On The Traveling Squad
E-Base, Doolittle & Midway
1941 ~ 1942
The Aviation Cadet Program had been established in the mid 1930's. It was started amid the gathering clouds of potential hostilities to build a reservoir of trained naval aviators, and proved to have been a crucial decision in the war that was to come, in fewer months than any of us foresaw.
When I entered flight training in early 1941 the Navy had split the program into several phases and locales with Naval Aviation Reserve Bases (N.R.A.B.'s) in the various sections of the country.
Those of us from the southeast were assigned to the Naval Air Station in Miami, Florida where a corner of the field had been set aside and designated as the N.A.R.B. We started, not as Cadets, but as enlisted seamen.
The first month was spent flying primary trainers or N3N's -- better known as "Yellow Perils." They were wood and fabric biplanes built in the Naval Air Factory and painted bright yellow to identify to other airmen that fledgling pilots were either being instructed or at the controls.
Steerman Aviation also produced a similar plane, the NS, which became much better known than the Navy-built version.
These bases were known as the "Elimination Bases" or "E-Bases" -- in which all started -- and were designed to give us ten hours of training culminating in a brief solo flight.
The primary purpose of E-Base was to determine if a candidate could be easily taught to fly.
They also served as a repository for some of those unsung flying officers serving on active duty as flight instructors.
At that time those applying for flight training had to have reached 21 years of age by the time they were awarded their wings, and could not be beyond 27 years old.
They needed to have completed at least two years of college, be unmarried, and agree to remain so for their first two years of commissioned service.
After being commissioned and designated a Naval Aviator, one agreed to stay in active duty at least four years, could sign up for a second four-year stint in the active reserves and then either convert to a "regular Navy" status or remain on an inactive reserve roster subject to recall in the event of a national emergency.
The proposition was that when we finished "E-Base", if accepted to the program, we would be discharged home and re-enlisted as Naval Aviation Cadets.
This gave a window in which an applicant was free not to return, and apparently this was an option some had been exercising.
But upon leaving E-Base our graduating groups were sent, not home but to the Naval Air Station in Jacksonville, Florida -- which along with a similar one in Corpus Christi, Texas had been built to match the long-standing facilities at Pensacola.
The barracks in Jacksonville were not yet in use, and this provided the Navy a handy warehouse where we could be "stored" until there were places for us in cadet training at one of the training bases.
My group went to Jacksonville in March 1941 and stayed two months. We were a captive group not given the chance to stay at home.
Having finished college in the summer of 1940, the draft was in effect but I was not yet eligible, not being 21 years of age. However, being in the armed services seemed prudent what with France essentially defeated by Hitler's forces, war between England and Germany raging, and our eventual involvement predicted by most.
I was then among the group sent to Pensacola where all cadets received ground school, primary training, and training in formation flying and instrument flying.
Those being trained as seaplane pilots -- either flying patrol boats or observation planes to be flown from cruisers and battleships -- stayed in Pensacola to receive their advanced training while those of us who opted for aircraft carrier training were sent back to Miami to fly the more complicated vintage-type fleet aircraft and to be trained in scouting, dive-bombing and fighter tactics.
This was my choice, in part, from having watched their training from the "E-Base" corner of the field. I especially found the Grumman F2F and F3F bi-plane fighters -- made famous by some of the "air racers" of the day -- intriguing as they buzzed around like bees.
So it was that I received my wings in Miami in November 1941 and was assigned to a scout-bombing squadron in the U.S.S. RANGER (VSB-42), with interim orders for the Advanced Carrier Training Group (A.C.T.G.) in Norfolk, Virginia, for more experience in fleet-type planes and carrier-landing qualification.
Again I entertained the option between flying scout-bombers, torpedo-bombers or fighters.
Fighters were the most popular choice, but I chose scout-bombing as it seemed a happy compromise between flying lumbering torpedo planes and dashing fighters and was, in my mind, more in line with the prime mission of the Naval Air Corps as "the eyes and fist of the fleet."
This was a misreading on my part for flying fighters not only caught the public's attention, but they were eventually viewed by the Navy as embodying its prime mission, although at that time, fighters were primarily used for defense.
