|71-P-7 ditched in the Pacific Conrad Frieze crouched on the fuselage.|
Dawn of Monday, January 5th, came with clearing skies and considerable abatement of the wind. The airplane was pitching and rolling much more gently. The airplane hull stank of vomit from the seasick men and I moved aft into the waist compartment and opened a gun blister. At sunrise the engine nacelles caught my eye. Spray was coating them with glittering salt crystals and the cowl flaps were still open.
I went to the tower and cranked the cowl flaps closed. My little Buddha was still hanging from the altimeter knob. I rubbed it and thought, “Well, Buddha Buddy, maybe you helped get us down in one-piece last night.” I tucked the little figurine into a back pocket.
The salt spray on the engines kept bothering me. I was afraid that salt might get into the downdraft carburetor air intakes and I wanted those engines in good shape if someone brought us some fuel. I gathered up all the oil wiping rags in the airplane, pulled off my shoes and socks for good footing, climbed out the navigator’s hatch, and up onto the broad wing.
The squall line had passed during the night hours. Now the ocean swells were blue and sun-silvered in the early morning sun. They reflected blue sky and puffy white cumulus clouds between the gently pitching PBY and the distant green/brown slopes of the island. The early morning breeze was a refreshing change from the smelly inside of the airplane.
My gaze swept the broad circumference of the horizon then the blue-grey camouflage of the airplane wing. Damn, I thought, this airplane is just a speck on the wide sweep of this ocean and that paint won’t make it any easier to see from a search airplane.
I moved out to the starboard engine nacelle. Lying flat, I reached over and stuffed the oil rags into the carburetor air intake. Moving to the port engine, I had no more rags so I pulled off my dungarees shirt and stuffed that into the port scoop. Then I unbuttoned the aft cowling and inspected the accessory section of the engine. With a feeling of relief, I saw that not much salt had accumulated on the magnesium of the blower sections or the magnetos. That was about all I could do for the engines.
Clark, Willis, and Miller had climbed onto the wing from the navigator’s hatch. They stood staring at the distant island with binoculars and conferring while I re-fastened the engine cowling. When I stood up, Clark motioned to me and held out the binoculars. “Frieze, you have good eyes—tell me what island that is out there.”
“Maui, isn’t it, Sir?”
“Take a good look.”
Balancing myself against the roll and pitch of the airplane, I focused the glasses and scanned the island. The island peak, its top shrouded in clouds, was clearly visible in the morning air as were the lesser peaks to the north. I started to say, “It’s Maui—that’s Haleakala,” but the words died unspoken. The mountain had a peculiar double appearance.
The truth slowly dawned and, with it, my spirits sank. I was looking at a mountain with another beyond and almost a direct line with it from our angle. Only one of the Hawaiian islands has two peaks—Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea.
“Damn, lieutenant, don’t think it’s Maui—that’s the Big Island, isn’t it.” It was a statement, not a question.
“We all think so. The squadron is going to be looking for us 40 miles off Maui and here we are maybe sixty or seventy miles off Hilo!”
“How far you reckon from where we told them we were?”
“More than a hundred miles, for damn sure!”
“There’ll be ships passing, won’t there?”
The pilot ran his fingers through his curly black hair. “Not very likely. It’s a hulluva big ocean. No reason for surface traffic out here. We are well out of the shipping lanes into Hilo and are probably drifting southwest all the time. We’ve got to get that radio working!”
The generator on the putt-putt suddenly became vital. I climbed back into the airplane, rousted Davenport from a bunk, and conferred with him and Herrin. Dave was a bit seasick but he scratched his head and said, “All we need is one lousy pint of gasoline. We could disconnect the putt-putt fuel line and feed the damned thing with a funnel or something.”
Something clicked in my mind and the little light bulb came on. “Hey, we can get a little gas! The main tank sumps! Hang on—let me get a coffee can from the galley locker. Saw an empty one there.”
The sump drain outlets were on the outside of the wing pylon aft of the tower window. I could not reach one through the tiny window so I went outside the airplane. With a safety line tied to the belt of my dungarees, I slid along the fuselage under the wing trailing edge and got one foot on the aft wing strut. From that rather perilous perch, I could hold the coffee can under the drain opening. Davenport opened the valve in the tower. I caught more than a pint of the precious gaoline and passed it in through the tower window.
Herrin had disconnected the APU fuel line, scrounged the surgical rubber tourniquet from the first aid kit, fitted the end of the rubber tube over the fuel inlet, and plugged a small funnel into the other end. He held the funnel elevated and poured gasoline into it while Dave cranked the putt-putt.
