|Photograph of 71-P-7, which became lost and ran out of fuel in January 1942. Picture taken from the USS HULBERT.|
Around midnight, when I went on watch in the cockpit, I found that our supply of Very pistol flares had become exhausted. Our remaining signaling devices were two smoke cans and a small signaling mirror from the emergency kit of the little life raft.
My relief at 0200 had vacated the forward bunk. I fell on it gratefully but lay there wide-eyed. The sea was fairly calm but the airplane still rolled and the twelve-foot swells alternately lifted the wing tip floats, slamming the opposite one down onto the water. The big PBY shuddered with each impact. I wondered just how long the airplane could take that beating and hold together.
I wondered, too, what our chances were of being found. I did not know how many days a search would be kept going when they did not find us at the position we had given. I knew that there were few airplanes to spare from the regular patrols. According to Lt. Clark’s marks of estimated position on the chart, we were drifting slowly away from Hilo harbor so our chances of being spotted by a vessel entering or leaving would be getting smaller. It was disquieting, to say the least.
Rolling restlessly onto my back, I felt something poking me in the rear. It was the little statue of the Laughing Buddha. I pulled it form my hip pocket and fingered the fat belly in the darkness. “Fat lot of luck you brought, you little s.o.b.”, I thought bitterly. “Too bad you are not the left hind foot of a rabbit!” I reached up and flipped the little statue out into the darkness.
The morning of Tuesday, January 6th, dawned relatively clear except for the omnipresent cumulus clouds drifting over the blue Pacific. The wind and the waves remained reasonably calm, but 71-P-7 still pitched and rolled over long heavy swells that were running ten to twelve feet. The far-off green-fringed brown slopes of the Island of Hawaii were tantalizing but we were too far out to see palm trees and surf along the beaches.
We breakfasted on a few spoonfuls of some cold soup (tomato, I think it was) and small pieces of the heavy canned bread washed down with half a cup of water. All cigarettes were gone and the butt cans had been scrounged twice.
We scrambled to the wing and fired a smoke can. The smoke plume was disappointingly small against the vast ocean and dissipated quickly across the swells. When the distant airplane was directly abeam, we fired the remaining smoke flare. The airplane flew steadily onward, dwindling in the far distance, and the sound of the engines faded. We were a dejected crew.
Clark’s theory was that the aircraft was a search plane sent to fly out the line of bearing that Pearl Harbor would have taken on our last transmission. He was sure that it would come back flying the other way and he set all hands to searching the airplane for anything at all that could be used for signaling.
Davenport was stationed in the cockpit to kick the rudder back and forth in the hope that it would catch the morning sun. Willis went up on the wing center section with the little signaling mirror from the life raft. Miller, the nutty AP, and I took station in the waist compartment with a smoke bomb (small brass-nosed wooden bomblet with a recessed impact fuse used to mark the location of submerged submarines) and a ball peen hammer. Our idea was to set the bomb off with the hammer, if we could, and heave it out the waists hatch. I wondered just how much of an explosion the detonator might make.
Rummaging through the fuselage, Herrin came across a non-standard signaling device in the bilges under a bunk. It was similar to a smoke can with a grenade type top but was long and slimmer. It was marked simply “Mark XIV Emergency Signal” with no indication as to its nature. The PPC directed Herrin to rig it in the smoke can handle and stand by on the wing.
After an hour and a half of anxious waiting, we heard the first faint sound of airplane engines coming from the southeast. This time the plane would pass closer to us but still two or three miles off toward the island.
As the airplane neared its point of nearest approach, we went into action. Dave pumped the rudder pedals with all his might. Willis tilted the little mirror back and forth but the sun was at his back. I pounded away at the nose of the smoke bomb held by the AP and cursed in frustration when it refused to ignite. The balance of the crew stood on the fuselage and wing waving jackets and shirts.
Clark tracked the airplane with his binoculars and announced that it was a twin-engine JRS amphibian utility transport. When it was nearly abeam, Clark gave the word to Herrin to fire the device he had. Paul pulled the pin and the fuse snapped over. It was not a smoke can but was a high-powered flare like a roman candle. The an hissed, then instead of smoke form the cap, a fireball shot out the other end (which was pointing down) and went straight into the fabric of the wing trailing edge! It lodged within the wing directly behind the fume-filled starboard gasoline tank and set the wing on fire. The doped fabric burst into flames.
