A Passage at Arms

A Passage at Arms

Eugene “Rocky” Staples
2LT VMF-452
Sky Raiders

I was a young USMC second lieutenant in VMF 452 flying off the Franklin on March 19, 1945 when she was hit by a Japanese dive bomber and blew up spectacularly and at great cost in human life – and yet never sank. Here are two excerpts from my recently published memoir, Old Gods, New Nations: A Memoir of War, Peace, and Nation Building . The first describes my training as a naval aviator. The second recounts what happened to me and some of my squadron mates on that chilly gray day in March 1945 off the coast of Japan .

 

Excerpt from Chapter 3, “A Passage at Arms”

 

III

A Passage at Arms

 

Finally, in the winter of 1944, the news we had awaited for so long came. Major Pat Weiland, the commanding officer, called us to the squadron ready room to announce our immediate assignment to the Naval Air Station at Santa Rosa , north of San Francisco on the Pacific coast, for carrier training and qualification. That completed, we were to board the aircraft carrier “ Franklin ” to join the Pacific fleet. The Franklin , we were told, had been seriously damaged in the fall of 1944 by a Japanese suicide attack in the battle of Leyte off the Philippines and had just finished repairs in the Navy shipyard at Bremerton , Washington .

As the power equation tilted slowly and inevitably against them, the Japanese tide in the Pacific was draining away. But they still held Okinawa and much of China . The Japanese home islands were widely believed to be a formidable, if not impregnable, redoubt. The Japanese had earned a reputation for suicidal courage as they fought to hold island after island. In Europe, where virtually no Marines were assigned, the Allies had landed in Normandy and were fighting their way eastward towards Berlin .

In its pattern of naval fighting and island assaults, the Pacific war was very different from that in Europe . John Gregory Dunne, writing in the New York Review of Books to review three Pacific war memoirs and history, remarked that in addition to these dissimilar strategic challenges the Pacific war was characterized by “the uncompromising hatred between the Japanese military and the forces – American, British and Australian – arrayed against them…Some of it was undoubtedly racial.” In the Pacific, soldiers on both sides routinely hacked body parts – heads, sex organs, fingers, gold teeth – off the dead bodies of enemy soldiers to be used as souvenirs. To be taken prisoner in Europe was bad but survivable. To be captured in the Pacific fighting was unlikely, since battle casualties were so high. If it happened, it was considered a fate possibly worse than death. The Marines were not unfamiliar with what Americans regarded as the lesser races: one of their famous marching song contains the rousing stanza “Oh, the monkeys have no tails in Zamboanga,” recalling the Marines fighting the Muslim rebels against American colonial rule in the Philippines in the early twentieth century.

We said good-bye to the drafty barracks and sunny, windy desert days of Mojave and went up to the fogs, rain and mists of Northern California to fly endless carrier landing practice patterns around the Santa Rosa air station. These “bounce” drills taught the pilot how to fly at slow speeds and low altitudes while he came into the final legs of the landing pattern and picked up the fluorescent paddles of the Landing Signal Officer (LSO), himself a qualified naval pilot, who then employed a simple set of arm and body signals to help the pilot fly the airplane onto the deck.

When the LSO leaned his body and paddles in one direction, the pilot tilted the airplane to respond. When the LSO brought the two paddles rapidly together in a gathering motion, indicating the plane was coming in too slowly and might stall and crash, the pilot pushed on more throttle adding power and speed. When the LSO cut the right-hand paddle across his chest, the pilot cut his throttle, dropped the nose for a second, then pulled the stick back and landed in a full stall. When the LSO waved and crossed his paddles arms vigorously in front of his head, either because the approach was unsatisfactory or the flight deck or runway wasn’t clear, that constituted the famous “wave off”, and the pilot had to go around the entire landing pattern again. In contemporary carrier flying, the LSO has disappeared and this is all done with mirrors and lights, which old timers find sad. Good LSOs and their brilliantly clad deck crews were the dance-masters of a unique technological ballet: the interplay between the signal officer and the pilot, the never-still sea, the looming massive deck of the ship, the final, always shocking moment of the touchdown — or slam down if the deck was dropping away in the swell, the plane catching its landing hook in the restraining cable which slowed and stopped it within a second or so after hitting the deck, rolling backwards for another brief second to disengage the tail-hook from the cable, and then charging forward to clear the momentarily lowered crash barrier at mid-deck.

