H I S T O R Y
Excerpt from "Wings, WASP, & Warriors" by Travis Monday
The story of Otto Carter, Jr., the pilot of the “Sweetwater Swatter,” goes far beyond the fate of one P-47, and includes many other airplanes, including a Wright B. Flyer that scooted across the skies of Texas in 1911.
The first landing of an airplane in Sweetwater, Texas, helped set the stage for the life and adventures of one of Nolan County’s best-known World War II heroes, William Otto Carter, Jr. His father, William Otto Carter, Sr., witnessed that historic event on November 24, 1911 – about four years before the birth of Otto, Jr., in Sweetwater on October 30, 1916.
Charles A. Lindbergh, famous for his solo flight across in the Atlantic Ocean in “The Spirit of St. Louis” in 1927, did not see his first airplane until 1912, a year later than Otto, Sr., saw R. G. Fowler land in Sweetwater.
So this story is tied to three William Otto Carters – Otto Carter, Sr.;
Otto Carter, Jr.; and Otto Carter, III. Otto Carter, Jr. serves as the
focus of this story. As his father, Otto, Sr. provided parental guidance
mixed with stories of early aviation. And as his son, Otto, III, with the
help of his mother Lillian, has worked diligently to keep his father’s story alive. It’s a story worth telling.
Otto, Jr. grew up hearing his father tell the story of R. G. Fowler’s landing in a Wright B. Flyer on a field behind the home of Thomas Trammell. Otto, Sr. would have mentioned the sheet laid out on the field as a marker for Fowler. And when Fowler took off from that same field later that day, the memory of his visit remained with Otto, Sr., to inspire an interest in aviation that he passed along to his son, who would one day fly with Lindbergh in the Southwest Pacific.
The first William Otto Carter entered the world near Alexandria, Louisiana, on September 26, 1883. After his parents, David Daniel Carter and Hattie Drusilla (Dawson) Carter moved to Abilene, Texas, young Otto attended school there. He married Leona Uvalde Collins in Sweetwater, on July 27, 1906.
At the time of his marriage to Leona, Otto, Sr. worked as a partner in the West Texas Hardware Company in Merkel, Texas, where the young couple resided until they moved to Sweetwater in 1910 – the year before Fowler landed the first airplane in Sweetwater.
After moving to Sweetwater, Otto, Sr. started and operated Carter’s Plumbing Company and ran the business for forty years. He had the distinction of becoming one of the first master plumbers in Texas.
So Otto Carter, Jr., grew up as the son of a plumber, and his father’s occupation influenced his ability to work with his hands. That ability would later prove helpful in the jungles of New Guinea.
Otto, III, in looking back on his father’s life, recognized the connection between his grandfather’s occupation and his father’s mechanical ability. Plumbers work with their hands, and that ability can contribute to other mechanical skills. “He was a plumber,” says Otto, III. “When Dad wanted a car, he said, ‘Here’s this junker. You put it together and it’s yours.’ Dad learned mechanics that way.”
By the time Otto, Jr. graduated from high school in Sweetwater in 1934, he had developed a love of music and had played in the high school band. He continued his band activities while attending Texas A&M. After he transferred to John Tarleton College in Stephenville, Texas, he played the trumpet in the school orchestra. His musical background would later affect his military training experience.
After college Carter worked for International Harvester Company in Sweetwater and in Abilene.
On September 1, 1939, Germany attacked Poland, an act that marked the beginning of World War II. Although the United States had not yet entered the war, Carter expected his nation to get drawn into the conflict.
“In 1939,” Carter later recalled, “Hitler started having this big deal about taking all of Europe, and I knew that war was going to break out sooner or later, and I knew that I was at the right age to be involved in this thing.”
Carter didn’t want to serve in the infantry and liked the idea of flying, so he enrolled in the Civilian Pilot Training Course. “I decided to take flying lessons to see if I would be able to fly,” he explained.
In order to get into Civilian Pilot Training (CPT), Carter first had to have his qualifications verified at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene. He later explained, “All the cadets, or people who wanted to become cadets, they checked out at Hardin-Simmons.”
Carter made it into CPT. Regarding his civilian flight instructor he said, “He was a former military pilot and was very demanding and tough. I liked him.”
This “demanding and tough” instructor was none other than West Texas pioneer aviator L. E. Derryberry, a man who had trained with Charles Lindbergh at Kelly Field in San Antonio, Texas. Derryberry and Abilene dentist Dr. M. T. Ramsey had unsuccessfully sought financial backing in Abilene for Lindbergh’s trip across the Atlantic. When Lindbergh visited Abilene in 1927, shortly after his famous transatlantic flight, Derryberry served as his driver, transporting Lindbergh from Kinsolving Field to downtown Abilene.
