“AT LEAST IT WASN’T A FOXHOLE”
What it was ... was an Amphibious Cruise. Tactical Air Control Squadron (TACRON) 12 at NAS Alameda was an interesting assignment, as few Naval Aviators until that time served with amphibious forces.
The key to this narrative is two situations that happened during a six-month deployment to WestPac. The squadron was deployed aboard the Attack Transport USS Henrico (APA-45). I volunteered to participate in an Officer of the Deck training program the ship's CO was running. He was very hesitant to include an aviator; however he did. Training was rather intensive on the way to WestPac. Surprisingly I was selected to be the underway OD for one of four watch sections even over several ship's officers so qualified. In many ways it was a thrill especially when we conducted night formation steaming with other ships of the Amphibious Group.
One memorable event occurred during a run into Sasebo Japan. I had the mid watch and at about 1:00 a.m. I heard "It came off." The helmsman was standing with a detached wheel in his hands. We shifted to emergency steering (a lone seaman at that station in the bowels of the ship). The guilty missing brass screw was soon found and the wheel reattached. The alerted Captain joined us, and reiterated that in all of his years he never heard of anything like this happening.
On my next watch I observed numerous sailors on deck wearing life jackets. Finally the Captain arrived on the bridge wearing his. It was then clear that the ship's company decided to have a little fun at my expense.
The Captain knew I was quartered below in less than comfortable conditions. He wanted me to take a spare stateroom. Of course, I had to refuse, as this would have gone over like a lead balloon with my roommates. We were in a bunk room near the engine room with four bunks and no place to store our personal items except in our individual footlockers. The space was so confined that footlockers had to be stacked in reverse order of seniority.
As a LT in with a Marine Major and two LCDRs you know who was on the bottom. We tried to keep some items near our bunk, however I was in the locker at least once almost every day. Combining this with no air conditioning made this summer cruise most memorable.
At least it wasn’t in a foxhole, and it was only six months.
As an early addict for flying different aircraft it was a ball when joining VRF-32 as Operations Officer. Each aviator had to work toward qualification in at least six aircraft ASAP. Most then averaged about eight. In my case it grew to eleven including: T-28, SNB, AD, S2F, TI, TV, T33, T2, F9F, A4, and F8 Crusader. This also included a variety of models within each category. This made it quite easy for operations in both our squadron and in VRF-3) to schedule me for a variety of deliveries with associated pickups. There are many stories to relate, but only two will follow.
First I went to NAS Lemorre to checkout in the AD. Two chased flights and two solos followed some basic ground school. As you will see not everything was covered. Scheduling from my squadron asked me to deliver an AD to Norfolk. It was rather late in the day so I flew to Luke AFB before nightfall. I was in operations when a lineman came in to see how to close the canopy. Note that after all four previous flights this was never required. I stated I would be right out. As my emergency handbook was no help a call was made to Lemoore. I said I was Sergeant Smith and need the canopy closing method. Armed with the proper info I strutted to the aircraft to show the sergeant how to complete this simple event. Needless to say this story stayed buried from Squadron mates.
A second memorable day started with breakfast at home. I then flew an F8 from San Diego to Norfolk via refueling at NAS Dallas. The return trip that afternoon was in an A4 following the same route. Weather was fairly decent only requiring a jet penetration at Norfolk. Dallas refueling was a snap as they had a special line for speeding up this process. Finally I arrived home in time for dinner quite pleased with accomplishing something few others get the chance to do.
“IT WAS CLEAR WE IMPRESSED PEOPLE”
In June 1957, a four-plane detachment of AJ-2Ps from VAP-61 based on NAS Agaña, Guam was to spend three months operating from Kodiak, Alaska. The mission involved photo mapping much of the soon to become 49th state in connection with the International Geophysical Year. A/Cs included CO, Cy Mendenhall, LTs Jim Liles, Steve Odrobina, and yours truly.
Cy was a great CO and a man of few words. His were "let's do a great job, and impress people at each stop." Our stops would be Midway, Adak, and Kodiak. Weather permitting, a formation flyover was planned for each base, as they didn't get a chance to see carrier aircraft.
One hour from Midway, Steve had an engine failure. Cy and Jim went ahead, I stayed with Steve. Steve landed after me as he necessarily fouled the runway until being towed away.
Three aircraft went on to Adak. Instrument approaches were required, so again no flyover. An unpredicted heavy fog rolled in and was estimated to remain for several days. Cy decided to depart the next day with ceiling almost zero and visibility less than 100 feet. Jim and I followed at one-minute intervals. (This was one of the few times a green instrument card came in handy.) We joined on top and enjoyed the new scenery until about three hours from Kodiak when Cy had an engine failure. I went ahead while Jim stayed with Cy.
At Kodiak and on downwind leg my photo navigator noticed smoke from the starboard engine so as a precaution I shut it down. Again no flyover, plus two aircraft had to be towed in. Both downed aircraft were flyable within two days. For almost a week the tower would ask us if a tow would be necessary. It was clear we impressed people.
For three months we photographed some of the most beautiful terrain in the world. Some runs were at 30,000 feet and above, others as low as 300 to 500 feet…especially over glaciers. Millions of lakes, unending miles of rivers and streams, rugged snow covered mountains, and very little evidence of habitation in an area twice the size of Texas. With fewer than 600,000 humans most of the time it made us feel we were experiencing a distant planet. It wasn't until years later when flying over our Western states that anything comparable came into view.
Respect for Alaskan pilots couldn't be greater. To imagine single engine land planes flying in remote areas in bad weather was mind-boggling. An engine failure was an invitation to disaster. Seaplanes weren't much better off except they probably could find a landing area. Compare this to our three-engine (two prop and one jet) bird flying in good summer weather in order to do the photography.
Television coverage provided by the recent Sarah Palin series and another series about Alaskan State Troopers refreshed this aging memory about many scenarios not covered above. You may not be tempted to move there, however a cruise is highly recommended.