Saturday, April 21, 2007

Regrouping in the States--1944--Air Group Seventeen

I had to return to Alameda, after my 30 day leave and when I arrived, they assigned me to VT-17, as Air Group Seventeen was just reforming. James Berryhill ARM2C and I were the only airmen from Air Group Six to be assigned to new squadrons, VT-6 but eventually we drifted apart, because after they regrouped, they were sent up to Santa Rosa for training, and after we regrouped, we went down to Monterey for training. Berryhill and I were both ARM2Cs and we immediately began studying for our ARM1C examinations. We passed them and were promoted before we left Alameda for Monterey for training. Berryhill was from Sheffield, Alabama and was probably the smallest aircrewman in the entire fleet. His motto was "It isn't the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog." And what he lacked in stature, he made up for in fortitude. He wasn't afraid of anything. Well, my new pilot was Lt. George Hill and he was from West Concord, Massachusetts and our turret gunner was Norman Jensen from Oak Park, Illinois. Berryhill's new pilot was Lt. Charles Livengood and their turret gunner was Ted Keffer. Before Lt. Hill arrived on the scene, I flew a training flight or two with Lt. Steven Sullivan. The Air Group Seventeen Commander was Lt. Cmdr Conrad and VT-17 Squadron Commander was Lt. Cmdr. William M. Romberger.

Cmdr. Romberger allowed all flight personnel to maintain their own log books, so I have records of all my flights with VT-17. The only way I could ever determine my flight time in VT-6 would be to find Lt. Larue G. Buchanan's flight log and see what missions he flew from May 15, 1943 to March 3, 1944. I'm sure that it would show that we flew over 500 hours for both training and combat missions and that we probably made over 50 carrier launches and landings. The training missions for both squadrons would pretty well parallel each other.

Air Group Seventeen spent the month of May becoming organized at Alameda, and my flight log shows that I flew twenty two and one half hours training flights that month. One of the flights was in an SNJ trainer and Lt. Hill let me take the controls in the back seat, the first and only time that I had the controls of a plane while I was in the Navy. You see, the TBF did not have any dual controls and there was no way that either the radioman or the gunner could get to the pilot's cockpit from the turret or the radio compartment, while the plane was in flight. Should anything have happened to the pilot, the only chance for survival for the radioman or gunner would have been to parachute to safety, if possible. It was always understood that if something should happen to the plane and if it were at all possible, the pilot would make the best water landing he could because everyone's chance for survival was better that way than trying to bail out because you had a chance of retrieving the life raft before the plane would sink.

During the month of June, I logged 56.8 hours of training flights, and one of them I will never forget. One morning when it was too foggy for the squadron to fly simulated attack tactics, Lt. Hill, Jensen and I decided to make a radar navigation flight and we took off and headed down the coast, flying just over the overcast at about 3000 feet. I had my head buried in the radar, giving Lt. Hill distances to shore off our port wing (90 degrees port) and we were staying about a couple of miles offshore. When we were nearly to San Louis Obispo, Lt. Hill asked if there was any smoke in the radio compartment and when I pulled my head out of the radio visor (a rubber visor fitted over the radar screen to keep the light out) the plane was full of smoke. Lt. Hill turned around and headed for home and told Jensen to get into the radio compartment with me (one crawled into the turret from the radio compartment) and for us to put our parachutes on and be ready to bail out if he gave the order. He started gaining all the altitude that he could and said that he was slowly losing oil pressure. The first call I made to the control tower at the base, I could not get a response but I continued calling and finally the tower traffic controller answered me. Lt. Hill told him our situation and that we would be coming over Carmel Mountain and that we would make a down wind landing if we could make it. By the time we reached the Monterey Airfield, they had out the ambulance, the fire truck and the rescue squad all waiting for us. The visibility was still poor but better than it was when we took off and someone that lived on Carmel Mountain told Lt. Hill later that we barely cleared it. But we did make the down wind landing all right and the mechanics found that we had returned with a cracked piston. They said that it was a wonder that the engine did not freeze up and that we were lucky to have made it back in with it. That was one time that I do not believe "that skill and science was prevailing over ignorance and superstition". Somebody upstairs was helping us!!

