Preparing C-47s for War (Baer Field)

by Lou Thole

IN THE EARLY morning of June 6, 1944, about 13,000 men of the 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions were preparing to jump into the night sky over Normandy France. They were carried by more than 800 planes, part of the largest airborne invasion ever. A little more than three months later on September 17th more than 2,000 planes carrying troops, equipment and pulling gliders were in the air on an even larger airborne assault - Operation Market Garden, the invasion of Holland. The 440th , 441st , and 442nd Troop Carrier Groups were at Normandy via Baer Field Indiana. Probably more than half of all C-47s used in these major airborne operations had their final flight test at Baer Field. In fact more C-47s were final flight tested at Baer Field than at any other airfield in the United States. This was the last stop prior to leaving for overseas. Baer Field also processed aircrew and airplanes for the first three Army Air Forces B-26 groups to operate the aircraft in the North African and Mediterranean theaters of operations. And for a short time, the 31st pursuit group was here prior to the beginning of the war. The people at Baer Field made a major contribution, one that is not well known. It was important to the role played by the Army Air Forces during World War II.

Baer Field is located about seven miles southwest of Ft Wayne Indiana, between State Highways I&3. Fort Wayne was often called “Fort Rain-Windiana” by the pilots that were stationed there because it was often either raining or windy. The field is named after Paul Baer, a Fort Wayne native, born in 1894. A 16 victory ACE, he flew with the Layfayette Escadrille and the 103rd Aero Squadron AEF Air Service during WW I and was awarded   the Distinguished Service Cross, the Legion of Honor, and the Croix de Guerre. He continued to fly after the war, opening air mail routes in South America, and participating in many aviation experiments. He died on December 9,1930, while flying mail and passengers, when his Loening C-2-H amphibian crashed on takeoff from Shanghai China. He is buried in Fort Wayne.

Early in the war years, defense related construction was going on at a feverish pace all over the United States and especially in Indiana. Baer Field escaped some of this because the airdrome was about completed prior to the start of the war. The field was unique in that its establishment at Fort Wayne was at the request of the city. The location for many airbases was often a decision by the War Department with little input by the people affected. The citizens of Fort Wayne wanted the base, and the city took options to buy 700 acres for that purpose should the War Department decide to build a field there. The decision to build at Fort Wayne came quicker than expected. Early in January 1941 the War Department told the town it would locate a base there if possession of the land could be had by February 1. That was less than 30 days away. It was simply not possible to handle the real estate and financial matters that quickly. However the situation was saved by 30 businessmen, who signed notes totaling the $125,000 needed. Then four of the local banks advanced the city that amount to buy the land. Land owners were told to be ready to vacate in 15 days. The government signed a $1 annual lease, and now the construction could begin.

Like most of the Army Air Force sites in Indiana the land was relatively easy on which to build. I.L. Griffin, a local contractor, had the contract to clear the land for $3.500. There were eight homes, seven barns, and some other buildings to be razed. Some parts were heavily timbered and the drainage problems cost $180,000 to correct. The original plans called for approximately 700 acres and 83 buildings. During the war, the base expanded so that by the end it had over 1,000 acres and more than 250 buildings. There were three runways each about 6,300 feet long.

During the initial phase of the fields construction, base headquarters was located on the second floor of the Nation Guard Armory on North Clinton Street. The first Commanding Officer, Major Eugine Lohman, and his staff of four were located in one room in the Armory. At this point, everything was Spartan. Office furniture was a homemade desk with some typewriters and one bookcase. The filing cabinets were the window sills with rocks used to hold down the papers. Later half of a ping-pong table was added along with several banquet tables from the Knights of Columbus meeting hall. Office supplies were donated by local office supply dealers. Many civilians were being interviewed for later employment at the field, but there were no female personnel inside the building. At that time, the Armory was being used for pre-induction physicals and nude selectees were everywhere. So, female candidates for employment were interviewed at the flag pole in the front of the building.

The contract for runway construction was signed in February, and for the first hanger in April. The first troops to be housed at the base were a Quartermaster Company commanded by 2nd LT. Ewing Elliott. At this time the roads and walks were nowhere near completion, and spring rains made them virtually impassable. Mud was everywhere. It seemed like there was more mud inside the buildings than outside. Some enterprising GI put up this sign,” Please do not track mud outside as there is enough out there now!” It would not be until the summer of 1942 that most roads were paved.

