487th Bomb Group (H)
Station 137 - Lavenham, Suffolk, UK
22-Sep-43 to 7-Nov-45
487th Bomb Group (H)
The all important ground support troops
Comments by William "Bill" Michaels of the 487th Bomb Group (H)
Much has been written and said about the bomber crews of the "Mighty Eighth" and rightly so. Those crewmen flew each mission knowing that they were putting themselves in mortal danger. Most of them will readily admit to being afraid but continued to fly in spite of their fear so as not to let the rest of their crew down. I have personally spoken with several Luftwaffe fighter pilots who expressed their admiration for the men who never turned away from their target regardless of the attacks of fighters or the blocks of flak. To me, those were brave and heroic men.
I have mentioned this to bomber crews and almost always get the answer that they could not have done it if it weren't for the people on the ground--the ground crews.
The ground crews could by extension include all the support personnel on the air base. The military police, cooks and bakers, the clerks and typists in administration, special services personnel, the aircraft ground crew, sub-depot personnel, supply people, the bomb loaders, the armorers, the truck drivers and the motor pool mechanics, and, most importantly, the people assigned to emergency vehicles-the firemen and the medics.
Let us see, if only superficially, what each of these people were responsible for and how they contributed to the success of the mission of the Group.
Regardless of what we might have thought at the time, the duties of the Military Police were not only to harass us and to prevent us from enjoying ourselves. Their prime duties were much more important than that--they were responsible for the security of the air base and everything within it. That included us. The entry gates were guarded every minute of every day. The perimeter fence was patrolled regularly. (I wonder how many times we entered the base by the "Burma Road" an MP just "happened" to not be looking in our direction.) They patrolled the flight line. I and my crew had been challenged more than once by MPs when moving to or from a job located at a seemingly deserted hardstand area in the pre-dawn darkness of the night. The Military Police were also responsible for traffic and crowd control following accidents and incidents. They did these things and much more regardless of the time of day or weather conditions.
We were always complaining about the food and gave no thought to the persons responsible for preparing and serving it. Except for the slack period between the evening meal and the early breakfast, the mess hall personnel were planning, preparing and serving meals to hundreds of people. We tend to remember the mutton, boiled potatoes and brussels sprouts which seemed to be present at every meal. A favorite memory of mine is the green, watery powdered eggs that were served at breakfast. And what about the bakers? They were busy when the cooks were still asleep. Without the cooks and bakers the mission of our Group could not have been accomplished.
We all know that the clerk-typists did absolutely nothing while sitting at their nice, clean desks in their nice, warm office. Personally, I would much rather be working on an airplane in whatever weather than have to do their job. They maintained the morning reports, duty rosters, leave and pass requests and all printed correspondence necessary for the operation of the squadron and the group. They also prepared citation and promotion orders in the proper format and in the required number of copies. They would let you know if it was the right time to ask the first sergeant or the commander for a particular favor. If what they did had to be written in longhand by each member of the squadron, not much would get done on time.
Special Services and Red Cross personnel were responsible for arranging entertainment and sports for the group. Even though everyone might not get the opportunity to watch every show or to participate in the organized sports, they were there for those who could. Think about the coffee and doughnut that was eaten in the shelter of an airplane's wing during a rain storm. Then there was the base library and Red Cross lounge. They were always there, warm and quiet, when you had special letters to write. The lift in morale generated by these things contributed greatly to the mission.
We are finally getting to the men who actually laid hands on the airplanes, the aircraft ground crew. The ground crew consisted of the crew chief and his crew who were assigned to the aircraft and kept the plane in peak mechanical condition. The flight crew might fly the plane but it belonged to the ground crew. It was not uncommon for a crew chief to become angry, almost to the point of tears, when his plane returned from a mission with extensive damage. A high school friend of mine who was a fighter pilot flying P-38 Lightnings, told me that once after returning to base with a badly damaged plane, his crew chief howled, "Lieutenant, what have you done to my plane?" The ground crew took care of their aircraft as though it was a living thing. They serviced it, patched it, and almost nursed it through its many stages of inspection and repair. They were constantly inspecting for malfunction or damage, replacing defective components such as landing gear tires, engines and/or engine accessories and assisting specialists with those tasks which the ground crew did not have the training or equipment to accomplish.
The ground crew's rapport with the flight crew was very strong. I have seen on more than one occasion, a crew chief awaiting the return of his plane from a mission, suddenly leave the waiting group saying, "They didn't make it" when the returning aircraft were not much more than specks in the sky.
The repair teams assigned to the Aero Engineering Squadrons or to the Sub Depot, were responsible for performing the repair or replacement of components that were beyond the normal capability of the ground crew: Wing changes, multiple engine changes, and major battle-damage repair such as replacing entire sections of the aircraft severely damaged by flak or enemy fighter action.
