from A Grandpa's Notebook, Meyer Moldeven
Memoirs: Hot War-Cold War: Back of the Line Logistics
The 1988 Edition of the Encyclopedia Americana defines 'logistics' as: "the movement and
maintenance of military forces. Along with tactics,
strategy, and intelligence, logistics is one of the four
main elements of military science. Logistics
encompasses all of the planning and operational
functions associated with military supply, movement,
and services. These include the design, procurement,
and maintenance of materiel; the movement,
evacuation, and hospitalization of military personnel;
the transportation and storage of military supplies
and equipment; and the design and construction,
maintenance, and operation of military facilities and
A copy of these memoirs has been furnished to the Air Force Historical Research Agency, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, and to the Office of History, Air Force Materiel Command, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.
Parachute Rigger, World War Two, Hawaiian Air Depot, Hickam Field, Hawaii 1941-1948
In early 1995, the students at a middle school in a Northeastern city studied United States involvement in WW2. They initiated an e-mail project to invite memoirs from older Americans who had experienced
that era in the Armed Forces and on the home front. The students wanted to learn about WW2 directly from the people who had served in the nation's wartime military and Merchant Marine, and from civilians who had produced, serviced and transported weapons, equipment, foodstuffs and other things for the war effort from where they were made to where they were used. They wanted to hear from those who had cared for the wounded and had helped in other ways.
Many older adults in the Internet community who read the students' invitation contributed their recollections of the war years. Their stories, in turn, brought questions from the students to which the elders
responded. The Q&As, at times, became lively exchanges of ideas. At the conclusion, the students' teacher reported to the electronic community
that the project was a success: the students learned history from those who had lived it. The storytellers, many long retired, fascinated their audiences with facts and personal reminiscences which might not otherwise have surfaced. Together with the students, the elders had
constructed a bridge from the 1940s to the 1990s and, in doing so, had contributed to the historical records of an important era in American history. Further, the process had strengthened lines and clarity of communications and understanding across generations.
I wrote about my WW2 work as a parachute rigger. To set the stage, I described the parachute's purpose, e.g., to lower a weight, be it a human being or an object (cargo) at a safe rate of descent from altitude to the ground. In time of war, the controlled descent might be that of an aircrew member who had to abandon an aircraft because it could no
longer remain safely airborne.
In another context, during WW2, more than one hundred thousand airborne troops parachuted from transport aircraft with their weapons and gear as part of military operations. At least equal in numbers, cargo parachutes lowered food, equipment, ammunition and other essential supplies to the fighting forces and to isolated civilian communities.
Parachutes also have a wide range of uses in peacetime, as examples, sports parachuting, 'fire jumpers' fighting forest fires, and
rescue operations in terrain or other circumstances that preclude less hazardous access.
Parachutes must work the first time; there are no second chances.
In September 1941, I was a civilian parachute rigger for the Air Service Command at Patterson Field, near Dayton, Ohio. My job was to repair and pack-for-service personnel and cargo parachutes for United States
Army Air Corps aircrews, Army parachute troops in training, and for U.S. and friendly foreign nations' special operations in which the U. S. was involved around the world.
The months from September through November of 1941 were busy times for our shop. An intense conflict raged across Europe and on many fronts in Asia and Africa. The United States Armed Forces accelerated their training programs, and Americans were also active in the war zones of other nations. The parachute shop, as in most other
industrial shops at Patterson Field and many other air bases throughout the United States, worked a round-the-clock seven-day week.
Damaged man-carrying and cargo parachutes were brought to our shop in large quantities from United States training bases and overseas theaters of operations. Often, the parachute harnesses, which are designed to wrap around the jumpers to lower them safely, were shredded, canopies and shroud lines torn or severely abraded, and canopy containers (packs) and emergency survival accessories scorched or missing. I was part of a crew that repaired and packed all types of parachutes, and drop-tested a representative selection that had received major repair and packed for operational use.
The drop test consisted of attaching a service-packed parachute to a 120- pound weight or canvas-covered dummy, and loading the weights or
dummies into a C-47 (Dakota) airplane. A 30-foot lanyard, with snap-hooks at both ends connected the parachute's ripcord grip to the airplane inside the door. The door was lashed open before takeoff. Each of the
two men on the test crew wore a parachute and was also secured to the airplane frame by heavy belts as a precaution against falling out.
