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Tacoma, Washington, United States

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Battle of Midway: Part II: B-17s, Bettys, and an Impractical Joke

I will say this—you gave me the only truly happy two or three minutes that I have had since that Sunday morning! 

My memory will not furnish a complete and detailed chronology of the sixteen days that we flew out of Midway after the battle.  We were perpetually red-eyed from lack of sleep, sunburned, and bone weary from fourteen hours a day in the air followed by long hours into the night while we readied the airplane for the next day.  Instead I will simply record some anecdotes and incidences that I still recall clearly from that momentous time between the 5th of June and the 21st when we returned to Kaneohe.

Mogami & Mikuma

During our first evening on Midway we heard that, in addition to their four aircraft carriers that went down, the Japanese lost two heavy cruisers during their withdrawal to the west.  A patrol plane spotted the trail of an oil slick that led to two Japanese heavy cruisers (later identified as the MOGAMI and the MIKUMA).  One of them had been crippled in a collision that had wrecked several feet of bow.  The ship could only make a slow speed and, accompanied by its sister ship, was headed southwest toward Truk Island, the nearest major Japanese naval base.

We caught the cripples.  Every available airplane was sent to attack.  Both ships were bombed into floating piles of junk and both eventually went to the bottom.

B-17s at Midway

The newspaper articles that were published in the United States immediately after the Battle of Midway were laughable.  At first, for some weird and unknown reason, the handful of U.S. Army B-17s from Eastern Island at Midway atoll were given credit for sinking the Japanese aircraft carriers and breaking the back of the Imperial Japanese Navy.
Actually, not one B-17 scored a hit on anything flying the Japanese flag although they wasted tons of bombs—including the five-hundred pounders we had ferried out the first day of the battle.
During the second or third day at Midway, we got the word that a B-17 crew had come over to the Midway Officers’ Club and were celebrating the sinking of a Japanese heavy cruiser.  Their report was that, flying over a hole in the cloud cover, they had spotted a long Japanese cruiser.  They turned back over the hole and laid their whole stick of bombs across the enemy ship.  It sank immediately because when they made another run to take confirming photographs there was only a big swirl in the water where the ship had gone down.
The Army celebration came to an abrupt end when the captain of the fleet submarine NAUTILUS, packing a Colt 45 on his hip, showed up looking for the crew of the B-17 that had bombed his submarine!  The sub had been approaching Midway on the surface for re-fueling and re-provisioning when the B-17 mistook it for an enemy ship—a heavy cruiser, not less!  Since they bombed from a ridiculously high altitude, the submarine crash-dived before the bombs hit a relatively safe distance.  The skipper of the NAUTILUS warned the Army crew to stay out of the way of the ship’s cook.  The cook had the first cake of their wartime patrol in the oven and the sudden crash dive had caused it to fall.  The cook was really mad!
Another story about the B-17s at Midway that wants telling was a few days after the battle when the B-17s were sent to bomb Japanese-held Wake Island to the west.  The Army flyboys were assured that Wake would hold still if they insisted on bombing from a safe high altitude.
Unfortunately, it was another Army fiasco.  The weather was a bit cloudy and the B-17 navigators got lost because there are no checkpoints on the surface of the ocean.  Most of them never found Wake Island.  When they had expended half their fuel they turned back with their bomb loads intact, then they could not find Midway Atoll.  When they were two hours overdue and it had gotten dark, the base commander finally turned on searchlights on Eastern Island to guide the lost sheep home.  After that flights of B-17s were sent out with a Navy navigator riding the lead airplane.
One of the B-17s did find and bomb Wake.  It seems he had gotten lost from the rest of the squadron and he stumbled onto Wake and bombed the little island.  (No strike photos were obtained due to camera malfunction according to the pilot’s report.)
Now the lone B-17 had the problem of finding his way back to Midway, a tiny speck on a vast ocean.  He headed east.  During the afternoon the pilots of the B-17 saw a PBY in the distance, also headed east.  Reasoning that the Navy patrol plane was the better navigator, the B-17 pilot throttled back and moved in behind the PBY to follow him home.
Unfortunately, the inexperienced waist gunners on the PBY did not recognize the on-coming airplane as a B-17.  They simply reported to the PCC that “a great big four-engine airplane” was closing from the rear.  The PBY pilot, not being able to see the bogey, told his radioman to flash the day’s recognition code with the Aldis lamp.
That started a battle.  Not only could the B-17 crew not read Morse code, they had heard the scuttlebutt that the Japs on Wake were using some captured PBYs for reconnaissance and they mistook the winking light for a gun firing at them.  The B-17 nose gunner fired a long burst from a 30-caliber machine gun at the PBY.  As the PBY banked away, a waist gunner opened up with his 50-caliber and raked the B-17.  By then the PBY pilot could see the other aircraft, knew what it was, and started yelling for cease fire while the co-pilot got on the VHF radio with the B-17.
The results did the B-17 crew no credit.  The Army gunner had put only two small bullet holes in one wingtip of the PBY.  The Navy gunner, on the other hand, had knocked out the B-17 number three engine, wrecked the B-17 hydraulic system, and wounded the radio operator in the hand with that one burst.  We chuckled when we heard the story—so much for the vaunted “Flying Fortress”!
(The B-17, of course, was a major factor in winning WWII when it was put to its proper use.  It was simply that the airplane was the wrong instrument for naval warfare and the Army crews were not properly trained for it.  They never should have been in the Pacific meddling in the Navy’s war.)

Battles with “Betty”
Japanese "Bettys" stationed at Wake Island at the time of the Battle of Midway.

PBYs out of Midway did have a few encounters with enemy aircraft.  Our patrol sector west toward Wake Island overlapped the patrols of the Japanese out of Wake on our recognition charts as “Betty”.  Unfortunately, the Bettys had about a thirty-knot speed advantage over our plodding PBYs.
The Japanese Bettys adopted a tactic of loitering above the cloud cover at the end of their patrol sector toward Midway until the daily PBY showed up.  Then the Japanese pilot, knowing that the guns of a PBY cannot fire straight up, would swoop down and get in formation flying about two hundred feet above the PBY and at the same speed.  They then used the nasty tactic of pulling the pin on hand grenades and dropping them out a side speed, the grenades would go off uncomfortably close to the PBY.
Since a few evasive turns by the PBY would make them impossible to hit with a grenade, the Japanese soon came up with another tactic.  They had a 7.7 mm machine gun in a bow turret and a 20-millimeter cannon mounted in the tail.  Their new ploy was to fly up behind the PBY in the spot directly astern where the PBY guns would also not fire, let go a burst with the nose machine gun then, when the PBY banked away, the Betty would go into a steep turn in the opposite direction and get in a couple of shots with the 20-millimeter cannon before they got out of range.
One of our PBY pilots spoiled that tactic for the Japanese.  When he found a Betty on his tail, this pilot dropped a wing as if to turn to the left.  As soon as the Betty went into its hard right turn, the PBY rolled back to the right and the starboard waist gunner had a duck soup, no deflection shot as the airplanes turned together.  He raked the Betty with one long burst.  The enemy airplane never came out of the turn, but trailing smoke, plunged into the ocean.
That put an end to the aggressiveness of the Betty pilots.  Thereafter, when one of the Japanese patrols encountered a PBY they stayed at a respectful distance, simply rocked their sings in salute, and went on their way.

