Boyd Thompson's
  32nd Bomb Squadron, 1942 -1945, Web-Site

Grease Monkeys keep ‘em flying  

ONE FOOT ON THE GROUND is an article that appeared in the February 27th 1943 issue of Colliers Magazine. Photographs were taken in England at the Chelveston Air Base in November of 1942. The 32nd Squadron along with the four Squadrons of the 301st Bomb Group was one of two B-17 Heavy Bomb Groups that was the nucleolus of the famous 8th Air Force. The Group was to later form the 12th and 15th Air Force. The article covered the “Anonymous Heroes” of the ground crews that kept the bombers flying.  

The storm has passed over at last; the gusty wind drives a final scud of rain across the deserted cement landing strip, and the black puddles bounce with myriad little geysers for a moment. Thunder growls in the distance and occasional blue flashes light the sky as the storm, fighting a rear-guard action, retreats along the high ridges to the west. In the darkness, little groups of men huddle in the shelter of the control tower or in the lee of repair trucks at the edge of the field or in the emergency welding tents set up behind the parking area, smoking, grumbling and waiting.

Now the big landing lights go on along the east west runway and the head-on silhouette of a four-motored bomber tilts down in the light and settles like a giant moth on the wet concrete. She taxies smoothly down the field, brakes to a halt, turns and rolls back to the line, warping into place as the landing lights go off again.

Crew Chief Tech Sergeant Leo Sparr of the 32nd Bomb Squadron directs “Wabash Cannon Ball”, plane number 124361 to it’s parking area while Sergeant Henry Arambula signals the pilot.

Almost before the big plane’s props stop spinning, one of the huddled groups is swarming over her. Some anchor her securely to the ground rings, others refill her gas tanks, check and clean her landing gear, examine her minutely from wing tip to wing tip, their right angle flashlights winking in the darkness like a troupe of benevolent gremlins.

The landing lights come on again, another Fortress slides onto the strip and maneuvers toward her parking area, another group of mechanics run out to meet her. Still more ships circle overhead, awaiting their landing instructions from the tower. The shouts of ground crews are barely audible above the constant drone of motors: “Give us a hand with this dolly.”  Toss me up that three-sixteenths socket, Joe” “Looks like a loose lead here…”

You shiver in the raw wind that sweeps the secret concentration field, chopped out of an evergreen wilderness. This is where the big bombers assemble like a flock of migrating crows, darkening the field for a few days, then abruptly taking wing as though guided by some mysterious impulse and heading across the water. One night the field is crowded, the next morning it is bare and silent, and the whole flock has left for some distance battlefield.

This is the last step in their preparation for combat. The bottom of the funnel. Here the Squadrons mass for their final inspection; and here amid the tension and hurry, their ground crews check and recheck the waiting ships, test their turrets, examine guns and mounts, tune their motors, make sure they are ready for the long hop across the channel.

You’ve heard them say that a pilot flies with one foot on the ground. This is why, for the dozen grimy mechanics who make up the ground crew of each Fortress or Liberator are as vital to that ship as her pilot or engineer or gunners. When she completes a spectacular mission later over Africa or the Solomons, when she licks her weight in Fockewulfs or Zeros, you can take your hat off to these anonymous grease monkeys back on the line, who sent her out there fighting.

The Crew chief of the shop that just landed is squinting at the flight report; an assistant holds a trouble light, so he can see. Number three motor was giving some trouble; loses oil pressure, the report says. The Crew chief’s ladder, a twelve-foot scaffold made of inch and a half pipe is rolled under Number Three. A couple of young Sergeants scramble up and remove the two crescent moons of cowling covering the circle of cylinder heads. A gathering pool of oil on the cement under the motor tells the chief that there’s a loose connection or a crack in the feed line.

His practiced hands twirl wrenches, reveal the tiny split at a bend of the feed pipe. Without looking up, he removes the faulty tube, replaces it with a new one an assistant hands to him, climbs down from the ladder, goes into the cockpit and starts Number three. He guns her, nods in satisfaction, cuts the motor. The ladder is shoved in close again, the cowling is fastened into position. Fourteen minutes, all told!

Another ship cuts her motors at the other end of the parking area; her flight reports shows that she pulls a little to the left when the brakes are applied. That may mean too little clearance of the left brake or too much on the right, the chief knows. Three thousandths of an inch difference is enough to cause a fatal ground loop when twenty tons land at better than seventy miles an hour. The wing jacks, huge worm screw lifters, are set under the jack points, two men turn the spindles, the fat wheels lift slowly off the concrete. The wrenches get busy, the broad brake bands are exposed. The landing gear expert makes measurements with his micrometer caliper; “Take up on the right one.”  He turns the adjustment bolt carefully, stops to measure with his caliper again, turns the bolt some more. A final measurement; he moves back to let his assistant replace the cover, watching intently until the last lock wire is twisted to seal the nut securely. Just twenty one minutes!

Surgery for Planes

The lights flicking on and off in the darkness, the quick, deft movements and the ordered haste remind you of an emergency operating room in a field hospital. There is no waste motion here, no indecision. These men are specialists in mechanical medicine; They are skilled surgeons with X-ray eyes and stethoscope ears and hypersensitive finger tips. They tap and probe their patients with a family physician’s devoted care, diagnose each ailment, prescribe for the slightest symptom of organic disorder in the big bomber’s hydraulic, oiling or ignition system.

