About Me

My photo
Tacoma, Washington, United States

Saturday, September 17, 2016

The Fighting Frieze Brothers

The unfinished Hangar 2 at Kaneohe on December 7th 1941

With the one airplane away from the flames, Dick and I turned toward the hangar which was apparently undamaged at that point.  Men in both dungarees and white liberty uniforms were milling around and attempting to salvage airplanes and guns.  A group was endeavoring to pull an airplane in the water, one wing burning, to the beach.  We started toward them when Dick halted.  His eyes were on the sky to the north where the attackers had disappeared over the entrance to Kaneohe Bay.
“Y’know,” he said thoughtfully, “there was just fighters in that bunch strafing us.  I’ll bet you money there will be some bombers in here.  We got to find us a gun!”
We raced to the hangar.  It was not yet on fire but something had set off the sprinkler system and water was pouring down inside the big building (water that would quickly deplete the station reservoir).  We ran splashing to the ordnance room.  The door was open and the place had been stripped of guns.  Airplane 11-P-4 that we had been working on the night before had been pushed out the north door along with a VP-12 airplane and they sat nose to tail out on the ramp away from the fires.
“Wait a minute,” I said, “I’m sure I saw a fifty in the waist hatch of number seven back there.  Let’s get that!”
We ran back through the hangar.  Outside, 11-P-7 had one wing starting to burn but there were guns in the airplane.  We scrambled u[ the entry ladder to the gun blister.
“We’ll need c=some place to rig it,” Dick said.  “I know, there’s still no gasoline in Number Four—we’ll put it there and have a clear shot to the north where they came from.”
As we got the gun free of its mount, Glover appeared from somewhere.  Dick hailed him to give us a hand and we handed the heavy gun down to him.  Scrambling down the ladder, Dick shouted back at me, “Get a case of ammo and some magazines—should be a case under the aft bunk.  Hand it down then we’ll take the gun around.
The adrenalin was flowing.  Although a case of fifty-caliber ammunition weighs in the neighborhood of one hundred pounds and I weighed all of 140, I handed it out of the hatch with apparent ease, then turned and yanked four or five empty magazine cases from the rack on the bulkhead.  When I came down the ladder with them, Dick and Glover were disappearing around the corner of the hangar with the big machine gun between them.  The case of ammunition was sitting on the ground.
Under normal circumstances there was no way that I could shoulder that heavy case but these were not normal circumstances.  I swung the brown wooden case onto a shoulder, seized the straps of the magazines with my free hand, and went at a shuffling trot around hangar.
Dick and Glover got the big machine gun mounted on the trunnion in the port waist hatch facing north toward the entrance to the bay.  I handed up the case of ammunition then scrambled into the waist compartment with the empty magazines.  Glover said, “You don’t need me here—I’ll go and find another gun.”  He went down the ladder and disappearance into the hangar.
“Hurry up,” Dick snapped, “and get some ammo into those cans.  We don’t know when they might be back but I’ll bet it won’t be long!”
I opened the case, picked up a magazine, then curse.  “Dammit—that’s a port gun and these are starboard cans!  They are backwards—I’ll have go back.”
“Don’t take time for that, dummy—turn the feed spindles around!  They may be here any minute!”
I had no tools but I yanked the cover hinges out with my bare fingers, somehow got the spindle cotter pins out, and reversed them.  Dick did one of the but he mostly kept a wary eye on the northeast approach to the base.  In the process, I accumulated cuts on my hands so that I was leaving bloody smears here and there that would later give raise to scuttlebutt that one of the Frieze boys had gotten wounded in Number Four.
Just as I got the first magazine loaded and handed it up to Dick, we heard a shout in the distance, “Here the bastards come again!”
Dick slammed the magazine onto the gun, threaded in the belt, and pulled the charging handle.  “Keep your head down and keep them coming,” he said grimly.
I was sitting in the hatch leading forward.  By turning my head, I could see under Dick’s left arm.  We had a perfect field of fire away from the hangar and over the roof of the incomplete Hangar No. 2.  I folded an ammunition belt into the next magazine and slammed it into the ready rack on the bulkhead at his elbow just as the big machine gun started thudding.  A Zero was sweeping in over the other hangar headed straight for us, his wings winking points of fire and orange tracer reaching out as a twin line of bullets walked across the ramp toward us.  I could see Dick’s tracers fanning the air behind the speeding airplane as it pulled up over us and the hangar.  Several other streams of tracers from the ground were also passing behind the speeding airplane.
Adrenalin was pouring through us.  I slammed another magazine in the rack and yelled over the din, “Lead the sonamabitch!  Lead him like he was a duck!”
