He enlisted on the advice of his mother, Bess.
In the late summer of 1940, Ben Steele was working as a camp tender at a large sheep outfit east of town. It was hard, sometimes filthy work, but the freedom of it made him happy—on his own every day, riding a horse or driving a rig between the far-flung camps of the sheepherders, delivering mail and supplies, sleeping in the open, wrapped in an oilcloth, staring up at a big sky dark with bright stars.
One weekend that summer Ben Steele’s mother and father drove out from Billings to visit. His mother had an idea. He’d been a ranch hand most of his life, she said. He was twenty-two now, grown up. Maybe it was time to consider something else. She’d heard on the radio that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had just signed a law creating the first peacetime military draft. The inaugural call-up, she said, was scheduled for late October.1
"You know, I’ve been thinking," she went on. "You really ought to get in before they draft you. Maybe if you do, you could, you know, do what you want in the army?"
He wasn’t sure he wanted to wear a uniform, but since he usually took his mother’s advice to heart, he tucked her suggestion away, and a while later, over a smoky campfire perhaps or riding the green hills and valleys, he remembered something; the boys he knew from Billings who had enlisted in the army were usually sent west for training to the golden valleys of California.
He thought, "Going to California—that sounds good. A little adventure." And on a nice warm day in mid-September, he borrowed a car, went into town, ambled over to the Stapleton Building on Twenty-eighth Street and into the recruiting station there, where he found a sergeant sitting at a desk.
"I want to go into the army," he announced.
"Well now," the recruiter said, looking up at the lean ranch hand standing in front of him, "we have the Army and we have the Army Air Corps, which one you want?"
Ben Steele knew nothing about soldiering, but some years earlier a couple of fellows up at the Billings Municipal Airport got themselves a Ford Tri-Motor (a propeller under each wing and one on the nose) and for a dollar a head started taking people for a ride. It wasn’t much of a ride—the plane took off from atop the rimrocks, circled the Yellowstone Valley below, and a few minutes later landed to pick up another load of wide-eyed locals. But that short hop stirred something in Ben Steele.
"The Air Corps?" he said. "That sounds real good. Give me that!"
A few weeks later, on October 9, 1940, a month shy of his twenty-third birthday, Ben Steele stood in a line of enlistees at the United States Courthouse in Missoula, Montana, raised his right hand, and repeated one of the republic’s oldest oaths: "I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign or domestic . . . So help me God."
LIKE EVERYONE ELSE, like every American who read the newspapers, listened to the radio, went to the movies, and watched newsreels, Private Ben Steele of the United States Army Air Corps was convinced his enemies would be German. Japan was a threat, all right—that fall, in fact, America cut its shipments of scrap steel and iron to Japan—but Germany, threatening all Europe, was the menace of the moment.2
The Germans had invaded Poland, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands, and France. By the time Ben Steele arrived at the induction station in Missoula in the fall of 1940, the German Luftwaffe had been bombing Great Britain for three months.
Reading about all this in the Billings Gazette or listening to it on KGHL radio, the most popular station in that part of the West, most Montanans wanted no part of the trouble overseas. Like the rest of America, they were focused on finding jobs and recovering from the Great Depression, not crossing swords with the saber-rattling Germans. In a national opinion poll conducted the week Ben Steele enlisted, 83 percent of the those surveyed said they did not want to send American troops overseas.3
Young men looking for a job or a little adventure don’t pay much attention to opinion polls. The army was offering a paycheck, plus "three hots and a cot" and perhaps a chance to travel. Since they had no feel for the killing and dying in Europe, no sense at all of facing Panzer tanks and Stuka dive-bombers, the ranch hands, soda jerks, delivery boys, and railroad workers on their way to training camp with Ben Steele were full of brio and eager for action.
"If war’s gonna come, I wanna be in it," Ben Steele thought. "Hell, I want to be over there where it’s happening."
Saturday, October 4,1941, San Francisco
Blue sky, bright sun, seventy-two degrees, a good day to set sail for paradise.
