Army vet trained pilots, flew top-secret missions

from mydesert.com article dated  16 July 2011
 

Bill and Wilda Yancey had been married exactly six months when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

The couple attended church that Sunday morning, then visited the officer's club at Key Field in Meridian, Miss, where Yancey, a U.S. Army Air Corps pilot, was stationed.

Yancey, who graduated from the University of Arkansas in 1937, was in Meridian as a member of the 50th Fighter Group, a training unit that prepared pilots for combat.

When Yancey went back to the club to retrieve his hat, his wife, now waiting in the car, turned on the radio and heard the news.

“I didn't know where Pearl Harbor was,” she said.

Her husband hadn't heard of the place. In fact, no one they talked to on the base in Meridian, Miss., knew exactly where the U.S. had been attacked.

Two days later, busloads of pilots and flatcars filled with airplanes rolled into the air base.

Yancey and another lieutenant trained these young, inexperienced pilots, but the instruction time was limited. The U.S. needed to get these men into combat as quickly as possible.

The P-38 pilots got a quick course in fighter flying before being sent into battle. After a couple of times up in the air, the pilots were pushed out of the nest, so to speak.

“Once they took off twice, then we let 'em go,” he said.

In 1943, Yancey assumed command of the Kissimmee Army Air Field in Florida — and the 349th Night Fighter Squadron.

The squadron was part of the first night fighter unit established during the war. The squadron later moved to Hammer Air Field in California.

“We had them fly off of instruments at a certain altitude,” he explained.

The windows of the aircraft were covered, so the pilots couldn't see out. They could only rely on their instruments, while taking directions from trainers on the ground.

“We had them pretty close to the hills,” Yancey said.

In early 1945, Yancey was stationed in China with the 14th Air Force, eventually assuming command of the 3rd Fighter Group in North China, where he remained for the rest of the war.

After the war, while stationed at March Air Force Base in Riverside, he began working on a top secret project — the U-2 spy plane.

So secret, his own family had no knowledge of what he was up to Monday through Friday.

“He said, ‘Honey, I can't tell you where I'm going or what I'm doing,'” she said. “I didn't know for four years.”

It turns out he was spending his weeks working at a dry lake bed located near Las Vegas.

Yancey learned to fly the ultra-long-winged U-2 aircraft and flew it on test flights high above the desert ... higher than any plane was able to fly up to that point in time.

Airline pilots, who, like everyone else, had no knowledge of these new, high-flying aircraft, frequently called in to report UFO sightings, he said.

Yancey trained pilot Francis Gary Powers, who was shot down while on a spying mission over the Soviet Union in May of 1960. He was able to parachute out but was captured by the Russians. He was eventually returned to the U.S.

“They traded him for a Russian spy,” Yancey said.

During those Cold War years, Yancey slept with a red phone by his bedside.

“When that phone rang, it meant I better answer it as quick as I could,” he said.

After the Yanceys moved to the desert, he became the first tournament director for the Bob Hope Classic in 1966.

The Yanceys are members of El Dorado Golf Club and in the mid- to late 1960s, Bill Yancey said he played a couple of rounds with President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a former World War II general.

“I beat him,” Yancey said.