The Zeros kept coming and Dick’s machine gun kept up an almost steady thudding.  The canvas bag beneath the gun quickly filled with the empty brass casings spilling out.  I ripped the bag loose and let the hot casing spill onto the bilges under out feet.  The odor of burned gunpowder filled the compartment and the noise of the diving airplanes and hammering machine guns was continuous.  We had no anti-aircraft guns on the base and had only the machine guns we had salvaged from the burning planes, Springfield rifles, and Colt automatic pistols but this time we were fighting mad and we were fighting back with all we had.  When a magazine went empty Dick yanked it off, threw it behind him into my lap, slammed another in place, and recharged the gun in one continuous motion.
The day dissolved into a series of quick impressions.  At one point between Zeros I glanced out across the ramp and saw Joe Brooks holding the barrel of a thirty caliber macine gun on his shoulder like a human gun mount while a man knelt behind him and fired at the attackers.  Out by the road an officer knelt in the shallow ditch and fired a 45-caliber automatic.  Others were firing rifles.
A lull in the strafing attacks came and then the bombers came in from the sea.  They were small Kakajima 97s with fixed landing gear.  They came over at about fifteen hundred feet in a long line.  The smoke of the burning airplanes was blowing away from us so we could see them clearly.  When they dropped a bomb we could see the black shape tumble from the belly.  Each one looked like it was falling straight for us.
One bomb hit on the open ramp just a few yards short of our position.  A hug geyser of shattered concrete and sand was thrown up and the concussion nearly deafened us and rocked the airplane.  Another bomb hit the airplane parked immediately behind Number Four.  That concussion picked me up and slammed me face down into the hot shell casing in the bilges.  That was the only time Dick left his gun.  He wheeled around and grabbed my arm.  “You hurt?!”  I shook my head and he went back to the gun.
A bomb hit in the parking lot across the street.  I saw Whiskey Willis’ Chev coupe go fifty feet into the air, execute a slow roll, and land upside down.  Another scored a direct hit on the hangar behind us.  The new corrugated siding bulged at the explosion then went flying off in huge pieces.  The office spaces in the hangar were now burning.
When the bomber had gone the Zeros came back.  They went after every airplane that was not yet on fire, including Number Four.  At one point a Zero banked around low over us apparently assessing the damage or perhaps wondering why this one airplane from which tracers kept coming was not on fire.  For a long second, Dick and I gaped up at him.  The canopy was open and we could see the pilot clearly—his goggled face circled by the fur of a flying helmet.  He appeared to be grinning.’
Number Four was probably the only airplane on the ramp that was not on fire.  Three or four Zeros set up a racetrack pattern and kept coming after us.  Fortunately, they were good.  Their wing guns were set to converge at three hundred yards for air combat and they were flying so low on their strafing runs that the lines of tracers and bullets chipping the ramp kept straddling us.
At one point I had dropped an ammo can and leaned down to get it.  As I did, I felt a tug at the back of my ahirt as if there was someone forward in the airplane trying to get my attention.  I looked over my shoulder, but there was no one there.
Dick’s gun kept up its heavy thudding.  I slammed another full magazine into the rack and looked up just as one came at us.  The sight of the nose of a Zero with its wing guns spitting tracers became engraved indelibly on my memory.  This time Dick was leading the speeding airplane.  I saw his tracers hit the nose and walk the full length of the green fuselage.  A thin stream of white vapor poured out of the airplane and Dick yelled exultantly, “I HIT THAT SOME OF A BITCH!  I HIT HIM!”
I saw movement to my right and looked out the other blister toward the hangar.  Trucks were coming to that corner of the hangar and taking away wounded that were carried out of the burning building.  Six or seven dead had been laid out in a row beneath the port wing of the airplane.  Crimson blood was everywhere.  One body had no legs.  Another, that of a big burly sailor in dungarees, lay on its back with one arm raised toward that sky as if in death shaking a bloody fist at the sneak attackers.  The eyes were open, their glazed gaze directed at the treacherous sky.  I quickly turned away.
After what seemed like hours but was probably twenty or thirty minutes, the sound of diving airplanes and the hammering of machine guns and rifles dwindled.  The bombers had gone and the Zeros were swinging away out of range over the bay to get back in formation.  My ammo case was empty.  I sat with the last belt draped across my knees and watched them go.
The airplane Dick had hit was still streaming white fuel vapor.  When the others were in formation, the cripple turned and came back at us in a suicide run.  He came straight in at full throttle, his wing guns spitting win lines of tracers.  All guns on the ramp, including Dick’s, came alive and the Japanese flew into literally a vortex of our tracers.  The canopy shattered and the Zero pilot must have been dead because the airplane dived into the side of Hawaiiloa Hill at full throttle, guns still firing, and exploded sending a ball of greasy black and orange smoke rolling into the sky.  The gunfire ceased in the sudden silence I could hear cheers all over the ramp area.