It was midmorning on a hot day in June 1943. The 40th Bomb Group, U.S. Army Air Corps, had gathered its four Bomb Squadrons from airfields in Panama, Guatemala, Ecuador, and Galapagos Island, and quartered them in barracks at Howard Field, Panama Canal Zone. Our Group was waiting for a troop ship to move us to an unknown destination.

The 40th Bomb Group Commander was a strong-willed West Point graduate. On this particular morning, the squadrons assembled for the Commander's weekly inspection. His directive failed to inspire us, so we grumbled as always while polishing our shoes, donning fresh khakis, and assembling in the bright sunshine. The tropical sun's hot rays heated the concrete ramp to barbecue temperature, and soon our uniforms were damp and wilting fast.

Our 45th Bomb Squadron Commander was a large, stern Major named Oscar. He had grown up on a remote Oregon cattle ranch which could explain why he was a man of few words. Except for the word DUUUH. He often started sentences with a long drawn out DUUUH while he searched for words. It was so pronounced that someone would say "Here comes DUUUH" when we saw him approaching. Of course we never let him hear us use this odd nickname. Despite all this, Oscar was respected by everyone in his squadron.

When the inspection started, Oscar, trailed by his Adjutant, approached the first officer in the front rank. The officer passed Oscar's inspection of shave, haircut, uniform, and shoe shine. Next was the officer's Colt .45 automatic pistol. Oscar examined it, and after a brief squint into the muzzle, returned it to the officer's open hand. Oscar then moved to the second officer in the front rank who happened to be Eddie from Alabama, a popular Captain, excellent pilot, and the squadron wit. I was standing directly behind Eddie. I can vouch for the accuracy of this story.

Our Squadron CO glanced at Eddie's face, hair, uniform, and shoes, then took his pistol that was being pointed skyward. Oscar inspected it, peeked into its barrel and returned it to Eddie. Before Oscar moved to the next officer, Eddie pointed the gun skyward, shoved a cartridge magazine into the gun butt and pulled the trigger. BANG! There had been a live round in the chamber.

Although we were frozen at attention, we flinched. Oscar did more. He jumped backward into his Adjutant. We could see a large, black, powder burn over Oscar's left eye, and his khaki cap was smudged above his left ear. We were relieved that there was no blood showing on his face after it suddenly turned much whiter than usual.

There was a strange look in Oscar's eyes as he stared at Eddie's pistol. He did not say a word. Not even a DUUUH. The wise old Adjutant broke the silence by barking, "Officers -- Aten-HUT! Recheck your hand guns before someone gets killed here." We complied with more care than usual. Eddie was extra careful. First, he removed the magazine from his gun and put it into his pocket. Then he lowered the hammer with both hands and returned the gun to its holster. I could not see his face, but a crimson flush stained his neck and ears.

As the weapons were being checked, Oscar regained his composure, then he continued down the line. When he was out of earshot, Eddie's roommate, Captain Alex from upstate New York, hissed in a stage whisper, "You stupid rebel, you missed him." It was very difficult to suppress our giggles. When Oscar finished the inspection, he silently returned the Adjutant's salute and walked away. The Adjutant marched us to the barracks where he gave us a stern lecture on firearm safety, and his opinion of how close the incident had come to being a tragedy.

After his lecture, the Adjutant dismissed us, and we went inside the barracks. Alex, hiding behind a poker face, began berating Eddie. In his terse Yankee accent, he demanded of his roommate, "How in hell could you miss DUUUH from a range of one foot? Somebody better check your eyes and put you back on the pistol range."

Those remarks brought howling laughter from everyone -- everyone except Eddie. He did not feel like laughing -- not yet.

* From Ira V. Matthews' Eighty-one War Stories. *