Don Bunger was in “Class 45-B,” the last class of pursuit pilots to graduate from Carlstrom Field in Arcadia, Fla. at the end of World War II. He soloed and got his wings flying a Stearman PT-17 two cockpit biplane just days before the program closed for good.
“We sat in the front cockpit and the instructor sat in the back cockpit,” the 91-year-old former aviator recalled. “Because we were being trained to be pursuit pilots we had to learn to do aerobatics.
“We’d take the plane and go up to 5,000 feet and do hammerhead stalls. The plane would stall and fall back toward the ground in a spin. Our instructor would tell us how many turns he wanted us to do before we pulled out of the spin. We’d kick it to come out of the stall and when we did we had to find a road and bisect the road at a perfect 90 degree angle,” Bunger said.
He admits he wasn’t the best aviator in the flying squadron. His queasy stomach was partially the blame for his less-than-brilliant flying success. His stomach was almost his undoing.
“I had an unfriendly stomach. Every other day our instructor would check us out. On the off days we’d fly alone in our PT-17s,” he said. “At the end of two months of flight training I failed to solo twice because of my stomach. My instructor told me on my third try, ‘You’re proficient in your aerobatics, but you’re gonna wash out if you can’t control your stomach.’
“On my third try I soloed. It was the greatest day of my life,” he said. “Since then I’ve never had any problems with my stomach.”
Bunger arrived at Carlstrom from Maxwell Air Force Base outside Montgomery, Ala. where they took Preflight Training. It was 1944 and he was 21 years old. While working and going to college at night he signed up for the Air Force when he was 20. That way he avoided the draft at 21.
“I was sworn in at Indianapolis, Ind. and from there was sent to Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis, Mo. for basic training. After basic they put me in a radar program and I was about to be sent to London, England to take care of the sky over London. At the last minute the trip was cancelled,” Bunger recalled.
“Because I had a couple of college course before going in the service I was eligible to sign up for the Army’s Aviation Cadet Program. I got in the program and was sent to Maxwell for preflight training,” Bunger said. “Then we took a train ride from Maxwell to Arcadia. We had the whole train to ourselves. It was a day-and-a-half adventure.
“When we arrived at the train station in downtown Arcadia it was July 1944 and hot. They put us on waiting trucks and took us to the field a short distance away,” he recalled almost 70 years later.”
Emery-Riddle Flight School was running the flight school at Carlstrom. It was pretty much a civilian operation.
“We lived in a two story wooden barrack that was very nice. I lived in a room with four other cadets, all from Pennsylvania,” he said. “The best thing about the civilian operation, there was no K.P. When we went to the chow hall we ate on a table with a white table cloth using china with silverware. It was very, very nice.
“Our mornings were spent in class learning navigation, engine mechanics or other necessary pursuits. They would flash silhouettes of enemy pursuit planes on the screen for an instant we had to identify.
“The other half of the day we flew our Stearmans,” Bunger said. “We were taught by civilian instructors from Emery-Riddle in Daytona Beach.
“We got Sundays off and would take a truck into town for the day. We’d get off near the train station. On the corner about a half block away was a church–a group of church ladies ran an ice cream stand with homemade ice cream for the servicemen. They gave us free ice cream.”
Seven decades later Bunger said, “I always thought it was a wonderful thing for those church people to do.”
In addition, he carried a card in his wallet from the Arcadia Veterans of Foreign Wars that said he was in the AVIATION CADET CLUB. This allowed Bunger access to the VFW.
After completing his flight training in Arcadia the war was winding down quickly, he was transferred to a B-29 bomber squadron based at Shreveport, La.
“Because of my previous radar training I became a radar repair technician on B-29s.
Several months later he was reassigned as a records clerk at a base in Savannah, Ga. He spent the last few months of his 40 months in the service at a desk until he received his discharge on Jan. 5, 1946.
“My son, Donald, was born the day after I got out of the Army Air Corps,” Bunger said.
He and his wife, Flora, eventually got into the floor covering, kitchen and bathroom fixtures business in Hammond, Ill. The couple ran the business for more than 30 years, until they retired to Florida in 1980. They have been married 67 years.
Besides, Donald, Jr., who runs a similar floor covering, kitchen and bathroom business, their daughter, Gayle, is a professor at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va.
Don had three older brothers in the Army in World War II:
* Fred served in the Philippines.
* Charles fought in Germany.
* George saw service in the China, Burma, India Campaign.
* Don was in Arcadia learning to fly.
Name: Donald M. Bunger
D.O.B: 26 March 1921
Hometown: Hammond, Ind.
Currently: Port Charlotte, Fla.
Entered Service: 1943
Discharged: 5 Jan. 1946
Unit: Aviation Cadet Program
Commendations: WWII Victory medal, Good Conduct medal
This appeared in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, Feb. 4, 2013 and is republished with permission.
Click here to view Bunger’s collection in the Library of Congress Veterans History Project. His interview with Don is uploaded to view, as well.
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