The Navy At Lambert Field


Part II of V

By George Everding LCDR USN (ret)

The next morning I met Frank in the restaurant in the hotel when I went down for breakfast. He said a cop came to the door of his room and told him he would have to get the girl out of his room. (How things have changed.) The three of them left the hotel and the cop said, “How come you went to that hotel? Come with me I’ll take you to a better place.” He took them in his police car, stopped to buy them a bottle of whiskey and took them to another less pretentious hotel.

After breakfast we returned to the airplane, finished the repairs and ran up the engine. We walked the length of the field where the airplane would take off making sure that there were no hazards in the way. We told the pilot to leave the landing gear down all the way to Lambert Field where they could jack up the plane and “dropcheck” the gear. He took off with no further trouble and headed for the airport. We loaded all of our tools and leftover gear in the truck and took the crew from Washington back to their plane at the Springfield Airport.

It was getting dark as we left for home. I drove the first leg and Frank slept in the back of the truck. The 1927 Federal truck had a top speed of about 30 or 40 miles per hour. After an hour or two Frank took over and I went to sleep in the back.   I don’t know how long I slept but when I awoke I stuck my head into the back window and said, How are we doing on fuel?”   Frank answered, “I think we are about to run out.” He barely had the words out of his mouth when the engine sputtered and stopped. We had a gas can in the truck but we had used the spare gas. We argued over who would walk to get gas but he pulled rank on me so I started walking. We figured we were a few miles from the base so I walked in the direction we were going I had walked about 20 minutes or so when a car pulled up along side me and Frank stuck his head out of the window and said, “Give me the can , I got a ride.   I gave him the can, walked back to the truck and went to sleep.

When he returned with the full can of gas we poured it into the gas tank and we tried to start the truck but it wouldn’t start. When I raised the hood I saw that the truck had a vacuum system for getting the gas from the tank to the carburetor. The gas tank was under the seats in the cab of the truck. A vacuum tank about 4 inches in diameter and 10 inches tall was attached to the firewall in the engine compartment. A fuel line from the bottom of the tank went to the carburetor.   A fuel line from the top of the tank went to the gas tank.   Also on top of the tank was a vacuum hose from the tank to a vacuum connection on the carburetor. The engine vacuum sucked the fuel from the gas supply tank to the vacuum. From there it flowed by gravity to the carburetor. A float mechanism in the vacuum tank shut off the flow from the gas tank when the vacuum tank was full to keep the fuel out of the vacuum system.   All this explains why the engine wouldn’t start. We had to prime the vacuum tank to get the engine started so the engine could provide the vacuum to fill the tank to keep the engine going. Problem solved, right?

Well, not exactly! The opening in the top of the vacuum tank for priming was very small and we did not have a small funnel or any other way of getting gas into the tank without spilling a lot of it over the engine.   We pondered the situation for a while. Suddenly the light went on. I went to the cab of the truck, lifted the seat off of the tank, opened the filler cap, placed my mouth over the tank opening and blew into the tank. After I had kept pressure on the tank about as long as I could we tried to start the truck. It took off with a roar so we hopped aboard and took off. I thought I had “pumped” enough gas into the vacuum tank to keep the engine running until the vacuum system could take over.   I was wrong!   After just a little travel down the road the engine started to sputter. I immediately started blowing into the tank again and the engine smoothed out and kept running. That was the way we got back to the base, running a while, engine starting to sputter, blowing into the tank again and again. Boy was I glad to see the base come in sight.   Mission accomplished.

There were other crashes and other emergencies where the Navy at Lambert provided the fire fighting and rescue services. The only other medical help within miles of the airport was at the Curtiss Wright factory. They had a nurse on duty in their small First Aid Office. If a worker or anyone got hurt at the Airport Terminal Building or in on of the shops or hangars nearby the Navy was called or the injured person would be brought to our sick bay.


Pearl Harbor

December 7th, 1941. The attack by the Japanese, “A day that will live in infamy”, according to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, occurred while we were still at the old base. I was visiting Uncle Ben and Aunt Elizabeth on that Sunday afternoon. The news came over the radio and included orders for all military people to report to their base. I immediately went to the base and reported in. Duty sections had consisted of a few men and there were only one man on actual watch at any given time. After the attack the watch was doubled and a roving patrol of two sentries marched around the building outside. Sabotage was feared so we had to start patrolling the perimeter of the airport. Sentries had carried .45 Cal. automatics but the magazine clip was carried separate from the gun. Now the clip was in the gun and a round was in the chamber. Some of us carried .45 Cal. machine guns. The new base was under construction so we had to provide sentries there too. I remember standing in the middle of Natural Bridge Road cradling a machine gun and stopping all traffic on the road. This went on for a few months but was stopped after the initial hysteria died down.

