Tuesday, March 24, 2015


In southeastern Washington State is the city of Pasco, just north of the Columbia River.  Today it’s part of the Tri-Cities including Richland and Kennewick, but 70 years ago it was a remote railroad town with a prewar population of 4,000.  My father got to know Pasco pretty well during “War Two.”

John H. “Jack” Tillman was born in Portland, Oregon, in 1922 and learned to fly as a teenager.  He attended Oregon State College in 1940-41, studying engineering, before working as a draftsman for Douglas Aircraft in California.  After Pearl Harbor he entered Preflight at St. Mary’s, California, progressing to the Civilian Flight Training program in Idaho in late 1942.  He reported to NAS Pasco in May1943.

Recalling his time at Pasco, Dad said, “I went through CPT at Nampa, Idaho, with ten other Navy fellows and ten Army.  Our Navy and Marine Corps bunch was sent to Pasco, which was a pretty bleak place in southeastern Washington.  It had been a railroad town before the war, with some airmail flying, but that was about it.  There was no place to go and nothing to do.  Mainly it was windy and cold.

“The base was brand new; in fact, it wasn’t quite finished when we arrived.  There was a large concrete mat and hangars for A, B, and C Flights, plus Assembly and Repair.  But the gym and base exchange weren’t done, though you could get half a cantaloupe with a scoop of ice cream for a dime.

“The base commander was Captain B.B. Smith.  He was kind of a tyrant whose pride and joy was a Staggerwing Beechcraft.  The only other one he’d let fly it was a chief naval aviation pilot.  Sometimes when word got around that BB was due back we’d go down to the flight line to watch him land.  It could be pretty airy.

“Pasco was a primary base, mainly with N2S Stearmans.  They were a lot different from the way the purists think of them, with regulation yellow paint schemes.  Some were clear doped, some were silver and yellow, but they were all beat up.  There was at least one groundloop a day, every day.  Eventually ten N3Ns were ferried in from NAS Seattle to take up the slack.

 “The instructors were a mixture of military and civilians, probably with more civilians when I was there.  They tended to be older and more laid back.  But I noted that my two instructors took more time to critique each flight than the Navy pilots.“  Practically the first thing they impressed on us was that we were never, ever, to fly over the Hanford area northwest of base.  Naturally, that was the worst thing they could have done because practically every cadet who soloed made a beeline for Hanford, to see what he could see.  There was nothing obvious out there—just more sand and sagebrush.

“Rumor Control had two theories as to what was going on at Hanford.  Republicans said it was a secret factory making Roosevelt campaign buttons.  Others said, ‘No, they’re making the front ends of horses for shipment to D.C. and final assembly!’

“Right at the end of the war, after the A-bombs, we learned that Hanford was a nuclear research facility.  The plutonium for the Nagasaki bomb was produced there.

“The base had some enlisted men eligible for flight pay—cooks and whatnot.  A lot of them were terrified, because I think we lost three cadets while I was there.  One got into a spin, another got clobbered in a landing accident, and I think the other damaged his tail feathers while dropping rocks on improvised targets.  Another guy went berserk, flat hatting all over the country, chasing a phone company truck off the road.  Finally a bunch of instructors boxed him in and forced him to land.  He was gone forthwith; we never heard what happened.

“Anyway, one of our pastimes was dive-bombing with rocks.  We’d have some sailor in the back seat jump out at one of the auxiliary fields and pick u three or four good-sized rocks.  Then we’d fly out to the Columbia River, which still had some small islands before the dams were built.  Some of us cadets held bombing contests to see who could come closest to a spot on an island.  It was illegal as hell, but nobody seemed to mind as long as you brought your airplane back in one piece.

Jack completed training at Pasco in July 1943, proceeding to NAS Corpus Christi, Texas.  After the war he continued flying and restored two WW II aircraft, a Naval Aircraft Factory N3N-3, and in the early 1970s the world’s only flying Douglas Dauntless dive bomber, which was based at Pasco until space became available at Pendleton, Oregon.

Jack died in March 2014, age 92.

I was acquainted with a few other Pasco aviators via the American Fighter Aces Association.  In 1944 the NAS became an operational base, supporting carrier air groups preparing for deployment to the Pacific.  One of them was Air Group Nine which had completed a combat cruise aboard USS Essex (CV-9) in 1943-44.

Among the leading lights of Fighting Squadron Nine was Lieutenant Eugene Valencia, already an ace with seven victories.  In training his new four-plane division he spared no effort to gain as much experience as possible.  That included cadging bootleg fuel from the eminently bribable flight-line crews eager to exchange high-octane gas for booze.  It was of course illegal as hell but Gene was a flamboyant, press-on type of aviator who saw no reason to let regulations interfere with flying.  His charismatic personality won him admirers up and down the chain of command, and never moreso than when VF-9 completed its 1945 deployment aboard USS Lexington (CV-16) and Yorktown (CV-10).  In that time his division downed 43 Japanese planes with all three of his pilots achieving ace status. 

After the war the Navy sold the air station to the base to the city, which still operates it as the municipal airport.  A local historical group is raising funds to preserve the original building, and I hope you’ll visit the web site at “Save The Tower.”  http://savetheoldtower.com/ .