No flights were scheduled for the helicopter on Nov 4, and with the admiral and most of his staff taking advantage of shore leave opportunity, none were expected. So I was idling at one of the long tables in CPO quarters chatting with three other chiefs. Suddenly our idle conversation was interrupted by a loud outburst from a lone fellow at the far end of the table: "This is AM-U-GUSTING!!"
"Amugusting?" One of my companions called to the fellow. "What the hell does that mean?"
"It means it's both amusing and disgusting," the other chief replied, " and I'm not sure which it is the most! Here! Have a look and judge for yourself!" With that, he slid a folded news paper down the table to us; a recent copy of the New York Times. The headline of it was: "UNITED NATIONS WINS IN KOREA."
One of my companions began reading aloud the text of the leading article beneath that headline. Its first few lines in effect credited the United Nations Organization with having successfully restored peace in Korea, and thereby proving that it was indeed the answer to maintaining "world peace." But I was prevented from hearing more of that reading, or discussing the matter with my companions because of a call on the ship's system: "Man the helicopter!"
As we readied the machine on the flight deck, a messenger arrived from somewhere bearing a sealed envelope, and some handwritten instructions. Capt Irons, chief of staff with Adm Struble (Commander of Seventh Fleet:), was known to be on a golf course located about 20 miles inland from Yokosuka. The mission was to locate him, give him the envelope and await his readiness for return to Yokosuka. The instruction sheet included physical description of the captain, his companion and the vehicle they were driving, to help identify him on the course. Pri-Fly provided precise direction and distance when I reported ready for launch. There was an excellent view as I launched, of enthusiastic sailors off-loading munitions and supplies; readying the ship for return to the States.
Capt Irons was located without difficulty, midway through the course. After reading the message in the envelope, he silently tucked it in a pocket and asked if I could find some place near the hotel to put the helicopter down and wait for him. A flat area, which included a baseball field, had been noted in passing on the way to the golf course. It was especially well suited. A game was in process. The Japanese teenagers were delighted by the helicopter's arrival, and my own participation in their game for just one time at bat. (Enthusiasm for baseball in Japan was by then already very high.)
Capt Irons, alone, rode with me back to Yokosuka. His golfing companion would be following with their vehicle and baggage. He said not a word during the 25 minutes of our flight to Yokosuka. As we approached the ship, I noticed and called to his attention that the flow of supplies had been reversed. The munitions and other supplies were being put back aboard.
"Yes, chief," he said, "We'll be going back out. That's what this message you brought me was about. The Chinese are moving into North Korea in force. We've got another war on our hands."
So began the second* war of Korea.
[ * It is significant that Captain Irons referred to it at the time as "another war." For that is indeed what it was a new war, against a new and different army, and toward a different objective from the enemy's point of view. Yet some 50 years later (as this is being written) that fact remains generally unrecognized.]
Several days were required to ready Phil Sea for return to the combat theater. In addition to the supplies to be reloaded, there was some regathering of personnel to be done. And behind the scenes, there was studying of the new situation and planning as to what first to do about it.
An interesting sidelight, meanwhile, was the reaction in the "back home" press. In the papers which were at hand heralding the "successful" ending of the "police action," credit was given mostly to United Nations and Washington, DC officials. Very little was afforded to Gen MacArthur. Later papers, headlining news of the war's "renewal" (as they mostly called it), blamed MacArthur almost exclusively for that happening.
MacArthur had indeed contended that the Chinese would not dare come in. Combat experienced men would realize that the general would have based that appraisal on the assumption we would be allowed to strike their vulnerable supply and support bases in Manchuria if they did. That understanding was obviously not shared by most observers and commentators in the Stateside media. Neither did it seem to be understood by the Commander-in-Chief, President Truman, or some of his top military advisors back in Washington.*
[ * Declassified documents from that period, and memoirs of some of the high level participants, now make clear that Truman relied on his State Department advisors in conduct of military policy in Korea. more than the Joint Chiefs of Staff. ]
On November 6, as we continued aboard Phil Sea to ready for return to the war zone, word filtered down that MacArthur had ordered a large air strike of B-29's in attempt to knock out the bridges on the Yalu. High level bombing is neither an efficient nor very certain way of knocking out bridges, and MacArthur was certainly aware of that. But until Task Force 77 was back in action to provide the more precise manner of delivery, the B-29's were all that he had available. Therefor that news emphasized to us the critical nature of the situation, and stimulated even greater effort. The reaction in Washington, DC (though of course unknown to us at the time) was somewhat different. President Truman was in Independence, Missouri on that day. The following highlights from his memoirs (Vol 2, pp 374-376:) well represent the overall reaction in US officialdom back home:
"... I received an urgent call from Dean Acheson ... ... calling from a conference with Under Secretary of Defense, Robert Lovett.... A message had just been received from the Air Force commander in the Far East, Lieutenant General Stratemeyer. MacArthur had ordered a bombing mission to take out the bridge across the Yalu River from Sinuiju (Korea) to Antung (Manchuria).... Lovett had told Acheson that. . . he doubted whether the results to be achieved would... . . outweigh the danger of bombing Antung or other points on the Manchurian side of the river.
Assistant Secretary of State Dean Rusk pointed out that we had a commitment with the British not to take action which might involve attacks on the Manchurian side of the river without consultation with them.... The State Department had presented MacArthur's report on Chinese intervention to the United Nations and ... an urgent meeting of the Security Council had been requested.... We would try to get a resolution adopted calling on the Chinese Communists to cease their activities in Korea.... Mr. Rusk also mentioned the danger of involving the Soviets....
...Lovett and he (Acheson) agreed that this air action ought to be postponed until we had more facts about the situation. Marshall... (George C., Secretary of Defense)...agreed that the attack was unwise unless there was mass movement across the river which threatened the security of our troops. Then Lovett called the Air Force Secretary, Mr. Finletter, and instructed him to tell the Joint Chiefs what Mr. Rusk had set forth and that this action should be postponed until they were able to get a decision from me....
