California Council for the Humanities

California Stories Initiative

Years of Valor, Years of Hope

Tulare County and the Years 1941-1946

Tulare County Library

The Friends of the Tulare County Library

And the Tulare County Historical Society

Interviews in 2003-2004

Interviewee: John Gilbert


Date: January 26, 2004

Report No: 39

Interviewer: Bob Smith


Place: Tulare County, CA

Place of Interview: Visalia, CA In Mr. Gilbert’s home.







BS: This is Bob Smith of the Tulare County Library, History Society, and today’s date is January 26, 2004. I’m interviewing at this time Mr. John Gilbert and we are in his private residence here in Visalia, California. Our project title is Years of Valor, Years of Hope, Tulare County and the years 1941 through 1946.

Mr. Gilbert could you just state your name and age please?

JG: It’s John Gilbert; I’m 81 years old.

BS: Thank you. I’m just going to start some basic questions, and could you give me the names of your parents and where they are from?

JG: My father’s name was Martin Gilbert and my mother’s name was Ora Gilbert. They were in Reedley, California, and that’s where I grew up.

BS: You grew up in Reedley. Did you go to high school in Reedley?

JG: Yes, I went to Reedley High School and Reedley Junior College.

BS: Okay. When did you graduate from Reedley High School?

JG: In 1940.

BS: And then you went to Reedley College. Did you graduate from there, or the war sort of interfered?

JG: I was in my second year at Reedley College when I enlisted in the Air Force.

BS: At the time that the war began, were you married at the time, or were you just a student?

JG: No. I was just a student.

BS: What events stand out in the years preceding the beginning of the war?

JG: Oh, nothing in particular, except when Pearl Harbor happened. That stands out quite predominantly.

BS: So, where were you? You said you were at the community college in Reedley when the war broke out, when it started.

JG: Yeah.

BS: So where were you on that day of Pearl Harbor?

JG: I was duck hunting over in Los Banos and I heard it on the car radio on the way home.

BS: You indicated that you entered the Air Force; you signed up for the Air Force?

JG: Yes, I enlisted in the Air Force in 1942.

BS: So you went in. Did you finish your semester up or did you go in 1942?

JG: I didn’t finish my second year.

BS: So you went in January of ’42, or approximately?

JG: Approximately, I think it was a little later. I enlisted early in ’42, but I wasn’t called, there were so many people enlisting in the pilot training in the Air Force that they couldn’t take them all. So they . . . it was almost five months before I was called, after I enlisted. There was a big rush; everybody was enlisting in the services of one kind or another. They were flocking out of school and it was a strong patriotic period. Everybody wanted to get in, and get in the service.

BS: So, when you joined the Air Force, did they tell you that you were going to be a pilot?

JG: No. They put us through a lot of tests to qualify, to see if we qualified. Then they let us know if we qualified before they would go ahead and call you. They would qualify for pilot training.

BS: And so you got the word several months later that you had been accepted for the primary flight training?

JG: I got the word not too long after I enlisted, but then they kept me on call for about five months until they could take me. They had so many coming in; they couldn’t take us all. Then when they called me in, they sent me to college in Logan, Utah, called Utah State Agriculture College. They kept us there, teaching us math and navigation and all kinds of things until the flight schools opened up to where they could take us. The flight schools were so full they couldn’t take us.

BS: Because of the tremendous enlistment.

JG: Right.

BS: So where did you do basic training before you were accepted, or were you still staying at home?

JG: Yes, I was staying at home. I went to work for the government as an aircraft mechanic down in Taft, because they were short on aircraft mechanics. I took a short course and went down there and worked down there until I was called.

BS: And then from there you went to Logan, Utah, for some preliminary training.

JG: Yeah, when I was called they sent me to Logan. They were called "college training detachments." They had them all over the country. They sent us to these college training detachments until they had room for us in the flight schools. At the college training detachments, they gave us math and different courses that they thought would probably help us.

BS: So, how long were you there?

JG: Oh, about three months.

BS: Three months and then you went to the flight school?