Construction was at a breakneck pace because of the rapid expansion of all defense related projects in 1941. The major part of the original building project was finished by July, about 150 days after the lease for the land was signed  by the War Department. Concrete for the runways was laid starting in July at a rate of 6,500 cubic feet per day. By October a small city had been built where only farmland had existed before. The field was complete with a chapel, barracks, fire station, hospital, administration building, warehouses, mess halls, class rooms and repair shops. More would be added later. The “official” first landing took place on the 11th of November; however, the first plane to land at Baer Field was probably flown in by 1st Lt. Horace E. Diamond in August of 1941. Horace was flying a PT-17 out of nearby Smith Field, and recalls seeing the new field under construction. As was often the practice in those days’ pilots was quick to take the opportunity to be the first to land at a new airfield. Sometimes they would claim to be low on fuel or “lost”. Horace made no such claim. He saw the new field and landed on the north-south taxiway, because the runways were still under construction. The Army took possession of the field on October 31, 1941. Col Lohman, who had been with Baer field from the beginning, was transferred soon after to Langley Field, Virginia. He would be followed by 14 other commanding officers before the field closed in 1947.

The construction of Baer Field, including later additions through March of 1944, cost over 10 million in 1940 dollars. The impact of this spending plus other war related construction in Fort Wayne had a significant impact on the economy. During April to September 1941, Indiana industrial plants were awarded 975 contracts totaling $607 million. This did not include sub-contracts or lend-lease materials. The influx of business raised employment and payrolls to record levels. Fort Wayne rapidly became a good place for business. At this time the local newspapers were full of articles about Baer Field and other defense related activities. After the war started there was little or no news of military happenings at the field. The Fort Wayne News Sentinel of November 5, 1941 talked about the P-39s soon to be stationed there; they “travel at 400 mph”

Many companies ran “welcome” advertisements including the Keenan and Anthony Hotels, Columbia Liquors Co. and Wayne Hardware. Indiana Tech offered courses in drafting, mathematics, etc. to be taken after work hours. This would help the worker avoid the “inevitable layoff” following the emergency. Mayor Harry W. Balls was quoted as saying “Nothing has been left undone to guard against sabotage”. City policemen received special training in first aid, the fire station was rehabilitated and streamlined, equipment was modernized and personnel were given intensive training.

The Studebaker Corporation aviation engine plant was in the final stages of completion. It would employ 1,400 people on its 40 acre site. Studebaker would make B-17 engines among other things. General Electric ran an ad telling about the largest expansion program in its history. Twenty-eight building projects were in the works with a $40 million commitment, part paid by the government. G.E. had just received a multi million dollar award to make turbochargers. They would be built in Fort Wayne in a facility yet to be constructed. This open reporting of events soon changed. About a year later, the News Sentinel reported “when airlines fly over the city, all curtains must be drawn at least five minutes before reaching Fort Wayne for five minutes after passing over. Curtains must remain drawn during landings and takeoffs. Only Army and regularly scheduled planes are permitted to fly over Fort Wayne”.

As the field was nearing completion of its first major construction phase, it was assigned to First Air Force with headquarters at Mitchel Field Long Island. The major responsibility of the First Air Force was the organization and training of bomber, fighter and other units and crews for assignment overseas.

The 31st Pursuit Group, the first to be equipped with the P-39 Airacobra, was assigned to Baer Field. The group had been activated at Selfridge Field Michigan, in February 1940. The group filtered into the base slowly with the balance arriving December 6,1941 following three months of training and maneuvers in Louisiana. The men were looking forward to some rest following their strenuous training over the past three months. Also many were from the State of Indiana and were happy to be home. However Japan attacked Pearl Harbor the next day. Part of the group left four days later and within weeks the entire group was gone. By May they were in England where they would be equipped with Spitfires and assigned to the Eighth Air Force. They entered combat in August 1942. The 78th Fighter Group was activated at Baer Field in Feburary1942. The group originally served in England flying P-38s and later transferred to the 12th Air Force for a short time serving in North Africa. The group returned to England in 1943 flying P-47s and later P_51s as part of the 8th Air Force.