MacArthur was .. . informed.., that there was a commitment not to take action affecting Manchuria without consultation with the British,* and that until further orders all bombing of targets within five miles of the Manchurian border should be postponed...."
[ * Among British officials with whom Rusk and other of Truman's advisors would have consulted on such matters (perhaps primarily so) were Soviet "agents of influence" Guy Burgess, Don Maclean and Kim Philby. Maclean was Britain's representative in the United Nations Central Planning Office in New York. Burgess was Second Secretary at British Embassy in Washington. Philby, then regarded as Britain's top expert on "Soviet affairs," was also in Washington, living virtually next door to US Naval Security Station on Nebraska Ave., (Burgess rooming in his basement), conferring and socializing regularly with high officials from the CIA, FBI, and the US State Department. (Viz Costello, "Mask of Treachery" }]
Although obviously none were known to be Soviet agents as of November, 1950, Burgess and Maclean were so revealed in May of 1951; a fact apparently considered too insignificant for mention in Truman's memoirs. Philby was not exposed until several years later.]
As of November 6, 1950, we in the rank and file of the US forces committed in Korea were of' course unaware of such details in the disagreements between MacArthur and the policy-makers back in Washington. But MacArthur made certain we would be at least somewhat aware of the handicap under which we must now battle the new enemy. He issued a public statement about it, which was quite accurately described years later in Truman's memoirs:
"On this day, November 6, General MacArthur issued a communiqué in Tokyo in which he announced that his forces were now faced by a new and fresh army backed up by large reserves and adequate supplies within easy reach of the enemy but beyond the limits of the present sphere of military action." (Vol 2, p378)
We didn't like such news especially those of us experienced enough to realize the potential grim consequence of that situation. Yet we were grateful for having been so honestly told what we were now up against. It was demoralizing with respect to prospects for victory under such handicap, and with respect to feelings about whoever back in the States one believed responsible for allowing it. It was at the same time to those of us in supporting elements as aboard the Phil Sea, inspiring to greater effort in behalf of those who were in forefront of the battle.
Reaction amongst Washington officials to that public statement of MacArthur's would understandably be quite different from ours. Which fact was at the time of no particular concern to us aboard the Phil Sea. We were concerned with getting back into action as soon as possibly we could. Added to the stimulus of MacArthur's public statement on November 6, were reports filtering down that our forces in the northwestern sector of Korea were now being hit by air strikes launched from just a few miles away in Manchuria, and without much in the way of our own airpower on hand to counteract it.
Years later would be learned that situation may have been something of a triggering factor in subsequent discord between the President and the general. MacArthur sent a message to Washington about it on November 7. Text of that message as contained in Truman's memoirs (Vol 2, p377):
"Hostile planes are operating from bases west of the Yalu River against our forces in North Korea. These planes are appearing in increasing numbers. The distance from the Yalu to the main line of contact is so short that it is almost impossible to deal effectively with the hit and run tactics now being employed. The present restrictions imposed on my area of operation provide a complete sanctuary for hostile air immediately upon their crossing the Manchuria-North Korea border. The effect of this abnormal condition upon the morale and combat efficiency of both air and ground troops is major.
Unless corrective measures are promptly taken this factor can assume decisive proportions. Request instructions for dealing with this new and threatening development."*
There is no indication in Truman's memoirs as to what, if any, specific instructions were sent to MacArthur in response to that request. But the passages immediately following the text of MacArthur's message (Vol 2, pp377-378) seem significant to later developments between the two:
"Every military commander and every civilian official in the government is, of course, entitled to his views. Indeed, we would have a poor government if we expected all our public servants to be of one mind and one mind alone. I valued the expression of MacArthur's opinions, and so did the Joint Chiefs. There was never any question about my high regard for MacArthur's military judgment. But as President I had to listen to more than military judgments, and my decisions had to be made on the basis of not just one theater of operations but of a much more comprehensive picture of our nation's place in the world.
We were in Korea in the name and on behalf of the United Nations. The 'unified command' which I had entrusted to Douglas MacArthur was a United Nations command,* and neither he nor I would have been justified if we had gone beyond the mission that the United Nations General Assembly had given us."
[ * Overlooked or ignored at the time (and for the most part ever since) is the fact that Truman's submission of himself, MacArthur, and all US military men involved to control by the United Nations Organization can reasonably be construed as violation of both the UN Charter and the US Constitution. Article 43 of the UN Charter stipulates that when "signatory states" contribute armed forces for an action in behalf of the United Nations, they shall do so "in accordance with their respective constitutional processes." While the US Constitution does certainly allow the President, as Commander-in-Chief, to order some immediate military actions without it, prior to the Korean conflict, no comparable commitment of US armed forces to protracted war ever was made without respect for the basic constitutional requirement of a formal declaration of war by the Congress. ]
Details of such things as MacArthur's 7 November message to Washington and officialdom's reaction to it were of course not at that time available to us aboard Phil Sea. Adm Ewen made us sufficiently aware of the circumstance faced by our troops on the peninsula to fully appreciate the urgency of TF 77's support for them. We didn't know, nor did we care or need to know, if there were 200,000 Chinese troops already in Korea, or a half-million. We knew that our men there were in trouble and needed all the help Task Force 77 could possibly give them. The fact that men wondered, and sometimes griped and grumbled to one another about the stupidity or possibly worse of whoever in addition to the President was responsible for allowing the enemy such advantage, in no way interfered with doing the best they could at their jobs.
In fact, quite possibly, feelings of anger or disgust about the circumstance, and toward whoever might be responsible for it, might for some have been stimulus to even greater effort. In circumstances of combat, or close support of others in combat, it is not for his country that a man labors or risks his life. It is for those of his countrymen, or other worthies who share that circumstance with him. It is not likely there could be found among Americans who truly faced that circumstance in Korea, any who would say he did so "on behalf of the United Nations."
