Aircraft Mechanic Crow Kept B-29s Ready to Run Raids From Guam
- Susan Matheny
- Madras Pioneer - News
WWII 56th Depot Repair Squadron
Knowing that he would be drafted when he turned 18, Tom Crow dropped out of Hood River High School as a junior and enrolled in an aircraft mechanics class in Eugene in hopes of being sent to the Army Air Force instead of the Army infantry.
The Madras resident, now 82, recalled how his strategy paid off.
"I was working at an air base when I was drafted in 1943, which gave me a foot up," he said.
After the aircraft mechanics class, he gotten a job at one of the air depots in Spokane, Wash.
In Spokane, he noticed that guys from his depot were being sent to the Army, while those from other depots weren't.
"So, I transferred to another depot and got in the right place at the right time," Crow said, noting he was selected for the Air Force.
After preliminary training at Hill Field in Salt Lake City, Crow attended Boeing B-29 aircraft school in Seattle for four months, before being sent to Tinker Field in Oklahoma City, Okla.
The huge B-29 planes, known as "Super Flying Fortresses" provided a turning point in the war because they could fly further and at higher altitudes than previous planes.
A yearbook from the Tinker Field training base has individual photos of men in the 56th Air Depot Repair Squadron Crow was assigned to, and of Gen. Henry "Hap" Arnold, who Crow said "ran the Air Force in those days."
From January to October 1944, Crow attended specialist schools at Tinker Field, then the men of the 56th were moved to Camp Anza, Calif., where they shipped out.
"We left on Friday the 13th of October, 1944, on the USS Cape Bon, a freighter which had been converted for troops," Crow said.
Traveling with a convoy, they sailed to Pearl Harbor for a brief stop, and on toward the South Pacific, without knowing their destination for security reasons.
Many men had their hunches confirmed on Oct. 25, when they were informed their destination was Guam Island in the Mariana Island Group.
But just two days out of Pearl Harbor, the USS Cape Bon was struck with generator trouble, had to drop out of the convoy, and was stranded mid-ocean with just one destroyer to protect it.
Crow said the ship was notorious for its breakdowns and they were always hearing "Engine room, you are smoking" over the ship's intercom.
After six hours of repairs, they were able to get back on their way and caught up with the convoy five days later.
Reaching the Eniwetok Atoll, Crow remembered, "On the horizon I saw nothing but ships because the United States was building up for the invasion of the Philippians. We stayed there three days and had time to wade in the ocean, but I didn't because I never could swim."
Arriving at Guam on Nov. 9, the men were greeted by rain, mud, canned rations, and in wet clothes were led to two big hangars which were their temporary quarters.
"We had to sleep in the hangar on the cement floor, cooked outside in a tent and ate outside swathed in yellowjackets. The place was alive with them," he said.
Soon, 28 squadron tents were erected in a coconut grove behind the hangars, including mess tents, supply tents, an orderly room, and recreation tent for writing letters, and playing music and movies.
Along with Navy Construction Battalion crews (Sea-Bees), they built Depot Field -- later called Harmon Field -- as a B-29 air depot and maintenance base for planes flying cargo to Saipan, and running bombing missions over Japan.
Once shops were constructed and the equipment arrived, Crow and the other aircraft mechanics set to work with three eight-hour shifts to provide 24-hour repair service.
Crow said keeping planes in the air was crucial. "If we couldn't repair a plane in 60 days, they'd junk it. We got all manner of aircraft, whatever happened to come in from the Navy or any of the service branches," he said.
When first using the high-altitude B-29s, Crow said, "They discovered things about the jet stream they didn't know. Flying at 35,000 feet over Japan they didn't have to worry about being shot down, but they kept missing the targets. They discovered they were going much faster than their instruments indicated, and missing the targets because they were caught in the jet stream."
Besides working, Crow said there wasn't that much to do on Guam. "They had movies at night and some did hiking. I hiked with (his buddy) Reggie, but the island had been shelled and bombed and there was nothing there to see," he noted.
He served on Guam until the end of the war and was discharged in February 1946. Returning to Pendleton, where his parents had moved, he worked briefly for a photographer, then in 1947 under the G.I. Bill, attended Eastern Oregon College in LaGrande to become a teacher. That same year, he met Beth Chapin in a literature class.
In 1950, they were married, Crow graduated with a bachelor's degree and began a 32-year career in Madras as a sixth grade teacher. By attending summer school, he obtained a master's degree in education in 1955.
At the persuasion of Madras veteran Jake Kollen, Crow joined the Veterans of Foreign Wars post and in 1984, while reading the VA magazine, noticed an announcement for the first reunion of the 56th Air Depot Group at Fort Robinson State Park, near Sheridan, Neb.
He and Beth attended the reunion and as they entered the reception a man said, "I know that fellow. He was in my tent!" Eighteen men and their wives came to that first reunion. "I had Tom take photos of all 36 people, got information about them and thus began 15 years of writing a newsletter and connecting to the family that we became," Beth said.
The Crows enjoyed traveling to the reunions held every other year in various locations including Las Vegas, Baltimore, Md., Oklahoma City, and Colorado Springs, Colo.
Beth, whose hobby is genealogy, put her research skills to work in an effort to locate more veterans of the 56th Air Depot Group.
Using a list of 400 men from the 56th Repair and Supply stationed on Guam, and cross checking with Social Security indexes and phone books, she was able to locate 208 men. She figured many men had returned to their hometowns and used phone books to call listings in those towns with the same last names.
Veterans began sending her photos and mementos, which she made into bulletin boards for each reunion. Tom also took photos of those at the reunions. Their biggest gathering was in 1994 in Las Vegas, where 90 people attended.
In 1997, Beth created a souvenir book for the reunion at Tinker Field with paragraphs and photos of the vets. While doing research, they found Merle Crow, a distant cousin of Tom's and Hubert Hull Peden, a distant cousin of Beth's, who had both served with the 56th.
When they met Joseph Jesiolowski at a reunion he told them, "I know where Madras is. (During World War II) I delivered some of the men who were in training to the Madras Air Base." The officer Joseph Arnold, who was in charge of the Madras base at the time, was the brother of Gen. "Hap" Arnold, he told them.
Over the years the members dwindled until the 56th finally combined its reunion with that of the 20th Air Force Group.
"We stopped going in 2000 because so many of the ones we knew were deceased," Beth said.
Her collection of history and information on the men of the 56th Air Depot Group has been put into four large binders, which may end up in the Jefferson County Museum, where Tom's military uniform is on display.
Meanwhile, she has already moved on to two new projects. Many of the B-29 planes in Guam had risque pictures of ladies painted on their sides "To remind the men what they were fighting for," Beth surmised.
She has collected photos of several of those planes and made an historic display to hang at the Madras Airport.
"Now, I'm starting to collect a list of men who served at the Madras Air Base and we'll try to see how many of them are still alive," she said, eager to begin the research.