At Miami we flew two older scout bombers, the Curtiss "Helldiver" SBC, a dated bi-plane of wood and fabric construction, and a Northrop plane, designated the PT, being a monoplane of metal construction with an aluminum skin. Oddly enough, I didn't even know the type of scout bombers then extant in the fleet.
After commissioning, I returned to Greenville on a month's leave. I was driving home from church one Sunday when the radio carried news of the Japanese attacking Pearl Harbor. It was December 7, 1941.
I received word that my leave had ended and I reported immediately to Norfolk.
To regress, the first plane I flew at A.C.T.G. was designated SBN -- it was a scout bomber built by the Navy Aircraft Factory in Philadelphia on a design by Brewster.
It was the fastest dive-bomber I flew during the entire war, but it had other less endearing traits. It was a "camel," -- a horse built by committee.
It was "nose heavy" which made it unfit for carrier landings as it had a built-in bounce once the throttle was "cut." The accessory section aft of the engine was so narrow the engine had to be removed for routine maintenance work.
There was also the tendency for the throttle to stick some times when it was retarded, and the landing run-out was prolonged due to the engine's not being in idle, and this was complicated by poor brakes. These things all added up to some harried incidents.
A.C.T.G. was also the first place I ran into the "new boy - old boy" system.
When you reported into A.C.T.G. you were a "new boy" and remained so designated until another batch of "new boys" reported -- that could be a week or a month -- and then the prior "new boys" became "old boys."
One's first flight in an aircraft was for area familiarization with the "new boy" placed in the rear seat of an SBN flown by an "old boy."
Carl Pfieffer, a fellow Tar Heel from Wilmington, an "old boy" ahead of me, was one day showing a "new boy" the landmarks when he landed at Whitehurst Field, a small out-lying, grass-covered field --located where the Little Creek Amphibious Base was later built -- then used for touch-and-go landing practice.
For some reason Carl decided to roll to a stop -- a tight job on a small field under any circumstances.
As he and his passenger were rolling out, he realized he wouldn't get the throttle fully back, his brakes weren't stopping him and he had waited too long to try to take-off again.
As he reached the far end of the field -- still with considerable ground speed -- he pulled back on the stick, jumped the perimeter fence and ended up on his back astraddle a ditch in the back yard of one of the homes surrounding the field.
The "new boy" released his seat belt and scrambled from beneath the disabled plane. He began shouting for help to get Carl out of the cockpit, where he was suspended head down.
In the confusion of trying to figure out what had happened, Carl released himself and fell on his head. As he was climbing out of the ditch, the lady of the house and some neighbors ran up to the crash site.
She asked who had been flying the plane and, when Carl was so identified, she said to him, "Young man, you're making too much noise with your airplane. My husband works at night in the Newport News Naval Shipyard, must get his sleep during the day, and you just woke him up!"
Carl, a sober and soft-spoken fellow, said to the lady, "I'm sorry Ma'am. I brought her in as quietly as I could."
He was lost at the Battle of Midway flying the SBD scout-bomber and, later, the municipal airport in his hometown was named in his honor.
The scout-bomber which we flew the most while at A.C.T.G. was the Vought SB2U, a hybrid with a metal cockpit area and a fabric-covered after empennage.
This was the scout-bomber flown from the U.S.S. WASP and the U.S.S. RANGER, two carriers then in the Atlantic Fleet.
We spent much of our time practicing field carrier landing, in which a certified Landing Signal Officer (L.S.O.) would put us through the paces of making low and slow carrier-type approaches at the end of the field.
Our A.C.T.G. training was for all purposes finished when we had each made three carrier landings in an SB2U on the U.S.S. LONG ISLAND -- the first jeep carrier -- as she plied back and forth in the Chesapeake Bay.
After about two months training, we received terse notice that those of us who had been designated for Atlantic Fleet duty were being transferred to the Pacific, where the major action promised to occur. Notified in the morning, we caught a train across the county that night.
A week later we boarded the S.S. PRESIDENT HOOVER in San Francisco along with two thousand construction workers, the first of those to become "sea-bees." They were disgruntled because they had been promised first class accommodations and found themselves housed instead on jury-rigged and crowded bunks in the ship's hold.
Our group had cots in what had been the cocktail lounge obviously no longer in operation once the liner became a Naval vessel.
