Naval History of Gordon Collier
Logged here is the complete history (such as I can remember or reconstruct from the records) of my Naval experience, which was to me a very significant period of my life. Just how significant was not known to me at the time, but it certainly changed my life for the better as no other experience I can recall, and may therefore be useful to my progeny or others. In life, nothing seems to be so valuable as experience, and the experience of others can be as useful as one’s own, if imbibed.
Preface - April 1998
My preparation for the Navy really started very early in my life, much before any thought of joining the Navy. I was born in Lakewood, Ohio, on the south shore of Lake Erie, a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, then about the 6th largest city in the country, or so it was thought. And I grew to the age of six in the same house, that of my grandfather – Frank R. Bauer. During those early years, the aviation age was just beginning. Most prominent were the dirigibles, those huge aircraft based just south of Cleveland at Akron. From time-to-time we would see these behemoths of the skies fly overhead. They were fully a city block long, and the low drone of their eight engines and slow movement was unmistakable and very impressive. Everyone came out of their homes just to see them in the skies, so unusual were their presence. Though I knew it not at the time, these were actually the first aircraft carriers being tested by the Navy. They actually held in their internal bays, small scout planes which could be launched and recovered on a “sky hook”, tho I never saw the aircraft in operation while in view in Lakewood. Just seeing something so large in the sky was a shock to the senses.
About the same time, autogyros were being introduced (the first rotary wing aircraft). We would occasionally see a Pitcairn autogyro flying the mail from Cleveland Airport to the downtown post office, the government's system of subsidizing aviation development. Helicopters with driven rotors were unknown at the time.
Aviation was on everyone's mind. And Cleveland Airport was the sight of the National Air Races in which every military and independently built aircraft could be expected to participate. These were the days of Roscoe Turner and Jimmy Doolittle, the cross-country Thompson Trophy Race, and the closed course high-speed race. By age 7 we had moved to some close by rural towns, Berea and Olmsted Falls, Ohio, but were treated to being immediately under the closed race course. So there were always trials going on overhead. I knew every pilot and airplane type by name and sight, even built model airplanes of some of them – like the GeeBee. There was continual fascination with the growth of aviation. It was everyone's dream to be like one of the pilots in the Air Races.
In February, 1941, at my age 12 my father (aged 48) died, which was a major shock to my life. I suddenly became a man, the oldest and only male in my immediate family – and on my own from that point on, almost. To survive, we returned to my grandfather's home in Lakewood, lived in his converted attic until I graduated from high school, and on Welfare for the entire period until I enlisted in the Navy. These were the latter days of the Great Depression which ended with WW II. The very good thing which occurred was that I was now back in the Lakewood school system, which at that time was one of the best in the nation. My entire Junior High and Senior High School experience was in Lakewood. I had to work hard in school, but I seemed to do well.
December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor, and WW II was on for the U. S. I wanted to participate, but I was too young. I had to watch on the sidelines all during high school. Due to the warplanes, my interest in aviation grew still more. I excelled in aeronautics and physics in high school due to my interest in flying. During high school, while still age 15-16, I earned my student pilot's license, thereby getting my pilot's license before my driver's license. This was not an easy task; I had to earn the money doing after-school jobs. Continuing to earn my way, I was successful in saving a grand total of $287 by the time I had finished high school, using this money to enter college. One day during 1944, a young neighbor returned on leave. He was a Naval Aviator, dressed in his forest green uniform, peculiar to Naval Aviators, and wearing his leather flight jacket. I was an instant fan and never lost the desire to earn my Wings of Gold from that point. I could just see myself in that uniform.
As a part of the Navy Recruiting effort during the period 1942-44, the local Cleveland recruiters had set up a gunnery simulator/trainer at Higbee Co., the local department store. I was a most frequent visitor. It fit my “Walter Mitty” image of “fighter pilot”. I spent countless hours in the simulator shooting down enemy planes. The enlisted men who ran the device tolerated me; but never learned that I later joined the Navy, earned my wings, and became that fighter pilot they had trained in the simulator.
Enlistment - July 1945
I was age 17 in my senior high school year, and WW II was still in progress. At age 18, being 'drafted' for military service was inevitable. I never pictured myself as an enlisted man, always as an officer. So early in my senior year, I learned of the Navy V-5 Program which was devised as a way of getting Navy officer candidates before they were drafted into the Army. The Program offered Navy flight training and four years of college, both of which I needed. So I sought enlistment into the Navy V-5 Program. There were physical and academic tests given in Detroit in early 1945 which I attended. I did well at both, but my eyes were borderline. I failed to qualify initially and returned home very disappointed. However, within a month I was again summoned for retesting and passed, and so began my great adventure in the Navy. The V-5 Program was scheduled to give two years of college at accelerated rates, then flight training, then two years with the fleet as a Naval Aviator, then return to college to finish the four years and graduate. For me, that was heaven. I really had no other way to achieve a four year college education, and the prospect of flying in the Navy was like frosting on a cake. I was sworn into the U.S. Navy as an Apprentice Seaman after completing the tests, then ordered to return home and await orders, which were expected that fall.
I was then 17½ years old. I enrolled in an accelerated term of Engineering at Case Institute of Technology, commuting daily, and carrying 30 hours of classes, and living at home. I was doing quite well, even though working very hard. I noticed that other students were having great difficulties with the academic load. And so I became aware for the first time that my high school was a very good one, having trained me well. I received orders from the Navy to enter college in the fall of 1945 at Stevens Inst. of Tech. in Hoboken, N. J. In August, 1945, just before entering the V-5 Program, the Atomic Bomb was dropped on Japan, officially ending WW II. I had missed the war and was very disappointed, but I wanted the flight training and needed the college desperately, so I continued in the program. Indeed, I had no fall-back position, as many did, wherein to return to college as civilians in their chosen profession. For me, it was succeed, or fail and lose college altogether.
I was to learn much later that there were 20,000 V-5ers in the program, recruited to be trained for the invasion of Japan, which was calculated to be one of the bloodiest battles of WW II. Because of the Atomic Bomb and consequent surrender of Japan, this invasion was no longer necessary. And so began a long period of attrition at every step of the training program, so that in the end only 10% of the original number would graduate. It became a matter of survival, just to stay in the program. What survived was the best of the best, certainly the most determined. Every academic exam, every medical exam, every stage of flight training, every ground school course was also a point at which failure to succeed could mark the end of your V-5 Training Program. If you failed any exam, you would be immediately discharged, and many fell at each testing point. The survivors went on, almost unaware of those no longer in training.
NAVY V-5 COLLEGE, STEVENS INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY - Hoboken, N.Y. October 1945
During September, 1945, I received orders to attend college in the V-5 Program at Stevens Tech. I was only vaguely aware of Stevens Tech as an engineering school, but it was free for me, and I had altogether expended my entire personal savings on that first term at Case Tech. Besides, it was Navy orders.
About October 30th, 1945, together with 96 other V-5ers, I boarded the train in Cleveland, Ohio for Hoboken, N. J. aboard the DL&W Railroad, which I was soon to learn stood for Delayed, Late, and Wait. I was impressed with many of the recruits. In fact, I appeared in my own eyes as perhaps the least likely to succeed in this great adventure. As it turned out, only 6 of those 96 ever graduated; one was Jim Glover from LHS. I am sure that I succeeded due to fear of failure with no back-up, an intense desire to fly, sheer persistence and guts. I arrived by train right in Hoboken, but about 9 blocks from the college. I can recall walking down River Street on the way to the college passing not less than forty bars which lined the street which was the end of the Hudson River docks.
My first assigned quarters were Navy Barracks, a converted warehouse. The other quarters were more collegiate dormitories – Jacobus, Palmer, and Castle Stevens. We were eight men to the room, but only for one term. By the end of the first term, only three of the eight remained. And I got myself transferred to Palmer Hall. Most of the recruits were not college types and found the work either too demanding or just not their thing. Those desiring to quit could just sign out and be discharged; after all, the war was over. And many did just that. By the end of the second term, about 40% of the V-5ers had departed.
Late in 1945 and early 1946, servicemen were still pouring thru New York City on their way home from the war. New York City was a great host to all service men, including the lowly Apprentice Seamen of V-5. And we took full advantage of the situation. Theater tickets were plentiful; I saw most of the main runs, including UP IN CENTRAL PARK, and SHOWBOAT. Radio shows were also plentiful. Our regulars included the Lucky Strike Hit Parade with Johnny Mercer, Snooky Lansen, and Jo Stafford.
Hoboken was something of a cultural shock to those of us from the Midwest. When we ordered “milk shakes” they contained no ice cream, a “soda” was called a phosphate, and a Sundae was a “cabinet”. Having never left the Midwest, how were we to know things were different in the “outside world.” And they talked “funny”, you know. Words like bottle came out bah-ul. Cars were cores. But they learned how to talk in time, or was it we who learned how to listen?
During the first term we got our Navy indoctrination, issued swabbie uniforms, learned how to clean and store them, and a few of the ethics of Naval discipline. But we never really got indoctrinated into the Navy as we might have in “boot camp”. This experience was to come later in “Pre-Flight”. No one had ever seen an Apprentice Seaman on the streets; all those graduating from boot camp came out as Seaman 3rd class. We were the lowest of the low in rank.
It was reputed that the Navy had the best chow of all the services, but this did not extend to the contracted kitchens of Stevens Tech, which undoubtedly was the worst food we ever had in the rest of our naval service. Fortunately, we were not required to endure it too long – two college terms.
Since I had experience sailing on Lake Erie, I joined the Stevens Yacht Club and got to sail at the Merchant Marine Academy in Ft. Schuyler, the Coast Guard Academy at New London, and the Naval Academy in Annapolis. It was at Ft. Schuyler that I learned that I was a fresh water sailor. The tide was an entirely new thing to me. I ended the race behind the starting line and had to be towed back. The tide was moving faster backward than I could sail forward. Other than that, I was doing remarkably well. It was at Annapolis, my only exposure to the real Navy and Midshipmen, that I got the best impression of what lay ahead in our training. It looked very good. My mouth watered when I saw those Midshipmen check out a large sailboat for the weekend free – now that's living, I thought.
The Navy saw fit to close down the V-5 units at Stevens and elsewhere, so we were ordered to take one additional term while living at home for the next two months. This we did at Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio. It was like having a two-month leave. This concluded our first two years of college in a period of just one year, all at accelerated rates which made the academics tough. Next step was Selective Flight Training in Glenview, Illinois.
SELECTIVE FLIGHT TRAINING, NAS Glenview, Illinois - September 1946
We were at the end of our duty as Apprentice Seamen, and became Aviation Cadets when we reported to NAS Glenview. This meant a whole new wardrobe, including “greens”. It was the start of our period as officer candidates. Trouble was, neither we nor the people we came in contact with knew what we were or how to treat us. So most of them treated us like Jr. Officers – which suited us just fine. Having been lowly enlisted men for more than a year, the improvement in rank felt great.
It was the purpose of Selective Flight Training to eliminate from future flight training any who were unsafe or unsuitable for further flight training. And to my surprise there were some of those left, too. Some just got airsick. Some just didn't have the coordination for stick and eye movement. The training was brief. I had very little difficulty; I had already soloed in a private trainer. So I absorbed what there was to learn – then soloed promptly.
