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Tacoma, Washington, United States

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Getting PBYs Back into the War, Thanksgiving, and a Chance Meeting with Admiral Halsey

"One such emergency we had was one afternoon when one of the new PBY-5As (the amphibious version with retractable landing gear) arriving from Hawaii on the way to Esprito flipped over on landing. "
Airplanes for overhaul came with enough frequency that it became necessary to augment our crews and work two shifts, first shift from 0800 to 1600 hours and a second shift from 1600 to midnight.  As the leading petty officer, I continued to receive flight pay since each PBY was test flown after overhaul before it was turned back to the combat flight crew.  I was the test crew plan captain.  I was also the final inspector of the engine build-up and installation and the fact that I would be flying in the airplane made me more than me more than meticulous.  I was known to blow my stack at the unfortunate mechanic that failed to safety wire a propeller governor or had improperly installed an oil strainer!
In extreme emergencies we would turn out all hands regardless of shift and work all night if necessary.  One such emergency we had was one afternoon when one of the new PBY-5As (the amphibious version with retractable landing gear) arriving from Hawaii on the way to Esprito flipped over on landing.  Fortunately, none of the crew were seriously injured.
Apparently what happened was that the 5A made a water landing to come to the ramp at Ile Nou.  When the hull contacted the surface, the uplock on the big main wheels failed and the main landing gear fell out of the wheel wells in the side of the fuselage.  The wheels tripped the airplane over on its nose, the nose landing gear doors failed, and the nose wheel blew a spout of water upward between the pilots that peeled back the cockpit canopy like an opened sardine tin.
Barnes and I considered it an extreme emergency because we wanted to salvage the precious engines that were submerged beneath the upside-down 5A in salt water.  The ordnance people wanted to salvage the guns.  Every shop needed spare parts and this had been a brand new airplane.
The accident happened in the late afternoon at the end of first shift.  In less than an hour a crane on a barge had righted the PBY-5A and it was brought up the ramp at Ile Nou.  I had both port and starboard crews standing by.  We wanted to get the engines off, stripped down to the crankshaft, flushed down, and pickled in oil before the saltwater corrosion ruined them.
No one stopped for evening chow.  It was a race between the two engine crews to get the engines off and disassembled.  It could have been some sort of record as both engines were completely disassembled and the parts in an oil bath before 0200.
We wound up with a lot of spare parts but not with two usable engines.  We saved every major part except for the supercharger sections of the engine crankcases.  They were the only parts of an R-1830-92 made of magnesium and salt water corrosion had already set in on the metal when we got the cases off after 0130.   The insides of the blower section were already chalky with corrosion and were beyond use.
We had another “extreme emergency” shortly before Thanksgiving.  The Navy was making every effort to provide us with a traditional Thanksgiving dinner and some break to the monotony.  They wound up flying in turkeys in some BPY-2s—the big four-engined version of the PBY that was called a “Coronado”.  In the meantime, it was decreed that every man should have two cans of beer (there was no beer garden at Ile Nou and none was available in Noumea) for the holiday.  The beer shipment made it through “Torpedo Junction” off the Fijis and a consignment for Ile Nou was barged to our small dock.
The emergency came when the beer barge came in late and was left moored to the pier, still loaded with our beer, overnight.  The barge had a leak and, come morning, the beer consignment was on the bottom in fifteen or twenty feet of water!  The word went out and there was no lack of volunteer divers to recover the beer.  We managed to salvage enough that everyone who wanted beer got at least a can and most of us two.
The salvage operation was a tribute to loyalty to the shipmates.  To my knowledge, not one can of beer was smuggled away from the dock or consumed during the salvage operation.  The beer was put into a waiting truck and on Thanksgiving Day was dispensed at the mess hall during an afternoon “happy hour”.
The Thanksgiving turkey dinner turned out to be too rich for most of us.  After weeks of becoming accustomed to a bland and monotonous diet, we scoffed up great quantities of turkey, mashed potatoes, dressing, and all the trimmings.  Our stomach rebelled and there were more people lined up at the community privy that evening than there were sitting in poker games!