The flight deck of a carrier looks impossibly small from the air but in two important aspects landing at sea is easier than landing on a land runway, unless the sea is really boisterous and the swells running high and rough. That is because the carrier turns precisely into the wind both to launch and receive aircraft. Planes, like birds, land into the wind. The pilot at sea thus enjoys the advantage of both the speed of the prevailing wind plus the speed of the carrier itself – WW II carriers could steam at up to thirty-plus knots – to deduct from the airspeed at stall out and touchdown. As far as speed is concerned, a carrier landing is therefore both more manageable and safer. On land, the pilot must deal with cross winds or no wind and much higher relative touchdown speeds. The first touchdown on land after a long spell at sea is always tricky.

During two chilly, foggy days off the California coast, we went through this rite of passage on an old battle and accident-scarred carrier, the USS Ranger. Most of us managed the eight required landings without serious problems. But we lost one Navy pilot whose fighter skidded on the oil-soaked wooden deck of the old Ranger and went over the side into the ocean. I found parking on the deck, following the hand and arm signals of the flight deck crew, dressed in an array of brilliant colors like courtiers at a Renaissance court and leaning into the thirty-knot wind, more alarming than the landing itself. I followed the deck crewman’s hand and head signals to park right up at the very edge of the deck with my plane’s wings folded, staring straight down at the ocean fifty feet below while the huge ship rolled and tossed under us.

On February seven, VMF 452, the “Sky Raiders” as we had chosen to call ourselves, boarded the USS Franklin at the Alameda naval air base in San Francisco bay. The Franklin was a monster: 27,000 tons, 872 feet long, 150,000 horsepower. It could steam at thirty-three knots carrying a crew of 3,400 men. The ship was fresh from the navy yards at Bremerton , Washington , where large hunks of its flight and hangar decks, blown up in Japanese suicide attacks off the Philippines in October 1944, had been repaired and replaced. It was, everyone noted, CV-13, which meant simply that it was the thirteenth big attack carrier listed in the Navy arsenal. We steamed out under the Golden Gate Bridge , taking a last look at the fabulous city and plunged into the mighty Pacific swell. Our first stop was Honolulu to carry out night landing drills, beginning with night bounce practice sessions around the Marine Corps field at Barbers Point.

VMF 452 was to fly off the Franklin as a Marine Corps squadron as part of Navy Air Group Five, which consisted of two fighter squadrons, each of thirty-six aircraft, plus a twelve-plane torpedo squadron and a dive bomber squadron of twelve aircraft. It was not an easy relationship. We were there in a Navy-run and staffed operation because of our presumed competence with the Corsair, which was proving increasingly valuable in the air war with Japan . But our Commanding Officer, who was a gentle man, had to report to the Navy Air Group Commander, who of course outranked him and was a Naval Academy graduate as well while our Major Weiland came into the Marine Corps out of South Dakota and civilian pilot training at the University of Miami. We made some friends among the Navy pilots but generally we stuck to each other.

In Hawaii , we became creatures of the sea and the air. By night, we flew landing patterns, dragging slowly at dangerously low altitudes around the Barbers Point MCAS field, picking up the fluorescent paddles of the LSO and dropping down hard onto the asphalt runway, then hitting full throttle and going around again to repeat. In the free time in the mornings, we took a couple of jeeps, loaded with beer, out to the northern beaches and swam and dozed in the sun. WW II Honolulu belonged to the Navy and Dole Pineapple. Its honky-tonk bars were crowded with sailors. The Royal Hawaiian Hotel was the only luxury hotel in all the islands.

I never did make a night carrier landing. Our departure was moved up before the night I was scheduled to fly aboard. When we left the dock to steam out to join the fleet in the western Pacific, the LSO we had trained with, who had been with the Franklin since its earlier Pacific actions in which it was severely damaged, was there, visibly intoxicated, to see us off. “I got off,” he shouted, laughing. “You should get off. Get off, get off! It’s an unlucky ship. Thirteen is unlucky. The ship is unlucky.”

