A VERY BRIEF STRIKE
A labor disagreement of short duration occurred on a frigid Sunday morning early in 1944 at Pratt Army Air Field, Pratt, Kansas. The 40th Bomb Group had new, Boeing B-29 type aircraft that needed many modifications to make them combat ready. General Hap Arnold set a deadline for the group's departure to a war zone overseas, and work continued around the clock at a frantic pace to meet the deadline.
Before moving to Pratt, personnel of the 40th Bomb Group survived harsh living and working conditions in a hot climate while stationed at different bases in the Caribbean Theater. Weather at Pratt was exactly the opposite, and could best be described as atrocious. Working conditions were so horrible that the term Battle of Kansas soon became a common description of life there. Air temperature and chill factor often fell below zero on the flight line, and it was not much warmer inside the hangars where wind was not a factor. Ice and snow on the aircraft was a serious problem for the men who had to work outside. Strong winds blowing across the base formed large snow drifts on the parking ramps.
A task force of civilian technicians and mechanics worked with the military maintenance men in the race against time. The civilian force was composed of Boeing factory personnel, aircraft and engine experts from Wright Field, and several dozen mechanics from the modification center of the Bechtol, McCone and Parsons Company, Birmingham, Alabama. Since most of these civilians came from the South, they found the severe winter in Kansas to be torturous.
The Union leader of the civilians was a small man who frequently complained about his assignment. He did not care for: the weather (we agreed); the military chow (we ate the same food); the GI winter clothing (we wore the same type clothes); the lack of entertainment (Kansas was a dry state). Above all, he disliked the forceful supervision his union members received from the 45th Bomb Squadron Chief of Maintenance M/Sgt. Britton O. Vick. We understood why M/Sgt. Vick was under so much pressure to make our planes combat ready, so we did not blame him for being heavy-handed while trying to get the civilians to work harder and faster.
M/Sgt. Vick was tall, rawboned, vocal, and presented an imposing figure with a stern look. Patience was not one of his virtues. His nickname, The Big Hammer, was used only when he was not present. Rumor had it that he earned that title by dragging some unruly recruit behind a hangar and physically convincing him that Vick was the boss.
Early one Sunday morning, the Union leader and his men came into the squadron hangar, and approached M/Sgt. Vick who was helping to place a hydraulic jack under a plane while holding a three-foot long jack handle in his hand. The Union leader informed M/Sgt. Vick in a low voice and hesitant manner that he was calling a strike. He claimed working conditions were not acceptable to his team. Having said that, he gained confidence, and in a firm voice demanded to see the Group Commander to explain his grievance. When all this became clear to the sergeant, his face turned a bright crimson color.
Then he ripped off a stream of profanity aimed mainly at the Union leader's ancestors. He paused to catch his breath, raised the steel jack handle over his head and bellowed, "I'm giving you bastards thirty seconds to get back to work. NOW MOVE! If you don't, here's what's going to happen to you." Vick's massive right hand flung the jack handle to the concrete floor. It bounced high into the air and clattered against the metal hangar wall. Suddenly, it became deathly quiet in the hangar. The Union leader was motionless as M/Sgt. Vick towered above him with a fierce scowl on his face and clenched fists on his hips.
The Union leader turned to his men and muttered a few words that were not audible to M/Sgt. Vick. They picked up their tool boxes and moved quickly to their assigned jobs. The strike never developed. A strike was never again considered during The Battle of Kansas.
* From Ira V. Matthews' Eighty-one War Stories. *