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 J  E  T    B  A  S  E

Securing the Stormbirds

 

As his plane approached the German airbase at Lechfeld, Strobell noted considerable damage from the air:  the runways had obviously been carpet-bombed and few buildings were intact.  He also saw some of the planes.  After landing, he got a closer look:  there were jets all right, but most were in a state of serious disrepair.  It appeared that many had been intentionally destroyed by the retreating Germans, and what little was left had fallen prey to souvenir-seeking soldiers and roving bands of displaced persons.  He also noticed the acrid smell of brown coal oil -- something he had long associated with the enemy. 

Upon reaching the ruins of some of the Messerschmitt facilities, he was relieved to see that a small group of Americans had preceded him onto the field.  These men, from the 54th Air Disarmament Squadron, had arrived in the area a few weeks earlier with orders to preserve and safeguard as many Me 262s as possible.

The military government had succeeded in locating a number of German nationals living in the area who had worked on the Me 262 program.  This group of tradesmen were then placed under contract as civilian employees to assist in the 54th ADS effort.  Strobell took note of the German technicians, and deduced that this must have been the crew he was told to expect. 

   

These men were all justifiably proud of the jet, and seemed content to give the Americans their full cooperation.  In fact, they had apparently already succeeded in preparing several machines for flight.  

A week prior to Strobell's arrival, the last of eight flight worthy 262s had been test flown, and two more were awaiting engines.   The 54th ADS men were quick to make their mark upon the project by painting conspicuous names on the left side each of these airplanes.  The right side of each jet bore their unofficial squadron name, borne of their constant squabbling:  the Feudin' 54th.

Although none of the promised pilots were yet on hand, three or four of the crew chiefs assigned to Colonel Watson's project had arrived earlier that morning.  He found them holed up in a bombed out hangar with their rifles at ready, awaiting their instructions.  Although the language barrier had prevented them from communicating with the German crew, they reported that so far they had not encountered any problems.

While the men elected to stay in the hangar, Strobell spent the first few nights on the second floor of a bombed out administration building.  Still wary of his surroundings, he kept his .45 nearby and laid a string of cans across the stairwell as a precaution.  (Years later he would find a letter he had written to his parents during this time on Willy Messerschmitt's stationery.)

The work of the ADS was done, and they left the field to Strobell and his mechanics on the 2nd of June.  A day later, two more pilots arrived:  Lieutenants Ken Holt and Roy Brown.  They were followed in short order by Lieutenant Bob Anspach and the rest of the men. 

Soon the entire team was assembled:  six AAF pilots, 10 crew chiefs and some two-dozen German nationals.  Watson was away tending to other matters and was rarely present during this time, but the men had a clear understanding of their mission, and set to work immediately. 

Among their civilian employees were two English-speaking Messerschmitt test pilots:  Ludwig Hofmann and Karl Baur.  Both were cooperative and professional, though the men took an immediate liking to the more good-natured Hofmann, whom they began calling "Willie." 

View inside of the hanger at Lechfeld during 54th ADS work on the aircraft.  Note the "Feudin' 54th" marking on the nose.  Credit: Brown

Another view inside of the hangar at Lechfeld.  Note the ease with which a Me 262 nose section could be replaced.

Whizzers pilots Hillis and Anspach checking the airfield perimeter for salvageable materiel. Credit:  Brown

View inside of the hangar at Lechfeld.  Note the new US insignia and oversprayed swastikas.

One of the 262s on a test flight over Lechfeld.  Credit: Brown

 

A personal friend of Charles Lindbergh's and a legendary aviator with a reputation throughout Germany, Hofmann had flown virtually every type of aircraft, to include the rocket-propelled Natter interceptor.  Few knew the Me 262 better than the old pro, and he did his best to convey to the young Americans how to stay out of trouble in the jet.

The men learned from Baur that one of the aircraft (Beverly Ann) had been surrendered intact near Munich, and had been flown into Lechfeld prior to their arrival.  Another was flown to Lechfeld directly and surrendered on VE Day.  There was also an original factory trainer on site that still remained in a flyable state.  Otherwise, they were told that the majority of the team's aircraft had been built from an odd collection of engines, various nose sections, landing gear components and parts scavenged from wrecks. 

It was quickly decided that the ATI team should bring each of these aircraft back into the hangar for a closer inspection.  The ADS effort had been done with some haste, and under minimal American supervision.  No one could completely rule out thoughts of possible sabotage, and, perhaps more importantly, detailed inspections would give the crew chiefs a necessary opportunity to learn about the systems of the unusual aircraft.

As the work progressed, the mechanics found increasingly innovative ways of communicating with their German counterparts, and activities in the main hangar were in full swing.  Inspecting, repairing and rebuilding was accomplished as necessary, with either Hofmann or Baur conducting a new test flight as each jet came out of the hangar. 

Each crew chief was assigned a specialty area, and quickly became a subject matter expert, while the pilots rehearsed engine starts and reviewed performance characteristics on a damaged Me 262 that had been tethered to the ground.  In the space of just over a week, all ten aircraft were refitted, checked out and ready to fly.

 


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