The N2S Stearman, the “Yellow Peril”, was an open cockpit bi-plane. It was probably the best real airplane I ever flew, and I'd like to do it again. Communication between instructor and student was one-way only. The instructor would talk to the student thru a “gosport” tube, a hollow tube from the instructor to the student's helmet earpiece. The N2S was capable of all sorts of aerobatics without peril to the plane. It had only one problem; the narrow wheel spread made it easily capable of doing a “ground loop”, dragging a wing tip on the ground. I had no difficulty with that problem at all. And I was ready to move on in a few short weeks. We dropped a few guys in selective flight training, which in retrospect was probably good for them – it kept them alive. I learned that some folks were just not adapted for control of aircraft. And you didn't have to be a rocket scientist to see it.
Since I finished early, my instructor (LT Chard) took me on a cross country to his home in the Upper Michigan peninsula at Baraga, Michigan. It was fun but COLD, COLD, COLD. Though I dressed warmly, I had to keep pounding my feet on the rudder floorboards to keep warm. October is not a good month to fly to northern Michigan in an open cockpit fabric covered plane.
One interesting thing occurred during our period at Glenview – a meteor shower. On several evenings we lay on our backs out in the grass watching hundreds of small shooting stars streak through the atmosphere. It was impressive, rememberable.
During this training assignment, we were often guests at the homes of local folks, and sometimes we'd find one with an eligible female for a date. I don't know how the Navy did it, but they arranged some rather ideal dances and social events for the Aviation Cadets. We moved so frequently from base to base that arranging social events with suitable young women had to be a difficult endeavor. But they did it on numerous occasions. Having finished Selective Flight Training, we were on our way to Preflight School in Ottumwa, Iowa.
PREFLIGHT SCHOOL, NAS Ottumwa, Iowa - November 1946
Though we had not thought about it, and had no control of it anyway, in retrospect, arriving at NAS Ottumwa, Iowa in November for about a six-month stay was, at best, poor timing. For it was both very cold and very windy at Ottumwa, and our uniforms were really not designed for the temperatures we endured there. It sometimes got down to 30 degrees below zero – plus wind chill down much further. Nevertheless we persevered and succeeded. However, you will note that to this day I have never returned to Ottumwa, even for a fast visit.
Some services have a fast track course for officer candidates, aptly called 90-day wonders. Pre-Flight was not such a place. Perhaps we were more incorrigible, but our Pre-Flight School took 6 months. And we covered a lot of ground.
We arrived as Aviation Cadets (NAVCADS) and left as Aviation Midshipmen; how did this happen? ADM Holloway wanted to establish some source of regular USN aviators in addition to the Naval Academy. One way was to convert the past system of USNR NAVCADS to Midshipmen. But how to do that and keep some semblance to the Naval Academy. The idea was to make the present program into a 4-year (or equivalent) program and offer each trainee a regular USN commission and consequently a regular Navy career. Sounded good to me and many others, so we signed onto the program. Only a very few stayed on as NAVCADS. We became a new breed, the Flying Midshipmen, so called because we would be flying with the fleet with our Wings for about 6 months to complete that 4-year program. The little stretch in the program seemed worth the added 6 months as MIDN. And in the end, it did work out well for all but the first few classes of 1946, namely ours. But the fact that it worked out is more due to the extension of the cold war than to the good planning of the program, however well intended. It was sometime back in the 1800s that Midshipmen were active in the Fleet as regular officers, so the idea was somewhat revolutionary. Each of us already had two years of equivalent service because of the accelerated college since our enlistment. The last two years would be comprised of ½ year of Pre-Flight, 1 year of flight training, and ½ year of fleet service as a Flying Midshipman. The only change in uniforms was new shoulder boards to match the Naval Academy.
Each new station brought another physical exam. I have no idea what they expected to learn. Few, if any, Midshipmen were terminated as a result of the many physicals. Since I had had earlier eye problems, each additional test was more of an anxiety trip. I did well in all other respects. And the longer I was in the Program, the more time I had invested in the result – hence the greater anxiety that I might later be terminated for failing the eye chart. But I kept passing anyway, always borderline. We started out immediately at Pre-Flight with some tests of physical skills: push-ups, chin-ups, sit-ups, and the infamous step test. And then there was swimming. In swimming there were “great expec-tations.” The final exam was swimming five miles with your clothes on. I gagged on that one, as did many others. I would have thought I could immediately pass a test of five minutes treading water, but nothing like the goal of this swimming program. I frankly thought it inconceivable to pass such a requirement. It was a huge pool, and there was a lot of room on the bottom for those who didn't pass the test. But nearly every man did. I have to give the Navy credit for training; they know how to do it. Swimming lasted for 60 days, or six months if you required it. Much of the swimming was devoted to increasingly longer swims –each resulting in greater self-confidence. The skills would serve us well in the fleet, should we have to “ditch” an aircraft, then stay afloat for rescue. Interestingly, the Navy did not lose many aviators, even with all that flying over water and the many ditchings. Air/Sea Rescue was a fine tuned system. Submarines, helicopters, flying boats (PBY Catalinas), PT Boats, all served the aviators well. Good swimming skills filled in the soft spots.
Some of the skills were to teach you how to survive in the water for long periods – up to a day – and swim long distances, like 20 miles. We learned how to use our shirts as flotation devices and how to do the elementary backstroke for very long periods. Swimming became like walking; you never tired. When I completed the swimming course (60-days) I passed that major test with flying colors. I was very self-confident, capable of long swims. It was, I thought, one of the best skills I had learned up to that period of my life.
In sports, we did about every sport you can think of – from boxing to soccer, only at Pre-Flight we got instruction in each sport. I had not been a sports jock in high school, but was pleased to gain the confidence that I could match anyone in my weight class in a wide variety of sports. It was a skill not previously tested, so it was a further growth in self-confidence.
The entire Pre-Flight period was 'intensive" from dawn to dark, very hard work for the most part. We marched to every function from classes to meals. The
very cold and windy weather tested our endurance. The cold was a severe challenge. Our green Pee Coats merely strained the wind.
I had no difficulty in the many classes, signal flags, Morse code. It took a little skill building but few failed to master the skills. It should be remembered that the communication/navigation systems of the time were best described as “elementary”; I prefer to think that we were just lucky as hell to find our way home. And since radio silence was the practice of the day around the fleet, it was almost a lost skill in the end.
Our survival course was unforgettable, to say the least. This two-week course culminated in our “surviving” in the wild for two days – and it was cold. We had a 10-mile hike with full backpacks. After pitching our tents, spreading out the sleeping bags, stowing our gear, digging the latrines, and making a road for the jeep, we went “repelling” off a cliff. Jumping backward off a cliff is quite a thrill. You were praying that you paid attention while learning how to tie a “bowline". Boy Scout skills came in very handy. We learned to make use of everything, including the wax from the wax paper of the K Rations to make candles. We learned what was eatable and what was not. Again, our skills at survival were both confidence builders and life savers for the future. It was so cold overnight that our water froze in our canteens. The last meal in the wilderness was a steak and potato. All we had to do was cook it. We managed.
It was April 1947 when we got our orders to Corpus Christi; I couldn't have been happier. I'd had more than enough of Pre-Flight and Ottumwa. The trip south by train was enjoyable; each day it got warmer as we got further south. It was spring in the south already; what a welcome relief. About three days later we arrived in Corpus Christi. After all these train rides, I began to wonder about whether we would ever fly – anywhere – but our orders were always for surface transportation.
PRIMARY FLIGHT TRAINING, NAS Corpus Christi, Texas - April 1947
Well, finally, we appeared ready to start flight training--for real. We'd lost (eliminated) a lot of starters, but flight training would strain out some more. Every check ride was a potential terminal flight for the student. One '”down” on a check ride and you were “gone”. And some went.
As it happened, the Navy was trying to eliminate the N2S Stearman as its primary trainer, and to start fledgling pilots out in the SNJ. It was called Project XRAY. And I was in the last class to start primary flying the N2S Stearman – which suited me fine. I loved the old bi-plane; it could and did do everything asked of it. We made our barracks at Mainside, NAS Corpus Christi. Then early in the morning, about dawn, we'd be bussed out to one of the outlying fields: NAAS RODD, NAAS CUDAHY, & NAAS CABANISS. We flew first from Rodd Field. Spring in Texas in the morning is a beautiful place. Wildflowers, and prickly-pear cactus lined the roads; the sunrises during the morning trips to the outlying fields were beautiful. The weather was mild, the air sweet; I liked Texas. And it sure beat Ottumwa, Iowa!
Texas was an excellent place to fly. The entire countryside was good enough for emergency landings as far as the eye could see. It seemed that the entire state was suitable for landing strips. The beautiful isolated thunderstorms were neat to fly around. What a thrill it was, when flying solo, to fly around the perimeter of the storm and see the churning of the clouds and the rapidly rising air currents. I think the open-cockpit Stearman was the perfect plane to do this. It gave you the feeling of a bird as you zoomed up a cloud, rolled and crossed over inverted hanging on your safety straps, the only thing overcoming gravity and keeping you in the plane. You had to have “faith”, but I don't think you could damage a Stearman in the air. The stresses those planes were put thru by students learning to fly had to be excessive. When practicing aerobatics, doing loops, snap rolls, regular tail-spins, inverted spins, Immelmans, chandelles, split-Ses, slow rolls, and barrel rolls, you know certain forces were maximized. The wind whistling thru the guy wires is a sound you'll never forget. I did it all and loved every minute of it, and I'd do it again. Thus it was that we made history – we were the last class of Naval Aviators to be trained in the N2S Stearman, open-cockpit, fabric covered trainer. From that time forward, all new students were started in the SNJ, a metal covered monoplane by North American Aviation.
The civilian folks in Texas were terribly nice people. Kings Ranch, which makes up the largest part of Texas south of Corpus Christi (over a million acres), invited us (the entire Midshipmen Corp) over to the ranch for a tour. They gave us the history of the ranch, bought by a Rio Grande Riverboat Captain who just kept buying up land, turned it into a cattle ranch, then made history with genetically originating the Santa Gertrudis brand of cattle – a brand particularly well suited to the southern Texas heat and rapid growth of beef Then there were their specialty of Quarter Horses, the most common riding horse in the U. S., and particularly well trained for “cutting” cattle – namely separating certain cattle from the herd for branding or other treatment. And they were even into Thoroughbred Racing Horses – showing us their recent triple crown winners. To top it all off, we were treated to a Texas Bar-B-Q. It was a taste I liked at once, but was never able to duplicate elsewhere. It must have been beef strips marinated in chili pepper, then slow smoked and cooked on a mesquite fire. All the ingredients were indigenous to the ranch. The Humble Oil Company - the beginnings of EXXON – threw the BBQ for us. Seems like all that acreage had a lot of oil under it, never imagined by the original buyer, Kleburg.
BASIC FLIGHT TRAINING, NAAS CABANISS FIELD – CORPUS CHRISTI, TX. - June 1948
A-Stage in the SNJ was basically familiarization and a solo check out in the new aircraft, about 15 hours dual and solo.