As we pulled into Pearl Harbor I recalled having seen a newsreel spot by the Secretary of the Navy, Frank Knox, maintaining that little substantial damage had been done to the Pacific Fleet by the Pearl Harbor attack.
The waters were still uniformly oil-covered, one grounded battleship was passed in The Channel, and in the harbor itself were more derelicts including the capsized U.S.S. ARIZONA.
It was evident there had been grievous hurt inflicted by the enemy.
The thirty-or-so of us were transferred across the Island of Oahu to the Naval Air Station at Kaneohe Bay where we were placed in Bombing Squadron Three (VB-3).
VB-3 was part of the air group assigned to the U.S.S. SARATOGA which was at this time back in the States in dry-dock undergoing repairs. We were hardly welcomed with open arms.
On December 7th the carriers of the Pacific Fleet, the SARATOGA, LEXINGTON, ENTERPRISE and YORKTOWN, were fortunately out at sea or back in their homeports on the mainland and therefore had escaped the attack in Pearl Harbor unscathed.
Shortly thereafter the SARATOGA had been dispatched to Midway Island -- actually a far northwest extension of the Hawaiian chain -- to ferry aircraft replacements to that bastion.
Unfortunately, while on this mission, she had been torpedoed by a Japanese submarine and so in the early weeks of the war was sent back to Bremerton, Washington for repairs.
The scouting and torpedo squadrons had accompanied her back to the states while the bombing and fighter squadrons were left at Kaneohe Bay to augment the depleted air defense of the Islands.
Thus, for a group of newly-hatched replacement scout-bomber pilots, VB-3 provided the Navy a handy place to familiarize them with the Douglass SDB Dauntless, which none of us had previously seen, much less flown.
The veteran SARATOGA pilots resented the idea of having to take us on familiarization flights -- sitting in the rear-seats of their planes while being piloted by fellows several years their junior in age and experience.
Their headquarters and Ready Room were in a beach house alongside the airfield, left over from the beachside holiday spot the area had been before it was converted to an air station shortly before hostilities started.
In their mind we un-necessarily cluttered their living and work place, and it was frequently suggested that we spend more time out-of-doors.
There were worse places to be than out-of-doors in Hawaii.
The L.S.O. for the SARATOGA had also been left behind in Kaneohe Bay, and he began working with the new pilots due to go to sea.
As it became evident that VB-3 and VF-3 would take a cruise on the U.S.S. ENTERPRISE -- giving some of the Big-E's regular pilots a respite -- Lieutenant Robin Lindsay, the ENTERPRISE's L.S.O. was sent over to work out with the SARATOGA pilots, plus those of us replacements pilots.
I was assigned to VB-5 aboard the U.S.S. YORKTOWN which was, at that moment, cruising somewhere in the South Pacific.
One day when Robin Lindsay was so employed I came into the traffic circle to land, and decided instead to drop down in the pattern with the fellows making field carrier landings.
I suppose I did fairly well.
A week or so later VB-3 joined the ENTERPRISE, and on the first day the new pilots made their qualifying carrier landings.
Ray Miligi, a pilot in our replacement group, hit the barrier on a landing, badly cut his face, and was sent back to the Pearl Harbor hospital for repair and recuperation.
Robin Lindsay told the powers-that-be that I was the only other pilot with whom he had worked, and suddenly I was in a hybrid air group made up of ENTERPRISE and SARATOGA pilots, at sea and bound for what none of us knew.
I found myself in the back cockpit with Ensign Bob Elder, who in the fullness of time would become one of the Navy's leading test pilots.
We sailed northwestward and, in the vicinity of Midway Island, our group was joined with another task group including the U.S.S. HORNET, another Atlantic fleet carrier, which had been transferred to the Pacific.
The HORNET's flight deck was fully loaded with Army Air Force B-25 medium bombers.
Those of us who had been at the Norfolk A.C.T.G. had seen these planes so deployed before on the HORNET. Their pilots had told us they were practicing taking off from the HORNET.
They said they thought they were mastering this skill in order to fly the planes ashore as they were ferried to needful spots -- this either was all they knew or they were sworn to secrecy.
As was typical for wartime operations we embarked with "sealed orders" -- that is, operational plans that were even unseen by the ship's commander. These were carried in the skipper's safe and not opened until a given time or at a given location out at sea.