JG: I went to Santa Ana, which is pre-flight school. Santa Ana, California, and then I was there in pre-flight school about a month, I think, something like that. Then I was sent to primary training at Rankin Field, here in Tulare.  I went to Rankin and when I graduated from Rankin, they sent me to Taft, California where they had the basic flight training. I went through basic flight training. At Rankin, we flew Stearman's and at Taft, we flew DT13’s.

BS: Okay, the Stearman’s that you learned on, were those the PT17’s, the by-planes?

JG: Yes.

BS: Okay, so you were there in ’41?

JG: More like ’42, by that time, before I got into the flight training.

BS: Okay, so you began flight training in ’42, roughly. And that was at Rankin?

JG: Yes. Yes. Then I went to basic training at Taft, California. They called it Gardner Field, and they had Vault-T, VT13’s, which was a low wing, two-place trainer. Then when we graduated from that, they gave me a choice. The fellows that were in the top half of the class got a choice of whether they wanted to go to a twin engine or single engine. I chose a twin engine, because I always wanted to fly P38’s. So they sent me to Marford, Texas for twin-engine training. We trained in what they called a "bamboo bomber." It was a twin engine Cessna, or built by Cessna, and it was made out of wood and fabric. We went through training there and then when we graduated from there they said they had all the P38 pilots they wanted. They didn’t need anymore.

BS: You had to be disappointed.

JG: So then they sent me to Roswell, New Mexico. I flew twin-engine beach craft there. Roswell was a bombardier-training base and they trained bombardiers in these twin-engine beach craft. First they gave me some bombardier training, on using the bomb site and everything. And then we’d take four cadets up with one hundred pound practice bombs. We would go out and fly and drop bombs on targets, out in the desert. I was there about a year and a half. Finally, I was able to get into B17’s.

BS: Where did this take you to serve?

JG: In B17’s, I went to B17 training in Hobbs, New Mexico.

BS: So, you just ventured across the state from Roswell to Hobbs?

JG: Yeah. I took training in B17’s, and by the time I finished my training in B17’s, they sent me to Lincoln, Nebraska to pick up a crew and a brand new airplane and we were supposed to go to England . Just before we were ready to leave, the day before, VE Day came.

BS: Oh, for pete’s sake.

JG: So, they cancelled all the orders to go overseas. Because I had a little more flight time than some of the others, they put me on permanent duty there, flying navigators and bombardiers just to keep up the training. I did this for about a month.

BS: Now, this was in Lincoln, Nebraska.

JG: Yes. There were, I guess, probably hundreds of crews there that were ready to go overseas with new airplanes. So, they were all cancelled and they were sitting there, so to keep them active and keep them in training, they had some of us take ‘em up and take ‘em on cross country’s and keep ‘em active in their training.

BS: In case, it was needed.

JG: Yeah. And, so then they shipped me to Gulfport, Mississippi and I went into B29 training. I was almost through B29 training, almost all complete when VJ Day came. And so when VJ Day came, they cancelled all the flights and so then they started giving fellows preference whether they wanted to stay in or get out.

My father was a farmer in the Reedley area and he was killed in an accident. Being the only son, I came home. I elected to come home and farm and take care of the ranch. So I got discharged and came home and went to farming.

BS: With all your extensive training and you were obviously looking ahead to when you would get to Europe or the command and so on and then it abruptly changed, did your attitude toward the war change?

JG: No, we were all eager to go. Of course, there was a lot of airplanes went down in Europe and all over. I had some good friends that enlisted at the same time I did, that were shot down over there. Two of them were in German prison camps. They got home safely. They both passed away recently. Our attitude didn’t change much; we wanted to get the war over and get it done. As far as attitude of public opinion and everything at that time, it was so much different than I’ve ever seen since in any of the wars we had. Everybody was all out to win the war and I know when I was a cadet and I wanted to come home on leave or anything, all you had to do was just walk out on the highway and stick your thumb up and every car on the highway would stop to try to pick you up.

BS: Yes, that’s true.