B-Stage was a combination of dual and solo, where the student is shown how to do the necessary maneuvers – then practices them solo, followed by a check ride. The maneuvers were taxiing, take-offs, stalls, slow flying, spins, vertical turns, chandelles, x-wind take-offs and landings, wingovers, lazy-8s, steep turns, spirals, small field emergencies, landings, and basic airwork. B-Stage took 17 hops, 10 solo, and a check ride.
C-Stage was aerobatics, both dual and solo. Maneuvers graded in this stage were: take-offs, basic airwork, small field procedures, progressive spins, and landings, wingovers, chandelles, stalls, precision spins, high-speed reversals, loops, lmmelmans, barrel rolls, emergencies, power approach to precision landings, slow rolls, x-wind takeoffs and landings, lazy-8s, slow flight, and steep turns. C-Stage was 18 flights, 12 solo, and a check ride.
D-Stage was instruments, hooded in the rear cockpit. It included the following: instrument take offs, steep turns, climbs, descents, straight and level flight, turns and specific patterns – A, B, C, & O, partial panel with unusual attitudes, and practical problems. The radio phase consisted of: signal recognition, beam interception, initial approach-HC (high-cone), course out, procedure turns, final approach, and low-cone over the field with tower contact. Up until instrument flying, all of the above maneuvers were duck soup for me, but unusual attitudes gave me problems. I did not fail any check rides, but was assigned a different instructor when it was noted I was not making the desired progress. The instructor I was newly assigned was mature, calm, and a very good instructor. He taught me a lesson in life which I have never forgotten, namely – nothing succeeds like success, nor fails like failure. He took me out and we progressively did all the maneuvers I did well, followed immediately by the one I did not do well. Surprisingly, the formerly poor maneuver also turned out well. His words were, "Success is a habit". I never had trouble in that maneuver again. Though I cannot recall his name, I will never forget his lesson.
E-Stage was night flying. Two flights with the instructor followed by two solo night flights. I liked night flying; it was just like day flying only prettier. I made full stall landings just like daytime; no problems. Some persons experienced night flying problems, but it came so easily to me that I cannot explain what others experienced which obviously distressed them.
Spring had passed in Corpus Christi, and south Texas in summer is hotter'n hell, and we had no air conditioning except at ACRAC (Aviation Cadet Recreation Center), the Student Officer's Club. They served milk shakes there so thick that you had to eat them with a spoon. Sleeping was tough at best. Marching in the sun was nearly unbearable. And we marched in formation to ground school classes, Battalion Reviews, and mess. Following evening mess, we would feed the seagulls bread – thrown into the air. Some of the birds had been caught by the airdales at the Overhaul & Repair hangars and had 0 & R painted on the underside of their wings like airplane insignia, which could only be seen when in flight.
It was late September 1947 when we completed the syllabus and we were given orders to report to NAS Pensacola. I don't really remember how we were transported to Pensacola, but I think we hitchhiked via government plane, a not uncommon system in the military.
INTERMEDIATE FLIGHT TRAINING, Pensacola, Florida - October 1947
Pensacola was the first Naval Air Station we had been assigned which had permanent buildings, brick that is. There was during WW II a major conser-vation of steel, so nearly all of our barracks and hangars were of wood construction, and very temporary in appearance. But Pensacola looked like it had been there awhile. We later learned that it was built in 1917 and at that time it was the 'only' Naval Air Station in the country. Built on Pensacola Bay on the mainland, inside the barrier beach (Santa Rosa Island), it also had a long history going back to Spanish days, then later the Civil War. Lots of the hangars were brick and steel and there were seaplane ramps down to the water. Compared to what we had experienced up to this time, Pensacola looked beautiful; we were going to enjoy it here. We were assigned quarters on the main station, attended indoctrination classes, ground school, and formations. The Midshipman's Club was as good or better than Corpus Christi's and the Navy was well organized here to round up feminine types for regular dances – Saturday nights. So we got to know some of the locals quickly and had many good times, dances, beach parties, and invitations to off-station affairs.
As with arrival at any new base or stage, there was yet another physical exam. Pensacola had a very good Survival Course, including an excellent survival museum, complete with cutaway PBY fuselage, live animals, snakes, deer, wildcat, live plants, tropical trees, etc. It was well done. We could tell that survival was important, and so we paid attention. Pensacola was the home of the Aviation Medicine Unit, and it was here that we received a “mock” flight to high altitude inside a low-pressure chamber to initiate us into the dangers of anoxia (lack of sufficient oxygen) which could accidentally overcome you at high altitude or due to carbon monoxide poisoning inside the cockpit. We learned how to detect minor amounts of CO, and how to recognize incipient stages of anoxia, and thus take corrective action. As virile young men, we thought of ourselves as inherently immortal, and were thus inclined to take more chances than our elders. It was the Navy's job to bring reality into our thinking – an initial class in aviation safety. These safety classes took several forms: There was the survival museum, the low-pressure chamber, and swimming again. This time the swimming had to do with survival during bail-out and water landings in a parachute. We rode down a cable over the pool and had to exit the chute as we touched down – but not before, since it is very difficult to tell your distance above the water. Next was the “Dilbert Dunker” a diabolic contraption which simulates an aircraft water landing which is inevitably upside down, having been tripped by the extended landing gear. So the Dunker with the pilot strapped inside (a mock-up of an aircraft cockpit) slides down a rail, flips over, and sinks upside down. The impression to the pilot is one of disorientation; but you must free yourself from the safety belt and shoulder straps still wearing the parachute, and exit the sinking fuselage without getting hung up on projecting objects. Later in the fleet, I saw the wisdom of this test when aircraft ditched near the ship.
Our period at Pensacola also added other skills, for example small arms. We were schooled in firing the Smith&Wesson.38 caliber pistol, the small arm of choice by most aviators – who wore them during combat for protection if shot down. Also fired the .45 caliber Colt automatic. There was some poor weather in Florida during the winter months; diversified training utilized the poor flying weather for other skill instruction. During this period we also started shooting skeet using 12 gauge shotguns. We shot skeet until my upper arm was permanently black & blue. At first I couldn't figure out why the Navy would spend so much time shooting skeet, but it taught us to 'lead' the target, a skill which would soon prove very helpful in air-to-air gunnery where I excelled.
While at Mainside, NAS Pensacola, we took full advantage of the beautiful base, including the A. C. Read golf course, where we could rent clubs free and play 18 holes. Couldn't do that up north this time of year. And the base also had a fleet of sailboats which we could check out anytime we had time off. Since I could sail, I spent a good portion of my free time sailing on the Bayou overlooking the main gate. And we toured Ft. San Carlos (old Spanish Fort) right on the base. A few yards behind that was Ft. Redoubt, a civil war fort – one of three used to guard the entrance to Pensacola Bay. Then there was the Naval Aviation Museum in a tiny house on Mainside, later to become the largest building on the base, as it is today. Just being in Pensacola – the Cradle of Naval Aviation – was an education in itself and very enjoyable.
NAAS SAUFLEY FIELD, Pensacola, Florida - November 1947
About this time we physically moved to one of the nearby outlying airfields, Saufley Field, only 5-10 miles from the Mainside base at Pensacola. The outlying fields were Corry, Saufley, Whiting, and Bloody Barren (which was closed). Each tended to fill a separate purpose but could be used inter-changeably to suit the volume of students. At Saufley we took BASIC CV which included formation flying, primary combat, navigation cross country, more night flying, and air-to-air gunnery. As is the case before every hop, there was a complete briefing, going over what we planned to do, place to rendezvous, and emergency procedures. The first major lesson was the rendezvous. Sounds simple but could be quite dangerous if done improperly. It was a good lesson in relative motion; the leader flew in a wide circle while trailing planes crossed the circle on the inside, sliding into an outside echelon. We flew in two-plane “sections” and four-plane “divisions”. Depending on the activity to be undertaken, there could be a lot of position changing, so hand signals had to be learned and followed. Hand signals covered right and left echelon, change of lead, fuel state, etc. Learning to use hand signals was a prelude to radio silence practiced in the fleet to keep the enemy from detecting your position and that of the fleet. The goal was to use the radio as little as possible, keeping the air open for emergencies – of which there were always a few underway. The reverse procedure of the rendezvous was the break-up for landing, in which each plane separated from the echelon on a timed basis, thereby creating an even distance between planes for landing. The interval was created to keep the planes sufficiently separated so that following planes would not be adversely affected by the “prop-wash” (disturbed air) of the plane in front of it, and allowing for adequate time for “roll-out” on the landing and departing the duty runway – all for safety purposes. Safety was stressed; still there were plenty of opportunities for accidents – and accidents did happen. Each accident was followed by an Accident Board to determine the cause and disciplinary action, if required. Now that we were flying in formation, there was more need for air discipline, standard procedures, safety. We had to be ready for fleet flying in which these beginning lessons in air-discipline would be “old hat”.
We were now ready for business – air-to-air gunnery. We flew in flights of four with an additional pilot flying the target tow-plane, a task which was rotated among the group. Gunnery for me was relatively easy, tho getting 4-8% hits I thought was poor shooting; it is average, however. That black & blue shoulder from all that Skeet, and those hours in the gunnery simulator back in Cleveland finally paid off. Each person had his bullet tips painted a different color. Following the flight and recovery of the “sleeve” or “banner”, we could count the number of holes and tally them by color. Our SNJs had two .30 caliber machine guns mounted in the wings outside the propeller arc which were bore-sighted/aimed to converge about 900 feet ahead of the plane. Our goal was to learn how to be in firing position with the correct lead at the time our plane was 900 feet from the sleeve – not all that easy. There were a number of relative motion problems all going on at once in that maneuver. Air-to-air gunnery could be very dangerous, both for the tow pilot and those making the shooting runs. If the shooting plane got sucked behind the banner, he could easily hit the tow-plane. If the shooting plane got too close to the banner in his run, he could run into the target – very embarrassing. But since we all had our turns towing the target and were therefore equally at risk, we tended to pay attention, and not shoot down our own buddies, knowing that in a later flight he would have the chance to shoot back. Preserving the target became an important goal. When you lost the target (and therefore couldn't count the hits) you could be sure all rounds had hit the target. Right? During each gunnery flight, our instructor would ride with a different student to grade him on such things as: position in the formation, starting position for the initial turn in, reversal turn onto the target, position when firing, length of firing burst (too long a burst caused the gun barrels to whip – losing accuracy), dive angle, deflection (lead), and breaking off the target run. There was a lot going on in that gunnery run, so it kept your brain engaged. That's why we were there anyway, wasn't it? All our gunnery was conducted over the Gulf of Mexico, hopefully clear of all shipping. During one gunnery flight, two Cuban pilots (from one of the foreign flights) had a mid-air collision. We could hear all the chaffer on the radio – efforts to rescue the pilots. One survived; the other drowned and was brought back to Pensacola by a nearby PBY Catalina. It was a sobering experience. War could be hazardous to your health! I began keeping track of pilots killed. Still, gunnery was lots of fun, and I did well at it. So, I was disappointed when it was all over – and it was over too soon. The last lesson in this stage was "carrier qualification”, actually taking off and landing aboard a carrier – that's why we were here, wasn't it?
