Memoir: Aircrew Parachute Rigger, WWII,
Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii 1942-1948
Meyer (Mike) Moldeven
(Duties) Senior parachute rigger: inspects, maintains, repairs packs and adjusts aircrew flight equipment such as parachutes, oxygen masks, flotation devices (life rafts and inflatable life preservers), survival and escape-and-evasion kits, improvises, manufactures, repairs and packs cargo parachutes.)
In September 1941 I was a civilian parachute rigger for the U. S. Army Air Service Command at Patterson Field, near Dayton, Ohio. My job was to repair trooper and cargo parachutes used by U S Army training at Fort Benning and other Army installations and for Army Air Corps flying personnel.
The months from September through November of 1941 were busy times for our shop. Conflict was already raging across Europe and on battlefronts in Asia and Africa. The United States Armed Forces accelerated their training programs, and Americans were active in the war zones of other nations. The parachute shop, as in most other industrial shops at Patterson Field, and other bases throughout the United States, was on a round-the-clock seven-day workweek.
Many damaged man-carrying and cargo parachutes were brought to our shop from United States training bases and overseas theaters of operations. Often, the parachute harnesses - that wrap around the jumpers to lower them safely - were in shreds, canopies ripped, and canopy containers and emergency survival attachments scorched and gory. I was in a crew that fixed the personnel parachutes, and then drop-tested a dozen or so randomly selected by the shop foreman from each two or three hundred that had been given a major repair and packed for service. Following drop test the tested 'chutes were closely inspected by supervisor to ensure the quality of 'repair' and 'packing for service.'
'Drop test' consisted of attaching a service-packed parachute to a 120-pound weight or canvas-covered dummy, loading the weight or dummy into a C-47 airplane, and connecting a metal hook at one end of a 30-foot lanyard to the parachute rip cord and the other end to a cable stretched taut above the airplane's main portal. The door was lashed securely open. Each of the two men on the test crew wore a parachute and was also secured inside the airplane by a short heavy belt so that they would not accidentally fall from the aircraft.
The pilot took off and circled the field at about a thousand feet. Approaching the drop zone, the co-pilot flashed a warning light above the door where the handlers were stationed. At the next signal, the handlers, one on each side of the dummy, heaved it out. The lanyard, fully extended, pulled the ripcord, and the canopy extended full length, in turn, opened, inflated, and descended. The ground crew visually tracked the drifting parachute, guessing at about where it would most likely touch ground.
Drop-test ground crew work is not dull. I remember how we would spread out and watch the dummy/weight as it descended and drifted; there were times we had to move fast to get out of the way. As soon as we knew where the parachute would land, we'd run toward it and, as soon as we reached it, haul in one of the webbing straps (risers) to spill air from the canopy, and get it all (canopy, suspension lines, dummy or concrete block) 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 inflate the canopy before we got to it. A partially inflated canopy in a gentle breeze can drag a 120-pound dummy and parachute along the ground faster than ground handlers ran.
I'll always remember chasing a parachute and its dummy that a sudden gust dragged, rolled, twisted, and bounced along in a field we were using for the drop zone. Finally, with a lunge, I landed on the dummy, wrapped both legs around it, and grasped and hauled back one of the straps. I managed to spill enough air to deflate the canopy. Controlling a dummy that is being tossed around by a sudden gust can be like riding a spirited pony.
Back at the shop after the tests, we inspected every part of the parachute closely to see how well it had been repaired. At one time, apprentice parachute riggers were not certified until they jump-tested a parachute that they, themselves, had inspected, repaired and packed. Jump certification by riggers was suspended because of the enormously increased workload.
On Sunday, December 7, 1941, I was working the night shift in the Parachute Shop. The attack on Pearl Harbor that morning was being reported on the radio in almost continuous news flashes. About an hour after the work shift began, our supervisor instructed all parachute riggers to go immediately to the aircraft maintenance main hangar nearby. Several hundred men from aircraft and aircraft systems repair shops, and other shops on the air base, were already there. They were milling about; I joined them and wondered why we had been called together.
A military officer climbed to the platform at the top of an aircraft maintenance stand. Drawing attention by tapping on the stand's railing with a metal object, he told us that the Air Corps needed skilled workers and supervisors immediately at Hickam Field in Hawaii. Whoever wanted to go, he said, should raise his arm and his name would be listed.
