Harvey Rapp kept America’s biggest bomber flying

A couple of B-36 bombers are pictured on a practice bombing mission during the 1950s somewhere in the world as part of the U.S. Strategic Air Command’s deterrence. Photo provided

Harvey Rapp’s job was to keep the biggest bomber this nation ever built in the air. The B-36 was an eight-engine Goliath that could fly non-stop from anywhere in the United States to Europe drop its bombs and return without refueling.

The Cold War was on, it was 1953 when the 20-year-old Pennsylvania recruit joined the Air Force and became an Aero Space Ground Equipment Specialist. He wound up as a mechanic in the 92nd Bomb Wing based at Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane, Wash. It was a B-36 Squadron, part of Gen. Curtis Le May’s Strategic Air Command.

“The B-36 was the biggest bomber we ever built in the United States. It was 127,643 pounds unloaded and more than twice that with fuel, bombs and crew aboard,” the 76-year-old Port Charlotte man explained. “It had a wingspan of 230 feet, a fuselage of 163 feet and a tail that stood 46 feet off the ground.”

The super bomber was powered by six 3,500 hp. Wasp propeller-driver engines mounted in reverse on the trailing edge of the wings. Added later were two jet pods on the bomber’s wing tips.

It could fly at an altitude of 40,000 feet at a top speed of 347 mph. Armed with 15 guns the ranged in size form .50-caliber to 37-millimeter, the B-36 was a formidable opponent. It could carry 72, 1,000-bombs and deliver them 10,000 miles away.

“If I remember correctly, a B-36 flew from the East Coast of the U.S. to the Philippines, some 12,000 miles away, without refueling,” Rapp said.

Being part of SAC was tough duty. You were on call 24-7. You might hop a plane to the other side of the world for a showdown with the Russians. It was rough on an airman’s digestion.

“We were playing all these war games all the time. One time it was pay day and we were partying. About 2 a.m. the phone rang and I picked it up,” Rapp recalled. “There was a sergeant on the other end who said ‘Broken Arrow’ and hung up.

“That was a secret code that gave us one hour to get back on base, get our AWOL bag packed and be ready to go,” he said. “We left the base in Spokane headed for the Pacific and didn’t come back for three months.

“The 33 bombers in our B-36 squadron were sent to Guam to take part in the dropping of a hydrogen bomb on Eniwetok. Once we dropped the bomb that Sunday morning, we were told to pack up. We were going home,” he said.

When he returned home his wife didn’t recognize him. He looked like a prisoner from a World War II German concentration camp. He had lost 30 pounds working in the heat on the flight line in the Pacific.

When the 92nd Bomb Wing got back to Spokane their world was turned upside down. It was no longer a B-36 squadron. Their unit had graduated to B-52 jet bombers that could fly faster and higher than their bigger predecessors.

What Rapp recalls most about the B-52 was that it was easier to maintain than the B-36. It was also less noisy than the propeller-driven giant. B-52s made a shriller sound taking off and landing than the B-36.

This is Harvey Rapp when he graduated from boot camp in 1953 as a 20-year-old airman. Photo provided

Despite all the training and all the war games, SAC wasn’t perfect. When the secret bomber wings screwed up it did it in a big way. The headline of a decades old newspaper story on yellow newsprint reads: ‘H-bomb dropped accidentally.’

The Associated Press story goes on to say, “…a 42,000 pound hydrogen bomb, one of the most powerful ever made, accidentally fell from a B-36 bomber near Albuquerque, N.M. on May 22, 1957.”

The mishap was cloaked in secrecy and never made the papers. It wasn’t until 20 years afterward that The Albuquerque Journal uncovered the incident through the Freedom of Information Act.

“There was no nuclear blast … when the Mark 17 hydrogen bomb hit the ground and detonated 4 1/2 miles south of Kirtland Air Force Base’s control tower,” the paper reported. “No one was injured when the bomb hit an uninhabited area creating a crater about 12 feet deep and 25 feet in diameter.”

If the bomb’s trigger mechanism had been in place, the Mark 17 could have produced the largest nuclear explosion on American soil. It would have been many times the size of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima during World War II.

What about Rapp’s boss, Gen. Curtis LeMay?

“He was a tough cigar-smoking general. They tell the story about the time an enlisted man walked up to him and told him to put out his cigar while they were refueling an airplane because the plane might blow up,” Rapp said. “His reply, ‘It wouldn’t dare!’ That was LeMay.

“I never talked to him personally. But on two occasions he flew into our base unannounced and declared an emergency. No civilian plane was supposed to land at a SAC base because it could be carrying an atomic weapon. He landed on our base in a commercial plane,” Rapp said. “The general declared an emergency on the base and froze all the phones. Then he went to the wing commander’s office and fired him.

“I remember he got off his airplane this one time right outside our hanger. He came walking right through where I was standing doing some paper work. I looked up and there was LeMay. He put his finger up to his lips to caution me to be quiet and not alert the other men,” Rapp said decades later.

“While I was at Fairchild Air Force Base with the new B-52 squadron they took the B-52 and flew them around the world non-stop. It was all part of a program to get the Russians to spend all kinds of money on military equipment trying to keep up with us. It eventually bankrupted them,” he added.

Harvey Rapp looks at a booklet on his favorite bomber. It’s called “B-36 in action.” He has lived in Port Charlotte for more than two decades. Sun photo by Don Moore

After four years in the Air Force, Rapp’s wife convinced him to get out of the service. She couldn’t stand being a military wife.

He took a job in the civilian sector that didn’t agree with him. So he went back to work for the Air Force as a civilian employee.

“Working on the outside for money was very, very boring,” Rapp said. “You had no sense of accomplishment.”

When he rejoined the Air Force he wore no military uniform. Rapp became a mechanic who trained young airmen how to maintain heavy equipment as part as a civilian member of the 514th Troop Carrier Wing at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey.

“We were very supportive of everything the Air Force was doing around the world. Over the years I trained 200 guys to maintain equipment. They eventually worked all over the world for the service,” he said. “On my birthday they would wish me happy birthday and things like that. I had a job that was really fulfilling. It was like being a school teacher.”

After 26-years as a civil employee of the Air Force, Rapp retired at 55 in 1988. He and his late wife, Rose Marie, moved to Port Charlotte. They have four children: Ann Sanborn, Thomas Rapp, Jean Marie Detrich and Saralee McCloskey.

Rapp’s File

Name: Harvey E. Rapp
D.O.B: August 19, 1933
Hometown: Butler County, Pennsylvania
Current: Port Charlotte, Florida
Entered Service: 1953
Rank: Sergeant
Unit: 307th Bomb Wing, 92nd Bomb Wing, SAC
Married: Rose Marie (deceased)
Children: Ann Sanborn, Thomas Rapp, Jean Marie Detrich, Saralee McCloskey

This story first appeared in print in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Monday, July 5, 2010. It is republished with permission.

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