Stationed at NAS Pensacola was the CVL carrier USS SAIPAN; nearly all carriers are named after major battles – at least during the WW II period. It was an intermediate sized carrier, about 600 feet long, built on a cruiser hull. It is to be remembered that WW II was a period during which the capital ships changed from Battleships to Aircraft Carriers. Nearly all WW II major naval battles involved Naval Aviation rather than surface engagements only. But there were some of both. To get more aircraft carriers quickly, they were often built on surface ship hulls, already designed, some even underway in shipyards. That's how CVLs got built on Cruiser hulls. The USS SAIPAN was based at Pensacola purposely for Carrier Qualification of student pilots.
While stationed at Corry Field, we entered CARQUAL (Carrier Qualification) training using the SNJ rigged with a tailhook. This required the skills of slow-flight learned earlier. We practiced coming aboard the carrier by flying a horse-track shaped landing pattern for the ship, all inside the landing field boundaries. It was called FCLP (Field Carrier Landing Practice). The LSO (Landing Signal Officer) was a new breed to us. He was also called "Paddles", so named for his brightly colored signal paddles with which he signaled us in the landing pattern during the last 45 degrees of our approach to the end of the runway, which substituted for the stern of the ship. Standing at the end of the runway as he would aboard ship, he would give us signals as: fast, slow, increase turn, level out, nose-up, wave-off, and cut. If we were lined up with the runway, at the right height, and at the right speed, we'd get a “cut”, the signal to chop all power and land the plane. On the field, all landings were touch-and-go, whereas aboard ship landings would be “arrested” by the “arresting wires” which brought the plane to a stop quickly in about fifty feet. Both eyes of the pilots were fixed on the LSO for landing signals. His signals were “law”, especially a “wave-off” or a “cut”. By flying the plane just above stalling speed, the “cut” signal would drop the plane to the deck in the right place to catch the arresting wires with the tailhook. We soon learned that the LSO was a man to be relied on; he could tell what we were doing even better than we could. And he was always an experienced Naval Aviator, himself a Carrier Pilot. And so we practiced FCLP for many days until we became proficient in the practice pattern and all the LSO signals. We also became very proficient at slow flight, usually at an altitude no greater than 30 feet, so about three planes could practice FCLP at one time, spread out in that horse track shaped pattern.
Well, you can only practice so much; then you have to get out and do the real thing. So the time had come for CQ (Carrier Qualification) aboard ship. One Monday morning late in December we boarded the USS SAIPAN and put to sea in the Gulf of Mexico. There were more students aboard than the six SNJs on the deck, so when one pilot qualified by making six safe arrested landings, he would make a "hot switch". With the engine still running, but the wheels chocked, the “qualified pilot” would quit the plane and an unqualified pilot would take his place and be deck launched into the landing pattern. And so it went until all the students were carrier qualified. Now we were really Naval Aviators; we'd taken off from a carrier deck and made arrested landings aboard ship. It was quite an accomplishment. And we felt good about it. The war was over; there was plenty of time, so the Navy decided to give us more exposure to the other parts of Naval Aviation – namely multi-engined aircraft. So we moved back to Mainside.
MULTI-ENGINED SEAPLANES, NAS Pensacola, Florida - January 1948
Not far from the Midshipmen Quarters on Mainside were the PBY Catalina flying boats, complete with beachside hangars, and launching ramps. Altho I pictured myself as a single-engined fighter pilot, the idea of some flight time in a flying boat appealed to me. And it was great fun. We paired off to act as Pilot and Copilot (interchangeably); Floyd Gilkey was my partner. Then we started with ground school to learn how to maneuver flying boats, which is a little different than land planes. Among other things we learned in ground school, was how to gauge the wind speed by the water condition. Each wind speed had its own signature on the height and shape of the waves. Once afloat, the seaplanes would quickly “weathervane” into the wind and it took staunch effort to get it turned out of the wind or to a new direction. We learned to “sail” the flying boats across the wind, using the right engine or the left, whichever suited the course best. These multi-engined seaplanes were really boats that could fly, so there was a little boating and a little flying to learn. We learned how to “beach” the boats by swinging one wing up over the beach with the hull resting lightly on the sand shore. The PBYs were manned by an instructor, student pilot and copilot (who switched), and an engineer – an enlisted man who ran the engines while seated in the main wing strut above the cockpit. The PBY had one critical speed; it would take-off, climb, fly level, glide, dive, and land – all at 90 knots, or so it seemed, well almost. Landing the flying boat in calm, glassy water, or at night raised other problems. Judging height above the water by eye was not as accurate as required, so we learned to set up a gentle descent which we held until the hull touched the water – then chopped power. After mastering all these new maneuvers, we were off solo – just Floyd Gilkey and me – and the enlisted engineer. What a bunch of fun. But in 50 hours total it was over, and time to move on to Multi-Engine land aircraft. This was done at Whiting Field in Milton, Florida.
MULTI-ENGINE LAND AIRCRAFT, Whiting Field--Milton, Florida - February 1948
Again, to broaden our experience as Naval Aviators capable of flying all types of Navy aircraft, we were to be checked out in multi-engine land planes at Whiting Field. Now Milton, Florida was a few miles out into the “boondocks”, surrounded only by pine trees and paper mills, which I can still smell. It was a case of loneliness out there in the pine forest; getting to town was too much of a task None of us were allowed to have cars. So we just moved to Whiting Field and stayed there for the duration of the last stage of our Intermediate Flight Training.
I have to say that this phase of our training was the least fun. There wasn't anything really wrong with it, but it lacked the fun of other phases of our training syllabus. It only lasted about three weeks. Training consisted of being checked out in flying the SNB, a snub-nosed twin-engined Beachcraft used primarily in the Army for training bombardiers, and in the Navy for utility transport. But it was good that we had the flavor of each type of naval aircraft and could become proficient in any one of them quickly.
Only a few new things to learn in this multi-engine training phase: power approach landings (landing on the two front wheels) as opposed to a three-point full stall landing, which we also practiced. Then there was the matter of learning how to fly on one of the two engines, in case of emergency. Cross wind landings could be a little tricky, but not all that hard. And that was about it – not very spectacular.
Having completed all the phases of Intermediate Flight Training, we moved back to Mainside Pensacola and entered our "preferences" for the type of plane we would like to fly in Advanced Flight Training. We submitted this choice on a "dream sheet", and waited breathlessly for our assignment. This was a significant period in our training, for generally you stayed in the branch of the Navy in which you were trained during Advanced Flight Training. And these various types of aircraft (single engine land, single engine sea, multi-engine land, and multi-engine sea) all had different training locations, different fleet assignments, and subsequent duty locations. In effect, it was like picking out your future in the Navy, and was done with no little anxiety if you had a strong preference for your future duty. And I had a strong preference for single engined fighters. The future for the fighters was quite unlike those headed for four-engined land-based PB4Y-2 bombers.
Why did I select single engined fighters, you ask? Primarily, it was because I wanted to drive, and not spend an eternity as copilot in some multi-engined aircraft where I might not get a chance to control the aircraft. In single engine planes, you were always the pilot, gunner, navigator, bombardier, rocketeer, and whatever else – all rolled into one. You were from the day you left training; and it was invariably carrier aviation. I figured if you could do that, you could do anything – and I wanted to try. Unlike thousands who have gone before me, I got my first choice for Advanced Flight Training – Single Engined Fighters. And with a few other Midshipmen, I was off to NAS Jacksonville, FL. God only knows how the selections were made; would you believe skill, talent, and “good looks”. It was one time in my life when I got what I wanted, and it was the right choice for me.
ADVANCED FLIGHT TRAINING, NAS Jacksonville, Florida - March-July 1948
Well, we were finally here in Advanced Flight Training. We were going to fly Service Aircraft – no more training planes. These were the planes we'd fly in the fleet unless some new plane replaced the present type. So it was final exam time. This was the real thing. And it felt good having progressed this far in training; by this time, many of our comrades had been eliminated at one point or another. We were down to an elite few, I thought.
In Advanced Training we would fly many of the same phases as in Basic Training, only we'd fly them in the F6F Hellcat. The first difference became immediately evident – there was no back seat. No instructor would ride along to get you through the first flight or any rough spots along the way. We were alone every moment. That's the way it is in single seated aircraft – you're in charge. If you goofed, it could cost you your life – and a few bit the dust. Nevertheless, I felt good about being here, and I really looked forward to finishing the program and earning those Wings of Gold.
Lots of events combined to change your position in the Training Program, so that when I arrived at single-engined Advanced Flight Training, I was not necessarily any longer with my peers from Class 16-46 in Pre-Flight. But close enough. My name, being in the Cs, assured me of starting each phase at the top of the list. As soon as we arrived at NAS Jacksonville, we were assigned into Flights, each flight consisting of seven students and an instructor. Our instructor was LT Barker, recently returned from the fleet, tho we never learned his background. The instructor made up the last man of an eight-man flight, two full divisions of four planes. My division was made up of Charlie Stevens, Rudy Radigan, Al Beck, Charlie Brown, Bob Smyth, Alfonso, and myself. We were assigned to fly F6F Hellcats, the most prominent fighter of WW II. Others in single engine, flew Corsairs at NAS Jacksonville. From the single-engined group came future assignments for Fighter and Attack Squadrons. So there was still a chance that I might ultimately fly something other than Fighters, depending on the needs of the fleet.
The Advance Flight Syllabus looked familiar. We would do formation (this time with 8-plane flights, tactics, bombing, rockets, gunnery, instruments, cross country navigation, and then requalify in CQ (Carrier Qualification – in Type). We also had ground school during this period – aircraft engines, navigation, tactics, aerology, communications – only this time they were specifically about the F6F Hellcat. Then, after one short trip around the field with the instructor in the old SNJ for check out, we got into the big birds for our first familiarization flight. The unique thing different about that first flight was that we left the flight line parking position and “spread the wings” – our first time doing that. All service aircraft use folding wings to conserve parking space aboard the ship; that was a new experience. Then we lined up on the end of the runway for our first take-off in the Hellcat – a thrilling moment. All went well, just a little more power than I was previously used to. And a little more right rudder was needed to keep the plane heading straight down the runway to overcome the engine torque, which wanted to pull you left. Then we made a few touch-and-go landings, followed by a few full-stop landings. It was during the touch-and-go landings that I first “goofed”. I neglected to shift the propeller into high-RPM during the landing, so that when I went to take-off again, the engine was not putting out full power – it couldn't. I knew immediately something was wrong – underpowered, but what was the reason. In a few seconds I found the cause, shifted into high-RPM, the propeller speeded up, and the engine began to power up. The Grumman Hellcat was very forgiving; that helped. The “goof” was small, unnoticed by others, and I had learned something – pay attention to the check-off list. I was never conscious of any other missteps during the entire Advanced Phase. Making a small error in the beginning taught me a lesson, and didn't cost me anything. From that point on I was intensely conscious of all I was doing.
As in earlier phases, we started off with formation flying, only with eight planes instead of four. The Hellcat was heavier, more powerful, and faster than any of the training planes, so some time performing basic maneuvers was required to get used to the new aircraft and become familiar with its inertia and handling characteristics – but it came quickly to us all. We frequently rendezvoused over a small fleet of moth-balled Destroyers on the St. John's River, which also bordered NAS Jacksonville. The Hellcat landed cleanly, that is it stalled without dropping either wing, and in that respect was an easy transition to the heavier plane. Rendezvous required a little more practice. It was easier to overrun or get sucked behind during join-up. Because of the greater inertia of the heavier aircraft, it was more of a problem getting it into position in the formation. We learned to more smoothly make transitions from division formation to echelons, and we had the added experience of a second division of four planes with which to become familiar. We learned how to equalize our power and RPM with the leader by looking through our own propeller at the stroboscopic effect, synchronizing our own RPM with the lead plane. Returning to the base, we took some immediate pride in our formation flying around the field and during break-up for landing.
