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Flying High With Memories

Joe and Annette LoSardo have assembled a miniature hall of fame of Connecticut-made aircraft in their Monroe basement. Near the family pictures, pool table and billiard sticks with their granddaughters' names stand photos of the F-4U Corsair, the Sikorsky S-41 "Flying Boat" and other aircraft the couple helped to build at a sprawling Stratford factory. Joe LoSardo is one of a dwindling number of veterans and former factory workers in the greater Bridgeport area with vivid memories of the Corsair, which came to be nicknamed "Whistling Death," this Memorial Day weekend. The Corsair fighter, which helped turn the tide against the Axis powers during World War II, will symbolize the resolve of America's armed forces, and the industrial might that supported them, during a salute marking the 60th anniversary of the war's end at Sikorsky Memorial Airport in Stratford next weekend.

Against the backdrop of World War II, as young workers were drafted from the Stratford aircraft factory's floors into the military, employees were expected to learn quickly, Joe LoSardo recalled.

"As soon as you got there, you were taught what to do," said LoSardo, a one-time foreman at the wartime plant. "Eventually, you got to be an expert."

During the era's long work shifts, the couple and thousands of other factory workers made the best of it. "You worked 10 hours a day, or at night. You didn't have a lot of time for yourself," Joe LoSardo said. "Sometimes you'd get out of work at 6 a.m., go and have breakfast, go to the movies in the morning, get some sleep and then go right back to work."

LoSardo was making 40 cents an hour when he signed up to work at the defense factory a bit more, he points out, than friends working at office jobs in New York City at the time. "In those days, you were happy to have a job," he recalled of the economy in the late 1930s.

And the two factory workers had the additional bonus of meeting someone special near the water fountain.

"There was an aisle in front of me where the fountain was, and Rosie the Riveter here came up to get a drink," said Joe LoSardo, 88, gesturing toward his wife. The couple has now been married 60 years. The factory setting also gave women the opportunity to join the work force in record numbers, Annette LoSardo, 80, pointed out. "It gave women a unique opportunity to be able to do this kind of work," she said. At the height of the war, the Chance-Vought operation in Stratford was making at least eight Coarsairs daily. In total, more than 12,500 of the aircraft were built. The complex, which in recent years has been known as the Stratford Army Engine Plant, was completed in 1929 as a Sikorsky Aircraft plant, and was used primarily to build the "Flying Boat" until 1939, according to Lewis Knapp, former Stratford town historian.

United Aircraft, which owned Sikorsky, moved its Chance-Vought division into the complex, where it remained until most of the operations were moved to Texas in 1948 and '49.

The plant's main wartime product, the Corsair, recently was accorded the distinction of being declared the official state aircraft by Gov. M. Jodi Rell and the General Assembly.

The plane will be the centerpiece of the Veterans Salute Weekend, June 3-5, at the airport.

Jerry O'Neill, a Cheshire resident who is one of the festival's organizers, said Sikorsky Memorial Airport is the perfect place to host the air. The event will feature a range of programs and displays saluting both WWII veterans and the workers who made the aircraft.

"We wanted to put [the airplane] on display as part of the weekend," he said. "Well, the Corsair was built here, and the entire infrastructure is still near the airfield."

Don Richardson, a Stratford resident who worked as an engineer at the Corsair plant from May 1942 to January 1947, remembers the aircraft went through growing pains before evolving into the first plane to fly 400 mph. In the Corsair's early days, "the only guys that could handle the plane were experienced pilots," he said. Eventually, Richardson said, engineering crews were able to surmount the early handling and landing problems to make it an effective wartime aircraft. The plane was so fast for its time, in fact, that a test pilot aiming to land his Corsair in the Hartford area once found himself well off course in Massachusetts, Richardson said.

The Corsairs "were fast enough to get out of trouble, if they needed to, but it was wild and wooly for the test pilots," he said.

Another man who helped work out the kinks in the early Corsair models was Hank Merbler, once a Vought-Sikorsky factory worker and now the president of the Vought Aircraft Heritage Foundation. Designers eventually changed the shape of the plane's cockpit and the size of its wheels and legs. Its abnormally large propeller and engine remained intact, Merbler said. "We knew we had one hot aircraft," he said. Tom Ray, a Southbury resident, flew the Corsair near the end of his service as a Navy pilot from 1942-45. Marine Corps pilots made the aircraft live up to its nickname of "Whistling Death," as the Japanese called it. "The first people it went to were the Marines," he said. "And they built a hell of a good reputation with it." As for his own experiences with the Corsair, Ray gave the plane high marks. "It handed very well," he said. "As compared with other planes I flew, the visibility was very good."

Frank Washkuch Jr., who covers Stratford, can be reached at 330-6287.



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Last modified: September 18, 2012

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