HISTORY OF REPAIR SQUADRON 38TH AIR DEPOT GROUP
Through the term "war weary" had not yet been "invented", it was the phrase that could best fit the men of Repair Squadron as they gingerly tamped down the steps of the steamer Evangeline when, on that March morning in 1943, it berthed at one of the few war-untouched harbor unloading installations at Casablanca. Wending their way down the steps of the gangplank, the men were loaded down with their barracks bags, full field pack, helmet and the like. They didn't know what to expect, preparing for and anticipating the worst. With this inner feeling, they half carried, half-dragged their bags and "worldly possessions" onto the soil of this country in which they were the foreigners, the intruders, in a manner of speaking.
With an air of expectant anticipation though counterbalanced by that cautious and suspicious uncertainty, a bit after they stepped on this non-swaying, non-rocking, immobile substance known as the good earth, they paused in their wide-eyed gapings at their surroundings to take stock of themselves.
This was no "dry run". True it was then that they were away from home. Though that home might have been somewhere along the great plains of Texas or in the expanse of the equally good, clean land of our other Southern States or in the busy metropolises of New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Brooklyn or wherever located, it seemed now that these homes, vastly separated though they might be, were now as one and that one, consolidated in just one beautiful word - America.
Before any further opportunity was given for added musings which would have availed naught but de-seated broodings, the Squadron was ordered in formation. Leaving out barracks bags on the docks guarded over by the detail of men, we started our march through the streets of Casablanca, not knowing where we were headed but anxious to go someplace where we might set up somewhere, somehow.
It was as if the war was practically over to hear cheers rise from the French people who gathered in doorways, on balconies to welcome "our American friends who will help wrest from the greedy hands of our mutual enemy the colonies which our merciless adversary requisitioned for their needs but which with America's might shall be returned to us, the rightful owners".
The war, we knew, was far from ended but already a great Victory had been won by the Americans.....that of full cooperation from these French people of North Africa and sincere devotion and gratefulness for having freed them from the rapacious, tyrant enemy.
As we later learned, we were bound for a bivouac area near an airport just outside of the city. Trudging in that warm North African afternoon sun, we realized much beforehand how great the distance was to the bivouac area. And so it is easy to imagine with what joy and graciousness we welcomed the trucks that we dispatched to pick us up but which could not make it until after we had wearily covered half the distance on foot.
On the grass of the bivouac area we pitched our pup tents and it wasn't long until company streets appeared to bisect a military installation in miniature.
No sooner had the Squadron bivouacked when the wire fencing encompassing the area became pockmarked with Arabs, both big and little ones, both male and female, both clean and unclean though with the later predominating. Some came just to look and seeing them gaze at us from the outside looking in made us appreciate the privacy enjoyed by the goldfish in a glass bowl.
The other Arabs that came were reminiscent of the Fuller Brush salesman variety. They had eggs, oranges, slippers to sell. Soon started the advertising cry "Airs, Beg Weans" and "Oran Chess, Oran Chess". When we bedded down for the night we heard that cry and it was the same "Aigs, Beeg Wuans" that awakened us in the morning.
Though up until that time we had not developed a dislike of the "c" rations, still, mixing them with the fresh eggs made them that much more palatable.
To acquaint the men with the work they were to do, a group of the mechanics was assigned to the shops and on the line of the nearby airfield. While only there for several short days, the men acquitted themselves well.
Since this area was only a temporary bivouac site, movement orders were expected momentarily. And they were just a few days in coming. We were alerted one morning and by late afternoon we were piling into the famed 40 and 8 French railroad cars. It was then that began an epic journey to Algeria. The "excursion" was of several days and nights duration. It will be long remembered. The scenic landscape of Morocco and Algeria tempered somewhat the many inconveniences, discomforts and annoyances that were brought about by the long trip on the World War I French version of our Streamliner. The many hours of just riding at the "terrific" speed of between 15 MPH and 20 MPH were whiled away in games of chance, in watching the little Arab kids run after the train to catch some "bon-bons" from the "c" rations of cubes of sugar or crackers that the G.I's kept throwing at them.