Rather, the frequent suggestions that we were there in behalf of the United Nations was probably one of the most irritating and possibly demoralizing elements of the bits of news and commentary that came from the Stateside media. To the extent that "patriotism" was involved, the United Nations organization was certainly not an entity towards which men in combat would feel it.
There was also in the news briefs coming from back home, inklings or more of the reasons or excuses that were being offered as to why we supposedly dare not strike the enemy in North Korea with full force of our air power. Countering comments to those could usually be heard from one or several of the residents in CPO quarters aboard Phil Sea. Though admittedly deprived of complete information, wide-ranging experiences of those men (many of them combat veterans of WW2) quite possibly qualified them equally expert on the subject as some of the decision makers in Washington and New York. In any case, their serious observations sounded logical at the time, and for the most part would be historically proven correct.
There was the contention from officialdom, for one, that if we struck too close to the border, especially even chance intrusion into Manchurian territory, the Soviets might get involved. The Soviets were involved from the very beginning. We knew that. So did the policy makers in Washington. We had personal recollection of how quickly the Soviets quit their efforts to harass our fleet with the shootdown of just one of the planes they sent out to do it. Officialdom in Washington was aware of that, too.
More significant, as a matter of practical consideration had it not been for the massive "lend-lease" support from the US during World War 2, the Soviet Union would have collapsed under the siege by Nazi Germany. Such remnants as they still had of war equipment provided to them then (and this was considerable) would not long remain serviceable without continued support materials from somewhere. And despite the fact that the Soviets had ransacked all the territories they occupied in both Europe and Asia, it was most unlikely that within the five years since WW 2 they could have developed the industrial capability to wage a full scale, global war against their former allies.
They could, on the other hand, provide considerable support for what was now going on in Korea; providing that someone other than themselves was doing the actual fighting. Which seemed to many of us on the scene to be exactly what they were doing. First they had used North Korean troops in the unsuccessful attempt to take over South Korean. And now having in the process of that lost some territory instead, they were using the Chinese troops to try to get it back.
Back home "experts" would perhaps insist that the Chinese Communists were acting on their own in this incursion. But there were several reasons why few, if any, of the experienced participants on the scene would accept that as valid. Mao Tse Tung could never have taken mainland China without extensive Soviet support, and was still dependent upon it to sustain in power. The vivid presence of Soviet weaponry from burp guns to MiG aircraft, plus of course some American-made leftovers of lend-lease origins, was by itself evidence enough of that.
So the suggestion emanating from Washington through the media that the Chinese entry into Korea might be the beginning of Mao's "grand plan" to take over all of Asia, was almost laughable. When there was added to that the solid information that a sizable portion of US Navy's Seventh Fleet was sent to patrol between Formosa and mainland China it became even more so. For the "official" explanation out of Washington for that, according to scuttlebutt aboard Phil Sea, was to make sure that Mao would not at the same time order an amphibious assault against Chiang on that island. The speculation in Phil Sea's CPO quarters at the time that the purpose was quite the opposite to prevent Chiang from launching an invasion of the mainland has perhaps never been confirmed. But neither has it ever been disproven.
Such were the manner of opinions and speculations one might hear aboard Phil Sea on November 8, as she hurried back to the war zone from Yokosuka. There was an element of displeasure or even bitterness in the atmosphere, borne of the feeling that the only reason we were heading back to battle instead of home for Christmas was because someone back in Washington had badly goofed. (If there were any aboard who faulted MacArthur for this development, they were a very silent minority.) There was at least a tinge, also, of wonderment if there might be some subversive elements involved. It still seemed most unlikely that the Chinese troops would have been sent into Korea in such fashion, unless their masters were certain in advance of the complete sanctuary in Manchuria, and other restrictions on our forces which they could count on.
Yes, men think of such things, discuss such things, and gripe about such things while occupied with their tasks in direct support of the combat forces. But not in a ways which interfere with performance of their tasks. At least in this case it seemed instead to spur them on.
Such was all too often the case for the Able Dog and Corsair pilots from TF 77. Upon arrival at the target area, with a good supply of whatever manner of ordnance the marines had requested, they would often find the entire region obscured by fog or low overcast. They could talk with the marines, learn firsthand of their needs, and the manner of opposing firepower being encountered. But without visible sign of some sort on the ground, they dare not loose any of their firepower for fear of hitting our own men.
Nor was it always possible for them to find other targets on which to put it. So sometimes because of clouds blanketing the target area, their unused bombs and rockets had to be dumped in the sea as they returned to the carrier for refueling. There were times also, when the target area itself was free of clouds, cloud and fog conditions around the carrier forbid the launch and recovery of aircraft. Instead of in the relatively placid waters of the Yellow Sea west of the peninsula, Task Force 77 was now operating in the upper regions of the Sea of Japan. That body of water is rarely calm, often incongenial, and sometimes outright unfriendly to ships of any size.
Because of its length, an aircraft carrier of the Phil Sea's class (Essex class CV) could usually transverse quite heavy swells with little or no pitching. Headed almost directly into the wind and swells for flight operations, there would also be no roll. But under strong, northeasterly winds (which were quite frequent) length of the swells and depth of troughs in that region of Japan Sea became sufficient to cause considerable of pitching. This interfered especially with recovery of aircraft. Any appreciable downward movement of the flight deck as an aircraft reached the point of power cut-off for landing could cause the plane to float far enough forward before touchdown that the tailhook would not engage any of the arresting cables. Upward movement of the deck, on the other hand, would increase the shock of touchdown, sometimes causing the hook to bounce and miss the cables.
