By Gail Lee Martin
Flying with the Photo Reconnaissance Squadrons during World War II, Ralph Martin, a farm kid from Greenwood County, Kansas felt like he was mapping the whole world. Leaving the farm and home in 1941, Ralph went to Wichita to work at Boeing to do his part to help win the war. But after working in a sheet metal department for a little over a year, he decided he would rather fly the planes than cut sheet metal to make them. Even though he had advanced to crew chief in charge of a 16-woman workforce.
In October of 1942, this Kansas Jayhawker went to Fort Riley and enlisted in the Army Air Corps. During the flight training that followed Ralph saw a great deal of his own country. Ralph’s hometown weekly newspaper, The Madison News, literally became a bulletin board of information on the men and women in the services for their country, from the northern half of Greenwood County.
The newspaper published the change of address, as the trainees were sent from one area to another. This kept letters flowing from the close-knit farming community and helped improve the morale of the homesick farm kids. The newspaper bulletins made it possible to keep in touch with other friends and classmates in service and scattered all over the world. The paper printed those names registering for the draft, new inductees, those that were killed or missing in action and even complete letters from the service men and women were printed.
Ralph started his basic training January 29, 1943, in Jefferson Barracks, Jefferson, Missouri. There he discovered life in the service was not as he had envisioned when he decided to learn to fly. Ralph related, “Missouri’s winter weather that year was COLD and I had to live in a coal-heated tent with eight other fellows for the next three months. It was a good thing I grew up in a big family. January and February were so cold the water in the bucket would freeze overnight. When standing guard duty we were issued ‘broom handles’ instead of guns. I don’t think we shot a single suspicious person.” Ralph can laugh about it now but it wasn’t laughable 60 years ago.
This experience was followed by a couple of months back-to-school with study in the classroom and flight instruction in a piper cub airplane at the Hershey Barracks at the Iowa Wesleyan College in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa.
In July of 1943, he was dispatched to Santa Anna, California for a little more advanced training. In August he was sent to the Mira Loma flight academy in Oxnard, California for primary flight training in a Boeing Stearman bi-wing trainer.
The next three month, including Christmas, was spent in Tucson, Arizona at the Marana Air Force Base, learning advanced flying on a T-6 Texas trainer. Early in 1944, the want-to-be pilot was sent to Williams Field in Chandler, Arizona, which had an enormous year-round swimming pool that made up a little for having to spend his first Christmas away from home. It was certainly different from the snowy Christmas that Ralph was used to back home. Here Ralph’s training included eight hours of flying the AT-9s and ten hours flying the ‘bullet fast’ P-38s. Finally, he was flying the planes of his dreams.
On the ground, Ralph mastered the Commando Training course with the slogans “ Toughening Up Over There” and “Rough’Em Up Over There” giving him the determination to follow through. At the end of his training March 12, 1944, he graduated with the Silver Wings of a 2nd Lieutenant. After completion of that phase of training, Lt. Martin volunteered for Photo Reconnaissance duty, to be sure of flying his treasured P-38s. This even stationed him closer to home at Will Rogers’ Field near Oklahoma City allowing him to at least fly over the old home place in Kansas.
Sightseeing around the United States came to an end in mid-1944 as he finished his training. The Air Force flew Ralph from Atlanta, Georgia on July 4, stopping briefly in Florida, then flying through South America, Africa, and India to Kumming, China. There they joined the 21st Photo Reconnaissance, which was a part of General Chenault’s 14th Air force or The Flying Tigers as they were called. This way of seeing the world was different than the camping, service style, back in the Good Old USA.
During his time in China, this Kansas Jayhawker flew over what looked like the entire world taking aerial photographs as far west as Mandalay in Burma; north to Mukden near the Russian border. In between were strange-sounding names like Nanking, Canton, Amoy, Formosa, Hengyang, Wenchow, and Changsha soon became familiar spots on the pilot’s map. These flights were just a one-man crew flying a P-38 with a camera mounted on the nose and one on each wing tip that took pictures from horizon to horizon. Lt. Martin was one of six American pilots to receive The Chinese Pilot’s Wings from Colonel Tiger Wong, chief of the Chinese Air Force for photo coverage for China.
During 1944 and 1945 this flying Kansan proudly called his P-38 the JAYHAWK and had one painted on the nose of his plane. He explained, “The Jayhawk was the best known Kansas symbol in those days and I thought it would look good and it did. A local Chinese did the graphic of the Jayhawk as good as the original picture I received from home.”
It was on a mission in March 1945 that this Greenwood County farm boy was awarded “The Distinguished Flying Cross.” Lt. Martin flew the first American photo assignment over Nanjing, Shanghai, and Hangchow on the east coast of China. Neither the U.S. nor the Chinese had aerial maps of the country that far east. The Lieutenant flew by the tracings of an old escape and evasive map drawn on silk.
It was an eight-hour flight at the maximum altitude of 35,000 feet to be above the enemy planes. The Japanese could only fly 28,000 feet high and the American photo reconnaissance planes were not equipped with guns. In the non-pressurized P-38 the pilot experienced extremely cold temperature at that altitude. Ralph had plenty of time to wish he was back in Missouri training with just buckets of water that froze overnight.
Lt. Martin’s tour of duty came to an end when the ‘BOMB’ was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At that time Ralph was on a ship in the harbor at Colombo, Ceylon, headed for home, his tour of service was over. When he docked on the east coast near Boston, he knew he never wanted to set foot on another ship, if he couldn’t fly he would stay on the ground. Ralph’s only regret in heading home was leaving the Jayhawk behind.
The adventures of Ralph Martin can be traced along with many other Greenwood County service men and women in three bulging scrapbooks in the Greenwood County Museum in Eureka, Kansas. The scrapbooks were compiled by Ralph’s mother, Cora, from the items she clipped each week from the Madison News.
(This was a cover story published in Kanhistique, April 1996 and a revised version in The Wichita Eagle Friday, November 10, 2000, in a special edition titled, DUTY, HONOR, COUNTRY.)