Pages 19 & 20
That November I was approached by the Signal Corps, U.S. Army, through Major Mitchell's recommendation, to become Chief Instructor of its new aviation training program which Major Brinkley was getting underway. Although a civilian position, it was one I felt duty bound to accept in view of the imminence of war for the U. S. The program started at Ashburn Field, Chicago, that December where I was joined by my best pilot friends, Mesers. Hill, Lees and Macauley. We did some instructing there between shivers and shakesand turns at the indifferent fire in the headquarters building. The inadequacy of that Field because of weather was obvious, and finally a squadron was formed and supplied with many crates of new Jennys under the command of Captain Joe Morrow and Lieutenant Arthur Christie. We entrained for Memphis, Tenn., to start instructing cadets in the local half mile race track surrounded by fences, trees and a grandstand.
Before going there, however, I returned to Hampton to be with Charlotte when she went to the Hampton Hospital, Negro operated, across the street from our home to give birth to our fourth child, Virginia. later, the family joined me in a house rented in Memphis.
There were no serious accidents that winter at the Race Track which spoke for the high calibre of instructors with me and under Capt. Morrow with Lt. Christie. Major Ralph Royce also joined us whose friendship, along with Morrow and Christie's I have always valued highly. Many of our students made names for themselves in flying and some in action overseas. I particularly enjoyed training "Slim" Shroeder and Jack Foote. There "Al" Johnson acquired the name of Steamroller "Al" for landing and heading straight for a large steam roller which he lightly hit being unable to control the Jenny in a wind. Regardless of the conditions daily flying was conducted and much accomplished before returning to Ashburn Field in late April of 1917.
During July we were ordered into a mass flight of 23 planes to our new operating base of Rantoul Airport just becoming completed, which flight the newsmen claimed was some sort of record. Once there we civilians were not permitted to take our meals at the officer's mess which forced us to drive to town and eat at inferior restaurants which created much ill feeling. Christie, who had become a Captain, influenced my transfer to his new post at Wilbur Wright Field, Ohio, where I remained the rest of that year until placed in charge of the new Instructors School, Lake Charles, La., just before Christmas. At Wilbur Wright we lived in crude double army quarters and I was amused one day to walk into the Canteen to find young Vic perched on a counter being fed candy and pennies by soldiers - our children were popular there. On each change duty location I'd sell my Ford and buy a new one at the new station, as I could be priority. "Tin Lizzies" cost between $425 and $550 those years.
Enroute to Lake Charles I dropped the family off at Charlotte's sisters, Mrs. E. D. Johnston's country home. Assisted by a fine group of carefully selected pilot instructors at Lake Charles we developed a course and method of instruction to young pilots that permitted them to be assigned as instructors at other Fields and was so continued after we civilian instructors received an ultimatum to either accept a commission as 2nd. Lieutenant or be released. I immediately submitted my resignation to Commandant Col. Ned Goodier as there was no use remonstrating to Army Brass in Washington. Immediately I went to Washington, but first stepped off for a short visit with my family.
One afternoon on the Johnson farm I was assisting workmen building a new barn when a 2 X 4 was accidentally dropped from a scaffold tearing a gash in my scalp and forehead. It could easily have killed me, but did not keep me from attending a possum hunt that night during which I was fed copious drafts of corn liquor to keep me going which proved quite efficient. Nor will I ever forget the going away party Ed Johnston and friends gave me one night before catching the 2:30 AM train for Washington.
Upon arriving in Washington I went to Navy headquarters, saw some friends there, was given a physical examination that afternoon, accepted, and inducted as a Lieutenant, U.S.N.R.F., comparable to a Captain in the army. When ushered into the senior officer's office to report I was dumfounded to find none other than Commander (Jack) Towers and I saluted in accordance with my army training. All that Towers said was, "In the Navy, Mr. Vernon, we do not salute uncovered. As a test pilot you will report to Lieutenant Doherty at the Anacostia Naval Air Station. That's all." Now that was nice and friendly of him.