Trio reunites, remembers early days at Curtis Field

Natives of McCulloch County and those who have deep family ties to the area know full-well the rich history that branches out to all corners of the globe. This week, several points on the globe once again were brought together simply through the ties that began in this county’s most populous town. Three men in their younger years were part of the wartime effort to train pilots and prepare them for war as members of the air corps. The need for a training facility and the political ties of Harry Lamar Curtis, put Brady’s own Curtis Field on the map as a training facility in the early 1940s. When World War II started, Curtis Field was designated a training facility and men were needed to help keep the airplanes in top working condition. To get the field ready to accommodate the dozens of planes that would train new pilots, mechanics and engineers were hired and sent to Brady to keep things running smoothly. This week three of those men who worked at Curtis Field in the 1940s, met once again at their former place of employment for a bit of reminiscing and to catch up on old times. Cliff Boyls, Gilbert Handy and Woodrow W. Kothmann stood in the doorway of one of the newer hangars at Curtis Field and looking out over the fields, recalled memories of their time of service more than a half century. “The runways used to be over there,” recalled Handy, an 84-year-old private pilot who still enjoys flying. “I remember how dusty it used to be here when we first arrived. We would taxi the planes out first thing in the morning, and you couldn’t even see the plane in front of you through all of the dust clouds.” The three men, all employees of Brady Aviation while it was still in business, each had jobs as mechanics or crew chiefs in charge of keeping the trainer planes in good working condition. Handy was a crew chief whose duties included everything from checking inspection stickers to fueling planes. Kothmann was an instrument technician, and Boyls was a mechanic. Each came to Brady in very different ways. Now, more than 60 years later, what brought them together keeps them in touch. As they sat chatting about old bosses, workers and airplanes, the ties that bind them together show through with gleaming brightness. What brought them together this week was a simple desire to visit old friends. Handy, a native and current resident of Virginia, became familiar with the Heart of Texas both from his service at Brady Aviation and also through a personal trip he made following the request of a World War II soldier. While working on a ship in the early part of the war as a merchant marine, Handy was talking to a soldier, Kenny (Shorty) Reeves, during the three-week trek to Italy. He found out the soldier was from Texas and instantly took a liking to him. “When I found out he was from Texas, we began talking and I made a friend when I offered him the use of my bunk,” said Handy. “You see, I was working nights and therefore my bunk was empty. He was sleeping down in the hold with 500 other soldiers, and it was miserable for him. He sure was grateful for the use of the bunk and by the end of the trip, we were good friends. “Before he got off the ship, Reeves handed me a letter and asked me to personally deliver it to his wife, Mildred, in Menard. When I got back to port in Virginia, I drove to Menard and delivered the note.” Handy and the couple corresponded via letters for years following the war. He reunited with the soldier and his wife back in 1998. “I had a letter with me from Mrs. Reeves she had written to me shortly after the war,” said Handy. “When I came to visit a few years ago, I handed her that letter and used that to introduce myself. I asked her if she remembered writing the letter and of course, she did.” The Reeveses who live in Menard, hosted Handy for breakfast Tuesday. “Some things just get in your blood and you can’t forget them,” said Handy. “That is why we keep coming back to Brady and the Heart of Texas.” Kothmann, an instrument technician for Brady Aviation, still ranches on the family land in the area. With land near Pontotoc as well as several sections near Brady Lake, the retired mechanic knows where his roots lie. “I worked for Brady Aviation for 49 months and nine days,” he said. “After that I went to Pan American to do the same work on instruments for their planes. Then, when the war was over and as soon as the Armistice was signed, I told my boss I would work until the end of the week and then I was headed home. I had a family ranch with cattle on it, and it needed to be looked after.” In the early days at Curtis Field, the three men worked together in different areas of four hangars that are now occupied by Heartland Rig International. Each had different duties and worked in different locations, but their jobs were all related’keep the planes flying and in good condition. Boyls, now a resident of Sinton, was one of the first six men sent to Brady to prepare Curtis Field for the incoming masses of training planes. In early 1941, he was shipped to Brady from Fort Worth. The landing strips at the airport were not complete so a temporary field was used where Rest Haven cemetery currently sits. “We started out that first week with 15-20 Steermans (airplanes),” said Boyls. “By the time things were going full speed, we had more than 100 planes out here at the airport.” The three men have individual ties that are unique in their own ways. Each was a mechanic but still loved flying. Boyls was a private pilot and instructor and even taught Handy’s wife to fly. To date, he states that he has owned and sold over 200 planes. According to Handy, Boyls even soloed as the instructor of the woman whom Handy would eventually marry. In his own life, Handy overcame several obstacles to eventually earn his pilot’s wings, not the least of which was being blind in one eye. He is still a licensed pilot and carries with him his medical clearance card as well as his private pilot’s license. “I always had an interest in flying so I worked for awhile and saved up my money so I could go to school to learn to be a mechanic,” said Handy. “I studied for a few months and then got started at Hicks Airport in Fort Worth. From there, I was transferred to Randolph AFB and then to Brady with four other guys. I stayed in Brady for about a year and then had to leave because I was hurt badly in a motorcycle accident. Ironically, the motorcycle on which he was riding when he was nearly killed, belonged to Boyls. “He hit a guy-wire from a telephone pole and durn near took his head off,” said Boyls. “He was lucky he wasn’t killed.” Handy returned to Virginia to recuperate and through repeated efforts and sheer desire, passed government physicals and obtained his private pilot’s license. Using creative ways to earn a living as a pilot, he earned an instructor rating and eventually became a commercial pilot. From there, he spent many years flying as a fish spotter in the North Atlantic. “I spent a lot of time flying around looking for the big schools of fish and reporting their locations to the boats,” said Handy. “It was a good way to get a lot of flight time.” The three old friends can vividly recall memories of the historic times they spent at Curtis Field in the early 1940s. “I have many stories from this place, ” said Kothmann. “Some good, some not so good. There was a lot that happened back then.” Together, the three men can chat about different things that they each remember. One name will spark the memory of another; most of whom are no longer living. Situations and bits of information stir the memories of years ago. They ask each other about certain planes or certain people they remember. “There are not many guys our age living anymore,” they collectively recalled. “Our memories are getting worse, but I guess that’s what happens with age.” With the trip complete, Handy and his son will return to Virginia. Boyls will head back to Sinton, but return to Brady often to visit his daughter, Sue McCorley. Kothmann will tend to the daily operations of his cattle ranch and the Reeveses will live out their lives in Menard. The Heart of Texas has a rich history and the bonds formed here, even more than 50 years ago, still remain.

Leave a Comment