A tale of repurposed war material and an ode to the fallen

MINDEMOYA—I grew up in the state of Indiana, where many surplus aircraft engines, following WWII, were shoehorned into conveyances of every kind. Chief among these were dragsters, unlimited-class hydroplanes, tractors and at least one riding lawn mower that I can recall. Most of their creators were men of meager means and questionable mental stability, beavering away in sheds barely larger than their projects, illuminated by the acidic glare of a single swaying light bulb.

My father, Keith, included himself in their legion. I would like to tell you a story. I will not be brief. 

On VJ (Victory over Japan) Day, Allison Corporation, headquartered in the state capital, Indianapolis, had roughly 200 V-1710 engines resting in its yard, awaiting transport to the Pacific Theatre. All were sturdily crated, with a spare crankshaft, and had seven test hours on the clock. Security around the factory yard was poor, leading to the steady disappearance of these mammoth crates over time. Allison didn’t do much to discourage the practice, since the cheque from Uncle Sam had been previously cashed. 

In about 1955, my father acquired two Allison V-1710-F3R engines, in their original crates, which had been destined for the Pacific Theatre. These were supercharged V-12 engines producing roughly 2,000 horsepower, which would have been fitted to P38s and P51 Mustang fighter aircraft. The first cost him $75. The second he traded for a set of Snap-On Blue Star box-end wrenches. Shortly thereafter, he commenced work on a tube-frame car chassis to accommodate the Allison. His goal was to set a new world land speed record (LSR) at the salt flats in Bonneville, Utah. Dad was a schoolteacher, with some prowess in mathematics, and he determined that the Allison could push a properly designed car beyond the current LSR of about 390mph. 

On a schoolteacher’s salary, of course money was scarce. Fortunately, he had no vices other than automobiles, but progress was still slow. Early on, he realized that one of his first jobs would have to be testing the engines. Nothing good would have happened to them after sitting in crates for nearly 20 years.

The test stand he constructed next to the garage redefined the word “overbuilt.” He fabricated it out of 3” triangulated square steel, and then sunk it in a foot-thick slab of concrete, 20 feet on a side. Oil, fuel, and coolant lines were cemented into the slab. 

In the spring of 1964, he “acquired” a test prop from a friend stationed at Wright-Patterson AFB in Dayton, Ohio. George Hively, from up the road, lifted one of the engines onto the test stand with his excavator and father fitted the prop with very little difficulty. A week later the engine was plumbed and ready for firing.

On a Sunday in July, in 1964, Dad commenced filling the gravity-feed tanks with all the nutrients he thought the engine would require for a 20-minute test. I was eleven years old and following his activities with laser-like intensity, pitching in where I could. But as the big moment approached, mother called me in to the house. She had been watching the proceedings from the presumed safety of the kitchen window, roughly 50 meters from what she was certain would be the epicenter of a biblical explosion. Though a non-religious person by nature, at one point she wondered aloud if we should call a priest.

I would have none of this incarceration, of course, and if there was a massive catastrophe unfolding, I was determined to have a front-row seat. I sneaked out the back door at an opportune moment and ran around to the side of the garage, where I could see everything but not be seen.

It should be noted that our house was located at the end of a dead-end road, on the north side of a small lake. Shriner Lake is rimmed with homes and cottages, and ringed by an undulating service road. July Sunday mornings, for the inhabitants here, are lazy affairs, with only the odd lawn mower or fishing boat motor disturbing the tranquility.

It was time. Father stood at the rear of the engine and connected the jumper cable to the starter terminal. It engaged, and the prop began to turn. He allowed the engine to turn over for about 30 seconds with no fuel to let oil pressure build. Fuel on, he engaged the starter once more and the engine caught in a few seconds. Flames belched from the tiny exhaust pipes, and Dad leapt to the side to avoid being barbecued. The engine settled into a smooth rumble that I felt in my chest even at 30 feet away. I will never forget the simultaneous expression of terror and victory on the face of my father. 

At idle, the test prop was scattering the leaves in the forest behind it. What would it do, I wondered, when given some stick? Uproot the maples?

Five minutes of idle brought the temperatures up and dad ran it up to quarter throttle. The engine let out a couple of coughs but settled into a steady rhythm. About this time I noticed something odd across the lake, out of the corner of my eye. A pickup with a rotating yellow light was speeding down the lake road on the opposite shore. A volunteer fireman. I wondered whose house was burning. Not far behind him raced another car, and then another, all headed for the highway at breakneck speed.

