Staff Sgt. Rex Gates, Glenrock
Unit: 99th Service Squadron, 365th Fighter Group, Ninth Air Force. Gates was in the Eighth Air Force when he first arrived overseas.
War fronts: Served as a P-47 mechanic with a mobile unit from 1942 to 1945 in Europe, including the Battle of the Bulge. Gates also passed through Buchenwald concentration camp.
Family: Married 61 years; has three children, 7 grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren.
His words: Gates’ mobile unit came upon a liberated Buchenwald concentration camp on their way back to base after picking up a P-47 one day. He remembers seeing hundreds of people on the road, nowhere to go, “no nothing.” The Americans were trying to feed them. “I’m pretty skinny right now after all my surgeries and all, but I’m fat compared to the people that were in there. It was a terrible sight and hard to imagine that human beings could be treated that badly.”
On the Web: Watch more of Gates’ story and see profiles of other veterans at www.trib.com/honor
Next week’s profile: For more than 60 years, Tim Workman tried to forget the war. But when historian Hugh Ambrose asked to hear his story, the former Marine Raider sat at his typewriter and let himself remember.
Rex Gates has a couple photos from that day. Here’s one of a burned-out fuselage, Gates standing on top, next to a rudder with a swastika painted on its side.
He was in the German airfield with his unit, there to disassemble a German Me 262.
For most of the war he worked on P-47s, heavy fighter planes used for ground troop support and low-level bombing. But now, at war’s end, Gates and his unit were asked to tend to the twin-engine German bomber, prepare it for shipment to the U.S. He thinks they wanted it as a souvenir. One of Gates' buddies snapped photographs.
For 40 years, Gates never heard another word about it.
Gates was assigned to a mobile unit, what he calls a “shop on wheels.” When base got word of a downed P-47, the team of 12 men set out with their two trucks, Jeep, tools and welding equipment to repair or salvage it. If the plane was in bad shape, they’d disassemble the parts and bring them back to base.
When the unit reached a plane, the electrician inspected it for booby traps. Several times there was something to disarm, set by Germans who knew someone would be coming back for plane parts.
Gates can think of only two times his unit was able to repair a plane well enough for a pilot to fly it out. Pilots loved their planes, Gates said, like a kid and his first car. They didn’t want to see their planes disassembled. Many times, it came to that.
Gates was a Missouri farm boy who knew how to do a little of everything, including mechanic work. His pre-war training in Los Angeles taught him the basics of airplane repair. But much of the work had to be learned on the job.
His specialty was cable controls, parts that allow the flaps and rudder to move. When the propeller man got hurt in a Jeep accident, Gates learned to do his job, too.
On average, a single mission took six to eight days. Gates can remember one assignment that took five or six weeks, when they converted a P-51 to a reconnaissance plane in England.
Always, it was the same 12 men -- farm boys, college graduates, a football coach, a baseball player, a kid who grew up on a reservation. Distinctly different lives pulled together by war.
“From Laurel, Mississippi, until the war ended -- two and a half years with the same bunch, day in and day out.”
The mobile unit traveled to the planes, wherever they went down. To confuse the Americans and prevent supplies from reaching the front lines, Germans flipped the road signs. But Gates had a good sense of direction.
“They didn’t lose me very many times,” he said.
One of the last planes Gates disassembled was that Me 262, in a German airfield that had been captured during war.
In 1985, the 99th Service Squadron, 365th Fighter Group had its first reunion. A man from Alabama was there. He had taken pictures that day in the airfield.
“Somehow,” Gates said, “he got word that German plane was at the Smithsonian.”
The man took his pictures to the institute. The numbers on the Me 262 he photographed matched those on a plane they had acquired.
“This was 1986, 40 years later,” Gates said. “That plane was still in a warehouse somewhere there at the Smithsonian. It had never been reassembled.”
As years passed, fewer people came to the reunions. It was harder to travel, the veterans were getting older. The service squadron held its last one in 2002. Now, Gates knows of only four men who are still alive.
He called the man from Alabama a while back to see if he knew anything more about their bomber at the Smithsonian.
“I called too late,” Gates said. “He was gone.”
Gates doesn’t know the numbers written on the side of the plane. Perhaps the man’s wife still has the photographs. She’d be near 90 now, Gates said.
Online, the Smithsonian describes a German Me 262 now on display and the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. It was captured on an airbase, just as Gates’ bomber had been.
But this one was taken in Lechfeld, Germany. The one Gates worked on was much further north, he said. Gates doesn’t think the one on display is his.
Gates has often wondered what happened to that bomber. He guesses it’s probably still there at the Smithsonian, in a warehouse, waiting to be put back together.
They served with honor
Some have said that 1,000 World War II veterans die each day in United States. History dies with each one.
"They served with honor" is a special project by the Star-Tribune to collect stories from Wyoming World War II veterans. We will feature one story each week, from Veterans Day to Veterans Day.