Dad Shot Down Lindbergh, Phyllis and Fang Diller are Sleeping in Mom and Dad's Apartment, the Tomahawks Can't Climb...

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings, Winter 2007,
Winter 2007
Original Images:




Author: Dennis Baer

story of the early years of World War II and the accidents of history that changed Ypsilanti.

Early in 1942 my father, Bernard Baer was a 30 year old, married, neighborhood grocer who sported bifocal glasses. A casual inspection of this Ypsilanti resident would cause most observers to deem him an unlikely choice for military service, an assessment that his Draft Board agreed with. Nevertheless, his country was at war and his pilot's license caused him to be needed by the war effort. He answered the call to, well, if not technically a “call to arms” then a “call to discomfort, annoyance, and multiple threats to life and limb while being underpaid” and closed the neighborhood grocery store on North Adams Street that he and his wife Becky had struggled to open and run in the face of the Great Depression. Abruptly commissioned a Second Lieutenant he and fellow Ypsilantian Don Gridley were ordered to report to Lansing's Capitol City Airport to begin giving primary flight instruction to military flight cadets. A motley collection of dubiously maintained, formerly civilian sport planes, Aeronca Champions and Piper Cubs, had been pressed into service as trainers and a school hastily organized.

The Piper J3 Cub was built between 1937 and 1947-

The Curtiss P40 Warhawk.

Willow Run Bomber Plant in 1944

Dad and Mom left their comfortable second floor apartment on Oak Street and shared a small house in Lansing with the Gridleys. Training began almost immediately regardless of weather conditions or the airworthiness of the planes. Dad quickly racked up nine engine-out emergency landings in farmers fields. The weather was considered “good enough” for training as long as the trainers required ONLY two ground crewmen to hang from the wing tips to keep the plane on the ground while taxiing. O.K., now hold on to that thought, because we're going to get back to that newly minted “butter bar” and his bride.

Years before this, the government asked Ford Motor Company to undertake the mass production of aircraft engines. In 1938, legendary aircraft designer, Donovan Reese Berlin had returned from a visit to Great Britain's Rolls Royce's aircraft engine plant burning with excitement about a new liquid cooled engine he had seen running on a test stand. Able to produce an astonishing 1875 horsepower, it is the V-16 cylinder Merlin, the engine that eventually powered the British Spitfire. He quickly revises his design for the P-40 fighter plane so that, should the lighter and more powerful Merlin become available, it can be substituted in the P-40 in place of the heavier, less powerful, American built Allison V-1710 engine.

The Army Air Corp commissioned Ford to build thousands of American versions of the Merlin. Preliminary plans were laid to build a new plant east of Ypsilanti where hundreds of 16 cylinder engines would be built daily on fast, efficient, Ford designed mass production machining and assembly lines patterned after Ford's auto engine plants.

At Curtiss-Wright Corporation, Donovan Berlin anticipated that his new P-40 Tomahawk, if equipped with Ford-Merlin engines would have at least a 20% improved climb rate and even more speed than the prototype with its Allison engine. Henry Ford, however, had other plans. When he hears that the Merlin is a British design, and that the Roosevelt Administration plans to ship completed engines to Britain to bolster British aircraft production, he pulls the plug on the entire project!

Stunned, the government attempts to talk Henry out of his decision but to no avail. Henry is adamant: he will make military equipment for American forces but nothing, nothing for a foreign power. He thinks that this will limit the looming world war. After months are wasted in negotiations, the Merlin project is given to rival Packard Motor Company. Packard has less engineering resources than Ford and the project progresses slowly. The P-40, often badly beaten in air-to-air combat by Axis fighters thanks to its low performance, is obsolete by the time Packard Merlins are available. Ford's ongoing project to build the Pratt & Whitney R-2800 engine under license is accelerated. The plans for the Ypsilanti Aero Engine Plant are modified so that instead of engines, it will produce entire B-24 Liberator bombers. Henry's meddling with this project causes yet further delay, as late as early 1943, the standing joke is that the plant should be called “Will-it-Run” instead of “Willow Run” (In fairness, Ford was attempting to apply automotive mass production methods to aircraft building, which up to that time, had been largely a ‘shop-craft’ effort. This part of the project alone was a huge engineering enterprise).

P47 Thunderbolt.

P37 Lightning twin engine fighter.

At its peak, 42,000 aircraft assemblers and 44,000 support staff worked at and near Willow Run. At that point, the plant itself was 8% short of the staff needed to run at full capacity. Eventually, the plant hit its “one-plane-per-hour-around-the-clock” rate but Henry Ford had once claimed that Willow Run could make 100 planes a day. The plant also produced thousands of extra engine nacelles and completed wings that were shipped to other B-24 plants to speed their production.

When the plant got off to a slow start, Ford called for help. Dozens of people showed up with plans to “fix” the plant, ranging from Air Corp engineering officer General George Kenny to Henry Ford's personal choice to fix Willow Run, Charles Lindbergh. Lindbergh was a brilliant pilot and a gifted inventor, an enigmatic man of vast intelligence but no experience whatsoever in mass production. His stint at Willow Run was a dismal failure. Henry Ford was able to obtain and misuse the services of the world's most famous aviator because Lindbergh's outspoken support of the isolationist “America First” organization and his acceptance of a decoration from Nazi Luftwaffe chief Hermann Goering had made him personna non gratia in the U.S. military.

Lindbergh had already proven that he didn't know anything about mass production. In a successful attempt to make Lindbergh believe that Nazi Germany was so powerful that it would be hopeless to resist them, the Nazis showed him a large warehouse with a hastily assembled collection of miscellaneous machine tools, obsolete jigs, surplus fixtures, and drafting tables. This, he was told, was a “reserve” aircraft plant, all ready to begin mass production of new military aircraft. The warehouse lacked sufficient electrical power, compressed air supplies, material handling equipment, etc. but Lindbergh didn't realize that, he was more impressed that all the pencils in the drawer of the drafting table he was shown were already sharpened.

