The sergeant spat disgustedly and turned blue, piercing eyes on his questioner.
"Naw, we don't get many medals," he said, "but what the hell! Our job is to keep airplanes in the sky, not to worry about how many ribbons we can stick on our chest."
There are thousands of others like the sergeant in the Eighth Air Force Service Command fellows who fall out of Nissen huts in the early dawn and work to late night repairing airplanes.
The men in the Service Command really present a remarkable story. This is the greatest command in the Eighth Air Force in that it has more men than any of the other commands, such as Bomber, Fighter or Air Support Command.
Yet, to date, there have been only one Distinguished Flying Cross, two Legion of Merit and five air medals presented. This is in sharp contrast to the thousands given out in the combat commands.
Service Command performs a job that on the one hand is fantastic in its size, diversity and complications and on the other hand drab. This simply is because what Service Command is doing in England is just what a lot of Americans at home are doing. Yet, in performing these tasks in a combat theater, many new problems and assignments pop into the picture and the commonplace elements drop out.
For instance, at many depots run by Service Command for the repair of airplanes, there must be camouflage to conceal the buildings. There must be defensive measures taken against an enemy air attack. Blackout regulations are strictly enforced at night. There must be anti-aircraft men to man guns.
You may wonder just what the Eighth Air Force Service Command is and what it does. It's obvious what Bomber Command does, or Fighter Command, but this word "service" is a term that can cover thousands of things and in this particular case, the word is apt. To the men of the Eighth Air Force, this Command is a combination state university, Sears Roebuck, railway express, corner drug store, hotel resort, universal repair shop, gunsmith, gas station, armory, warehouse, commercial airline, personnel placement bureau.
Basically, Service Command performs two functions: (1) Supplying the Air Force and (2) The maintenance and major repair of airplanes and other equipment. This sounds simple, but supply means providing everything from a tiny screw to a complete B-17 and all such special equipment and ordnance items necessary to make the matter of flying an airplane profitable to the war effort. Aside from the thousands of parts needed to keep the highly complicated airplane aloft, Service Command stocks and issues such things as flying suits, oxygen, radio sets, medical supplies, bombs (from tiny practice bombs to 4000 pound block-busters), bullets of all descriptions.
The repair function is just as varied. And this is where you might as well learn something about how a great air force operates. There actually are two groups of service men those stationed at the base (usually termed the ground crew) and those men at big repair depots.
You've heard plenty about the ground crews, but have you ever given a thought to the fellows in the great repair depots such as have been set up by the Service Command here? Ordinarily, a minor repair job is performed at the bomber station, but the real tough job goes to the depot. So you can readily understand that Service Command repairs are not minor jobs, but the tasks too difficult for the ground crew to perform with their limited equipment and time.
The "greaseball" of the last war the guy who could repair any part of an airplane from tip to tail has faded from the picture in this man's war.
The combat airplane of 1943, be it a sharp-nosed, six-gunned fighter or a slender-fuselaged, four-motored Flying Fortress, is really an intricate and highly complex machine.
Ball turrets that swing in almost every direction, variable pitch propellers, hydraulic and electric systems for operating bomb doors, flaps and retractable landing gear and bomb sights all have contributed to making the combat airplane complicated.
The result is that there is a need for specialists who can take a propeller apart and put it together again; specialists who can adjust bomb sight or blind flying instruments; experts who must be able to check malfunction of hydraulic apparatus; radio men who must know all about the mysteries of that field.
Keeping these experts abreast of their subjects as new planes arrive in this theater with new developments is a major problem, but it has been solved by the Eighth Air Force Service Command, which is charged with the responsibility of technical training of all men in the Eighth Air Force.
According to Captain E B Lehman of St Louis, MO, director of the training section of the Eighth Air Force Service Command there are 52 different courses of aeronautics now being studied by Americans in the European Theater of Operations.
For one man to study all the courses would require two years, five weeks and two days. British cooperation with United States forces is demonstrated in another convincing form by the schools. There actually are three types of schools; those operated by manufacturers, such as Rolls Royce, Ltd, Rotol Air-Screws, Ltd, and Dowty Hydraulics, under the supervision of the RAF Technical Training Command; schools operated by the RAF Technical Training Command, and those conducted by the VIII Air Force Service Command.
