Tailor Made - Hans Billerbeck
By SSgt Nathan Wallin, 128ARW/PA
/ Published April 26, 2010
MILWAUKEE -- If you are one of the 900-plus Airmen stationed at Milwaukee's 128th Air Refueling Wing, chances are you've been issued your four sets of the new Airman Battle Uniform. Chances are you've also been issued the requisite stripes, name tapes and "U.S. AIR FORCE" tapes for these new uniforms.
But before you can don the Air Force's new utility uniform, you need to have everything stitched together and squared away. This is where Milwaukee tailor Hans Billerbeck enters the equation.
Billerbeck's tailor shop at 3116 S. South Kinnickinnic Ave. is but a short 10-minute drive from the base. Upon entering Billerbeck's shop the first thing you'll see is the abundance of ABUs that line the walls. There are so many sets of ABUs in Han's shop it could easily be mistaken for the Retail Sales counter in the supply warehouse on base. It appears as if everyone from the 128th has brought their uniforms to Hans to have them stitched up.
Billerbeck estimates that the recent deluge of ABU stitch work accounts for at least half of his business. When asked how many uniforms he has sewn up in the past couple of months, Billerbeck laughs to himself and ventures a guess, "Hundreds, gosh. A couple hundred at least."
Billerbeck takes time to make sure each uniform is up to standard, "I spend a good half-hour at least to 45 minutes per uniform," he said. His eye for detail and accuracy requires a meticulous approach to his work.
When he lines up the rank insignia for the sleeve, he uses the crease down the middle of the arm to properly line up the stripes. If there isn't a crease, Billerbeck takes the extra step to press the uniform and create the crease down the sleeve so that he can accurately line up the stripe.
Billerbeck was working on a uniform when Airmen from the 128th's Public Affairs Office arrived to interview him. "I put the chevron right in the middle," Billerbeck told an Air Force journalist when he explained his method.
For each ABU top, Billerbeck sews on a minimum of four items: 1) the name tape above the right chest pocket; 2) the US AIR FORCE tape above the left chest pockets; 3, 4) and a stripe on each sleeve. Hans also sews on the job-specific Functional Badges if it is so required.
Learning the trade
Billerbeck was born in Germany just south of Hanover. When he was a young man, he spent four years studying in a tailor shop learning the methods and ways towards becoming a skilled tailor. "That's where I learned my trade," he told an Air Force journalist.
In 1960 he emigrated from Germany to the United States when he applied for a job at St. John's Military Academy in Delafield. A family member who worked as a barber at St. John's told Hans of a job opening in the uniform department. "They need a tailor to manage the tailor shop," Hans said. Hans was chosen for the job and St. John's sponsored the 22-year-old tailor so he could travel to the U.S.
Billerbeck spent the next 12 years running the uniform department at the Delafield military academy, "that's why I'm so good with uniforms," he explained.
After retiring from St. John's in 1972, Han's bought the building on the corner near S. Kinnickinnic and S. Oklahoma Ave. on Milwaukee's south side. He's been there ever since.