Biloxi Days: Chief Johns vs. Major Smith

Biloxi, Mississippi in 1970 was the 3380th Field Maintenance Squadron. We had about 20 separate specialty and trade shops for the various aircraft systems — fuel systems, hydraulics, airframe-structure, while and tire, propulsion, propeller, ground equipment, electrical, egress systems, pilot gear, parachutes, sheet metal, machine, welding, corrosion control and paint, fabric and uniforms, instruments, non-destructive inspection, and a couple others I don't recall. 

We also suffered an ongoing dispute with the flight-line squadron’s officers who we didn’t think were requiring their airmen to do enough of their own basic aircraft maintenance, and were too quick to call an already busy shop specialist for minor things.

I once asked legendary Field Maintenance Superintendent Chief Master Sergeant Ralph Johns how he would handle that problem if he were flight-line superintendent.

“I’d haul the lazy flight chiefs out to the other side of the flight line,” he said, “while aircraft were taking off and landing, and point across at the flight shacks and say to them, ‘See that airman sitting on the bench in front of the flight shack? Start yelling, ‘Get off your ass!’ until he gets off his ass.”

Field Maintenance was getting larger and larger as more technicians were assigned to handle the additional T-28 aircraft, which were being brought in to conduct the foreign pilot (mostly Vietnamese) training during Nixon’s ill-fated “Vietnamization” of the Vietnam war at the time.

Not long after I was made Squadron Commander of the 300-plus military and civilian technicians and support staff that made up the Field Maintenance Squadron, the Chief of Maintenance who had given me the job, Lt. Col James M. Slaughter, retired. Major Odie Smith took his place.

Major Smith was one of a small number of aircraft maintenance officers in the Air Force who had “bootstrapped” into becoming an aircraft maintenance officer. Before going through Officer Candidate School, he had been a senior flightline aircraft mechanic — a Tech Sergeant with about 12 years experience.

By an extremely unusual quirk, while still an enlisted man, Smith had worked for Chief Johns at a previous flight line maintenance assignment.

Johns didn’t like Smith and Smith didn’t like Johns. They had clashed regularly when Smith was a mechanic and Johns was Smith’s boss. Smith still considered himself something of an expert in maintenance procedures, and Johns thought Smith was an officer who was no longer a mechanic and was out of touch with current procedures. 

Johns often said he “hated” officers, especially upstarts like Smith who were now in positions of higher authority than Johns. Johns also considered himself to be a better maintenance manager than Smith and didn’t agree with many of Major Smith’s decisions.

There I was, an inexperienced lieutenant sandwiched between these two intimidating men. Worse for me, I usually agreed with Johns’s position in the disputes he (we) had with Smith.

Johns was intimately familiar with all the applicable aircraft maintenance manuals and regulations. Smith thought he was pretty knowledgeable as well. Several times a week, Johns would show me something in the regs that applied to either Maintenance Control where Smith had moved up from and was defensive about, or the flight line, or both. Often, Johns’s complaints were related to the ongoing dispute about how little we thought the flightline was doing, thus impinging on our limited supply of specialized shop techs who had plenty to do in their own shops without wasting time out on the flight line helping with small stuff that they should be able to do themselves.

I had had some success raising minor points with Smith and the new Maintenance Control officer, Captain Newman, on things like how work order documents were handled and who should be notified when shop techs were called. I felt it was my job to try to press as many of these points as possible for the benefit of my squadron.

In the process, I developed a reputation as being argumentative and obstructionist.

At the same time, however, I had also become pretty good at handling Field Maintenance’s many projects, documents and reports as it was growing and re-organizing and everybody, including Major Smith, saw me as the go-to guy for all kinds of reports and special assignments.

I was irritating — but necessary.

One dispute I recall occurred when Johns showed me a section of AFM 66-1 “USAF Maintenance Management” — “the bible” as we called it — which clearly said that Organizational Maintenance (the flight line) was not to call for specialists unless absolutely necessary. Johns said that I should take the quote from AFM 66-1 and show it to Major Smith and tell him that the flightline needed better training so they’d make fewer calls on us, and that maintenance control needed to screen the calls from the flightline better before just passing them along, then dispatching a shop specialist for such things as aileron adjustments, tire balancing, heater replacements, minor fuel and hydraulic leaks, etc. etc.

Of course, I agreed with Johns, so I marched up to Hangar Three (aka the “Puzzle Palace” where all kinds of orders and rules we didn’t like emanated from) to tell Major Smith that things needed to improve.

My visit did not go well.

“Major Smith, are you familiar with this requirement in Chapter 6, Section 4 where it says Field Maintenance is not supposed to be called unless absolutely necessary?”

“Yeah. So?”

“Let me read it to you, sir. It says, ‘Every effort should be made to…”

Smith (shouting): “DON’T you read the goddamn regs to me, Lieutenant!”

“But sir…”

“Goddamn it, lieutenant! Go back and tell Johns that I’m the Chief of Maintenance and I know the regs and to stop sending you up here for this bullshit!”

“But Chief Johns is right, sir!”

“It’s not a question of who’s right. It’s that we can’t get into an argument about this on every call. We’d never get anything done!”

“How about I draft a policy for you to look over and maybe issue to Maintenance Control and the flightline, sir?”

“Are you deaf? Things are working ok. I don’t need to talk about it anymore. Dismissed!”

But I still kept bringing up problems as I thought necessary because I agreed with Johns and thought things needed to improve. I continued to have some grudging success on some of the issues that arose.

After several months of this — and a lot more, of course — it came time for my Officer Effectiveness Report (OER) which Major Smith had to write. He must have been conflicted to some degree because he generally approved of my work but not of my frequent disagreements.

Fortunately, for me, Major Smith’s boss, Bird Colonel Emery D. Taylor, 3380th Maintenance and Supply Group Commander, liked me and knew of my many accomplishments (ahem — aided of course by Johns) and Colonel Taylor had to endorse whatever Major Smith wrote about me.

Normally, these effectiveness reports were, to say the least, inflated. Most of the time everybody got “outstanding” ratings with wording submitted by the very officer being rated. You had to be a real screw-up to get anything less than “outstanding.”

Officers who wrote OERs did not have to show the report to the person being evaluated. So, Major Smith did not show me my review. I didn’t see it until months later after I had transferred to the base resource and logistics staff office and my new boss there showed it to me.

Major Smith had rated me less than outstanding on three categories (I don’t recall which ones; it didn’t matter). In his narrative summary of my performance he rattled off a few routine statistics and said I was a “good” officer who “deserved consideration for promotion at a later date.”

Most annoyingly, he praised me for having a “can-do attitude.”

I did not have a can-do attitude, it was more like a why-do attitude. I argued with Major Smith a lot. This actually made me laugh — a sort of reverse back-handed compliment.

Then I read the cover sheet prepared by Colonel Taylor who had crossed off the three less-than-outstanding ratings that Smith had given me and instead the Colonel had initialed the “outstanding” box as the endorser, upgrading my OER.

This was an extremely unusual thing for a Colonel to do: overrule a senior officer’s review of a junior officer like me.

In his explanation for his upgraded review, Colonel Taylor had written, “Lieutenant Scaramella is an outstanding young officer and deserves promotion at the earliest possible opportunity.”

Then Colonel Taylor added, “If Lieutenant Scaramella was a higher ranking officer, I would gladly replace the rater with the ratee.”

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