On a pier off the Embarcadero, the men of the 19th Bombardment Group, United States Army Air Corps, waited in long queues to board the United States Army transport General Willard A. Holbrook, a lumbering troopship used to ferry men and matériel to American bases overseas. In the ranks on the wharf, moving slowly toward the gangway, was Benjamin Charles Steele, serial number 190-18-989, a newly minted private. He had been in uniform nearly a year now, and he liked the life of a soldier. The army had given him just what he wanted, a chance to cross the mountains and see the Golden Land.
California wasn’t as golden as he’d imagined, but he liked it well enough. Training camp was a dusty tent city on the dry brown flats at March Field near Riverside. The boys from the cities and suburbs thought these accommodations "kinda primitive," but the men who had been ranch-raised looked around and saw luxury: tents with wooden floors and gas stoves, hot showers nearby, latrines that weren’t buzzing with flies, and a mess hall that served seconds if a man wasn’t sated.
Air Corps basic training was short, just six weeks, long enough for men who would be working as airplane mechanics, gunners, ground crews, and supernumeraries. They attended classes on military courtesy and discipline. They reviewed army rules and regulations. They endured hours of close-order drill and the ritual of forced marches.
These little walks, as Ben Steele thought of them, were too much for many of the men. After one eight-mile hike the road was lined with recruits doubled over, gasping for breath and grousing about their training. Ben Steele had never heard such bellyaching.
"Holy Christ!" he said, to no one in particular. "Eight miles is nothing. Back home I’d walk that far before breakfast."
"Oh yeah?" one of the malcontents came back. "Where the hell did you come from?"
"I’m from Montana," Ben Steele said.
THE ARMY sent him to New Mexico after basic training and assigned him to the 7th Matériel Squadron, 19th Bombardment Group, Kirtland Field, Albuquerque. As soon as he was settled, he made inquiries about buying a horse.
A local stockman wanted fifty bucks for an old plug named Blaze. Not much of a horse, nothing like the spirited animals he was used to, but he missed riding, so he went to a finance company, borrowed the money (agreeing to pay five dollars a week against the balance), and made a deal with a nearby rancher to pasture his mount. His father shipped him a saddle, and every weekend Ben Steele rode out among the cactus and scrub grass. It was hot, sandy country but he didn’t care— he was on a horse, and a horse reminded him of home.
The Air Corps made him a dispatcher, tracking flights, and after a month or two of this work he got it in his head that he wanted to be a pilot. Never much of a student, he found a math professor at the University of New Mexico to tutor him privately in the algebra and geometry that he would need to pass the exam to become a cadet. He studied for several months and was about to take the test when word came down that the 19th Bombardment Group was being sent overseas.
"You can’t ship me out," he told his commanding officer. "I’m fixing to take the cadet exam."
"Oh yeah, we can," the squadron commander said. "The whole out-fit’s goin’."
October 3, 1941
Dearest Mother and Family,
Thought would drop you a few more lines before departing the U.S. Am sailing tomorrow afternoon ...We don’t know for sure how long we will have to stay in foreign service but hope it isn’t too long, but it may be alright... Will write you every chance I get so you will know about where I am at... Just heard we were going to the Philippines, but that is just a rumor not certain. Can’t believe a thing you hear around here... Don’t worry about anything, because everything is O.K. Will write as soon as I can make connections. It is possible we will stop at some port along the way, and if we do will send you a line.