The pilot took off and circled the field at an altitude under one thousand feet. Approaching the drop zone, the co-pilot flashed a warning light above the door where the parachute handlers were stationed. At the next signal, the handlers, one on each side, heaved the dummy out. The lanyard, reaching full extension, pulled free the rip cord's pack closing pins, the pack flaps were instantly drawn back by strong bungee cords, and a small spring-loaded pilot chute ejected, opened, and caught the air stream, drawing the main canopy out to the full length of its shroud lines. The canopy skirt caught air, opened, inflated the canopy fully, and the parachute and its 'weight' descended. The ground crew tracked the
parachute visually to estimate where it would land.
Ground crew work was not dull. I remember how we spread out along an aircraft's line of flight as it neared the drop zone, observed the chute ejection and canopy opening, and the dummy swinging in an arc
underneath. There were times during low altitude drops when ground crew had to move fast to get out of the way. As soon as we thought that we knew where the parachute would land, we'd run toward it and, as soon as we got to where the parachute landed, jump on and pin down the dummy, haul in one (preferably two) of the webbing straps (risers), spill air from the canopy, and get it all together with the least possible damage to the parachute-and ourselves.
There were times, even on a relatively calm day, when a gust would pass across the field and re-inflate the canopy before we got to it. A partially inflated canopy in a gentle breeze can drag a 120-pound dummy along
the ground faster than ground handlers can run. Also, a canopy (made of natural silk in those days) that drags the ground usually collects snags.
I'll always remember chasing a descending parachute that touched down in a sudden gust that dragged, rolled, twisted, and bounced the dummy along a grassy field we were using for the drop zone. I was closest and
gave chase. Finally, with a lunge, I landed on the dummy, wrapped both legs around it, and grasped and hauled back one of the risers. I managed to spill enough air to deflate the canopy. Controlling a dummy that is being tossed around by a sudden gust is akin to riding a lively pony.
Back at the shop after the tests, we inspected every part of a repaired parachute closely to see how well it had withstood the test. Some years previously, apprentice parachute riggers were not certified until they had jump-tested a parachute that they, themselves, had inspected, repaired and packed. The requirement for certification of riggers by 'jumping their chutes' was suspended in 1941 because of enormously increased shop
workloads shortly before the U.S. formally joined its allies in the war.
On Sunday, December 7, 1941, I was working the night shift in the Parachute Shop. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor had occurred that morning and was being reported on the radio in continuous news
flashes. About an hour after my work shift began, the shop supervisor instructed all parachute riggers to go immediately to the aircraft maintenance main hangar nearby. Several hundred men from aircraft repair, sheet metal, and instrument repair shops, and other shops on the
base were already there when I arrived. They were milling about; I joined the crowd and wondered why we had been assembled.
A military officer climbed to the work platform at the top of an aircraft maintenance stand. Drawing everyone's attention, he announced that the Army Air Corps needed skilled technicians and supervisors immediately at Hickam Field in Hawaii. Whoever wanted to go, he said, should raise his arm and his name and badge number would be entered on a list.
I happened to be single, footloose and fancy-free at the time, and my arm got caught in the updraft. We were directed to stand by, and the others
instructed to return to their shops. Those of us who stayed formed a line, our identities were verified against our badge numbers and photographs, and our job titles entered on a list. Each was given an instruction sheet and ordered to comply.
The next morning, following instructions, I reported to the dispensary for vaccinations and immunization shots and on to the Personnel Office to sign papers that came at me from all directions. I was informed that I had one week to get my affairs in order; after that I would be on standby for departure.
A week later, along with several hundred other volunteer workers, I boarded a train on a siding adjacent a base supply warehouse. The train, with all windows covered by blackout curtains, departed Patterson Field, Ohio in the dead of night, and arrived three days later at Moffett Field near Mountain View, California. Disembarked, we lined up for bedrolls, and were pointed toward rows of tents in a muddy field adjacent a dirigible hangar. An instruction sheet, tacked to the tent's center pole, told us where the mess halls were located, and the meals' schedule by tent number.
Additional trains arrived in the days that followed. Hundreds of civilian workers joined us in the tents waiting for the next leg of our journey. We soon became acquainted; we were from all across the country: New
York and Pennsylvania, Ohio and Georgia, Alabama and Texas, Utah and California. The Army Air Corps bases where we signed up were Griffis and Olmstead, Patterson and Robbins, Brookley and Kelly and Hill and McClellan. We were part of a vanguard moving out with little or no advance notice. Except for a carry-on bag with a change of
clothing and a few personal items, our luggage had gone directly into the ship's hold.
