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Tacoma, Washington, United States

Saturday, October 1, 2016

A Fishy Whale of a Tale and a Big Fish

"We came to feel more at home in the air than on the ground."

Chapter 28

The “Black Days”

Of the

War in the Pacific

Early 1942

When we brought in battered old 71-P-7 on January 6, 1942, every VP-11 and VP-71 man aboard the station had gathered on the ramp.  When I climbed down the ladder I looked around for my brother but he was nowhere to be seen.  Glover came pushing through the crowd to greet me.
Glover said something like, “Jeez, we sure are glad to see you back, boy!  They had written you off when they didn’t find you yesterday.  They figured secured the search except for that JRS sent out from Pearl this morning to fly out the last bearing they took.  Why the hell didn’t Clark radio where you really were?”
I shook my head ruefully.  “Long story, Glover.  I’ll tell it over a beer this evening.  Where the hell is Dick?”
“Glover chuckled.  “Don’t think he doesn’t care, Con.  Soon as the word got out that your crew was overdue, he hit the radio room and stayed there all night.  They kept trying to call after that broken transmission at midnight.  Bet you slept more than he did.
“The next morning he was supernumerary on one of the crews that flew the search.  When they didn’t find anything, old Frieze got ready to go ashore and get drunk, but he was too damn bushed.  Fell asleep in his whites mumbling, “What the hell am I going to tell the folks?”
As I have said before, the Friezes are not particularly demonstrative.  When I saw Dick the next day he just grinned and said, “Glad to see you back, nipple noggin.  Geez, how’d you guys get so screwed up?!”
For the next month we flew those long patrols—scanning square mile after square mile of empty blue ocean.  We saw neither Japanese ships or submarines.  Neither did we see the huge relief convoy from the mainland that we desperately needed.
I recall no incident of note except one occasion early in February when everyone in Hawaii were still tense and a bit “trigger-happy”.  We were flying an airplane from another squadron and it had one new feature with which we were not familiar.  It was a black box called an “IFF” (Identification, Friend or Foe).  It was supposed to transmit a recognition code.
When we approached Oahu from patrol, it was urgent that we be identified as friendly because rumor had it that the Japanese on Wake Island had captured some PBYs and were using them for reconnaissance over the islands.  Our old system to identify ourselves to the coastal anti-aircraft batteries was to make a circle one mile out either to the right or the left depending on if it was an odd or even day.  The new IFF was supposed to transmit the code of the day continuously.
On this particular day, when we had once more been on patrol out toward Midway and Wake, we came in near sunset approaching Kaena Point from the west northwest.  At the pilot’s request, I checked the IFF black box in the tail of the fuselage and the little red light was on indicating that it was operating.
Either the IFF was not working or else the Army anti-aircraft battery on Kaena Point was not receiving the signal.  As we neared the beach there was a sudden puff of greasy black smoke off our wingtip and the airplane was rocked by a concussion.  Before we could react another anti-aircraft shell burst off the other wingtip and the PBY bucked again.
Willis was flying the airplane.  I heard Clark yelling at him, “TURN—MAKE A TURN, DAMMIT!”
Clark seized the controls and rolled the PBY into a steep turn to the left, holding it until we had made a 360-degree turn.  Apparently he guessed right as there was only one more burst well behind us.  When we landed we found only two small shrapnel holes in one wingtip.  We had come that close to becoming a “lost in friendly fire” statistic.
The first week in February, we got a new 11-P-11.  It was a used plane out of some stateside squadron, but it was fully ready for combat patrols.
We kept on flying those patrols every second or third day.  We paid little heed to the long hours that were accumulating in our log books.  We simply concentrated on finding anything Japanese on which we could vent our anger and strike a blow of retaliation.
We came to feel more at home in the air than on the ground.  My memories of those interminable flights are primarily of two things—the long, long hours spent on watch at my gun station in the port waist blister and the additional long hours at the engine instrument panel in the tower.  From the tower I would sometimes slide down, keeping my earphones in place on a long cord, pour a cup of coffee from the galley hot plate, and stand for a bit in the hatch leading forward.