I happened to be single, footloose and fancy-free at the time, and my arm got caught in the updraft. We were told to stand by, and the others instructed to return to their shops. Those that stayed lined up, and our names, badge numbers, and job titles were entered on a list. We were each given an instruction sheet and told to comply.
The next morning I reported to the dispensary for vaccinations and other immunization shots (both arms), and then on to the Personnel Office to sign papers that came at me from all directions. I had a week to get my affairs in order; after that I would be on stand-by for departure. A week later, along with several hundred other volunteer workers, I boarded a train on a siding next to a warehouse, and was on my way west.
The train, with all windows covered by blackout curtains, left Patterson Field 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.
More trains arrived the next day and the days following. Hundreds of civilian workers joined us in the tents waiting for the next leg of our journey. We quickly got to know each other; we had come from all across the country: New York and Pennsylvania, Ohio and Georgia, Alabama and Texas, Utah and California. The Air Corps bases at which we had signed up were Griffis and Olmstead, Patterson and Robbins, Brookley and Kelly, and Hill and McClellan. We were the vanguard, ready to move out with little or no advance notice.
Except for a carry-on bag, with a change of clothing and personal items, our luggage had gone directly into the ship's hold.
Days passed. The 'alert' came one night at 2 AM. Voices shouted along the lines of tents, '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 armed military guards in Jeeps, all trucks were blacked out except for dim lights gleaming through slits in their headlights. We formed up as a miles-long convoy rolling north along U.S. 101 from Moffett Field, and arrived, shortly before dawn, at Fort Mason, adjacent Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco. The trucks filled the pier from end to end; a gangway led up to the deck of a ship alongside. We learned later that she 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 back-and-forth shifting 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 to be in the area.
We took turns, by compartment number, going on deck. On our way to Honolulu, the convoy zigzagged frequently to minimize the success of an enemy air or submarine attack. Finally, on the fifth day, land appeared on the horizon and, shortly afterward, we saw Diamond Head. Our ship left the convoy and entered Honolulu harbor.
We docked and 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 gage railway. An hour or so later we were at Hickam Field.
The devastation was appalling. Burned-out hulks of bombed aircraft were scattered about on parking aprons, and huge accumulations of debris lay next to aircraft hangars and along the roadways. The roofs of military barracks hung down along the outsides 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, repaired, if possible, and, when the standards called for it, tested. As soon as survival gear was fixed and ready for service, they were returned to the airplane from which they came, Base Ops, or shipped by the Hickam Supply Division to air bases in the battle zones.
Many of us joined Hickam Field's armed civilians, officially titled the Hawaiian Air Depot Volunteer Corps. We were volunteer employees who, during non-duty hours, trained to handle and shoot a rifle ('03 Enfield), pistol and 30 cal. machine gun. Duty was to patrol and guard designated locations at night where high security was needed. We patrolled aircraft maintenance hangers, warehouses, instrument repair shops, and an engine repair line underground at Wheeler Field, near Wahiawa in the Oahu highlands.
As armed civilians, we were each given a card to carry on our person. The card stated, in fine print, that if captured by the enemy while carrying a weapon, we were entitled to claim rights as a 'prisoner of war.' The Army Air Corps military officer who commanded our unit said that, since we did not wear military uniforms, nor carry 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 the enemy invaded the Hawaiian Islands. The Volunteer Corps was dissolved a few months after the Battle of Midway.
During the war years, I fixed and packed thousands of man-carrying and cargo parachutes, and serviced many other types of life-saving, survival, flotation, and escape-and evasion gear.
After the war, my job was changed. I investigated defects that had been made during manufacture or repair in equipment generally. My job was to examine what was wrong, and talk to mechanics, technicians, shop supervisors and anybody else who knew how and why it happened. After collecting the information, I wrote reports that stated facts and context on what was wrong and why so that specialists and engineers, who were thousands of miles distant, would understand the problem and solve it.
I worked at Hickam Field until April 1948, and then returned to the place where I had signed on when the war began. By then, the base had grown enormously, and redesignated Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. My experience in maintenance of parachutes and other survival gear qualified me for a technician, then 'management' position in the Hqs 'Supply' directorate responsible for acquisition and USAF worldwide distribution of aircrew parachutes and life preservers.
It also prepared me for responsibilities in USAF urgent acquisition of parachutes for the Korean War. See: