Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Pappy Boyington over the Pacific

More Pappy from his book, Baa Baa Black Sheep (pages 131-137). This time he's in the Pacific with his newly formed (and unorthodox) squadron, the famous VMF-214 Black Sheep flying the great Chance-Vought F-4U Corsairs. Their legitimacy as a permanent squadron hangs in the balance as Pappy desperately tries to find some enemy action in the hope that they can impress the brass and keep their borrowed squadron designation. In this excerpt, the Black Sheep's mission is to escort some dive-bombers (Douglas SBD Dauntlesses and Grumman TBF Avengers) on a strike over the Solomon Islands:

Take-off time – the last Dauntless had wobbled lazily into the air, starting to turn in one gigantic join-up circle. We took off in pairs down the snow white coral strip at about twenty-second intervals, which was a feat in itself, because none of us had more than approximately thirty hours in these powerful new speed birds.

As we climbed, in shorter radii than the bombers, we gradually came abreast of the bomber leader, pulling up above and behind him. Radio silence was in effect. We had no intention of broadcasting our departure to the Japanese. The squadron was spread out like a loose umbrella over the bombers by use of hand signals. A reminder of lean out and reduce prop r.p.m. was passed along to all hands, in order to conserve precious fuel.

We settled down to the monotony of flying herd on the bombers. Our huge paddle-blade propellers were turning so slowly it seemed as if I counted each blade as it passed by. Hour after hour, it felt. The magnetism of counting those blades was so great I was tempted on several occasions to blurt out over the radio: “Who could ever believe this damn ocean could be so damn big!”

The group commander, leading the bombers, was responsible for the navigation. I didn’t have that worry. Finally the monotony was to be broken up, because we were flying above fleecy layers of stratus that demanded all my concentration to hold the shadowy forms of the bombers below in sight. Actually, the reason we had this cloud separation was that the bombers had to fly between stratus layers too. There wasn’t enough space for us to fly in the visual part of the sandwich and still remain above the bombers.

Thoughts of how we might louse up the all-important rendezvous after take-off were far behind. We had made that. And the rendezvous ahead, after our mission was accomplished, certainly couldn’t have bothered me. For the Brass couldn’t possibly see that, only the Nips could. And I don’t believe I gave too much thought to them.

A new worry took its place. The clouds being the way they were, no Nip planes could find us. No action. The high command would undoubtedly have us all back as replacement pilots, and there I’d be directing traffic once again. I thought: “Damn the luck… Why do I persist in planning the future when I know I can’t?”

Hardly had I gotten through feeling sorry for myself when I noticed the dive-bombers had all disappeared from sight.

“What in hell goes? W e must be over the mission.” I thought: “Jee-sus, if I lose these bombers, never showing back at home base would be the best fate I could hope for.”

I lowered the squadron through a thin layer of stratus to try to find the bomber boys. Upon breaking clear, the noise from my earphones almost broke my eardrums. One thing was for darn sure. There was no more radio silence in effect. After a few sensible words like: “Stop being nervous. Talk slower.” Words came back more shrilly and faster: “Who’s nervous? You son of a bitch, no me-ee.” Then communications settled down to a garbled roar.

Avengers and Dauntlesses, which appeared to be streaking downward in dives at all angles, were making rack and ruin upon what I realized suddenly was Ballale. Some had already pulled out of the their dives. Others were just in the process of pulling out. And still others were in their dives.

Huge puffs of dirt and smoke started to dot the tiny isle. A white parachute mushroomed out amid the dirty grayish puffs. Of course I realized it was at a higher altitude. Then a plane crashed. Avenger or Dauntless? How was I to know?

There were enough thick clouds over nearby Bougainville so that I did not expect any Nippon Zeroes to intercept us from there. I don’t know what I was thinking right at that particular moment. Or what I was supposed to be doing. Maybe, as the proverbial saying goes: “I sat there – fat, dumb, and happy.” Perhaps I was watching the boy below in much the same manner as I witnessed the Cleveland Air Shows many times. Anyhow, for certain, high cover was about as close as I ever expected to get toward heaven. So we started down.

To add to my bewilderment, shortly after we cleared the last bit of fluff, I saw that we were right in the middle of about forty Jap fighters. As for us, we had twenty planes that day.