The droning of the big engines was lulling and I did not consciously hear it unless the sound changed which would bring me instantly alert.  The duty navigator (not Ensign Douglas—he had transferred to a utility squadron on Maui flying Grumman “Duck” immediately upon return on the Hulbert from the episode in 71-P-7) was usually bent over his chart and the radioman sitting quietly in front of his set since we were always on radio silence except for contact reports.  If I held my coffee cup still, engine vibration would make little standing waves on the surface of the black liquid.  It was my world.  I was content up there.
On February 7th, 11-P-11 was ordered to Hilo for a week of advanced base operations from a tender.  A tug towing a lumber barge had been torpedoed not far off the entrance to Hilo Harbor.  Our mission was to fly a daily round-the-island anti-submarine patrol.  We were to watch for anything suspicious along the coast because there were still rumors that Jap subs or more of the midget subs might be getting supplies from shore.  Even with the inconvenience of operating from the tender and having to spend long hours on ready watch in the airplane moored to a buoy, it was a welcome change in routine.
The advanced base operation provided a couple of memory highlights for me.  One afternoon when we had returned from our island circuit and were on ready watch at the mooring buoy, I wandered aft and opened the tunnel hatch in the bottom of the tail.  Below in the crystal clear water I could see a coral head surrounded by some fairly large fish.  I quickly got the fishing line from the emergency kit and lowered the lure slowly down among the fish.  One of them seized the feather lure.
After a short tussle I hand-lined in the fish.  It would have weighed four or five pounds, had beautiful silvery scales, and had the slim tail of the tuna family.  I proudly showed it to Lt. Clark and proposed the I fillet the fish and fry it for supper.  He agreed and the fish provided two large fillets.
When I saw the chow boat leave the tender to bring out our supper, I fired up the putt-putt and put our small skillet on the hot plane.  The only grease in the airplane was butter so I put two small pieces of fish to fry in that.
Supper that evening was pork chops and mashed potatoes with mixed peas and carrots.  When the boat crew handed in the containers, the first pieces of fish were ready.  The white fish had fried golden brown.  It looked and smelled delicious.
Lt. Clark (the PCC always got the first plate) was seated at the navigator’s table.  I prepared him a plate, but substituted a piece of fish for the two pork chops.  When I placed it in front of him he rubbed his hands and smacked his lips, and dug into the fish.  I watched for his reaction.  He put a piece of fish in his mouth, chewed once, then the smile on his face died and he very carefully spit the mouthful of fish back onto his plate, he pitched it out the open hatch over his head and into the water and simply said, Bring me some pork chops!”
I fixed Clark a fresh plate, the sampled the fish myself.  One taste was more than enough.  I never found out what kind of fish it was, but the only way to describe it is that it tasted exactly the way a country outhouse smells on a hot summer day.
That was only the beginning of an eventful evening.  Just as we all had dished up our supper and settled down to eat, the radio came alive.  A coast watcher reported a submarine just off the entrance to Hilo Harbor.  The pork chops were promptly set aside and we got underway in a hurry because it was nearly sunset.  In response to Davenport’s signals, I shot into the tower as the pilots scrambled into their seats.  Herrin dived out the bow turret hatch, released the mooring line, and stowed the mooring post while Dave went aft and secured the hatches for takeoff.
We had both engines running in less than one minute.  Under the circumstances Clark did not wait for the oil to warm up, but simply made a circle takeoff from the buoy.  The “Floats UP” light came on even before the hull cleared the water and in two minutes flat we were climbing out toward the harbor entrance.  Our third pilot and bombardier at that time was, I believe, Ensign Joe Deodati.  He cranked up the bomb window shield in the nose, armed our bombs and depth charges, and got the Norden bombsight ready.
Sure enough, at the spot reported about a mile off the harbor entrance the fading daylight revealed a long, dark, slim shape under the surface.  Davenport pitched out a smoke bomb as we went over, then Clark banked around and made a run on the shape.  Deodati had been practicing—on that first run he dropped both big depth charges squarely on top of the supposed enemy submarine.  Twin concussion domes bulged the surface then white water geysered upward.