Since we were exposed to ground observation both by instructors and fellow students, we tried to do it smartly. In bombing, we used the small iron 10-lb practice bombs from a canister which could hold about a dozen. A long shotgun shell of black powder in the bomb would mark the point of impact. Qualifying was getting five of eight within 200 feet, which was quite easy I found. Rockets used the same target, but first we had to learn how to recognize the desired dive angle, so we made practice dives at the target while a ground observer by radio called our dive angle from the target area, which he measured by a crude protractor. Soon we could gauge a desirable 60 degree dive. Two inch solid rockets were used for practice; rockets were expendable, whereas the practice bombs were salvaged and reloaded with new shells.
Our radios included a 10-channel VHF (Very High Frequency) for voice communication. During instruction, we would select our own channel and could thus be instructed by LT Barker. There was a tower channel (#2 I recall), and a guard channel for emergencies. We soon became aware of the greater number of accidents and emergencies, just by listening to the guard channel. Target-fixation seemed to be a problem with everyone. We became so intent on watching the target thru the gunsight, that we neglected being conscious of our altitude in the dive. It was easy to get so wrapped up in making a good hit that you forgot when to start your pull-out of the dive. It was not very long before we lost a couple of students from other flights who flew straight into the target or failed to make their pull-out of the dive in time, striking the ground with disastrous results. No one survived those accidents, and each of us had at least one close call in a late pull-out, taking us dangerously close to the ground.
Gunnery seemed to be the skill requiring the most instruction. There were several new types of approaches to the target than we were exposed to in “basic training”. There were high-side, low side, and overhead runs. We had to get used to judging our angle of approach and deflection angle from points other than the most ideal place, so that we could intercept an enemy aircraft as we were able to find him. The gunnery run which took the most skill and caused the most difficulties was the overhead run. In it, we would approach the target from a higher altitude and head-on to the target, roll over and do a split-S down onto the target from above. Starting the run too late meant getting into a tail chase with the target and running the risk of shooting down the tow plane. Starting the run too early was more dangerous because you were flying inverted for a longer period, could become disoriented, pick up excess speed, carrying you below the target in a near vertical dive. Even from 7-8000 feet altitude, it was possible to use up that altitude fast in vertical dive. Our planes were not equipped with anti-gravity devices. We were making every dive without a G-Suit, and were therefore much more prone to “black-out” in the dive recovery. We often experienced “gray-out” which precedes “black-out”. And I'm sure everyone experienced “black-out” at least once, probably more. It was easy to fail to finish your recovery from a dive if you “blacked-out” before reaching straight-and-level flight. In that case, you might continue the dive into the water or terrain before completing your dive recovery. And we lost a few students in that mode during Advanced Training as well.
“Black-out” is losing consciousness due to the blood being drained from your brain while being exposed to high-gravity pull-outs. It is not good to be flying a hi-performance aircraft in the unconscious state. Lots of bad things can happen before you fully recover consciousness which takes longer than you might imagine. Listening to the chatter on the guard channel immediately following an accident, where the students were doing the same maneuvers we were engaged in, was a sobering experience. I can recall no aircraft accident in which the student survived. We again became aware that this activity could be hazardous to your health, but necessary in this line of work. It was just lucky that we were immortal. Accidents only happened to the other guy. Right?
It was now 2 years since we started the Program and we were nearing the graduation point – our goal. And with the accidents in our immediate experience, we began to be aware of the attrition which had been with us all along, but never thought much about. We had lost almost 90% of those V-5 starters. Up to this point, most had either quit, failed in some ground school course, or been washed-out in the early flying experiences. Losing them by death in aircraft accidents was a less common attrition method than had been the case earlier. Our total group was becoming the residual of a much larger group of capable starters. We were fast becoming the “best of the best”. Aircraft accidents were the self-means of culling out the non-survivors. Actually, the Navy had done a reasonable job of separating the incompetent by more humane methods along the way. But there was no way to weed out all non-performers except through accidents. At no time did I ever entertain the idea of quitting due to the risk factor. I loved flying more than any other activity known to man. I always felt competent to any challenge or experience that had been set before me. The Navy was an excellent “trainer”. So we all pressed onward to complete the program.
Our aircraft were so poorly fitted for instrument and land navigation that in retrospect, it's a wonder we ever found our way home. We had only one low-frequency beam receiver, and it would fail near any thunderstorm from the radio noise. Still we managed, in good weather to navigate (within or without) the Civil Airway System of the time. Our cross country flight consisted of one flight (all 8 planes) from NAS Jacksonville to NAS New Orleans. After a night on the town we were ready to depart, but I was ill and so ordered to stay until recovered. But a few days later, an SNB multi-engined trainer arrived to “take me home”. They were not ready to risk my flight while still feeling poor. I took a lot of razzing on being brought home in an SNB; I was the only one who was a non-drinker and so had not been a party to the drinking in New Orleans.
One phase remained – requalification aboard ship in the Hellcat. For this phase, we moved back to Corry Field briefly to redo our FCLP, this time in our Service Aircraft – the Hellcat. All went well; it was largely a redo of the same lessons learned in the SNJ earlier – only in a heavier more powerful plane. We soon boarded the CVL USS WRIGHT (CVL-49), which had replaced the USS SAIPAN and went out in the Gulf of Mexico for CQ (Carrier Qualification). No problems occurred during this activity, and as we completed the last CQ landing, we could feel the Wings of Gold ready to be pinned on soon, for this was the last phase of Advance Flight Training before graduation. We headed back to NAS Jacksonville for the final act.
NAVY WINGS OF GOLD, NAS Jacksonville, Florida - 10 July 1948
The Naval Flight Training Program was completed with what few of us were left standing. The Winging Ceremonies were generally done at the place where Advanced Training was completed, and they were generally done frequently (monthly) for whomever had just finished the training.
My mother came down to NAS Jacksonville to the ceremony; we were both very proud of this accomplishment. For myself, this was the culmination of a major goal which assured my college education and started me in a professional career. Up until this time, I was unaware of what a “professional career” really meant, but it was becoming clear. During her few days stay we visited some of the local sights, including St. Augustine, Florida. Then she flew home, together with the other visiting family members of the other Midshipmen. We then awaited orders to our Fleet Squadrons – our first Fleet assignment.
In a few days, four of us from my Flight (543) had orders to join VF-92, at NAAS Charleston, R. I., a squadron recently returned from the Mediterranean Cruise and in the process of restaging, getting set to return to the “Med” in about six months. Charlie Stevens, Charlie Brown, Bob Smyth, and myself were to remain together. There was just enough time before reembarking to get well settled into our first Navy Atlantic Fleet Squadron, which was to include transition to a new aircraft type, the Grumman F8F Bearcat – a new fast-climbing successor to the F6F Hellcat. And the new orders were confirmation that I would, indeed, be in a Fighter Squadron in my first fleet assignment and probably thereafter, the achievement of a life-long goal.
FIGHTING SQUADRON NINETY-TWO, NAAS Charleston, R. I. - August, 1948
It has been the practice of Navy Air Groups serving the Fleets to return from overseas deployment (sea duty) to their land base of origin, rotate their personnel into new assignments, sometimes changing their entire complement of officers and enlisted men, then retraining the newly assigned personnel for redeployment. My first squadron was part of Air Group Nine, recently returned from the Mediterranean (Fifth Fleet). At that time, CAGs (Carrier Air Groups) consisted of three fighter squadrons and two attack squadrons. The fighters doubled as light bombers when not on intercept or escort assignments. The primary mission of the fighter squadron was to protect the Fleet and to protect the attack squadrons on their missions. Each squadron had about 26 officers (all pilots) and 125 enlisted men. The carrier squadrons, as a part of their CAG, operated more or less independently of any particular ship. We could be assigned to go aboard any available ship at any time and would be expected to be ready to move on very short notice. It was the goal of a temporarily land-based squadron to achieve combat readiness as quickly as possible following return to home port with attentive personnel changes.
NAAS Charleston, R. I. was a small auxiliary airfield located on the southern coast of Rhode Island, a sub-airfield of Quonset Pt., R. I. The field was right on the coast; several runways ended on the beach. VF-92 was commanded by CDR. Swede Vejtasa, a WW II Ace of the Battle of Coral Sea with 11 enemy
left to right: Charlie Stevens, Gordon Collier, Rudy Radigan, Al Beck, Charlie Brown, Bob Smyth, and [Frank] Alfonso
planes to his credit, probably the only 11-plane ace who was not awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. The squadron had recently received new Grumman F8F-1B Bearcats, armed with four 20mm, cannons, instead of 6, .50 caliber machine guns. The plane was designed by Grumman to counter the Japanese Kamikaze planes which required a very light plane with as much power as it would hold, so that it could climb fast to intercept incoming planes. The Bearcat arrived too late for the hostilities, but it did meet the design requirements. The Pratt & Whitney 2400HP engine turned a 4-bladed prop, the blade tips of which nearly touched the ground. It took all that prop to absorb the extra power. The entire plane, wringing wet, only weighed 9500 lbs, considerably lighter than the F6F Hellcat, its predecessor. It could take off in less than 600 ft, and climb at a 50 degree angle until out of sight, runway to 10,000 ft. in one minute. And with a two-stage supercharger, it could continue up to 30,000 ft at nearly the same rate. Most WW II air battles took place below 20,000 ft. To this day, it holds the world's speed record for prop driven single engine planes. It was a pilot's dream of a “hot” airplane. In a dive it approached the speed of sound, and therefore had dive brakes to counter the effects of sonic buffeting. Unlike the Hellcat, it had a built-in G-suit device, which inflated the G-suit worn by the pilot to counter the effects of high-gravity pull-out and turns. Space for the pilot was so limited in the Bearcat that a backpack parachute was used instead of the common seatpack parachute. Fuel capacity was very limited – 195 gallons – so an external drop-tank was always used, doubling its fuel capacity. This external fuel tank arrangement added lots of excitement to every flight. Since the external fuel tank had no fuel gauge, it was necessary to run the belly tank dry in order to know that it was empty. Running the tank dry while flying in formation made for some exciting action. There is no sound so quiet as a single engine plane without the engine running – and before it again catches on when switched to the main tank So the belly tank would always run dry at some inopportune time, scattering those planes around it, while it regained power. It was an experience never to be forgotten; scared the wits out of you every time. Since fuel pressure could not be guaranteed when running on the external belly tank, squadron rules called for take-off ALWAYS on main internal tank. One day LTjg JG Frank Bassett, a USNR aviator, took off on belly tank by mistake. Halfway down the runway, five feet in the air, the engine quit – dead. He immediately pulled up the landing gear, settled to the runway, touching down on the full belly tank, and spread fire from touchdown to stop point. The flames immediately caught up with the plane. Bassett jumped out of the cockpit with his parachute still on his back, ran out to the wing-tip and jumped clear, all in a few seconds. Bassett lost his eyebrows, singed his hair, and his green Nylon flight suit melted and was tattooed to his shoulders. But he was otherwise OK. The plane burned furiously until only the steel of the engine remained; everything else turned to dust. That answered the question – would aluminum burn – YES. Not many months later, Bassett sought new work – outside the Navy. So went our experience with the Bearcat until 50% of all the pilots in the squadron had some kind of accident. I was not in the 50% with an accident, though I had my own close calls.
