Meet the men who kept the Thunderbolts flying.
- By Thomas D. Jones and Robert F. Dorr
- Air & Space magazine, July 2005
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As good as the big Pratt & Whitney engine was, maintaining it posed challenges. Jim Hagan remembers that changing spark plugs was a knuckle-buster: “You had to get your hand inside there, and there wasn’t a whole lot of room.”
“You worked from the time it was light until you couldn’t see anymore,” says Alvin Bradley. Add guard duty and other work details to flightline duties and the ground crews were working almost around the clock. And yet they took it in stride. “I was never tired,” says Shilling. “There was just too much excitement.”
By the fall of 1944, says Joy, “we were a well-oiled machine,” handling three and sometimes four sorties a day.
Because the Ninth Air Force’s fighter groups moved constantly to keep pace with the shifting frontlines, they seldom had adequate repair facilities. The 365th Fighter Group saw combat from March 1944 until May 1945. It hopscotched through England, France, Belgium, and finally Germany, occupying eight bases from D-Day to VE-Day. The group seldom enjoyed the luxury of even a bombed-out Luftwaffe hangar.
Frank Mangan, whose book details his experiences as an armorer and photographer with the 50th Fighter Group, attributes the crews’ ability to handle the relentless schedule to a simple desire to get the job done. “You got used to the routine,” he says. He recalls thinking, “Here it is Christmas Eve, and the rest of the world is waiting for Santa, and I’m out here loading ammo! We didn’t like it, but nobody bitched about it. Our attitude was ‘Let’s get this thing over with.’ ”
Rain turned the primitive airfields into quagmires, recalls Mangan. “Our bivouac area was a knee-deep sea of slippery, gooey muck. Mud stuck to our shoes and gathered more with each step until our feet looked like two big chunks of clay.”
For ground crews and pilots, tent living was the rule; in Normandy the men were lucky to have a tarp stretched over a foxhole. For days on end, the crews’ standard chow consisted of K- and C-rations, but if the group settled down for a few weeks, the men could fill their mess kits with hot meals from their own spartan field kitchens.
When work was done, says Staff Sergeant Ray Larson of the 406th, “we cleaned the grease and dirt from our hands with gasoline.” Showers were a rare treat; Alvin Bradley remembers melting snow in his helmet and taking a sponge bath in the cold water. And when his buddies found themselves bunking in a bomb-scarred Luftwaffe barracks, Mangan writes, “We used champagne liberated from the cellar to flush the toilets—and it worked!”
During the war, the 365th Fighter Group lost 69 men in combat or in accidents, most of them pilots. The one thing a crew chief dreaded most was discovering his airplane and pilot had failed to return from a mission. Yet the ground crews couldn’t afford to dwell on the loss. Don Shilling lost his pilot three days after D-Day. “You got over it in a hurry,” he says. “You could not sit around and mope. You had to get [back] on the stick.”
Charles Johnson wrote the following lines on November 28, 1944, the day his pilot, First Lieutenant John Fitzsimmonds, was killed by a flak burst over Julich, Germany, on his 84th combat mission. Johnson had waited at the runway for his return: