Welch repaired B-24’s in England during WWIIWORTHINGTON — Albyn Welch was visiting his sister near Okabena on Dec. 7, 1941, when he learned the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the Americans were gearing up for war against the Pacific nation. Having grown up the son of a World War I Army soldier, Welch realized he would likely be called upon to serve his country.
By: Julie Buntjer, Worthington Daily Globe
WORTHINGTON — Albyn Welch was visiting his sister near Okabena on Dec. 7, 1941, when he learned the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the Americans were gearing up for war against the Pacific nation. Having grown up the son of a World War I Army soldier, Welch realized he would likely be called upon to serve his country.
The young man — who often wore his dad’s Army jacket — had anticipated getting a jacket of his own one day, but he had no plans to enlist.
“When they started up the draft, then you figured well, you had it coming,” Welch said earlier this week from his Worthington home. “Some of my friends, they didn’t want to be drafted. They wanted to carry guns, so they joined up.”
As for Welch, he took the role he was assigned and, in the end, said he had it pretty good.
Welch grew up on Worthington’s Sixth Avenue and attended local schools through the ninth grade. He worked with his dad on an area sheep farm and later had stints in the bowling alley and J.C. Boote’s Hatchery before his draft papers arrived in mid-1942.
“I ended up in Leavenworth, Kansas, where we got our uniforms,” Welch said. That was in August 1942. “We took tests and we were going to ship out. They said we were in the Army Air Force, so that’s where I ended up.”
During three years of active duty, he spent a year state-side in training, moving from Shepard Field, Texas, to Los Angeles and Santa Maria, Calif. They had additional training at an Air Force Base in Pueblo, Colo., before being sent to Baker, Ore., and finally to Camp Shanks, N.Y.
The Queen Mary, a luxury liner transformed into a troop ship during the war, carried Welch and his fellow soldiers to England.
“It was a pretty big boat, that’s for sure,” Welch said. “It had … real nice rooms, only they had bunk beds about three high stacked in there. They really stacked them in — they carried a lot of people on board.”
It took about five days for the Queen Mary to cross the Atlantic Ocean and get the soldiers to their new home at England’s Flixton Air Force Base. There, Welch was assigned to work on a repair crew servicing B-24 bombers damaged by flak from German fighters.
An aircraft repairman
When Welch arrived at Flixton and they learned they didn’t yet have airplanes, the crew was sent on a detached service to another air base.
“That’s when they first started bombing with the B-24’s,” he explained. “They really got wiped out — hardly any of them came back. It was really rough for a while.”
When Welch and his crew returned to Flixton, they were assigned to do maintenance and repair for a fleet of 80 planes.
“I worked on sheet metal — repaired holes, battle damage and modified (planes),” he said. “Some of these pilots asked for certain things to help them out, maybe put some metal on the outside so they wouldn’t get hit or (put) an escape hatch on top.”
The soldiers did whatever they could to protect the pilot and his crew, and Welch said they had numerous instructions to follow in making modifications.
“I had one airplane that come in (after being sent on a low flying trip) … it was just shot full of holes. (It took) machine gun fire on the tail and small arms fire along the fuselage,” said Welch. “I had to take part of the tail off and fix that — there were big holes in there from the machine guns. I patched the rest and sent it out again.”
As repairmen worked to keep the planes in the fleet operational, back in the United States the Ford Motor Co., had stopped manufacturing automobiles and went into the business of making B-24 bombers for the war department.
“The women were making them,” Welch said. “They got so they could put a lot of airplanes out.”
The women working in the factories, in addition to building planes to aid in the war effort, cheered on the troops by leaving their names and addresses in a variety of hidden areas of the cockpit.
“We used to find the addresses of some of them gals in the glove compartment on the airplane, or in the button on the steering wheel,” Welch said. Another popular spot was on the inside of the lid to the map case. “They knew the flight guys would maybe find them.
“One fellow took the address of a girl and he got a cake in the mail — that gal sent him a cake.” he added.
Welch never corresponded with any of the women who had left addresses for the soldiers to find — he had a sweetheart back at home — but he did pass along the information to other soldiers from time to time.
Time to invent
While Welch worked 10-hour days repairing aircrafts, he was given days off from time to time to explore. He visited both Scotland and Ireland during World War II, but most of his time was spent around England.
It was during one of his days of exploration on the Air Base that Welch took a closer look at an old airplane that had been “junked out” and left along the side of the runway.
“I seen some parts there and I thought maybe I could make something out of that,” he said. After removing a part from the controls section, Welch fashioned the first-ever angle drill.
“It was so I could work in tight places,” Welch explained. “Guys used to borrow it and pretty soon, headquarters came and wrote an article about it and wanted to take a picture of me with it.
“After the war, I seen them on the market. I should have taken it home with me, but I left it in my tool box and somebody got a patent out of it,” he said.
Married on leave
Welch returned to Minnesota on leave to marry his sweetheart, Ruth, on July 22, 1945. While they were in northern Minnesota on their honeymoon, they learned that the war had ended in Germany. Welch’s 24-month stint in England was finally over.
Still, Welch was required to report back to duty to finish out his military service. He was honorably discharged later that year after serving time in Sioux Falls, S.D., Tacoma, Wash., and Chicago.
The Welches settled in Worthington, and he spent 35 years working for the Nobles County Highway Department. The couple raised five children, and now has nine grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
Welch is among more than 100 World War II veterans on the list to embark on Honor Flight Southwest Minnesota’s fourth and final journey to Washington, D.C., Sept. 30-Oct. 1.