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Tacoma, Washington, United States

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Getting to know the PBY and a Move to Kaneohe Bay Naval Air Station

Consolidated Aircraft PBY-1

The next morning, when I reported for muster on the seaplane ramp in front of the VP-21 hangar, I arrived early to inspect my strange new world.  Each squadron had thirteen big Consolidated Aircraft PBY-1 flying boats.  A total of 52 of the twin-engine airplanes were parked in rows on the broad expanse of the concrete ramp.  Silver fuselages and broad high-mounted wings gleam in the morning sunlight.  Different stripes on the high rounded rudders identified each squadron’ airplane.
Being a lowly seaman second class recruit, I was immediately assigned to the beaching crew.  The PBYs were supported on land by large dual-wheel main gear that locked onto each side of the fuselage and a tripod mounted tail wheel with a steering bar for use when the airplane was towed by a tractor.  To fly, the airplanes were lowered down a launching ramp into the water by a tractor.  The beach crew then removed the wheels and dragged them back up the ramp.
When the airplanes returned from a flight, they taxied to the launching ramp and the beaching gear was re-installed by the beach crew.  It was onerous duty but we did have the advantage the this was Hawaii and we were required to go swimming several times a day.  Our uniform on the beach crew was Navy blue swim trunks and a pair of hob-nailed shoes for good footing on the wet ramp.  The water was eternally warm and we had plenty of time for recreational swimming unless the beach crew chief had us policing the ramp and hangar area while we waited for airplanes to get ready to launch or returned from a flight.
Pre-war duty in Hawaii was a delight because Navy shore installations observed “tropical working hours”.  Our hours were from muster at oh seven hundred (7AM) to fourteen hundred hours (2:00 PM).  The crew was divided into port and starboard watch sections between which the duty was divided so that during off hours, evenings and weekends, half the squadron was on duty—the other half could have liberty and the married men who had families in Hawaii could go home.  The off-duty section could have liberty on the weekends from 1400 on Friday until O700 Monday morning—one of the many reasons that duty in Hawaii was so sought after.
A problem for us recruits was that the $36 per month paid a seaman second was not enough to really take advantage of all that free time.  It did, however, give us plenty of time to study our practical factors manuals for the examinations for our next promotion.  Some of us, particularly we aviation machinist mate (mechanics) strikers, spent some of that free time poring over PBY maintenance manuals and going over the details of the airplanes.  Before I was even eligible for promotion to seaman first class, I was familiar with every system on the airplanes—particularly the big engines.  L also spent time with the ordinance gang helping to bore sight the machine guns and learning to field strip and re-adjust the mechanism.  I was determined to be ready when the time came that I could be assigned to a flight crew.
I did not get well acquainted with VP-21 shipmates.  Instead, I applied for transfer to my brother’s squadron and it came through in less than two weeks.  On 14 March I was transferred to VP-23, soon to become VP-11.
My duties did not change.  In VP-23 I was also assigned to the beaching crew.  I was envious of brother Dick because, being more than four months ahead of me, he had just made AMM third class and had already wangled assignment to a flight crew.  (Flight crew assignments were doubly coveted because flight pay—known as “flight skins”—added fifty percent to base pay.  A third class made $72 per month.  With flight skins it totaled $108—a small fortune to us then.)  Of course it meant that Dick continued to lord it over me just as he had done all our lives.  I did not mind—I was used to it and knew that, sooner or later, I would overtake him.
Dick’s assignment to a flight crew had one advantage for me—it got me my first ride in a PBY.  One day he talked his plane captain into listing me supernumerary on his crew for a local training flight.  The beach crew chief, Tex Foret, gave me permission and I happily drew a flight jacket, helmet, and goggles from the equipment room.
The big fuselage of the PBY had a bombardier’s compartment in the nose that included a manually operated gun turret for a thirty caliber machine gun behind which was the pilots compartment with its raised seats.  Aft of that was the radio/navigation compartment then a compartment with the small auxiliary “put-put” and a rudimentary galley on one side and two crew bunks on the other.  Above that compartment was the mechanic’s station in the tower that supported the big wing and engines above the fuselage.  It had windows on each side, an instrument panel, and all the engine controls except the throttles which were on the overhead of the pilot’s compartment.
Aft of the mechanic’s compartment was a bunk compartment that was also used to stow tool and ammunition boxes.  Immediately behind was the “waist compartment” having the sliding hatches and a 50-caliber machine gun stowed on each side.  There was also a tail compartment that had a hatch that could be opened to fire down and aft with a thirty caliber machine gun.
We had hardly reached our cruising altitude of seven hundred fifty feet and the engines had settle down to their synchronized drone when I knew that I had found my milieu.  I was ecstatic.  Glover was the second mech on the crew and was on duty in the tower.  He waved me to stick my head up and showed me all the gages on the panel, the fuel quantity gages, the wingtip float control, and the engine fuel mixture and carburetor temperature controls.
The fuselage windows were tiny and I could not see much until Dick took me to the waist compartment and opened one of the hatches.  Standing in the gunner’s position half out of the airplane on the port side, I had a panoramic view of the island as we flew around Koko Head, past Bird Island off Kailua, and circled in over Kaneohe Bay.
Richard gestured for me to put on the port gunner’s interphone because the pilot was speaking to the crew.  As I recall his words were something like, “Take a good look down there on the peninsula at those new buildings, fellows.  That is the brand new Kaneohe Bay Naval Air Station that will be commissioned this summer and will be our new home.  They are transferring us to Patrol Wing One and we will become VP-11 and move in there in two or three months.

The Kaneohe Bay Naval Air Station was on the seaward peninsula of the bay directly across from the village of Kaneohe.  I could see a long seaplane ramp with two or three launching ramps, one big hangar completed and another under construction, and a complex of new buildings of a major air station.  At the north end of the peninsula a small runway for land planes was under construction.  Kaneohe would obviously be a vast improvement over the crowded conditions of Ford Island.