The Navy At Lambert Field

(1925-1958)

Part III of V

By George Everding LCDR USN (ret)

Aircraft Maintenance Dept., U.S. Naval Air Station, St. Louis, Mo.  Aircraft on left is a FG1-D Corsair, the other three are F6F Hellcats. [Enlargment]
 

The Navy training planes used the grass area between the runways so while it was still daylight we would set out the flare pots to mark the runways. The night flying duty officer would tell us where to set up, and the first couple of nights, went out on the field with us to supervise the operation. Eight flare pots were set up in 2 lines (4 to a line) about 25 yards apart. Each line was about 200 yards long. There were no other lights on the field so the pilots from the air would see the 75’ by 600’ runway marked by the lit flares. Pilots would learn to judge the proper glide path by how far apart the flares appeared to be.

Night flights were about an hour and a half in duration. They would never fly out of sight of the airport. Fifteen of the thirty planes would fly a step down echelon formation at about 1500 to 2000 feet altitude with an instructor in the lead plane and another flying tail end Charlie. The other fifteen would do touch and go landings. After about 45 minutes the groups would shift so each pilot had 45 minutes of night formation flying and 45 minutes of takeoffs and landings.  

One night as we were refueling the aircraft between flights a plane captain said to me, “George, you had better come look at this.” The gas tank on the Stearman is the center section of the upper wing. We climbed to the top of the wing and there in the center of the tank was an oval shaped depression about 4 inches deep which appeared to have been made by the bottom of an airplane tire. Some Naval Aviators have said that the only thing that frightened them more than their first few solo night flights in Stearman N2S airplanes in Primary Flight Training, was night landings on a carrier. Cadets were taught to “slow fly” their airplanes, that is, fly at a knot or two above stalling speed, carrying just enough power to maintain a glide path that will get them to the ground just past the first flare pots. It was very similar to a carrier approach. On very dark moonless nights they could not see the ground or how high they were above it, all they could see was the two rows of flare pots defining the runway. A proper glide path was established by estimating the distance between the flare pots on each side of the runway. If they appeared to be too far apart you were too high, too close you were too low. An instructor flew with the student until the instructor felt that the student was safe for solo. Except for the final landing, all others were “touch and go”. As the student was on final approach to that black hole between the flare pots he was “feeling” for the
ground. As soon as he felt his wheels touch he would immediately advance the throttle to its full position and take off. Apparently two planes tried to land in the same spot at the same time and when the student in the upper plane felt what he thought was the ground he swiftly advanced the throttle and took off. How fortunate they were. If the upper plane had been just a foot or two
ahead or behind the other plane both students would probably have been killed.

When we told the night flying duty officer about the incident, he queried all the students on that flight but none of them remembered being that close to another plane on landing. Or perhaps they didn’t dare admit it for fear of being “washed out”.

The line crew did no mechanical repairs. We preflighted the planes, refueled and reoiled the planes, directed them out of and back into their parking spots and secured them when the day was done. Initially we washed the planes as necessary but when the student load increased we had Aviation Cadets assigned to us to take over this chore. Many years later I met several officers in the fleet who had gone through training in St. Louis. When they complained about having to wash airplanes there and I told them I had been stationed there they remembered me as, “That mean guy who made us wash planes over and over again until we got them clean”.

Whenever we had mechanical problems on the airplane we would push the plane into the hangar for the Check Crew who would make the repair. Sometimes they would fix them on the line. John Strohmeyer worked on the Check Crew and was standing behind Bill Kuhhirte who was working on an engine while the plane was on the line.   The engine was running so he could make the proper adjustment. John wanted to go to the hangar and walked straight out from where he was standing. Those of us who worked around the whirling propellers had a healthy respect for them and would walk next to the wing with a part of our body touching the leading edge of the lower wing until we reached the end of the wing. Only then would we walk forward and away from the airplane. As John started walking the tip of the propeller struck him near the top of his head. Doctor Sam Bassett and the ambulance crew was able to save his life but he had to wear a metal plate in his head for the rest of his life.