It was fall in New England and the weather quickly turned brisk. As the ocean water temperature dropped, we were introduced to a new flight suit – the “poopy bag”. It was a watertight rubberized nylon coverall, worn over insulated underwear, and tied at the neck with a drawstring. They were clumsy and smelled bad – hence the name; but they would protect you from the numbing effects of a water landing until help had a fighting chance to arrive. You cannot survive in near freezing water for more than 5 minutes. We wore them; but we never loved them.
In October, 1948, a hurricane threatened the New England coast. Air Group Nine performed a Hurricane Fly-Away to Burlington, VT. When we arrived in Burlington, which to that community must have seemed a thunderous approach, the people of that city were so surprised and delighted with the arrival of such a large group of (125) Navy planes, that they turned out in large numbers at the local field, taking most of us into their homes for two days, just being good citizens. We learned about them (gracious hosts); and they learned about us. It was a spontaneous unforgettable experience for both the Navy pilots and the citizens of Burlington, who I am sure had never seen such a display of Naval Aviation in their history.
Late in October our squadron embarked aboard the USS PHILIPINE SEA, (CV-47) a CV for my first Carrier Qualification cruise (two-weeks). We flew out to the ship as it cruised along the New England coast, and thereafter went south to warmer seas, but not very far. This was all part of our squadron's efforts to become “combat ready”, in preparation for later sea duty, typically another Mediterranean Cruise. We took the entire squadron's complement of 26 F8F Bearcats and our entire squadron's personnel. It was this squadron's first CQ using Bearcats. There were all sorts of accidents aboard ship. The pilots were new; the planes were new. The Bearcat had a bad habit of “floating” after the “cut“ signal had been given by the LSO (Landing Signal Officer) and the pilot cut all the power. The results were a series of landing accidents – hitting barrier cables, nose-ups hitting the propeller, and missing the arresting wires, all explainable, but more than any of the pilots had expected. The result was that of the 26 planes we took aboard at the beginning of the cruise, only 19 were brought home repairable. I had experienced no accidents; expected none. But I had noted the importance of avoiding “floating”, by dropping the nose immediately after the “cut” so as not to miss the early arresting wires. As it turned out, this was to be my only cruise aboard the USS PHILIPINE SEA, which would have been the normal aircraft carrier for Air Group Nine. In the Attack Squadrons, other similar experiences were afoot. The Martin Marauder, a very large new torpedo plane, was being given its carrier qualification as a replacement for Grumman TBM, workhorse of the WW II Navy torpedo bombers. The Marauder carried not one torpedo, but three. The consequent size and weight made it too heavy for its own good, and obviously was not suited to present aircraft carriers. Upon landing, the Marauders would sometimes drive their own landing gear up through the wings, or otherwise collapse the landing gear. That was the end of carrier qualification for this proposed new attack aircraft. They were soon replaced by Douglas ADs, a very effective attack plane which remained in the fleet from 1948-1968.
FIGHTING SQUADRON THIRTY-THREE, NAS Quonset Point, R. I. - October 1948
As we returned from this CQ cruise aboard the USS PHILIPINE SEA, we received word that Air Group Nine was going to be decommissioned. Within a month, I received orders to report to VF-33 at Quonset Pt., R. I., not very far up the state. And so began a similar experience with VF-33. Air Group Three had just been formed. VF-33 was the last Fighter Squadron to fill out the Air Group, made up largely of aviators from other decommissioned squadrons. A few other Flying Midshipmen joined VF-33 from later classes. Soon we were up to strength and going through combat readiness exercises as before. We did rockets and bombing at Otis AFB on Cape Cod, did bombing on the sunken ship – James Longstreet in Cape Cod, and did bombing on No Man's Land – a small island near Martha's Vineyard. We also took part in a Tactical Air Support exercise, using the facilities at Joe English Hill at Manchester, N. H.
Very late in 1948, Air Group Three embarked on the aircraft carrier USS KEARSARGE, which was stationed at Quonset Pt. Interestingly, we took aboard 25 planes, and returned with 18 – again the result particularly of landing accidents. One new Academy graduate LTjg Lee Zeni, USN, a handsome guy, just married, had a series of four accidents – all minor. But on the CQ cruise he missed all the arresting wires, hit the barrier, and the cable came into the cockpit giving him a bad wrap on the face. Determined not to let him get fearful because of the accident, the skipper sent him up the next day. This time he landed too far right, hit the rear gun-mount, severing the right wing, then yanked down by the arresting wire, he dropped the engine off the front of the plane, which promptly caught fire, but was extinguished at once. He came to rest right in front of the “Island” with the firefighters standing-by. Upon our return to Quonset, an accident board convened, which took his wings away – almost unprecedented. The skipper did it to keep him alive. Zeni later served with distinction in the surface Navy and lived to retirement. But the thought of losing his wings stunned all of us and haunted the skipper even in his retirement, years later.
I watched all of these accidents but had none of my own. Though I had my share of close calls, I managed to handle all emergencies. Nevertheless, I could tell that this business could be hazardous to your health. Upon the carrier's return to Quonset Pt., Narragansett Bay was fogged-in, so we anchored overnight at Newport, R .I. at the mouth of the Bay – expecting to sail home (about 15 miles) in the morning. In the morning, the Captain of the ship gave orders to catapult the planes FROM ANCHOR – unbelievable, I thought. Typically, we would launch planes with 33 knots of wind over the bow. I had never heard of launching with the ship at anchor. I don't think anyone else had either. I sat ready to launch from the port catapult. LTjg Wright was launched from the port catapult ahead of me. The catapult failed! Wright felt himself NOT being catapulted and tried to abort the take-off with 90 feet of flight deck before him. He tried to ground-loop the Bearcat on the bow, but failed, falling backwards over the bow, hitting the gun-mount on the way down, hitting the ice cold water upside down, and sinking. Still, he managed to get out immediately (probably stimulated by the icy water) and lived. I was later catapulted from the starboard catapult; all went well. That was the last catapult from anchor ever reported in the Navy.
It was late in December 1948 that we returned from this ill-fated CQ cruise, having lost 7 planes, and nearly losing two pilots. Thank God it was Christmas, and we all took leave. When we returned, readiness training resumed full-speed ahead. Both Zeni and Wright were gone from the squadron, but no one offered any explanation.
ATLANTIC FLEET SPRING MANEUVERS, CARIBBEAN SEA - February 1949
It was mid-February; sensible people were heading south for winter vacations. We were heading for the Caribbean for Atlantic Fleet Spring Maneuvers. This year we were to “invade” Vieques, a small island off the eastern tip of Puerto Rico. Three CV (Essex Class) carriers would be in the fleet, the Battleship Iowa, and a host of others – some acting as enemy probes. This was my first cruise as part of the fleet and for a period longer than two weeks. It was certainly a good time to leave the icy waters of New England; and we could clean and store those “poopy bags” for a month. This was also my first look at the Caribbean Sea and its many beautiful islands; I was very impressed. The variegated blue colors of the waters indicated vast areas of shallow seas surrounding the many islands. The cruise south got better each day as we entered the warm waters of the Gulf Stream. Dolphins rode the ships bow wave; flying fish scattered alongside. Junior Officers quarters were in the bow (fo'casle) under the flight deck, known as “boys town”. Ready Rooms were spread out thru the ship. We spent time early during the cruise figuring out how to get from the Ready Room to the flight deck. This sounded much simpler than it really was, for as soon as “general quarters” sounded, the watertight compartments were sealed, including the five-inch thick armor hatches of the hangar deck. Alternative routes topside became very sparse.
Other ships joined the formation until we had an entire fleet laid out in a giant circle – three carriers in the center with other capital ships close aboard and many destroyers in a circle on the outer edge. At a signal from the Admiral's Flag ship, the entire array of vessels turned to a new course. Within this great circle of destroyers (the submarine screen) the three carriers would maneuver to the downwind edge, then turn into the wind to launch aircraft. The carriers would adjust their forward speed to get 33 knots of wind over the deck; aircraft operations would continue fast-pace until the carriers reached the upwind edge of the destroyer screen, then halt launching and recovery until the carriers could again reposition themselves at the downwind edge of the screen. If you were waiting to land and were low on fuel, this could be an embarrassing delay. During flight operations, timing was of great importance. We had 125 aircraft aboard; if each plane took 30 seconds to launch, it would take an hour to launch a full strike. We had to get that take-off interval down to about 15 seconds, so that airborne aircraft had fuel for the strike. Our maximum time aloft could be stretched to 4 hours, but not fully loaded with ammo. Likewise, our goal in landing was a 19 second interval, which meant few “wave-offs” and no mistakes clearing the deck. It was a very professional operation. If a plane were seriously damaged on landing, and other planes waiting to land had low fuel-state, the damaged plane would be jettisoned overboard to clear the deck. Better to lose one damaged plane than have half a dozen good planes land in the water, out of fuel. I learned to operate my plane with some mechanical problems aboard (like hydraulic leaks) rather than “down” the plane for minor repairs and sacrifice the operation.
I was one of those 125 pilots aboard the ship, whose complement was about 3500 men. Without those 125 pilots, the ship was useless. That made me one of the top 3% aboard; I was one of the main reasons the ship was there. It left an impression. Much later in life, I was to learn that this Naval Aviation experience was the most professional operation anywhere. It was a great personal satisfaction that I did it well. I was always healthy, never caused an accident nor damage to an aircraft through abuse, ever alert on the job. My gunnery was excellent (10% + hits); I learned quickly, and acted decisively in emergencies.It is important at this point to describe a carrier landing, as there is probably nothing in life quite like it. The ship is moving forward at about 30 knots. the plane is being slowed to around 90 knots – just enough to keep it in the air. The pilot is turning 180 degrees onto the same course as the ship, while continually watching the LSO for landing signals, which he gives with the paddles. Just operating the plane that slow is enough to keep you busy, but you have several big relative motion problems going on as well. I can recall this landing experience as one requiring 100% mental concentration like no other. If all goes as planned, the plane arrives at the stern of the ship at the proper speed, completes the turn to the ship's course, remains sufficiently above the deck to safely come aboard, cuts the throttle at the LSO's signal, and drops to the deck, engaging an arresting wire with the tailhook. As if this weren't enough to be concerned about, 120 other pilots are awaiting your success so they can land before they run out of gas. Sounds so simple, but there are a whale of a lot of things that can go awry in that last 180 degree turn. The LSO keeps track of your approach and logs your “grades” in his little notebook in his own code. Later, in your ready room, he goes over your approach to the ship debriefing you on how you did on that most recent landing. The LSO has a little net stretched aside his position on the port side astern, just in case you get a little too close to him. But he is never very happy about diving overboard into his safety net. His most famous logged code reads – S A R, D N K M! (Which translates--settling at the ramp, damn near killed me!).