JG: If you walked into a bar, we all had to wear our uniforms then, and you walk into a bar and they saw your uniform, everybody in the place wanted to buy you a drink. That was the attitude at that time. It was entirely different than it was during the Vietnam war. I had two sons in the Vietnam war. It was entirely different.

BS: Yes. Did your views toward race relations change during the war? Any specific experience that you remember?

JG: Well, being raised here in California, we didn’t have a lot of black people. Reedley didn’t have any that I know of. There was a lot in Fresno and down here in Visalia and Tulare, I guess, but we didn’t have any in our schools or anything.

When I was sent to Mississippi, my first real experience, what really surprised me was, of course, you go into the railroad station there, or anyplace, and they had double restrooms. We got on a bus at the base to go into town, just after we got there, and the bus was about half full, and myself and a captain friend of mine, we got on the bus and paid our fare and we went back to an empty seat toward the back of the bus. I noticed the people up in front gave us strange looks. He was from Montana and I poked him and said, "There must be something wrong with us, they’re all looking at us kind of funny." Then soon the bus stopped for a colored man and the colored man got in the bus and paid his fare and then got out of the bus and walked back to the back door and got in the back door. I said, "You know, I think maybe we’re sitting in the colored section back here." We didn’t move; we just stayed there, but anyway, some more colored people got on and one of ‘em, it was getting full in the back, and one of ‘em got onto a seat just up in front of the colored section and the bus driver saw him and he just pulled over to the side of the road and yelled at the guy and said hey you, get back in the back of the bus where you belong. That was really a big experience for me because I had never seen that.

BS: And here you are nearly nineteen years old and all of a sudden in Mississippi where the colored line was . . .

JG: So strong and so distinct that it surprised this Captain Deech and myself. We just sat there and shook our heads. We never seen or heard of such a thing.

BS: But you were only there for about a month, right?

JG: Yeah, it was a little over a month, about a month and a half, something like that.

BS: As far as your skills, you obviously became a very skilled individual for a pilot. But were you able to, when you came out…I realize that you stated that you were coming home to the farm, to take over the farm. Were you able to use your skills for piloting and so on, after the war?

JG: Well, when I farmed, I wasn’t really happy at farming, but I more or less had to, to help my mother, but there was a lot of surplus Stearmans and BT13’s came on the market. So some of us that had been in the service and in the Air Force or Navy Air Force got together and bought a couple of surplus Stearmans. I think we only paid about $800 apiece for them. We formed a flight club and we kept them out . . . started a little airport, out there north of Reedley, which now has turned into a pretty good airport. There was nothing out there at the time except an open field and a man in Reedley, his daughter was in the women’s auxiliary Air Force and she had bought a BT13, and so he leveled a piece of land out there and put in an airstrip, a runway, a dirt runway. We all started using it and eventually it turned into an airport.

BS: And that airport is still being used, right?

JG: Yeah, yeah, it’s a very good airport now.

BS: What’s it called?

JG: Reedley Airport.

BS: Oh, it’s just Reedley, I didn’t know.

JG: Yeah, it’s north of Reedley, about five miles. They have a lot of hangers there and Reedley College uses it a lot with their training program. Reedley College has always had a good training program for aeronautics and engine repair and that sort of thing. I farmed for a while but I always wanted to fly, because I loved it. So eventually I started flying for another crop duster part-time. My mother passed away and we sold the ranches. So, I started flying for a crop duster part-time and got my crop dusters license from a fellow down in Porterville. That was back in 1960. So, then I went into the crop dusting business on my own, after I gained some experience and got my license.

BS: In your military routine of life, were you able to adapt to the routines of military life rather well or were there things you liked or disliked about it?

JG: I liked it. I liked all of it. I like to fly and I liked to train, drilling; some guys didn’t like it but I did, I liked it.

BS: When you were separated from the service, what was your rank at the time?

JG: First Lieutenant.

BS: First Lieutenant. How important was wartime correspondence to you? Did you stay in touch with your family, which I’m sure you did?

JG: Yeah, yeah, there was no problem there.

BS: Were you eager to receive mail and so on?