Two PC boats (we called the harbor patrol small craft “the spider fleet”) were speeding out of the harbor.  We orbited the area and marked what appeared to be a spreading oil slick with another smoke bomb.  We were gleeful, surmising that we had got the sub that had sunk a tug in this position a few days before.
As the PC boats came into the slick, Clark contacted the lead boat on the VHF radio and said, “You should be right in the middle of an oil slick—we made a direct hit on the bastard!”
The drawling voice of the CPO skippering the lead boat came back loud and clear, “Well, suh, I don’t know about oil slicks, but I am passing through the awfullest mess of blood and blubber you ever did see!”
We had obviously depth-charged a large whale.  It was chagrining, to say the least, and we flew back and landed in silence. Our pork chops were greasy and cold.
Now we conferred as to how we could keep the embarrassing incident secret.  Whiskey Willis, ever resourceful, allowed as how he would go ashore and dispense some good cotch among the PC boat crews before they wrote up their action reports.  While he was gone Clark wrote up our won report to explain the use of ordnance.  He wound up with: “Dropped two depth charges on suspected Japanese submarine; however, there was no evidence of damage to the enemy.”  (We thought we had our tracks covered; nonetheless, it would turn out that the scuttlebutt on the “Navy grapevine” was, as usual, very efficient.)
Two days later we were relieved by a VP-12 airplane and, our misspent depth charges having been replace from the tender, headed home to Kaneohe.  We flew at patrol altitude of 750 feet automatically making a sweep and watching for possible submarines in the shallow waters around the islands.
We flew west, then turned and crossed Maui through the valley between Haleakala and the north Maui mountains, crossed Lahaina Roads, and proceeded toward Molokai.  I was relaxing in the waist compartment with Herrin and Ensign Deodati.  Staring out of the gun blister, we had just remarked on how flat calm and clear the water was on that day when suddenly Deodati stiffened and said, “Look down there—is that a sub or a while?!”
Below us there was calm water over a sandy bottom studded here and there with the dark masses of rocky areas.  One of the dark masses, however, was long and slim, definitely not rocks.  Deodati pitched out a smoke bomb and called Clark on the interphone.
We banked around and came back over the area at low altitude, the pilots scanning with their binoculars.  It was a real thrill to hear Clark say, “Fellow, if that is a whale, it’s the only one in existence with a conning-tower and something painted on it!  That is a genuine submarine!!”
It was a Hawaiian Defense Area where no American submarine would be operating, much less hiding below the surface.  While Willis called in the contact report, we circled and came back on a bombing run.  Once more Deodati got the shape in the Norden bombsight.   Once more he straddled the shape with two depth charges.
A destroyer rounded the west tip of Maui.  When we came back over the area there was a definite oil slick trailing on the surface as the dark shape moved slowly toward an area of deeper water.  We had apparently crippled it.  We also advised the destroyer and kept dropping smoke bombs to mark its location until the skipper of the destroyer told us they had contact on sonar.
While we circled, the destroyer made a high speed pass over the submarine and dropped a full pattern of depth charges.  We watched as the sleek warship slowed, came back across the area, then came to a dead stop amidst what appeared to be oil and pieces of wreckage.  After a while the destroyer came back on the radio, “Okay, Dumbo—well done.  We have oil and debris including life jacket with Japanese markings.  Scratch one Nip sub!   Again I say—well done!”
We flew back to Kaneohe in high spirits.  Once more most of the squadron personnel, including our skipper, were on the ramp when the beach crew hauled us out of the water.  When we deplaned to the congratulations of our shipmates, I noted that the squadron painter disappeared behind the nose of 11-P-11 with a stepladder.  When he reappeared, the skipper motioned for us to follow him to that side of the airplane.  There, up beneath the cockpit side window, the painter had stenciled in red the silhouette of half a submarine, but above that, the outline of a whale!  Willis’ scotch had obviously not done the job with the PC crews.