In this case ours were opened and made known to all hands when we rendezvoused with the HORNET group.
There we learned that we were going to sail within several hundred miles of Japan. Then the B-25's, under the leadership of Colonel Jimmy Doolittle -- an aviator renowned for his flying in and out of the Air Force -- were to take off from the HORNET, bomb targets in Tokyo, and fly to China where they were to land, either at airfields or any level place to be found for landing or crashing.
At best it would be a perilous undertaking for the aircrews involved -- from carrier take-off to an attack in the nerve center of Japan to a forced landing in an unknown place.
The ENTERPRISE was along to provide scouting, anti-submarine and air defense for the force. My days were marked by tedium.
The flight deck was kept ready with a coterie of planes, prepared for a "deck-load" launch at any time.
Launches went out repeatedly throughout the day with search and patrol flights kept air-born from sun up to sun down -- one flight was launched and then the one in the air brought aboard.
This necessitated taxiing all the unused planes forward to clear the landing area.
When the pilots manned their plane for this fifteen-minute exercise, they had to go with up-to-date navigational material, prepared to immediately launch rather than taxi if enemy contact occurred during this brief but critical time.
Lt.Cdr. Max Leslie was the skipper of VB-3 and I was his "taxi" pilot.
I sat in the Ready Room most of the day, reworking my chart board every four hours or so and then taxied the skipper's plane forward.
I was not allowed to fly on any of the patrol missions because I had not yet been "carrier qualified" in the SBD, and Admiral Halsey, the task force commander, said he could not risk a plane for this purpose before our mission was complete.
The mission was planned to include an attack on Marcus Island on the way back to Hawaii.
I wasn't unhappy that I had been brought along, but couldn't exactly figure why.
The closer we got to Japan in those northern waters, the rougher the ocean became.
When we were between 600 ~ 700 miles east of the Japanese home islands we began to encounter fishing trawlers, and it was apparent that this was the Japanese early warning system.
Several were sunk, but it was evident the presence of carrier-type planes had been detected, so the decision was made to launch Doolittle's group somewhat further out to sea than had been anticipated.
Unfortunately, their take-off training had apparently been carried out mainly in calm seas and they seemed unprepared to cope with the rough weather.
As carrier pilots, we were trained, no matter what, to hold our planes on the deck until we reached the bow.
In a fully loaded condition and with the flow of wind across the deck standardized to twenty-or-so knots -- largely obtained from the ship's headway -- this was no trouble.
However, when the seas were high and the wind was strong, extra air speed was easily attained in the deck run.
Planes were appropriately spotted on the deck, and the pilot turned up his engine to full power before releasing the brakes.
The Launching Officer signaled when to release so that, with the ship ploughing up and down through the waves, a plane would reach the bow as it pointed up instead of down toward the water.
However, it took several seconds to make the deck run, and the conditions changed throughout.
In high seas, the bow was often down when the Launching Officer sent you forward and green water was frequently spilling over the forward deck as your deck run started.
In these circumstances there was a reflex tendency to pull back on the stick and get the plane into the air -- a reaction laced with dire possibilities.
If one managed to get the plane into the air too early, you would be flying just above the deck only marginally air borne and unable to climb until more air speed was attained.
So situated, it was possible that as one crossed the bow it could oscillate upward and tip the plane into the sea.
In spite of what might be going on at the bow, the pilot had to allow the plane to roll down the deck as usual and trust that the Launching Officer had dispatched him so that he would have normal airspeed when he reached the end of the run, and that the bow would be pointing upward toward the sky rather than down toward the sea.
These were the unfortunate conditions that the Army Air Force pilots were faced with, on this, one of their few deck runs with their B-25's.
As we watched the launch from the ENTERPRISE it was "hairy" business for all of them, even for Col. Doolittle who went first.
All "rushed" into the air, having pulled up early. Fortunately none of them were hit by the rising bow.
It was some time before they were all airborne and on their way -- each plane alone as it disappeared into the murky skies.
After the launch, the ship disposition immediately turned back east towards friendly waters -- a broad ocean away -- while Doolittle's brave band flew west onward to only God knew what.
News of the attack on Tokyo burst upon the world and, though its main target was the Japanese capital, its main purpose was obviously to lift the morale of the American people.