Their surgical kit consists of socket wrenches and spanners and micrometers and feeler gauges and air compressors and pressure grease guns and electric welding units. They plunge their hands deep into an engine’s vitals, feeling expertly, finding the trouble. They are the pick of the best technicians in a country that leads the world in technical skill. They are the trained doctors of the flying line. Their training is as exacting as any premedical student’s, as practical as a hospital intern’s. A mechanic spends his first month in the Air Forces learning to be a soldier, drill, manual of arms, taking and carrying out orders. In the classroom he brushes up on the rudiments of mathematics, takes machine shop and aptitude tests. If he makes the grade, he is sent to one of the Air Forces technical schools. Here he begins the long six days a week grind of higher math instructive movies, lectures, study of model airplanes, advanced theoretical and practical mechanics. He spends weeks tearing down, repairing and rebuilding motors, radials, liquid cooled, in lines, the tiny three cylinder sputter bugs of the single seater hedge hoppers. The thousand horse turbo supercharged power plants of the latest pursuits. He packs in all the theory and practice that engine doctors have stored up for the past forty years; and at last, at the end of the six months, he is assigned to work with a crew at an airfield, under the relentless eye of a grizzled Master Sergeant Crew Chief.

Master Sergeant “Chief” Pickering , for instance. Gray headed, spare as a shitepoke, with pallid skin and broken fingernails permanently blackened with carbon, when he contemplates a motor, he stands weighing a wrench in his hand humming happily, a little off key. He has a nasal twang that could only come from the northern most part of New Hampshire . The Chief’s a veteran of the last show, can still tell you the serial number of every Jenny he worked on in France in the first war. That’s why he closed up the best paying repair shop in Colebrook, he says. “I guess I had to feel the ground shake under me just once more.” Sergeant Joe Streeter is an ignition expert, lean and weather tanned. He comes from a town in Texas whose name, he says, you wouldn’t recognize if you heard it; claims he started tinkering with motors when he was a kid. He spent the past five years working in a garage on the main route of the big transcontinental Diesel trucks, but he’s always liked the high speed stuff best. “Reckon there’ll be plenty of private planes to work on by and by when we git home.” He drawls. “That’s how I come to git in this outfit.”

Sergeant Billy Minor from Allamuchy , New Jersey , is round faced, bespectacled and savvy looking. He hasn’t turned twenty yet, but he’s rated one of the cleverest hydraulics men on the field. He has just started his mechanical engineering course at Stevens when the shooting began. He decided he might as well get the practical end of the course before as after. Anyway, he was turned down for cadet training on account of his eyes. He’s not sorry, in a way; he says he’s never really happy except when he’s working on machinery. “This country’s going to keep on having a big Air Force,” he says. “Maybe there’ll be a top spot at Wright Field after the war.”

They’ve been gathered from the four corners of the country. They come from the deluxe garages of New York and Chicago . They come from wooden three stall garages on the Maine coast, where a man works on a logging tractor one day and on a one lung lobster boat the next. They come from cluttered garages in the Carolinas where pop bottles line the flyspecked windows.

They Keep ‘Em Flying

Give a thought, the next time you read about the big bombers carrying off a spectacular mission, to the anonymous heroes back on the line---the grease monkeys of the ground crews who sent them in there fit to fight.

They come from the heat soaked garages of the plains where the wind never stops blowing and the junk piles out back seem to sink deeper and deeper into the red dust. North, East, South and West, they thrill alike to the clean staccato of a combustion engine; they know that a motor is a beautiful and holy thing and they know their responsibility to that motor. If an oil line connection works loose, if a bearing pounds out, if a valve sticks, if ignition points burn and pit, if a gas line clogs, then a quarter million dollars’ worth of fancy airplane will be grounded, maybe for keeps. They know it’s up to them at all costs, at all hours, in all weathers to keep ‘em flying.

The lights on the runway have been turned off, all the other planes have landed, their ground crews are finishing up and heading in for late coffee and doughnuts at the PX before they hit the hay. Only one group is still waiting; they perch glumly along the workbench and on the metal chests in the tool shack, their cigarettes marking their locations in the dark room.

“It would have to be our lead and zinc mine that gets lost,” a voice complains. “The first date I made in town in a month, too.”

“Last anybody saw them was heading south to duck the storm.”

“Maybe one of her motors might have___”

“What are you getting at? Them motors were okay.” The cigarette behind the voice bobs excitedly.

“Keep your shirt on, Mike.”

“Anybody got the time? I said I’d phone by ten if I got held up.”

“Better tell her you meant ten in the morning. It’s half past now.”

“Suit me okay if we got assigned some other crate than that built in head wind.”

“You go ahead along on your date if you can’t wait. We’ll cover up for you.”

”And leave you guys to mess it up when she gets in? Hell, no!”

“Shut up! Listen!”

They pile out the door, stamping their cigarettes hastily. For a moment they hold their breath, looking up. They all hear it now, not clearly, but enough so there’s no doubt. “It’s her.” The sound comes closer, closer and passes directly overhead, a steady drone.

“Motors are okay,” Mike gloats.

Now through a rift in the clouds, they see her. “He’s signaling with his lights. Radio must be sour.”

She circles lower, her lights flashing a blinker code message. They look quickly at the tower. A green light appears in the window. She heads in, glides down quietly, barely ticking the cement, and skims to a stop. They race her to the parking place.

One of them holds his hands aloft, motioning her into position: two others are ready with the wheel chocks; another ducks the blast from her props and runs to open the door in the fuselage. The Crew chief meantime moves under her big belly, turning his flashlight swiftly on her wheels, her Bombay doors, over her wing flaps, up onto the name painted on her nose. She’s not just another plane with a serial number to him; She’s a personality, a living thing. He reaches up, pats here sturdy rear end possessively.

“You run around with them young fellows,” he murmurs, “but you always come back to me.


From Boyd Thompson's 32nd Bomb Squadron, 1942 -1945, Web-Site, produced and maintained for Boyd Thompson by the Staunton Marketplace