And then, though it was unrehearsed, Sgt. John J. Falvo's performance at Oujda helped add fuel to the conversation in all the cars just when subject matter was at a low ebb. This French Moroccan town was more than a whistle stop. To us it was a major stop-over for at the station, an American Red Cross canteen had been set up and gen-u-wine American doughnuts were being served. "Way out here in the middle of somewhere, good ole' American Joes indulging in "sinkers and java". It sounds fantastic but it was true, nevertheless.
After this sumptuous repast - and, in comparison, it was just that - we boarded the train and continued on the way. But just before the last car left the station proper, Sgt. Falvo who had inadvertently been delayed was running "lickety-split" after the train. But he did not pull a Bumstead for either he didn't run fast enough or the train didn't go slow enough.
But there's a subsequent happy ending to this story for John J. made arrangements some time later and joined us the day after we arrived at our destination.
Our new bivouac area was La Senia, Algeria. Amid one of the famed North African cloudbursts, we began pitching pyramidal tents. The spot that was designated as our area seemed to be the muddiest, seemed to possess the softest and appeared to boast of the slimiest mud in the entire continent. Though we are not an amphibious unit, watching the men wade through that gooey substance trying to right the tents, an observer would be tempted to believe that we certainly must have had some water training. Be that as it may, setting up of the tents was completed after which the assignment of 6 men to each tent took place.
The dousing which each man received that day in the rain was only the beginning. The rain clouds hovered over us for several more weeks drenching the countryside so that even the absorption point was reached, then surpassed.
Just when the men began thinking that there would be no end to the rain, the storm clouds gradually moved away. And we saw the sun again! It was a welcome sight with it's warm invigorating, healthful rays.
That work which was withheld due to the rain was accomplished, tents were modernized, the mess hall was improved upon, an outdoor theater was built with movies filmed for our Squadron in addition to whatever guests - men of other Squadrons - might wish to attend.
From the time our men were assigned to work on the line at the hangers and in the shops which was only a few days after our arrival, the 38th Repair Squadron became noted for it's mechanics, the thoroughness with which they operated, the care they exercised, the sureness - thought not cocky attitude - they assumed in their work, and their willingness to cooperate with the other Squadrons with whom they worked.
It was then that the men of the 38th Repair Squadron established a record for themselves, a record which they have proudly carried with them at every field they have operated, whether as a complete unit or separate detachments of a few men, a record which remains theirs today.
Several months after we arrived at La Senia, Major Harold A. Tapert assumed command of Repair Squadron, relieving Captain R. Frank Haucher who had been returned to the States because of ill-health.
For recreational purposes, several evenings each week a truck was dispatched with a load of men to a beach some miles distant where the men might swim in the Mediterranean Sea. These arrangements had been in effect for some weeks when one evening upon arrival of the men of the 38th Squadron at the Cap Falcon beach, it was noted that a terrific undertow had caught several members of a colored unit. Those men were experiencing a tremendous amount of difficulty. Without hesitation, several men of the 38th launched a boat despite the roughness of the water and high waves. Some distance off shore a big wave capsized the rescue boat dumping all the men into the water.
One of these men was Private Robert E. Gunnoe. Despite the fact that he could not swim, he did not hesitate to man the rescue boat in an effort to save the men in the water. When the boat capsized, Pvt. Gunnoe was carried beneath the waves and was lost. His body was recovered several days later.
For devotion to his fellow man and with utter disregard for his own personal safety, Private Robert K. Gunoe was awarded the Soldier's Medal posthumously.
After the rescue boat capsized, S/Sgt. Walter A. Keith and S/Sgt. Leroy H. Richards, both of whom likewise had not hesitated to row out to the unfortunate men, were others thrown into the water. Without concern for their own well being, they swan to one of the stricken bathers and brought him safely to shore. For their extraordinary act of heroism, the Soldier's Medal was awarded to both Sgt. Keith and to Sgt. Richards.
As the Spring gave way to Summer, so did the Summer bow out to Fall, 1943. And then with the Allied landings on the Continent the need aros.. for a capable Air Depot Group. Having already established an enviable record, the 38th was called upon.
