Signed, Sealed and Delivered

Air Service "Commandos" provide men, materiel, maintenance for operating the mobile Ninth Air Force

Call it the biggest industry in France or the least publicized of all military forces active in the liberation of Europe. Either way, you're speaking of Ninth Air Force Service Command which supplies everything from crew chiefs to castor oil for fighter, bomber, recco, and troop carrier forces in the ETO. The Nazis felt its force in North Africa in 1942, were overwhelmed by its counterpart in Italy in 1943, and are now being systematically knocked from the skies by this bunch of GIs who move in swinging with monkey wrenches in the first waves ashore, move out only after movies for liberated civilians have been set up for the military governments. No other military element in history has meant so many things to so many fighters as the Air Service Command which supplies everything but the flying manpower for the Ninth Air Force in Europe.

Maintenance

With striped medium bombers, fighters, gliders, and transports now moving progressively closer to Berlin and the heart of Fascism, the active forces of American air power are familiar to everyone at home. It is perhaps unfortunate, though necessary for reasons of security, that little has been written about the units on the ground who keep this air arm moving. These units, decked with tons of modern technical equipment and boasting of a highly coordinated team of mechanics, machinists, ordnance specialists, are skilled in every phase of aircraft maintenance — with no plane in the air unfamiliar to their collective minds. Their colleagues are photographers, parachute packers, chemists, cooks, and doctors. And this whole fighting team that never throws a shell except in self-defense is knit together by finance, intelligence, quartermaster, and personnel officers who have cut the red tape to rush planes, gasoline, spare parts, ammunition and bombs, clothing, and chewing gum from a thousand factories in the United States to at least as many remote fighting bases stretching from Brest to Cherbourg to Caen and across France to the Rhine itself. Briefly, this single command supplies everything necessary for aerial warfare, maintains those supplies all the way to the salvage dump, provides all facilities for the movement of those supplies within the theatre of operation.

Mobile Repair

It is obvious that heavy responsibility weighs on the shoulders of Ninth Air Force Service Command whose leaders must not only make routine replacements of materiel, but must actually foresee American gains a day or a month in advance in order to keep in touch with customers who carry their business in their hats, operate a brand new stand every hour. So business "not as usual" is the order of the day. Long summer days furnish valuable hours of daylight but even when blackout comes, the work continues behind shuttered windows and curtains under the light of a fading flashlight. It is ironic that men so busy supplying instrument panel light bulbs for the fighters and bombers frequently go without flashlight bulbs themselves. And D-day preparations, which shocked the supply-weary Germans, were a cinch compared to present air service schedules. Today, the work must go on around the clock, with the conveniences of a permanent depot in England or with all of the inconveniences of a newly-laid flight strip in Normandy. When men of the Ninth Air Force Service Command refer to their movies as "Roxy's By The Foxhole" they are not kidding.

In effect, mobile reclamation and repair units of the Ninth Air Force Service Command are the rolling stones of combat aviation. Moving like grease-covered gypsies from one job to another, they frequently repair a cracked landing gear for a P-47 in an outsize tent one day, replace hydraulic lines in a B-26 under a camouflage net the next afternoon. With their workshops on wheels, these modern nomads are keeping the planes where they belong — in the air. If possible, a plane is restored to combat fettle and leaves under its own power. But sometimes, the flak leaves little more than a nameplate in what was once a seven-ton plane. Then Air Service Command removes all serviceable parts and carts them to salvage depots for later use. This, however, is only one facet of the work which goes on under a control office which can, on a moment's notice, tell top-side officers of the combat commands the location and fighting condition of every airplane in the ETO.

Production-Line Overhaul

Because it takes less time to rebuild an airplane in England than to build a new one in America for shipment across 3,000 miles of water, Air Service Command has established major depots in ETO where production-line methods make new fighters out of old warriors. Here, the Cyclones and Wasps, the Allisons and the Merlins are torn down to cotter-pin components, are cleaned, rebored, refitted to emerge as engines delivering factory-rating power. In adjacent shops, twisted longerons and cracked rudders are stripped from the Thunderbolts and Marauders to be replaced by parts supplied from the factories which built the planes in the beginning. And out of the hangars come new planes in such quantities that many observers have called this the plus factor which has given the Ninth Air Force so great an air superiority over the Luftwaffe that plane-to-plane combat now seldom results.

Like the Fighter, Bomber, and Troop Carrier commands, Ninth Air Force Service Command is made up of people. There is the commanding general, Brigadier General Myron R Wood, for instance, who seldom hits the headlines. Yet his job began long before the invasion, endured right up to H-hour when all of the air fighting supplies and equipment had to be moved on a split-second schedule to the points of embarkation. Other supplies had to move across the Channel apace with the airborne armies and glider invaders, and dozens of transport planes under Air Service Command jurisdiction handled this high priority traffic, landing on air strips the moment the Air Engineers had finished their job. Nor did these transports return empty. Red-eyed pilots, flying seemingly endless hours, operated on two-way schedules that carried gasoline and guns into Normandy, then carried wounded men back to England on knock-down cots which made ambulance planes out of the Douglas Skytrains. And they did this double job on schedules which sent ten planes across the channel every hour.

These were the positive missions of Ninth Air Service Command which spelled the difference between success and possible failure on D-day. It is obvious that exploits of this nature, with so much at stake, did not come without considerable pre-battle planning. Months before, Air Service Command headquarters had, through discussions with supreme headquarters, determined when the invasion effort might logically come. Then every ship likely to be in Atlantic ports on corresponding days was studied, their air force cargoes determined weeks in advance. It is even possible that the Cherbourg Peninsula was chosen for the final blow largely because excellent facilities for unloading of this cargo were known to exist in the port of Cherbourg.

This, then, is the part Ninth Air Force Service Command played in the liberation of France. The whole story has not been told, for it is not yet ended. The Air Service Command will bring the first American movies to Unter den Linden.

This article was originally published in the October, 1944, "9th Air Force Issue" of Air News magazine, vol 7, no 4, pp 54-56.
The original article includes 13 photos.
Photos credited to USAAF, International, Acme.

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