The "line crew" of St. Louis Naval Air Station as it appeared in 1942. [Enlargment]

The number of cadets being trained kept increasing so the Navy purchased several hundred acres of land in St. Charles County near where the Illinois River entered the Mississippi River. This became an auxiliary landing field for the cadets to practice takeoffs and landings. For several months every morning, Chief Thomas would load the 1927 federal truck with seamen and shovels and we would spend the day digging drainage ditches and leveling off enough of the field for   a runway. The trip over the roads of that day and through the city of St. Charles would take about an hour. Cruising speed in the Federal was probably about 25-30 miles per hour.   Chief Thomas had a certain saloon in Boschertown on Hwy. 94 that we would stop at on our way there and on the way back. The building is still there and the saloon may still be in operation. The airport was called Smartt Field after Ensign Joseph Gillespie Smartt, a Naval Aviator, who started his flight training at NRAB St. Louis and was cited for bravery when the Japs attacked Pearl Harbor.

 Information from the 1958 files of the CNO revealed that the stepfather of Ensign Joseph Gillespie Smartt wanted to know if Smartt field was named after his stepson. The Dallas Historical Society was trying to accumulate, for filing in their archives in the Dallas Hall of Fame, the records of all Dallas men on whom honors were bestowed during WW2. Some of the 9 pages of information from CNO Archives are typed, some hand written, and some contradicted notes on other pages. Dates of purchase of the land and commissioning of the field vary. The first documented mention of the field, dated 25 Nov. 1942, referred to it as “Outlying Field #34512”. A letter dated 28 May, 1943 refers to it as “Neubeiser Field”. The land was purchased from Ruth M. Neubeiser in April of 1943. Apparently it was leased before that because we remember shoveling dirt there in late 1941 or early 1942. It’s location was given as Lat. 38º56’, Long 90º25’; about 11 miles northwest of Lambert Field.

“28 Mar 1948 - NAS St, Louis History Report states that field was hit by a tornado shortly after it had been placed in an inactive status. (Cdr. Bart Slattery says that the men were securing the gate just as the tornado hit).”  

“Ninth Naval District War Diaries from Nov. 1942 - 14 July 1943 mention the field only once and that in an entry for 13 March 1943 regarding receipt of Chevrolet Crash Truck for use at Smart Field. (Curiously enough, the typist spelled it with 2 ‘T’s but erased one.)”Chief Rocco please note.

“BuAer News Ltr 1 Sep. 1942 notes:

Ensign Joseph Gillespie Smartt as among those cited by CinCPacFlt, ‘For prompt and efficient action and utter disregard of personal danger in the effort to repel the attack on Naval Air Station, Kaneohe Bay, Oahu, Territory of Hawaii, by Japanese forces on December 7th, 1941, which was made in conjunction with the attack on the fleet in Pearl Harbor on that date.”

The last letter states that the CNO informed Mr. W.H. Thomson that Smartt Field was, in fact, named in honor of his stepson, Ensign Joseph Gillespie Smartt. Ensign Smartt had started his flight training at NRAB, St. Louis and was cited for bravery very early in the war.

When the United States entered the war and student training was greatly expanded a large hexagon shaped blacktop area was added with a pair of runways every 60 degrees so you were never more than 30 degrees out of the wind. This same shape and design was used in hundreds of primary training fields (Navy and Army Air Corps) around the country. A large hangar and aircraft workshop was added and later, barracks and mess halls. Today some remnants of the old blacktop remain and the hangar, the only one of the buildings remaining, has historical significance and is used by the local wing of the Confederate Air Force. The airport is now called St Charles County Airport.

Eight other outlying fields were established, among them were Gumbo, Creve Couer and Meramec. The amount of training going on saturated Lambert Field so take off and landing instruction was carried out at these outlying fields. All except for Smartt Field were sod fields. Each had a hundred foot diameter circle marked in white chalk. These were used for “precision” landing practice. Power off slips to a landing were made to teach the student how to land in a small field in case of engine failure. Power on slow flight approaches to a landing were made to prepare the student for later carrier landings. The aircraft must be in a complete stall when touching down in the circle. Naval aviators being what they are, games were invented, bets were laid and money was won and lost. Winners were determined by who could land with the tail wheel outside of the circle and the main gear inside the circle the most consecutive times and the plane had to roll out of the other side of the circle (to prove full stall).