Each student who is admitted to the school usually is a qualified expert in his specialty. He attends the school mainly for "refresher" courses.
You should see the students. From airdromes all over England they emerge, wipe the grease from their hands, pack their kit bags and off they go. They do not need to be coaxed or goaded. They want to learn all they can about their planes, so that they can get them back in the air faster and get the war over quicker.
The students represent a cross section of America and they come from all over. At a hydraulic school there was a Corporal from Barnstead, NH. Studying propellers at another spot in England were two sergeants.
Many of the students have unusual backgrounds. For instance, there was Technical Sergeant Robert R Root of Corbin, KY, who was learning everything he could about Allison engines. Sergeant Root, while flying in a bomber over Africa, was forced to parachute to safety. He is eager to get back at the Hun, and originally applied for aerial gunnery. Injuries suffered in his parachute jump kept him from this, however, and he ended up at an engine school.
At a course in electric and hydraulic propellers, operated by the Rotol Aircrews Ltd, there were a private and sergeant working side by side. These were from the east.
Three Texas civilians, who are United States Civil Service employees, serve as instructors in the course in sheet metal work. Translated to aeronautics, it means that these men are teaching American soldiers how to patch up bombers and fighters that were hit by flak or bullets. The instructors are J A Littleton, Leonard Moliere, and R E Allison, all of San Antonio, TX. This particular school is operated by the Eighth Air Force Service Command.
Rolls Royce, Ltd, manufacturer of the famed motor car and of airplane engines, conducts a school to train RAF Royal Navy and United States Air Forces in the many types of engines produced at this plant.
Sperry Gyroscope, Ltd, operates a school for its instruments and bomb sights, The course of instrument study alone lasts several weeks and is close and exacting work with students actually working on the Sperry gyropilot, the artificial horizon and direction indicator.
This school is located on a spacious English estate with huge rooms, cheerful fireplaces. The students live and study in the same building.
Another soldier studying instruments was a Staff Sergeant who was graduated from high school in 1937 and enlisted in the Army five days later to learn a trade. He's certainly learning one. "I've been studying and working on airplanes for six years," he said, "and this is one of the most interesting courses I have had yet. We deal in 1/10,000ths of an inch adjustments on these instruments, and that is really drawing things fine."
D McNaught, chief instructor at the Sperry School, explained that most of the instruction was by actual work on the instruments. "We frequently put deliberate snags in the instruments and let the students find out what is wrong," he said.
A Link trainer also is employed at the school to show the importance of blind-flying instruments and to stress the absolute necessity of their accuracy.
Even such an innocent-sounding thing as a gas tank is complicated in a combat plane. Battle aircraft use self-sealing tanks that will automatically seal up bullet holes or breaks caused by flak. Repairing these tanks with their various layers of rubber and processed sheeting require special training and it is provided. After intensive training, the real work at an advanced air depot begins.
At one advanced air depot here, the mechanics made one good Fortress out of two virtual wrecks. They managed to get the nose and front section from one wreck and the rear section from the other. They put these two sections together and the plane is back flying again with the name of Odds and Ends painted on its nose.
"Not only that," they tell you at this station, "it's a better plane now than one coming out of a factory!"
The two basic functions of Service Command supply and maintenance involve a bewildering assortment of collateral jobs, ranging from special schools to train mechanics to the establishment of an airline in the United Kingdom to move supplies and personnel with the utmost dispatch. In between, you' ll discover that Service Command operates rest homes really resort hotels for combat men; vast trucking lines to haul supplies and bombs to any spot in England; modification centers to equip airplanes with new guns and special equipment that are needed in this particular theater of war; bomb dumps to store the thousands of tons of explosives that are here; bus lines to move personnel; courier service to rush important messages from point to point; and many, many more functions are necessarily secret.
Heading this great array of men is a little, quick-smiling New Jersey-born West Pointer, Major General Henry J F Miller, who was in England in 1918 as the head of an American heavy bombardment group.
Self-effacing, General Miller always is arguing about the great job performed by his boys. He calls them "the sons of Martha", and follows that up with this explanation: "Mary, the mother of Jesus, had a sister named Martha, who also had children, but nobody ever heard of them."