Both motives were realized.
President Roosevelt himself made the official announcement, and exercised his love of myth and mystery by saying the planes had taken off from "Shangri-La" -- appropriating for his purposes the mythical Himalayan kingdom, which was a figment of the imagination of author James Hilton and immortalized in his novel, Lost Horizon.
It's unlikely the Japanese were long kept in the dark.
As we sailed eastward, word came that plans had changed.
The "Battle of the Coral Sea" had taken place, the LEXINGTON had been sunk and the YORKTOWN damaged, but at least equal damage had been inflicted on the enemy, and the adversaries retired from confrontation.
What we below the bridge didn't know was that the bulk of the Imperial Fleet was already at sea, bound for another show down and aimed at occupying Midway Island -- to establish a base from which to repeatedly attack Pearl Harbor, and eventually have a forward base in Hawaii.
As the YORKTOWN was on its way back to Pearl Harbor from the southwest Pacific, the ENTERPRISE and HORNET were also beckoned back to oppose this planned Japanese thrust into the "innards" of the American defense positions.
Thus, it was that our attack on Marcus Island was "scrubbed," and my immediate concern was now how this might affect my opportunities to becoming carrier qualified.
Earlier, my qualification landings had been scheduled repeatedly only to be scuttled each time by Adm. Halsey due to his concern that no plane should be risked while further offensive action was in the offing.
So now the fateful day finally came.
Out in mid-ocean -- thousands of miles from seemingly anywhere -- I became carrier qualified in the SBD.
The plan was for this to occur between the launching of one scouting and patrol flight and the landing of the preceding one.
To add to my confidence it was decreed to take everything of value off the aircraft and ballast the plane with sandbags.
I was to make three approaches with the L.S.O. to "wave-off" the first two, and then, if my third approach was decent, I would be given a "cut."
All went as planned.
With a larger than usual crowd of on-lookers gathered on the walkways and in the gun sponsons on the island, I made one of the best carrier landings I would ever make in an SBD Dauntless.
Of course, it should be remembered that Robin Lindsay was not about to bring me aboard lest I be in perfect position over the fantail.
That done I didn't get to fly again until I was launched on an anti-sub patrol as we entered Pearl Harbor.
The YORKTOWN had beaten us home and was in dry-dock, being hastily repaired for sea again, and we were all told we would be sailing again in a few days.
I was transferred back to VB-5 -- the YORKTOWN squadron to which I had been previously been assigned after we came to the Pacific Fleet from Norfolk.
It turned out that while I was on "The Doolittle Cruise" the rest of our contingent of replacement pilots had been flown to the southwest Pacific aboard Army B-17 bombers and had participated in the Battle of the Coral Sea.
One of our members, Ensign Tom Brown, even gained some measure of fame in the process.
The Gunnery Officer on one of the carriers -- a Cdr. Schindler as I recall -- had badgered his ship's commander into allowing him to fly as a rear-seat gunner and, for the strike, he had been assigned to Tom Brown.
When the Japanese fleet was attacked Tom dropped at a cruiser, which was heeled over in an extreme evasive turn. His bomb hit just below the ship's lower side, and according to Cdr. Schindler the ship promptly "turned turtle" and sank.
From then on Tom was known as "Bomber Brown," a nickname scarcely befitting the personality of a quiet and diffident Southerner but one that did provide great "bar-room" conversation throughout N.A.S. Officer Clubs, and gave a hero to a populace hungry for good news.
In a few days, two task forces -- one organized around the ENTERPRISE and the HORNET and the other around the YORKTOWN -- again put to sea under sealed orders.
In several days the orders were removed from safekeeping, and we learned that the Japanese fleet was at sea, and approaching Midway Island with an eye to capturing that bastion.
Our intelligence had cracked their radio code and we knew where they were while they thought we were back in Pearl Harbor or engaged elsewhere.
As I remember, the Japanese thought the YORKTOWN had been sunk in the Coral Sea, but by super effort the Pearl Harbor shipyard had made her seaworthy in just a few days.
One repair was a large metal plate -- covering a hole in our Ready Room through which a bomb had penetrated to the lower decks during the battle.