After Pearl Harbor many different types of aircraft on their way to the war would be ferried through St. Louis. Army Air Corps types would be refueled at the Air National Guard base and Navy planes at our base. A B-26 Martin Marauder was refueled at the Guard and crashed on takeoff. Apparently he lost power just as he left the ground so he pulled his wheels up and “mushed” into the slight incline at the end of the runway. The plane started on fire. The Navy provided all the crash, fire and rescue services at the airport so the alarm from the tower sounded in the crash truck garage which was adjacent to operations on the east end of our ramp. We did not have enough people to have full time permanent crash crew at that time so I had assigned one of the new men to be the driver of the truck. His station was in the cab of the truck and he was directed to start and warm up the truck frequently. When the alarm sounded he would drive the truck out onto the ramp and wait. All of the plane captains who worked on the section of the line in front of the hangar and operations had received crash and rescue training and would rush to the truck and climb aboard even as the truck was rolling. As soon as six men were aboard, the senior man
would signal the driver who would then take off for the crash. Sometimes the driver would just slow down when he would get the signal to proceed to the crash. 
 

One of the pieces of the equipment on the truck was the “Hot Suit”, a fire resistant coveralls made of asbestos fiber with a bright silver coating to reflect the heat away from the wearer. On the day when the B-26 crashed I was the first one on the truck so I started to don the Hot Suit. We did not have a two way radio in the truck so the driver had to watch the tower for light signals telling us when it was safe to cross runways and proceed to the crash. We also had no way of knowing how many people were in the plane. The plane was engulfed in flames and the heat was intense close to the plane. On the way out I had told one of the men to watch for the first National Guard person to come up and to tell him to find out how many people were on the plane when it left their hangar. If we knew that everyone had escaped from the plane we would not have to take any extraordinary effort to get into the plane to rescue someone trapped inside. I could see that we would soon run out of the water in the truck holding tank so I instructed the men to start setting up to pump water from a nearby creek. At first we used foam but soon realized that the foam generator and the nozzle we had put out such a small amount of foam that it was completely ineffective so we changed to water. As I moved closer to the plane spraying water from the fire hose I realized that I would start on fire myself before I reached the after hatch to get into the plane to bring any one else out. I dropped back and asked one of the crew to get another hose and squirt water on me so that I could move up closer. This didn’t do much good so I dropped back again. Someone said the pilot and copilot had escaped through the front hatch and broken windshield and there was no one else in the plane. I dropped back again and we kept pouring water on while we watched the fire burn out..

We returned to the hangar and started to clean up our gear and the truck. When I took off the hot suit my skin was red from the heat and my clothes was soaked with perspiration. Dr. Sam Bassett came up and said that he had just learned that there was, in fact, a third person aboard the plane. This was a great shock to me. All I could say was, “Oh my God, I should have got him out!!”   Doc Bassett said, “Don’t worry about that until we recover the body. When do you think the wreckage will be cool enough for us to start recovery of the body?.” I said, “About midnight.” He said I will meet you here at Operations at midnight. We will go out there then.”