Actually for every Eighth Air Force plane that flies there are 22 Service Command men needed on the ground, and these 22 men represent the most unsung, unbemedalled, almost unknown, behind-the-scenes outfit in the world.
Service Command has the biggest air force installations here. It hires thousands of American civilians for specialized work; it has thousands more British civilians, and at one camp there are around 400 RAF personnel working side by side with US supply men just to speed up the flow of supplies. Here, the RAF and USAAF have pooled their supplies on paper, and each can call upon the other for items not in stock.
Service Command also has called upon certain British factories for the production of various items. Armor plate comes from British factories, and so do a lot of other items. This comes under the responsibilities of the Supply Division of Service Command, and if there is no supply available, the items are manufactured.
One great depot is manned almost entirely by Lockheed Overseas Corporation personnel. This great installation has highly-skilled men by the hundreds and also American women, who serve as nurses. Much of the modification of bomber aircraft is done by Lockheed men.
The great scope of the work cut out for Eighth Air Force Service Command can be appreciated readily when you recall that General H H Arnold, chief of the United States Air Forces, revealed at a press conference in London that the Eighth Air Force had No 1 priority on the receipt of heavy bombers from America. That means simply that the Eighth Air Force Service Command is, and will be, the greatest air force command in any war theater.
Just to give you an example of what Service Command does, you need only to learn about one huge depot here. This sprawling establishment is equipped to do anything, even to building a complete B-17, or B-24, from the stock of parts on hand. Planes are brought here for extensive repair. Also, just about every engine in a plane goes through here at some time or the other. This occurs when the engine is brought here to be rebuilt or after it has been damaged in battle. The interior of this building very much resembles a production line in a war factory.
The plane motors come in at one end and are tom down, cleaned and each part is placed on a dolly. The dolly moves from inspector to inspector, who makes notes as to what is to be done to the engine. It may be that the crankshaft is cracked, or a valve is pitted. Nothing gets by these inspectors, who use magnaflux equipment and many other devices to check for cracks.
Worn parts are machined and damaged parts are replaced. The dolly, meanwhile, is moving down the line and the building of the sub-assemblies starts, each mechanic fitting, re-grinding and testing the parts. By the time the dolly has gone three-fourths of the length of the building, the parts have been boiled down to 20 or 30 major sub-assemblies. A few hours later these are assembled and the motor is block-tested for four hours and one-half. If it passes the rigid inspection it goes back to the front lines and it returns in perfect condition. Maybe it will replace another worn engine that, in turn, will be brought here for overhaul.
Many are the ways to repair battle-damaged aircraft over here, The bomber station itself can do much of the minor repair. If it is more serious, and necessitates a week's labor, the plane likely will end up at an advanced air depot, where virtually everything can be done. Behind the advanced air depots are the base depots, which do such things as mass engine overhaul or which are equipped to do modification on a production basis.
Another successful repair method is found in the work of the mobile repair unit. This unit, usually consisting of two huge trailers on wheels, can go anywhere in England to do repairs. Manned by 18 men, mobile units have saved several airplanes that made crash landings in various and sundry spots in England. One Fortress landed in an oats field here and a mobile unit moved in, replaced the four motors of the Fortress, made other repairs and otherwise rendered the ship ready to fly. As repairs were being made, a temporary runway was constructed and the airplane was flown out of the field on a ground runway by Major Allen G Russell and Master Sergeant Burton A Davis. For this work, Major Russell was given the Distinguished Flying Cross the only DFC to be awarded to a Service Command man in this theater and Davis received the air medal.
So when "Service" is wanted by the Eighth Air Force, it's the Eighth Air Force Service Command which will provide it.
This article was originally published in the February, 1944, issue of Air News magazine, vol 6, no 1, pp 34-37.
The PDF of this article [ PDF, 17.2 MiB ] includes two dozen captioned photos, mostly showing details of maintenance on aircraft, prominently B-17Fs.
The original was printed on 9½ by 12¾ inch paper. The pages in the PDF have been reduced to print on letter-size paper.
Photos credited to USAAF, International.