RALPH KERR Built Word War II Airfield

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, I was living in Albuquerque and heard the news broadcast coming from a blaring radio from a neighbor’s house while my wife and I were pushing a stroller (with our five month-old daughter) home from the store.  Little could I imagine that I would soon be building an airfield.

Pyote Army Airfield

Pyote Army Airfield

How this Dallas-born-and-bred boy got to Albuquerque; jobs for boys and girls just out of school were scarce as hen’s teeth in 1936, but, with a recommendation from the Boy Scout Executive for Circle 10, I was offered one with the Dallas Branch Office of E.A. Pierce Stock Brokerage firm located on the fifth floor of the Kirby Building. My only credential for the job was my rank as an Eagle Scout. My only credential for getting married was my job, and I married Hazel Ruth Walker that year and we spent countless hours at the Texas Centennial. We had no auto for transportation, but those electric trolleys that we called “streetcars” took us wherever we wanted to go, but it did cost us six cents each!

I worked as a clerk for E.A. Pierce until mid-1938, when rumors of a merger with Fenner and Bean sent me job-hunting again. (Pierce did merge with Fenner and Bean and many others, to become the largest brokerage firm in the world, now known as Merrill Lynch.) I found one in New Mexico working in the field of engineering, which was where I wanted to be.

When we entered the war, I offered my services to the Corps of Engineers. I was born with a defective eye: being legally blind in my right eye, I was “physically unfit” for anything but “limited service” in the Armed Forces. The Corps said YES, we want you as a civilian employee right now. The Corps had higher rank in choice of personnel than the Draft Board.

I was sent to Pecos, Texas, in February, 1942 where we were building an airfield for the Air Force. After a few months I was in charge of the engineering section of the Corps for construction of the Pecos, Pyote, and Marfa airfields. Pecos was a basic training station for fighter pilots and navigators; Marfa was for twin-engine pilots; and Pyote was for B-17 bomber training.

These bases were constructed by civilian contractors under contract to the Corps, and it was our job to see that they were designed and constructed according to specifications and, more importantly, that the designs were adequate for the purpose intended. Our personnel were in three sections under the supervision of a commissioned officer of the Corps of Engineers. One section was the administrators, personnel, correspondence, etc. One section was the inspectors who patrolled the work in progress. One section was engineering including design changes, surveys, drafting and the like, which was my responsibility. My job was made more difficult because of the shortage of material. Many designs were reworked because the materials required were not available.

The Corps sent me one man who was a registered engineer and architect in Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, and Florida. He was about sixty years of age, a devout alcoholic, and was assigned to my group. My first thought was, “What am I going to do with this man?” Actually, he was a godsend to me. He never drank on the job; when he was drinking he stayed in his room. When he was sober, he could and did do analyses of material and strength and suitability for the purpose intended in a fraction of the time it would have taken me or any one of my crew to do. He was hired at a salary that should have been insulting to a man of his talent and expertise, so we just ignored his problem and picked his brain when he was sober. He earned his pay and much more.

Our office was the first completed barracks building on the Pecos Base. We had no air conditioning, of course, and in June, July, and August, the temperatures inside the building frequently reached 115 degrees and more. One day when the temperature reached 117 degrees my good architect-engineer came to work after a drunken binge. I gave him drawings and plans for a proposed change to analyze and he set to work, groaning softly to himself. I looked in on him after a short while and found him wiping sweat with a soggy handkerchief, trying to keep from dripping on the plans, still groaning.

Someone at the next desk said, “Why don’t you just go off somewhere and die?” His reply, “Oh God, I wish I could.”

At that time I thought his answer was funny, but as I thought it over, I realized he was speaking from his heart and not just because of the heat. He died from cirrhosis of the liver shortly after the War was over, and his wish was granted. He served his country to the best of his ability at a time when he was badly needed. He is now at peace and shall remain nameless.

By Ralph Kerr for Proud Heritage, Vol. III by Dallas County Pioneer Association. Photo of Pyote Army Airfield courtesy AirplaneBoneyards.com.   Additional Dallas TX history can be found here.