The wind in that circumstance was additional handicap. The proper approach airspeed of the propeller driven Able Dogs and Corsairs for carrier landing was 65 knots. Ideally, the desired windspeed over the flight deck would be 25 knots. In mild or modest winds, forward speed of the ship itself could be adjusted to provide that ideal wind over her deck. But if the natural wind was itself above 20 knots, windspeed over the deck could not be held at the ideal. For the ship required at least 5 knots of forward speed itself for steerageway (in order to maintain its proper heading into sea and wind). Thus with a natural windspeed of 40 knots, which was the not infrequent velocity generating the heavy swells, windspeed over the deck would be 45. With only 20 knots or less forward speed over it, aircraft dropped onto the deck with greater impact (for lack of forward roll) and less solid engagement of the arresting cables.
That combination of circumstances greatly complicated the job of the Landing Signal Officer (LSO),* and considerably lengthened the time required to bring aircraft back aboard when they returned from a mission. Only when the flight deck held reasonably steady could he safely signal an approaching pilot to "cut" power for landing. The rhythm of the sea was such that there would be time for 4 or 5 landings as the ship held steady through a series of shorter swells, then a much longer swell and trough would cause it to pitch. The up and down travel of bow and stern was sometimes as much as eighty feet. As much time would elapse before the ship steadied again, as she had held steady while transversing the shorter swells. Aircraft otherwise in position for landings during that while, had to fly around the pattern again for a new approach.
[* On aircraft carriers in that era, a "Landing Signal Officer" near the stern indicated to an approaching pilot with two, semaphore flags if he was either high, low or in proper position during approach, and gave a "cut" signal for complete cutoff of power when he judged the plane to be in proper position for landing. A "waveoff" signal was given if the LSO felt for any reason that landing should not be made on that approach. ]
Although it was by no means a constant circumstance, the operating conditions just described existed often enough to say that Task Force 77 probably encountered more of adverse sea and weather during November and December of 1950 than any other carrier strike group ever experienced. It is to credit of both pilots and flight deck crew, that Phil Sea lost no aircraft into the sea as result of those conditions. There were two resultant deck crashes, however; spectacular to observe, amazingly without death or serious injury to any personnel, though in one of them severe damage to a number of aircraft.
Our plane guard station during recovery operations provided full view of the ship, including far better perspective of on-coming swells ahead of the ship than from anywhere on board. We also had full view of aircraft in the landing pattern, and paid particular attention to the one in final approach for landing. The LSO and his assistant had learned the rhythm of the sea well enough to have timed quite precisely for how long the ship would hold level over a series of shorter swells and troughs, and for how long she would then pitch before leveling out again. With returning craft low on fuel, it was important to bring as many as possible aboard during the times she was running level.
With the stern down in what he assumed from prior rhythm was its final dip before the ship leveled, the LSO held signal for an Able Dog to continue its approach, even though it was at that moment quite high above the deck. He expected the stern to come up to level and hold, as it had in all previous series of swells. But this time, a second broad trough was following the first one. The next oncoming swell would not catch the bow as before and steady the ship level. So the bow dropped sharply as the ship crested the swell it had just "climbed." Instead of slowing in rise and stopping at level, uprising speed of the stern increased as the Able Dog came down to meet it. Due to strong wind, the plane had very little of forward motion over the deck. The resultant impact snapped off the aircraft's engine. It rolled several yards forward; the rest of the aircraft being held by the arresting cable.
Gasoline from broken fuel lines ignited, engulfing the craft in flames as the pilot jumped onto the wing and slid down to the deck. "Hot Papa" * was in the flames almost instantly wrapping himself around the pilot. The flames themselves were gone momentarily, with only fuel spilled from the broken lines having been their source. There was no injury to anyone. Deck hands removed both engine and aircraft within a very few minutes. And in the otherwise incomparable manner characteristic of most Naval aircraft carriers, flight operations continued as though nothing unusual had happened.
[ * "Hot Papa" is a flight deck crewman, of good size, strength and agility, in an oversized, asbestos suit, so he can enter an inferno and wrap suit and self around the pilot while others with fire hoses keep both of them covered with water. ]
A spectacular thing to watch as it was happening, but not at all pleasant. It was a case of seeing well in advance that a potentially tragic crash would happen, and being unable to do anything to prevent it. Only from the vantage in the helicopter could it be clearly seen that the rhythm of the sea had changed and the ship would this time make one more violent pitch. My radio call, "Wave him off!" was heard by Pri-Fly; but they did not know its origin or have time to relay instruction to the LSO.
[ 1. Arrangements were subsequently made to enable "angel" to more quickly provide such a warning. 2. Movie film record of that landing, made from the ship's island structure, was for several years used in Naval Aviation training. ]
The second spectacular, near-tragedy viewed from plane guard "angel's" vantage was of an F9F jet fighter. In response to the LSO signal that he was too low in approach to the ramp, the pilot applied full throttle. The front of the aircraft came onto the deck, but the tail end struck the ramp hard enough to break off part of the fuselage with the tail hook. Full power of its jet engine drove the craft through the barrier which would otherwise have stopped it short of the aircraft already parked on the forward part of the flight deck.* The wings of the jet fighter sheared off as it passed between the first two parked aircraft, spilling its remaining fuel on deck. That ignited at once, engulfing perhaps a dozen parked planes in flames.
[ * Angled flight decks as on present day carriers were not yet in existence in 1950. On previous, "straight-deck" carriers, returned aircraft were quickly parked on the forward portion of the flight deck. Retractable barriers (cable for propeller and nylon webbing for jet planes) were raised behind them in case incoming craft for any reason failed to hook an arresting cable after touchdown. ]
In less than a minute, fire crews had hosed much of the flaming fuel off the portside of the deck. But the ship was rolling enough from the heavy seas to then tilt the deck to starboard. Burning fuel flowed back through deck drains spreading the fire again. Three men who had rushed to close the large hatch through which bombs were hoisted from the magazines were surrounded by flames after doing so. They appeared for a time in danger of having to jump overboard, unless we might be able to hoist them off with the helicopter. But the roll of the ship back to portside took the flames away long enough for them to get out of the danger area.