Willis reacted first. The passing airplane forgotten, the co-pilot came down off the wing in one leap and came feet first through the open gun blister. He did not slow as he bowled me over. He snatched a fire extinguisher from the bunk compartment and scrambled back out onto the wing.
Kicking a hole in the burning fabric, Willis inserted the fire extinguisher nozzle and pulled the trigger. The fact that the mixture of smoke and carbon dioxide made a lovely thick trail downwind across the sunlit blue ocean swells went unnoticed and , in our anxiety about the volatile vapors in the fuel tank that might explode, the distant airplane was momentarily forgotten and ignored.
The burning magnesium of the flare died after a few seconds and the CO2 extinguished the burning fabric. We had a two-foot blackened hole in the upper wing surface trailing edge but the fire was out.
While we scrutinized the still-smoking wing for any remaining flame or smoldering, the sound of the airplane engines grew louder. We looked up to see the two-engine Sikorsky biplane coming directly toward us. The pilot had seen the plume of smoke and carbon dioxide from the burning wing.
The JRS banked left into a circle above us. We could see the number 1-J-10 on the side of the nose. An Aldis light started flashing from an aft window of the circling aircraft. Clark went off the wing through the navigator’s hatch and turned on the VHF radio. Before he could transmit, the batteries finally died and the set went dead.
The Aldis light repeated its Morse code message more slowly and we spelled out A-R-E Y-O-U O-K-A-Y ? Willis called out from the wing for our own Aldis lamp to send an answer. Gilbert got the portable light out of the case and plugged it in only to find that, with the airplane batteries dead, the light would not work.
Clark groaned, cursed, and asked if anyone remembered how to send semaphore. I mentally reviewed the semaphore alphabet, unused since boot camp, and got the signal flags from the emergency kit. Atop the wing, Willis and Miller held my legs to steady me upright and I managed to send, “ALL OKAY—NEED GAS.” The Sikorsky acknowledged with the signal lamp and continued circling.
Jubilantly, we turned to making the airplane shipshape. We stowed gear, bailed the bilges, and heaved out garbage. Herrin got the riggers kit and attempted to repair the torn and burned fabric of the wing trailing edge. We were determined to fly that airplane back to Kaneohe to complete our patrol and comply with orders that always ended “…and return to base.
Excerpt from log, USS HULBERT
Tuesday, 6 January 1942
0843 Missing patrol plane reported on water at positon 20-10N, 155-25W. Ceased zig-zagging, changed course left to 101 degrees, changed speed to full, 20 knots, 232 rpm.
0922 Sighted patrol plane 71-P-7 on water bearing 145 degrees true, distant 5 miles
0942 Ensign D.G. Douglas, USNR, and the following named men of the crew of 71-P-7 reported aboard as passengers for further transfer: Gilbert, R.E., RM3/c, USNR; Bruck, L., RM3/c, USNR, and Herrin, P., AMM#/c, USN.
1103 Cast off 71-P-7, both engines ahead two-thirds standard, 10 knots, 119 rpm, circling plane.
1126 Patrol plane 71-P-7 took off.
1130 Changed speed to standard, 15 knots, 171 rpm, set course 124 degrees true and gyro 110 degrees pso. Made daily inspection of magazines, smokeless powder samples, and avgas system. Conditions satisfactory. Avg steam 250 pounds, avg rpm 128.9.
Around nine thirty in the morning, a ship appeared on the northeast horizon and steamed toward us. It proved to be the USS HULBERT, a WWI four-stack destroyer long since converted to seaplane tender. When HULBERT had us in sight, the pilot of the Sikorsky rocked the wings in farewell. We waved gratefully as the JRS banked away and departed in the direction of Pearl Harbor.
The ship lay to off our starboard wing and the skipper called with a loud hailer, “STAND BY FOR A LINE—WE WILL TAKE YOU IN TOW.”
“ROGER,” Clark shouted through cupped hands, “HAVE YOU ANY AVIATIN GASOLINE ABOARD?”
“WE HAVE,” came the reply, “BUT YOU CAN’T TAKE OFF IN THIS SEA—WE WILL TAKE YOU ABOARD AND TOW THE AIRPLANE TO HILO.”
Clark eyed the 14-foot swells over which the airplane and the small ship rolled and pitched. He knew that the PBY would never survive the miles into Hilo under tow and would have to be scuttled. The old bird had taken a bad beating during the rough night landing and the two days on the water.