In moving from North Africa we had to leave behind a large number of the 38th men who had come overseas with us. These men had set up the Engine Overhaul Section at the airport. Since the Engine Overhaul Section was the only section of its kind in the entire Theater of Operations at that time, it was compelled to remain behind in La Senia, the men being transferred out of the Squadron. Because many of the men who were in the Engine Overhaul Section were those with long service in the 38th, there were many regrets when the transfer of this large group was made. And as a consequence, a large number of men who had originally come overseas as casuals were transferred into the organization. These casuals have since blended into the Squadron's activities and for the most part have dove-tailed into the unit in a satisfactory manner.
Following the wonderful exploits of the Fifth Army, we landed in an Italian port which had previously received a terrific "going over" from Allied aircraft.
Since the port facilities were badly damaged we, who were in the first Allied convoy to reach this greatest Italian port during World War II, were compelled to disembark into assault boats, many of the men going down the Jacob's ladders into the boats which were in the water a mile or two miles offshore.
The first realism of the harshness, the ugliness which is war was brought home abruptly though clearly when the men stepped ashore from the assault boats.
Gaping holes in buildings, smashed, crumbled port facilities, large vessels sunken or turned over on their side; this view greeted the men in their first 30 minutes on land. Ugly, brutal, terrible is the business of war.
From the badly damaged port we started our march which, for a long distance, skirted the shores of the Mediterranean. As the hike progressed, more and more welcome were the "breaks" for in addition to the weight of the body having to be supported by each pair of legs, the men were carrying full field pack, rifle, gas mask, etc. On the way to the Staging Area, a newsreel cameraman "caught" the entire Squadron for about five minutes.
We were among the first Allied soldiers this Italian populace had seen. At street corners we would be applauded by men and women, fruit stand owners would toss apples at us and all in all the welcome we received, though spontaneous and sporadic, was appreciated by and was most heartening to each man.
Just before the march began from the docks to the Staging Area, Major Tapert, our Commanding Officer, had received orders that we were to head for the bivouac area at Bagnoli. Those orders contained no directions as to the whereabouts of the area. There we were, one of the first Squadrons in until recently, enemy territory with orders at hand to proceed somewhere, with no Standard or Conoco or Phillips 66 Service Stations (or their Italian equivalent) enroute where we might stop to ask "which way".
So, one of our Italian speaking G I's was designated to the front rank of the procession to "somewhere". Sgt. Peter T. Villella was selected as interpreter of our intrepid band. With his Brooklyn-ese accent he began making inquires and soon we were off. The given directions were either "sempre diretto" or "mano sinistro" which, when broken down meant "always ahead" or "turn to the left". Despite these seemingly conflicting instructions we finally reached the Staging Area after being hours on the road. The walk cost us parched throats, calloused feet, sore backs from the pack straps, and turned the whole of us into weary looking specimens. In comparison, the Sad Sack would look like one of Charles Atlas' star pupils. True, we looked like something the cat dragged in.
The Staging Area consisted of an Italian college campus surrounded by camouflaged buildings which had been badly damaged by bombings. What had formerly been classrooms were littered with straw which the retreating Germans had used for beds, German literature and German letters which the Wehrmacht scattered about.
For the next couple of days and nights these bombed out buildings were our homes. The first night our sleep was interrupted by an air raid and through the noise of the planes was discernible, fortunately they didn't drop their calling cards.
We moved several days later. Thanks to an RAF motor unit we were spared another long walk. Our new area was at a large airbase in Southern Italy. We were to take over this field and the hangars. Bombs had torn up the field badly; the hangars, shops and buildings had been subjected to a terrific beating, both from Allied bombings as well as by the methodical destruction carried out with almost maniacal tendencies by our enemies just prior to their retreat.
It was late afternoon on the Sunday in October 1943 that proved to be our first day at this base where we were to be subsequently bivouacked for over a year. That night, and for several nights thereafter, the men found temporary sleeping quarters in buildings, sheds, huts and in whatever other shelter that still remained intact. Until the mess hall was set up, the food problem was solved by the individual G.I's in their personal preparation of the available "C" and "5 in 1" rations. How varied are the palates of the men of the Squadron...some men actually enjoyed "C" rations. What strange manner of man is this modern G I?