The infrequent beer was not the only source of alcohol available to us at Ile Nou.  We found a source of “Old Soldier” 150-proof Australian rum in Noumea and the base mail orderly made considerable money smuggling in bottles of rum in the mail sacks.  We could also occasionally buy a bottle of good whiskey from flight crews just arrived from Hawaii or back from R&R stints in Brisbane or Auckland—at quite inflated prices that did not deter us because we were not spending much money on liberty in Noumea.
There was also other black market alcohol to be had.  It was primarily medical alcohol filched from supply shipments.  It was straight grain alcohol and required a mixer.  When it was available (which was not often) we would bum a half-gallon of grapefruit juice from the galley and a mixture of one-half grapefruit juice and one-half alcohol became known as an “Ile Nou Cocktail”.  We would have preferred orange juice but none was to be had.
One evening we had just started a crap game in hut C-4 when a sailor knocked on the door and offered to sell us a quart jar of medical alcohol.  After Pappy Berridge had sampled it and pronounced it good alcohol and, being ahead in the game at the time, I bought a quart.  We sent Amuchustagi to the galley to scrounge the grapefruit juice and went on with the game.
A half hour later there was another knock on our door.  I was the shooter at the time and backed p to the door with the dice in one hand and a wad of greenback in the other.  When I pushed the door open, there stood the JOOD (Junior Officer of the Day) and the PO of the watch.  Oh boy, I thought, he’s got me dead to rights. Shooting craps (all gambling aboard was against Navy Regulations) and the rest of the bottle of medical alcohol was in plain sight on the deck under my bunk!
Apparently the young ensign was just going through the motions to follow orders.  He ignored the dice and the money both in my hand and on the blanket-covered table and said, “Sailor—there are five gallons of medical alcohol missing from sick bay and we are informed that someone is out selling it.  Haw anyone been around offering to sell you some?”
I edged slightly sidewise hoping to be between the ensign and the bottle under my bunk and answered with a straight face, “No, sir, nobody like that been by—but,” and I grinned at him, “I hope I see him before you do, sir!”
The JOOD smiled slightly, still trying to keep his eyes away from the dice and the money.  “Well,” he said solemnly, “just remember it is your duty to report it if you become aware of anything against regulations.”
He and the grinning petty officer of the watch turned away and headed for the next hut as I said, “Yes, Sir, we’ll sure enough remember that!”
We waited until the JOOD would be out of earshot before we poured another drink and went back to the game.
There were many regulations “honored in the breach” down there in the backwaters of the war where leave and liberty were almost non-existent and entertainment was limited to movies, most of which we had seen before.  Our officers not only looked the other way, they participated in the same activities.
One had to do with shaving.  Some men grew full beards (our young squadron photographer, Kofoed, who had a cherubic face grew a magnificent full blond bear) and others grew mustaches.  I was one of the latter.  I had always admired my Grandpa Stanley’s handlebar mustache and resolved to grow one.
A handlebar mustache requires no trimming and it became a nuisance when it got long enough to curl over my lip. But was not yet long enough to brush to the side and curl the ends.  It got in the way when I was eating especially if we had soup when it became downright messy.  I stayed with it, however, and by the time I got back to San Francisco early in March of 1943 it had a span of over five inches with beautifully curled ends.  I used beeswax to control it since I could not find mustache wax in Noumea.
Admiral Halsey while in New Caledonia

In either December or January, I had occasion to meet Admiral Halsey and had arrived at Ile Nou in his personal plane, one of the PB2Y Coronados and remained on the base for two or three days.  On the second morning of his visit I had gone to the shop early and had a pot of coffee going in our blowtorch-heated pot when Chief Barnes stuck his head in and announced that Halsey was going to inspect the base right after muster.
Normally, preparation for an admiral’s inspection required a couple of days and we had, at the most, an hour’s time.  All we could do was scramble around and clean up our work spaces and I sent those with the most disgraceful dungarees to their huts to change and get clean white hats.  We made it with bare minutes to spare while the admiral and his party inspected the adjacent shop.
When we fell into ranks outside the shop door as the inspection party approached, the chief poked me in the ribs and whispered, “Frieze, did you turn off the coffee pot?”
I was chagrined—the blowtorch was still going on the desk in the office and I could smell the coffee outside the door.  I turned but it was too late.  Admiral Halsey was standing in front of me.  He looked us over then, as he started to enter the shop, he halted and turned back.  “Sailor,” he said, “is that Navy coffee I smell?”
I gulped and cold feel my face turning red, “Yes, Admiral,” I managed weakly, “I am afraid it is, Sir.  I forgot to turn off the blowtorch we make it with when we got word of the inspection!”
Admiral Halsey grinned and said, “Well, sailor, how about a cup?”
“Yes, Sir!”  I darted into the office corner, got the cleanest mug in sight, and poured a cup of the strong black coffee.  Halsey carried it and sipped at it while he strolled around the shop and listened to the chief’s description of our procedures.  When he returned to the door, Halsey handed me the mug with a “Thank you, son—pretty damn good coffee” and went on his way.