Celebrating our Veterans: Arbuckle man repaired bombers during WWII

In the days and months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, which launched America into World War II, the nation swiftly mobilized its human and material resources for war.

Millions of young men, coming from all walks of life, rushed to enlist in the U.S. military and millions more were drafted into service with virtually no experience in an armed conflict of such global magnitude. After all, it had been decades since the end of the Great War (1914-1918), America’s last major conflict.

Irwin Sweet, the son of Hollis and Lilly Sweet of Arbuckle, was a bit different than the country’s average solder in World War II.

“I was already working at McClellan Field in Sacramento in the sheet metal shop when the war broke out,” said 96-year-old Sweet.

McClellan Field, renamed McClellan Air Force Base in 1948, was a logistics and maintenance facility for a wide variety of military aircraft of the time, mostly the Speedy Bell P39 “Airacobra” fighter airplanes used by American pilots in the South Pacific.

During World War II, the civilian Air Service Command workers at Sacramento overhauled more than $2.5 million worth of airplanes before they were sent against the enemy.

“The day after Pearl Harbor, I went up to the post office there in Sacramento, where the recruiter had his office. I told him I was there to enlist,” Sweet said. “I was only 20. At that time you had to be 21 to be drafted, so instead of enlisting, he told me to stay right there at McClellan until ‘we want you.’ It wasn’t but three weeks to a month before they changed the draft to 18, but we had already made the deal.”

Sweet was in a unique position at the onset of World War II. Because he was already part of the civilian Air Service Command, his training and experience repairing military aircraft was invaluable to the U.S. Army Air Corps’ “Mighty 8th Bomber Command,” which was activated in 1942.

The recruiter told him that by waiting the few months for Sweet to be drafted into the Air Corps, he would also go in at a higher rank. Within six to eight months, Sweet was drafted. In the meantime, he married his wife, the former Billie Tate, and, after just a few months of basic training, Sweet, a staff sergeant, shipped off to England in the spring of 1943.

Sweet remembers his trip overseas aboard the British oceanliner, the Queen Elizabeth, the largest passenger ship in the world. The Queen Elizabeth was completed in 1939 with service intended for 1940, but prior to her maiden voyage, the ship was refitted for troop-carrying purposes when England entered World War II.

“When we went over, there were 16,000 people onboard, or that is what they claimed,” Sweet said. “It sure looked like it. We were stacked in there four and five bunks high. A lot of guys had to sleep out on the deck 24 hours; then they got to stay in a room 24 hours. We were down in there so deep, it was too much trouble having us walk around. If you were out, you had to stay out 24 hours. When you came in, then other guys would go out for 24 hours.”

During World War II, the 8th Air Corps, based in England, was classified as a strategic air force command with the mission to attack the enemy’s war effort beyond their front-line forces, largely production and supply facilities.

“I spent two straight years patching up B-17s,” Sweet said. “It was mostly flak damage (from anti-aircraft artillery shot up from the ground). The Germans had a lot of flak. But there was damage from bullet holes too. At that time, the German air force was all over Europe.”

The four-engine B-17 bomber, called the “Flying Fortress,” was famous for being able to take a lot of damage and still make it back to base. But of the 12,732 B-17s that Boeing produced for the United States until May 1945, 4,735 were lost in combat – a staggering 37 percent.

“A lot of guys didn’t make it back,” Sweet said. “Thousands didn’t make it back. A lot of them were shot down and taken prisoner.”

Sweet took care of the planes in the 337th bombardment squadron, which bombed German targets such as shipyards, submarine basis, marshaling yards, oil facilities, airfields, and aircraft plants from May 1943 to April 1945. On occasion, the 337th flew tactical sorties against gun emplacements, rocket sites, enemy troops, and communication centers, and then returning to base for repairs.

“I had a crew of four other guys,” Sweet said. “We had a jeep with a trailer that had all our tools, air compressor and a generator for generating electricity. We worked right out in the weather all year, unless we absolutely couldn’t because it was raining too hard. It was quite an adventure, I guarantee you that.”

When Sweet was not working, he was visiting with family.

“I had relatives in England,” he said. “My mother was a World War I war bride, so I had a place to go whenever they gave me a day off.”

Although America had been slower to get involved in the European conflict, England had declared war on Germany on Sept. 3, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland after already annexing Austria, Rhineland, and Czechoslovakia.

Sweet’s family endured the Battle of Britain, the large-scale night attacks from German bombers – known as the Blitz – that lasted from Sept. 7, 1940, to May 11, 1941.

He had multiple relatives serve the British crown, including a pilot in the Royal Air Force, whose plane was lost early in war.

“He was shot down over France and captured by the Germans,” Sweet said. “He was a prisoner of war one month shy of six years.”

After the war, Sweet returned home on the USS Enterprise, a US Naval aircraft carrier, boarding in South Hampton on Thanksgiving Day in 1945.

He returned to farming in Arbuckle, where he and his wife raised six children. ■