Two times, roll of the ship caused the burning fuel to travel back and forth through the deck drains, confounding efforts of the fire crews to hose it all over the side. Then the helmsman put the ship in enough of starboard turn to hold the deck tilted to port long enough for the burning fuel to be hosed off.
Roll calls throughout the ship in immediate aftermath of the incident found all hands except the pilot of the plane which had caused it. The wingless fuselage lay on its side in the middle of the charred area, its cockpit open and empty. Ten or 15 minutes later the pilot was found; sitting alone in the ready room immediately below the flight deck, still shivering from the experience.
"Miraculous!" some might say, that no one was killed or seriously injured in such a calamity. Fortunate, it was; but not a miracle. It was fortunate because in the course of those few minutes, many men did risk serious consequences to themselves in service of their ship and their shipmates. But to call their achievement a miracle would be to deny them the credit they deserve. For that was the consequence of their sense of duty, and their training, and their self-discipline.
The admiral rewarded them as only he could with an immediate, sincere, "Well done!" As for myself, still looking on the scene from the vantage of the "angel's" station, the concern and anxiety felt while the deck crew was handling that emergency, turned to humble pride and gratitude when it was so quickly done. What a wonderful feeling it was to be shipmate with such men as they.
That circumstance made the more interesting our daily visits to ships of the screening force. Efficient delivery and pickup from one of them called for some consideration and close attention to the various motions of the vessel. That was especially important when the thing being delivered was a person. The motion would vary greatly depending not only on the sea condition, but also the ship's course through it.
From one such passenger, we received a special expression of gratitude; perhaps in part because he got a little special treatment. After conference with the admiral aboard Phil Sea, the commander of the screening force (a senior captain) was taken back to his own ship. There was time as we approached to point out to him the rhythm of the sea as it was then affecting his ship. After a series of quite severe rolls, she would run flat and level for about 10 seconds. In order to put him on deck during that period, we would start lowering him with the hoist while the ship was at full tilt in the last roll. If he thought it would be bothersome, he need not look down at that time. He should have his feet comfortably apart as he neared the deck, and knees slightly bent for the moment when we would firmly "plant" him there.
We put him down, as promised, gently but firmly while the deck was level, between two of his men standing by for that purpose. There was time enough before beginning of the next roll for him to walk on a level deck to the fore structure of his ship. He paused as he did so and rendered a salute to us, which was acknowledged by a quick bow of the helicopter.
Chester remarked some about that as we flew back to the carrier. But we were both momentarily struck wordless by a message sheet handed to us after we had landed. It was copy of a message from the destroyer captain to the skipper of the Phil Sea. It read: IN ADDITION TO SUPERB TAXI SERVICE YOUR WINDMILL CREW PROVIDES EXCELLENT LESSONS IN SEAMANSHIP."
Chester and I made another personnel delivery to a destroyer, quite different in character because it was different in purpose. It was done, in the way that it was done, to help the Flag Secretary resolve another problem which arose with regard to delivery of classified materials to the other ships in the fleet.
There had arrived on board, fresh from a course of instruction regarding such matters, a young ensign expressly designated by the detailing office in Washington to be "classified documents" officer on Task Force 77 staff. Which meant, quite simply, that he would keep record and account of all classified documents passing through or emanating from the Flag Sec's office, and see to it that they were delivered in accordance with pertinent regulations. Commander Miller summoned his "favorite" (since there was none other such aboard) enlisted helicopter pilot for conference about that new development.
Having an intelligent and conscientious young officer to keep account of those documents was indeed helpful to the Flag Sec. He had previously to tend all details of that, himself. The problem was that the young man felt duty bound also to deliver those materials in strict accordance with regulations as he had learned in his training for the assignment. Which meant , among other things, that if regulations called for "hand delivery" of a document, he should himself make the delivery and at once obtain receipt from the person to whom he handed it.
For several reasons, it would not do for Lcdr Miller to simply tell the young officer to disregard that aspect of the regulations; even if he accompanied that instruction with explanation of why it was necessary under the circumstances to do so. The ensign was too freshly indoctrinated regarding the regulations to be told, in effect, to disregard part of them and yet be expected to fully respect and follow all others.
On top of that, Miller had noted, the young man had shown himself very eager about doing it. The idea of visiting all the different ships appealed to him, the meeting of so many people, and of course the pleasure of making the rounds in a helicopter. It would be a shame, we agreed, to completely stifle such a venturesome spirit; even though we would have to curb it to some extent. And it would be drastically wrong to disillusion the fellow about what he'd learned in his special training course, or give him the impression that regulations could sometimes be casually disregarded. No it was decided during our conference it wouldn't do at all for Flag Sec just to tell his new assistant we had to do some things differently out here. The young man needed and deserved to learn that for himself. The best way to help him do that was to let experience be his teacher.
Several documents Miller had right then, which by regulation should be hand delivered, made it possible quickly to provide the kind of experience needed. So he summoned his "classified documents" officer then, for introduction to "the helicopter pilot," and told him to be on deck with the documents needing delivery when I would have returned from the "angel" station after the next flight operations.
The "necessary lesson" was enhanced by the fact that the first delivery was for Com 7th Fleet, aboard the battleship Missouri. The broad expanse of "Mighty Mo's" bow, with air flowing smoothly above it, was as steady a place for a helicopter to hover as might be found anywhere. The ensign looked up smiling at Chester as he removed himself from the sling, then hurried aft to wherever on the ship he was to deliver his goods.
While awaiting our passenger's return, Chester and I rode the wind just a few yards off the ship's bow, and chatted idly as was our usual custom at such times. At least ten, perhaps 15 minutes passed before the ensign's return. With very little of cable payed out to retrieve him, he was in the cabin very quickly. Some redness of face from excitement was further lighted by a smile of pleasure.
Next stop was a cruiser, on which the bow is too small and cluttered for delivery. He was deposited instead close by the rail on the starboard side of the afterdeck. More cable was extended for this one, to hold clear of eddying air currents from the ships turrets. This time, while we waited, the conversation with Chester was steered a bit out of idle.
