As told to John Howsden
I chose to be a flight navigator because I did not want to be a part of the killing in the war. Yet as navigator, I knew if I made a mistake in my calculations, my fellow crewmembers could get killed.
— Raymon Dambacher
Growing up in Sonora
I grew up on a 120-acre ranch at the corner of what is now Mono Way and Peaceful Oak Road with my parents and two brothers – one older and one younger.
It was wide open country back then with very few amenities. Matter of fact, my mother insisted that the delivery of all of her children be handled by a doctor in Oakland. My mom was a registered nurse who worked with this doctor, and she felt only he could do the job right.
As a child, I didn’t know that I had dyslexia. It wasn’t until I was 55 years old that I became aware of it. Having dyslexia, I had a hard time understanding my schoolbooks and avoided them at all costs. Instead I chose to hunt. I hunted rabbits, quail and deer. I got plenty of rabbits and quail, but I never shot a deer. I just couldn’t get one to stand still long enough to shoot one.
Not understanding my textbooks caused me to do poorly in school. In eighth grade the teacher wanted to hold me back, but they needed room for new students, so they passed me.
Even though I did not do well in high school, my parents sent me to San Francisco where I attended Cogswell Polytechnical College. I made the honor roll for the simple reason that I chose to stay in my room and study.
I was enrolled in college when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. The news of the attack came over the radio that Sunday morning, and everyone was shocked. We had two Japanese students in our class. They did not show up for school Monday morning. I never saw them again. I do not know if they were put into intern camps; they just disappeared.
During summer break in college I worked at General Engineering & Dry Dock Company in San Francisco. Ships damaged during sea battles were brought in for repairs. I operated engine lathes, shapers, planers, milling machines, boring mills and drill presses in marine engine repair.
I became eligible for the draft in my first year at Cogswell College. During the war, young men had two choices: join the service or go to jail. I grew up hating violence and avoided it at all cost. I was raised with the concept of getting along and not hurting anyone. My older brother constantly banged on me when I did something he didn’t like. Constantly getting beat on by my older brother convinced me that violence was not the way to solve problems.
In addition to not liking violence, I was not a competitive person, especially in sports. I was always last to be chosen for a team. In first and second grade I would hide behind the baseball field backstop to avoid being the last one picked for a team. You can imagine my dilemma when I was forced to decide between going to jail and going to war. But going to jail was never really an option. My family was law abiding, and going to jail would have been an unbearable disgrace.
Realizing I had to join the military, I picked a branch of the military that best suited me. I did not want to fight in some muddy foxhole, nor did I want to have a ship shot out from under me, so I went down to the San Jose recruiting office to join the Army Air Corps.
The recruiter told me they were not accepting applications anymore. He explained that they were now getting people through the draft board, and told me the draft board would be in touch.
I dropped out of college, quit my job and returned to Sonora. Sure enough, my draft notice arrived a few months later.
I was inducted into the service in Sonora and sent to basic training. What I remember of basic was a lot of marching, calisthenics and yelling. The whole point was getting used to someone telling you what to do.
Having practiced marching in the Boy Scouts helped me out in basic. The drill instructor soon realized I knew my right foot from my left. When we were learning how to march, the drill instructor put me in the right front column position so I could lead the other recruits.
Although I did not seek it, it seemed I always ended up in a position of leadership. I have found that to be true for me later in life as well.
At first I attended rudimentary classes like the 17-week Aircraft Machinist course at Chanute Field in Illinois where I was promoted to corporal. Then I went on to the AAF Gunnery School in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Learning to shoot a .50-caliber machine gun from a plane was tricky. Growing up hunting, I was a decent shot. But that was standing on solid ground that was not moving up, down and sideways. In a plane, not only are you bouncing through the sky in excess of 100 miles per hour, your target is doing the same.
When you shoot at a plane, you don’t aim at the plane itself, but instead you compensate for its speed, distance and direction, all the time anticipating where the plane is going to be when your bullets reach the target. It’s called leading, and it takes a lot of time and ammo to develop that skill. Shooting a machine gun sounds like fun, but for me it was just a lot of noise and vibrations.
