Another day in the office
Ever try washing down powdered scrambled eggs with Navy-issue coffee in a battered tin cup 15 minutes after being shaken and told it’s time to get up, at a made-on-site, one-piece chow table in a blacked-out field hospital ward tent camouflaged as an officer’s mess on an island you didn’t know existed a month before, at 0300, wearing boondockers and a pungent Navy-issue poplin flight suit? Oh, factor in 6°23′S of the equator where we slept in our skivvies under mosquito netting. In my rush to outdistance the draft board, I had failed to read the fine print on the recruiting poster advertising “You, too, can be a Naval Aviator” in front of the Navy Recruiting Office in Little Rock, AR, on 26 July 1941.
It was March 1944 and the Flying Goldbricks of Marine Scout Bomber Squadron 243 (VMSB-243), on their second Solomons tour, had the dawn strike from Green Island to Rabaul Harbor, about 150 nautical miles west, where the early birds were known to find Japanese ships.
Our fellow pilots of VMSB-236 were sacked-out on their “off” day. All they had to look forward to was a hodge-podge of missions: ship gunfire spotting for the Army Division holding the beachhead on Bougainville; chasing after fuzzily identified Japanese ships possibly within their range; maintaining planes on station for close air-ground support; the odd flight to Munda on New Georgia or even Henderson Field on the Canal for spare parts; anti-submarine patrols, or perhaps a totally new reason to be airborne, courtesy of Strike Command’s inventive and sadistic operations staff. They had the early breakfast day before, and we, the shit details.
Two Marine Torpedo Bomber (VMTB) squadrons shared the day-on/day-off rotation. We occupied the same sleeping, mess and briefing areas. They took off after us, as they were faster. We’d see them in the target area, and they got back before we did. The fighters, Navy, Marine and New Zealand were based on another island and we only saw them in the target areas.
In many ways the early strike was the better deal because, unless something big developed while we were gone, we would be on standby on our return. That meant we could sack out after about 11 a.m. Standby meant one division in the briefing tent, two divisions on 15-minute alert, rotating every two hours within the squadron, so we couldn’t wander far.
Also, while all flights are entered in the flight log, strikes were highlighted and counted as combat flights. You could spend a career flying the shit details and not be considered a combat pilot and being a combat pilot was the only sure way to get rotated stateside at a reasonable time, in one piece.
Wake-up was some wise guy shaking your cot while pointing a flashlight in your face, saying, “Time to rise;” it was usually something more colorful.
Knowing the drill, we operated on autopilot in the dark when awakened. Get out from under the net, fumble for your flight suit and don it, hoping it wasn’t already inhabited by creatures we would rather not imagine, zip it up, shake out and put on socks, fish for your boondockers, shake them out and put them on, then head for the blacked-out chow tent by way of the head (often just a slit trench).
There were three important things to locate in each pilot’s camp: the head, the chow tent and the briefing tent. We didn’t worry about the flight line, they had transport and it was their job to get us there. Ship’s store and PX were rear echelon luxuries. Booze ration was the two ounces of medicinal brandy issued after a strike — a huge plus for strike duty.
In the Solomons, a squadron had about 40 pilots and we flew someone else’s planes; stateside we had 25 pilots and 18 aircraft. Our ground echelon was still at our rear base on Efate, New Hebrides; only the flight echelon was rotated into the combat zone. We got VIP treatment going and coming. The rest of the time we just stood in line and hoped for the best, even when going on R&R.
About 80 of us stumbled into the chow tent and plopped down on benches. The tables were set and food was served boarding-house style.
There was no menu, so each meal was a potential surprise. The only sure things were coffee, bread, peanut butter, apple butter, pineapple juice and the omnipresent Pet milk.
Powdered eggs and meat, or pancakes were what we hoped for at breakfast, though not in any predictable sequence. We were at the tail end of the supply pipeline, so the goodies were siphoned off along the way.
The war was still expanding and rotation replacements were few and far between. I met lots of guys who had been out over two years, while we were the new kids on the block — out only 14 months with eight more to go. Sporadic conversation touched on everything except the day’s mission; all we really knew for certain was that we were going to take off for somewhere about 4:40. If someone said they had the straight poop on targets, we knew they just had bum scuttlebutt; I don’t even think our briefers ever knew the exact targets before breakfast, as info was always changing.
After breakfast we got our gear: cloth helmet; goggles and gloves; Mae West jacket with shark-repellent pouch and yellow dye marker; pistol belt with pistol; cartridge pack; first aid kit; canteen and knife, and our personal chart board with E6B dial computer (we called them Ouija boards). We kept pencils, note pads, candy bars, etc., in our flight suit pockets. The only identification we wore was our dog tags.