A Radio News Hoax

When our routine had been established we could get the airplane ready for the next day patrol before stopping for supper.  It became our habit after evening chow to go back to the airplane and listen to stateside radio stations on the long-range radio.
One evening while we were listening to, I believe the Maxwell House Hour with Charlie McCarthy, the program was interrupted by a special news bulletin.  That gave me an idea for a practical joke.  I knew that I could imitate a well-known Portland newscaster (I do not recall his name, but he always ended with a men’s clothing commercial, “Up that famous marble stairway—Fahey Brockman’s, of course!”)
The next evening, I scribbled out a fake news bulletin that the German Army had collapsed all along the eastern front, the Russians were moving forward, and the war in Europe might be over soon.  I conferred with our radioman after supper because I needed his help, then we settled down in the radio compartment and cockpit to listen to the radio.
I remember that we were listening to Dinah Shore singing “One Dozen Roses” (or maybe it was “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree”) when I slipped quietly out of the radio compartment, closed the hatch behind me, and eased up into the tower.  When I tapped the bulkhead near the radioman’s station with my toe, our radioman created some static with a loose wire, then switched from radio to interphone.
My “news bulletin”, delivered with the Portland newscaster’s cadence and voice went something like, “We interrupt this program to bring you a special news bulletin!  White House authorities have released the news that the German Army is collapsing all along the eastern front!  The Russian Army is moving forward swiftly toward the German homeland.  Stay tuned for further details as they come in!”  Dinah was still finishing her last chorus when we cut back to the radio.
As I came out of the tower I could hear the jubilation taking place forward.  The crew was on happy bunch, all trying to talk at once.  Someone was skeptical but Joe Brooks was adamant that it must be true, “Hell,” he said, “I grew up in Oregon.  I knew that newsman’s voice—heard him do news lotsa times!  Shut up and sit back down.  We got to listen for another report!”
Another report was not long in coming.  I was so pleased with the success of my little joke it seemed a good idea to do it again.  (What I did not stop to think of is the depth of human emotions in times of great stress and that my prankish carrying them to happy heights could result in black depths of depression when the truth became known.)  In a few minutes I caught the radioman’s eye and winked.  He nodded slightly and I made my way back to the tower.
This time I did not stop to write anything down, but simply cut in ad lib, fulling expecting to be caught in the act.  “We once more interrupt our scheduled program to bring you further news of the war!  With Germany on the verge of collapse and the pride of the Japanese Navy resting on the bottom of the Pacific near Midway, the government of Japan has indicated a willingness to talk terms for a cease fire!  Please stay tuned to this station for further details.”
When I got to “terms for a cease fire” the radio compartment erupted in wild cheers.  Before I finished the last sentence the bulkhead door slammed pen and Joe Brooks shot by along the catwalk toward the waist hatch yelling as he went, “It’s gotta be true!  I am gonna wake up the whole barracks and pass the word!  THE WAR IS ABOUT OVER!!”
It struck me then that I may have gone too far with my practical joke.  I leaped down from the tower seat and tore madly after Joe.  He had a good twenty-yard start on me when my feet hit the ramp but it was a good two hundred yards from our parking area across the ramp and then another two hundred across sand to the bunkered barracks entrance.
Joe nearly made it.  He was yelling, “Hey—wake up!”, when I hit him with a flying tackle just short of the entrance and we went rolling over and over in the sand.  With a strength born of near desperation, I got him down on his back.
“Joe!  Dang it, Joe, don’t wake anybody up.  It was a joke!  There wasn’t any news broadcast—that was me on the interphone!  I did it!  I’m sorry.”
He threw me off roughly off.  “Bullshit!  That was real—I recognized that guy’s voice from KGW!”  His voice took on an almost pleading tone, “Don’t shit me, Frieze—it was real!”
He got up and turned toward the bunker entrance.  I seized him by the arm and pulled the little piece of notepaper from my shirt pocket.  “I’m sorry, Joe, it was a joke.  Look—here’s the paper I wrote down that first fake broadcast on.  Come on back to the airplane where we can turn on a light and you can read it.  I made it all up.”
Joe glared at me belligerently, then his eyes went to the piece of paper torn form my spiral bound little pocket notebook.  His shoulders sagged.  He shook off my hand and turned away to trudge back toward the ramp, a suddenly forlorn figure in the warm tropic starlight.  I followed with such a feeling of remorse that I almost cried.  I had sent him, and the others to whom I hoped the radioman would have already explained, on a soaring trip of happiness only to bring him crashing down with more than that flying tackle.
In the airplane, Davenport had covered the little windows of the galley/bunk compartment with masking tape, turned on the lights and heated some coffee on the hot plate.  The others just laughed bleakly as I took a mug of coffee and sat down on the rear bunk.  Joe slumped down near the galley.  He sat there eyeing me, resentment boiling in him, then suddenly seized a can of tomatoes or tomato juice from the galley locker and threw it at me.  I ducked and the can dented the aluminum skin where my head had been.  It must have relieved his frustration because Joe muttered, “Gonna hit the sack”, and left the airplane headed for the barracks.
Joe Brooks was, and still is, a good shipmate.  After takeoff the next morning, he found me on watch in the port waist gun blister and offered me a smoke.  I took it and said, “I’m sorry about that dirty trick last night, Brooks.”
He punched me lightly on the shoulder as he sat down on the metal can that was our toilet.  “Don’t worry about it, Frieze.  I’m glad I didn’t hit you with that can!”  He smiled crookedly as he accepted a light and said, “Yes, it was a damned dirty joke to play, but I will say this—you gave me the only truly happy two or three minutes that I have had since that Sunday morning!  Now I reckon I know what it will feel like when it is really over!”

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