Derryberry, the same man who trained with Lindbergh, taught Carter to fly in a Piper J3 Cub. He let Carter solo after 8 hours of instruction. Carter had pleasant memories of his first solo flight. “I enjoyed it very much and I really had a good time doing it,” he recalled.
After completing a total of 40 hours of instruction, Carter took and passed his flight exam and succeeded in getting his private license. Knowing that he had the aptitude for flying, he joined the Army Air Corps.
Carter entered military life at Kelly Field in San Antonio, Texas, and soon encountered the confusion that sometimes characterizes military organizations. After letting him spend the first few days in a tent city,
the Army moved him to a second tent city, and then the Army lost track of
him. As Carter later explained:
They finally decided that we were the lost squadron, because for some reason or another they got mixed up on all the paperwork
in the office down there. And they decided to hold us there down in a tent city for the next class, which means that I should have been in the class of 42-H. But instead we were all assigned to the class of 42-I.
After getting assigned to Class 42-I, Carter spend several weeks in-processing and doing preflight schoolwork.
From Kelly Field the Army sent Carter to Parks Air College in East St. Louis, Illinois, for primary flight training. There he learned to fly the Fairchild PT-19 Cornell from an instructor named Ribicoff, whom Carter described as “a real nice guy and an excellent pilot.”
Ribicoff introduced Carter to a field east of St. Louis by flying over it at an altitude of about 100 feet upside down. Carter later recalled, “The other fellows, of course, went through the same thing, but they didn’t get to fly upside down like I did.”
At Parks Air College Carter got into some mischief that earned him the nickname, “Hedge-hopper.” While flying over a field one day he spotted a farmer driving a tractor and decided to “excite him a little bit.” Carter explained his actions as follows:
I went down on him, and I got pretty close but not dangerously close. It was close enough that he jumped off the tractor – well he stopped it and jumped off and got underneath it . . . . He got back on it as I pulled up and started circling around. And I thought, “Well, I believe I’ll do that again.” And I buzzed him again and he jumped off of it again and got back down under the tractor. And then I thought, “Hey, I’d better get out of here or somebody will report me.”
Unfortunately for Carter, a flight instructor had witnessed his performance and flew over to him and signaled him back to the base. He got off light, receiving only a strong verbal rebuke, but he did more low-flying later without getting caught.
As with his civilian flight training, military primary flight training required 8 hours in the plane before a cadet could solo. Since Carter already had 165 hours as a civilian pilot, Ribicoff cheated a little by letting him solo before the required 8 hours. Carter soloed for the first time as a military pilot on March 15, 1942. He completed his training at Parks Air College with 65 hours of military flight time.
From Parks Air College the Army sent Carter to Randolph Field in San Antonio, Texas, for basic flight training.
“I believe the roughest time I’ve ever had in my life was at Randolph Field,” said Carter. He also said something similar in a letter printed in a Round Robin newsletter dated June 16, 1942, “I have found out that flying is not always fun, and it also gets to be work. One can’t imagine how much precision, perseverance and perspiration is required in handling airplane.”
In the same letter Carter expressed uncertainty about completing basic flight training. He wrote, “If I don’t wash I’ll soon be ready for night flying and night cross country.” He also mentioned instrument training in the LINK Trainer, adding that “they aren’t exactly easy either.”
Although LINK training proved difficult to Carter, his flight instructors
caused him even more grief. He said of his first instructor at Randolph:
I had I believe the meanest instructor that was ever born as my basic flight instructor. Each instructor there had 8 cadets, and my instructor had washed out 8 cadets before he got into my 8. And he washed out 6 of my group and just left me and another fellow in his flight. And it seemed like he was determined to wash us out. But I was determined that I was gonna stay regardless.
The problems with Carter’s instructor worsened. Finally, in desperation, he went to his commander and asked for a new instructor. His commander gave him a different instructor whom Carter described as “twice as bad as the fellow I had.”
His new instructor, Lt. McDonald, criticized everything Carter did. And he went far beyond mere criticism by repeatedly making Carter run around a hangar wearing his parachute. “And I’m telling you,” Carter said, “that ol’ parachute was really heavy!”
A few years later Carter would have a totally different feeling about parachutes.
Before graduation, Carter trained in North American BT-14s with 450 Pratt and Whitney engines. He liked them except for their brakes, about which he complained, “We have two ships messed up just because the brakes grab. You really have to be careful with them.”
In spite of the LINK Trainer, bad brakes, and mean flight instructors, Carter finally completed basic flight training. Lt. McDonald surprised him at his graduation party by saying, “Carter, you’re a good pilot, but I didn’t want you to get shot down over there.” He then explained that he had made the training difficult so that Carter wouldn’t mess up in combat.
