapidly.

As Redmond was a wartime training base for bombers, a squadron of B-24 Liberator heavy bombers was stationed there and in the last stages of training for overseas duty as we held our maneuver. The B-24s were not a part of the maneuver. Almost every day, they were off on distant training missions to such places as Alaska, the east coast or southern California. Sometimes their missions were flown at night.

One evening, while it was still daylight, several of us were riding in a Jeep returning from a trip to Redmond. In order to reach the bivouac area, it was necessary to cross the very end of the runway where the bombers ran up their engines prior to take-off. One of the Liberators was at the end of the runway with engines idling. We stopped and waited because we did not want to experience the severe prop-wash developed by the four big propellers of the plane.

After several minutes, the idling bomber had not moved and we were getting a bit impatient just sitting there. Our patience finally ran out so we skirted behind the B-24 in hopes that the pilots would not decide to take off at the same time. But, our luck did not hold and the plane revved up for take-off. Rocks, debris, and sand hit us with the vigor of a tornado and almost tipped us over. The only thing I could do was stomp on the gas pedal of that Jeep and get across the runway with all possible haste. Our vehicle was fortunately was not damaged, but some of the riders were hit by flying rocks. We still wonder if those bomber flyboys decided to have a bit of fun at our expense. Before our maneuvers were over, the bomber squadron departed Redmond and headed for the war.

Spinning 360 in a Six-by-Six
The Oregon Maneuver ended Oct. 31, and I believe it was Nov. 2 when we were loaded into the back of a six-by-six rag-top truck with a very young soldier from one of our southern states at the wheel. A 2nd Lieutenant rode in the passenger seat. I doubt that driver had any experience driving on snow or ice. Everything went smoothly until we passed Suttle Lake, west of Sisters, and noted that the big lake was completely frozen over to an unknown depth. The highway was intermittently coated with snow and ice patches. We continued over Santiam pass, but those of us in the back of the truck were a bit apprehensive as our driver descended the west side of the mountains at a speed more suitable for dry pavement.

All went well until we approached the junction where the road separated with one fork going to Salem and the other to Albany and Corvallis. We were on our way to Corvallis. The driver did not know which road to take so he hit the brakes and we went into a 360-degree spin on the ice before coming to a stop and facing the correct direction. Being a native Oregonian and familiar with those roads, I yelled to the Lieutenant to take the left fork. We completed the trip safely, but that was one spin on the ice I will never forget.

And On to the War
After the maneuver, the 100,000 men returned to their various home bases, and many units then prepared to go overseas. Of the Army divisions that participated, the 91st Infantry Division was sent to Italy; the 96th to the Philippines, and the 104th to Germany. The 35PRS served in China as part of the 14th Air Force. Personally, I ended up as medical section chief for Headquarters, 8th Photographic Reconnaissance Group, in the 10th Air Force and served in India and Burma.

In Retrospect
Our experience in support of the Army ground troops was quite positive. Without a doubt, it prepared us to cope with various adversities that we later encountered overseas in our part to win the war. While I would not describe the maneuver as being fun, it was interesting and we did benefit by what we learned. No doubt we did a better job when the chips were down.

Today, 70 years later, there is hardly a trace revealing that the largest military maneuver in the history of the Pacific Northwest was held in the heart of the state of Oregon. But it remains in the memories of those like me who participated in this historic maneuver, and Oregon's Red Hawks are still flying in service to the state and nation.

As Archie Bunker and Edith would sing, "Those were the days!"