We sailed west for what seemed forever towards the war, the great ship rising and falling slowly as it sliced through the Pacific swell. I discovered a catwalk hanging below the flight deck at the furthest forward point of the flight deck where one could sit or lie and watch the prow of the carrier scything through the water, flying fish exploding out of the sea below us and skittering along flashing in the sunlight. We flew occasional training drills as we went, including a formation south of our route to see if there was any aerial activity in the general direction of the island of Truk, where a tiny Japanese contingent was dying on the vine of a once huge Japanese redoubt, isolated and cut off from supplies as the war spun westward.

Our immediate destination was Ulithi. The Navy captured this extraordinary geological formation from the Japanese in September, 1944. The Ulithi atoll is an enormous, circular, coral reef-ringed, deep natural anchorage five hundred miles east by north from the eastern tip of the Philippines . Ulithi had become the principal forward marshalling point for the endgame with Japan . Navy engineers blasted entrance channels into the atoll for the huge capital ships of the fleet and reinforced a tiny island in the middle of the atoll and put a landing strip on it. We steamed silently into the anchorage just before sunset in early March 1945. In every direction, all the eye could see was American fighting ships: fifteen big carriers (our arrival made it sixteen), four battleships, eight heavy and light cruisers, sixty-plus destroyers and hundreds of transport and utility ships – oilers, munition carriers, freighters, and landing craft of all sizes and shapes. This was Task Force 58, alternately known as Task Force 38, the designation depending on its commanding officer. Two brilliant Admirals, Mark Mitscher (Task Force 58) and Bull Halsey (Task Force 38), took turns commanding this awesome machine, the greatest naval fighting force the world had ever known. I thought to myself: “I am glad I am not a Japanese.”

Outside Ulithi, coming into the harbor passage, we passed a long line of landing ships and smaller landing craft, heavily loaded and low in the water, heading north. We were close enough to wave down to the men on some of them. I found out much later that my brother, Murray, was on one of these landing craft with his Marine artillery unit, headed north for the Okinawa invasion, the blood-soaked semifinal chapter of the Pacific war before the anticipated final assault on mainland Japan . I had not seen Murray since the war started.

In Ulithi, we finally learned our specific assignment: to attack Japanese airfields and military bases to interdict Japanese movement of troops and aircraft from the main islands down to reinforce Okinawa . We loaded fuel, munitions including a brand new large aerial rocket called “Tiny Tim,” and additional crew. The Franklin was to be Task Force 58’s flagship with an admiral and his staff. In addition, a special photography crew had come aboard to shoot a propaganda film on “Tiny Tim.” The ship was jammed: we totaled some 3400 men. The junior officer quarters were so crowded that I begged a sleeping space on a luggage shelf built into the wall of a cabin occupied by two first lieutenants who were willing to put me up. The only really comfortable place was the squadron ready room, just below the flight deck with which it was connected by a short stairway, equipped with air conditioning and leather lounge chairs. It was there that pilots were briefed and debriefed and awaited the order over the public address system: “Pilots, man your planes!”

In mid-March, the fleet lifted anchor and steamed out. At sea, in battle formation, the fleet was even more awesome than at anchor. The task force divided into four carrier divisions of four carriers each, each division with its own cast of supporting cruisers and destroyers. The four divisions changed course frequently day and night in maneuvers designed to avoid submarine attacks, although by early 1945 most of the Japanese submarine fleet lay at the bottom of the ocean. The entire task force covered a thousand square-mile area of water, steaming day and night at speeds of up to thirty-three knots. It was a marvel of American military planning and training and a triumph of military technology. Most of the men running and manning the ships and aircraft, like me, had probably never set foot on a ship before the war or dreamed of flying an airplane.

As we bore north towards Japan , the sunny skies and blue seas of the equatorial Pacific disappeared. Low-lying gray clouds covered the sky. The sea turned gray-black. The air grew chilly. Our moods turned pensive. Those of us — the great majority — who had never been in combat were nervous, although trying not to show it. Along with many others, I thought it wouldn’t hurt and might even help and went to a chapel service. Our commanders told us that if we were hit by Japanese fire or had engine trouble over Japan we should try to reach the Chinese mainland where, with luck, we would be picked up by the Chinese Nationalists rather than by the Japanese.