The first thing I knew, there was a Japanese fighter plane, not more than twenty-five feet off my right wing tip. Wow, the only marking I was conscious of was the “Angry Red Meat Ball” sailing alongside of me. But I guess the Nip pilot never realized what I was, because he wobbled his wings, which in pilot language, means join up. Then he added throttle, pulling ahead of my Corsair.

Good God! It had all happened so suddenly I hadn’t turned on my gun switches, electric gun sight, or, for that matter, even charged my machine guns. All of which is quite necessary if one desires to shoot someone down in the air.

It seemed like an eternity before I could get everything turned on and the guns charged. But when I did accomplish all this, I joined up on the Jap, all right. He went spiraling down in flames right off Ballale.

The burst from my six .50-calibre machine guns, the noise and seeing tracer bullets, brought me back to this world once again. Like someone had hit me with a wet towel. Almost simultaneously I glanced back over my shoulder to see how Moe Fisher, my wingman, was making out, and because I saw tracers go sizzling past my right wing tip. Good boy, Moe – he was busy pouring an endless burst into a Nip fighter, not more than fifty yards off the end of my tail section. This Nip burst into flames as he started to roll, minus half a wing, toward the sea below.

In these few split seconds all concern, and, for that matter, all view of the dive-bombers, left me again. All that stood out in my vision were burning and smoking aircraft. And all I could make out were Japanese having this trouble. Some were making out-of-control gyrations toward a watery grave.

A few pilots I had run into before, and some since, can relate every minute detail about an enemy aircraft they came in contact with. But I’ll be damned if I can remember much more than round wing tips, square tips, liquid-cooled, air-cooled, and of course the horrifying Rising Sun markings.

After a few seconds of Fourth-of-July spectacle most of the Nip fighters cleared out. Then we streaked on down lower to the water, where the dive-bombers were reforming for mutual protection after their dives prior to proceeding homeward. We found a number of Nip fighters making runs on our bombers while they were busy reforming their squadrons.

While traveling at quite an excessive rate of speed for making an approach on one of these Zeros I opened fire on his cockpit, expecting him to turn either right or left, or go up or down to evade my fire after he was struck by my burst. But this Zero didn’t do any of these things. It exploded. It exploded so close, right in front on my face, that I didn’t know which way to turn to miss the pieces. So I flew right through the center of the explosion, throwing up my arm in front of my face in a feeble attempt to ward off these pieces.

I didn’t know what happened to my plane at the time. Evidently my craft didn’t hit the Nip’s engine when his plane flew apart. But I did have dents all over my engine cowling and leading edges of my wings and empennage surfaces. With this unorthodox evasive action Moe and I were finally separated, as by this time, I guessed, everyone else was. Certainly this wasn’t the procedure we followed in the three-week training period.

Something else entered my mind after the initial surprise and fright were over, something I realized much more keenly than any of the pilots accompanying me on this mission. I am positive, for I had been involved in this deadly game with Mars for two long years. What I knew only too well was that the average pilot gets less than one chance in a hundred missions of being in a position to fire a killing burst. And furthermore, when this rare chance comes, the one in a hundred, nine out of ten times the pilot is outnumbered, which cuts down his chances still further. Insight into these odds came to me very vividly, for I had tried my best for over two years. Yet my score to date was six. A great number of my previous mistakes suddenly came before me. Realizing that there was meat on the table that might never be there again, as far as I personally was concerned, I was determined to make hay while the sun shined.

Long after the bombing formation had gone on toward home, I found a Zero scooting along, hugging the water, returning to his base after chasing our bombers as far as he thought wise. This I had gotten from the past. When an aircraft is out of ammunition or low on fuel, the pilot will hug the terrain in order to present a very poor target.

I decided to make a run on this baby. He never changed his course much, but started an ever-so-gentle turn. My Corsair gradually closed the gap between us. I was thinking: “As long as he is turning, he knows he isn’t safe. It looks too easy.”

Then I happened to recall something I had experienced in Burma with the Flying Tigers, so I violently reversed my course. And sure enough, there was his little pal coming along behind. He was just waiting for the sucker, me, to commence my pass on his mate.