There were other non-flying events that I remember from Monterey. Lt. Hill had a girl friend that lived in Carmel and he spent a good part of his liberties there and the officers had their club on the base. The enlisted men had liberty every other night and it was customary for all the aircrewmen to congregate at one local bar, since we had no club quarters on the base. In Monterey, we all started meeting at a place called "My Attic" and even if you had something else to do on liberty, you would usually check by the "Attic" before you headed back to the base. The base was about a mile inland from downtown Monterey and we usually walked to and from the base, if we couldn't hitch a ride. Fort Ord was on the coast close by and there was always lots of soldiers on liberty in town, The Coast Guard operated a couple of PC boats around in the bay and they would pull the sleds with the PC boats that we used for targets in our simulated torpedo runs and bombing attacks. We would carry hundred pound water filled bombs for both those training tactics and the planes were equipped with gun cameras to show the effectiveness of the training attacks. One afternoon, Berryhil.1 and I had liberty and we ended up being the only two aircrewmen in the "Attic" along with several soldiers from Fort Ord and four or five Coast Guardsmen off the PC boats, I tried to strike up a conversation with the Coast Guard boys and was talking about our training tactics on the sleds that they were pulling in the bay for us. Berryhill said something to one of them, and I really think that he meant it in jest, about their service in “Houligan’s Navy.” The Coast Guardsman, took his remark to heart and I had to do a lot of fast talking to convince them that I was a lover and not a fighter. And we were finally able to get out of there without having a gang fight. Berryhill was so small that most soldiers And marines would just ignore him, but he seemed to carry a chip on his shoulder and often did not use discretion as the better part of valor when shooting off his mouth.

Oh yes! Our quarters at NAAS Monterey were temporary army barracks and we had double-decker bunks on either side, with a big aisle down the middle. One night about midnight, the entire barracks was awakened to the loud cry of "Hi Ho, Silver - Away!" and to our amazement, here are two sailors riding down the aisle on a snow white mule, The sailors were in their dress blues, and to top things off, the, mule decided to make a deposit on the wooden floor in the center of the barracks, when Keffer and Colombini dismounted, it looked as if all of the hair off the mule's back was deposited on their blue uniforms. The mule was shedding, to say the least. The boys were walking home from the "Attic" and there was a ten acre tract just between the base and Monterey that housed a veterinarian's clinic, so the boys had led the mule out of this pasture and proceeded to ride him to the base. When the security guard stopped them at the gate and told them that they could not bring the donkey on the base, they asked him "Why not? You let the officers drive their vehicles on and off the base and this happens to be our mode of transportation". They persuaded him to let them ride through and that was so good, they proceeded to ride right on into the barracks. I thought the Skipper would call them to "Captain's Mast" the next day but he apparently got a charge out of it, for all the boys had to do was return the mule.

By the middle of July, 1944, we had finished our gunnery, glide bombing and torpedo run tactics at Monterey and we were moved on up to NAAS Vernalis, an auxiliary Air Station near Modesto for our training in night flying, Between the 15th of July and August 31st, I flew 37 hours of night time flying, All with Lt. Hill and Jensen. We went into Modesto for liberty a few times, but since we were flying at night and it was so hot in the daytime, we didn't spend much time on liberty, We had to get our sleep in the mornings, as the barracks were cooled by fans and humidifiers only. There Are a few-things that I remember from. Vernalis, We lost a fighter plane and pilot one night when we were making night field carrier landing practices, The pilot came in too low and hit a power line at the end of the landing strip. Another night when we were aloft, there was a terrific explosion on the horizon toward San Francisco. We were several miles inland from San Francisco, but we learned on the news that there had been an accident at an ammunition depot at Port Chicago, near San Francisco.

We spent the month of September, 1944 at NAS Alameda, mostly for the purpose of having rocket launchers mounted under the wings of our planes and flying rocket training missions. of the 27 hours that I flew in September about 6 hours was for rocket training. We spent most of October at NAAS Arcata, California, up near the Oregon border, for the purpose of rocket training but the weather was so bad most of the time that we didn't get in too much flying time. It was extremely foggy and we spent a lot of time in the local pubs drinking beer with the loggers. The timber and lumber industries are the big thing in that part of the state.

On the 27th of the month, we had returned to Alameda and were making landing and launches off the USS Ranger, which had just come from the Atlantic to California. The Watkins brothers were no longer aboard her, and my concept of her size had changed dramatically, since I had landed on much larger carriers. She looked mighty small when you were coming in for a. landing aboard her. It was amazing what a difference the approach made, in just two short years. After three days aboard the Ranger, all our squadron had made enough launches and landings to make the squadron fully qualified. for carrier duty,

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