It worked. The popping of the exhaust of that little engine was music to our ears—the airplane was alive! Quickly Clark scribbled a position message while Willis propped a very seasick Gilbert in his chair at the radio transmitter. The radio came to life, tubes glowing behind the black grillwork and meters flicking to normal readings. Gilbert took the message and put his fingers on the transmit key—and the set went dead!
Groggily, the seasick radioman unclipped the front panel of the transmitter. He fumbled and peered for a couple of minutes, pronounced the transmitter inoperative for unknown reasons, and stumbled aft to a bunk and a waxed paper bag from the toilet. Little Bruck, the radio striker (also seasick) had no more luck than Gilbert.
“That rips the hell out of it,” Clark exclaimed disgustedly. “Secure the putt-putt and save that gas. At least we can use it for the galley hot plate and have some hot coffee. Maybe they will search out to within range of the VHF.” (All the while, Clark was leaning dispiritedly against a square metal box welded to the aft bulkhead. The cover was stenciled SPARE FUSES. We were to learn later that the problem was only a blown main power fuse in the radio. The sick third class had simply not found it.)
We had eaten nothing since our Spam sandwiches in the flight lunches at noon the day before. Clark inventoried our supplies and fresh water. We had coffee in the galley locker. The emergency rations box yielded some cans of soup, a few cans of “Brown Betty” bread, and a box of old-fashioned sea biscuits—big round, thick, dry cracker-like slabs of hardtack. The emergency kit also contained a fishing line with a feather lure. Our two water breakers on the forward bulkhead of the galley contained a total of about six gallons of fresh water.
Dave and I fired up the putt-putt and made a pot of coffee. We made do for breakfast with a cup of coffee and one piece of Brown Betty canned bread per man. Our worst shortage was cigarettes. I smoked my last Lucky after “breakfast” and the other smokers were nearly out.
We drifted all day on the heaving ocean under the hot tropic sun without sighting airplane or ship. During the heat of the day, the stench of vomit inside prompted those of us whowere not afflicted to spend most of our time either up on the broad wing or on the camelback between the gun blisters. Our dep tans started turning into sunburns. I went to the tunnel hatch aft and tried fishing but nothing bit at the feather lure.
Twice during the long afternoon someone thought he heard airplane engines in the far distance. Each time, and other intervals, Clark sent out a call on the VHF radio. There was never an answer. The engine sounds—if there really were any—faded to silence.
In the late afternoon, AP Miller found me lying on the wing center section alone. “Hey, Frieze,” he said in a low voice and looking around to see if anyone was coming up there, “you want a smoke?”
“I’d give my left nut for a cigarette!”
“Lookee what I got!”
Miller gleefully displayed a small handful of old cigarette butts. He had scrounged them from all the butt cans in the airplane. We rolled the shredded butts in toilet paper but they were far from a satisfying smoke.
While we talked there on the wing, Miller and I made a plan which we took to Lt. Clark. The airplane had two inflatable life rafts –one a large eight-man model and the other a small two-man raft. We proposed that he and I would take the two-man raft and paddle for the beach.
Clark was not enthused. He snorted, “Cripes, men, it’s at least sixty miles—maybe more! Never make it—probably drift out to sea. Hell no, we’ll hang on a couple of days before we try anything like that.”
Late in the day when it had become painfully apparent that we would not be rescued and not knowing how long it might be, Clark re-assessed our meager supplies and established rations. Each man would be allowed two cups of water per day. Supper was a half-cup of water (coffee was out as not being thirst satisfying), half a can of bean soup, and a piece of Brown Betty. Since it was unpopular, anyone who wanted a piece of hardtack could have it but it was too dry to be palatable without water or coffee. The night watches were again set.
During the last daylight I found the PPC poring over the chart on the navigator’s table and asked, “Sir, have you figured out how we got so fouled up and lost?”
“It think so, Frieze. Look at the chart here. We were hang on course on the way out. After we did the crossover there were a combination of two things that drifted us north from our intended track. We were applying the wind correction backward and the wind apparently had shifted around to the west so we had a tailwind that we didn’t recognize which increased our ground speed significantly.
“When our position was plotted as being opposite French Frigate, we were probably somewhere down here between Necker and Nihoa. The visibility got crummy and we did not make a landfall after French Frigate. At our ETA of 1850 we evidently were already way off here opposite the big island but out of sight of it.
“I’d guess we flew a good two hundred miles past the damn islands. Then we did that stupid chasing of the moon and were nearly east of the big island when we got a bearing form Pearl and started back. You can see from the layout of the mountain peaks how easy it was in the dark to mistake the silhouette of the big island around eighty miles away for Maui thirty or forty miles away. That’s why we sent the wrong position while we still had radio contact.”
The pilot managed a wry grin, “We screwed up, Frieze. We screwed up royally!”