On the 28th of September COPAHEE sailed into the harbor at Noumea, New Caledonia. Just off the entrance we passed the out-bound USS WASP, our newest carrier. We would not see WASP again because the big aircraft carrier was sunk a few days later.
We lay at anchor that afternoon while a contingent of four dozen Marine pilots came aboard to fly off the airplanes we had brought. They would fly off the little carrier to a field on New Caledonia for final fueling and arming and would then head for the battle on Guadalcanal.
The pilot assigned to my F4F came to the airplane in the evening for his cockpit checkout. He was a young lieutenant probably no more than a couple of years older than my twenty. He was a bit nervous because he had made but one catapult takeoff during flight training and it would be a catapult takeoff the next morning.
I gave the young lieutenant a thorough cockpit checkout. He had a chart of New Caledonia with him so I showed him the map case and the plotting board that pulls out from beneath the instrument panel. He remained in the cockpit going over everything after I climbed down off the wing and I did not see what he did with the long blueprint strip chart of New Caledonia.
The next morning, we weighed anchor and moved outside the Noumea Harbor to launch the airplanes. It would be the first flight operations from the 440-foot long COPAHEE deck. We warmed up the engines, the pilots manned their planes, the steam catapult was made ready, and the ship was brought around into the wind to get the maximum wind speed across the deck.
The first three F4Fs went off without incident, then my airplane was rolled onto the catapult. We connected the hydraulic tail hook, connected the belly cable from the catapult, and I check the wing downlocks to make sure they were engaged. The young marine nervously checked that his canopy was locked open, and ran the engine up to maximum RPM. It sounded good. I slid off the flight deck onto the catwalk.
When the launching officer, kneeling out ahead of the starboard wing, was satisfied with the sound of the engine he brought his upraised hand down, pointing down the deck and the catapult fired. As the little airplane sped down the sixty-foot length of the catapult I almost had a cardiac arrest—chunks of something came swirling aft in the slipstream. Migawd, I thought, the flaps let go! I dived onto the flight deck for a piece of the flying material.
Meanwhile, the F4F went off the end of the deck and dropped sickeningly out of sight toward the water. I cringed, waiting for the geyser that would erupt when he hit the water.
It did not happen. Just as I snatched a piece of the loose material and discovered to my relief that it was part of the New Caledonia strip map, the airplane came up into view. It was weaving erratically for a minute, then it steadied down and climbed away after the others.
(I saw that pilot six weeks later when he passed through Noumea on his way for some R&R in Australia and asked him about that takeoff. It seems that he had not put the strip map in the map pocket alongside that seat but had slipped it into the slot above the plotting board under the instrument panel. The jar of the catapult shot had fired it back into his lap. There the slipstream from the open canopy had caught it, unfolded it, and some of it wrapped around his head. He had been fliying blind when he left the flight deck and had ripped the paper away just in time to pull up the nose and stagger into the air.
I also asked the young marine how he did with the F4F on Guadalcanal. With a big grin he told me that he had shot down four Japanese planes, two Zeros and two of the Nakajima bombers, before he had been hit and bailed out of the burning F4F. He was not quite an ace (five victories) but we figured that four for one was a pretty good trade seeing as how he had parachuted and survived.)
The rest of the launches went relatively well until we got to the last F4F in front of the dozen SBDs at the stern. Something caused the hydraulic tail hook to release prematurely when the F4F pilot, a tall lanky marine, released his brakes just as the launching officer dropped his arm. The belly cable from the catapult head dropped free and the airplane, engine at full power, simply lurched forward and taxied off the flight deck without flying speed and went nose down into the water. Meanwhile, without the drag of the airplane, the catapult head slammed forward and the hook buried itself eighteen inches into the half-inch steel stopper plate. The catapult was out of commission.
We paid no attention to the catapult but scrambled forward along the catwalk to see what happened to the pilot. He was one lucky man. The impact did not knock him unconscious and the airplane was floating for a few seconds held up by the buoyancy of the wing and fuselage that slowly filled with water.
