Flying Midshipmen gather to recall early start as aviators

Friday, June 22, 2007

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Staff Photo by Paul C. Leibe
Retired Rear Adm. Paul Engel, left, chats with his longtime friend and fellow aviator Mac Smith, during last weekend’s Flying Midshipmen Association’s reunion. Engel and Smith first met in the late 1940s and renewed their friendship several years ago at an earlier reunion.

More than 50 former Navy fliers met in St. Mary’s last weekend for a reunion. The men who showed up hold a unique place in naval aviation history.

Known as the Flying Midshipmen, they earned their wings before they were commissioned Navy officers.

As World War II was coming to an end, Navy officials realized they would soon be losing many of their pilots, who would be hanging up their uniforms and returning to civilian life. Rear Adm. James A. Holloway Jr. devised a plan to revitalize the Navy’s rolls of qualified aviators and then took his idea to Congress, which gave its approval.

During less than four years in the mid- and late 1940s, the Navy recruited about 3,000 young men between the ages of 17 and 24 to become aviators in this one-of-a-kind effort.

The Aviation Midshipmen Program — also called the Holloway Plan — offered high school graduates the opportunity to become Navy pilots while the government paid for their college education. Some of these fliers would later be known as ‘‘Holloway’s Hooligans.”

The candidates joined the Navy at the rank of apprentice seamen. But instead of reporting to boot camp, they went off to college. The government paid for their tuition, books and associated fees — plus a $50-a-month allowance — as long as the recruits studied science or engineering.

After two years of schooling — some met this requirement in a shorter period of time — the apprentice seamen then went to Corpus Christi, Texas, for Navy indoctrination. Completing that phase of their training, they were promoted to ‘‘aviation midshipman,” a rank they would hold for another two years.

From Texas they went to Pensacola, Fla., for flight school, another nearly two-year commitment, where they trained to be pilots. The young men agreed to fly as Navy aviators for two years following their training.

Since many of the trainees completed flight school in less than two years, they were authorized to pin on their wings while still midshipmen, something sailors in the fleet had never seen.

Leonardtown resident Paul Engel, a retired rear admiral, began his career as a Flying Midshipman. He recalled visiting a friend at the U.S. Naval Academy after he had earned his wings but before being made an ensign. ‘‘We were walking” across the academy grounds, Engel said, ‘‘and I was wearing my aviation wintergreen uniform with my gold wings,” an insignia normally only worn by commissioned officers. But the thin, single stripe around the cuff of Engel’s uniform sleeves indicated his status as a midshipman, not yet an officer.

‘‘This caused a lot of confusion,” Engel said with a chuckle. ‘‘Some of the people who saw me saluted, others didn’t know what to do. It was an interesting day.”

Engel completed flight training in 1948 and reported to his first fleet assignment as a midshipman first class.

He was one of 15 Flying Midshipmen to advance to the rank of admiral during his career.

Mac Smith, a flight school classmate of Engel’s, was also at the reunion. Smith left the Navy after 10 years as a lieutenant commander but fondly recalls his time as a Navy pilot. A retired auto dealer, Smith now lives in Plant City, Fla.

‘‘Look around this room,” Smith said, pointing to the other Flying Midshipmen who had come together for the reunion’s first-night welcoming reception at the Patuxent River Naval Air Museum. ‘‘What you see can be summed up in one word: camaraderie. We all share something very special. We’re a small and unique group of Navy fliers.

‘‘I was stationed [at Patuxent River Naval Air Station] 54 years ago,” he said, flying planes with Transport Squadron VR-1. ‘‘And my daughter was born here, in the base hospital. So I have some nice memories of this place.”

Retired Vice Adm. Gene Sizemore, another Flying Midshipman, said he had been interested in flying as a child growing up in Illinois. So when he heard about the Holloway Plan, he said he leaped at the chance to both attend college and earn his wings.

Sizemore, who now lives in Rockville, pinned on his wings in October 1948 and was commissioned an ensign the following January. ‘‘I preferred doing that to anything else I’ve ever done,” he said of his years as a Navy flier.

Sizemore’s son, Bill, is a Navy captain and aviator, and is now on his way home from a deployment to Iraq. When Bill returns home, the elder Sizemore said, father and son plan to take a few rides in the admiral’s biplane, which he keeps at an airport in Hampton, Va.

Retired Capt. Edward V. Laney Jr. flew as a midshipman for three months in 1949 before his promotion to ensign. The Hollywood resident’s first duty was piloting F8F2 Bearcats with Fighter Squadron VF-53, ‘‘the most fun hotrod I’ve ever flown,” he said.

Laney was Pax River’s commanding officer from 1974 to 1976 and, after retiring in 1977, established and managed the F-18 and Harrier flight test facility at Pax River for McDonald Aircraft.

Laney said he saw several old friends at the reunion, ‘‘some of them for the first time in 50 years. It was great,” he chuckled, ‘‘after we finally recognized each other. It was a wonderful reunion.”

Like Laney, retired Cmdr. Bob Stammerjohn, who now lives in Lexington Park, flew as a midshipman for a few months before his commissioning. Stammerjohn’s first assignment was with Attack Squadron VA-195 in California, flying Douglas-built dive-bomber planes. He later flew combat missions during two tours of duty in Korea.

In addition to reconnecting with old friends, Stammerjohn said last week’s reunion gave him the chance to tour Pax River, something he had never done in the 10 years he’s lived in St. Mary’s.

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