Days passed. The 'alert' came one night about 2 AM, shouted along the tent lines, 'This is it, you guys. Movin' out. One hour.'
In a torrential downpour, we slogged through ankle-deep mud and climbed into the backs of canvas covered trucks. Flaps down, escorted
by an armed military escort in Jeeps, all the trucks were blacked out except for dim lights gleaming through slits in the headlights. We formed up as a miles-long convoy rolling north along US101 from Moffett Field, and arrived shortly before dawn at Fort Mason, adjacent Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco. The trucks filled the wharf in
double and triple lines from end to end. A gangway led up to the deck of a ship alongside. We learned later that the vessel was the U.S. Grant, a World War I troop transport.
Herded below deck, we jammed into compartments where the narrow bunks were five high along aisles barely wide enough for passing. A 'Now, here this....' over the loudspeaker restricted all passengers to their compartments, and to passageways only when necessary until we were out of the harbor. We were to have our life preservers with us at all times.
Hours later, the ship's vibration, a rolling about sensation in my center of gravity, and creaking along the bulkheads, told me we were under way.
Scuttlebutt was that we were in a convoy escorted by destroyers. Enemy submarines were suspected off the coast. Rumors abounded.
We took turns going on deck by compartment number. The convoy of ten ships zigzagged frequently to minimize the success of an enemy air or submarine attack. Finally, on the fifth or so day out from San Francisco, land appeared on the horizon and, shortly afterward, we saw Diamond Head. Our ship left the convoy and entered Honolulu harbor.
We disembarked under heavy military guard at the Aloha Tower pier and boarded the Toonerville Trolley, as we got to know the train on Oahu's narrow gauge railway. An hour later, we were at Hickam.
The devastation was appalling. Burned-out hulks of bombed aircraft were scattered about on parking aprons and in hangars, and piles of debris lay along roadways. The roofs of military barracks hung down
along the outside of the structures; they had exploded up and outward over the walls.
As a senior technician, I was assigned to the recovery and repair of damaged parachutes, life rafts, inflatable life preservers, oxygen masks, and the escape-and-evasion kits that air crews relied on when they bailed out over enemy territory. All of the equipment that came to our shop was closely inspected and repaired if possible. As soon as parachutes and survival gear were fixed and ready for service, they were returned to the airplane from which they came, shipped to air bases in the forward areas, or into backup supply.
Many of us joined Hickam Field's armed civilians, officially titled the Hawaiian Air Depot Volunteer Corps. We were a group of employees who, during non-duty hours, trained to handle and fire a rifle, pistol, and aircraft machine gun. We patrolled base storage areas at night where high security was needed, armed with '03 Enfield rifles, also aircraft
maintenance hangers, warehouses, bombsight repair shops, and an engine repair line underground at Wheeler Field, near Wahiawa in the Oahu highlands.
As armed civilians, we were each given an identification card to carry in our wallets. The card stated, in fine print, that if captured by the enemy
while carrying a weapon, we were entitled to treatment as 'prisoners of war.' The Army Air Corps military officer who commanded our unit said that, since we did not wear military uniforms, nor carry formal military identification tags, the card would certify us as 'combatants.' The statement on the card was supposed to keep us from being shot as spies in the event Hawaii was invaded by the enemy.
During the war years, I repaired and packed thousands of personnel and cargo parachutes, and serviced many other types of emergency survival gear.
After the war, my job was changed. I investigated mistakes that had been made during manufacture or repair in all types of equipment. My job was to examine what was wrong, acquire exhibits, and interview
technicians and administrators who had knowledge on how and why an item of equipment had failed or was otherwise deficient. After compiling the information, I wrote reports that described the problem and its possible causes so that specialists and engineers who were located
thousands of miles distant might better understand the problem and how to correct it.
I worked at Hickam Field until April, 1948, and then returned to the air base where I had signed up when the war began. By then, the installation had expanded enormously, and was named Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
The students e-mailed their questions to me, and I replied, also by e-mail. An example:
Q. Do riggers jump the 'chutes they pack?
A. Before WW2, the answer would be 'yes,' however, during the war the requirement was suspended because of the time involved. It is not unusual for a jumped parachute to incur minor damage in descent or upon landing, which then required time and materials to repair. The expense could not be justified under the new priorities.