In those days communications within the ship depended on a network of "talkers" -- seamen whose battle-stations were manning earphones and mouthpieces in sundry and many locations throughout the ship -- reporting any damage which occurred at the their stations, and passing along such information as was necessary for those operating in or out of these various locations.
It was said that the talker in the VB-5 Ready Room had called into his control station requesting permission to secure his phone because "a bomb just came through here."
In several days we were on station near Midway and were carrying out scouting and patrol missions around each fleet's position.
My first operational sortie from a carrier at sea -- other than my brief qualification flight from the ENTERPRISE -- was a 150-mile two-plane search flight from the YORKTOWN.
As fate would have it this was also my only active contribution to what became "The Battle of Midway."
What I remember the most about that particular flight was that the thin parachute cushion on which I was sitting caused me inordinate discomfort during that four-hour flight -- a good part of which we spent circling the ships waiting to come back aboard.
I was hurting so much that I thought little about my pending second carrier landing in an SBD. I just wanted to be able to stand up and ease the pain in the seat of my pants.
We all anticipated that another major air-sea confrontation with the Japanese was somewhere in the offing.
We were told that a massive enemy invasion force was in the area but none knew exactly where. Things came to a head mid-morning of June 4, 1942.
The early morning search patrols had gone out as usual, and the word came back that the Japanese fleet -- at least the carrier divisions -- had been sighted.
We were given navigation data and brought our chart-board up-to-date.
I was elated that I was listed on the strike group, flying wing on Lieut. Charlie "Tex" Conatser, a fellow who would have profound influence on me as a person and a pilot.
We manned our planes, the VB-5 aircraft being spotted off behind the fighters, the torpedo planes and the planes of VS-5, the other scout bomber squadron in our group.
However, when we reached the take-off spot, the VB-5 planes were simply taxied forward and the aircrews were ordered to return to their Ready Room.
There we learned that only three of the four carriers predicted by our fantastic intelligence information had actually been found.
So our squadron was divided in two -- with eight planes to be sent out on a search while ten would be held back as an attack group once the fourth carrier was found.
In a bit, the search group took off. Those of us reserved for the strike group taxied our planes into the elevators, parked on the hanger deck, and we retired to the Ready Room to wait.
Little did I realize when looking over at the old Douglass TBD torpedo planes with which we were sharing the deck that morning that these would be the last I would ever see.
They were practically all lost in that first strike and, alas, most of their flight crews with them.
Meanwhile, we didn't have long to wait though what happened next was not what we expected.
The planes from the missing fourth Japanese carrier found the YORKTOWN before we found their ship and, in short order, we were under attack.
We had no duties other than sitting in our Ready Room. Unable to see out, we became more and more tense with no activities to release the tension. This was by far the toughest experience I had during the war.
Our anti-aircraft guns began shaking the ship and we figured enemy planes were closing in. In all metal ships there were many plates to rattle and reverberate so that the firing of guns was a noisy din, indeed.
Most of us gathered around the plate patching the Ready Room deck after one fellow had said, "Surely lightning won't strike twice in the same place!"
In a minute another added, "But do you think the Japs know that?"
Just as quickly we dispersed to our empty desk-seats, and in short order the ship was struck -- as I now recall -- by a couple of bombs.
As the overhead of our Ready Room was the underside of the flight deck above, we felt considerable jolts, the lights blinked out, to be automatically replaced by the weird and dim red-glare of battle lamps, and smoke was immediately evident.
The attack passed quickly and in a few minutes we were released to move topside and survey the damage. By now, our ship was dead in the water.
Reminding us that we were about a grim and tragic business, there was a canvas tarp over a pile of something on the flight deck and blood ran from beneath it.
I went down to the hangar deck to check on my plane, and was dismayed to find it had been parked almost directly below the spot where a bomb had landed on the flight deck.
All the fabric on the control sections of rudder, ailerons and horizontal stabilizers had been shredded. This essentially relegated me to a passive but memorable role in "The Battle of Midway."
Very quickly it seemed the ship was back underway, the jagged wound in the flight deck had been debrided and a metal plate worked in over the hole.
Even with these jury-rigged repairs, we were able to bring a few planes aboard. Some of us were standing in the island watching. I was in a small room at flight-deck level.
In short order "General Quarters" was sounded again and we were told more unidentified planes were inbound. Hatches were secured and the jarring cacophony of our anti-aircraft batteries started again.