The day following our arrival the men "took over" the hangar and shop areas. The scene could not by the widest stretch of the imagination nor by the greatest optimist be termed pleasant or comforting. As the men moved about the hangars and shops viewing the result of the work of destruction not more than a week or so old, they gaped open-mouthed at the wreckage of the buildings and equipment intentionally destroyed by an enemy who even then - October 1943 felt Victory slipping from within his grasp, who was beginning to realize with that futility were his warring efforts, who was becoming cognizant of the fact that his sacrifices for Prussianism, Fascism, Naziism were to be of no avail.
Aircraft assembly lines, though seriously damaged were still recognizable in several of the hangars. About half a dozen or so Italian aircraft were in various stages of completion.
As a group of ragamuffins might react when permitted the run of an unguarded toy store so did our men gleefully scan through the debris for tools of all sorts, Italian stock and parts which, with a slight modification, might be utilized in some future plane repair. The men scurried about and when one found something unusual in a tool he would happily announce his good fortune thus compelling the others to search that much more intently.
Soon however, work began in earnest and it wasn't long before the hangar floor was being broken in order to remove some steel structure that was firmly cemented in the floor. A wing assembly plant, damaged of course, was one of the bigger pieces of machinery that had to be torn from it's concrete fittings to clear the floor space. That was all a part of the first day of work at this first Airbase occupied by the first Air Depot Group in this theater to set up operations in this first enemy country on the Continent to succumb to the might - and right - of the Allies.
During the following days attention was paid to repairing some of the bombing damage caused to one particular building and garage which were subsequently to be turned into barracks for the men. Another building was selected for the mess hall. Not that the former might afford competition to New York's Waldorf-Astoria or the latter to the famous Longchamps but winking at some of the damages and the manner of repairs that were made - it must be remembered that the men had the use of only the scarcest amount of material, all of which was material salvaged from wrecked buildings on the field - with what was available, the results were excellent.
A hot water shower set up was later devised with the ingenuity of T/Sgt. Haskell R. Manley, otherwise known as the "Secret Weapon". He was branded with this alias after Yank Magazine had devoted a good portion of a double spread article to this native of Tennessee. Of his exploits at this airbase, Yank had much to say, giving due credit to Sgt. Manley's Inventive capabilities.
Being the good Samaritans for which we have always been noted, with the field's activities growing by leaps and bounds and with the base's facilities not having been completed to accommodate the influx of transient's, 38th Repair Squadron played host to many troops of other Squadrons and of other Allied nations. That was to be expected for, in that very early beginning, were we not the Squadron whose mess and shower facilities were the most completed.
Again it was the adage of "Build a better mouse trap and the world will beat a path to your door". Many days - and nights - there were that though our facilities were limited to supplying the needs of only a group of Repair Squadron size, we were messing and granting shower room facilities to more than 1000 men.
To hear these tired, weary transients say "Thank you" and sincerely mean it, too was sufficient payment for us even though the men of our Squadron had to undergo inconveniences. Each man was happy to share what he had with another.
A portion of the garage was sectioned off for living quarters; the other portion was to be a theater. A stage was constructed, a movie screen installed and seats obtained. And thus, from the ruins of a Wehrmacht garage, a permanent GI theater was established. Here again, though only a Squadron activity, men from all units would flock to the theater for USO shows or movies. We welcomed all who wished to attend.
Air raids, especially during the night - through alerts were sounded in the daylight hours, too - were the bane of our existence the first several months we were located at this field. The nearby slit trenches housed their occupants for many an hour. The ack-ack and searchlight batteries had loyal rooters in the men of Repair Squadron. When an enemy plane was "caught" in the cross-fire of lights, the eyes of the men were on almost every piece of white hot lead from the ack-ack guns just as they would be on every pitch at a baseball game. Here though, it was a bit different. The men, with clenched teeth, tried from the ground to push each piece of lead higher and higher in order to reach the enemy plane to "strike 'em out' and down!
Protection though the slit trenches afforded, the falling flak searched out three of our men, injuring them. One, Pac. Edward E. Meeker was returned to the States for further treatment to his wounds. The other two who were injured but whose injuries have since been healed are Sgt. Albert C. Buchholz and Sgt. Walter H. Zude. These three men were subsequently awarded the Purple Heart.