Half throttle. Temperatures nominal, and ten minutes’ fuel remaining. The engine noise had changed completely, now assaulting not my stomach, but my eyes and ears. For the first time since the engine started, father took his eyes off it and walked a few steps in my direction. Our eyes met, briefly. He spread his arms and looked into the sky with an expression of thankfulness and bliss that I had never seen before. The indescribable roar of the engine, the prop slashing the air, the wash torturing the plant life behind it, all merged into a soup of sensory overload that had completely taken him over.

It was at about this time that the cars started to arrive. George in his Buick. The fireman’s pickup. Many others. Their occupants got out and began to form little groups, pointing and shouting to one another at point blank range in order to be heard.

Three-quarters throttle. Another level of pitch and amplitude. And there was a new sound—a loud, whining, terrifying sound which, I learned later, was the supercharger announcing its presence. The prop spun with such ferocity that I could not imagine why it had not parted from the engine and sliced every building on our road into confetti.

Two cars had parked immediately in front of the wailing engine. Two men were standing together, leaning against one of the cars, and staring. The man on the right had his hands on the shoulders of girl about my age, who stood in front of him, pressed against his body, gazing wide-eyed at the raging propeller. Her hands covered her ears. Had she turned around and looked up at her father’s face she would have seen the corners of his mouth turned downward, and tears flowing down his cheeks. 

Full throttle. About two minutes of fuel left. The short exhaust pipes became flamethrowers, and the stand started to vibrate a little. Dad saw it too, and after a few seconds began throttling the engine back. A minute or so at idle, and then it was all over.

The air was full of the aroma of exhaust gasses, and the snap and crackle of cooling metal. Dad answered questions from some onlookers, who offered their congratulations and then headed for their cars. But the two men and the girl, stationed directly in front of the engine stand, remained. Father introduced himself and shook their hands. They talked quietly for quite a while.

After supper I asked Dad who those men were and why they were crying. He looked down briefly at his empty dinner plate and then told me to come with him back to his bedroom. He reached into his nightstand and pulled out a large, heavy book. It was a collection of photographs and descriptions of the aircraft of World War II. He found some pictures of B-17 bombers and began describing the design, the weapons, and the crew it carried. The men I saw today, he said, flew in these planes during the war—one was a waist gunner, the other a bombardier. But there was one man missing from the group at our house today. He was the brother of the waist gunner, the tail gunner in the same plane, who was killed in action. Dad explained that being the tail gunner in a B-17 was one of the most dangerous jobs in the war. The average life expectancy of a B-17 tail gunner was seven missions. Just seven. For a waist gunner, maybe double that. You never knew.

Dad flipped through the pages of the book until he found a P-51 Mustang. He explained that yes, one man was crying over the loss of his brother, but it was not the whole story. Both men were in tears. Why? Because of this airplane. When flights of B-17s left their bases in England on bombing runs over Nazi Germany, they were joined by squadrons of P-51s, or Spitfires, or Hurricanes that escorted them to their targets and back home again. Every man in every bomber strained to be the first to spot the fighter escort arriving. The fighters were their guardians, their protectors. The machines and the men who flew them were the bombers’ Angels.

Those fighters might have been powered by an Allison like ours, or a Packard, or a Rolls-Royce, but they all had that distinctive sound. An unmistakable wail which unlocked in these two men, 20 years later, a flood of memory that rocketed them to our little lakeside home like moths to a flame. A roar that uncorked tears of gratitude for the sacrifice paid by men and machines they were certain had kept them from harm. And so I gained a new insight into the affair between my father and his mechanical mistress, a new understanding of how sound carries over water, and a reverence for the ties that bind. 

Sadly, Father never finished the car. Art Arfons, from Akron, set a new LSR in his jet-powered Green Monster at around 523 mph. Dad knew he could not beat that and put both engines and his chassis up for sale. The lot was bought by a gentleman in Owensboro, Kentucky, who was part-owner of Miss Bardahl, then the reigning unlimited class hydroplane champion. In hydroplane tune, Allisons and Merlins were revving far higher than they were ever designed to run, and when they blew, which was regularly and spectacularly, they usually killed the driver and sank. Our best guess at the moment is that Dad’s engines are laying somewhere on the bottom of the Ohio River.