It soon became obvious that the original base would not be able to handle the continuing increase in the number of students and aircraft assigned. The small ramp at the old base could not hold all the training aircraft assigned so we “borrowed” ramp space from American Airlines who had offices next door and Robertson Aircraft on the other side. In 1941, construction was started on the southeast corner of the airport for what was to become Naval Air Station, St. Louis, MO.  

The St. Louis Naval Air Station under construction in 1941.[Enlargement]

A hangar, an overhaul and repair shop (O&R), the supply building, the steam plant, a barracks, a public works building and a garage, an underground refueling system and a sewage treatment plant (turd laundry) were built. Attached to the east side of the hangar was a “U” shaped wing which contained all of the administrative offices. The contractor finished laying the asphalt tile on the decks in the hallways the day before we were scheduled to move from the old base. Chief Virgil Jackson, the Leading Chief insisted that the new base was going to be just as neat, clean and sharp as the old base so he insisted that those tiles, both 1st and 2nd floors be waxed and buffed before we moved in. Chief Jackson seldom talked directly to “new boys” like us who came there after 1938. Chief Arkes was assigned the job of getting the floors waxed by the next morning. Joe knew that the contract   included the waxing of the floor and that the contractor did not have the laborers to do the job by morning. So he negotiated with the contractor and got $40.00 from him. About 1600 he   came to me and said,   “George, here’s forty bucks get some of your buddies, wax and buff these floors and have it done by 0700 tomorrow morning.” So four of us started doing the job. The contractor had provided five gallon cans of floor wax, swabs and two buffers. we started on the first floor, sweeping, then waxing then buffing. Two started in the operations office and the other two at the opposite side of the building at the Public Works Office. The swabs were the old fashioned LARGE Navy Type swabs. We poured the wax into scrub buckets, dipped the swabs into the buckets and spread the wax over the floor. Then we did the same to the second floor. By this time the first floor was ready for buffing. About midnight, just as we were finishing the buffing on the first floor, Joe Arkes walked in. He looked at the floor and said, “Gee, fellows I think the floor needs another coat, but first come outside with me.” He took us out to his car, opened the trunk and in there was a cooler full of Cold Beer. Joe knew just what we needed. The second time around we got smart. We squeezed most of the wax out of the swab so we put down a much thinner coat of wax. As the crew arrived the next morning there was a beautiful shiny deck awaiting them and the officials who arrived later for the dedication ceremonies.

The actual move to the new base did not occur until the middle of 1942 but as soon as the aircraft parking ramp in front of the hangar was finished we started to operate some of our aircraft from there. I had made second class petty officer and was in charge of the line. We had been receiving more planes, students and instructors. Anyone who had a Private Pilot’s license could apply to the Navy. They were assigned to Pensacola for a short Instructor training course in the N2S Stearman and assigned to bases like St. Louis for duty. They were restricted to flying and instructing in Primary training. Harry “Butler” Berning and Bill Westray were two who had been enlisted men at St. Louis and returned as Ensign (AVT) instructors. After they served about two years in this duty they were allowed to apply for the rest of flight training so that they could become full fledged Naval Aviators. Bill Westray became one of my students at Pensacola when I was a flight instructor in Basic Flight training.

We changed from an “E” Base to a Naval Air Station and the students received about a hundred hours of instruction before going to Pensacola divided into “A”, “B”, “C” and “D” stages.   “A” Stage was dedicated to learning to fly the aircraft, “B” Stage was formation flying, “C” Stage was acrobatics and “D” Stage was a combination of all of these, night flying and a final flight check. Now instead of ten hours of flight instruction before leaving for Pensacola, cadets were getting 100 hours. The line crew received a few sets of “Flight Orders” which I distributed among the crew. Flight orders had been initiated many years before to pay enlisted men hazardous pay for flying as gunners, navigators and other jobs as flight crew members. Aircraft mechanics were given a set every few months so that they would have to fly in the aircraft they worked on. Pilots felt a little bit better knowing this. You had to fly four hours during the month you received the orders and received 50% of your base pay as an additional incentive. We were allowed to fly with instructors and the more advanced students. I was able to accumulate quite a few hours which helped me later when I started flight training.