Baer Field was assigned to the Third Air Force in March 1942. In May 1942 a transient group (probably the 38th) of B-26 Marauders stopped for servicing while on their way to the West Coast. This group would later participate in the battle of Midway. The field was closed to air traffic during the spring and summer of 1942 in order to prepare for its role of processing aircrew and aircraft. Some of the changes made during this time were strengthening the runways, necessary to accommodate the increasing weight of the B-26s, C-46s, and C-47s. Additional hangers were also constructed. The roads were finally paved. While being used by the 1st Concentration Command, Baer Field staged and processed medium bombardment groups. The first tactical units started to arrive for processing in September of 1942. Later on the field was assigned to the 1st Troop Carrier Command. Then its responsibility was the processing of tactical units of the Troop Carrier Command.

As the field was being upgraded to handle its new mission there was little to do but by September this had changed with the field covered with B-26s and everything in full operation.

Most of the planes and crews were processed at Baer Field after transfer to 1st Troop Carrier Command. The mission of this Command was to fly troops with their equipment into combat areas. They also flew wounded from the area of combat to hospitals. Baer’s responsibility was the processing of Troop Carrier Command units for the 1st Troop Carrier Command. Planes and crews were joined at Baer and from there went directly overseas. Some of the major parts of the crew/plane joining tasks were.

  1. Receiving and classifying personnel assigned to the 1st Troop Carried Command.
  2. Making sure the personnel records were up to date.
  3. Handling basic training.ie range firing, instruction on flight techniques, link training time and an endless number of briefings on the war zone to which the crews were going.
  4. Physical examinations that included dental work. It might be a long time before the person leaving Baer would see a dentist so considerable attention was paid to the teeth. The Dental Clinic was busy. During a 35 month period there were almost 64,000 examinations, with over 40,000 fillings and about 9,000 teeth removed. Almost 1,000 dentures were fitted.
  5. Supplies and equipment were issued. This varied from bicycles, to C-Rations, to first aid jungle kits and screwdrivers. Since the planes were going directly overseas for Baer, anything the crew thought it needed was jammed aboard the aircraft. This was especially true if they were being sent to a field in and isolated area. Some equipment was not available in time for the planes departure so it was bought locally. For example 2,100 fly fishing puff balls and streamers were packed into jungle kits. Fifteen thousand feet of water hose costing $4,440.50 was bought to comply with the directive requiring 50 feet on each C-47. Five hundred crew chief ladders were also bought in Fort Wayne at a cost of $3,745. One ladder was placed on each plane.
  6. All equipment including the aircraft, received a final check            

Here’s how a C-47 was typically checked out at Baer Field. After the plane’s manufacture it was flown to a modification center. While there to plane was updated according to the latest modification orders and received the necessary equipment and changes to suit it for its final destination. From the center the C-47 was flown to Baer Field. Baer’s responsibility was to inspect the aircraft and make any appropriate final changes;i.e., install long-range fuel tanks, remove unnecessary equipment, and give it a final test. After the final flight test, the ship was turned over to its crew. Bares inspection of the C-47 was very detailed and involved considerable maintenance, repair and modification. There were two stages. The first was an assembly-line type of operation in the largest hanger where everything was checked. Examples of some of the problems found were leakage of hydraulic fittings, generators not working, loose electrical fittings, instruments inoperative, low fluid levels and missing parts, especially clocks. One C-46 arrived with a block of wood in the carburetor air filter.

Long range fuel tanks were installed in the fuselage. If the plane was going to England it received two 100 gallon tanks, Africa required four 100 gallon tanks and if the Pacific was its destination, then eight 100 gallon tanks were installed. Extra oil was also required and this was put into a 50 gal drum with a hose to each engine through the wing. When the oil level got low more would be hand pumped from the drum to the engines oil tank.

The second stage was the last inspection. Here the plane was flight tested and then turned over to its crew. Ed Shenk, as Forman of the Flight Test, and eight of his crew of civilian mechanics would Pre-flight the planes. The engines were run up, the plane taxied and then flown by military crews to check instruments, radios and single engine operation. The planes were flown north from Baer to Kendallville Indiana, and back to Baer. This was about 80 miles round trip. Around Kendallville one engine was shut down to see how the aircraft handled. The military flew the planes during the test flight, but often the pilot would be accompanied by Ed or one of his crew. When the flight turned up additional problems they were corrected by the Flight Test section.

Things moved very fast, as people learned their job by doing them. There were Pratt and Whitney technical on the field, as well as other factory representatives. At one time Ed counted 375 planes at Baer being prepared to go overseas. They were parked everywhere including two of the three runways. The hardstands were also packed with C-47s. Ed remembers one officer being upset as one of the planes was blocking a fire plug. Ed mentioned that as there were no shelves to put the planes on it probably would have to stay where it was.