A few things were notable aboard ship on a cruise of month or more. After about ten days at sea, the ship would run out of fresh milk. Powdered milk was not quite the same; I ate a lot of “gedunk” (ice cream) from the “scuttlebutt” (seaboard soda fountain). Frozen ice cream could apparently be kept in great quantities aboard ship. I worked long and irregular hours, making for equally irregular eating patterns. The food aboard ship was excellent. Eating in the Officer's Ward Room was very pleasant; food served by stewards on table-clothed tables. As young active men, we had voracious appetites. The bread aboard ship was uncommonly good, fresh (2000 loaves/day), delicious; its yeasty aroma permeated the ship. If the food didn't arrive promptly from the kitchen, we made an entire meal of the bread – it was that good! I never had such good bread in my entire life as aboard the carrier. Nor was I ever successful finding similar bread elsewhere.
About the only thing I didn't enjoy aboard ship, as a very Junior Officer, was “spotting the deck” (reparking the aircraft in the correct position for launch) and early morning “standby” for the morning CAP (Combat Air Patrol). These activities usually took place about 0400. To my body, it was the middle of the night. Our squadron always had one extra pilot ready and briefed for the early morning CAP over the Fleet. It was the Fleet's protection against intruders. As a standby, you could never be certain of flying, so it could be an exercise in futility. If all planes got airborne, you could return to your bunk; if one plane went “down” due to mechanical difficulties, you were ready to take his place. The “standby” usually warmed up on the port, deck-edge elevator. One morning, there I was at 0430 warming up as “standby” when one of our CAP fighters got a “cold shot” from the catapult – that is, the catapult failed to accelerate the plane normally, leaving the pilot with 90 feet and forty knots of wind to get airborne on his own power. Occasionally, some would make it; this morning the fighter did not. He left the bow and immediately settled into the black inky water. The alert ship's helmsman altered course to starboard to avoid running over the plane and pilot. A trip under the ship is a keelhauling which few survive. All I could see from the deck edge elevator was the tail of the ditched plane sticking up out of the water. In a few seconds, our Chief was climbing up on my wing root shouting, "Mr. Collier, someone has got to go", meaning the “standby” must be launched. It was a moonless black pre-dawn morning with no horizon. By the time I could get launched, the other CAP planes were already rendezvoused. I had to select the sector in which to find them and their assigned altitude – then identify them in the inky blackness by only three tiny ID lights on the bottom of their wings. Now aloft at 0500, we could not land for about four hours or until the early strike was launched, again making room on the deck for landing operations. In the meantime, we were vectored to various locations where “bogies” (unidentified objects) were sighted by the ship's CIC (Combat Information Center) also known as (Christ I'm Confused). Otherwise there was the endless circling at minimum power to conserve fuel for maximum endurance until we could possibly land. That was the duty of fleet CAP, to be aloft and ready to counter any attack by incoming unidentified planes. By 0900 we were ready to come down for a rest. After four hours in a single seated fighter, you are able to identify all the contents of the survival raft (used for a seat cushion) just by feel through your butt.
Now you may think that all the accidents and excitement were happening just to the other people. But I had my own memorable events to endure. During one of the “warm up” flights prior to the mock invasion, the seas had developed a long swell, causing the carrier to pitch fore-and-aft. This caused the landing ramp to rise and fall visibly. Making my landing this day, I received a “cut” signal and obeyed. But when I dropped the nose, I found myself very high and “floating” as the Bearcat was prone to do. It was possible to float over all the arresting wires, and even float over the “barriers” (arresting wires raised six feet in the air on hydraulic arms to snare the plane). A plane overlying both arresting wires and barriers could be expected to land on top of the fueled planes parked on the bow. Not a pretty sight. What was really happening to me was that the stern was dropping in the swell, leaving me still high. I dumped the nose again, but the ship was still settling. So I dumped the nose a third time, finally engaging the number eight arresting wire. The arresting wires were so tensioned that the later wires were very taut to slow the plane more quickly as you ran out of space. The number eight wire felt like a banjo string, it was so taut. The first three cable “barriers” were dropped for me, saving me from hitting the earlier three, yet leaving two still standing. I was down safe, but no little unnerved. Three attempted landings in one pass. I had no accident, no scratch on the plane – but a little damage to my ego.
Now that I was down safe, I quickly taxied ahead of the barriers, which were dropped to allow landed planes to taxi forward to park, clearing the landing area. Though the Essex Class carriers were straight deck carriers of the WW II type, the decks were not perfect rectangles; there were some protrusions along the sides, allowing for more parking area. As I followed the flight-deck crew's directions, they were intent on parking me in the port forward deck extension. It was uncomfortable parking there because all I could see from the cockpit was the sea about 75 feet below. I was given repeated signals to swing my tail toward the edge of the ship, which I did most reluctantly – a little at a time. Then it happened. The tailwheel dropped over the side and I began to slide backwards –overboard. There were planes and people ahead of me; I could not blast my way ahead to safety. The plane slipped uncontrollably backward even though I was standing on my brakes. I could envision myself sliding overboard, backward and dropping upside down into the sea. My tailwheel came to rest on the top of a gasoline pump in the catwalk, no bigger than a garbage can cover, stopping my further backward slide and giving me no little relief from the fright. But I was still half-overboard. Ten deck handlers got under my tail stabilizer and with their backs lifted the Bearcat back onto the deck. I cut the engine and exited the plane – probably two years older just from the fright, my hair still standing on end. This was not a sport for the faint at heart.
The fleet was nearing the target – VIEQUES – a series of air-strikes began. A most unfortunate accident occurred during the strike launch on the flight deck. The planes were parked very close together on the after-part of the flight deck. Immediately behind my plane were the Grumman TBM bombers. As the planes were starting their engines and the propellers just starting to turn, a deck hand stepped thru the propeller arc of the TBM and was killed instantly. Witnessing the event in my rear vision mirror, I was sickened by the sight, but my engine was running, and I could offer no assistance. I put on my oxygen mask and breathed pure oxygen for a few minutes to fight off my nausea from the event. Planes were being launched; I was one of them. There was no time-out for grief. Several bombing strikes were mounted using 100 lb. iron (dumb) bombs, but for me that was different, having never dropped a live large bomb. Our Tactical Air Support training at Manchester, VT, was paying-off. Strafing and rockets followed. It was my first firing of a 5" HVAR rocket; the Bearcat held six. Our Bearcats were later loaded with two 500 lb. iron bombs for drop on various targets on Vieques (mocked up enemy emplacements). We went in as a four plane division peeling off an echelon. I dropped one bomb on the target and was recovering from my dive and joining up on the other four planes, when someone from my division called to tell me my second bomb had just released. It must have been an electrical problem, for I had not released it using the ”'pickle switch”. By the grace of God, the (live) bomb fell into the sea away from any habitation or ships; but it was hell on the unsuspecting fish, and an unpleasant surprise for the invasion ships who called to let us know they were nearby. Other planes from the two additional carriers also had their time-on-target, followed by the Marine invasion force. Meanwhile back aboard our carrier some excitement followed the return of aircraft, some having fused, unfired rockets, some of which would not release, even with vigorous efforts to dislodge them. A Bearcat was brought aboard the USS LEYTE (CV-32) (our ship) with a single hung-up unfired five-inch rocket aboard. All our CV carriers were the “straight deck” type of the era; recovered aircraft were parked on the bow ahead of the (cable) barriers. Crew were everywhere. The moment the plane hooked an arresting wire, the loose rocket went sliding forward up the flight deck toward the parked planes on the bow. No one knew whether the rocket was armed or not at that moment. A Chief Petty Officer, walking across the forward deck at the time, intercepted the rocket and stopped it by placing his foot on top of it in a most heroic act. It was only after the wayward rocket was stopped that it was learned that its fuse was not armed.
When the invasion exercise was concluded; it was time for “Liberty in port”. The fleet broke up into smaller groups of ships so as not to overload a single port of call. The USS LEYTE and the Battleship IOWA steamed south to Trinidad, anchoring off Port-of-Spain, the capital of the British island. Following a day ashore in the capitol, for each of port and starboard “watches”, our squadron headed for a squadron picnic at a small nearby secluded beach called "Scotland Bay", an idyllic tropical bay, having crystal-clear sun-warmed waters, surrounded by coconut palms – a scene right out of “South Pacific”. Following a swim and picnic, a baseball game engaged most of the crew, while others wandered into the dense jungle of the surrounding hillsides to “explore”. Shortly, there came from the jungle a loud roaring of some large cat or beast unknown. This was followed by a stream of sailors running out of the jungle into the center of the clearing. During our days in port, the Junior Officers acted as liberty boat officers, one for each whaler tender. This lead to some hilarious experiences. One sailor tried to bring a monkey back to the ship, but was obliged to release him at the liberty boat dock after being denied passage. Another sailor tried to smuggle some booze back aboard ship in a shoe box, but when challenged with a search by the Officer of the Deck, he backed over to the rail and chucked the shoe box overboard with the comment, "Oh well, they didn't fit anyway". In a few days, the ships headed back singly, stopping at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for several days. These were the days immediately preceding Castro's Cuban Revolution; Castro was still in the hills at that time. So our liberty included only a visit to the base, but the Officer's Club at “GITMO” was elegant and provided for our needs. The weather was spectacularly good, far from the New England winter.
Upon leaving GITMO for the return voyage home, we learned through the news media that two British Tudor airliners had disappeared on a flight from Bermuda to Jamaica – in an area now known as the “Bermuda Triangle”. The Navy was asked to join in the search. Our three carriers, having 300 aircraft, searched for 300 miles in every direction for about a week, but never turned up so much as debris or die marker from the crash. But the search was some “enter-
tainment”. We flew over and around about every island in the Caribbean and Bahamas; the scenery was spectacular, very memorable. I made up my mind to return. Many years later (late 70s) I picked up a paper-back book on the BERMUDA TRIANGLE, and found myself in the book, a part of that unfruitful Navy search for the lost British airliners.
We returned to Quonset Pt., R. I. about mid-March 1949 and continued our combat readiness training as previously done. Still during the very cold months of late winter, VF-33 participated in what was to become NORAD (North American Air Defense). In the exercise we provided a flight of “ready fighters” 24 hours a day – not an easy task in a Rhode Island winter. If called on by NORAD, we would “scramble” a flight of our fighters and be vectored to an intercept point somewhere in the Northeast. We intercepted several multi-engined “Intruders” masquerading as the “enemy” – one a PV Neptune out of Bangor, Maine. Mid-winter flying in the Bearcat was tough duty for everyone, including the enlisted aircrewmen. Just pulling the propeller through on a cold morning was a daunting task. The oil was stiff; the footing treacherous. And because of the cold, we had to start our engines heavily primed with raw high-octane gasoline. If the engine did not immediately start (and it rarely did), the raw gas would start a fire as it came out through the exhaust stacks right by the open canopy. It was enough to singe your hair, and a little scary. We took up starting the engines with the canopy closed – against regulations of the time. Nothing really improved the situation except warmer weather.
Flying in a “poopy” bag wasn't fun either, but we had a close call proving its value. One of our pilots had an engine failure just a few minutes after becoming airborne – about where the Jamestown bridge crosses Narraganset Bay. He landed in the icy water (40 degrees) and was picked up by the crashboat from Quonset Pt. in less than 15 minutes – actually very good time. But even with his exposure suit, his body temperature had dropped 15 degrees in those 15 minutes and he had difficulty helping his rescuers with getting into the crashboat. We all stopped complaining about exposure suits from that day forward.
