Joe Giambrone – Crew Chief

Serial #20308132 Giambrone, Joseph M –  Crew Chief

Joseph M ‘Joe’ Giambrone enlisted at Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania as a Private in the Air Corps in 1940. Within a few weeks he was at Chanute Field, Rantoul, Illinois working his way through aircraft mechanics school. He came from a typical Italian-American family; seven brothers, two sisters… played basketball and baseball at  Norristown High School.

He became an aircraft mechanic with the 29th Bomb Group and then with the 91st Bomb Group when it formed at MacDill Field. From there, he moved to Walla Walla, Washington.

It was here, Joe remembers, where he became involved in a highly unorthodox and unscheduled bombing incident before he even went overseas.

‘Colonel Wray flew to Wright Field in Ohio to pick up one of the new Model F B-17s and I went along as flight engineer. Because of the long distance they put two auxiliary fuel tanks in the bomb bay. When we took off to leave, the landing gear wouldn’t come up.

There was an emergency hand crank in the bomb bay to crank the wheels up by hand. But we couldn’t get to the crank because of the extra fuel tanks. We radioed the tower for instructions and they told us to fly over an open field and drop the tanks. Well, we tried that but one of the tanks wouldn’t drop. Colonel Wray tried all kinds of maneuvers, trying to shake it loose, but it stayed stuck. That was when somebody told me to get in the bomb bay and kick the tank out’.

Joe agreed to do it. They tied a safety rope around his waist, just in case he lost his grip on the beams.

‘I kicked and kicked but the damned thing just wouldn’t turn loose. We kept circling and circling and we probably didn’t realize exactly where we were when the thing finally turned loose and dropped’.

The tank landed on top of a farmer’s chicken coop, smashing it flat. Charles Leighton, the navigator, made the flight and remembers the headlines in the Dayton, Ohio, newspaper the next day: “Air Force Bombs Chicken Coop.”

Joe soon found out that the life of an aircraft mechanic had its hazards, even on the ground. Or almost on the ground. Like having a ladder blown out from under him by a propeller blast.

‘I was up on a ladder, checking the oil pressure sensor on an engine, and I wanted to test it by getting one of the engineers to speed up the engine. He speeded it up so hard he blew the ladder right out from under me and I was left dangling there, hanging onto the plane. I gave him a cussing and told him to try again and not speed up the engine so hard. So I got up on the ladder again and he speeded it up. And it happened again. He blew the ladder right out from under me again’.

Joe was doing his job so well that by the time he reached Fort Dix, the last stop before boarding the Queen Elizabeth for England, he was promoted to the rank of technical sergeant.

If Joe drove his ten-man ground crew hard in England, it was to keep the Memphis Belle flying.

‘The manuals said changing an engine on a B-17 took 25 hours. Our crew got so good at it we set a record one day by changing an engine in four hours. He and his men had to change engines nine times on the Belle during its eight months tour of combat duty, sometimes when checks showed engine compression was low but several times when engines got damaged by enemy gun fire’.

It was during good weather when the Belle flew missions on successive days, when they had to work fast, sometimes all night, to make sure she was ready for the next day’s flight. Part of the job was patching bullet or shrapnel holes. ‘At first we just glued a piece of fabric over the hole but later they came up with the pop rivets and we patched with aluminum’.

Like all the other ground crew who served in England, he remembers how, as the time grew near for the airplanes to come return, the men would start drifting over to the runways. Waiting, listening for the sound of motors. And, when a airplane came in sight, trying to read the numbers to ‘see if it was your airplane’. Watching, dreading to see those red flares shooting out of a  airplane to tell the waiting ambulances that they had wounded men on board, asking for priorities on landing.

One of biggest dreads, at the beginning, was a airplane coming home with a bullet hole in one of the oil coolers. It meant grounding the plane. You couldn’t fly without the oil cooler and we didn’t have any replacements’.

When Joe heard that the Memphis Belle was going home after completing 25 missions, he had hoped that he might get to go along. The answer was no.

After the Memphis Belle and the men on board took off from England for the last time, he sat down to write a letter to Bob Morgan.

Hello Captain Morgan

I was just recalling how we both have come a long way together. You were fresh from pilot’s school and I was fresh from mechanics school. Both of us were assigned to the same Bomb Squadron for experience. You were a 2nd Lieutenant and I was a buck private. Our acquaintance was a mere nod of the head when we saw each other on the line.

I remember the first time I flew with you as though it was yesterday. We flew to your home town and it was the first time you had been home since you were assigned to piloting Fortresses. It was then I said to myself that I would like to crew an airplane you piloted. Do you remember when the 324th Bomb Squadron was formed and I had a chance to go home for a few days and you were going to fly me to Philadelphia? You waited about an hour for me to show up. You finally got disgusted and were about to leave me behind when I finally arrived. It was the first time we really got to know each other.

Do you remember the big welcome the ground crew gave the combat men when they landed in England, and how you were one of the first to land on the new field, and I was assigned to crew the Belle? That was when I first became attached to the airplane. Before that they were all the same. I knew this was my baby and I wanted it to be the best airplane on the field. With the help of my crew we kept the Belle always on the alert. We didn’t mind working long hours because this was our airplane. That first mission and every mission after that I would sweat out the planes, only to find that the Belle had completed another mission over enemy territory.

Remember how we would race against time in changing an engine after the plane would come back from a raid so that we would be ready to go on the next one? How dissapointed the crew and myself would be when we couldn’t get her ready in time. To see the other airplanes take off without the Belle in the lineup was really heartbreaking. Breaking the record the crew set on engine change in our squadron by changing one in four hours. And the time we repaired the battle damage for 25 straight hours taking time out for chow and finished in time for the next mission. I don’t regret working day and night on my airplane because I was well repaid.

The Belle is one of the few remaining original airplanes that arrived with our group. It started and finished with the same crew. That alone repaid me for all the time that I spent maintaining it. The closest anyone came to getting hurt was the tail-gunner got bruised by enemy flak, but I’ve gotten worse myself while shaving.

My one ambition was to have the Belle flying when I was to be sent home. But the tables have been reversed. The Belle is still flying and back in the US touring the country with the original crew, but I am still in England. They have given me a new airplane to crew but it just doesn’t seem the same. I knew every nut and bolt on the Belle. When she got sick I just knew what was wrong. I am surely going to miss her. Yes Sir, we have gone a long way together. You are now a Captain and I am a Master Sergeant.

Well Captain, I will close now hoping that our favorite airplane is in the same perfect condition as when it left England. Good luck to you and the crew. Some day we shall meet again to continue where we left off.

Your crew chief, M/Sgt Joseph M Giambrone

The Memphis Belle would not have reached 25 missions if it was not for the ground crew –  in addition to Giambrone, there was Sergeant Robert G. Walters of Walla Walla, Washington, assistant crew chief; Staff Sergeant Max Armstrong of Albright, West Virginia; Sergeant R. C. Champion of Chicago, Illinois, Sergeant Charles P. Blauser of York, Pennsylvania, and Corporal Leonard E. Sowers of St. Louis, Missouri.