JG: Oh, yeah, we had lots of mail. No problem getting mail in and out. I got married right after I graduated from flight training. I had 10 days leave to come home and then I was to be stationed in Roswell, New Mexico. So, I came home and married an old girlfriend that I went to college with.

BS: Good. Is there anything or anyone you especially remember from your service time? It could be military or civilian personnel.

JG: Well, I remember Tex Rankin, down here in Tulare. (Chuckle) He had an old Great Lakes, and at every graduation ceremony, he would put on an air show with that Great Lakes. I can still remember him coming down over the runway upside down and the engine sounded like it was going to quit any minute. It was missing and sounded terrible (chuckle) and he put on quite a show.

Then when I went to Santa Ana for pre-flight school, I was in the same barracks, in fact, we were only two bunks apart, was ah . . . oh darn it, I can’t think of his name.

BS: That’s okay. But, this was in Santa Ana.

JG: Yeah, yeah, he, ah, Jack Webb. Jack Webb was in Santa Ana at the time and . . .

BS: The infamous Jack Webb, of Dragnet?

JG: Uh huh, of Dragnet. We both came to Tulare and were in primary together in Tulare. Jack put on a show at the Tulare Auditorium with talent from the airbase and he put on an excellent show at the Tulare High School auditorium.

BS: Was this like a USO show?

JG: No, he just did it on his own; he did it on a weekend and it wasn’t really a USO show, he just . . .

BS: But he was in training with you?

JG: Yeah, yeah. And then when we left, he was in training with us at Taft also. We were at Santa Ana and Tulare and at Taft together and then I went into twin-engine school and he went to single engine.

BS: Did you ever hear from him again, where he . . . I’m sure his biography, you know, related.

JG: No, I never heard from him again. We had a squadron party at Santa Ana when we left there and he got a hold of a bunch of starlets and we had a big party at the Biltmore Hotel. He knew a lot of those actresses. He got a bunch of them together and we had a good party at the Biltmore. The Hollywood Biltmore.

BS: Good party. (chuckle) What one event of the war stands out in your memory?

JG: You mean overseas?

BS: Just one memory, period.

JG: Well of course, I was conscious of what was going on in Europe and England . All of the guys that were going to England , we were hearing about some of them not coming home, getting shot down. I had one very close friend that was a good buddy of mine in high school and college. We enlisted together and he was shot down. He was a navigator and he was shot down over in Germany . He bailed out, he managed to bail out and then when he hit the ground, he broke his hip. He told me later, the Germans treated him very well. They took him into a hospital and took good care of him until his hip mended and then they put him in one of those prison camps.

He tells a story about, when the war was almost over and the Russians started moving in. They were getting close to this prison camp so they moved all the prisoners to another camp in the interior of Germany , somewhere. They had to walk; they didn’t have any transportation and they made them walk. And he said they almost starved to death because they didn’t have any food and he traded his wristwatch and everything he could for food along the way. When he got home, he was just skin and bones.

BS: Wow! What was your opinion about the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan ?

JG: Well at the time I was really amazed; I felt it was probably a good thing and I felt Truman did the right thing. But I was hoping . . . I was thankful that it only took two of them to stop the Japs because that atomic bomb is something . . . something else.  The bombs they have now make those look like firecrackers.

BS: What were your general feelings about the war itself?

JG: Well, I felt it was necessary for us to whip the Japs and the Germans. They had to be stopped. If we hadn’t gone in there and stopped them, Germany would eventually take over England , I’m sure. They would have just kept going and took over most of Europe and they had to be stopped. The Japs had to be stopped too. They’d have been over here.

BS: So, your feelings about this particular situation really didn’t change over the extent of the war.

JG: No. I think the war was a necessity that had to be. It may have not been like some of the last wars we fought.

BS: And other flyers and people in training, were their feelings about the same?

JG: Yeah, we all felt it was an absolute necessity.

BS: And it was a just war.

JG: Yeah, it was a just war, very just. We might not even have our country if we’d have been attacked over here by one or the other. Japan wasn’t too far from us. After Pearl Harbor, they just didn’t realize . . .

BS: And so you, when the war ended you were still in training, between VE Day and then you were in Mississippi when VJ Day occurred. What did you feel?

JG: Oh, in VJ Day down in Mississippi, everybody just went crazy. It was just the most wonderful thing that could ever happen. This friend of mine, Captain Deech, and I went into New Orleans. We were down there on Bourbon Street and you never saw such a wild place in your life. All the servicemen were down there and they finally had to close the bars and everything. It was just declared closed. Everybody went crazy down there celebrating.

BS: (Laughter). Sort of a Mardi Gras supreme.

JG: Yeah, oh yeah. It was bigger than any Mardi Gras, I think. They just about tore Bourbon Street up.

BS: When you returned home to take over the farm, were you able to . . . did you go back to Reedley College, at all, to get your . . .?

JG: No, I didn’t finish my education. I stayed in the reserves, the Air Force Reserves, for awhile with the idea that I might go back in if we ever quit farming. I didn’t expect the Korean War to come along. So when the Korean War came along, they called me and wanted me to come back in. I told them that I was handicapped. I had to take care of the ranch for my mother and we were trying to sell it. So they gave me a choice of either getting out of the reserves or going back into training for the Korean War. So I just had to get out; it was a necessity. I couldn’t go off and leave her.

BS: As far as, on the home front, through your correspondence and so on, how did the war affect your family’s economic circumstance? I realize that they were on a farm and had the food situation under control, most of the time.

JG: Well, it was pretty tough for my dad as a farmer. My dad was into grape and tree fruit mostly. He couldn’t get any labor. He used to hire a lot of Japanese labor and, of course, the Japanese were all pulled out and sent to camps. So, he couldn’t get any labor and he had a real hard time. He had quite a bit of acreage that he couldn’t take care of himself; he had to have labor to help. I know the vineyards got real run down and when I got home, the vineyards were in bad shape. They were run down and he had fenced in and there was a pretty good price for beef. He fenced in a lot of it and turned cattle into the (chuckle) grape vineyards. He also had some range land up in the hills and that’s how he survived, because you just couldn’t get labor to farm. He had a packinghouse at the time and he had to close the packinghouse down. He couldn’t get labor for that.

BS: So he was . . . the food situation . . . a lot of times the farmers would trade commodities. Was this the case with your dad or because of . . .?

JG: Most of his was fruit and there was no labor for pruning, no labor for packing.

BS: There was no crops. It would just die on the vines?

JG: Well, the Thompson Grapes that he could send. He had some stock in a winery over at Kingsburg, a co-op winery. He took all his grapes and sent them to the winery.

BS: So that was a source of income for your family to sustain on?

JG: Um hum. That and raising some cattle.

BS: Did you have any brothers or sisters?

JG: No.

BS: I didn’t know whether they might have been in the service at the same time or . . .

JG: No, I had a half-brother, Cecil Conner, that was 16 years older than I and he had no interest in farming at all. He was in the radio/TV business.

BS: So, just a quick note in passing, because I know that Gilbert Aviation was the eventual business that you built up.

JG: Yes, uh huh.

BS: And, when you started that after the war, how long did it go and where is it now?

JG: Well, it’s really big now. My son, Jack Martin Gilbert, took over, my oldest boy took over. I retired about ten years ago and turned it over to him and he’s grown tremendously since then.

BS: And where is Gilbert Aviation located?

JG: It’s at Sequoia Field up here north of Visalia, but he has his own facilities just off of the airport. He uses the runway at the airport. Because of the problems with the chemicals and everything, the county didn’t want us to use the . . . I used to rent the hangers at the . . . in fact, I rented for 30 years. I rented all of Sequoia Field from the county. Then I rented out hangers and hanger space and I was the airport manager out there. I had my own offices and all my facilities there until the environmental problem started developing. Then we bought 10 or 15 acres adjacent to the airport and built our hangers and facilities there.

BS: So did your son inherit the passion for flying like you have?