"Chester ," I said, "when we deliver someone to a destroyer, do you always remember to advise him not to look down when you start to lower him?"
"Of course, Duey. I wouldn't forget to do a thing like that."
"Are you sure? You mean to tell me you've never even once forgot to do that?"
"Of course not! Heck no! In fact now, when there's enough time, I sort of explain the whole procedure to them, like you did with that captain including showing them how the ship pitches and rolls and then will hold steady for a while. And they really appreciate...."
"Well, Chester , " I interrupted, "I think you ought to forget to do it at least once this once."
Chester looked at me suspiciously, without saying anything.
"This time don't do it," I added. "Don't tell him or show him anything. Just get him in the sling and start him down when the time is right."
"Okay," Chester said, still studying me curiously. He didn't verbally ask why, but the expression on his face did.
"There's a good reason," I assured him. "A very important reason and nothing against him. I'll explain it to you when we get back on plane guard if you haven't already figured it out for yourself by then."
It was again ten minutes or more before the ensign was back on deck to be picked up. This time, after being plucked from the ship, he was dangling for a while overwater as we moved a way off to the side. Our hoist did retrieve quickly. The face was sober and perhaps a bit ashen when he entered the cabin. I asked at once which destroyers he had mail for. After a moment he said he had mail for all of them. We scooted to the nearest.
The destroyer was running flat as we planted our undeserving "victim" on deck quite as gently as usual, between the two men who were there to steady him. But she began rolling again, as he started forward to make delivery. From the way he staggered until reaching the fore structure, it appeared probably his first time ever on a rolling ship.
"Did he look down?" I asked Chester.
"Don't think so. I think he had his eyes closed."
"You figure out yet why we're doing this to the poor guy?"
"Well, maybe. I kinda think so. But not for sure." He didn't even want to be told, now. He wanted to figure it out.
"I hope it doesn't happen," I then said to my crewman, "because the poor guy doesn't deserve it. But it'd probably be a good idea when we bring him bark up to have the vomit sack* ready just in case ."
[ * A small, leakless sack usually carried on most aircraft in case a passenger might be stricken by air-sickness. ]
To an uniinitiate or uninstructed person, helicopter pickup from an underway destroyer was very likely to be more than merely a thrill. We would if possible make the beginning of it while the ship was running level. Because the hoist itself was so slow, initial pickup was made by lifting the helicopter, itself; fast enough and high enough to bring the man quickly clear of all surroundings on the ship's afterdeck. Then also we moved a short way aside from the vessel, holding position alongside until the man had been hoisted to the cabin. Though the possibility of someone slipping out of the sling while being hoisted was very remote, dropping into the water would be in such case more desirable than onto the steel deck of the ship.
This time, when he reached the cabin, the young man's face was very pale, and there were other signs that he was much shaken by the experience. I called back over my shoulder to tell him that was all the deliveries we could make right then, because we needed time for refueling back aboard Phil Sea before returning to plane guard station for flight operations.
During the flight back to Phil Sea, I expressed concern that because of the time required for each delivery it was doubtful we could make full round of the task force in the times available between flight operations. I "realized," of course, the young officer's "desire" to get the job done that day because of the importance of getting them all delivered promptly. He was at once appreciative of such sympathetic understanding of his problem the need to get those classified documents delivered promptly, yet securely. So he was also receptive to any suggestions as to how it might more quickly be done.
It would have been inappropriate for myself to outline to him the procedure which I knew we would return to. But it was not at all so to give him my appraisal of the Flag Secretary. "From what I've seen," I told him, "the Flag Sec is an all around, all right kind of officer. He more than anyone else other than the admiral, himself, knows the importance of getting the stuff you have there delivered as soon as possible. So if you explain to him the problem you've encountered here of getting it done quickly because we have only the one helicopter I'm quite sure he'll understand and want to work with you to find a way to get it done even if it means you have to bend some of the rules a little bit, so long as it doesn't jeopardize security. He of all people definitely wouldn't want to do that."
When we set down on the Phil Sea, the ensign hurried immediately to report back to Flag Sec. As soon as he had entered the island structure, I turned shutdown of the helicopter over to Chester and myself went to the nearest phone. Miller, himself answered the call to his office.
"Your 'classified documents' officer is on the way down, commander," I told him. "He's discovered that it takes so long to make deliveries by putting him down on each ship we only delivered to three that he'll probably tell you he thinks some other system needs to be worked out in order to get the stuff to all the ships in reasonable time. There are probably some other reasons he'd like to work out a different way of doing it, which he may not tell you about."
"All right, chief," Flag Sec responded. "And thank you. Will the helicopter be available to deliver the rest of it when you're finished with the next flight operations?"
"Very well. I'll have them on deck for you then."
There was an understanding smile on Chester's face when I returned to the helicopter. He asked, "Did it work, Duey ?" I assured him it h ad. When we came back aboard after the next plane guard flight, the young "classified documents" officer was on hand to greet us; bearing a fat mail pouch, a pleasant smile, and some "good news." He had discussed the situation with Flag Sec and they had together devised a system which, "though stretching the rules a bit, would probably get the job done without too much jeopardy to security." Chester and I listened attentively as he did a truly fine job of explaining to us in detail the procedure we'd been using before he arrived on the scene.
There was one added feature. He had prepared a diagram showing the disposition of all the ships in the task force, which would be revised as necessary and provided to us with each mail delivery assignment. And he would of course be on hand when we returned, to recover the pouch with whatever of receipts and mail we would have picked up from the ships we visited.
There was some discussion while enroute to the first ship for delivery, of that young officer and the way he'd just been treated. It was unfortunate, in one sense, that he'd been treated so poorly on his very first helicopter flight. Yet it really hadn't hurt him, may even have taught him something about himself, and was something he'd probably look back upon one day with amusement. Also, the first delivery aboard the "Mighty Mo" had been something enjoyable which he might write home about. As for the delivery to the destroyer, it was entirely up to him if he might tell anyone his feelings about that.