The PPC shook his head and called back, “NEGATIVE! THE AIRPLANE WILL NOT SURVIVE THAT FAR UNDER TOW. LET US PU OFF PART OF THE CREW AND SOME GEAR, GIVE US THREE HUNDRED GALLONS OF AVGAS, AND WE WILL FLY IT BACK TO KANEOHE. AIRPLANES ARE SCARSE OUT HERE!”
The skipper of the HULBERT agreed reluctantly. “OKAY, LIEUTENANT—BUT IT IS YOUR RESPONSIBILITY. I WILL GO ON RECORD THAT IT IS AGAINST MY ADVICE TO ATTEMPT A TAKEOFF IN THESE SWELLS. STAND BY FOR A HEAVING LINE.”
In rolling sea, it was necessary for the ship to stand clear of our wingtip. Three times a boson’s mate attempted unsuccessfully to throw a heaving line across. Finally, he loaded the monkey-fist of the line into a lie throwing gun. Taking aim to lay the heaving line across the aft fuselage of 71-P-7, he fired.
The monkey-fist, weighted with lead and trailing the light line, scored a perfect hit—smack in the center of our fabric covered rudder! (In the accompanying photograph, taken from the deck of HULBERT, the legs of the man who retrieved the line from the rudder, Paul Herrin, are visible on the tail of the airplane.)
Clark collapsed to a sitting position stop the cockpit and pounded his fist while he roared with laughter. “Hoo-hee,” he gasped, “first we set fire to the damn airplane, and now they are trying to sink us with a line-throwing gun! Someone go get that damned line!”
Herrin scrambled aft along the fuselage to retrieve the line from the torn rudder. I went to the bow and, from the anchor compartment, installed the mooring post to take the tow line. We pulled the heavy tow cable across and made it fast. HULBERT moved ahead dead slow to take up the slack and maintain steerage way.
A rubber raft was put over HULBERT’S fantail and was used to shuttle all our guns, ammunition, and tool boxes to the ship. Meanwhile a fueling line was pulled across. Davenport and I listened to the music of gasoline pouring into the empty tanks. We put 150 gallons in each of the two wing tanks.
There was a conference about who would fly the airplane back. Clark stated that the takeoff would be a piece of cake. He and Willis, of course, would go and Miller insisted on staying aboard. Davenport was still groggy from being seasick and wanted me to handle the tower but he said, “Mr. Clark, Sir—I would be sick as a dog on that old tincan! I want to stay aboard.”
It was agreed that the five of us would stay aboard. Ensign Douglas, both radiomen, and Herrin were shuttled to the Hulbert in the life raft. The airplane was now light as we could get it for the takeoff.
When the transfer operations were completed, we cast off and the Hulbert moved off a hundred yards to stand by during the takeoff attempt. We did a final bailing of the leaky bilges. Davenport reconnected the APU fuel line. I climbed into the tower and opened the fuel tank and flowmeter valves. Below, Dave cranked the putt-putt. The steady popping of the exhaust of that little engine to us had the sound of a Beethoven overture. The panel lights came on as power surged through the airplane and it came alive.
Clark’s quiet voice came on the interphone, “Okay, tower, let’s do it—start Number One.”
Out there on the ocean we had not been able to pull the big propellers through to be sure that oil had not collected in the lower cylinders. Mentally crossing my fingers, I brought the fuel pressure to the port engine up with the wobble pump, primed the engine, and energized the inertia starter to its peculiar high whine. Shoving the mixture control into Full Rich, I said, “Contact One!” and engaged the starter.
The big R-1830-92 coughed as the propeller turned over, fired two or three of its fourteen cylinders as if clearing its throat, then the propeller became that beautiful shining disk in the sunlight as the engine settled into its idling rumble. 71-P-7 was alive! “God bless Pratt and Whitney,” I muttered as I primed the starboard engine.
The Number Two engine also started on the first try despite the abuse at the end of the patrol and the two-day exposure to the ocean elements. Neither Beethoven’s Fifth nor Handel’s Messiah could have been as pleasing to our ears as the duet of those two grumbling power plants.
We taxied slowly in a wide circle over the heaving swells while the oil temperatures came up and Clark assessed wind and wave conditions. Davenport tapped me on the leg and gave the thumbs up sign that the airplane was secured and ready for takeoff. He then hit the bunk below me and braced his feet against the bulkhead.
