Back then, junior year of high school should have been filled with coming-of-age memories, football pep rallies, and homecoming dances. Visiting colleges, choosing high-school sweethearts, and exploring possible careers should have been in the thoughts of soon-to-be seniors. Pearl Harbor changed all that. The very real world war and deciding to fight his country’s enemies was foremost in the mind of a barely 17-year-old Bernard Sledzik after hearing of the bombing.
“When our radio told us the bombs had been dropped, I knew exactly what I wanted to do when I got out of high school,” Bernie says. “My parents would not let me drop out of school then, or I would have done so.”
Growing up in the tiny town of Coal Run in rural western Pennsylvania, Bernie had been always fascinated with flight. As a kid in the 1930s, he spent hours looking up at airplanes, building wooden model planes, and reading aviation books. His goal was to join the army as an aviation cadet as soon as he graduated.
From High School to Sky High School
Skeptical friends and nervous family members thought skinny little Bernie Sledzik had no chance to become a pilot when the majority of cadets were college graduates or civilian licensed pilots, all of whom were at least four years older than him.
In 1943, the recruitment process was not a smooth one for young Bernie. Following a routine physical with good results, the nasty part came when he reported for his U.S. Army exam.
After reading eye charts and offering up samples of his bodily fluids, Bernie sat with a sergeant for his final review. He failed; at a skinny
123 pounds, he was five pounds underweight. The sympathetic sergeant said that he would hold the papers for one week before Bernie would be reweighed.
“I stuffed myself with everything I could think of,” Bernie says. “One week later, I stepped on the scale, and it read 125 pounds, still three pounds shy. The sergeant looked at the scale and said, ‘I’ll be damned, you just made it’ and marked down 128 pounds.”
Six months later, Bernie boarded a train with 26 other cadets for the first leg of a three-day journey to San Antonio, Texas.
There, the cadets were put through another round of testing that would determine their classification as a pilot, bombardier, navigator, or gunner. The intelligence tests were easy for Bernie. Next, he faced the psychomotor test, which gauged dexterity, depth perception, and color perception. Bernie breezed through them. Finally, the only thing left was the psychological review.
“A psychologist questioned me about my background, my very young age, my desire to fly, and how I would feel about dropping bombs in Poland (my ancestry) under German control,” Bernie recalls. His answers were satisfactory, and he was,
by far, the youngest of his group chosen for pilot training. Bernie’s duties were to attend classroom sessions, undergo basic training, and to march, hike, and take turns at KP. Upon completion, Bernie was sent to primary training in Colemen, Texas, where he would begin flying in a Fairchild PT-19.
To read the full article from the June 2016 issue of Flight Journal, click here.