"That day almost got me a court martial and I got a hard lesson in tropic sunburn."
A Day Off
My memories of the two weeks following our arrival at Midway on the second day of the battle are mostly of long fourteen-hour flights every day. For the first few days we anticipated that the Japanese main battle fleet and the invasion fleet might show up at any time. Finally, however, we became convinced that the Japanese were really headed home in disgrace. Yamamoto had us out-numbered four to one in ships, more than two to one in airplanes, four aircraft carriers to our three, but the incredible had happened—we won. There were more black days in the war in the Pacific to come but the blackest of them were over. The Imperial Japanese Navy would no longer run wild in the Pacific.
After a week of the daily flights I did not like the sound of the engines of our PBY. Instead of singing, they started to complain with misfiring when we started in the morning and running rough during approach for landing. I had to keep the cowl flaps cranked unusually wide open to keep the cylinder head temperatures down during normal cruise power settings. Both we and the airplane were tired.
Davenport noticed it, too, and talked to the PPC. We had put more than one hundred twenty hours on the airplane since the engines had an eighty-hour check.
We were given on day off. Dave, Herrin, and I spent it on portable work stands changing the fifty-six spark plugs (two each in the fourteen cylinders of each engine), cleaning the magnetos and replacing burned points, and checking each system on the airplane.
That day almost got me a court martial and I got a hard lesson in tropic sunburn. It was delightfully cool in the early morning when we put up the portable work stands and went to work on the engines. I peeled off my dungaree shirt and started changing spark plugs. A little later I also pulled off my skivy shirt. It was time for noon chow before I thought to put my shirt back on. My back was uncomfortable warm.
By evening I was in agony. The searing tropic sun had literally fried the skin of my back. Recalling that they had used tannic acid jelly on my sunburn in boot camp, I went looking for the Midway sick bay. In the sick bay bunker a young Navy doctor took one look at me and exploded.
“Sailor, you have gone and got yourself a second degree burn there! If I have to put you on the sick list as unfit for duty, you could get a summary court martial—that’s like shooting yourself in the foot!”
My back was hurting something fierce but I gritted my teeth and said, “Lieutenant, Sir, I am on a PBY flight crew and I will fly tomorrow. All I ask is that you put on some of that tannic acid or something. I can sleep on my face for a while. I did not come here to get off duty!”
I did exactly that. I slept face down. Three or four days later Dave and I were in the shower one evening and he said, “Hey, Con, there’s a piece of loose skin on your shoulder.” He took hold of it and the outer skin of my back peeled off in one piece looking like a sheet of onionskin typing paper. From then on, if I wanted my shirt off, I left my skivy shirt on!
Approximately two weeks after the Battle of Midway, I believe on the 19th of June, our patrol sector was west toward Wake Island. Two hundred miles or so out of Midway I was on watch at my gun station in the port waist blister when Lt. Camp said quietly on the interphone, “Gentlemen, we have a lifeboat out ahead of us and it is flying a Japanese flag. Rig out the port fifty—I will make a low pass by the boat. If they don’t haul down that damned flag—shot it down!”
Almost as an afterthought Camp added, “Don’t shoot at the boat unless they fire at us. One shot from even a hand gun—sink the damned thing!”
I swung out the big machine gun and was looking through the optical sight when Camp made the pass. The flag had been hauled down and Camp said, “Hold your fire.”
The lifeboat was a sorry sight. It had a stubby mat rigged from oars. A tarp or blanket that had been used for a sail covered some of the occupants. One man was standing by the mast watching us. Three or four others had pulled off their white jumpers or skivy shirts and were waving them apparently in a sign of surrender. One man in what appeared to be officer’s whites sat with his head bowed in the stern.
We sent a contact report then orbited the lifeboat while we waited for the ship Midway promised. I stowed the machine gun then leaned out as Camp made two or three other passes near the enemy boat. For a moment I had a feeling of disappointment that they had not fired at us. In retaliation for December 7th I would have happily sent the boat and its occupants to the bottom of the ocean.
The feeling did not last. All the occupants of the boat had looked up at us and were now sitting with bowed heads as if in submission. Geez, I thought, they are just a bunch of poor bastards that have been floating around out here for two weeks trying to make Wake. Sure don’t envy them!
The nearest ship turned out to be an old WWI four-stack destroyer that had been converted to an aircraft tender, the USS BALLARD. It was a sister ship to the HULBERT that had come to our aid when we were down at sea in 71-P-7. When the BALLARD had the lifeboat in sight we left the prisoners to them and went on with our patrol.
Late in the afternoon, the BALLARD delivered the Japanese prisoners to Midway—the only prisoners that were taken as a result of the battle. The lifeboat as a cutter from the aircraft carrier HIRYU that had been sunk on the afternoon of June 4th. The story we got (and which was later confirmed) was that the survivors had been trapped below when the carrier was abandoned and had been left behind when the Japanese fleet hastily retreated. There had been three officers and thirty-two enlisted men in the boat. There had been four or five more who had succumbed to either wounds or to dehydration and starvation. They had been making for Wake Island with a makeshift sail, but it was obvious none of them would have made it. They were far less than half way when we found them.
That evening when we had finished our re-fueling and had checked the airplane for the next day’s patrol, a messenger showed up looking for the PBY crew that had spotted the Japanese lifeboat. He was carrying a cigar box containing some little souvenirs consisting of uniform buttons and insignia. He announced that the Japanese commander from the boat (the prisoners were being held in the mess hall because the Midway bring had been blown up in the attack the morning of the 4th” had sent them to us as presents in appreciation for the fact that we did not sink the boat but had saved their lives.
I selected a brass cap device. It was similar to a CPO’s cap device with an anchor in a rope circlet on which a lotus blossom was superimposed. The messenger thought it was the cap device from a Japanese ensign ad it later wound up in the bottom of my sea chest where it lay for twenty-five years until it resulted in an incredible reunion with survivors of that lifeboat in Tokyo.
(I will record that reunion of old enemies in detail in an appendix to this part of my story. It was almost as incredible as the wining of the Battle of Midway. It resulted in friendship with the Japanese officer who had been standing by the mast of the boat after hauling down the Japanese flag. Even today we still correspond.)