Q. How did you get from fixing parachutes to writing reports about mistakes and defects?
A. My change in jobs came about because of an incident when I worked on parachutes and other emergency survival equipment. In 1942, large numbers of damaged and deteriorated parachutes were shipped from mainland U.S. bases to Hickam Field and other Air Corps bases in the Pacific. For example, we received parachutes that were ripped or had severely mildewed canopies; their were badly frayed suspension lines, rusted metal connectors, and the cotton webbing straps that secured the aircrew member were so rotten that they came apart when handled. Other types of survival gear that came to us from the mainland also had defects which made them useless in an emergency: life rafts and life preservers did not inflate as they should, and escape-and-evasion kits had missing components that would have been vital to a downed aircrew member. In such circumstances, the assembly was unsafe and, at times,
I complained to my supervisor about the quality of the parachutes and survival gear that we were getting from the mainland, and he passed my observations along to his supervisor. He told me to put my complaints in writing, which I did, describing the defects or damage in detail, often including photographs or other exhibits. The poor quality of life-saving gear that had been sent to us, I wrote, added to the risk of an emergency bailout from a disabled airplane and escape-and-evasion in hostile
At work one day, I was called to my supervisor's office.
'Just got a phone call from the front office,' he said. 'You're to report immediately to Headquarters, Seventh Air Force. The soldier in the Jeep outside is waiting for you. He'll drive you there. Move.'
Sitting alongside the driver, I wondered what it was all about. The thought that I had made an error in my work made me nervous. Was I being called on the carpet because of an injury, or worse, that had resulted from an improperly packed parachute?
At Seventh Air Force headquarters, I was met at the door by a Colonel, who cleared me past the security guards. I followed him into an office that had a sign on the door that read 'Major General White, Commander, Seventh Air Force'. Several men in uniform were standing near a desk at the far side of the room. A uniformed officer was seated behind the desk. In the middle of the room lay several packed parachutes were in a heap on the floor.
When the officer behind the desk noticed me he stood, came round, and walked to and crouched next to the parachutes. He motioned me down beside him. On each of his shoulder tabs he wore a Major General's two stars.
'OK, son,' he said, 'show me the problem.'
My reports had received attention.
I stared at the parachutes. Did any among them include the damage I had reported? I checked an inspection log in a pocket attached to one of the parachutes. Directives required that the date of last inspection and packing be entered by the technician who had done the work. The log showed that the parachute had been recently inspected and packed at a stateside Air Corps base.
I stood, bent forward over the parachute, and grasped one of its 'risers.' The life of the jumper would depend on the strength of the webbing. I jerked the riser straight up as hard as I could I shook it repeatedly against the twenty-five pound weight of the packed parachute. The yanks and shakes I gave the parachute were merely a fraction of the shocks that it would need to absorb during emergency use in supporting the weight of a human being.
Several cords, from which the webbing was woven, separated. The
parachute was at the very beginning of its service life in the Pacific Area, wherein mildew, dampness, rot and other hazards to the strength of natural fibers was highly prevalent. Here was another dangerously weakened emergency parachute, packed and tagged 'serviceable'.
The General stared at the shredded webbing, then at me, nodding, 'thanks.' The Colonel, who had escorted me in, motioned to me and pointed at the door.
As I left, I heard the General say, 'I want a personal on this to Hap Arnold.' General Arnold was the Commander of the Army Air Corps worldwide during WW2, and reported to President of the United States.
I returned to my job. The quality of parachutes and other survival gear arriving at Hickam from mainland bases improved.
Serious manufacturing and servicing mistakes were also found in other types of equipment used by the Army Air Corps. When the fighting part of the war was over the Armed Forces, in general, looked back on the 'how' and 'why' of its methods including what could be done to improve the quality of equipment. I was one of many technicians assigned to collect as much physical evidence and other forms of information as possible about what was wrong with military equipment and procedures and to prepare reports that would help engineers, administrators and contractors to correct the problems. Several years after I retired I wrote a pamphlet for the Small Business Administration titled 'Fixing Production Mistakes' of which about 300,000 copies were distributed.
Preventing and fixing mistakes is an ongoing and time-consuming task in both government and industry.
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