The F4Fs life raft had popped out of the camelback behind the cockpit. The marine pilot flipped his seat belt loose, stood up in the seat, and stepped out into the little rubber raft without even getting his feet wet. The DE, acting as plane guard for the launches, took him aboard. He later re-boarded COPAHEE and flew another airplane off successfully.
With the catapult out of commission, we had to fy the rest of the airplanes, a dozen SBDs and the rest of the F4Fs, from the angar deck, off the short flight deck with running takeoffs. It had never been done before but the senior marine officer present said they would do it and that he would fly the first SBD off.
We started the colonel from as far aft as the other airplanes would permit. He had something less than four hundred feet of flight deck in front of him. To run the Wright engine up to full power, we tied down the tail with white line to help the brakes hold the airplane. When the launching officer gave the ‘go” signal, a sailor cut the line and the colonel released the brakes. The SBD seemed to start very slowly and we all held our breath when he went off the deck.
The SBD, like my F4F, dropped out of sight toward the water and we waited for the splash. Again, it did not happen. After several seconds, the SBD climbed into sight. There was water trailing from the tail wheel—he had come that close to going into the drink and had bounced the tail off the top of a wave!
With the precedent set, we got the other airplanes off with only one more casualty. It was an SBD and was carrying a gunner in the rear seat. It went fine down the deck but just as the airplane got airborne the engine torched, sputtered, and the SBC nosed into the water out ahead of the ship.
The tail of the airplane was sticking out of the water as the momentum of COPAHEE carried the ship past and we could see the gunner out of his seat on the wing trying desperately to get the pilot’s cockpit canopy open. The force of the impact had slammed it shut and the pilot had hit his head on the gunsight and was unconscious. The gunner went under water still tyring to get the canopy open. He did not make it but came to the surface alone after a couple of minutes. The pilot went to the bottom still strapped into the SBD.
(Something useful often stems from tragedy. As a result of that incident, and others during the battle of Midway that were similar when pilots of SBDs were knocked unconscious during ditching by hitting their heads on that optical gunsight located atop the instrument pane., shoulder harnesses soon became standard in all airplanes. Up until then, we had only a seat belt in the cockpits.)
When the COPAHEE again dropped anchor in Noumea Harbor, it was time for we passengers to be transferred to our assignments. Mine was to be with the engine change shop of Patrol Wing One Headquarters Squadron based there at Noumea.
We found that our headquarters PBY repair base would be on a small island that forms part of the northeast side of Noumea Harbor. It is called “Ile Hou” and is a narrow island about a mile long. There were two hills on the island separating it roughly into thirds. On the end nearest the city of Noumea there was an old French prison that we learned was known as “the Devil’s Island of the Pacific”. On the far end was a leper colony. The little island was almost barren and covered with brown grasses, boulders, and some scrub brush.
Our base was located in the valley in the center of the island half way between the prison and the leper colony farm. From the COPAHEE we could see that a concrete launching ramp and paved parking area were in place, however, buildings for the little base were still under construction. They were not yet ready for us so we remained aboard COPAHEE for a few days.
That gave us an opportunity for our first liberty in a foreign port (New Caledonia was a French possession). Troy Anderson and I got liberty one day and went ashore. Wartime Noumea had very little to offer. The “city” was a conglomeration of low tropical buildings with little in the way of amusements other than a few small bars that had little to offer besides wine or absinthe. It was not the South Pacific that we had seen in the Sidney Greenstreet/Peter Lorre or Bing Crosby/Bob Hope/Dorothy Lamour movies.
We did find the most notorious cathouse in the South Pacific, “The Pink House”. It was a large rambling house with peeling pink paint on the outskirts of Noumea. It was not an inviting prospect and the women we saw on the wide verandas that circled the building were not our idea of appealing womanhood. We did not go inside but surveyed it form a distance then gave up and went back to the ship. Liberty cold wait.