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World War II Veteran: John Schnepf

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Time Frame: ca. 1940's

John Schnepf served with the 11th Air Force as crew chief. John worked with the 54th Fighter Squadron in the Aleutian Islands. He tells about working on P-38 E airplanes, the hazards of taking off with extra belly tanks on short runways, and a deadly 30 day fog that claimed 8 of our planes.
IPTV, 2008

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I might mention about the 54th fighter squadron; They were activated right after World War II. They were the first P-38 outfit that was sent up to the North Pacific to patrol up there.

Tell me about the P-38. What kind of an airplane was that?

It was a twin engine airplane. Lockheed airplane. All during the war, they kept revising them. The first ones that came out had about 900 horse power engines in them. They were a very nice airplane. It was a hard airplane to work on because everything was so compact. They were some of the first P-38's that were designed.
You might remember the story about the ones that laded on Iceland? That was just about the same design as our planes were. They were D's and these were E's. Their coolant controls were manual. You had to control your own temperature - open and shut according to the temperature. There was no thermostat, so the pilots had quite a task to keep things going.
Single pilot in the P-38. And the runways weren't too long either. Sometimes if we had to go out very far, we'd put a belly tank on. When we went from Amchitka to Attu - the Japanese were still on Attu - Two weeks after I was there was when they invaded Attu. So we were running missions up from Amchitka to Attu. We'd put one belly tank on and one 500 pound bomb on. They would drop the belly tank and then they would drop the bomb. And then they'd do a strafe.

So a P-38 would go out with a spare tank of gas and one bomb ...

The P-38 themselves could hold 320 gallons of gas. They had 4 tanks on them that were right in the wings. And then the belly tank was 150 gallon belly tank. So they could just drop them. They were designed to be release electrically. But sometimes the electrical didn't work so we rigged up a deal. We'd run a wire, a cable around the edge of the wing through one of the screws in the window with a little pull on it so the pilots could pull it or release it manually. We didn't want the tanks on there because they could twist around too much. There were a lot of designs we performed ourselves.

How far could the planes fly after they left you?

They would use about 100 gallons of gas just on cruising. But when they went into combat or had to use all of their power, they would use maybe twice as much gas. Later on in years, when they went to ?Pira Micchero?, that's 700 miles north of the Japanese mainland, the Navy used to go in and shell the shoreline, and then they'd pull out during the night. And they wanted us to be top cover in case the Japs would come after them. So we had to be out there in daylight. That's when we used to put. 300 gallon belly tanks on each side. So they had fuel of about 900 some gallons. They could fly for 9 hours just by cruising. But if they had to go into combat, they'd drop those big belly tanks. Those big 300 gallon belly tanks were made out of plywood. Can you imagine that? They had braces on each side of the wings, to more or less stabilize them. They were as long as this table and nearly three feet across. That was a big chunk hanging on there. Our runways weren't too long either. I know our C.O. was the first one that took off. At the end of our runway, the ocean or the bay was about a 15 foot drop off. He got to the end, and he started dropping down. We thought uh on. But he managed to pull it on up. He radioed back and said you'd better get back as far as you can on that runway and use all the power you've got. So that's how we managed. We got every airplane off that way.

John, do you have a favorite story that you like to tell? One that, if you were with your grandkids, you would want them to know?

Well, I just about wrecked an airplane once. We used to check our airplanes out before daylight. Our runway was out on a point. It was just like a sand bar. It was about 15 or 16 feet above sea level. And then they made these ramps on the sand. When the water would come up, it would kind of wash out some of them. And this ramp where I had my airplane parked in - we used to be able to put 3 planes in , but later on we only had room for one. In the morning, we wanted to check them out. This was a frosty morning. We used to have sand bags in front of the wheels all of the time. And we used to tie the nose wheel down during the night in case of strong winds so they wouldn't flip the airplanes around. The noses were a little bit lighter than the rest of it. So, we used to check them out in the dark in the night. So I checked out my airplane. One engine was a little bit rough. We used to check them out at 2300 RPM. I speeded the engine up to try and burn some of the carbon out of it, and I got it up to about 25 or 2600 RPM. And somehow or another - I didn't feel it - but it swung around and I must have throttled back about that time. It slid the sandbags off. And I was only about 3feet away from going off the end ... After that, I never did untie the nose wheel until after I had checked ... we used to untie them first. That was one lesson I learned.

Anything else you'd like to tell us about?

I really enjoyed working with the outfit I was in. Before that, you were always being pushed around. You didn't know what you were going to be into. It seemed like you were just at home. When we were up in Alaska, they always told us, if you got sent out to the islands, you'd only be there 6 months. The weather - you couldn't stand it any longer. People would go nuts or something. I guess we were all nuts out there then. When I got out there, our outfit was there for just about a year already. They had started down the chain of islands. As they were moving on down - this was the third move. They had just moved to Amchitka about 3 weeks before I got there. Amchitka was only 40 miles from Kiska. The Japs were on Kiska. And Kiska, they had a sub base there. That was supposed to have been a pretty lively base, but we kept hammering that thing all of the time. And then, toward the end, I think it was in June or July, we got a 40 day fog. We had started flying missions about 3:00 in the morning. I know the plane I was working on had made one mission already. He'd come back, and we serviced him, and he was ready to take off for the next one. He waited a minute before he took off. Of course we had 8 planes out already. And then this fog rolled in. How come we never knew about it sooner, I don't know. But we lost 8 planes that time; they never got back to the base. You could hear the plane come back - flying over. I tell you, that's a funny feeling. You couldn't see 16 feet in front of you. You didn't know where the runway was. We didn't have any means of bringing them in like radar or stuff like that. We took off and landed just on our own. There wasn't anybody to tell you if you were ready to land - no towers or anything like that.
I often think a lot of things - I guess that's the reason we won the war. We took a lot of chances, I guess.


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