After basic flight training, the Army sent Carter to Foster Field in Victoria, Texas, for advanced flight training in the North American AT-6 Texan, about which he said, “After I flew it for a little while I thought it was the finest airplane made. It was a real joy to fly.”
Soon after Carter’s arrival at Foster Field, someone asked if any of the
cadets knew how to play a trumpet or a cornet. He raised his hand
and the inquirer said, “We need a bugler, and you’re it. The bugle is over in the office.”
As the bugler Carter had to get up at 5:30 every morning, get dressed, run to the flagpole, and then blow his bugle. He enjoyed waking up his fellow cadets. “I got a kick out of just blowing real loud to wake up these guys,” he explained, “because they didn’t like it anyway.”
Later, at graduation, the other aspiring pilots grabbed Carter to remove his pants and fly them from the flagpole, but he put up such a fight that they abandoned the idea.
Upperclassmen also gave Carter a hard time, but six of them messed up one night by landing their AT-6s without first lowering their landing gear. “They forgot to put their wheels down,” he said, “and they crash landed.” He further explained, “Six damaged AT-6s on the landing strip, and boy they really caught it about that!”
On October 9, 1942, Carter received his wings and a commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in the U. S. Army Air Corps. His parents, Mr. and Mrs. Carter, and his sister, Velma, traveled from Sweetwater to Foster Field for the ceremony.
Before his departure from Foster Field, Carter had a chance to indicate what kind of pilot job he wanted. He said he wanted to fly fighter planes. His instructor, thinking Carter would make a good fighter pilot, recommended him for that job, and he got it. After graduation, the Army sent him to Connecticut to train as a fighter pilot.
Carter would soon find himself flying with a group of men destined to make history, the 348th Fighter Group of the 5th Army Air Force.
According to John Stanaway, author of Kearby’s Thunderbolts:
On paper, the 348th Fighter Group began life at Mitchell
Field, New York, in September 1942. It was born and transferred the same day, September 30, 1942, to Bradley Field at Windsor Locks in Connecticut. On October 29th, the group moved once again, this time to Westover Field, Massachusetts, where it received the first of its Republic P-47 Thunderbolt aircraft.
Carter arrived in Connecticut in time to witness the early development of the 348th Fighter Group. After a brief stay at Bradley Field, he relocated to Westover Field. The Army assigned him to the 340th Fighter Squadron, also known as the Minutemen. Their unit patch displayed a caricature of a man wearing a pilot’s helmet and scarf and firing a machinegun while riding a bolt of lightning.
Before he could fly a P-47 Thunderbolt, Carter had to spend 10 hours in the cockpit mastering all of the instruments and controls. Two famous fighter pilots led him through this process: Colonel David C. Schilling and Colonel Hubert “Hub” Zemke. Schilling later won fame as a P-47 fighter pilot in the European Theater by scoring 22.5 victories. And Zemke became a legendary fighter ace as the leader of the famed 56th Fighter Group known as “Zemke’s Wolfpack.”
“Those two fellows checked me out in the P-47. And that gave me permission to take off after I had passed a blindfold test in the cockpit,” said Carter.
When he made his first flight in a P-47, Carter marveled at the difference from all the other aircraft he had flown, such as the PT-19 and the AT-6. The power far surpassed them and the ride felt different too. “Everything was so smooth,” he said, “the airplane was just like silk – just as smooth as it could be.”
Soon after moving to Westover Field, Carter met the commander of the 348th Fighter Group, Colonel Neel Kearby of Dallas, Texas – originally from Wichita Falls, Texas. Carter described Kearby as “one of the finest fellows who ever lived.” Kearby would lead the way in gaining acceptance for the P-47 in the Pacific and would become one of America’s best fighter pilots.
The day after he met Kearby, Carter learned that the 348th Fighter Group would train for high altitude aerial combat in Europe. “I never had been over 20,000 feet in an AT-6 but found out that the P-47 would go up to 40,000 feet,” he said.
Training at Westover Field meant more than learning to fly at higher altitudes. Weather conditions often made flying dangerous. Deep snow had to be plowed, resulting in walls of ice and snow on both sides of the runway. Using the runway under those conditions “was like taking off in a ditch,” said Carter. And since some of the ice and snow remained on the runway, landing required special care. Landing at 120 to 125 mph with ice on the runway made braking difficult. Carter recalled tapping his brakes and said, “It was a good thing we had a 10,000 foot runway.”
Winter weather sometimes produced poor visibility, and apparently caused the death of Carter’s friend and former roommate, Charles G. Hay, who crashed his P-47 on December 1, 1942. Carter gave the following account of that event:
Charles was up on a practice mission there at Westover, and they got into a
big snowstorm. He lost his horizon. He wasn’t
very familiar with instrument flying anyway, and he spun in and was killed. I hated to hear that.