JG: Yeah. He went to college and went to engineering school, and became a civil engineer. He had his own office up in Madera, but he didn’t like it. He didn’t like it. I always pushed it because he was good in math and I thought that was a good field for him and I kind of pushed it. He wasn’t happy with it. He was fairly successful; he was a city engineer for a lot of those little towns out on the west side, like Firebaugh, Mendota, Dos Palos and Chowchilla. He was city engineer for all of them, but he had to go to all the council meetings and everything and play politics and he didn’t care for it.

Eventually, on his GI Bill . . . he was in engineering in Vietnam , he was an officer in Vietnam . So when he got home, he started flight training on the GI Bill and he learned to fly and got his commercial license and everything. So one day he came down and he says, "Dad, I want to be a crop duster." (Laughter) I said, "Oh golly, I thought you’d be something better than that." No, that’s what he wanted to do. So he loved it and he was darn good at it. He was excellent and all his other training has made him very successful. He’s got three helicopters and two turban airplanes, big ones. He does contract work, some for the state, and he has a lot of large ranches on the Westside.

BS: When you separated from the Air Force, well, you had the GI Bill to deal with, did that help you buy a house?

JG: Yeah, it didn’t help me a whole lot, but it was there. The state had a real good program for loans to GI’s, low interest loans to buy homes. They also had low interest loans to buy farms. I think it was 40 acres, something like that.

BS: Yeah, I believe so.

JG: They had a lot of good programs for the veterans.

BS: Did you, as a veteran, join any veterans’ organizations at all?

JG: Yeah, I was in the American Legion in Reedley for quite a while, when I was there.

BS: Did you become commander of the Legion there?

JG: No, no, I wasn’t that active in it.

BS: Just to recap here a little bit, how do you think the World War II years in Tulare County affected you?

JG: Well, actually, it was great training that I received and so I have a guilt complex, a little bit about it, because I never went overseas. I never got into combat. I received some excellent training at the time, you couldn’t buy it. All the flight training I got and then the training in twin-engine aircraft and then in four engine aircraft and in B29’s.

BS: So despite the disappointments that you had, as far as going overseas, the discipline and the maturity that you gained as a person was just so invaluable for you to be able to pick up on any challenges that life threw at you.

JG: Yeah, yes, it was. And probably if I hadn’t had to come home and farm, I might have gone into the airlines or something, because I had the qualifications to get into the airlines.

BS: Definitely, definitely. How do you think the World War II years affected the way Tulare County is now?

JG: Well, I think, at that time there was Sequoia Field and there was Rankin Field, here in Tulare County, so I think that helped as far as industry goes. Then, after the war, I don’t know as it helped Tulare County an awful lot. I think it was probably about the same as it would be anywhere in the United States . There was a lot of veterans coming home, and they had to learn trades. There was a lot of training programs for veterans. We had some at the college; I know they had some in welding and all kinds of things, which helped a lot of the young fellows that were coming back. Some of their folks were farmers around here, and they had programs for them, where they could borrow money and buy homes and buy ranches. They could get a certain amount of training for agriculture purposes. They had some . . . I know Reedley College had some programs that were government sponsored for veterans.

BS: So, you feel it was a definite stimulus when the military people came home to invigorate the agriculture community again.

JG: Yeah, yeah, um hum.

BS: Is there anything you would like to add or that we have not covered in this interview, that you would like to go over or make a comment about?

JG: Not particularly, except that I don’t think our younger generations can be aware of the patriotic feeling that there was here in this country after Pearl Harbor. I’ve never seen it since. The mass of young people that went into the service from all over the country, it was just amazing.

BS: Well, Mr. Gilbert, I want to thank you very much for participating in this interview.

B.Smith/pd 3-13-2004/ed. JW 7/06/04

Ed. Note: Gilbert Aviation at Sequoia Field used the Stearman plane that was used for Army Air Corp training at Rankin Field during 1941-1946, per JG phone conversation in July, 2004. Then on November 16, 2005, John Gilbert informed me that he had two sons. His younger son, Douglas, also was in Vietnam , and learned how to fly on the GI Bill after he came back, and worked for a while for his father. Then went on to have his own cropduster business in Paso Robles, then he went into flying Borate Bomber planes that fought fires, mostly in Idaho. He was killed fighting a fire in Idaho.