I picked John Barrale from the duty section to go out with Doctor Bassett and I to try to find the remains of the other person in the plane. About midnight we loaded several tools that I thought we would need for this chore. I had gone out just before dark to survey the situation and noted that the plane had burned almost completely. The fuselage around the area where I thought the body
would be was completely burned and the debris was a small mound on the ground. We took several shovels, a pick, a rake and several small garden type tools to do the delicate digging and searching that would be necessary. We also brought a heavy cardboard box to carry whatever remains we would find. I asked the Public Works transportation Department to provide a lighting truck to help in the task. The truck had a bank of about six large floodlights mounted on the back and a large generator to provide the power for the lights. We worked from the outside edge of the fuselage just aft of the cockpit searching a path about 3 feet wide as we moved across the fuselage or what was left of it. After about three or four sweeps across we noticed a different odor, something like cooked meat. Doctor Bassett said we were getting close and searched more
slowly. We soon saw what we were looking for. Only the torso remained, the arms and legs had burned off in the intense heat of the fire. Doc Bassett and I dug around the body until we could slide two quarter inch thick wooden boards about 4 inches wide underneath the body. John Barrale was standing by watching the procedure. As we lifted the boards to place the body in the box we had brought with us the stomach burst open and a terrible stench arose from the corpse. That did it for John. He went over to the side and was sick. As we drove back to the base and sick bay I asked Doctor Bassett to try to determine if he had died in the crash or in the fire because I still wanted to know if I could have saved him. The next day Doctor Bassett called and said not to worry, his head
was crushed in the crash and he was dead before the fire. I never knew if he said that just to make me feel better or if it was the truth but I really didn’t want to know.

There wasn’t enough room on our parking ramp for all of our airplanes so quite a number of them were parked on the west side of the airport on the ramp in front of   several hangars and the civilian terminal. Bus service between Navy Operations and the other side of the field was started to carry students, instructors and mechanics back and forth. Our mechanics preferred to work over there because civilians were able to get very close to our planes. Local females found out about this and quite often many pretty girls would be seen standing close to the fence and our boys were able to show off. We had to close off large areas to the public to keep our boys from walking into props and to make sure the work was done.

The first control tower was located on top of the civilian terminal building on the west side of the airport. Later when the airport expanded to the east a control tower was built on top of the Navy hangar. About the time that the Navy was evicted from Lambert Field by the city and the National Guard a larger, higher control tower was built near the front gate of the Naval Base with a large building at the base of the tower for the Federal Aviation Administration local offices. Until the late 1950’s planes without two way radios were allowed to operate from Lambert Field. The tower controlled traffic for these planes by means of an Aldis Lamp. It had a sight on the top for aiming red, green or yellow light signals at a specific airplane and pilot.


Even before we moved to the new base additional construction was started on the south side of Natural Bridge Road. A large steam power plant was constructed which provided steam for the entire base. About a dozen large 2 story, 4-dorm barracks were constructed for the cadets, enlisted men and Waves who started to arrive by the hundreds. A Bachelor Officers Quarters, a recreation hall. an Olympic size swimming pool, a large gymnasium, a mess hall, a sick bay
including some hospital facilities, a training building and many smaller buildings were added. All over the country construction was going on using the same design so wherever we went we seemed to be not far from home. In southern climes from about Memphis south, most of the buildings did not have any insulation or plaster walls. From the inside you would see the inside of the siding and the wall studs. The barracks contained open dorms with rows of double bunks and
lines of metal lockers. The showers were large rooms with concrete floors with a sewer in the center of the floor and shower heads sticking out of the walls at intervals. Toilet facilities were also in an open room with a row of commodes along one wall and a row of urinals attached to the opposite wall. Not much privacy there!! We had to move out of the first barracks we lived in because it was remodeled to accommodate the women sailors, the Waves. We had some
serious discussions trying to determine just exactly what changes had to be made. Naturally we were very interested in the head and shower facilities. After reconstruction was well on the way several sailors went into the barracks after the construction workers had left for the night but they never told us what they found.

The draft and the volunteering for military service caused by the attack on Pearl harbor resulted in more and more sailors arriving for duty at NAS Lambert Field. By March of 1942 there were about 160 Enlisted men (including CPO’s) at the base. Although most of the people we received right out of boot camp or mech school were almost useless to us when they first arrived, they soon learned from the rest of us and gained the experience necessary to help us “keep them flying”. Later we did gain some senior and experienced men. Retired personnel were called back to active duty and some others came from the fleet because family or health problems required that they be in our area. Marine Corps Master Sergeant   Wilkins reported aboard and was placed in charge of the line. The west ramp was completed and finally all of our airplanes were parked and operated from the new base. I was glad to turn over my job to MSGT Wilkins because I was receiving 2nd Class Petty Officer pay for doing a job that had a considerable amount of responsibility.

