The Metabolism of Humiliation
Scouting Squadron SIX
When one of our children would put something potentially noxious in his or her mouth my wife Edie usually quoted what she had often heard from her "Grandma" Moore: "Don't worry -- if it's not killing it's most likely fattening".
Just so, if a humiliating experience doesn't do us in, then it's probably something from which we will learn.
The chain of the Hawaiian Islands extends northeast from the largest, Hawaii itself, to Midway Island, sitting alone more than 500 miles beyond the main archipelago.
The islands are actually a range of very tall volcanic mountains reaching further up from the ocean floor than their tallest peaks reach above the surface, which in some cases is nigh 14,000 feet.
Midway Island, though also based on an up-thrust of magma and lava, manifests itself above the ocean as a low-lying coral accretion.
The main islands, however, have grown high above sea-level from repeated lava flows which made them very fertile, and subsequently, most picturesque.
Halfway up the primary chain, and half-way in size between Hawaii and the smaller islands, is Oahu which embraces the principal city of the islands, Honolulu, and the Navy's main Pacific bastion, Pearl Harbor, situated adjacent to one another on the southern coast.
A crescent-shaped ridge of peaks runs more-or-less east-to-west across the center of Oahu, and this ridge long posed a barrier to ordinary travel between the northern and southern sides of the island.
Its particular configuration defied the best efforts of men to traverse the ridge with a roadway, and only circuitous travel was possible along a lengthy string of roads around the perimeter of the island, snaking in and out along the coastline.
The problem was the particular topography.
The cusps of the crescent are joined by a semi-circle of rounded, humped islets extending off-shore.
From the air it is evident that the ridge and small islands are the remnants of an old volcanic crater rim now fragmented, but once perhaps as large or larger than Mauna Loa or Mauna Kea on the island of Hawaii.
Near the center of the crescent there is a gap between peaks from whence falls an almost perpendicular drop of several thousand feet.
It is called The Pali, this being the old Polynesian word for "cliff".
Any highway across the ridge had to come through the gap of The Pali, and this was what for years had proved insurmountable.
The story told to me was that after many years of failure a young man from the mainland, fresh out of engineering school designed a roadway and right-of-way that allowed successful fastening to the face of The Pali.
Oahu became more of an entity, and development on the north side progressed, including another large Naval air station directly across the island at Kaneohe Bay.
The Pali is also attended by rather extreme weather changes.
A strong sea-breeze from the northern Pacific prevails and this air is deflected by the escarpment so that a strong wind always blows directly upward along its face.
A favored trick is to sail one's hat out from The Pali and watch it soar upward and backward over the thrower's head.
The upwelling of moist air at The Pali often produced condensation, and very frequently the mountain pass was shrouded with clouds.
Following the Battle of Midway I was assigned to Scouting Squadron SIX which was being reorganized at the time and we were stationed at the air station at Kaneohe Bay.
Lieutenant (j.g.) George Nixon was an unusual and unforgettable character.
He was of mixed background, his mother being Mexican and his father of English origin.
He described his mother as "Castillian Spanish", and indeed, he exhibited the cultural traits of advantage.
However, George bore little resemblance to those we picture as carrying a Latin heritage -- he was short and stocky but with his dapper moustache, cherubic face and ruddy cheeks he looked more like Colonel Blimp than The Cisco Kid.
He was of my vintage as a Naval Aviator, and in addition to flying he served the squadron as Materials Officer -- the Navy title for one who looked after the procurement and preservation of supplies.
One day I was tapped to fly him from Kaneohe Bay to Pearl Harbor so that he could accept a new aircraft for the squadron and fly it back across the island.
It was a sparkling day, the skies were clear blue and, for once, The Pali glowed in the morning sunshine without its usual wreath of clouds.
In retrospect I was obviously paying more attention to the scenery as we taxied out for take-off than to what was in train on the airstrip.
The strip was, in truth, a wide rectangular mat, not quite a square, but not far from it.
Wide enough, in fact, that for group flights we could take off in formation, roomily with a six-plane division, and it could even accommodate to such divisions at once without too much crowding.
The islands were still in a posture of anxious alertness since December 7th -- there was a line of large concrete revetments down the seaward side of the mat, each capable of accommodating one parked plane, and with open ends staggered so that a strafing attacker couldn't shoot at more than one craft per run.