When it came to light that I had applied for the Air Corps earlier, the Army sent me to an Air Force base and ran me through a series of tests checking my aptitude and physical skills. I sat in an apparatus that had a wooden joystick and pedals to simulate flying an airplane. They asked me questions such as what trajectory a bomb would take when it left the aircraft. At the conclusion of the testing, I scored 10 for pilot, nine for bombardier, and seven for navigator.
The Army had plenty of pilots and bombardiers, so they asked me if I wanted to be a navigator. Being non-violent, and not wanting to shoot anyone down or drop bombs on anyone, I opted for being a navigator. And once I started taking navigation courses, challenging.
These courses involved weather, aerodynamics, physical training and flight missions. The classes were extremely detailed, complex and technical, and required my full attention. They covered all the different ways to navigate such as pilotage, dead reckoning, radio waves, celestial navigation or any combination. Aerial navigation was so challenging that 20 percent of the students failed.
I chose to be a flight navigator because I did not want to be a part of the killing in the war. Yet as navigator, I knew if I made a mistake in my calculations, my fellow crewmembers could get killed.
The weather in the Aleutian Islands is cold and overcast. When it got socked in, it was socked in – I mean, the birds would walk. The winds blew so hard they have their own name: the williwaws. It is a sudden, violent gust of wind that swoops down from the north.
Not only did we have to deal with overcast that obscured the landing strip, we also had to patrol over open water. The water around the Aleutians is icy and unforgiving. If you got lost and ran out of fuel, you had to ditch your plane into the ocean. Even if you survived the ditching, hypothermia would kill you within minutes.
Same goes for miscalculating your altitude. Transpose one number in your calculations during a night flight, and your pilot could fly into a mountainside. The truth is, we lost more guys to weather-related crashes than to enemy gunfire.
It is not always the navigator’s miscalculations that can get you killed. Sometimes it is equipment malfunction due to sloppy maintenance. In Monroe, Louisiana, I was doing a training flight in a C-47 over the Gulf of Mexico. All overwater flights were made in C-47s. Each plane had five students and one instructor on board, in addition to the pilot and copilot. All five students did their own calculations and you were not allowed to talk to each other or compare notes. The instructors stood at the front of the plane and watched us closely.
It was my turn to be the lead navigator. As lead navigator, I was responsible for coming up with my own directions and passing them on to the pilot. The other students came up with their own figures. We were all monitored by an instructor standing in the front of the airplane. He was there to ensure we did our own work and did not collaborate with the other students. Some of the other student’s calculations were off by as far as 50 miles.
The pilot flew a simple course while we performed our calculations in the back of the plane. They would fly south and then turn left 90 degrees. At this point, being the lead navigator for that flight, I would calculate the heading to get us back to our starting point. Once I had the heading, I would get on the radio and advise the pilot.
I took a reading from my octant (a navigation instrument similar to a sextant, except it measures one eighth of a circle) but I could not get a clear picture. I kept trying to get an accurate reading but couldn’t. Finally I used the radio waves to plot a course. We came in right at the mouth of the river.
Once we were on the ground, I took my octant into the repair shop and told them about the inability to get a clear reading. When they examined it, they determined that the bubble was too big, thus not allowing me to see my three reference points accurately.
It bothered me that I was issued a faulty octant. I was a student and I had no way of knowing if the octant was properly calibrated. I could have flunked out of navigation school just because someone did not properly calculate my instrument. The attitude of the military seemed to be that no one cared about what was going on.
Because wrong information can get you killed, I always double-checked my compass on our takeoff roll. If my plane compass read the same as the compass direction on the airstrip, then I knew the compass was accurate.
I had another incident that showed how carelessness could get you killed. I was on a training flight in a twin-engine Beechcraft. The pilot knew the course well and had taken it several times before. As we flew along, he noticed that he was getting low on fuel.
My calculations showed we were on schedule and should have plenty of fuel, yet the fuel gauge continued to drop faster than normal. We completed the course, all the time with the pilot shaking his head because the gauge indicated we were running out of gas. Just as we touched down the engines quit, and we rolled to a stop right in the middle of the runway.