Lots of Love to you all
AMERICA REMEMBERS the attacks on its bases in the Pacific in 1941 as acts of treachery, but to label them "sneak" attacks is more propaganda than plain truth. For more than twenty years, a standing committee of admirals and generals in Washington had been planning against just such an attack. They looked at Japan as America’s chief antagonist in the Pacific, and they knew well the value of surprise and Japan’s history of success with this tactic. The military planners were sure that when war came, it would begin "with a sudden, surprise attack." They did not know exactly where or precisely when, but they were convinced that the Philippines, just eighteen hundred air miles from Japan and sitting directly between it and the oil- and mineral-rich Indonesian archipelago in the southwest Pacific, would top Japan’s list of targets. So in the early fall of 1941, with war consuming Europe and with the Japanese Army on the march in Asia, American war planners—more in an attempt to deter an attack than defend against it—began to rush cannon, tanks, airplanes, and men to the Philippine Islands. The men of the 19th Bombardment Group, United States Army Air Corps, were part of that consignment.4
The Holbrook set sail on the evening tide that October 4. In the ship’s galley cooks had prepared a greasy ragout of pork, and as the men passed through the mess line, stewards slopped the dinner on their trays. Later that night the wind picked up, the waves began to swell and the Holbrook began to pitch and roll, and it wasn’t long before all that greasy pork began to reappear. Soon the crappers were clogged and the sinks were overflowing.
October 10, 1941
Dearest Mother and Family,
Have been sitting out on the deck this morning watching flying fish. They are about six inches long and sail through the air like a bird...The water has been sort of rough all the way... The ship is bobbing up and down and from one side to the other till I can’t even sit still. Am sitting here on the deck and writing on my knee. Hope you can read this.
AFTER HAWAII, the sailing was easy, flat water most of the way and light tropical breezes. Most men spent mornings topside, watching the water or staring at the horizon, absorbed by the vast vista of the sea. Some played cards on the hatch covers or spread out their towels and baked in the afternoon sun. In the evenings Quentin Pershing Devore of eastern Colorado came topside to listen to his Hallicrafter shortwave radio. One evening a dark-haired fellow with a friendly face eased over and sat down next to him.
"I’m Ben Steele," he said, holding out his hand.
"I’m Pershing Devore."
"What do you get on that thing?" the fellow asked.
"I get the news, sometimes I get music," Devore said.
Devore too had grown up outdoors, working the land and livestock in the rye- and wheat-farming country of Yuma County, a day’s drive or so from the Nebraska border. He considered himself "a plain boy with no frills," and that’s how this fellow from Billings struck him, too, "real plain."
"Where did you get that name, Pershing?" Ben Steele asked.
"Well, my name is Quentin Pershing Devore, but they call me Pershing."
"That’s too complicated," Ben Steele said. "I’m just going to call you Q.P."5
October 18, 1941
Dearest Mother, Dad + Family,
Met a new friend. He likes hunting and fishing about as well as I do. We get together and talk over old times. It sort of makes me feel at home...
They talked for hours, about farming and ranching and cattle and sheep, about the "hard-up" life on a Colorado farm and the hardscrabble days on a Montana homestead. Ben Steele often turned the conversation to horses—cow ponies, broncs and quarter horses, chestnuts, Appaloosas and bays.
Q.P. thought, "This guy is crazy about horses."
They talked about war as well. Their convoy was flanked by destroyer escorts, and at night the ship was blacked out, a shadow on the sea.
A week and a half out of Hawaii, their company commander called them together. They were going to the Philippines "to fight a war," he said.
Thursday, October 23,1941, Pier 7, Manila, Philippines
Assembled on deck, the thirteen hundred soldiers of the 19th Bombardment Group were preparing to greet paradise. Down the pier a line of trucks was waiting to take them north to their billets at Clark Field, a lattice of sand-and-turf runways laid out on a hot, dry plain fifty miles northwest of Manila. As the young Americans made their way down the gangways and ladders to the queue of open trucks, they were wide-eyed with wonder and delight.
October 24, 1941
Was sure glad to get off the boat after being on it for so long. We were as dirty as a bunch of hogs when we landed.
It is sure interesting around here... The natives are as thick as bees... and live in little bamboo shacks...Drive little horses about the size of a good sized dog, hitched to a little cart. Some have oxen [carabao] hitched to old wooden wheeled carts, sure is interesting to watch them . . . They are always trying to sell us something. They are running from one barracks to the other trying to get a job making our beds, and shining our shoes...Would hate to think I was so lazy I couldn’t make my own bed. We have to have mosquito nets over our beds ...