About the time we moved into the new base I had 30 men and 100 airplanes. We also had to take care of the visiting aircraft ramp and man the crash truck when needed. Early each morning about daybreak, we would preflight about fifty of the planes. This consisted of a complete inspection including runup and testing of the engine and filling out an inspection sheet called the “Yellow Sheet”. When we were sure   that the plane was ready to fly, had no discrepancies we would sign the sheet certifying that the airplane was ready to go. As soon as we had finished the instructors and students manned the airplanes. We would crank the engines, and send then off. The starters were inertia starters. The crank built up speed or inertia in a flywheel and when it was up to speed we would signal the pilot who would pull a toggle which would engage the flywheel to the engine. This would turn the engine for a few revolutions and, if the instructor or student did things right the engine would start. Many times however they would not do things just right and it would take more than one crank to get the engine started. If they did not get it started the first time we would give them one more chance. If they did not get it started on the second try one of us would jump up on the wing, lean into the cockpit and start the engine properly on the next crank.

Flights were an hour and a half duration. 50 planes were scheduled to take off every 45 minutes. As they came in we would refuel them and prepare them for the next flight. This went on all day from dawn to dusk.   Night flying would then start and go on until midnight or after. Winter was better than summer because the days were shorter. Although it was sometimes bitter cold we wore heavy clothing and eventually became adapted to the cold. After some practice I was able to get 50 airplanes at a time into the heated hangar. In winter we would move these out, start them, send them off and then move the ones that had been outside, into the hangar to thaw out. While they were thawing we would do all of the preflight inspection that we could. As soon as we moved them out we would start them, finish the inspection and send them on their way.

Although we had done some night flying at the old base, the pace was not nearly so hectic and now many of the pilots were “nuggets” with relatively few flying hours. The N2S Stearman and Navy built N3N’s had the necessary lights but no generators. Every night before night flying, we would install the batteries and after night flying we would remove them and put them on charge in the electric shop. A warrant officer who had recently arrived ridiculed us for removing the batteries every day and said that the few lights on the planes were of such low wattage that the batteries would last for many nights. He calculated the usage and told us to leave the batteries in for that many nights. I tried to explain why we removed the batteries every night but he refused to listen.

After all what did a mere second class petty officer know.   We knew that the cadets would experiment with the lights while flying the planes during the day and some would leave them on. The batteries were installed in the forward part of the front cockpit and some of the planes could be used for acrobatics during the day which could result in leakage of the battery acid all over the cockpit and the cadet.   But he was an officer so we had to do it his way.   We were however, able to convince the chief flight instructor to brief all the pilots each night on what to do if their lights went out. Of course we checked the lights before each flight as part of the preflight procedure but we had no way of checking the charge in the battery.

After about the second or third day of leaving the batteries in as the warrant officer directed, the planes taxied out and took off with all lights burning brightly. During the second half of the period the lights started going out on one plane after another. Soon there were about 12 of the 15 in the formation pattern and a half dozen or so in the landing pattern without lights. The only way those planes could be seen was by their exhaust stacks. The formation immediately started to break up and soon there were planes all over the sky and many of them could not be seen by the others. It is mighty scary to be flying a Stearman biplane at night knowing that there are 14 other planes in the same part of the sky but you can only see three or four. We knew the lights would go out sooner or later so we made sure that several of us were watching the formation circling the field and the planes in the pattern. As soon as we saw the first plane go dark we alerted the duty officer who fired a red flare with his Very pistol. The planes in the pattern immediately made final landings and started to taxi towards the lights of our hangar. Fortunately all of the planes got down safely and no one was hurt. We went out in a Jeep to lead the planes into the ramp.


U.S. 11 R Squadron Naval Militia (1938), Lambert St. Louis Municipal Airport, Robertson, Mo.

[Enlarged Sharpen Image]


Shown in above photograph:

First Row: B. T. Zielinski; J. A. Strohmeyer; L.A. Prose; W. E. Gonterman; L. J. Weiss; H. A. Rinke; J. B. Madden; D. M. Fromme; H. G. Hilton.

Second Row: W. J. Franke; D. E. Lynam; W. H. Westray; P.C. Cajacob; H. J. Collins; G. Heitman; D. G. Vaur; J. Metzger; R. Baeyen; J. T. Thomas.

Third Row: E. D. Walters; P. W. Menard; R. E. Hoss; D. D. Hilleman; E.W. Marti; P. W. Ahrens; W. B. Thornton; A.H. Mary; E. A. Lynam; B. K. Todd.


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