During replenishment operations on December 6, Chester and I launched in response to a "man overboard" call from one of the supply ships. The man was unconscious when we arrived, but floating face-up; without a life-jacket but clothed in padded foul-weather gear which was still some buoyant.
"I can get him, Duey," Chester called.
There were several reasons I should have said "No." The hydraulic system of our hoist was rated incapable of lifting two men at once. The flimsy anti-exposure suit Chester was wearing would be cumbersome handicap. It would be difficult, once himself in the cold water, to hold onto the man and manipulate the sling over the bulky jacket the man was wearing.
A destroyer arrived close by, as we rapidly appraised the pros and cons of the situation. Chester argued that if he could get the man into the sling, I could then quickly take the fellow to the ship and come back to pick up himself. Or otherwise, he could just hold the man afloat until the ship could get a boat over to pick them both up. That made sense. Chester's activity would compensate in some measure for the shortcomings of the anti-exposure suit. If he was unable to hold the man afloat, then Chester could still himself be picked up by hoist. One further compelling factor was the understanding of Chester's feelings, as we both looked down at the unconscious face only a scant few feet below. In Chester's place, I would have felt quite the same as he did.
It was quickly evident once he was in the water, that Chester would not be able to put the sling on the man. The bulky clothing were becoming more soaked and losing buoyancy. A call for the destroyer to send a boat because my man was holding the other afloat, brought response that their lifeboat was inoperative (its cold engine wouldn't start). Could they maneuver closer, then, and heave him a line? They tried, but missed approach close enough to get a line to him. Shortly the man slipped from Chester's grasp and his sodden clothing sank him quickly out of sight.
Choppy waves and benumbed hands caused some difficulty for Chester getting himself into the sling. Despairing of that, he grasped it with both hands and indicated with his head to pick him up that way. In his "rescue" of the mail pouch a few months previously, the agile fellow had come up holding on with only one hand, and swung himself easily onto the step and into the cabin. But this time, though hanging on with both hands, he couldn't swing his feet up because the anti-exposure suit had leaked, and the legs of it were full of water.
It was soon evident as he struggled against that handicap, that he was weakening some, and beginning to lose grip on the sling. And while watching him struggle I had tensed on my controls and gained altitude. Before I could lower him back into the water he lost his grip and plunged back into the sea.
Chester's inflated life vest kept him well afloat, and he watched as I lowered the sling back to him. But when it touched him, he made no attempt to take hold but rather brushed it away. Certain it was then that, in addition to fatigue, chilling of his neck had disrupted his senses. He would be feeling no pain, nor even anxiety; perhaps even comfortable and warm. (He would subsequently confirm that such was exactly his feeling until he had lost consciousness completely.) Meanwhile my own feelings were something beyond pain. For I knew, and wondered if anyone on that destroyer realized, if they did not reach him in time that courageous young man would himself be dead.
It seemed an eternity before the ship was in heaving line range; though it was really but a very few minutes. When a line finally crossed over him, he made no move to grasp it. I had told them to expect that. Several swimmers were at ready. The ship's captain, himself, made the rescue, with a line attached for others to haul them both back in. Together with everlasting gratitude for his personal valor in saving my man, there remains also feeling of regret that the deficiencies of his ship's performance in earlier parts of the incident very probably hurt his naval career.
Though I'd seen my crewman hauled aboard the destroyer, there was no certainty he was safely so. So the torment felt ever after he had fallen from the hoist, continued and perhaps worsened as I flew alone back to Phil Sea. Lt Sundberg was waiting on deck with the rest of the crew when I arrived. "Todd's okay," was the first thing he said, knowing that would be foremost of my concern. "We've got word from the destroyer. He's conscious and otherwise all right a bit chilly yet, but he'll be all right. So you go below and try to relax. I'll take over for the rest of the day, and we'll get together later when you feel like telling me what happened.
"It was the damn' suit!" I said as I came out of the helicopter; more as release of pent-up feeling, than as attempt to explain what had happened.
"The suit?" Sundberg probably did not at first grasp what I was referring to.
"Yeah, the damn' suit. His exposure suit leaked. That's why he couldn't make it back into the helicopter. His damn' suit leaked and the legs were full of water."
It wasn't intended as criticism of him. But Sundberg at once took responsibility. "Well that's my fault," he said. "You warned me about it, and you told me what we needed. I asked them to get frogman suits for us and told them why. But I didn't push it. I should have pushed them on it."
"Well, I wasn't meaning to blame you," I said. If it's some your fault for not pushing them on it, it's also some mine for not pushing you to push on them. ..."
"All right," he said. "We're damn' lucky we didn't lose him. But he's okay and you're okay and I'm pretty sure they'll pay attention now to anything we say as to what we need. So go on below now and get yourself some coffee. If you feel like coming up later whenever you feel like it I want to hear what all happened out there."
It was not merely the near-loss of Chester that was troubling; though there was still concern if he was really a "okay" as he had been reported. There were several other things now bothering as well. Some of them were described to Sundberg later that day:
The lead weight on the hoist cable, necessary to hold the cable straightened when there was no other load on it, carried the sling underwater. Rise and fall of the sea, plus the fact that I could not see the crewman while directly above him, made it impossible to dangle the sling where he could reach it. If instead of just a web strap, the sling had been buoyant enough to stay afloat, it could have been put within his reach.
Most needed, was some simple yet completely certain device for the crewman to reattach himself to the hoist, instead of having to work himself into the sling. Something similar might be better to use on the man to be picked up, also. The crewman would be handicapped if he himself rode down and remained in the sling. Also, the spray caused by downwash from the rotor had interfered while Chester was trying to hold onto the man and at the same time fish up the sling.