As we pressed towards the main islands combat air patrols found no significant Japanese contacts. The first heavy fighting was expected to start March 18 with attacks to destroy airfields, harbor facilities and Japanese aircraft on the island of Kyushu , the southernmost of the major Japanese islands, and Honshu . I was assigned to fly as the two-plane section leader in a flight of four Corsairs covering two Navy Hellcat photo aircraft to take aerial photographs of Nagasaki . The division leader was Major John Stack, a decorated veteran of the Guadalcanal fighting who had shot down three Japanese fighters in that earlier campaign. Stack was a short, muscular reddish-haired man with a bushy mustache, not much one for talking but respected as a purposeful, hard driving flier. Flying on Stack’s wing was Tom Pace. On my wing was a first lieutenant named Bo Little, a gentle, small town boy from Oklahoma who didn’t drink, didn’t smoke and went to Los Angeles on liberty to see movies.

We launched shortly after daybreak, climbed up through the cloud cover to 20,000 feet, donning our oxygen masks as we gained altitude, and picked up the two Navy Hellcat photo planes. It was bitterly cold. We had no gun heaters, which had failed to arrive in time to be installed, and had been told our fifty-caliber wing-mounted machineguns would freeze up if we didn’t clear them occasionally by firing a few rounds. The jumpiness I felt was compounded by watching lines of tracer bullets zip past below me or off to one side from other groups as pilots cleared their guns in the larger formation heading for Kyushu .

At launching, we were only fifty miles off the coast of Japan , closer than any major American ship had ever gone in the war. Within less than half an hour, the clouds began to break up as we approached the coast. As we came into Japanese air space, Tom Pace radioed Major Stack that he was having both engine and radio problems and must return to the ship. Stack asked if Pace was sure he could make it back. Pace said he could, and peeled off to head back. Stack motioned to me to join up in formation on his wing.

Unrolling below us as we flew northward above the two Hellcat photo planes were the wooded green hills, ocean bays, coastal towns, rice paddies and industrial plants of Japan. We kept a constant scan of the skies around us for Japanese fighter planes, flying an interconnected side-to-side weave of slow turns from right to left and back to cover the whole sky with our vision and protect against attack from the rear. (This maneuver was known as the “Thach” weave after the navy pilot who invented it.)

We made two passes over Nagasaki at the northwest tip of Kyushu island. The photo planes headed south back towards the Franklin . Flying south down the island we suddenly heard a pilot shouting excitedly on the radio that he was under attack by Japanese planes above a “smoking mountain.” That “smoking mountain” had to be the active volcano in the hills above the bay at Kagoshima , a big industrial and port city at the southern tip of Kyushu . Major Stack waved good-bye to the photo planes. Our three-man formation headed for Kagoshima .

Within minutes, flying on Stack’s right wing, out of the corner of my right eye I saw a Japanese Zero curving in toward us. He was heading slightly below us and Stack immediately turned hard right and then left to drop in behind him. Stack fired several rounds, then pulled off above. I slid in for a few seconds behind the Zero and fired two machine gun bursts at him before the Zero suddenly rolled over and in an abrupt dive disappeared straight down. For a minute or so the sky around us was a great ball of Corsairs and an occasional Japanese fighter. At least one Japanese plane was on fire spiraling steeply down to the ground. A couple of Japanese parachutes were floating further down to the paddy fields. Then, as suddenly as it had started, it was over. No Japanese planes, no Major Stack, no wingman Bo Little. I began a slow circular turn to see what was going on. Within a minute or so, four Corsairs joined up to fly formation on my lead. I was low on gas so I headed back for the fleet with my newly acquired formation of pilots, even more confused than I was, following me. By the time I found the Franklin with my flock I had five minutes of fuel left.

The ready room was full of exhilarated pilots. A number of Japanese planes had been shot down. Stack was convinced he had killed the Japanese we had been after. I thought I had hit the same plane with my firing. We were never to know. The sobering question came up immediately: Where was Tom Pace? Stack explained the circumstances under which Pace decided to return to the ship. Standing orders were that planes in trouble must be accompanied back to base. But Stack had issued no such order. Pace had not landed on the Franklin . 1st Lieutenant Pete Schaefer, a close friend of Tom’s and mine, indignantly challenged Stack’s failure to act. At first it was thought possible that Tom had landed on another carrier, or that he ditched in the sea and had been picked up by a destroyer. We eventually found out that he had been shot down and killed that same morning by anti-aircraft fire from a US destroyer whose crew mistook him for an incoming Japanese plane when he failed to identify himself.

