Niles Raymond Siebert
The word came down. Edie told me that Carl told her that Raymond told him: “Here I am, carrying around a man’s name that I know nothing about.”
Somehow, these oversights happen and one begins to suppose everyone is crawling across the same web of memories, when indeed, most may be dangling by a single thread of awareness.
So here’s what I remember about “Sieb” -- Niles Raymond Siebert -- at least, in summary form.
When Edie and I were out in Kansas last winter and spring, we learned some things about the place we hadn’t known before.
The Kansas people were among the most open and friendly we met.
They spoke to strangers on the streets and acted as if they were really glad to see you.
The bulk of these folk were apparently of German origin.
As we drove up from Arizona and across the corner of Oklahoma, the land of the desert gave way to the land of the Great Plains, changing from rocky and arid to lush and green -- tho’ the latter was maintained largely through irrigation -- and more and more cattle appeared until it became evident that there were more cattle in western Kansas than anywhere we had been in our travels while I was working with the Joint Commission.
Visiting several museums, we learned something of the history of the place and, in short, the early situation was one where the sea of prairie grass supported vast herds of buffalo.
The hunting and gathering Indians lived in a buffalo-economy, getting most of their food as well as hides for their houses and clothes from the buffalo.
The first Caucasians there were ranchers and they methodically killed off the buffalo to starve out the Indians and cause them to migrate elsewhere.
Further, some of the packing houses -- such as Rath, who is still with us -- got their start on buffalo meat and processing and shipping buffalo hides.
These were the wild days of the Kansas frontier, which gave rise to the tales of Dodge City and other such desperate places.
Further, the rail-heads began to appear connecting the Plains to the population centers of the East and quickening the whole area’s economy when the cattle-raisers south in Texas, Oklahoma and Arizona territories began to bring their herds north for sale and shipment.
The cattle were herded into Kansas by the “cow-boys.”
We were also surprised to learn that for the more stable frontier folk that name evoked fear -- not the romance it does for us today -- of men who were wild, reckless and destructive.
Meanwhile, back in Europe, many Germans, particularly those Protestant groups who were being persecuted, fled their traditional homelands and some had gone into Eurasia.
Among them were the Mennonites who went to Russia and, after receiving similar treatment there, fled again to America.
This migration was a completely separate one from the earlier migration of the Pennsylvania Dutch from whom Edie’s family the Hamricks would descend.
While in Russia, these sturdy and diligent farmers acquired a variety of wheat known as “Turkey (Russian) Red” and, as fortune would have it, this grain proved particularly suited to the Great Plains.
Thus the Mennonites with their farming remade Kansas into the “Breadbasket of America.”.
They now are the basic stock of the region and wheat, cattle and Mennonites have replaced the prairie grass, buffalo and Indians.
Further evidence that the more things change the more they stay the same.
In any event, some of these German immigrants arrived in the Midwest via Canada.
Among them were the Sieberts who settled in northern Kansas near what is now the town of Marion. They named their post-office “Canada.”
Niles Raymond Siebert’s grandparents were among them and this was to be the village where “Sieb” grew up, a town, which he claimed, boasted a population of 36.
He had one brother -- an older one named Norman -- whom “Sieb” always called “Slick.”
I often wondered if this was because he was a womanizer of the same stalwart order as his younger brother.
“Sieb” was a couple of years older than me and his brother a couple of years older than he.
Both attended the University of Kansas and Norman went on to Medical School.
As brothers, “Sieb” and “Slick” were particularly close.
I only met Norman once but, after the war, we talked once or twice on the phone and he seemed a great fellow.
He was practicing Obstetrics and Gynecology in Wichita, Kansas.
However, when Edie and I recently passed through there I could not find his name in the phonebook and wondered whether he might have passed away.
“Sieb” played varsity football at Kansas and having finished under-graduate school enlisted in the Navy flight-training program about the same time I did -- just before the start of World War II.