After the first attack I had observed that many had been injured because they were standing around upright and were either hit by flying debris or knocked up against projecting fittings.
This must have been something noticed by the others for all of us in that small space immediately lay down prone on the deck -- a precaution well worthwhile.
Next there was a tremendous explosion and I was lifted bodily what felt like to be a foot or more off the deck. I now knew what a torpedo hit felt like.
Almost immediately it was evident that the ship was listing to one side and was once again dead in the water.
Apparently our commander, Capt. Buckmaster, was concerned more planes were on the way and that perhaps the ship would capsize for the word was passed to abandon ship.
I went back to the Ready Room and put on my "Mae West" life jacket which we wore un-inflated while flying.
Back topside, knotted life lines had been let down over the low side of the hull and people were beginning to lower themselves down into the water. Large life rafts were thrown over the side and the grim business got underway.
I walked around the island and across the deck trying to decide when I would go, and perhaps secretly hoping someone would change their mind about the whole affair.
I passed Capt. Buckmaster taking a turn around the deck and he told me to hurry and get off the vessel. In several minutes, I passed him again and he said: "Son, I thought I told you get off this ship. Now get moving!"
Reluctantly I lowered myself down on a lifeline for what seemed to be 50 ~ 60 feet to the surface of the water below.
At the bottom of the line a body was floating in the water but the foam around the sailor's mouth seemed to be moving in and out, indicating the remnants of breathing.
I took the man under arm and towed him to a nearby life raft peopled entirely by a contingent of mess stewards and a lone British commander who had unfortunately come along on the cruise as an observer.
I looked around and the destroyer I had eyed from deck level as being right alongside the YORKTOWN now seemed -- when viewed from water level -- to be far, far away. I left the raft and began swimming towards her.
My feet, still fully clad, were becoming heavy, and with some reluctance I shed my very rare size 14-AA shoes, wondering if I would find another pair to fit while in the Pacific.
After what seemed an hour, though it was probably less, I was gaining ground on the "tin can," but when finally within hailing distance, she steamed off.
Arm and leg weary, I rolled over to rest by floating on my back, and lo' and behold I was just beneath the bow of another destroyer.
A junior officer standing in the prow shouted down and threw me a line: "Grab a hold. We've been chasing you for fifteen minutes."
I was too weak to climb the line, but fastened it around my chest and was pulled aboard the U.S.S. HOLLAND. Never was I more relieved to have a deck under my feet.
After a restless night spent cat-napping on a sofa in the Ward Room we survivors were transferred -- by climbing cargo netting up her side -- to the U.S.S. FULTON, a seaplane tender.
Here was passage back to Pearl Harbor.
I was given Navy-issue dungaree pants and shirt to replace my oil-soaked khaki uniform and one of the officers aboard the HOLLAND donated a pair of moccasins. These were the clothes I wore for the next week until we reached Pearl Harbor and were re-outfitted.
Months earlier, when I had shipped out from Norfolk, my main suitcase had been left behind in the rush of getting on the train at night. In it were my copies of my orders and pay records.
On first reaching Pearl Harbor the Paymaster had refused to open a new pay record until he had some confirmation of my orders.
I wrote the Paymaster in Norfolk and a validated copy along with a reconstructed pay record was waiting for me aboard the YORKTOWN when we sailed for Midway.
Unfortunately, these were lost along with my size 14-AA shoes.
When we got back to Pearl Harbor after Midway, the Paymaster remembering me from my past duress again refused to issue me my back pay on just my say-so.
It was another month before I was re-entered on the regular payroll, and it was several years later before I got the back pay I had missed.
The aircrews from the YORKTOWN VSB squadrons were either sent home or assigned to Scouting Squadron Six (VS-6) -- an ENTERPRISE squadron being re-formed under the command of Lt.Cdr. Norwood A. "Soupy" Campbell, the former Landing Signal Officer on the YORKTOWN.
I was assigned to VS-6.
I had been in the Pacific for four months.
Most of the group with whom I had left Norfolk had been bloodied; a few had become heroes -- some dead and some alive.
The best I could say for myself was that I had made the "traveling squad," but I was still sitting on the bench.
Written circa 1997
Edited May, 2002
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