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Tacoma, Washington, United States

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Heading Toward Midway

We quickly discovered that wartime meant rapid promotions.  Most of our replacement were recruits either fresh out of boot camp or from AMM school on North Island.  The last week in February I took and passed the examination for aviation machinist mate second class.  A month later, when I had been in the Navy for less than two years, I was notified that I have been promoted to AMM2/c.  I promptly went into town and ordered my first tailor-made bell bottom trousers.  My waist at the time measured twenty-seven inches.  I ordered twenty-seven-inch bell bottoms.  I had been in the Navy less than two years, but having been under fire on December 7th, I considered myself an “old salt”.  I was just twenty years old.
During March of 1942 the Navy surgeons decided that we on the regular flight crews were subject to “flight fatigue” and decreed that we should fly only an average of 80 hours per month.  Much to my disgust, I was shifted to a night engine check crew.  On the 5th of April I was assigned to a three-week aerial gunners’ course that had been initiated at Kaneohe.  It seemed like more “duck soup” to me and my log book shows that I scored 96% on the thirty caliber, 100% on the fifty caliber, 94% on the enemy aircraft silhouettes, and 96% on aircraft sighting.  I graduated as a qualified combat aircrewman on the 26th of April and went back to a maintenance crew.
It was while I was in aerial gunners’ class, I believe, that we heard about General Doolittle’s raid on the Japanese home islands from the carrier HORNET.  Other than some hit and run raids in the South Pacific by Admiral Halsey with the carriers YORKTOWN, ENTERPRISE, and LEXINGTON, the Doolittle raid using Army B-25s flown from the HORNET was the only bright spot DURING THOSE DARK DAYS OF EARLY 1942.  The carrier SARATOGA had suffered a torpedo hit and was back in the states for repairs.  With most of the Pacific Fleet battleships out of commission for repairs or still sitting on the bottom of Pearl Harbor, we were truly a “thin blue line” in the Pacific.
Sometime during the spring of 1942, Richard came up with a new girlfriend.  Her name was Diane Koyama and she was a taxi driver in Honolulu.  I liked Diane.  She was brunette, of course, and her slim figure was surprisingly tall for her Japanese ancestry although the top of her head barely came above Dick’s shoulder.  She had a great sense of humor.  Most of Dick’s liberty time was devoted to Diane when she was not working and the chubby little waitress in the saimen stand was forgotten.
To my great delight I was transferred back to my old flight crew with Ernie Davenport on May 15th.  Our pilots were not Clark and Willis, however.  Our PCC was an ex-AP, “Speedball” Camp, and our co-pilot was a new ensign, Gus Binnebose.  Our bombardier was Dick’s old buddy, Joe Brooks, now an aviation ordnanceman second class.
Sometime in late May we got the news of the Battle of the Coral Sea.  It was the first sea battle in history waged solely by aircraft from carriers.  The Japanese lost two small carriers and a tanker.  In return, we suffered the grievous and loss of the USS LEXINGTON, one of our few first-line aircraft carriers.  In addition, scuttlebutt had it that the YORKTOWN had been seriously damaged and was limping back to Pearl Harbor.
On May 25th my flight crew was ordered to a one-week advanced base operation at little Johnson Island, far to the southwest of the Hawaiian Islands.  Accompanied by another PBY (I believe from VP-14) we flew daily patrols guarding the southwest approaches of the Pacific where the Japanese had been operation literally unopposed.
On or about May 30th, the VP-14 airplane crashed during landing in the lagoon at Johnson Island.  Somehow the pilot hooked a wingtip during landing and the airplane cartwheeled.  The fuselage broke in half just forward of the tower.  Fortunately, all the crew member survived.  Working furiously form whaleboats, we managed to salvage the precious machine guns before the wing filled with water and the airplane sank.
Bringing the VP-14 crew with us, we flew back to Kaneohe on June 2nd.  When we arrived at Kaneohe Bay we were amazed to find the parking ramp empty of other airplanes.  Richard had been rotated to ground duty in the parachute loft.  I found him at the barracks and asked what the hell was going on.
For once, Dick did not have all the answer.  He shrugged and said something like, “Beats the hell out of me, Con.  All I know is that apparently something big must be in the works.  Half of our airplanes were sent to Barking Sands on Kauai and the other half took off this morning to go to Johnson Island to replace you.”
“Since when,” I demanded, “does it take six airplanes to replace two”  That doesn’t make any sense!”
“Don’t ask me, bird brain.  I’m not running the goddam war!  Ask Admiral Nimitz the next time you have tea with him!”
We were further mystified the next day when my flight crew was instructed to pack gear for a week and sleep that night in the flight crew ready room at the hangar.  After evening chow our conjectures ranged the full scale.  Our old VP-11 skipper, Commander N.A. Johnson, had been temporarily replaced by a Commander Marcy.  His nickname was “Blood and Guts Marcy” and he had purportedly flown the last PBY out of the Philippines before the fall of Corregidor.  One of our radiomen thought perhaps we had been assigned to fly Mary back to the mainland.  Davenport squelched that hope when he pointed out that we had been instructed to pack only spare dungarees, not dress uniforms.  We hit the sack still baffled.
The next morning, June 4th, we were wakened at 0400 for early breakfast and were instructed to get the airplane ready for launch.  On the ramp we were again puzzled—there was no armament on the external bomb racks.  Our bafflement continued when the pilots appeared.  They were accompanied by Commander Mary and each was carrying a zippered flight bag.
At takeoff Marcy was in the co-pilot’s seat and I had a chance to speak to the co-pilot, “Where we headed, Mister Binnehose?”
The rotund ensign shrugged.  “I dunno—just to Pearl right now.  Something is happening but I don’t know what.”
