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Tacoma, Washington, United States

Friday, October 7, 2016

The Summer of 1942

Chapter 30
Summer 1942 & USS COPAHEE

"Moonlight Serenade will still remind me of those lazy, idyllic evenings."

My week at the Royal Hawaiian was up on June 28th and I reported back to Kaneohe expecting to go back on a flight crew.  That did not happen.  I was far over the average number of flight hours per month deemed maximum and was assigned to a month of ground duty.  Even though I was an aviation machinist mate second class, I found myself driving a gasoline tanker truck for a month.  That injured my pride but there was nothing I could do about it.
The truck was a 2,000-gallon tanker used to shuttle aviation gasoline from the tank farm to the PBYs on the ramp and to the fighter strip on the north side of the bae were carrier squadrons of F4F “Wildcat” fighters and Douglas SBD dive bombers were based while their carriers were in Pearl Harbor.  I had never driven a large truck (Grandpa Stanley’s little 1929 Chev truck hardly counted) but before long I was wheeling the big grey ten-wheeler around the base and through the parked airplanes like a veteran.
It was not long before brother Dick came up with one of his schemes.  Gasoline rationing for civilian and personal vehicle use had become very strict.  Extra ration coupons on the black market were expensive and hard to come by.  The big baby blue LaSalle with its gas-guzzling straight-eight engine was spending more time in the barracks parking lot than on liberty.
Dick had noted that the gasoline tanker carried two five-gallon cans of avgas in lower compartments on each side of the truck.  I do not recall what they were for, but old Richard figured out a use for them and came to me with a proposition.  He figured that the LaSalle would run fine, at least for a time, on 100-octane and might even have more pep than using ordinary 80-octane from a filling station pump.
Richard’s quick keen blue eyes had also noted that when I made a delivery to the fighter strip, I often used the base perimeter road past Hawaiiloa Hill and behind a large revetment.  For several second the fuel truck was not visible from the control tower or the base administration building.
In the past, Dick had been very penurious about allowing me to take the LaSalle on liberty my myself.  In fact, he simply would not lend it to me.  Now he tempted me by offering to let me use it one day a week if I would help him pirate a little gasoline.  When I demurred he said, “Hell, brother, you probably spill more than ten gallons every day!  No one is going to miss a cople of jerry cans full one in a while.”
Richard had been so confident in his plan that he had already scrounged two of the red five-gallon jerry cans and had them in the trunk of the LaSalle.  Through a bit of coordinated “sleight of hand” behind the revetment we had a few extra gallons of fuel and I did get to use the LaSalle once in a while when Dick had the duty.
The arrangement did not last very long because soon after we wrecked the LaSalle.  Dick, Glover, and I had been on liberty together and were coming back to Kaneohe at dawn so we could make muster.  Dick was driving, Glover was snoozing in the front seat beside Dick, and I was asleep in the back seat as we passed the Kailua junction and headed up a straight stretch of road toward the Kaneohe NAS main gate.
It was about a mile of perfectly straight road bordered by very shallow ditches.  We oculd have run off the road safely anywhere except one spot where a large kiave tree grew out of a low embankment.  It had a mass of gnarled roots at its base.  Just short of the tree, Dick fell asleep at the wheel and the car drifted off the road.  The right front end hit the roots and folded the wheel back under the engine.  Dick was not speeding but the impact threw Glover against the dash and my shoulder slammed into the back of the front seat.
Richard had not bothered to buy insurance on the LaSalle.  He knew that it would cost more to repair than he had invested in it so he simply allowed the Kaiua police to tow it away, then called the bank where he had gotten the loan for it and told them they could have it.   (We did see a Marine driving the LaSalle a few weeks later and the frame was so sprung that it went down the street somewhat crabwise!)
We were not without wheels for long.  Dick made some money in a couple of poker games and I got lucky in a crap game.  He borrowed a hundred fifty dollars from me one weekend and came back from liberty driving a brown Dodge coupe.  It was registered in his name but since I had provided half the down payment it was mine to use on occasion.  To my later regret, I neglected to get a Hawaiian driver’s license.