The next day, March 19, not scheduled to fly an early mission, I was half-asleep on my luggage rack bunk shortly after seven a.m., listening to the racket of a dive-bomber flight taking off immediately above my head on the flight deck. I heard a loud explosion and then for a minute nothing. I thought immediately that a dive-bomber must have crashed over the bow on takeoff and exploded in the water. Then two huge explosions shook the ship along with a fierce rattle and pounding of what I thought were the ship’s antiaircraft guns. I jumped out of my bunk in my shorts and went out into the narrow corridor. The rattling and explosions were growing in their intensity. I thought we were under attack and firing at enemy planes. A ship officer whom I knew slightly came running up the corridor from amid-ship. I asked him what was going on. “We’ve been hit by a bomb and we’re blowing up,” he shouted at me. “That’s our own ammunition blowing up.”

I ducked back into my room and hurriedly dressed as the banging and rattling and explosions continued. When I came back to the corridor officers and men were milling around in all directions. Up along the narrow corridor from the hangar deck, stygian figures of men burned black were staggering forward towards the focsle deck area. Black smoke was pouring in from the rear. Huge explosions, reverberating in the steel walls and ceilings, rocked the ship. Another ship officer shouted that we should all head as far forward as possible and get out into the open focsle deck at the prow just below the flight deck. Within minutes about a hundred men, some so badly burned they were barely conscious, shivering in the cold, moist wind, had assembled on the open deck. The ship was losing speed and beginning to list. As the explosions continued, a ship’s officer shouted at us to assume a pushup position on the deck using our fingers and toes to avoid ankle and leg fracture because of the pounding, hammering action of the deck under our feet.

After about an hour, the explosions abated momentarily. I followed a ship’s officer up a catwalk to the flight deck to help fight the fires consuming the entire rear half of the ship behind the multi-story island where the ship’s command post was located. As we went back to lend a hand with the fire hoses, a horrifyingly loud explosion blew the outboard elevator, which carried planes up and down to and from the flight and hanger decks, several hundred feet into the air. All over the forward portion of the deck wounded men were limping and being carried forward from the fires and explosions towards the stern. I came across a friend and squadron-mate, Lt. Jim Ormond, lying on the flight deck in pain, his leg shattered at various points from the concussions. I got an arm around him and we limped forward as far as we could get.

By mid-morning, the Franklin was dead and low in the water, listing increasingly to starboard. Explosions and fire raged through its entire rear half. The tilting deck was slippery with fire fighting foam. A Navy light cruiser, the USS Santa Fe, slid into formation with us off the starboard side and slowly crept in towards the listing flight deck. It became apparent the Santa Fe intended to take off survivors. Within a half hour, directed by the ship’s crew, the remnants of the air crews and sailors on the flight deck were able to rig a makeshift breaches buoy system to transfer wounded men across the narrow gulf separating the two ships, which were pounding up and down dangerously in a fifteen foot swell. Finally, the Santa Fe threw caution to the winds and headed in even closer to tie up directly alongside the Franklin .

Shortly after noon , an order was passed around orally – the public address system was an early casualty of the day – that all hands except the permanently designated salvage crew should abandon ship. Jim Ormond had been hauled over to the Santa Fe an hour earlier. I decided it was time to go myself. I judged the rise and fall of the Santa Fe in the swell, waited for the exact moment when the top of the Santa Fe’s left gun turret came level for a second or two on the rise of the swell with the right edge of the Franklin’s slippery flight deck, and took a running jump across the six foot gap. I landed on my feet just below the cruiser’s command post, stumbled for a second, and then they pulled me up. “I’m glad to be aboard, sir,” I said. It was corny but I never spoke truer words.

 

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The memoir as a whole deals not only with my wartime experiences but my postwar career as a journalist, a career foreign service officer serving in Latin America, Russia and Asia, and a private foundation executive working in Russia and Asia . It is available online through Amazon.com; Barnes & Noble.com, and numbers of other internet sites, as well as through some Barnes & Noble stores.

 

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