After a period of several months, a group of the men in the Engine Overhaul section who had been left behind when the Squadron moved from North Africa again became part of the Squadron when they were transferred back in to the unit.
The work at the hangars was progressing in fine fashion. The men received commendations for the fine quality of their work and the speed with which they accomplish the repairs. The men "knew" their aircraft and acted accordingly. In addition to the customary Engineering duties, the Squadron instituted a Reclamation and Salvage section and an Air Freight division on the field. The men assigned to these sections have rendered a valuable contribution.
Thanksgiving 1943 was marked on a sad note with receipt of word that the plane in which Capt. Walter A. Baker, Lt. Ernest H. Dvorak, S/Sgt. Kenneth B. Conlin and Pvt. Gomer Jones had been flying as passengers crashed into the Mediterranean Sea. In this accident Lt. Dvorak and Pvt. Jones lost their lives. These men left a host of friends.
In January 1944 while with a crew who were loading the fuselage of a captured German glider on a float, Cpl. Merlin A. Nelson sustained a broken leg when the chain hoists broke pinning Cpl. Nelson's leg beneath the glider. Merlin was subsequently returned to the States for further hospitalization.
In anticipation of another Depot Repair Squadron moving to this field, the 38th Repair Squadron prepared a bivouac area for the incoming Squadron, made arrangements for the area to be graded, road to be built, water supply furnished, several portable buildings constructed, latrines dug and tents erected. The new Squadron was able to move into a carefully planned and an almost completed area, thanks to the 38th's cooperative attitude. Since the former mess equipment had not arrived, we fed the men of the new Squadron for approximately 10 days.
The awarding of a Soldier's Medal was made, in absentia, to Cpl. Darwin C. Johnson, a well-liked chap. In going to the aid of two men whose heads were in the wheel well of the inverted wing of a heavy bomber where they were working, Cpl. Johnson sustained a broken leg when the strut collapsed. By his brave action the lives of these two men were saved. In fact, these two men were not even scratched. For further care, Cpl. Johnson was returned to the States.
With a crying need for the dispelling of potential malaria breeding sites, several A-20 and uC-61 aircraft were affixed with special tanks for the spraying or "dusting" of the danger spots with a chemically compounded powder. These "dusters" were the work of M/Sgt. George E. Ikerd who received a commendation from the Malarial Control Unit for his efforts in the construction of the mechanism which proved so successful in it's operation. George was subsequently awarded the Bronze Star Medal.
Another sad note entered into the affairs of the Squadron in July 1944 when word was received that Capt. Roger S. Thomas had died in an airplane crash in Southern Italy. Capt. Thomas had been stationed at a Southern Italy base for a short while for the purpose of test flying aircraft. He had been one of the most popular officers in the Squadron; his passing caused a profound effect upon the entire personnel. Of him it was always said, "he was "tops". This was indeed a sad event in the Squadron's history.
Sgt. Rhuel P. Fullertons's application for entry into West Point was accepted and he passed the Board of Officers' examination with flying colors. Sgt. Fullerton was the only enlisted man to be accepted out of a large number of men from many different units who had also applied. He was returned to the States for attendance at the Military Academy's Preparatory School.
The Sad Shack Bar - 38th Repair Squadron bar- was officially opened on 15 July, 1944. To commemorate the opening, a dance was held in the street in the rear of the Squadron area and directly in front of the Bar. A GI orchestra furnished the music for the dance which was attended by W.A.C's and Italian girls both of whom supplied the female touch. The latter, as is the custom, brought their families with them. The refreshments were eagerly gobbled up by our Italian guests....and everyone had a fine time.
The Sad Shack Bar, completely built by the men was according to outside comment, one of the finest for miles around. All the men cooperated so that equal credit goes to each man for this fine bar which aided so materially the morale of the Squadron in pride of ownership. Cpl. D.K. Johnson took care of the interior decorating while the full size painting of Maria Montez in color was effected by one our GI artists, Sgt. Ken L. Duffiin. Outside sipping and gabbing as such, was the order of the night....chairs and tables were placed outdoors under the stars where refreshing drinks were refreshingly consumed during the invigorating Italian evenings.