The briefing tent was the bailiwick of a group of former professor types and three combat experienced naval aviators. Navy Commander “Swede” Larson, whose torpedo squadron made history in the Guadalcanal campaign, ran Strike Command. He knew of what he spoke.
We huddled on benches while the professor-types identified the targets from aerial photos taken the day before. We were given radio frequencies, identification codes, plane assignments and formation details plus TOT (time on target), rescue facility availability, latest info on safe areas on nearby islands and how to approach the natives.
This particular morning we were briefed on several Japanese ships reported to be in Rabaul Harbor the night before. My division of six Douglas Dauntless Dive Bombers (SBD) was to hit the most northern transport. Chances were they left overnight and we might catch them on the west side of New Ireland headed north toward Truk. If underway, we were to hit the most northeastern one.
The plan was to fly northwest and cross New Ireland to be in position to pursue, attack, or fly south to Rabaul and hit the ships or secondary targets. Early fighter reconnaissance flights should tell us where the ships were or thought to be. Hey, nothing was cut-and-dried in our operations. We always had secondary, and sometime tertiary, targets depending on the target area weather and/or new information received after our briefing.
The one advantage we had over our fellow Navy pilots was our base wasn’t going to sink or fail to be in the designated location when we returned. When flying from Piva Two strip on Bougainville we were often delayed in take-off and had to circle offshore several times before landing while the Japanese shelled the strip, causing our move to Green Island.
We climbed aboard open-top trucks after the briefing for the ride to the flight line in the dark. We were pretty quiet. I rehearsed the briefing in my mind and, as a captain and division leader, tried to assume my most leaderly posture for the captain, four lieutenants and six enlisted radio-gunners who counted on me to bring them back safely. Scared? Hell, yes. Afraid is not a Marine option. Being single was one less thing for me to worry about.
The flight line, a series of revetments, was blacked out and as our trucks drove by, the plane captains called their number, someone would holler “Whoa,” and the truck stopped to let that one off, and then proceeded. A very high tech operation!
With no regular plane assignments, we flew planes we had probably never flown before — we had full faith in the ground crews. A walk around inspection is very difficult in the dark, even with a plane captain holding a hooded flashlight. I had an ace in the hole. SSgt. Sylvester “Sal” Garalski of Detroit, my radio gunner for almost a year, was a trained aviation machinist mate who volunteered for flight duty. Sal was always at our plane before me and did his own walk around before I arrived. He was going up in it, too!
This particular morning he met me and said everything was OK before I did my walk around and signed the yellow sheet accepting the plane. (We only saw our gunners on the flight line and tried to give them a brief outline of what we hoped to accomplish on the flight before getting into the plane. Afterward we had the intercom to exchange information.)
Pilots climbed aboard over the right wing while the plane captain stood on the left to assist getting our seat-pack parachutes and shoulder straps adjusted, our rag helmet radio cord plugged in, and exchange any last minute comments.
They did favor pilots who got them started quickly and could put them squarely in the chocks on return. Their best reward was getting the pilot’s signature with no discrepancy notes on the yellow sheet on return.
In the dark
There are many variations of darkness, from the proverbial dark-and-stormy night, to clear dark-of-the-moon type. All naval aviators were required to get in a minimum of two nighttime hours each month to maintain proficiency. When WWII started, the older pilots not in a squadron would try to pick moonlit nights, coining the phrase “a field officer’s moon.” When WWII was over, the experienced pilots much preferred a clear dark-of-the-moon night. I sure did.
Darkness on the ground and being up in it are two different things. When one is boring holes in the black, darkness takes on a life of its own and plays mind games with one’s vertigo, like giving you the feeling you are upside down or in a turn. The only solution is to blink hard and take a hard look at the gauges, for you may be and must take corrective action. If not, just shake your head and thank God for the gauges.
This particular night had been low overcast, which made for poor visibility and a lousy time for formation flying. With a prediction of possible overcast and squalls in the target area, we knew we were going to earn our flight pay that day. At least it wasn’t raining.
The SBD had a single rotary engine with a partial exhaust collector ring, so exhaust flames initially blinded us when we saddled up and headed out for take-off. Jeeps with blackout lights led us to the taxiway where we could turn on our running lights and hope we were following the correct plane.