Sundberg had by then learned from the destroyer, that Chester was ready and anxious to "come home" to the Phil Sea. He would be picked up the next morning.
"When I get him back," I said, "I know Chester and I can figure out some equipment to do the job. But we've got to have frogman suits before we again let one of our men go into this cold water."
"All right," Sundberg said. "You can pick him up in the morning and the two of you work on that. I'll get some thing going for the suits. Now you get yourself a good night's sleep."
Which last was a great idea, but not at all easy to do . Two other troubling remnants of the episode forbid it; and they were not the sort that could be relieved by telling someone about them. One was the haunting face of that sailor we had not quite been able to save. Again and again it shown vividly as when we had first arrived close above him, to fade as it had from my view as he sank beneath the waves. Along with that was the certain feeling (confirmed the following morning) that Chester would be suffering the very same that night.
Contributing also to the sleeplessness was repeated review of my handling of the helicopter after Chester was in the water. I had "clutched up" while he was trying to swing his feet up to the step below the cabin door, and unintentionally allowed the helicopter to gain altitude. Had I been able to put him back in the water before he lost his grip, he could have still maneuvered himself into the sling and been secure; even if still unable to lift his feet into the cabin. No matter that it by then seemed certain Chester was unhurt by the consequences of my mistake, the mind could not yet put aside that it could have cost his life.
Those and many other thoughts would cause tossing and turning in my bunk that night, instead of sleeping.
The owner of the voice was the ship's Chief Pharmacist Mate. What he thought I needed was a sleeping potion. Though I recognized him as one of the residents of CPO quarters, we had not become acquainted in a personal sense. Aware of the stress I'd experienced that day he'd been quietly "keeping an eye on me" since early evening.
My reluctance to take "pills" was overcome by his assurance that this was a mild one, plus the unquestionable need for me to get some sleep. It was so mild it didn't work. An uncounted number of tosses and turns later, the chief was back with a stronger potion. The assurance this time was, "I checked with the doc. He says it's okay and if he has to he'll make it doctor's orders."
The next interruption of the tosses and turns was the flight surgeon's voice asking, "Just what have you given him so far?" After the pharmacist mate's answer the doctor said, "What the hell does it take to put him out?" Then, "All right, give him this. And if that doesn't do it I'll be back in ten minutes with a club."
That did it. What was in that capsule is not known. Which may be a good thing, in case it was habit forming. For the sleep it induced included a dream as warm and pleasant as a person might ever know. And upon awakening at reveille three hours later, I felt rested as from a full night's sleep. Which last may have been due, at least in part, to the fact that I got that bit of sleep because of the concern of someone otherwise unknown who was a shipmate in the fullest sense of that word.
The first flight on December 7 was to bring Chester back from the destroyer. Chief Hill wanted for him to take the day off; then realized it was better for Chester, as he wished, to fly with me as usual. During the first flight on plane guard station, we of course reviewed what happened the day before. No time was wasted lamenting our failure. More important was to compare our views of what we might have done differently, with a chance of success, and what we now could do because of the lessons learned. By the time the flight was finished we had covered the subject quite well.
Lt Sundberg was on the flight deck when we returned. He had been summoned to the admiral's staff meeting where the first thing on the agenda was yesterdays failed rescue attempt. What could be done, what was needed to enable us to pick up a man in such circumstance. Told of the need for frogman suits, one of the staff was ordered to make arrangements "at once.!" Told that I had said we needed to make some special equipment, the admiral had said to Sundberg, "Tell that chief of yours the facilities of this fleet are his to use. Whatever he needs wherever he needs to go ."
"So you two get with it," Sundberg said to us. "Sherrill and I will take over the flying. The frog suits will be here as soon as they can be flown out from Coronado. What else do you need? Where do you need to go?"
"Just to the parachute loft," I told him. "everything we'll need is there except for a pair of boxing gloves."
"Boxing gloves ?" His puzzlement was amusing.
"For testing," I told him. "Chester says that's what his hands felt like, the minute he hit that cold water like he was wearing boxing gloves. So what we make has to be something a man can manipulated while wearing a pair of them."
With a flick of his hand and appreciative smile he said, " Get on with it, then. I know you can do it."
So we did. With the help of the parachute rigger, we had it all finished by noontime. It could be manipulated while wearing boxing gloves. A bucket of ice water had enabled me to feel the sensations in my own hands which Chester had described. One item (we called it "survivor's sling") was a length of web strap which could be hooked around a man and drawn tight. A second hook could be snapped onto the hoist cable, no matter how far the weighted end of the cable might be extended down in the water. As cable was then retrieved, that lead ball on the end of it would engage the hook to bring the man up.
For the crewman, a strong, lightweight shoulder harness, also with a hook for attachment to the cable. That, together with the "frog" suits which arrived a few days later, was a boost to our crewmen's morale in any case. If necessary, they could now enter cold water unencumbered, and protected by a suit made for just such purpose. To themselves get back to the helicopter, they had only to hook onto the cable.
There would not be occasion during the rest of that cruise aboard Phil Sea, to actually use or otherwise prove the merit of our "survivor sling," and the techniques for using it which we were certain would work. But it would prove itself beyond question about one year later, in the hands of another helicopter crewman with the same qualities of guts and determination which were so well demonstrated by Chester
By late December, the crisis was over for our troops on the Peninsula. Our Marines had fought their way out of entrapment by the hordes of Chinese who had surrounded them at Chosin. Major contacts with those overwhelming numbers of enemy troops had otherwise been broken off by other elements of our ground forces, allowing for orderly withdrawal southward to establish more advantageous positions for such time as major combat might be renewed. No longer then so desperately needed in support of our troops on the peninsula, ships of 7th Fleet and Task Force 77 could again make some visits to ports.
Phil Sea was back in Yokosuka harbor for Christmas, instead of back home.
THE PRAESAE INCIDENT
Table of Contents
©2002, 2003 by Lynn Waterman; used by permission of the author, Duane Thorin.