SHREVEPORT, La. -- He fixed it all, from aircraft to chow hall equipment. And for some of his Air Force career, Elbert Minniefield was our military's only machinist south of the lower 48. That made him crucial during dangerous U.S. operations in Central America in the 1980's.
"Those were the longest three days and two nights of my life," Elbert recalls from his dispatch to El Salvador.
He was sent from his base in Panama. The US was engaged in covert operations to help the Salvadoran government in its bloody fight against Soviet and Cuban backed rebel forces.
"Everybody's got a AK (rifle) on their shoulder from 10 years up," Elbert said. "So you didn't know who the enemy was.
He remembers a line of hundreds of American contractors, desperate for a plane.
"I kind of had a tear in my eye because they were trying to get out. And I knew I could get out. But I had a mission to do."
Elbert, then a tech sergeant, was sent there to get small, U.S. supplied attack aircraft back in the skies.
"The people coming down to see what the problem was were congressmen, senators, generals, colonels. And when they saw me, they said, 'Now we're getting an enlisted man. When are we going to get some help?'
"And I said I'm the lowest person you've got coming down. But you're going to get some help from me," Elbert says he vowed.
He figured out the problem with the planes engines -- stripped spark plug holes. It was a simple fix.
"I give them my hela coil kits and they installed hela coils in the spark plug holes and they could put spark plugs back in there," Elbert explained.
Elbert was also called on during testing of the president's new so-called Doomsday Plane -- a flying command post. There was a problem deploying the long worldwide communications antenna that's coiled inside.
Again, Elbert knew an easy fix.
"I connected the computer to the spool by making a bushing to fit the shaft," he says.
And he received a glowing commendation letter.
"'He is the most valuable non-commissioned officer of this grade in maintenance,'" Elbert read from a letter from an Air Force officer.
Much of Elbert's 26 years in the Air Force was spent making machines work again -- sometimes in places where the right parts were hard to get.
"I'd kind of copy the old part or duplicate the old part," Elbert says of his machinist skills. "If you get a part close, I'd make a part work."
Throughout his career, he remembered these words: "Figure out a way to fix it so the troops can go home to their family," Elbert says.
He retired as a chief master sergeant in 1999 with lots of stories. Elbert returned to his home area of Shreveport and did more mechanical work for Beaird, LSU Health Sciences Center, and the US Postal Service.