With their own country occupied by Germany, French air cadets came to Alabama to learn to fly. Vive la Dixie!
- By Janelle Dupont
- Air & Space magazine, March 2004
(Page 3 of 7)
Ed Vorrier was stuck with instructor duty because the military thought his name sounded French. He protested that he was of German-Irish descent and spoke no French, but to no avail. He eventually learned French on the job. Some air fields offered French courses for the U.S. instructors, though the instructors I interviewed years later don’t recall them.
The first detachment of French air cadets, about 100 enlisted men and officers, left Africa and sailed for the States on June 14, 1943. On arrival, a train took them to Craig Field for processing.
Years later, I asked one of that first group, René Levêque, what he thought of Alabama.
“Alabama? Alabama? What did I care about Alabama? We were in America!”
Jean Pichon, who arrived with the second French detachment, was amazed at what he saw. He had grown up in Bordeaux, and when he’d left the previous year, the town had been battered by food shortages, blackouts, and executions carried out by the Germans at night. Pichon remembers well his first impressions of 1943 America: “Everyone was happy. There were factories going, there was work, money, plenty to eat. And at night everything was lit up!” At his first meal at an Air Forces facility, he couldn’t believe all the food laid out: eggs, butter, meat, milk…
The young recruits received their primary training at the Alabama Institute of Aeronautics at Van de Graaf Field, near Tuscaloosa, a field that had been recently carved out of farmland. Civilian instructors conducted primary training through interpreters, including, according to the Tuscaloosa News, “Mrs. Marguerite Taliaferro, a University French teacher, and Mrs. Gerrie Thielens, Tuscaloosa author.” On the flightline, instructors told students what maneuvers they would practice, and the translators did their best to explain the upcoming lesson. The News described the process as follows: “Before flying periods American instructors address Frenchmen on the flightline in long slow voices. Interpreters, waiting for convenient pauses, blaze out the same thing in lightning French.
“The students, on an average of 22 to 24 years old, lean and blackened by the African sun, listen eagerly, hang on every word.”
In PT-17 Stearman trainers, instructors used hand signals to indicate the next maneuver, such as a climbing turn, a lazy-eight, or a power-on stall. (Later, hand signals were standardized and explained in French-language instructional materials.) René Levêque recalled inflight communication in his Aerospace Historian article: “The PT-17 Stearman used in primary training in 1943 was a 200 hp biplane with a narrow undercarriage, an open cockpit, only basic instruments, and no electronic intercom system. When the instructor had something to say, he talked into a kind of funnel, hoping that the roar of the engine, the hiss of the slipstreams, and the lack of concentration, or the bewilderment of his student did not cancel his message. When his words did reach attentive ears, it was always garbled, and almost invariably in a foreign language. Well planned lessons previewed on the ground with the instructor and a translator and strictly adhered to in the air were a must, with arms, head, finger, and hand language to the rescue.”