Our standard flight formation was two step-down Vs of divisions. The skipper or exec led the first, and the exec or flight officer the second, as one of the three always remained on base so we didn’t lose all three at once. I led the third division in the first V to the leader’s starboard. If there were more than 36, the extras would form a third V astern.
Daytime practice was to take off in three-plane sections but at night singly, so I was not able to identify the plane ahead until it pulled into the runway and I could make out its tail markings.
Rack up another for the line chief; he got us out in proper order. I was number 13 to take off so I revved-up, checked my mags, swallowed hard, gritted my teeth and in full pucker, released the brakes. There were subdued directional runway lights and the running lights of the plane ahead for guidance. After I was airborne, I kept scanning the turn-and-bank indicator, air speed, rate of climb instruments and the lights ahead while getting the wheels up. I could see the exhaust and lights of several planes ahead.
Then we were over the ocean, and you haven’t seen black until you see the ocean at night under an overcast sky. We made a standard rendezvous and there were enough running lights visible for me to get us in position to the starboard and below the skipper. By this time we had completed a 180° turn and were approaching the island under the overcast. Then all hell broke loose!
Marine Corps standing order: EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED. For some reason never given us, a New Zealand anti-aircraft 20mm battery opened fire — another bite out of my parachute. We were still under about 2,500 feet of overcast skies with our running lights on, and had just taken off over them. When tracers lit up our sky, and despite being on radio silence, several expletives and garbled messages erupted.
I automatically turned starboard with no way to give any hand signals. My lads followed. I could see my wingmen, Tom Wyatt from Monroe, LA, to port and Richard Mulberry from Sadieville, KY, to starboard, and Sal said the second section was in place. Sal kept other formations in sight but before I could maneuver toward them the skipper said “Plan Baker,” which was the alternate rendezvous area.
As I headed away from what had been a formation, I opted to climb through the overcast and came out at about 6,000 feet, only to find an about 75% overcast higher. Plan Baker was a point at 10,000 feet, bearing 75° and approximately 20 miles from the lighthouse on the southern tip of New Ireland. It sounded easy in the briefing room; it was a well-known and recognized landmark in good weather. That is where Marine Ace Bob Hansen (25 kills) had been shot down.
The sky was rapidly getting a pre-dawn look as we gained altitude and made a dead-reckoning approach. I spotted formations ahead and above that, our SBDs. I began to circle and joined up on the skipper. We were still under radio silence and I knew his gunner had informed him that we were there.
Return to base
There was a mean-looking wall of weather over New Ireland that looked impenetrable to me. No other planes joined us and I saw no escort fighters. About a half-hour later someone came on the air saying return to base. (We learned later that the skipper’s radio was out.) The skipper led us down through the lower overcast and on arrival discovered a large squall covered most of the island. We circled offshore at least 30 minutes before the squall moved enough to make out identifying landmarks.
The skipper signaled right echelon and my buddy Bob Marshall from Pawtucket, RI, slid his second division under us to our starboard. The skipper put his division in line astern and proceeded toward the still unseen runway along the southeast shore, disappearing into the squall.
I took a deep breath and followed suit. I was at about 200 feet, wheels and flaps down, with canopy open getting drenched when I spotted the runway, made a port turn, and touched down. Whew, what a relief. I taxied to the end, closing my landing flaps and fishtailed looking for planes ahead and hoping one wasn’t on my tail. An open jeep with two soaked Marines appeared, leading us back to the flight line. As I turned to follow them, Sal said all my boys were behind us — a tremendous feeling of accomplishment.
We stood under a wing to sign the yellow sheet, with no discrepancies. The squall moved on as we rode back to the debriefing tent where that first cup of coffee hit the spot. My flight suit was beginning to dry by time I got to my tent to towel off, put on dry skivvies and sack out till lunch.
All in a day’s work
What did we accomplish? We didn’t lose a plane. We brought back our bombs. We didn’t fire a round. We burned a lot of gas. We got two hours of night flying. We got our two ounces of brandy, which most saved for happy hour. We earned our flight pay, and had a good topic to critique at happy hour.
What did we learn? We did what we were trained to do. We gave it our all with no visible payoff. We gained confidence and a lot of mutual respect among ourselves. We remembered the old saying, “If you want to wear those wings, you gotta go; but you don’t gotta come back.” We went, came back, and stood a little taller.
Bob shook me awake when the chow tent opened for lunch. I got into some clothes and walked over wondering what the supply boys had provided that day. Given the way the day had started, it would probably be that damned Australian mutton again. Ugh!
Others surely have different memories, but what the hell. It still counted toward 20, and we were one day closer to another marvelous R&R in Sydney.