Combat readiness was becoming a reality and all thinking was focused on the coming “MED” cruise which would be due about January 1950. About mid-summer, 1949 we did some night FCLP (Field Carrier Landing Practice) at NAS Quonset Point. Since Quonset Point really was a point/peninsula jutting out into the Bay, it was surrounded by water on three sides. The result was that our FCLP pattern took us over water for nearly the entire racetrack pattern. Our planes were not equipped with radio altimeters, so gauging your actual height over the water at night was extremely difficult. FCLP was to simulate the carrier, of course, but the ship's deck was really 75 feet above the surface of the sea. In our FCLP pattern, we were only about 30 feet above the water at night. Just banking the plane could cause a wing to dip into the water with consequent terminal results. After a few night's practice, the exercise was discontinued, and we never did get around to doing night CQ aboard the ship, probably a very prudent decision by the skipper.
In October 1949, much to everyone's surprise, half of the members of the class of 1946 of the Flying Midshipmen were given notice that they would not be retained in USN, but would be discharged into USNR, effectively ending their Naval careers. And I was among those who would be dropped on January 1, 1950. I was devastated. I loved my work, did it well, had good fitness reports, and had no thought of not making the Navy my career. As far as anyone could tell, the selection was random. It was widely learned that all Flying Midshipmen of that class were recommended for retention by their commanding officers (including mine). We were caught in the tide of Navy downsizing which followed WW II. At the same time, all USNR aviators on active duty (and there were half a dozen in our squadron) would be discharged as well. I made a personal visit to Washington, D.C. with the permission of my C.O. to see what might be done to reverse the decision on the class of 1946.
I even spoke with Senator John Stennis, Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. He said the decision was set in concrete. It is to be remembered that within the period of my Naval career, the country had reduced its number of aircraft carriers from a WW II high of 150 down to 15. In addition, a big debate in the country concerned the future need for more Navy aircraft carriers because the B-36 (six engined bomber) could deliver an Atomic Bomb anywhere in the world – ending a conflict immediately. Such was the general thinking of the period. No one was spared the axe. My Navy career was at an end, and there was nothing I could do about it.
The next thing to be decided was where to go to college, and what to take in those last two years. The Navy did fulfill its contract by continuing to provide for the last two years of our college education. I had never thought of an alternate career choice, and I really had no idea what career to pursue. I was a ship adrift and very depressed. It seemed everything I had worked for in my life had just been wiped away. I returned home, discussed the matter with family and mentors, then decided to pursue a career as a sales engineer, for which I was well suited. The Navy still offered two more years of college – any college – to complete my education. With that in mind, I applied to the best schools in the country: Cornell, Dartmouth, Princeton, Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and Univ. of Pennsylvania (WHARTON) business school. To my utter amazement, I was accepted at all of them. But I could only attend one, so I chose the one where my cousin had recently graduated – WHARTON. That solved another problem; where to affiliate with the Naval Air Reserve. I wanted to continue to fly; the Organized Naval Air Reserve was the only place to do that--and they paid you besides. NAS Willow Grove, PA was less than 40 miles from Philadelphia and WHARTON. I immediately secured a billet in VF-934, a fighter squadron at NAS Willow Grove. So did my old Navy friend Flying Midshipman Arland Adams. It was like recovering a portion of my Naval career; I recovered as well. Arland was attending Jefferson Medical School in Philly while I was in Philly at WHARTON. And we'd get together every month on the fourth weekend in VF-934, flying Corsairs. It was like old times. I loved it. Thus began my Naval Air Reserve career, which lasted for seven more years. While I was at WHARTON, Arland and I would get together for dinner at the Philadelphia Naval Base Officer's Club.
I did well at WHARTON; it was much easier than accelerated engineering and there were fewer credit hours per term. During my between-term and vacation periods, I took (TAD) Temporary Additional Duty at NAS Willow Grove, using my free time to earn a few bucks by ferrying aircraft to and from overhaul at Pensacola or Jacksonville. There was an element of risk in this job; I took down to overhaul a plane which was in need of major engine work, and brought back a plane just out of the factory that had never been flown. Not only was it fun to fly, but it earned money at a higher rate than any low-level temporary work I could get at the college. The only problem that arose were the weather fronts which hung up over Appalachian Mountains during the winter months. None of the aircraft I ever flew had decent navigational instruments or communications, so flying in less than good weather was extremely risky. I can recall trying to fly under the fronts during the daily maximum heating period, but getting trapped under the overcast which dropped down to the mountain tops, leaving me flying down the river valleys trying to find my way through. In retrospect, my crude navigation was less than desirable. But I was young and immortal – at least at that time. Flying in the Reserve was a little risky in itself. We only flew one weekend a month, and that weekend might be a poor weather period, meaning that you might not have flown a Corsair for 60 days before your next flight. Still, we did well. And it was great sport during my college years. Who else was flying Corsairs during their college years for the fun of it? The planes we had in the Reserve were ex-regular Navy planes, or those left over from WW II or both.
Some planes were in better condition than others. One day on my regular drill weekend in early May 1952, I was part of an air-to-air gunnery flight. The Corsair that I flew was a “gutless wonder” (aircraft ready for overhaul). To stay in the firing circle, I had to use much more power than the other planes in my flight. About 60 miles at sea east of Atlantic City, I noticed that my engine had radically overheated. The oil temperature was at the red line – 140 degrees C; oil pressure was low; cylinder head temperature was high and I couldn't cool it down. I concluded that I had melted the main babbit bearings of the crankshaft and that the engine could seize-up at any moment. It was time to call for help. I called my flight leader and told him of my need to return to base. My wingman joined up with me and we headed back to shore – 70 miles west to Atlantic City. I opened up every cooler flap and vent in a vain attempt to cool the engine down, but nothing worked. I slowed the engine to 1500 RPM, so slow I could count the propeller turning. The old bird continued to fly, and the engine never faltered – but it ran HOT! After reaching shore, I boldly made a decision to return to NAS Willow Grove, knowing that if I landed at a strange field, I would never get back to college in time for my final exams the next day. The Corsair continued to run well, but it never cooled down. As I approached NAS Willow Grove, I called for a “deferred emergency” (I'd be met by the fire trucks and ambulance). The engine ran fine and I shifted to high RPM only over the end of the runway. Touch down was uneventful, but as I slowed down on the runway the engine froze, the propeller stopped dead, never to turn again. That was the only damage I ever did to an aircraft, and I felt bad about it – even though it was not really my fault. An engine change was required. Sorry I didn't get that plane to overhaul before I ruined the engine.
In June, 1953, I graduated from WHARTON and started my career selling for Lincoln Electric Co, of Cleveland, Ohio. During the company training program (9 months) I switched my Organized Naval Reserve affiliation to VF-651 at NAS Akron, Ohio. We flew from the hangar right next to that old dirigible hangar which housed those huge airships I had seen as a five year old. NAS Akron was an old airfield built in a valley with very short runways. To get onto the short runways, we actually flew our planes down the hill that was used by the National Soap Box Derby. It was a part of the final approach to the short NAS Akron runway. One of our squadron mates was Frank Sullivan, whose family owned Sullivan Steamship Lines, which operated iron ore carriers on the Great Lakes. He would call up his offices on drill weekends and find out where their ships were located on the lakes. Then we'd plan a squadron attack on the Sullivan Ship Lines. It was great fun attacking the ship. We always checked the ship out carefully to be certain it was one of “ours”. When I completed sales training at Lincoln Electric in Cleveland, I was assigned to the Philadelphia sales office, and so I rejoined my place in VF-934 at NAS Willow Grove, PA. By this time, I had three of the seven required years in the Reserves behind me.
It was standard practice in the Navy to recall individuals in the Standby Reserve, leaving the Organized Squadrons intact. Occasionally, a full Organized Reserve Squadron would be recalled as a unit [many fighter, attack, and patrol squadrons were recalled intact; several were formed into Reserve Air Groups. The Reserve Patrol Squadrons operated independently], but not often. I missed the recalls for Korea (I was in college), for the Berlin Airlift, and for the Suez Canal Crisis. By that time I had finished my required seven Reserve years, but I planned to continue. Lincoln Electric Co. did not give me time off for Reserve Cruises, so I had to use my personal vacation time for that purpose. Having been married in 1956 and starting a family, it seemed wise to consider a safer weekend activity. The situation that brought this matter to a head was our intended transition to jets at NAS Willow Grove. Trouble was that there were not enough jet aircraft to fly. We would attend ground school, get all set to fly – only to find the aircraft were “down” for repairs. We might go for three months getting ready to fly, only to get the transition flight postponed yet another month. That routine was unsafe. I resolved to leave the Organized Reserve while I was still alive. Trouble was, if you left the Organized Reserve, you would be recalled to active duty. The only option I had was to resign. I ruminated on that matter for a long time, but it was the only safe way out.
So ended my Naval career. It was a good one. I had operated first line fighters for nine years, had 1500 accident free hours, had progressed to LT Senior Grade and was working on a promotion to LCDR. I had thoroughly enjoyed my service. Why not quit while I was winning? My family deserved my vacation time as well as my life. I pulled the rip cord in August 1957.
I thought my Navy days were completely past history. But one day I took my family to visit the NASA Museum in Washington, D. C. (1981). I found at least three aircraft I had flown prominently displayed in the Museum. I didn't feel old enough to be history, but there I was. In my job at GE SUPERABRASIVES, Worthington, Ohio, my major customer was Pratt & Whitney (maker of all those engines I flew). I joined the US NAVY LEAGUE. Arland Adams had taken a cruise on an aircraft carrier recently. I joined the Association of Naval Aviation to qualify for a similar trip for me and my family. I was appointed Commanding Officer of the Ohio HELLDIVER SQUADRON of ANA, which I served for five years, taking a couple of carrier cruises with my wife, Barbara. I joined the Naval Aviation Museum and became a Regional Director. I became a charter member of the Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, where my name can be found in bronze to this very day. The Naval Aviation Museum on NAS Pensacola is now the largest building complex on the station.
In 1986, I invited my entire family to visit Pensacola for the 75th Anniversary of Naval Aviation. My father, S/2 class William F. Collier, had been a blimp handler at NAS Pensacola in 1918 at a time when Pensacola was the only Naval Air Station in the country, when there were only 250 personnel on the base.
WW I Naval Aviation had been largely one of Anti-Submarine Warfare. With my immediate family, I took a cruise aboard the USS LEXINGTON (CV-2), which has now become a Museum, anchored in Corpus Christi Bay. My daughter, Debbie, inspired by the Pensacola visit, took the exam for Naval Pilot Training in New Haven, CT, qualifying as well as a male engineer. She was the only woman to qualify in the exams in the history of that recruiting branch. She would have joined, but did not qualify on eyesight. Still, I am very proud of her efforts.
It was possible for me to get out of the Navy, but it was not possible to get the Navy out of me. Naval Aviation was the greatest adventure of my life, and my most prolific trainer. I owe much of what I accomplished in life to my early education, excellent training, and experience in Naval Aviation. I recommend to my progeny, and others, a similar experience.
P. S. Was the adventure worth it? I'd do it again, all of it, in a minute.