William C. Pannill, crane operator, dies

World War II veteran and longtime crane operator spent decades toiling high over the city

  • William C. Pannill
William C. Pannill
May 24, 2011|By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun | Baltimore Sun reporter

William Clay Pannill, a World War II veteran and retired crane operator who during his 40-year career worked on many significant Baltimore-area construction projects, died Friday of dehydration at Carroll Lutheran Village in Westminster.

He was 92.

Born in Raccoon Ford, Va., the son of a steam shovel operator and a homemaker, he was raised on the family farm in Culpeper, Va., and was a graduate of public schools.

In an unpublished biographical sketch, Mr. Pannill wrote that growing up on a rural farm in Virginia during the Depression of the 1930s was "pretty rough."

"I remember once we were selling pigs for a dollar a piece and the buyer said, 'I'm not paying a dollar for that little runt over there.' We said, 'take him for seventy-five cents,'" he wrote.

"We had no tractor and no electricity. We worked the farm by horses. Sometimes we hired people to work on the farm for 50 cents a day, all grown people. They would walk a mile or two to get to work," he recalled. "We had about eight cows, four or five horses, and fifty or sixty sheep."

Mr. Pannill said his mother did a great deal of canning. They separated their milk and by week's end had a "five gallon can of cream that we'd take to town to sell. We also sold wool."

He began his construction career in 1938, when he went to work for Empire Construction Co. in Eldersburg, working on the construction of the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

In 1941, Mr. Pannill joined Local 37 of the International Operating Engineers and was working as a backhoe operator at Fort Holabird when he was drafted into the Army. He later volunteered to transfer to the Army Air Corps.

"I worked as an operator for about six months before I went into the service. When I first started operating, top rate was $72 for forty hours," he wrote.

Mr. Pannill was sent to the Philadelphia School of Aeronautics, where he was trained as a flight engineer and subsequently was stationed in Dallas and Miami.

"In the beginning, my pay was $21 a month. When I became a PFC [private first class] I was getting $36 per month. That was before Pearl Harbor," he wrote. "I was sitting on my bunk in Biloxi, Mississippi, when I heard about the Pearl Harbor attack. Everybody said, 'Where the heck is Pearl Harbor?'"

As a flight engineer with the Army's Air Transport Command, Mr. Pannill flew to Canada, Iceland, England, South America, the Azores, Africa, Yemen and India, delivering warplanes and military personnel.

"During most of the war, we were taking B17s and B24s across the North Atlantic. I crossed the ocean 58 times. We delivered planes right from the factory," he wrote.

"Later, we were flying C54 Sky Master cargo planes to India and back. One night, we were bringing back an old plane that had been shot up. We had to fly at night across Africa because of the German patrols," he wrote.

Mr. Pannill was discharged in 1945 with the rank of technical sergeant.

After the war, he worked as a master mechanic, long boom and crane operator. He was employed for 17 years with the Arundel Corp., and later with the Bethlehem Steel Corp. erection department at Sparrows Point, Bechtel Corp. and finally Whiting-Turner Construction Co., from which he retired in 1981.

"I ran everything they had, even that old floating rig they called The Crow. I also ran the Safe Harbor and Conowingo, which were also water rigs," he wrote.

Mr. Pannill's specialty was the operation of tower cranes, and during his 40-year tenure he worked on some of the most significant construction projects in Baltimore and Maryland.

He worked on the building of Interstates 83 and 95 and the Key Bridge. Buildings he worked on in downtown Baltimore included the International Business Machines building, Holiday Inn, Mercantile Safe Deposit & Trust Co., Maryland National Bank building and the National Aquarium.

Mr. Pannill worked four years constructing the Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant in Southern Maryland. He also worked on the building of Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. power plants at Riverside, Westport, Gould Street, Carroll Island and H.A. Wagner.

"Bill could handle anything and always worked on a lot of big jobs," said William L. "Bill" Kirchhoff, who first got to know Mr. Pannill as an apprentice oiler in 1947. "He was skilled and a true professional at his trade and always followed all the rules."

Mr. Kirchhoff, who later took a position with Local 37 of the International Operating Engineers, said that Mr. Pannill was very popular with his co-workers as well as bosses and was known for keeping his equipment as "immaculate as his living room."

A daughter, Linda Susanne Pannill, said her father was the first to operate a tower crane in Baltimore.

"That was when they were building the Holiday Inn and the crane sits in the middle and is raised as the building goes up," said Ms. Pannill, who lives in Lexington, Ky.

"He had a straight-up climb of 200 feet. He said he saw a lot of Baltimore history from up there and recalled seeing the flags being lowered the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and the Baltimore riots," she said.

She added: "He never had an accident during his career and got the big jobs because he was so careful."

Ms. Pannill said that union officials presented her father with his 70-year pin shortly before his death.

The former longtime Catonsville resident, who had lived at the Westminster retirement community for 31/2 years, was a member of Catonsville United Methodist Church and the American Legion.

Services were held Tuesday at the Sterling Ashton Schwab Witzke Funeral Home.

Also surviving are his wife of 68 years, the former Mary Arrington; two sons, William Stephen Pannill of Elkton and Philip David Pannill of Sharpsburg; another daughter, Judith Pannill Raiford of Jenks, Okla.; six grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.


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