We flew around the island and landed at Pearl Harbor.  As soon as the airplane was drawn up on the Ford Island ramp, a staff car picked up the PPC and Marcy.  Most of the rest of us climbed down and squatted in the shade of the big wing.
Before long two bomb trucks towing 21-inch torpedoes on dollies pulled up under the wing and a crew of ordnancemen installed torpedo racks in place of our external bomb racks, then started hoisting the torpedoes into place.
“Shee-it,” Davenport exclaimed, “I guess we must be going out for torpedo practice!”
Meanwhile Joe Brooks was eyeing the big torpedoes.  “I dunno,” he said, “you ever go out to practice with anything but dummy torpedoes?  Them things up there are live fish!  Not only that, look at the other airplanes on the ramp.  They all got live torpedoes.”
He was right.  There were twelve other PBYs on the ramp and all were armed with torpedoes.  There was sudden inexplicable tension in our little group.  We were staring wonderingly at each other when our radioman, who had remained on board at the radio suddenly popped his head out the navigator’s hatch and yelled, “Hey, they just broke radio silence—there’s a helluva big battle going on out at Midway Island!!”
A chill ran through me as the implication of the live torpedoes hit home.  We were going to get a crack at the Japs!  Before any of us could ract. The staff car skidded to a halt at the wingtip just as the APUs of some other PBYs started sputtering.  Camp and Marcy piled out and waved us into the airplane.
We had the engines running in record time and were the first airplane that the tow tractor put over the launching ramp while the other PBYs were towed into line behind us.  We were soon to find that Marcy was the senior officer present on the flight; therefore, we would assume the lead position.
No explanation was offered while we took off then circled off Barber’s Point until all the other twelve airplanes were airborne.  They formed up with us in a large vee, then Marcy set course to the west northwest toward French Frigate Shoals and, beyond, Midway Island.
Once on course, Marcy finally addressed us on the interphone.  He informed us that the Japanese were attacking Midway and that their forces included an invasion fleet.  He stated that intelligence had known of the Japanese plan and that Midway was dug in and ready.  Our three remaining aircraft carriers, including the YORKTOWN that had been damaged in the Coral Sea action, were out there.  Most of us cheered when Marcy said that our orders were to find the enemy carriers and inflict maximum damage with a torpedo attack.  Only our new first radio man (whose name, mercifully, I forget) sank back white-faced in his seat and stared blindly at the set before him.  We would finally get a crack at the sneaky bastards!
(In retrospect, it was a comic opera situation—thirteen slow, clumsy PBYs setting out to torpedo enemy carriers protected by the fast, slashing Zero fighters.  Admiral Nimitz had marshalled every bit of force at his command and was scraping the bottom of the barrel.  If the Japanese, who already held Wake Island to the west of Midway, could capture Midway, it would become a spear point aimed directly at the Hawaiian Islands and, beyond, at the west coast of the United States.  Unbeknownst to us, we were facing the greatest fleet of Japanese warships ever assembled—and led by Admiral Nagumo’s fast carrier task force, the same that had made the attack on Hawaii on December 7th, 1941.)
As we droned on toward our point of no return out beyond French Frigate Shoals, we sobered and started to reflect on our chances of success.  I sat in the tower as my adrenalin subsided and wondered about that.  Fear?  Yes, I felt the metallic taste of fear in my mouth and I knew that some of us would not come back.  There was just a chance, though, that some of us might get through and put a torpedo into one of those carriers.  My jaw was set in determination as I logged the engine instrument readings.  We would go do what had to be done.
It was not to be—that day.  Fifty miles short of our point of no return out pat French Frigate Shoals, Marcy contacted the other planes and led the formation in a sweeping turn that reversed our course.  He then came on the interphone, “Well, gentlemen, we have been ordered back to Kaneohe.  Word is that the Japs have air superiority over Midway and we have the chance of a snowball in hell of getting through.  Admiral Nimitz himself has ordered us back.”
All of us (except that nameless radioman) were crushed and frustrated.  Our guns were already rigged out and charged.  We had been all keyed up to meet the enemy in combat and, suddenly, we were running for home.  Our disappointment, however, was moderated by the sober realization that if the Japanese had air superiority and we flew toward their fleet, we would be picked off like sitting ducks on a pond.
(We were to learn alter that Admiral Nimitz had received word that Torpedo Eight, flying TBDs, had been completely wiped out during a torpedo attack without getting a single hit on the enemy aircraft carriers.  Only Ensign Gay survived and was picked out of the water by a PBY the next day.)
Marcy led all thirteen PBYs back to Kaneohe Bay.  During the flight back we got word on the radio that at least three Japanese aircraft carriers had been sunk by our dive bombers and that the enemy no long had air superiority.  It was too late, however, and we did not have enough fuel to go on to Midway.  We landed at Kaneohe.  When we were parked on the ramp, we were instructed to leave our gear aboard the airplanes, once again sleep in the ready room, and be ready for takeoff at dawn the next morning.  We would still get to Midway.  That delighted all of us except the radioman I mentioned—he turned in at the sick bay with “cat fever” and had to be replaced.
After evening chow, I went to the barracks looking for brother Dick.  He was nowhere to be found.  One of the squadron yeoman told me that he had one ashore on liberty that afternoon still thinking that we had flown off into the middle of the battle.  He had still not returned when we took off the next morning.

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