As I turned into this pal, I made a head-on run with him. Black puffs came slowly from his 20-millimeter cannons. His tracers were dropping way under my Corsair. I could see my tracers going all around this little Zero. When I got close enough to him, I could see rips in the bottom of his fuselage as I ducked underneath on my pass by. The little plane nosed down slowly, smoking, and crashed with a splash a couple seconds later, without burning or flaming.

Efforts to locate the other Zero, the intention of my initial run, proved to be futile. In turning east again, in the direction of our long-gone bombers, once more I happened upon a Zero barreling homeward just off the water. This time there was no companion opponent with the plane. So I nosed over, right off the water, and made a head-on run from above on this Japanese fighter. I wondered whether the pilot didn’t see me or was so low on fuel he didn’t dare to change his direction from home.

A short burst of .50s, then smoke. While I was endeavoring to make a turn to give the coup de grace, the plane landed in the ocean. When aircraft hit the water going at any speed like that, they don’t remain on the surface. They hit like a rock and sink out of sight immediately. For the first time I became conscious that I would never have enough fuel to get back to home base in the Russell Islands, but I could make it to Munda New Georgia. Ammunition – well, I figured that must be gone. Lord knows, the trigger had been held down long enough. Anyhow, there would be no need for more ammo.

But the day still wasn’t ended, even though this recital of the first day’s events may start seeming a little repetitious by now. And God knows I was certainly through for the day, in more ways that one. Yet when practically back to our closest allied territory, which was then Munda, I saw one of our Corsairs proceeding from home along the water. I tried to join up with him.

And just then, as if from nowhere, I saw that two Nip fighters were making runs on this Corsair at their leisure. The poor Corsair was so low it couldn’t dive or make a turn in either direction if he wanted to, with two on his tail. There was oil all over the plexiglass canopy and sides of the fuselage. Undoubtedly his speed had to be reduced in order to nurse the injured engine as far as possible.

In any event, if help didn’t arrive quickly, the pilot, whoever he was, would be a goner soon. I made a run from behind on the Zero closer to the Corsair. This Zero pulled straight up – for they can really maneuver – almost straight up in the air. I was hauling back on my stick so hard that my plane lost speed and began to fall into a spin. And as I started to spin, I saw the Zero break into flames. A spin at that low altitude is a pretty hairy thing in itself, and I no doubt would have been more concerned if so many other things weren’t happening at the same time.

It was impossible for me to see this flamer crash. By this time, I was too occupied getting my plane out of the spin before I hit the water too. I did, however, shoot a sizable burst into the second Zero a few seconds later. This Zero turned northward for Choiseul, a nearby enemy-held island but without an airstrip. The only thing I could figure was that his craft was acting up and he planned upon ditching as close to Choiseul as he could. Anyhow I didn’t have sufficient gas to verify my suspicions.

Also, I was unable to locate the oil-smeared Corsair again. Not that it would have helped any, or there was anything else one could do, but I believed Bob Ewing must have been in that Corsair. For Bob never showed up after the mission. And one thing for certain, that slowed-down, oil-smeared, and shell-riddled Corsair couldn’t have gone much further.

This first day of the new squadron had been a busy one, all right. It had been so busy I suddenly realized that my gas gauge was bouncing on empty. And I wanted so badly to stretch that gas, registering zero to somewhere close to Munda I could taste it.

I leaned out fuel consumption as far as possible, and the finish was one of those photo ones. I did reach the field at Munda, or rather one end of it, and was just starting to taxi down the field when my engine cut out. I was completely out of gas.

The armorers came out to rearm my plane and informed me that I had only thirty rounds of .50-caliber left, so I guess I did come back at the right time.

But I was to learn something else, too, in case I started to think that all my days were to be like this one, the first one. For this first day – when I got five planes to my credit – happened to be the best day I ever had in combat. However, this concerned us naught, for one would have thought we won the war then and there.

Opportunity knocks seldom. But one thing for certain, people can sense these opportunities if they are halfway capable of logical thinking, and, of course, are willing to take the consequences if things go dead wrong.

[A note on the pictures: not all are related to the 214. The three pictures below the one of Pappy are of the 214, though. The lead photo and the last photo show the coral surface tarmac the seabees were so good at constructing on many Pacific islands during the war.]

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