Regardless, Henry then assigned Lindbergh to do flight testing on an early P-47 Thunderbolt fighter that was powered by a Ford-built R-2800 engine. This, at least, was more in line with Lindbergh's skills and he basically was able to complete his daily assignments in a few hours, flying out of Ford's company airport in Dearborn, Michigan (It's the test track next to Greenfield Village now).

Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh.

Having a seven and a half ton, 420 mph fighter plane at your disposal is a wonderful thing. Having someone else pay for the maintenance and the fuel bill is even better. Having only about an hour or two's worth of work to do with said fighter per day and a huge amount of bitter anger to work off is a recipe for serious airborne misbehavior. In the case of Col. Charles Lindbergh, he'd take his private 15,000 pound, 2,000 horsepower equalizer and go hunt for someone to torment.

From Dearborn to the flight practice area south of Lansing is about 12 minutes at the economy cruise throttle setting of a P-47. Col. Lindbergh would then stalk the hapless trainers from the flight school. Imagine the fun if you're flying a light, 1,300 pound, 55 horsepower two seat trainer and a Thunderbolt wants to play with you. Instructors reported that a rogue P-47 would dive on them from 15,000 feet, pass close behind them at full throttle and then turn in front of them sharply. Usually, the wing tip vortex (the small horizontal tornado that all wings generate) was enough to flip the trainer inverted. This was particularly amusing because the students were inexperienced and the ex-civilian sport planes lacked inverted fuel systems so the engines would quit while they were upside down. Small planes back then usually didn't have built in starters, you had to flip the prop over by hand to start them. Since there's no place to stand to pull on the prop when the engine quits in flight, you had to say a prayer and glide down to some farmer's field.

Phyllis Diller and “Fang” moved to Ypsilanti to work in the war industry.

“Champs” and “Cubs” were renowned for their gentle, predictable handling. So docile and pleasant were these machines that sportsmen pilots have paid them the ultimate compliment: hundreds of them have been lovingly restored and remain on the civil registry to this day. Too small and too slow to be practical transportation, they are treasured for the sheer joy of flying that they impart. To put such a gentle machine into a wicked whip stall takes some doing. Col. Lindbergh did this so often that the victims started to spread the word.

Dad was watching for the “rogue P-47” that other instructors had reported and spotted Col. Lindbergh before he dove on his plane. Dad took the controls away from his student and slowed the Champ from its usual blistering pace of 75 miles per hour to just above the stall speed, about 40 mph and started doing S-turns. Slowing down then forced Lindbergh to dive at a steeper angle than usual. This forced the Thunderbolt to take longer to recover from the dive. Guessing that Lindbergh would follow his usual pattern of snapping into a sharp left turn in front of the Champ, Dad pirouetted the slow moving Champ on its wing tip and easily turned inside the P-47. Avoiding the wall of turbulence, the little Champ impudently aimed its nose at the engine and cockpit of the retreating P-47. Col. Lindbergh was looking over his shoulder at the trainer as he streaked for Dearborn, while the Champ “counted coup” on him. This sort of play fighting is common among military pilots, the loser is often the subject of considerable post flight “hanger flying” humor.

“At its peak, 42,000 aircraft assemblers and 44,000 support staff worked at and near Willow Run. At that point, the plant itself was 8% short of the staff needed to run at full capacity. Eventually, the plant hit its “one-plane-per-hour-around-the-clock” rate but Henry Ford had once claimed that Willow Run could make 100 planes a day.”

Later in the war, Lindbergh would travel to the Southwest Pacific, allegedly as a “Civilian Factory Representative” for Lockheed and Chance-Vought. His pioneering efforts at engine control and fuel management extended the range of the P-38 by hundreds of miles. Using the diving attacks that he practiced in Michigan, Lindbergh shot down a number of Japanese aircraft while flying the “Lightning.” Later he did the same thins: with F4U Corsairs.

Now that we've taken care of that green 2nd lieutenant, let's get back to Ypsilanti. Bear in mind that Ypsilanti was a small factory and college town before the war. Within a year, that small town needed to provide 90,000+ workers, and feed, clothe, and house all of them. As part of the huge military buildup at that time, every aircraft and munitions plant in North America was suddenly hiring everyone in sight. If you wanted to work on aircraft, you had your choice of places to work. East Coast and Northern manufacturers had difficulty in competing for workers with plants in Southern California, simply because the weather in Burbank is better than Ypsilanti. If housing is tight, why suffer through a Michigan winter when you can go to Southern California and have the same job? If you can't get a good place to live in So-Cal, it's a lot easier to camp out in the mild weather than it is in a foot of snow and slush.

Mom and Dad's apartment in the Craftsman style house on Oak was snapped up early by another couple who came to Ypsi to work in the war industry. Long before her wild sense of humor made her name and image an American household fixture, Phyllis Diller and her husband were Ypsilanti residents. If I ever meet Ms. Diller, I'm going to ask her if she continued to feed the squirrel that Dad trained to climb up the tree next to the house, jump down to the roof and scamper up to the dormer window to take peanuts from his hand. I wonder if she ever opened the window at dinner time. Pop told me “his” squirrel was getting so pushy about his ration of peanuts that he'd walk in through the window and explore the dinner table, looking for his “dinner,” too. I could be wrong but I'm betting that having a hungry, greedy, frustrated wild animal scrambling around on your dinner table might be somewhat unusual. On the other hand, Ms. Diller was living in Ypsilanti with a guy she nicknamed “Fang”, so perhaps she didn't find it that odd after all.