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Hell's Angels Ground Crew
B-17F #41-24577 358BS (VK-D)
(Standing L-R) Wilson F. Fairfield, Kasmer Wegrayn,
Ernest Touhey, John R. Johnson
(Kneeling) Edward A. West, Jr.,
John R. Kosilla, Fabian Folmer (Crew Chief)
First of the Many: Journal of Action with the Men of the Eighth Air Force
by John R. McCrary and David Edward Scherman
". . . sometimes, a crew chief gets to know his pilot too damn well. . . it's hell when they take off and don't come home at night. . ."
PILOTS and bombardiers and gunners and navigators get pretty fat and soft. Doubt if any of them could do two laps around a football field. And as for ground officers, the Paddlefeet, well, you know what happens to guys never got much exercise except on a golf course, and they don't equip Fortress fields with golf courses.
But the planes, listen, they're in better shape than Tunney was ever in. And the guys who keep them that way are the crew chiefs. This is the story of one of them-he isn't "typical"; he's the tops. But he is typical of what all of them try to be. Every crew chief has a fierce, possessive pride in "his" plane.
The pride of a Lib's crew chief is belligerent; he knows there is nothing beautiful about his "pregnant cow," but he'll fight you over her other fine points. There is cockiness in the pride of a Thunderbolt's groom. But there is, a brazen conceit in the pride of a Fort's crew chief. To him, his Fort is the one and only glamor girl.
Fabian Folmer, from Mansfield, Ohio, twenty-five years old, married.. . father of a six-months-old baby girl born after he left the States, is the crew chief of a very big baby, the famous Fortress "Hell's Angels."
The "Memphis Belle" was the first and most famous Fort to go home from the Eighth. The Belle went home after 25 missions. But "Hell's Angels" put in 50 before she went home. Fabe went with her.
At the time I talked to Folmer, he had nursed "Hell's Angels" through 31 missions without an abortion-a turn-back-and he had graduated two pilots who finished their combat tours of duty in "his" ship.
Back home, he started out on combat status as a gunner; when he went into the Army, he had been headed for college and training as a Certified Public Accountant. But he was taken off combat and grounded, not to a clerk's job, but to a mechanic's; that was after his outfit left Boise. There were a bunch of old Army sergeants in the Group. They taught Fabe "to love a bomber like it was flesh and blood."
Over here now, "Hell's Angels" is his only love, almost his only emotion. Fabe comes from German stock, or rather, Austrian. He was bom on the east side of the industrial city of Mansfield, Ohio. The whole east side is. full of Austrian people. "I speak German pretty well, well enough to talk my way out of the country if I ever got shot down over there."
There is a strange and strong relationship between a pilot and his crew chief -stronger than between any other two men in the air force, stronger often than the tie between pilots and co-pilots.
"When I tell a pilot that my plane is 'ready for combat' he's got to take my word for it. Sometimes, you sort of flinch when you say it, especially in the beginning, because you know so much depends on your being right. I haven't been wrong yet."
First skipper of "Hell's Angels" was Capt. Irl Baldwin, from Washington. "One night, 'The Angels' came home with an engine blown out.Capt. Baldwin climbed out and looked at. me and pointed at the engine and asked one question: 'Okay for tomorrow?'
''We worked all night, and lucky for us, there wasn't any mission for the next day. So we worked all that day to change the engine. It had to have two hours of slow time on it before it was okay for combat. Capt. Baldwin came over with his co-pilot, Capt. Joy, about eight o'clock in the evening and took "Hell's Angels' up for two hours of slow time. She went out next morning on a mission."
And just as a ground crew chief develops loyalty and pride in his bomber, so does its combat crew. Take the case of "Hell's Angels' " crew. The ball-turret , pnner and one waist gunner took two more missions after they finished their ops, in order to stick with Capt. Baldwin until he finished at Kiel.
After you've passed 20 missions, you're living on borrowed time; to take two extras out of loyalty to a skipper and his ship is one hell of a test of devotion.
Fabian Folmer's "My Day" would run about like this: "We're alerted for a would run about ike this: "We're alerted for a mission tomorrow at about 6 P. M. We get a hint as to whether it's going to be early or late next morning-can't tell definitely, but whatever the system of guessing is, it usually works.The Engineering Officer checks each Crew Chief -'Is your ship okay?' And then we give it a last minute check. Oxygen. Get ready for the armament man to put the bombs in. We wait until all the civilian workers finish their day and leave the field. Security. And then the bombs are loaded on. We don't have anything to do with the loading. Sgt. Tooey is our armament man. Each ship has two of them usually. All of the armament men team up to load the ships. They have a tough job, especially in the winter There is a specialist for the gun turrets. Another for oxygen equipment. We check the troubles, report, then see that the specialists do the work on our ship And then bed. Up about three to four hours before take-off. Ready the ship. Crew chief pre-flights the engines, warms them up after the ground crew 'pulls the props through.' The crew chief walks his bomber out of the hard-standing, waves so-long. Then the real work starts-the sweat of waiting for their ship to come home.
"We can tell our ship in several ways. In the first place, all her camouflage is faded from weather. She's a lot lighter than the new Forts. We can tell her long before she's close enough to read her identification number and letter."
Sometimes the, crew chief will fly a couple of missions with his bomber "just to show the combat crew they can trust me to keep my ship in shape."
The crew chief of the "Memphis Belle" made one mission with her; Folmer has never gone out with "Hell's Angels." He's not scared, but neither is ~ foolish; his skipper has .never had cause to question his judgment.
"Sometimes, a crew chief gets to know his pilot too well. You know what I mean? One thing I hate is telling somebody good-bye."
For three weeks during October, three Forts in the Group with which "Hells Angels" flew were in a nose-and-nose race to see which would reach 50 missions first. Once the "Angels" was well out in front, and then slowly another Fort named "Knockout-Dropper" edged into the lead. Trailing by only 2 missions as the "Angels" and the "Dropper" crossed 45, was an unnamed Fort. The crew of No-Name was composed of ten rugged individuals; each had a name he wanted to paint on the Fort; nobody would give in, so the Fort had no name at all.
Folmer was contemptuous of his rivals: "They're heaps of junk. The 'Angels' is as strong as the day she left the factory. She's got exactly four holes in her now. Two of the holes came from the same bullet, going in and coming out. You call that lucky? Maybe so, but I got a theory about luck. Luck is only condition, and condition is brains and sweat. If you're quick enough to take the breaks, you'll get plenty of 'em."