We shared the airfield with Fighting Squadron THREE from our developing air group, and with an Army Air Force pursuit squadron flying Curtiss P-40's, made famous by the "Flying Tigers" in China.
For all the weeks we had been flying out of Kaneohe Bay we had been taking-off and landing to the south -- in a given season the wind shifted but rarely.
As we taxied out another plane took off in that direction.
To make it over The Pali, weather permitting, the SBD Dauntless scout-bombers we were flying, certainly not over-powered, usually required a circle or at least a couple of S-turns to have the air space required to gain the altitude needed to clear The Pali.
With the weather being so clear on that morning, as we taxied out -- for diversion -- I bet George a beer that I could get over The Pali with but one turn toward it.
It was, for sure, a diversion.
I lined up the plane at the end of the mat, held fast the brakes, and revved up the engine to full power before letting the plane start its take-off run.
The SBD with its radial engine, had poor visibility forward over its large cowling while in a three-point position, and the pilot couldn't see forward until enough speed had been reached to bring the tail-wheel off the ground and the plane assumed a level altitude.
I was running down the right side of the ship looking down the mat out of the left side of the cockpit.
Suddenly I noticed an Army P-40, far to my left, but taking off in the opposite direction.
I thought -- "that fool is taking off the wrong way" -- but I didn't worry too much as there was room for us to pass one another with space to spare.
However, my tail then came up so I could see over the nose and my heart came into my throat when I realized that the plane I had seen was the outside wingman in a four-plane division, and that his division leader and I were head-on to one another.
Adrenalin kicked in and things began happening.
Almost at flight speed, with the length of the mat largely used up and hemmed against the edge of the runway, I had to keep going -- my only salvation seemed to lie in becoming airborne.
I turned the plane slightly so I was running obliquely along the junction between the runway and adjacent taxi strip.
This moved me slightly out of the other plane's path.
However, revetments and palm trees were looming in front.
I popped the landing flaps to give more lift and pulled up over these obstacles, not much above stalling speed, just as the P-40's flashed beneath my port wing.
It was dicey for a few seconds, and then George's voice came over the earphones: "What in the hell?"
I had fortunately and reflexively done some right things, but I was to learn I had done some very wrong things to place us in the stew in the first place.
Fortunately the trembling didn't start 'til after I had taken action.
Poor George -- he had no notion of what was going on until the Army planes passed beneath us.
After settling down I looked back and saw other planes taking off in the direction the P-40's had and realized the fool had not been in an Army cockpit.
I turned toward The Pali and George said: "That's your second turn!"
I deposited George at the Ford Island strip in Pearl Harbor and reluctantly flew back to Kaneohe to face the music.
When I walked into the squadron Ready Room Lieut. Cdr. "Soupy" Campbell greeted me with slowly shaking head.
It turned out that the control tower had elected to change runways while I was taxing out.
I had chosen runways out of habit rather than through planning and checking.
I hadn't heard their radio instructions because George and I had been chatting on the intercom about betting a beer.
They had signaled us with a red light, but things had become so routine that I had become lax about looking at the tower on take-off.
About all else I could have done would have been to have George spray the tower with our rear-seat 30 calibers as we passed.
The only thing that kept my self-esteem from sinking through the deck was that I knew I had done some quick-thinking and able aviating to have gotten out of the fix we had been in.
Fortunately, I had enough sense left not to mention this.
The skipper advised me that I had best get down to the Administration Building as the Commanding Officer of the air station wanted to see me.
Scrapping up what courage I had left, I did so.
The station skipper listened to my story, told me he was grateful that a tragedy had been avoided and added: "This war is only about six months old, but that was the dumbest trick I've heard about so far. Report back to your squadron commander and tell him to take appropriate disciplinary action."
I thanked him and left, thankful that he hadn't taken the punishment into his own hands.
After Nixon got back, our skipper had us both in for a talk.
I gave him the station captain's message, and he said: "I'm sure your buddies will amply punish you. I'm just glad no one was hurt and planes weren't wrecked. George, do you have anything to say?"
George scratched his chin, looked up and said: "I think J.D. owes me a beer."
July 10, 1996
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