In preparation for a movement, the Squadron was transferred to a Staging Area some few miles distant. It was with regret that all the facilities which had been build totally through the efforts of the men had to be left behind but the men just shrugged their shoulders and philosophized "C' est la guerre". However, we were happy that some Squadron could immediately utilize the many fixtures we turned over to them. And that included the full facilities of the Sad Shack Bar. To paraphrase ".....the incoming Squadron really stepped into something".
After a few weeks at the Staging Area, a detachment of men left for Southern France. The remainder of the Squadron was returned to the airbase which they had left only a few weeks previously. But, they were unable to return to barracks from which they had moved because these were occupied. Nor could they return to the Bar or to the showers or to the mess hall they built. These, too, were occupied. It could not be said that we were a Squadron of "Indian Givers".
But the men "took it" and splendidly, too which is just another phase of the character, the fortitude of the personnel of Repair Squadron.
Tents were erected for some of the men's quarters while other men were housed on the third floor of what has been affectionately termed the "Blitz Building"....this is no misnomer, either. Some of the tents were ingeniously built making for unusually comfortable living quarters. A few were so complete that they lacked only a swimming pool and hot and cold running maids!
Since they had been relieved of their duties in the shops and on the line when the original movement orders were received, upon their return to the airbase, the men had no immediate specific jobs assigned to them. Later we were again employed at the hangars.
A large number of Aero Repair men were instructed to report on a night shift to work on a recent T.O. modification which applied to a particular type aircraft.
It was pleasant news when word was received that T/Sgt. Frank A. Johnston was given a Direct Commission as a 2nd Lieutenant. Remaining in the Squadron, Lt. Johnston became Aero Repair Officer.
After several weeks in France, the Detachment was returned to this airbase where the entire Squadron was again intact.
Another sad report reached us with receipt of the news that S/Sgt. Leonard A. Sams had passed away at a hospital in Southern Italy. A true friend was lost.
Another Detachment of men left for another airbase in Southern Italy where special work on aircraft was to be accomplished. At the beginning, this move was to be only temporary but as the weeks progressed and additional work was required, orders were received for movement of the balance of the Squadron to this field.
The two years overseas period was marked on 5 March, 1945. To commemorate this occasion, a gala party was held, first at the local Special Service Theater where original skits prepared and acted by men of the Squadron were performed on the stage and were received with roaring and genuine laughter. The applause indicated the GI portion of the show to be s "smash hit". An Italian stage show followed and was well received.
Then there was a return to one of the Squadron's mess hall where more acting was on view, where a fine GI orchestra was heard and where sandwiches, cakes, cokes, beer and mixed drinks were served all through courtesy of 38th Depot Repair Squadron.
For having been able to accomplish so successful and so enjoyable and evening of fun the merriment, the members of the Party Committee, the members of the cast, and the other men who pitched in to "lend a hand" are to be highly commended for their unusually fine efforts.
Despite the splendid evening that was spent, despite the fun that was had, despite the gaiety, we feel certain that there is no one that is hoping that there will be cause for another overseas anniversary party.
The entire Squadron remained at that Southern Italy airfield for more than eight months. Once more they were as one, working together, working diligently, working efficiently on their then-new project. The project involved at first the pickling of planes for storage, then their repair after which there was a gig process job wherein, on an almost assembly line procedure, planes were prepared for flight back to the States. Again, the speed and efficiency with which Repair Squadron personnel "turned out" aircraft was amazing. And again, praise was directed at the men - and fittingly, too.
The salvaging of the remaining planes on the field just about wound up the activities of 38th Repair Squadron.
We've done our work as best we know how. Through commendations, we've often been told that we do "know how" and very capably, too. We have come overseas for one specific purpose -- that purpose has always been uppermost in our minds. As reward, the Squadron was awarded the Meritorious Service Unit Plaque.
If, in our small way, we have contributed to the total defeat of our enemies, if in our small way we have helped to advance the cause of truth and righteousness, if we have helped spread the true democratic principles throughout the world where man might live in peace and harmony with man, each on an equal footing, each with a love for life, each with a sense of fair play and justice, then we feel that we have accomplished that which we have established as our goal.
And we thank God that we have been given the strength.
September, 1945 History prepared and written by:
Italy S/Sgt. Arthur Lebovitz