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Tacoma, Washington, United States

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Temporary Assignment to Midway and a Brush with History

My promotion to seaman first class became effective on May 1st of 1941 and my pay jumped to the princely sum of $54 per month.  I happily had the third seaman’s stripe added to the cuffs of my dress blues and I got all of my loose white jumpers tailored to fit my lean frame.  I also concentrated on my practical factors studies for the petty officer rate of AMM3c because I would be eligible in just three months.
Beyond third class, promotions could come slowly in the peacetime Navy because quotas in each rate were limited.  I recall one evening that Dick, Glover, and I were sitting in the Ford Island beer garden killing time until the evening movie started.  We were discussing what our future plans might be beyond our current six-year enlistments.  We wound up agreeing that if we should be fortunate enough to make first class petty officer in that six years it would be smart to stay in the Navy for an entire career.
(We had no inkling, of course, of how a war could and would change everything.  If anyone had told us that at the end of six years Dick and Glover would be chief petty officers and that I would be a commissioned officer, we would have all gotten hernias from laughing!)
Preparations were going forward for the move of VP-23 from Ford Island to the new Naval Air Station at Kaneohe Bay.  The base was to be commissioned on 4 June 1941.  We would be the first squadron in and would become VP-11 of Patrol Wing One.  We would be followed by VP-12 and VP-14 (At our enlisted level we also had no inkling that Patrol Wing Two was permanently assigned to Pearl Harbor and that Patrol Wing One was destined to go to the front lines in the deep South Pacific when the war started.  We never worried about strategic planning.  We simply did the jobs we were trained for and, in our spare time, went ashore to have a little fun.)
It was decided that, during the transition and to make the move to Kaneohe easier, several of our VP-23 airplanes would go to Midway Island for two weeks of advance base operations.  They would then return directly to the new base at Kaneohe.
The Midway operations would require the support of ground crews. Both Glover and I were assigned to the Midway support group and Dick remained behind with the balance of the squadron that would affect the move of all equipment across the island.  On May 10th the ground crew contingent boarded the aircraft tender USS WRIGHT for the voyage to Midway Island.

The WRIGHT, my second temporary sea duty in the Navy, was not much of an improvement over the old TIPPICANOE.  The WRIGHT had been converted from a WWI barrage balloon ship used in convoys and had similar ungainly lines to those of the old tanker.  She was another rusty old bucket and the original balloon well still existed amidships.  I do not recall who the captain was; hoever, the executive officer was Lt. Commander Dixie Kiefer who would gain some measure of renown in Naval Aviation during WWII.
The voyage to Midway lasted five days.  We were aboard as passengers, not as temporary ship’s company, and therefore had no watch standing duties.  We could lounge about the deck and watch schools of flying fish and pods of grey whales that crossed our course.  After evening chow we would gather on the fantail and marvel at the luminous phosphorescence in the ship’s wake.
NAS Midway being built in 1941

Midway is barely a speck in the vast Pacific Ocean.  It consists of a large lagoon bordered by reefs and two low-lying islands, Midway and Eastern Island.  Eastern Island consisted mostly of a new runway for lane planes.  Midway itself is perhaps a mile long and a quarter mile wide at he widest point.  Installations consisted of one hangar on a seaplane ramp, a large fuel storage tank, a water tower, and a few small buildings housing the other facilities of a very small base.
East of the naval seaplane installation there was a very small transient hotel used by Pan American Airways for the overnight stop of the big Boeing clippers that flew between the West Coast and the Orient.  The clippers were big four-engine flying boats that landed in the lagoon and used the one Midway dock to tie up and refuel.
The center of Midway rises only a few feet above sea level.  The low hill was sparsely covered by scrub brush and small trees.  A hike around the circumference of the little island (which we did every day or so out of boredom) took barely an hour at a leisurely pace.
One outstanding feature of Midway was its population of gooney birds.  A “gooney bird” is an albatross on land.  In its incomparable soaring flight on seven-foot slender tapering wings, sometimes many miles from land, an albatross is a graceful, beautiful bird.  On land, however, it is an awkward, waddling fowl about the size of a big domestic goose.

