The Engineer and the B-17 Pilot

The story of a brilliant young engineer and a brave young B-17 pilot, whose fates intertwined in World War II and later at SIFCO

It was 1942, and the world was at war.

A B-17F from the 385th Bomb Group

A B-17F from the 385th Bomb Group

A young pilot named Herb Lawyer, a 1941 graduate from Wheeling High School in Wheeling, West Virginia, was a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army Air Corps. His job was that of airplane commander, charged with the duties of a command post. His post was as pilot of a B-17 “Flying Fortress,” America’s primary bomber in World War II.

First Lt. Lawyer was responsible for nine other men—a co-pilot, flight engineer, bombardier, navigator, radioman and four gunners.

B-17F

B-17F

There was no way for 1st Lt. Lawyer to know about a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) student’s paper that described a technologically revolutionary aspect of the B-17, which he and about a thousand other pilots flew and depended upon.

Diagram of a GE Superturbocharger showing the location of  the SIFCO disk

Diagram of a GE turbosupercharger showing the location of the SIFCO disk

Part of what made the B-17 so special was the GE turbosupercharger that ran off exhaust gases from the airplane engines’ cylinders. Lawyer couldn’t have known that metallurgists at SIFCO had developed a work-hardening technique that enabled the GE turbocharger to withstand stresses from centrifugal forces, high temperatures and heights of 25,000 to 30,000 feet.

Superturbocharger disk after machining

Turbosupercharger disk after machining

That MIT undergraduate was Charles Henry Smith, Jr., whose thesis was on the forging of austenitic stainless steels for the GE turbocharger and its applications. In the preface of his scholarly paper, Smith requested that the readers at MIT not make its contents available to the public, and that the paper would be kept off of the school library’s shelves until, as he wrote, “the ceasing of hostilities in the present world conflict, without first obtaining the permission of the United States Army Air Corps, the General Electric Company, or the Steel Improvement and Forge Company.”

Across the Atlantic, 1st Lt. Lawyer was flying missions over Germany. The average number of missions flown by a B-17 before it was shot down was 11.

“It was considered a miracle if you flew 25 missions,” said Herb Lawyer. “We flew 35.”

Back in the United States, even as a college student, C.H. Smith Jr. knew that his document must not fall into enemy hands. Lives were at stake—lives such as B-17 pilot Herb Lawyer and his crew members.

Soon after he wrote that paper, and six months after leaving MIT with a bachelor’s degree in science, Smith would be thrust into presidency of SIFCO when his father, C.H. Smith Sr., died unexpectedly from a heart attack on Dec. 22, 1942. The young Smith suddenly became part of the same war effort as 1st Lt. Lawyer.

When the war ended, citizen Herb Lawyer needed to find work. The stories of SIFCO and Herb Lawyer would again be intertwined in peacetime.

“One of my old schoolmates had heard about a plant doing government work,” Lawyer said, so he applied at SIFCO and was hired as a production control clerk in June 1946. The war hero recalled that he “rented a tiny house on E. 93rd St.” He would later purchase a home in South Euclid.

Herb Lawyer at SIFCO

Herb Lawyer at SIFCO

Herb Lawyer would go on to become production manager of SIFCO in 1948, and ultimately production control manager in 1978. After 42 years of service to SIFCO, he retired in 1988.

During his time at the company, Lawyer estimates that he “managed the production of thousands of parts over the years.”

And as for that young engineer who wrote the paper on the GE Turbosupercharger made with parts from SIFCO? “Charlie Smith Jr. did a great job with SIFCO during and after the war,” said Herb Lawyer.

Asked what that student might say about former 1st Lt. Lawyer, Jeffrey Gotschall, nephew of C.H. Smith Jr., speculated: “Herb was meticulous and watched over all the work that each customer needed. I think Chuck would have said that if Herb was involved, he would know that the task would get done on time.”

That seems likely, for the two men did that very thing for each other, one in the sky, one on the ground, when their paths crossed, unbeknownst to both of them . . . many years before, when the world was at war.