Our squadron went on the attack in support of the Third U.S. War Bond Drive. We bombed El Centro with “Buy War Bonds” leaflets.
Mid-morning, we swept in from the West—wave after wave, in close formation—and we roared across El Centro at rooftop level. That rattled the windows and brought out the crowds.
Beyond the fringes of town, we fanned out in high climbing turns, regrouped, and swept back over the town again, this time dropping leaflets. We continued this escapade for awhile, crisscrossing El Centro, buzzing the rooftops with a roar.
Finally, our little War Bond disturbance ended. We wagged our wings and withdrew across the desert, returning to base.
A couple of days later, the Imperial Valley Press gave us a warm salute in their lead editorial. I didn’t read the “Letters to the Editor” column.
At about the same time, I received my appointment as a first lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps. That meant silver bars and a small increase in monthly pay.
“Always remember, you fly an airplane with your head, not your hands. Never let a plane take you somewhere your brain didn’t get to minutes or even seconds earlier.”
An old Marine instructor barked out those words of advice during close formation training at Corpus Christi. Months later, I mulled over his words at El Centro, the long night following Ox Wilson’s tragic accident.
Formation work is how most military flying is done. By this time in our final combat training, tight formation work was second nature.
We were experienced. We were confident. At the end of a simulated dive bombing attack, for example, we would climb rapidly back into a defensive formation. We would close in tight. Routine stuff.
On that ill-fated day over the Salton Sea, however, it was far from routine.
Regrouping after a fast skip bombing run, Ox Wilson had almost regained altitude and was moving into position on Jim O’Rourke’s left wing when it happened. Ox slid into position too fast—too close.
Ox’s prop cut into the fuel tank and sliced on into the cockpit of O’Rourke’s plane—and into the Irishman’s left leg. An immediate fireball explosion erupted. O’Rourke was blown clear. Both planes were aflame. And Ox bailed out of his fiery cockpit.