Gooneys are reputed to have a brain about the size of a pea and their actions would tend to bear that out.  They had no fear of man and could be petted.  That, however, was a mistake.  If you petted a gooney bird, you became his bosom pal and he would follow at hour heels wherever you went like a faithful dog.  The big birds would even attempt to follow sailors up the gangplank of the WRIGHT moored at the dock and were difficult to discourage.
The gooney bird (or albatross) cannot make a takeoff from a standing start.  They are too heavy and must make a running takeoff like an airplane.  They used the beach for a runway and we discovered that it was necessary for them to make their run into the wind just as an airplane would do.  Young ones would occasionally attempt a downwind takeoff and, upon retracting their legs, would tumble tail over teakettle until they finally figured out they had to run the other way.
Our advance base operations of the PBYs at Midway was good training for handling the airplanes under field conditions.  We were not yet under alert conditions in the Hawaiian area; therefore, we simply conducted training flights and did routine maintenance checks on the airplanes and engines.
We followed the progress of the war in Europe but it was far away and, on our happy-go-lucky enlisted level, we never gave much thought to relations of the U.S. with the Empire of Japan.  The Japanese were “the bad guys” because of their conquest in China, but otherwise we mostly ignored the “slanteyes” and dismissed them as a real threat.  We preferred spending our of hours playing poker or shooting craps under the guise of playing ace-deucy.
Boeing Clipper

One afternoon I was headed back to the WRIGHT at the dock at the end of working hours (we were living aboard the tender) when one of the Pan American clippers came in and landed in the lagoon.  I lingered at the bead of the dock to watch the big graceful Boeing touch down on the water taxi to the dock.  With its massive boat hull and long tapering wing, I thought it the most beautiful airplane in the world.  Our PBYs truly looked like ugly duckling by comparison.
I was standing at the head of the dock wen the Am flight crew and about a dozen passengers passed on their way to the Pan Am hotel.  I paid little attention except to look at them with envy, but noticed that one passenger was a very short, stocky Japanese in a dark suit totally unsuitable for the climate.  He had a serious expression on his round brown face, but he smiles when our eyes met momentarily and his head bobbed in a half bow in silent greeting.  I waved a hand casually and went on to the WRIGHT for a shower.
Special Envoy Sabruro Kurusu

I gave no more thought to the little Japanese until about eight months later when I saw his photograph in a Life magazine article about the beginning of the war in the Pacific.  The man I saw that sunny afternoon on Midway was Sabruro Kurusu, special envoy to Washington on his way to join the Japanese ambassador, Nomura, for the final negotiations with President Roosevelt.
We launched our VP-23 PBYs for their flight back to Hawaii on the morning of May 31st.  That afternoon, after waiting to take aboard the body of a Marine private that had just been killed on the island when a construction crane fell over, the USS WRIGHT sailed for Pearl Harbor.
Our arrival at Pearl Harbor on the morning of June 4th caused a bit of a stir.  The executive officer, CDR Kiefer, had become upset with we airdales for some reason and had ordered the first lieutenant to put us to work as temporary ship’s company.  We scraped and painted the rusty plates of the WRIGHT all the way back.
When we arrived off the entrance to Pearl Harbor, the captain found that there was a problem with the tug that operated the anti-submarine net and we had to lay to for three or four hours before entering the harbor.  It was a windless, flat calm day so the first lieutenant decided that two of the paint party should go over the side in bosons’ chairs to finish some painting of rust streaks on the stern of the ship.  They worked just below the black lettering that read USS WRIGHT.
We steamed into the harbor in the early afternoon and up the channel past the Pacific Fleet flagship, the USS PENNSYLVANIA.  Just after we passed the big battleship, the TBS (Talk Between Ships) radio came to life.  It was the Pacific Fleet commanding admiral addressing the captain of the WRIGHT.  His soft, but firm voice said, “Captain, there are two names on the stern of your ship.  I want one of them removed immediately—and I do not care which one!”
As soon as the gangplank hit the dock, the captain of the WRIGHT and Commander Kiefer scrambled down from the bridge and went to inspect the stern.  There, in big letters painted with red-lead, immediately beneath the name of the ship was “USS MADHOUSE”.  Someone in the paint party ahd gotten even for the extra duty we had put in.
Fortunately, all we airdales had our gear on deck and there was a truck waiting on the dock to take us to our new base at Kaneohe Bay.  We quickly loaded aboard and were on our way while the CPO that had been in charge of the paint party was still trying to remember who he had put over the side with the red-lead.  (The chief’s memory was not all that bad.  We all chipped in on the fifth of good scotch that found its way to that chief.)

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