I remember seeing him a few times when we were in training in Pensacola and Miami, but I really didn’t know him well then.
After we got our wings, we were both assigned to carrier scout-bomber duty, and “Sieb” was sent to San Diego to be further trained for duty in the Pacific Fleet while I went to Norfolk for similar preparation for Atlantic Fleet duty.
However, in February of 1942 following the attack on Pearl Harbor, a group of us stationed in Norfolk were transferred to the Pacific Fleet due to the depletion of squadrons in the Pacific Fleet and the fact that we of the Atlantic squadrons were un-engaged in the war at that time.
On arrival in Pearl Harbor, I was temporarily placed on the U.S.S. SARATOGA while awaiting transfer to the U.S.S. YORKTOWN, which was at that time down in the Southwest Pacific about to become embroiled in the Battle of the Coral Sea.
While we were training in Hawaii, one of the SARATOGA’s squadron was placed aboard the U.S.S. ENTERPRISE, and later when one of that squadron’s pilots was injured in a crash I was sent along in his stead.
Our mission, it turned out, was to accompany the U.S.S. HORNET on the launch of the Doolittle raid against Tokyo. (See On The Traveling Squad).
When we returned to Pearl Harbor after the raid, I found that my other confreres bound for the YORKTOWN had been flown down to the Southwest Pacific and had joined that ship just before her engagement in the Coral Sea.
There the U.S.S. LEXINGTON was sunk and the YORKTOWN damaged.
After that battle the YORKTOWN was brought post-haste back to Pearl Harbor for repairs because trouble was now brewing around Hawaii.
After just a few days in port we were sent aboard and the YORKTOWN sallied forth to meet her destiny in the Battle of Midway.
After the loss the YORKTOWN we were brought back to Hawaii and were re-organized into a unit designated as Scouting Squadron 6, ostensibly to go to the ENTERPRISE.
Some replacement pilots brought over from San Diego joined us in Hawaii.
“Sieb” was in that group.
The SARATOGA had been torpedoed early in the war by a Japanese submarine while supplying Midway Island with replacement aircraft.
She was sent to Bremerton shipyard in the Puget Sound for repairs, which was why one of her squadrons had been at Pearl Harbor earlier.
Soon after the Battle of Midway, the SARATOGA rejoined the fleet, that is she joined with the ENTERPRISE and together they were the Pacific Fleet in those bleak days.
Scouting Six went aboard the SARATOGA rather than the ENTERPRISE and we went down to the southwest Pacific to work out of New Caledonia while the ENTERPRISE and her entourage worked out of the nearby New Hebrides Islands.
“Sieb” and I became roommates on the SARATOGA beginning what was to be perhaps my life’s closest friendship.
“Sieb” like me was able aviator -- a good and dependable but unspectacular pilot.
The fighter pilots were always thought of as the glamorous “fly-boys” though they mostly stayed around the ship on close air-patrol or went where the dive-bombers and torpedo-bombers took them.
It has always seemed odd to me that the defensive fighter-planes were considered the elite while the strength of the fleet resided in what the bombers and torpedo planes could do.
That was not how we felt about ourselves, however, for we tho’t it took as much fortitude and more skill to navigate -- week in-and-out -- as a single-plane searcher ranging out some 200 miles from a moving carrier and then find your way back with a paucity of radio navigational aids then it did to bore holes in the sky from a fighter plane though, in truth, fighter aircraft were more exciting to fly.
We spent about a year in the South Pacific during what I call the “shadow boxing” phase of the Pacific War (See Shadow Boxing).
The Japanese’s main force was based in Truk, a stronghold in the Caroline Islands, and every so often their fleet would sortie out of there.
We would then put to sea from New Caledonia or the New Hebrides.
We each would steam back and forth about 500 miles apart from one another because both sides had too little power then to force a confrontation.