Many civilian aircraft were purchased by the Army or Navy and used in the training program or in the air transport programs. NAS St. Louis received a Beechcraft Stagger wing Biplane (Navy Designation - GB-1) which the Navy had purchased from a west coast owner. It was a four place airplane (but it could seat five if the three people in the back were not huge) with an R-985 Pratt &
Whitney engine and the cabin was upholstered inside like a car.   The stagger wing, so called because the upper wing was positioned aft of the lower wing, the opposite of other biplanes, was first built by Walter Beech in 1932. It was faster than Army and Navy pursuit planes of the time and was the most stylish and beautiful private plane built. It had a hand rubbed finish as glossy as modern autos have today. It cruised at about 200 miles per hour and had the most comfortable ride in it’s time. Most early civilian D17’s (Beech Model) had smaller 250 Horsepower engines. We were fortunate to get the larger 450 HP engine. 750 GB-2’s with the P&W R-985 engines were built for the Navy during WW2

GB-1 Navy Serial #09772 arrived at NAS St. Louis about July of 1942. I don’t remember why I was picked to be the plane captain on that aircraft. Perhaps it was because it was the “Captain’s Airplane” and no one else wanted to have the responsibility for that “Sacred Cow”. I had been plane captain on the previous “Captain’s Airplane” the SNJ. Or it may have been because about the time it arrived the more senior chiefs and MSGT Wilkens took over the line and I was out of a job. I like to think that Chief Joe Arkes and Herb Wieseman the most experienced engine and aircraft chiefs on the base,   believed that I had the training and experience to see that it got the proper conversion to Navy specifications and regular maintenance.

There were quite a few modifications that had to be made. Naval aircraft of this kind have dual controls. The plane must be able to be flown from either of the front seats. This aircraft had what was called a “Swing Over” control column. There was only one control wheel but it could be swung over to the other side. This did not meet Navy Specifications so the whole column had to be removed and a standard Navy “T” column installed. Navy brakes operate by pushing forward on the top of the rudder pedal. This plane’s brakes operated by pushing in on the bottom of the rudder pedal. That had to be changed. Some radio and navigation equipment changes had to be made. Apparently our skipper, Capt. Averill didn’t mind flying it in it’s civilian condition. My logbook shows
that Capt. Averill with me as a passenger flew it to Glenview on July 1st and returned on July 2nd, 1942. I took notes on it’s operational performance such as, air speed at certain engine operating conditions and other instrument reading at various settings. I wanted to have something to compare to when I had completed all the changes and had the plane in operating condition again. The next GB entry in my logbook is August 11th, 1942, a test flight with Lcdr. Bob Corley, so it took a little over a month to get all the modifications done. I lived on the base and had been used to working about 12 hours a day on the line because of the shortage of men so I continued to work those hours on the GB.   Neither Capt. Averill nor Cdr. Corley had ever flown a GB before but to pilots of our era planes were not that different. You read and studied the pilots handbook for the airplane, spent an hour or so in the cockpit familiarizing yourself with the gauges and controls, and you were ready to go. Now it scares me when I think about going up in an airplane, that I had complete responsibility for, at such an early time in my career as a mechanic, with a pilot who had
never flown that kind of aircraft before. But the Aeromechanics course at Hadley Vocational School was very comprehensive, I had three years experience working on operating aircraft behind me and I had the normal ego of a 21 year old
sailor.

I had all the manual labor help I needed, but the experienced mechanics and shop chiefs (except for Joe Arkes) avoided me, I guess because they did not want to be responsible if something went wrong. I know that many of them expected many things to go wrong when they saw the magnitude of the work that had to be performed. One of the pilots flew me in a Stearman N2S trainer to the Beech plant in Wichita. There I was able to get some advice but none of the workers there had ever heard of anyone making the changes we wanted to make. They did help me select all the parts we thought I would need and had them shipped to St. Louis.

