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Tacoma, Washington, United States

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Hunter-Killer Patrol

The next few days I recall only in a blur of continual flying.  We extended our patrols to the practical limit of a PBY—750 miles out, fifty miles across, and 750 miles home.  The fifteen hundred mile patrols took more than twelve hours at our cruise speed of 110 knots—twelve hours of monotony at seven hundred fifty feet ceaselessly scanning thousands of square miles of empty ocean.  We took off at 0500 and landed in the late afternoon.
When we had a patrol to the east, we kept hoping to see a huge relief convoy headed for Hawaii, but with the U.S. war machine just gearing up, it never came.  We continued to make do with what we had—airplanes on which even the patches had patches.
After a week of that, we came in one afternoon and the leading chief said I was to report to the Operations Office.  There the assistant operations officer stated that I had been promoted to temporary plane captain on 22-P-3 because the regular plane captain was in sick bay.  The airplane was being readied for a night patrol and I was to report right away.  I assumed that Gibson would be notified that he needed a new second mech.
After a quick bite to eat from a field kitchen behind the hangar, I went to 22-P-3.  The pilot briefed me on a new tactic that we were to try.  A submarine had been sighted on the surface charging batteries a night or two before in the vicinity of Maui.  We were to fly as “hunter-killer” mission.
Each PBY-5 had two flare tubes in the tunnel hatch from which parachute flares that cast a wide circle of light could be ejected.  Our airplane had about twenty extra flares loaded into the bunk compartment.  The tactic was for two airplanes to go out—one to fly in front as the hunter and periodically drop flares, the other to come along behind and look for surfaced submarines in the light of the flares.  As usual, we were armed with both contact bombs and depth charges.
I chuckled ruefully when the pilot finished and said, “Sir, do you know how big that damned ocean is out there?  Tale about a needle in a haystack.”
“I know,” he said, “but we can’t think of anything else.  We believe that they may be using the protected waters of Lahaina Roads to charge their batteries and we just might find one on the surface.”
We took off at sunset, followed by another PBY also loaded with extra flares so we could take turns being the hunter and the killer, and arrived off Lahaina after full dark.  It was monotonous—drop two flares, reload the tubes, drop two more, and on and on.  It almost worked.  About two 0’clock, just before we ran out of flares, in the far edge of the circle of white light from the burning magnesium, we saw what at first looked like a line of breakers.  It could not be breakers, however, because we were two or three miles off shore and there were no rocks in that vicinity showing on the chart.
It was the wake of a conning tower as a submarine went under the water.  We made a diving turn but by the time we got to the spot there was only a swirl left.  Not knowing which way the sub captain would turn under the dark water, the pilot elected not to waste depth charges.  We made a radio report, but there was no sonar-equipped ship in the vicinity.
By three o’clock in the morning, both airplanes had run out of flares.  Wishing to land in the daylight, we climbed to three thousand feet and simply cruised around on autopilot until the sun came up.  Not having slept for 36 hours or more, the entire crew was exhausted.  In spite of opening the side window for air, my head kept falling forward as I sat in the tower.  Suddenly I realized I had been sound asleep.  The panel clock said three-forty-five and my last entry in the engine log was at three o’clock.  I had slept a half hour or more.
There had not been a sound on the interphone.  I logged the instrument reading then slid quietly down the ladder from the tower.  In the radio compartment both the radioman at his set and the navigator at his chart table were sound asleep.  Forward I could see the heads of both the pilot and the copilot resting on the back of their seats and not moving.  Aft there were two men in bunks.  I did not go aft to see if the waist gunners were asleep but climbed back to the tower.
Apparently the airplane had been droning along on autopilot for more than a half hour with all exhausted hands asleep.  I figured that I should discreetly wake those on duty so I hit the interphone with a call from tower to pilot.  When he groggily answered, I gave him an unnecessary fuel report that we were down to one hundred fifty gallons in each wing tank.  He thanked me and an hour later, just as sunrise, we landed back at Pearl.
When I reported the Operations Officer, an older lieutenant commander, was indignant.  He looked me over distastefully.  I was a bit disheveled.  My dungarees were dirty, I was unshaven, and when I pulled off my grimy white hat my hair was uncombed.  I was bleary-eyed from having nothing but a thirty-minute nap during the past day and a half.
“Sailor,” the commander said, “where the hell have you been today—goofing off?!  You were scheduled to fly on 22-P-6 and you could not be found!  They had to scrounge another second mech.”
I stammered something like, “I—uh—well—sire, I was flying.  They put me on 22-P-3 as relief plane captain for that hunter-killer patrol last night.  We just now landed.”
The officer’s stony face softened and his eyebrows went up.  “you mean you were flying all night?!”
“Yessir—Lieutenant Dobson sent me out on the crew.  I figured they had replaced me on Gibson’s crew.”
“Well—I’ll be damned!”  The Operations Officer rose and strode out to look at the schedule board on the hangar bulkhead outside the office.  He turned to me and said ruefully, “It was a mistake, Frieze.  Someone fouled up—everything has been a mess since the attack.  Why didn’t you tell Dobson that you had just come in from a long patrol last night?”
I remember my answer distinctly, “I—uh—well, sir, I reckon I just figured that is the way you have to run a war.  Never been in one before.”
He chuckled then looked at me compassionately.  “No, that is not the way we have to run it, son.  We all have to get our rest.  How long has it been since your slept?”
“Well, I got a little nap in the airplane this morning (I felt I’d better not mention that everyone else did at the same time) and I got a few hours night before last.”
“You are now off duty—I’ll do some crew shuffling.  Get yourself some chow and some sleep and check the schedule board this evening.  I won’t schedule you before tomorrow morning.”
I got a mess kit of scrambled eggs and bacon from the field kitchen.  Even the strong black Navy coffee could not keep me awake.  I fell on my cot in the corner of the hangar and, in spite of the noisy activity all around, slept for ten hours.

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