One maintenance report totaled the number of planes processed at Baer from its opening through March of 1944. The total was 4,058, aircraft which included 3,155 C-47s. March was a typical month with 457 planes serviced and departed overseas. At this time there was an average of 520 Officers, 2,874 enlisted personnel and 986 civilian employees at the field.

While the planes were being serviced and made ready for overseas movement, personnel for these planes were also being processed. Jim Ross arrived at Baer in the fall of 1944, and stayed until April of 1946. Originally ordered to be processed overseas, his orders were changed and he was assigned Asst. Operations Officer. Later he would become Operations Officer and then Base Engineer following the war. Jim recalls the pilots, co-pilots and crew chiefs being assigned as a crew for each C-47. In some cases a Navigator was assigned, depending upon the ships destination. The process typically took 2-3 weeks. Paperwork was handled, equipment was issued and some training accomplished. His staff would process between 10-40 crews per day.

Early in the war, a lot of training was very brief or non-existent. This was particularly true where men and machines were rushed into combat to meet an enemy that had been preparing and fighting for years. Our young men and women would pay dearly because of the political indifference and starvation budgets for military preparation prior to Pearl Harbor. This low level of training was also true for crew chiefs. Ed Shenk remembers putting on a two week course for crew chiefs who had never been to any Crew Chiefs school and in some cases had never been inside of an airplane. About the best the crew was able to do were to teach them how to start the engines, taxi the aircraft, and drain water from the sumps. From there they went overseas. This would change. Training films were first used at Baer in Juno1942 and by August1943 there were 165 training films; later on this would grow to 485 films and numerous other training aids.

In addition to processing new aircraft, Baer repaired and refurbished “war wearies”. Lt. Gorden Baldry was a test pilot in the summer of 1944, and recalls testing one C-47—“Catfish”. This was the same plane that he had flown for nine months in the Solomon Islands. She had served him well on the flights between New Caledonia and Guadalcanal, and now was back at Baer for repair and reassignment.

USO tours often entertained at the field with stars such as Judy Garland, Ray Charles, Gene Krupa, Sammy Kaye and Guy Lombardo. Sometimes this took place in Hanger no 40, and at other times outside on a stand built near one of the hangers. The shows were for the military and civilians were not allowed to attend. One night ED and his crew were in the crowd and were asked to leave so they left and went back to work. Since their responsibility was the testing of engines, soon several were roaring right next to the entertainers. From then on no one bothered the Flight Test Section when they visited a show.

Baer continued as a staging base for the 1st Troop Carrier Command until early May 1945, when its mission changed. It now became an assembly station for redeployment of personnel from the US and Europe to the Pacific Theatre. This new assignment was short lived, and on December 31, 1945 Baer Field was placed on inactive status. Baer’s last assignment was an Army Air Forces separation base. This lasted until March 10, 1946. After this the base was gradually closed. The general mess closed on January 10,1946, the finance office on February 6th and the Post Exchange on May 29. By that time the Post Exchange which at one time had 126 employees was now a combination office, sales store and cafeteria, all being operated by two employees. Equipment was transferred to other bases, put into storage or sold off in small lots. Some items were sold as salvage. An advertisement in the March 6.1946 edition of the News Sentinel solicited bids for aluminum scrap, electric storage batteries, canteen cups, mess kits, rubber garden hose, rope, grinding wheels, and exposed x-ray film. ON February 6,1947 the base was declared surplus to the War Department and the last civilian employee left on June 27,1947.

Today Baer Field is the Fort Wayne International Airport. There is not much left to remind us of the field’s proud service during World War II. Two of the original hangers are still there, however No39 is semi-abandoned and probably will be torn down in the near future. No 40 remains in fine condition being used by Federal Express. Some foundations can still be seen, along with what was probably 9th street. They are slowly being obscured by weeds and brush. Other foundations are located behind the Parker plant located on Piper Drive. Outside the entrance to the terminal building near the parking lot there is a large stone memorial set up to recognize the fields 50 year history. The field has grown considerably over the years and includes a first class terminal building and longer runways. Additionally the field is home to a National Guard unit flying F-16s.

 

 

The above article is taken from “Forgotten Fields of America” by Lou Thole and is used with his permission.