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Tacoma, Washington, United States

Saturday, September 24, 2016

First War Patrol

Chapter 26

December 1941

The thirty of us from Kaneohe were taken by truck to the Pearl Harbor Naval Base where the motor launch would take us to Landing A on Ford Island.  The boat, normall spick and span in grey paint and shined brass works, was filthy with oil and blood from picking up bodies and debris in the oil covered, wreckage strewn waters.

We stared in silent awe as the boat crossed to the island.  The tall tripod mast of the ARIZONA leaned at an angle above the sunken hull of the battleship.  The dull red bottom of the capsized OKLAHOMA was sprinkled with the blue-white flares of cutting torches in the on-going attempt to cut through to men still strapped inside the battered ships, only some of which I could identify—WEST VIRGINIA, CALIFORNIA, TENNESSEE, MARYLAND.

In the big dry-dock in East Loch, the wreckage of the destroyers CASSIN and DOWNES leaned against each other, trapping the battleship PENNYSLVANIA, flagship of the Pacific Fleet, in the damaged dry-dock.  Over beyond Ford Island was the battered bulk of the NEVEDA which had been the only battleship to get under way during the attack.  Under intense dive bombing, NEVADA had been beached on Hospital Point rather than be sunk blocking the narrow entrance to the harbor.  The waters of the bay were covered with a thick scum of oil and pieces of wreckage.  Motor whaleboats were everywhere picking up the flotsam and still occasionally pulling aboard an old covered body.
Not a word was spoken in our group until the boat desposited us at Landing A.  As we debarked onto the wide concrete landing we walked past a row of tarpaulin covered bodies that had been pulled from the bay.  From behind me I heard someone mutter bitterly, “God damn the sons-a-bitches!”
No time was wasted.  We were escorted to our living quarters that were a roped-off corner of the least badly damaged PBY hangar on the island.  Rows of folding cots had been set up.  Since the Ford Island barracks were overflowing with survivors, the corner of that hangar was where we would sleep while maintenance work on airplanes was done.  The windows of the hanglar had been painted black so that work could continue twenty-four hours a day.
As soon as we had deposited our ditty bags (I had brought only a spare suit of dungarees and one white uniform) on a chosen cot, we lined up at a desk near the VP-22 operations office for assignment.  I was assigned to 22-P-6 and was informed that the airplane was on the ramp and was scheduled for evening patrol.
22-P-6 had not come through the attack unscathed.  The fuselage, wing, and tail suraces were peppered with bullet holes.  Those below the waterline had been patched properly by the metalsmiths but those on the upper surfaces simply had fabric patches doped over the holes.
The plane captain on 22-P-6 was a harried second class AMM named Gibson.  His face was grim and there were dark circles under his eyes.  He greeted me warmly because both the original plane captain, a first class, and the third mech had been wounded in the attack and were in the hospital.  He had been promoted to plane captain, I would be second mech, and our third mech was a seaman striker for AMM.
When I commented that Gibson looked bushed, he sighed and said, “Don’t rightly remember when I had some sack time—we worked all day yesterday and last night to get this old bird flyable.”
The pilots came aboard while Gibson and I were finishing our pre-flight checks of the equipment.  All guns were loaded and we were carrying two five hundred pound bombs and two depth charges on the wing racks.  When he found that I had more than fifty hours of flight time, Gibson put me in the mechanics tower for takeoff and the first watch.  He would try to get some sleep when we were airborne.
When I scrambled into the tower, I saw that there were two bullet holes in the instrument panel.  I called them to Gibson’s attention.  “I know,” he said tiredly.  “I checked all the lines behind the panel and they look okay.  Slapped some tape on the holes outside.  Just get “em started!”  He fired up the putt-putt and the instrument panel came alive.
When we taxied out on the oily water of Pearl Harbor, motor whaleboats were still busily clearing debris from the takeoff sea lane on the east side of Ford Island past Battleship Row.  When we were in position, a green flag was waved from the nearest boat and we started our takeoff run.  Just as the airplane came up onto the step I heard a loud thud from somewhere below.  In response to the annunciator light on the panel, I moved the mixture controls from Full Rich to Automatic Rich for climb and maneuver then slid down out of the tower.
In the galley compartment directly below the tower Gibson was standing staring mournfully at a hole in the bottom of the airplane.  We had hit a piece of debris that curled the aluminum skin inward leaving a hole about six inches wide and over a foot long between hull frames.  Through the hole we could see the Naval Hospital passing below as the airplane banked out to sea.
While we were contemplating the damage, the PPC turned the airplane over to the co-pilot and came aft.  He whistled and groaned, “What a hell of a way to start a war—shot up airplane and we knock a hole in the bottom!!”  Will it sink us when we land, Gib?” Gibson sighed and shook his head dolefully.  “Dunno, sir.  Maybe—maybe not if you can land close to the ramp and they get us out of the water in a hurry.  I’ll bend that tin back, dope a bunch of fabric patches on it, and pile on some mattresses for collision mats.”  He sighed again and reached for his tool box as I climbed back into the tower.
That first war patrol was an anti-submarine sweep down between Molokai and Maui where there had been reports of a submarine in the vicinity of Lahaina Roads, the old Navy anchorage off Maui that was used before Pearl Harbor became operational a few years before.  We had also been alerted that all fishing boats and sampans had been ordered to stay in port.  We were to check out any vessel we encountered.  It was rumored that such boats were being used to re-supply enemy submarines.
Gibson finished his makeshift patch of the bottom, caught an hour of sleep in the forward bunk, then came to relieve me in the tower.  I went aft to take position on one of the waist machine guns.  Just as I started aft, the pilots spotted a large fishing boat underway ahead.  Jus as I stepped into the waist compartment and reached for the interphone headphones, the pilot made a low pass past the fishing boat.  Without orders to pen fire, the third mech opened up with the port 50-cal machine gun and raked the vessel from stem to stern.
There had been two men visible on the boat—one on deck and one standing in the cabin hatch.  As fountains of water and splinters from the boat sprayed into the air, the man on the deck went over the side.  The other man ducked back into the cabin.  I grabbed the gunner by the arm and yanked him away from the gun.  The pilot was yelling, “Cease Fire!  CEASE FIRE!” on the interphone.
We circled and came back, our co-pilot calling on the radio for a ship to come out and investigate the fishing boat.  The boat did not seem to be badly damaged.  It had laid to and the man from the cabin pulled his deck hand from the water.  They both stood up and did not appear to be injured.  When we were informed there was a ship on the way we continued our patrol—after the pilot had some very harsh words with the trigger-happy seaman striker.
It was after dark when we approached Pearl Harbor to land.  Gibson and I had placed three bunk mattresses over the makeshift patch, piled on two cases of fifty caliber ammunition for weight and I agreed to sit on top of those when we touched down to try to hold the mattresses in place against the force of the water when the airplane settled down.
I do not recall that pilot’s name but he made a great feather light power landing headed straight for the launching ramp on Ford Island.  Alerted by radio, the beach crew was ready with the big side mounts already in the water.  As the airplane slowed and settled, water poured in all around the mattresses.  Our timing was good—I heard the tail hook clank into place, the tractor on the beach wheeled us around, and the side mounts banged into their sockets.  Our first war patrol was safely over.

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