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Tacoma, Washington, United States

Friday, August 26, 2016

Finishing up AMM School and Falling in Love with the PBY

Hall PH flying boat

The second half of the four months at AMM school in 1940 was the best part.  Early in November, after the written tests on the basic subjects, we had come out of the classroom onto the flight line and gunnery range.  We literally tore down and rebuilt the old Hall PH flying boats—rigging, control surfaces, instruments—and we removed the radial engines mounted in nacelles up between the wings, tore them down to the crankshafts, rebuilt and re-installed them and got them running and tuned up.
I came to love those big old radial aircraft engines and soon found that I had a knack of diagnosing a problem by listening to an engine run.  Those old piston engines did not scream as the jets in later years would do, telling the mechanic nothing.  At idle or low power settings, the radial engines would “talk” and at the higher power settings for takeoff and cruise they would sing.  It was possible to detect a grumbling complaint or sour note from an ailing engine and know what was wrong with reasonable accuracy.  The chiefs and first class petty officers who were our instructors taught us to recognize when a spark plug was misfiring, magneto points needed adjustment, or a carburetor was not functioning right.  An airplane engine, and indeed the airplane, became a living thing to me.

My second love, sparked by my desire to become a PBY mechanic and machine gunner, was the big fifty-caliber machine guns.  We trained on both those and on the lighter 30-caliber guns that were standard in the nose and tail of a patrol bomber was well as the rear cockpits of dive bombers and torpedo planes.  The big 50-caliber guns were installed in the waist hatches of the big patrol bombers.  The 30-caliber guns, firing a cartridge similar to a 30.06 Springfield rifle, fired at a rate of 1200 rounds per minute with a rapid chatter.  The fifties, however, fired a cartridge more than twice as large at a rate of 870 rounds per minute.  It fired with a very authoritative and satisfying thudding.
I could more than hold my own on the firing range with a Springfield rifle or either of the machine guns.  I never did mast the 45-caliber automatic pistols that were standard Navy sidearms.  No matter how I aimed or corrected, my clip of shots on the pistol range would usually go off down and to the right.
Brother Richard had been assigned to a PBY patrol squadron stationed in Hawaii, VP-23.  Peacetime Navy policy was that brothers could serve in the same ships or units if they so desire.  After the first of the year in 1941, I applied for patrol aviation in Hawaii.  With my grades in the upper percentile of the class, I got my choice.  On 15 January I was notified that upon graduation I would be assigned to Patrol Wing One based on Ford Island at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.

Langford scratched his head when he read the orders posted on the bulletin board.  “Whut in the hell,” he drawled, “is a tippy canoe?!”
None of knew what kind of ship it was.  Destroyers were named after famous people, cruisers after cities, and battleships after states.  We knew the name of all the aircraft carriers—Lexington, Saratoga, Yorktown, Enterprise, Hornet, Wasp, Ranger, and the old Langley.  We concluded that it must be a transport of some sort, but if so, why were we designated as “temporary ship’s company” instead of passengers?  We were to find that it was because we would work our way to Hawaii scraping and painting in the deck division.

We got our first clue as to the nature of the Tippecanoe when her number one motor whaleboat came alongside the Naval Air Station dock to transport us and our gear to the ship.  The grey paint of the boat was flaked in spots and the coxswain’s brass tiller and his bell for the motor mac needed shining.  The coxswain, a boson’s pipe on a braided thong about his neck and a sheath knife on this belt, was wearing oily dungarees and a grease-stained white hat neither of which appeared to have been near a laundry for a spell.  The motor mac and the bow hook were not much cleaner.
When the boat laid alongside, the unsmiling coxswain barked out, “Tippecanoe—get your gear and your butts aboard!”
Our spanking clean dress white uniforms were quite a contrast to the boat crew in their soiled dungarees.  They largely ignored us as the boat swung away from the dock and headed for Point Loma to the north except that, in response to a friendly greeting from Langford, the surly coxswain snarled, “Airedales—shee-it!”  and spat over the side of the whaleboat.
I made one more attempt with the Tippecanoe seaman who was sitting beside me in the bow of the boat, “What kind of ship is the Tippecanoe?”
He curled his lip wryly.  “You’ll find out soon enough, Mac. She’s a rusty old bucket and the crew is a bunch of goof-off!  I think they moored her out on Point Loma so she don’t clutter up their nice clean harbor!”