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Tacoma, Washington, United States

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Everday Heroes

In my memory, the next ten days were an exhausting blur of long patrol flights sometimes all day and sometimes all night.  I had been re=assigned as second mechanic and gunner on Gibson’s crew.  When we were not flying we spend long hours maintaining the airplane.  Whenever I was off duty I simply fell onto that cot in the corner of the hangar and went promptly to sleep.  On Christmas Eve we had one of the hunter/killer night patrols.  The next day Gibson roused me around noon.
“Hey, knucklehead,” he said.  “you are sleeping Christmas Day away!  They are serving Christmas dinner at the field kitchen.”
I took my mess kit, ate a Christmas dinner of turkey, dressing, and all the trimmings—which I barely taste, then hit the sack again because we were scheduled for patrol the next morning.  We continued to find nothing out there except empty sky and ocean.
Replacements started coming in—new men and some PBY squadrons from stateside to supplement the few airplanes we were flying around the clock.  VP-22 got new personnel and on December 30th my temporary duty on Ford Island ended and I reported back to VP-11 at Kaneohe.
During my absence, most of the wreckage at Kaneohe had been cleaned up.  The shattered and burned PBY-5s on the ramp had been cut up and sent back stateside as scrap.  The bombed and burned hangar had been cleared and re-construction had begun.  Meanwhile, we operated out of a small hangar located between the bombed No. 1 and the still incomplete No. 2 hangars.
PBY squadron VP-71 had arrived at Kaneohe.  We were to furnish airplane maintenance and relief flight crews while jVP-11 waited for its own airplanes.  The destroyed “country club of the Pacific” was slowly becoming operational again.  I was once more assigned as second mechanic on my old 11-P-11 flight crew with Davenport and with Clark and Willis as pilots.
Richard, Glover, and I spent New Year’s Eve in the station beer garden quietly sipping Acme beer while they brought me up to date.  The senior pilots, most of whom had been ensigns, had been promoted to lieutenants.  Most of the Aps, including our friend Bobby Hines and Max Ricketts, had been given temporary commissions and were not lieutenants junior grade.  The only enlisted pilot not given a commission was a screwball NAP first class named Miller.  His record was not good and he had a reputation for raising hell and getting in trouble with the Shore Patrol on liberty.  Instead of a temporary commission they made him a CPO.  Glover chuckled when related the reason that was given why Miller was not commissioned with the rest.  The selection board simply informed Miller that an officer was a gentleman by act of Congress and they could find no evidence that he was a gentleman!  He was assigned as third pilot on Lt. Clark’s flight crew.
News about our shipmates who had been casualties was depressing.  Our VP-11 dead included AOM3c Buckley, AMM1c Formoe, Ensign Foss, AMM3c Manning, seaman Robinson (an newly arrived recruit), Ensign Smartt who had been the JOOD relieving Foss, and S1c Luther Weaver, Dick’s parachute loft buddy.
VP-11, VP-12, and VP-14 at Kaneohe had lost a total of eighteen dead plus Isaac Lee, a civilian contractor’s employee.  Kaneohe wounded had number sixty-six. 
Our leading chief, “Duke” Byron who had been hit in the belly had been taken to the hospital at Kaneohe on the 7th and a Japanese surgeon had saved his life by removing four or five feet of intestine.  Duke was on the way stateside on a hospital ship and would live.  Our leading yeoman, Ken Nash, had lost an arm.  Joe Crowder, a radioman, had lost an eye.  Most of the many other wounds were relatively minor and the wounded had been or would be returned to duty.
Dick and Glover also related the system that had been set up to recognize acts of heroism on December 7th.  Few officers had been present in the ramp and hangar area and there was no record of individual acts.  The base commander had requested that names of those who had performed in an outstanding fashion be submitted so that commendations could be written up.
“Kee-rist,” Glover had said, “who the hell wants a medal for just doing what we are trained to do?!  There wasn’t any heroes down there—just a scared bunch of knotheads that were mad and trying to fight back!  Hell, they are recommending John Finn of VP-14 for a Congressional Medal of Honor because he stood out on the open ramp with a fifty-caliber and kept shooting after he got a bullet in his arm!  Hell, we all saw old Joe Brooks out there holding a thirty-caliber on his shoulders while someone fired it—the hot barrel burned the skin off his hands.
“You know that radioman, Perry?  Scuttlebutt is that he turned in his own name—probably get a Navy Cross out of it.  Claimed he was out there firing a Springfield rifle and was sure he hit that one we shot down.  Only time I got a glimpse of Perry, he had a rifle all right, but he also was under a bomb truck!  Hell, everybody on the ramp were pumping bullets into the sucker when he came back.  Nobody shot him down—everyone did!”
“Well,” I said, “I know for a fact that it was Dick cut open his belly tank.  I saw his tracers hit and I saw the fuel start streaming out.  Why didn’t you turn in Dick’s name?  That alclad skin wasn’t Any protection—we might as well have been out in the open.”
Richard had been sitting quietly sipping his beer but he jumped on my statement, “BULL—ain’t no one turning in my name for no damn medal!!  Like Glover said, you don’t get a medal for just doing what we are trained to do!  I don’t know how we got out of it without getting hit—we were a dumb couple of country boys to set that gun up in an airplane that wouldn’t catch fire so they just kept on strafing us.  Let the Finns and the Perrys have their tinware—we ain’t no heroes and we don’t want no phony medals.
The three of us got liberty the next day, took the big baby blue LaSalle, drove in to Honolulu, and got more than a little bit drunk.
[Uncle Dick’s children and I have always known our fathers were heroes regardless of what they said about December 7th.  Yes, they did what they were trained to do, but Uncle Dick was an expert marksman and his younger brother kept feeding him ammunition that horrific day.  No one will ever be able to tell us different.  Richard S. Frieze shot down that Zero.]

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