My squadron commander asked me to escort his body to Detroit, Michigan, for burial there – a military funeral, which, of course, I was glad to do. I had to escort the body on the train. And we went to Detroit, and we had the funeral, and I got back on the train and went back to my outfit.
A less serious incident occurred one day while Carter was pulling a tow target. He and his fellow pilots would take turns with this duty so they could develop good marksmanship for aerial combat. Each pilot had his own color so that he could determine the accuracy of his fire.
After taking his turn at pulling the tow target, Carter set his course to return to Westover Field, only to have his target cable break. The target fell toward a residential section of Providence, Rhode Island. Since the target included a heavy iron bar about 10 feet long, Carter could imagine it hitting somebody’s house, going through the roof, and killing two or three people. Much to his relief, after he landed he learned that the target had fallen into a vacant lot without causing any injuries.
Carter’s training in the P-47 also included some time at Green Field in Rhode Island.
With their P-47 training completed, the men of the 348th Fighter Group made final preparations for overseas duty. Since they expected to join the war effort in Europe, the Army issued them heavy winter clothing.
As the time for departure neared, Carter and his fellow pilots boarded a train. With the blinds closed for secrecy, they took a long train ride designed to confuse enemy spies. “And we rode and we rode and we rode,” he explained. “Then we had to load on some trucks and go to the wharf.”
After boarding the Army transport ship Henry Gibbons, the men went their assigned staterooms. Carter remembered sharing space with Charlie Allen, Myron Hnatio, Bill Chase, and Lynn Parsons.
On May 15, 1943, the Henry Gibbons left the wharf at Weehawken, New
Jersey. Carter gave the following account of that departure:
Some time during the night, the ship started to leave the harbor. And when we felt it moving, we went outside on deck to look around, and saw the Statue of Liberty. And we all waved good-bye to the Statue of Liberty. And then we headed out to sea.
Otto Carter as a member of the Minutemen of the 340th Fighter Squadron. Notice the insignia on his jacket
But the men of the 348th Fighter Group soon learned otherwise. Two or three days into their voyage, they heard an announcement over the ship’s speaker system that informed them of a change in plans. Instead of going to Europe, they would pass through the Panama Canal and then cross the Pacific Ocean to Australia.
Adding to the surprise of this announcement was the command for the men of the 348th to get rid of their brand new winter clothing. Carter resisted the thought of such waste. “I just couldn’t believe it because each one of us had hundreds of dollars worth of real good flying equipment,” he complained. Then he added, “But that was the orders and that’s what we had to do, and that’s what we did.”
As the Henry Gibbons entered the waters in the area of Cuba,
airplanes and destroyers provided protection. Carter remembered watching
a destroyer drop depth charges one afternoon and believed that it sank a
German sub. He also recalled:
That was known as “Torpedo Alley” there around Puerto Rico and Cuba and all in there because of ships getting destroyed all the time. There was a ship sunk the day before we went there, and then we found out later that there was a ship sunk the day after we went through there.
On May 21, 1943, Carter’s group passed through the Panama Canal, and then the crew of the Henry Gibbons adjusted their course for Australia.
Carter saw Australia for the first time on June 14th, and remembered that Brisbane sat a few miles inland rather than right on the coast as he had expected. The Henry Gibbons traveled up a river for a few miles before arriving in Brisbane, where they unloaded.
Soon after their arrival, the personnel of the 348th Fighter Group set up residence at Archer Field and waited for their airplanes to arrive. After they received their P-47s, they slow-timed the engines in preparation for a trip to New Guinea, which would become their first area of operation.
During his service in the Southwest Pacific, Carter flew four P-47s, but he used only two names for all of them. He named his first two Thunderbolts, “Carter’s Little Pill,” and his other two, “Sweetwater Swatter.”
Back home in Sweetwater, Carter would have known about Swatter Field, where the Sweetwater Swatters played baseball. He also would have known about Lew Jenkins, who became the Lightweight Boxing Champion of the World shortly before the beginning of World War II. Jenkins, who eventually made it into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame, had many nicknames, including “The Sweetwater Swatter” and “The Sweet Swatter from Sweetwater.”
The name “Sweetwater” on Carter’s airplanes included a picture of a fly swatter slapping the face of a Japanese pilot or soldier.
Like his leader, Colonel Neel Kearby, Carter loved the P-47 Thunderbolt.
Many years after his service as a fighter pilot he would say, “The P-47 was
the very, very best.” But he also held great respect for the Japanese
Zero. In a
letter dated September 19, 1943, he wrote,
You can’t conceive of the maneuverability of the Zero. It is truly a wonderful ship for what it is designed. We have learned
a whole lot from them, and again I think we have taught them a lesson or two.
In the same letter Carter further commented on the P-47, saying, “My ship is new in this theater as you know, but I am sure we can hold our own. We have so far.”