We got out and checked the airplane and discovered that the fuel cap had not been tightened down after the last refueling, allowing several gallons of fuel to leak out during our flight. Between this and the sextant not being properly maintained, and many other similar incidents, I was disappointed in the military and the lackadaisical attitude displayed by so many.
By the time I entered navigation school I was a corporal and classified as an aviation student. After completing navigational school, I was promoted to second lieutenant. I didn’t care one way or the other about being an officer. My fellow officers were full of their egos.
The truth of the matter is I preferred to hang out with enlisted men. They seemed more real.
Stationed at Shemya
After attending many schools, I was assigned to the Eleventh Air Force and got orders for overseas duty. My duty station was Shemya Island in the Aleutians. By now I was married to Geraldine, who was pregnant with our first son.
In late July 1946, I boarded a transport ship out of San Francisco headed up the coast for Shemya. Before being converted to a transport for the Army, this ship was used to transport cattle. The bunks were stacked three high. It was not built for comfort.
We stopped at Seward on the way to Shemya on my birthday. A number of officers used this opportunity to go salmon fishing. So on my birthday, I had a nice salmon dinner.
Before shipping out, I had bought a hunting rifle, complete with a scope. I had heard there were bear, moose and caribou where I was going, or at least in Alaska, so I thought I would get in some hunting.
I never got around to hunting and ended up selling my rifle to a sergeant. The sergeant had been a major during the war. In order for him to stay in the military, however, he had to accept a reduction in rank. This was normal for people who wanted to remain in the service.
The trip up the coast was uneventful, with most of our time spent watching whales breaching the surface of the water. We pulled into Seattle for a short stop and then continued on to Shemya, arriving in the first part of August 1946.
Shemya Island is bleak and inhospitable. The military was there for the sole purpose of supporting the runway. Because the war was over, there we no more combat flights going out of Shemya. The base was on stand-down and things were slowing down. We still flew four hours a month to qualify for flight pay.
Although the war was over, tragically people were still getting killed. Just before I reached Shemya Island, the 404th Bomb Group stationed on the island suffered its worst peacetime fatality. A B-24M flown by Col. John C. Larson with a crew of eight crashed into a warehouse at the west end of Shemya on an early Sunday morning. They were returning from a photo mission and tried to land, but Shemya, as well as Attu and Amchitka Island, had been shut down due to weather.
They made several attempts to land, but the fog was just too thick. They were running out of fuel, so the pilot made one more pass over what he thought was the airstrip and ordered his crew to bail out. Six of the eight crewmen bailed out.
On the second pass, the bomber ran out of fuel and crashed. One badly burned body was found at the crash site. As I remember, only a couple of guys survived. The ones who landed in the water succumbed to hypothermia and drowned; their bodies washed up on shore later. The pilot’s body was not found until weeks later when it washed up on another island.
By the time they found the colonel’s body, I was stationed on Shemya Island. I helped carry his casket to Hillside Cemetery, where he was buried. Flying, even in peacetime, is dangerous.
Life on Shemya
Even though you could get hurt or killed by accident, life on Shemya had its routine life too. Assignments were normally four to six men per hut. Bunk, foot lockers and clothes racks were furnished, but from there you were on your own to scrounge up tables, chairs, desks, bookcases or whatever else you could find. Furnishing and “decorating” the hut were pretty much up to the inhabitants as long as things were kept reasonably clean and neat. Heat was furnished by an oil-fired heater in the center of the hut.
The weather conditions on Shemya were severe and made living conditions miserable. There was constant rain, wind and fog, sometimes all in the same day. The fog got right down to the ground and socked everything in. At other times, heavy snow with simultaneous strong winds would result in a whiteout that made trips to the mess hall and latrine a challenge.
The wind blew over 75 miles per hour. It was so bad that the Quonset huts we lived in were built into the ground by a couple of feet, so the wind would not blow them over. We had boardwalks laid on top of the tundra on all regularly traveled paths to keep one from sinking ankle deep into the soft, spongy soil.
You had plenty of time to read, listen to the radio or talk with your buddies. When it came to buddies though, I was a loner. I did a lot of research on the Bible to pass the time. There is more information in the Bible than people realize. It predicts much of what is happening today.