First I removed the engine and set it on an engine stand in the engine shop. Joe Arkes was a great help for me. He was always available for help and I knew he was watching over me and making sure I was doing everything right. Although he knew most of the clearances by heart he would not give me a specific answer but would show me where to find it in the book. Like Cdr. Geppert at Hadley he taught me to always refer to the book and not trust my memory.   This was a complete major overhaul so the engine was dismantled completely down to it’s smallest part. Parts for the P&W R-985 were readily available so when in doubt a part was replaced. I did not install the overhauled engine until after the other work was completed to provide access and to make the repaint job easier. I do remember the great thrill the first time I started the engine.and it roared into life. A small crowd had gathered but it was Joe Arkes I wanted to celebrate with.

The modifications to the plane itself were not as complicated as I thought they would be.   Most planes of that era used push-pull rods for moving the control surfaces. The GB, however, used cables. We had to make new cables for aileron controls. Proper tension on the control cables is very important   primarily because of the large range of temperatures the aircraft operated in.   The
steel cables expanded or contracted with the change in temperature. We had the proper tool, a tensiometer, but could find no specifications. I researched our technical library, talked to several civilian on the other side of the field but found little help. Fortunately I had measured the tension on the old cables before I removed them so that was the tension we used and hoped that the old cables had been at the correct tension. It worked out OK but I checked the cables frequently. Because the war was going on we had to paint the plane in Navy camouflage colors, blue like the ocean on the top and light gray on the bottom. It broke our heart to have to cover that glossy hand rubbed finish with flat paint. When we flew the airplane we found that the paint had caused us to
lose almost 10 knots of air speed.

Although many of the officers had looked forward to flying the GB, they had very little opportunity to fly it after Capt. Averill left in September of 1942. The new skipper, W.C. Greene was different. He considered the GB to be his private airplane.and seemed to resent anyone else flying it. We had heard that he was a used car salesman on the east coast and was called to active duty after Pearl Harbor. None of the officers liked him and most of the junior officers actually feared him. Their fear was well founded as I was to discover when I was to leave the base for flight training. Whenever I had to take the plane out of service for maintenance, I reported the fact to Lt. Dodge, the Operations Officer. After Capt. Greene reported aboard he told me he did not want to be the one to tell the skipper. So whenever it was necessary I would call the captain and ask him if he had any plans for flying the plane, tell him of the problem and how long I needed to do the job. Most of the time I had little difficulty with him. I usually scheduled regular maintenance for the time when we
knew he would be away from the base. I had many problems with the brake system. It was hydraulically operated and was very different from the mechanical systems we were used to. Getting parts was very difficult. When we finally did get the parts in I called the captain and asked him if I could down the plane for maintenance while I overhauled both brakes. He proceeded to berate me over the phone, saying in a very derisive tone, “What’s your rate?” He knew very
well what my rate was and when I told him he said, “You have that plane ready to go in a half hour or I will have your rate.” I believe he really meant it. I said, “Captain, I can have it ready to go in that time and the brakes will hold while we taxi out but I cannot guarantee them to work after we land.”   His response was, “Ridiculous!” or words to that effect in much stronger language. He arrived at operations exactly a half hour later ready to fly. He always insisted that I fly with him so I climbed into the plane with him. After he started the engine he tested the brakes and said, “These brakes are fine, don’t tell me they wont be when we come back down.”   I knew that the brakes were more apt to leak when the wheels were up. Several officers had been standing in operations while I talked to the captain on the phone and heard my side of the conversation and some of the shouting on his side. When we landed there was a large crowd of officers on the balcony above operations waiting for us to land and taxi in. They were not disappointed for during our rollout after landing
the right brake failed completely and we ground looped. The captain had not said a word all during the flight and didn’t say anything as we sat there off the runway but it was obvious that he was furious. I expected him to chew me out placing the blame on me but he just sat there. I asked him if it would be OK for me to “walk the wing” so we could get back to the line. He just nodded his head so I got out of the plane and walked alongside of the wing guiding the plane. As we passed operations all the officers on the balcony watched but not one of them even smiled or showed their enjoyment of the captain’s foul up.