Most of the limited combat we did have in those days came when our air group was temporarily land-based a couple of times from Henderson Field on Guadalcanal.
Scouting Six was relieved from the SARATOGA in November 1942 and brought back to the states.
Some of us went to instruction duty while others were assigned to the new squadrons being formed for the new Essex-class carriers then coming off the ways.
“Sieb” and I were among those sent back to Norfolk to establish Bombing Squadron 15 for the new U.S.S. HORNET soon to go to sea.
The HORNET shipped out in January 1944 but when we got to Pearl Harbor we were replaced by an older group and Air Group 15 ultimately went aboard the U.S.S. ESSEX (See Flying Wing).
The ESSEX was to take took a very active part in the Central Pacific push, which ended in the Philippines.
We started off by attacking Wake and Marcos Islands -- Marine bases that had been captured by the Japs in the very early days of the war -- carried out scattered raids around the area, and then took part in recapturing the Palau’s and the Marianas.
Guam, which after its re-capture would become Nimitz’s headquarters for the Pacific Fleet, was in The Marianas.
The long-range B-36 Army Air Force bombers, just then available, were based in China and the Marianas from whence the Japanese home islands could be ceaselessly bombarded.
Saipan and Tinian became their primary bases and Saipan would eventually launch the Enola Gay on her famous atomic forays against Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
It was when we were attacking Guam that “Sieb” was shot down and crashed in flames.
By then we had been roommates for about 3-1/2 years -- a time which, believe me, was stretched out in perception by the intensity of wartime life, and particularly when the specter of danger, both in operations and combat, is a constant facet.
Even today it seems more like a decade.
I was sitting in the Ready Room getting ready to go on a strike against when news reached us that “Sieb” had gone down and that there was no chance of survivors.
Our companionship had become so much of a fixture to all that even though I was in my plane preparing to launch our squadron commander climbed up on my wing and asked if I was alright and felt like flying.
I went on but I never heard of such concern before or after, over the loss of a friend.
“Sieb” and I had not become fast friends immediately tho’ we were always affable associates.
He was a mule of a fellow physically and I never was.
He was popular with the women, but we didn’t like the same type.
Ashore we did not frequently go out together but -- both of us did liking the grape and grain and the “spirits” derived from them -- did relax together a good bit.
We also both found the other to be inveterate readers and we spent many hours looking up and comparing words we ran across in our reading.
Thus, we enjoyed talking together and became constant conversational companions.
On one cruise I am convinced we increased our vocabularies by 25%.
In retrospect, I now know that “Sieb” represented that same open-ness and friendliness that, forty years later, Edie and I were to find typical of Kansas.
“Sieb” was as close to a brother as I shall ever know and I grieved over his loss as much as I have for anyone in my life.
My parents died having both had lived long lives and my Dad, in particular, had had a full life (until Edie’s passing).
Further, I had not been constantly with them over the decades before their deaths.
“Sieb” and I became constant companions during a very intense time of life that when he was suddenly there no more it was as if part of me was missing.
After that I always entered into “service” friendships with the reservation that the same might happen again and did not get too close.
“Sieb” was a good man and almost everyone like him immensely.
He was always ready to take his turn at the risky things we were required to do.
He was seldom moody and usually in good spirits.
His folks -- whom I visited once after coming back from overseas -- were stalwart German stock.
They called him Niles though he despised that name and I can’t blame him.
Everyone called him “Sieb” and never anything else.
When Edie and I choose to name our fourth son after “Sieb,” we agreed that Raymond, his middle name, would be the better choice.
Over the years I have come to think only of my son when I hear the name Raymond Siebert though every now I still think of the great guy our son was named after.
Those memories make me feel good that our Raymond carries on his name.
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October 19, 1985
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Edited May 31, 2004
Originally written as a letter to Raymond, this story was one of Jigs’ first writings to his family. The letter was recently found after being missing for several years and has been edited to the format of these vignettes.
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