To help pass the time I converted an abandoned Quonset hut into a workshop. I got an old lathe from the navy and gathered some material, but there was little interest from the other guys. I used the shop to make some model airplanes, the kind you fly with the two wires attached to the wings.
As dangerous as it was flying in miserable conditions, I ended up getting hurt on the ground. One of my ancillary duties while serving in the Eleventh Air Force on Shemya was Supplemental Paymaster. I was issued a .45 auto with three rounds along with a satchel full of cash. I was told to find my own way to Attu Island and pay the guys. I walked down to the pier and caught a ride on a boat headed for Attu.
When I arrived at Attu, I checked in at the base headquarters and was assigned a bunk in a barracks on the far side of the island overlooking Massacre Bay. It took me a couple of days to locate the men I was assigned to pay. That evening, I decided to go to a movie. By now it was 9:30 pm and pitch dark. The shuttle bus I had been using each day had finished the day’s schedule, so I had to walk back to my barracks.
I didn’t want to walk all the way around the island, so I took a shortcut. I was crossing a hill that was riddled with old foxholes from a previous battle with the Japanese. As I was picking my way around some foxholes, I slipped and fell face first into one. I wrenched my back and lay there catching my breath.
Finally I crawled out and hobbled back to the barracks. The next day I caught a bomber heading back to Shemya. I checked into sick bay and the medic treated me, but the injury never got noted on my service record.
A few weeks later I was working in the hangar. At the end of my shift, I headed for the barracks. I picked my way along the trail to my barracks, but it was uneven and had lots of mud puddles. The moon was out, lighting up the ground, but occasionally it would disappear behind a cloud.
One of the times when the moon was shining, I spotted what I thought was a better trail to my left. I stepped over to that trail and the ground went out from under me. Although it had looked like a trail, it was actually a shadow cast by a nine-foot ditch. I fell headlong into it, tumbling down the side of the ditch into the ice-cold water below. I was okay, except I aggravated my previous injury. I clawed my way out of the ditch, stumbled back to camp and took a hot shower. Again I got treatment, and again, the Army failed to make any notation in my medical record of the injury.
In November of 1946 I left Shemya the same way I arrived – by transport ship. I was sent to Camp Beale where I was processed out of the regular army.
While stationed on Shemya I had written my wife nearly every day. She was pregnant with our first baby and I was anxious about getting home. I jumped on a train and headed home.
By the time I made it to the hospital, our first son was two days old. She and the baby were healthy. I was dead tired, but happy to be home.
Life after the Army
After the Army, we lived with my wife’s mother in Standard for a while. I got a job at Pickering making wooden boxes.
I stayed in the reserves. It seemed there was still fighting going on in the world. I thought if a war started up again and I was needed, I wanted to continue to be a navigator. I was called back into the service when the Korean War broke a few years later. I reported to the process center and stayed there for three days getting checked out. The doctors discovered I had developed a condition, non-military connected, that exclude me from staying in the service. I was discharged and came back home to Sonora.
Since leaving the Army I have had a variety of jobs such as cabinet maker, insurance agent, and manger of the Columbia Airport to name a few. I got a commercial pilot’s license with an instructor rating.
As time went on, I became a master machinist in metal and a master woodworker. In 1981 I started my own business. With financial help from my parents, I opened a shop in Sonora. Over a period of 10 years I accumulated my tools and machinery.
I have designed a process for sharpening chipper blades that may revolutionize how they are sharpened. Now that I have been notified that my patent is pending, I hope to start my own business sharpening chipper blades that has the potential of servicing customers worldwide.
Honestly, I don’t have fond memories of the service. I went into the military in lieu of going to jail.
Looking back on it now, had it not been such a terrible stigma on my family, I think I would have chosen jail over the military. I am a non-violent person and maybe it was a test to see if I would really use violence against someone.
I have not seen anything good come of war. A lot of people are killed and maimed, yet nothing changes.
We all have to make our own choices in life. My choice was to live a peaceful and productive life without hurting anyone else.
At the age of 91, I am grateful for the life I have had and hope the best for all.