I had wondered why the skipper flew often but usually only for a few minutes, sometimes just once around the field. Lt. Dodge explained that whenever he would call the captain to ask permission for someone to fly the plane the captain would say no because he wanted to fly. Then he would come down to fly the airplane for a short time. Finally most of the officers gave up.

"Capt.  K.P. Kaufman inspects the chiefs" at St. Louis NAS.

I had applied for flight training in the Naval Aviation Pilot (NAP) program while in Pensacola and continued to apply after I returned to NAS St. Louis. Federal Law up until 1947 required that 20% of all military pilots be enlisted men. To get into the Naval Aviation Cadet Program you had to have at least two years of college. Thanks in part to my old champion, Cdr. John Geppert, my mentor from Hadley Vocational School days, I was now about to realize my dream, an opportunity to become an NAP. I had been inquiring every few weeks at the Personnel Office about the status of my application for flight training. Finally in early 1943 they told me to report to the Naval Aviation Cadet Selection Board at their office in downtown St. Louis. When I arrived I discovered that the Officer-in-Charge was Cdr. Geppert and that all the papers connected with my application had been transferred to his office. The rules had changed. The Navy was now accepting applicants for NAVCAD training with only a high school diploma. The board however was very selective because all of them had degrees and some felt that you could not make it through without a degree.  We had to pass a very strenuous physical, pass the Flight Aptitude Test with a higher score and have aviation experience with excellent evaluations from our senior officers.

Although I had five years of high school, two at the seminary and three at Hadley, several of the officers on the board claimed that a Hadley Vocational School Diploma was not the equivalent of a regular high school diploma. They were about to reject my application when Cdr. Geppert said that if I could get a statement from a university stating that they would accept me based on my transcript and grades the Navy could not reject me. So they agreed to accept me if I could get that statement. I think those against me felt that no university would give me the necessary statement.

I went to St. Louis University on Grand Ave. and asked for the Dean of Men. When I told him what I needed he did not even look at my papers but said, “ Anyone crazy enough to want to fly off of those aircraft carriers in wartime ought to have his chance to try. We need more like you.”   He signed the papers, I presented them to the Board and was accepted for the program.

My orders read for me to be detached from NAS St. Louis on May 1, 1943. The promotion list had come out and my name was on the list to be promoted to Aviation Machinist Mate 1st Class effective May 1, 1943. When I received my orders I noted that they did not reflect this promotion so I contacted the Personnel Officer to find out why. He said that the Commanding Officer refused to sign the necessary papers. Apparently he had strongly recommended to the CO that he sign the papers but the CO seemed to have his own reasons for not doing so. I was furious. I went to his office and asked to see him. When I walked in he said, “ Did you come to say goodbye?”. I said, “No sir, I want to know why you wont approve the promotion that I worked so hard for.” He said, “I don’t owe you anything”, and then talked about his embarrassment when the brakes did not
hold and seemed to blame me for that and other problems. I left his office still furious. But I knew him well enough and should have known that my visit would be a waste of time.

Sixteen months later I received my wings as a Naval Aviator and a commission as Ensign in the US Naval Reserve. I as ordered to duty at Nas Pensacola as a Flight Instructor. About three months later I was assigned to Barin Field where I taught Aircraft   Carrier Tactics, Navigation, Gunnery and Dive Bombing. After the WW2 war was over I was offered inactive duty so I resigned my commission and enlisted in the Regular Navy at the enlisted rating I had when I entered Flight Training. I was recommissioned in May of 1962. I retired from the Navy on May 1st, 1971 .

 

Part I      Part II      Part III      Part IV      Part V

 

History's Time Portal to Old St. Louis

 

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