They were just a “bunch of fellows” mesmerized by cars who enjoyed hanging out in Fairmount and doing things together.
Among these avid car enthusiasts – all of whom owned a car – was 18-year-old John Hayner, who became an Independence attorney, a Missouri state representative and director of the Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority.
At the outbreak of World War II in 1941, John was a sophomore at Kansas City Junior College, as well as a messenger for the Union Pacific Railroad.
He and his nine car-crazy buddies weren’t expecting any publicity when they joined the Army Air Corps together. But they received it in a Kansas City Star article that called them the “Fairmount Squadron.”
A photograph of the enlistees – Gene Buster, LeWayne Starks, Pete Kobe, Wickie Bryant, Bob Lackland, Tony Tomena, Edward Vader, George Waller and Jim Swam – accompanied the story.
“The hook was that we would all be sent to basic training together,” says John, “and we thought that was great.”
For John, though, this wasn’t his first attempt to join the Army Air Corps. Anxious to become a pilot, he enlisted in the Corps shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor. However, his dream of piloting a Lockheed P-38 fighter plane vanished when he failed the critical eye examination.
“I was color blind. So I was kicked out of the air force,” says John, who will celebrate his 91st birthday in June. “They put me on a bus and I was sent home. I was out; I couldn’t be a pilot.”
Brokenhearted, the Northeast High School graduate dropped out of college. He continued with his railroad job and started running around with his Fairmount friends again.
Knowing their lives as civilians were about to end, John and his buddies registered for the draft in the Memorial Building in Independence; each received a draft number. The wait was on.
“We just hung out waiting for our number to come out (in the newspaper), he recalls. “We went through that spring and summer; then in the fall (of ‘42), we watched as our numbers came closer to the top.”
With their numbers quickly approaching, the young men decided they didn’t want to be drafted into the infantry after all. So, with John suggesting they join the Army Air Corps as enlisted people, they did just that.
“With 3-2 beers in us, we all thought that was great,” John chuckles. “So we got 10 of us together and went down the next day and signed up together (at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.) for the Army.”
The 10-man Fairmount Squadron, though, was short-lived. It became a nine-man squadron when Gene Buster missed the bus to Kansas City’s Union Station the next morning, and the Florida-bound train departed without him.
“That poor guy didn’t get to go with us. They sent him to the cavalry at Fort Riley (Kan.), and the poor guy paid his penalty by staying there all through the war, and he came home every weekend,” he says facetiously. “But he assured us he would take care of our girlfriends while we were gone.”
What Gene Buster missed by not going to Florida was taking basic training during the winter in sunny St. Petersburg and being billeted in a luxurious 2 1/2-story house near the oceanfront.
“The Army took over a block of old houses (for billets), and every morning we marched down the streets in St. Petersburg to the beach and did all our marching exercises on the sand,” John recalls, adding: “Marching in the sand was a real muscle developer.”
For John, completing basic training was both a joyous and rueful occasion. Rueful, he says, because he and his buddies went in different directions and they never saw each other again until the war’s end.
Following basic training, John attended the Bombsight and Autopilot Maintenance School at Lowry Field in Denver, Colo. There he learned to keep the equipment operational and calibrated.
The “magnificent” bombsight, he explains, figures out where the bombardier must drop a bomb to make it go into a big arc and hit the target after it’s properly calibrated.
Except for a brief tour of duty in North Africa in the summer of ‘42, John spent the rest of the war in southern Italy. While waiting his turn to return home following the war, he studied ancient Italian art at the University of Florence.
As for war stories, John hasn’t any, other than he survived two German bombing attacks on an airfield at which he was stationed.
“I was never in combat; I was never in danger of being shot,” he says, noting the worst thing that ever happened to him was when a B-24 bomber he had been working on blew up on the line and affected his hearing.
Says John: “I was close to it when it happened. Then it blew up the (bomber) next to it.”
The entire Fairmount Squadron returned home safely in 1945. But with the returnees getting married, raising children, attending school and going to their jobs, there was little time to hang out as in the past.
“We kind of drifted apart, but we did keep together for awhile; then later, we met every Monday at Hardee’s in Fairmount,” he recalls, then adds: “We always tried to meet every year on Nov. 11 – the day we all enlisted.”
With Bob Lackland’s death, John is the last surviving member of the Fairmount Squadron. He misses his old comrades and their get-togethers. But thanks to a coffee club at Main Street Coffee House in Independence, he has met many new friends. One of whom recently called to tell me about John Hayner, one of the most interesting people she had ever met.
John will have more to say in an upcoming column. Thanks for the call.
Retired community news reporter Frank Haight Jr. writes this column for The Examiner. You can leave a message for him at 816-350-6363.