Cold Front

Meet the men who kept the Thunderbolts flying.

Jugs in fearsome formation. (NASM (SI Neg. #00083262))
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The 365th Fighter Group was typical of the 18 fighter-bomber units serving in the Ninth. After Pearl Harbor, volunteers and inductees had streamed through the Army’s basic training and technical schools to fill the ranks of the air forces. Those with the right aptitude, perhaps aided by pre-war experience as gas station attendants or factory workers, were trained as aircraft mechanics.

Twenty-two-year-old Staff Sergeant Guy Bauman, for example, was a truck driver in Illinois when he was drafted in 1942. When the Army sent him to engine school at the Republic factory in Farmingdale on Long Island, New York, he had never even seen an airplane before. He eventually joined the 365th as a P-47 crew chief. With his colleagues, he would linger near the runway for the hour or two their airplanes were on missions. The returning pilots usually notified the crew by radio if someone was missing. “It was nerve-wracking,” Bauman remembers. “You worried about that pilot all the time. They were just like a brother to you.”

A fighter group like the 365th had three squadrons, each with approximately 25 P-47s. Each airplane was maintained by a crew chief and his assistant, along with an armorer to load the .50-caliber machine gun ammunition, bombs, and rockets. A flight chief supervised the teams and looked after eight or nine aircraft. A squadron line chief—a senior non-commissioned officer—assigned cadres of propeller and radio personnel, sheet metal experts, and instrument techs to repair battle damage or broken systems, making sure each fighter was ready before dawn for that day’s sorties.

The 365th ground crews trained in Virginia, Delaware, and New Jersey, and arrived in England in 1943 with 15,000 other GIs crammed onto the oceanliner Queen Elizabeth. The unit initially flew from England and got its first taste of combat in bomber escort missions across the Channel. After D-Day, with the Allies and the German forces deadlocked in Normandy’s hedgerows, the 365th shifted to a forward airfield near Utah Beach, and its work began in earnest.

Charles Johnson wrote that before shipping out to England, the 365th’s commander, Colonel Lance Call, issued an edict that “no matter what the extent of damage to the aircraft, it must be flying again within twenty-four hours.”

The daily routine was simple in concept but relentless in practice. “During combat operations, we woke up the plane with a preflight check,” Johnson wrote. “First, we started the engine to check its operation and the performance of the magnetos. We also checked the instruments and the propeller’s pitch control. Then came a complete check of the exterior of the plane including the sheet metal, control surfaces, and windshield. Often, bombs were loaded under the wing or on the belly. The fuze on the nose of each bomb was checked to be sure the detonator safety wire was in place.

“When a 110-gallon tank of gas was attached to the belly, glass tubing was used to connect the two pieces of rubber fuel line,” one from the tank, one from the airplane. The connection was a constant source of worry for crew chiefs, Johnson recalled. If a rough runway or turbulence broke the glass, would the pilot be forced to abort, or run short of fuel in the heat of a dogfight?

Preflight complete, the ground crew waited for the pilots to arrive in a jeep or truck called the “fish wagon.” One man would lug the parachute up to the cockpit while the crew chief helped the pilot climb onto the wing, then lent him a hand with the parachute straps. Finally, the crew chief lay prone on one wing, and hung onto one of the protruding .50-caliber gun barrels to perform one of the most unusual duties of a Thunderbolt ground crewman: guiding the pilot down the taxiway.

From the cockpit, the view forward while taxiing was blocked by the huge cowl of the Pratt & Whitney radial. Pilots were taught to make continuous S-turns to clear the route ahead, but so many Thunderbolt tails were clipped by the following airplane’s prop that the crew chiefs had to take on a new job as “copilots.” Using hand signals, the enlisted man directed his pilot to the end of the runway, then hopped down just before takeoff.

Flight chief Don Shilling, a tech sergeant from the 406th, liked to accompany his airplanes out to the runway in a jeep. “You could always tell if your airplane was running good when it was under full blast—you know—if she was hitting on all 18 [cylinders],” he says.

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