Specialist shops such as sheet metal, machine, welding, instrument, communications, paint, hydraulic, parachute and survival equipment were a part of the engineering or sub depot squadrons. These shops could calibrate, replace, repair or even fabricate the parts needed to return an aircraft to top flying condition.
The supply units were often the most maligned. All requests for parts and other supplies were always needed "yesterday." Slow delivery of supplies was usually blamed on the person to whom the supply request was made with little or no thought given to the possibility that the parts were not immediately available. All functions on the base depended on the supply system. This was true whether the need was for aircraft engines or toilet paper. We might have complained about Supply but we could not have operated without it.
The people who handle bullets and bombs are seldom recognized, but without them we would have no need for the aircraft or the flight crews. Let's consider the armament troops first. They had the responsibility of maintaining the aircraft defensive weapons, the machine guns. The automatic features of the gun were inspected to make sure that there would be no malfunction due to worn or improperly adjusted parts. The gun barrels were inspected for worn rifling or warpage caused by barrel overheating. The air crew gunners were normally responsible for removing their guns from the aircraft and cleaning them before turning them in. Often, after a very trying mission, the armament personnel would tell the gunners to not bother removing and cleaning their weapons. They would take care of them. The armorers had to make up the ammunition belts for the aircraft and install the ammunition in the planes. The belts had to be assembled in a specific manner--a tracer bullet every so many rounds, a certain number of armor piercing or incendiary bullets in a definite sequence, and all rounds had to be checked for any defect which might cause the gun to jam or misfire. The ammunition belts were then loaded in the boxes and chutes for each gun making sure that each gun had the required number of rounds.
The ordnance crews were responsible for preparing and loading the necessary bombs for each aircraft as directed by the mission planners. The bombs were usually delivered to the bomb dump in 2 1/2 ton trucks driven by Transportation Corps drivers. Unloading the 500-lb bombs from the trucks was accomplished by the driver dropping the tailgate of the truck, "popping the clutch" and letting the truck jerk out from under the bombs, letting the bombs drop to the ground. This was a quick way to unload, but a thrill each time one witnessed it. The bombs were loaded on transportation trailers and taken to the hardstands for loading in the aircraft assigned that particular load. Most loading was done manually and occasionally the mission would be changed, causing the bomb load to be offloaded and a new arrangement of bombs to be loaded. This was hard work but everyone in the area helped to accomplish it even if it took all night.
Without surface transportation, the fuel and oil would not get to the planes, the aircraft oxygen system would not be serviced. The "prime mover" or wrecker truck, which made major maintenance such as engine changes or wing panel replacement much less difficult that doing the same job with an "A" frame hoist and block and tackle, would not be available. The motor pool also maintained the caterpillar-tracked tug, or "Cletrack," which was not only used to move aircraft from place to place, but was also used to pull aircraft which had left the hard surface of the runway or perimeter track, and had become mired in the soft surface, back onto the hard surface. The Cletrack provided electrical power for lighting the maintenance area and for aircraft systems. It also had a multistage compressor for servicing tires and landing gear shock struts.
Inspection and maintenance of emergency vehicles was also the responsibility of the mechanics assigned to the motor pool. Because of the nature of their mission, these vehicles had to be in top mechanical condition at all times. Seeing the fire trucks and ambulances always on the alert gave a person confidence that any emergency condition could be handled speedily.
Very little need be said about the fire fighters or crash crew. They were always there when needed and seemed to attack fires giving the impression that this was a personal affront to them. How dare the fire spirits even begin to think that they could defeat the fire fighters. Just knowing that the fire fighters were alert and waiting must have given encouragement to air crews trying to land damaged aircraft.
A very important group of ground support people we will discuss here are the medical personnel. They include doctors and medical technicians, "medics." I cannot remember nurses being assigned to our station. Doctors are remembered mostly for their life-saving surgeries or procedures, with very little thought given to the more commonplace problems such as cuts, bruises, colds, upset stomachs and perhaps pulled muscles that they faced every day. In addition, they performed sanitation inspections of the food and food storage and preparation facilities. They also conducted hygiene and communicable disease training.
The last but by no means least important people were found in the Chaplain's office. They not only conducted religious services but were there whenever a person needed advice or guidance of a personal nature. Mail from home was sometimes late and, if there was a problem at home, any great delay in the delivery of the mail would cause a person to imagine the worst. Just discussing the problem with the chaplain usually resulted in improved morale. Our chaplains were very fine men.
This is about all I can think of now. I have probably missed someone but if so it was unintentional.
William R. "Bill" Michaels
Airframe and Powerplant Mechanic
World War II Veteran of
669th Aero Engineering Squadron, 487th Bomb Group,
Station 137, Lavenham, Suffolk, England