During the month I spent driving that gasoline truck, the build-up at Kaneohe Bay Naval Air Station accelerated.  The contractor completed the Number Two hangar and started refurbishing Hangar One.  Five new barracks buildings went up south of the mess hall to accommodate the influx of new men and new squadrons.  More airplanes arrived and soon VP-11 was up to full strength.  Scuttlebutt had it that a big campaign was developing on the Solomon Islands and it was rumored that we would be one of the first squadrons transferred to the South Pacific to operate off aircraft tenders.
With the fighting confined to the far reaches of the Pacific and the Japanese Navy no longer an immediate threat to Hawaii, our life was peacefully “normal”.  Dick and Diane rented a small house out in the Kaimuki district of Honolulu.  It was in a cul-de-sac off the Kam Highway just beyond the old Kaimuki theater.  I still have the address on a special liberty pass—1256-A Ekaha Street.
The raucous ambiance of the bars and cat houses of the Honolulu tenderloin held no fascination for me.  We who were shore-based preferred to do our partying and celebrating with shipmates in the quieter atmosphere of Waikiki.  When nothing special was going on and there was not a movie I wanted to see, I occasionally spent quiet liberty evenings with Dick and Diane at the Ekaha Street house.  Diane would prepare supper (I had my first encounter with Korean kim chee there) and we would spend the evening lounging around listening to Glenn Miller records.  Diane’s favorite was “Moonlight Serenade”. Moonlight Serenade will still remind me of those lazy, idyllic evenings.
The kim chee was another matter.  Diane loved it and Dick professed to like it, but that rotten cabbage never made a hit with me!  The evening Diane put it in front of me, it was fortunate that I had just opened a new quart of beer.  I had no aversion to cooked cabbage so I scooped up a forkful.  I don’t know what they put in kim chee for seasoning before they bury it, but it was as if I had a mouthful of angry hornets!  It took most of the beer to quiet it down.
The other problem with eating authentic kim chee is the “afterglow” on the breath.  For t least a day, a kim chee eater’s breath smells just like that fish in Hilo Harbor tasted—like a country outhouse on a hot day!  Beside it, the odor of garlic is mild.
It was during that “peaceful” summer of 1942 after the Battle of Midway that I had to come to grips with the grim realities of war.  Many images were often in my mind and in my dreams—that row of bloody bodies beneath the wing of that PBY on December 7th, the noise strafing Zeros coming at us, exploding bombs, the grinning face of the enemy pilot who had circled us, the forlorn figure in that lifeboat and my near overwhelming desire to pull the trigger of the big machine gun.
What we were being subjected to and called upon to do was in no way consistent with my Christian upbringing.  I attended our Navy non-denominational church service but found no answers—only a reminder of the commandment “Thou shall not kill.”  We knew, however, that in war it is a matter of kill or be killed.
I finally found some solace in an unlikely place—the prologue of a play by William Saroyan, “The Time of Our Lives”, I believe.  It impressed me sufficiently and helped me to the extent that I still have a copy of the text:
“In the time of your life, live—so that in that good time there shall be no ugliness or death for yourself or for any life your life touches.  Seek goodness everywhere and, when it is found, bring it out of its hiding place and let it be free and unashamed.
“Place in matter and in flesh the least of the values for these are things that hold death and must pass away.  Discover in all things that which shines and is beyond corruption.  Encourage virtue in whatever heart it may have been driven into hiding by the shame and terror of the world.  Ignore the obvious for it is unworthy of a clear eye and a kind heart.  Be the inferior of no man, nor of any man be the superior.  Remember that every man is a variation of yourself.  No man’s guilt is not yours nor is any man’s innocence a thing apart.
“Despise evil and ungodliness but not men of evil and ungodliness—these understand.  Have no shame in being kindly and gentle but if, in the time of your life, the time comes to kill—kill and have no regret.
“In the time of your life, live—so that in that wondrous time you shall add no misery and sorrow to the world but shall smile to the infinite delight and mystery of it.”
I carried that with me throughout the remainder of World War II.