When the oil temperature needles were both in the green, I thumbed the interphone mike, “Okay, lieutenant,--ready as we are going to get. It’s all yours.”
I yanked my seat belt tight and got a firm grip on the upper handholds as Clark swung the PBY into the wind and Willis advanced power. The sound of the big engines built quickly from a comfortable rumble to a defiantly roaring bellow as the co-pilot adjusted throttles and propeller pitch for maximum RPM and manifold pressure.
We rode up the backside of the first swell with the manifold pressures of both straining engines going off the scale at 52 inches. Pitching over the top of the swell, old 71-P-7 took the second one head-on and shuddered violently as the bow turret buried deep into the water. Plexiglass shattered in a turret panel and seawater sprayed the pilots’ legs. For the only time in my PBY flying career I saw green water rush by outside the tower windows—on both sides. We seemed headed for the bottom of the Pacific.
(The crew members we had put off were watching with the ships’ company from the Hulbert’s rail as we started that takeoff run. Momentarily, all they could see of 71-P-7 was the tip of the high tail fin protruding from a wild welter of white water and spray. The executive officer of HULBERT had his hand on the engine telegraph to call for full speed ahead to come to our rescue.)
That stout and faithful old PBY would not quit. Shaking herself like a wet dog, she burst free of that first swell, gained speed on the down slope, knifed heavily into the next two swells still throwing spray high into the air, bounced hard off the top of the fourth swell and –suddenly and very improbably—we were airborne literally hanging on the props at an incredible 58 knots. Consolidated engineers would have declared our angle of attack to be well beyond a full stall.
Willis was coaxing every possible ounce of power out of the roaring engines while Clark held the PBY in the air by his shoe laces and gently nursed it off the back side of the power curve. I cranked the cowl flaps wide open as the cylinder head temperatures went into the red.
The nose came down from that impossible angle very slowly. We ticked the tops of two more swells, then we were starting to climb and the FLOATS UP light on the annunciator panel flashed on as if in triumph. Willis gradually eased back the power settings until the laboring engines settled into their normal synchronized drone at climb power. Clark made a wide circle and came back over Hulbert where we could see caps waving wildly all over the deck. The PCC rocked the airplane in thanks and set course for Kaneohe Bay.
Two and a half hours later, we banked around Bird Island off Kailua beach and swept triumphantly in across the palm-fringed blue of Kaneohe Bay. We were dirty, tired, unshaven, and hungry. Ragged streamers of fabric fluttered from the scorched wing trailing edge and from the torn rudder. It was a very battered warplane. We were minus half our crew and all our ordnance. We were complying, however, with that final phrase of every combat mission order, “…and return to base.”
--and now you know the rest of the story.
It would be gratifying to record that old 71-P-7 went gallantly on to fight the war and sink enemy submarines and shipping. Unfortunately, that is not to be the case. The day after the beaching gear clanked into place our “leaky tiki” was pulled up onto the ramp dribbling water from the rivet holes from which our pencil pegs had popped during that wild takeoff runk a three-man survey team of engineering officers inspected 71-P-7.
The survey team eyed the tired and sagging wing (the wingtip floats drooped to within fourteen inches of the ground). They looked at the battered bottom of the hull with sprung seams and some of the pencils pegs still protruding from holes where rivets were gone. They walked around the bow with its shattered and bent turret. They climbed onto the work stands and inspected the scorched engines that had been overheated by prolonged lean running then the wrenching effort of that takeoff. Finally, they climbed down and hung a red tag on one beaching gear.
Some of us from 11-P-11 flight crew were on the ramp that morning. We watched as the survey team hung the red tag. A waiting tractor hooked onto 71-P-7 and towed the weary airplane off to the salvage dump. The VP-71 leading chief shook his head and muttered, “Boy, that old bird was fouled up like Hogan’s goat!”
Lieutenant Clark was standing nearby. He looked at the chief petty officer and shook his own head as he said softly, “No, chief, not her—just us. We were the ones fouled up like Hogan’s goat!” He turned on his heel and walked quickly away.
[Ultimately, 71-P-7 was the only casualty of the rough water landing in January 1942. She kept the crew safe.]
[Ultimately, 71-P-7 was the only casualty of the rough water landing in January 1942. She kept the crew safe.]