U.S. Naval Air
Copyright © 2015 by Alfred Wellnitz
All rights reserved. No part of this story may be used or reproduced by any means, graphic, electronic, or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, taping or by any information storage retrieval system without the written permission of the author except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, names, incidents, organizations, and dialogue in this novel are either the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
The views expressed in this work are solely those of the author.
Cover Photo: Photo of a P4M-1Q flying over the South China Sea
As a work of the U.S. federal government, image is in the public domain.
The short story “U.S. Naval Air: Routine Patrol,” although fictional, is a rendition of a number of interesting experiences actually encountered by flight crews during Electronic Counter Measure (ECM) patrol flights along the Asian coast from Vladivostok to Saigon during a two-year period starting in 1951 and ending in 1953. The author of “U.S. Naval Air: Routine Patrol” flew as a crewman on the P4M-1Q planes that were utilized for this mission. He completed ninety-five patrols. Patrol flights originated from the Sangley Point Naval Air Station in the Philippines, the Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, the Atsugi Naval Air Station, and the Iwakuni Air Force Base in Japan. Members of the flight crews were cleared for access to top secret information and were not allowed to divulge information about this activity until fifty years later.
In late 1950, the author and other U.S. Navy personnel responded to a request to join a “special project” being organized by the U.S. Navy. The author had no idea what the special project would do. He did know that, as a Petty Officer 2nd Class Aviation Electronicsman with more than two years remaining in his navy commitment, he was qualified. The fact that he was unmarried bolstered his eligibility.
He soon found he had been selected to join the special project subject to passing a top secret clearance investigation. Things began to happen. The personnel selected for the special project learned that they would form crews to fly navy patrol planes configured for ECM (Electronic Counter Measure) operations. They would be flying an aircraft designated as the P4M. The P4M had been designed for a different purpose no longer needed when navy priorities changed. Only nineteen production models of the planes had been built. When the Cold War produced an expanded need for surveillance along the periphery of nations such as Russia and China, the navy converted the P4M fleet to provide that capability. The converted planes were designated the P4M-1Q.
In 1951, four of the ECM-equipped P4Ms were deployed to the Philippines and four to North Africa. This fictional story of one ECM patrol takes place during a patrol flown out of Sangley Point Naval Air Station in the Philippines.
U.S. Naval Air
Sangley Point Naval Air Station. As a work of the U.S. federal government, image is in the public domain.
They were scheduled to take off at 2200 that night. They had each packed a bag since they would end the patrol at the Kadena Air Force base in Okinawa. They would then fly an out-and-back patrol from Kadena before returning to Sangley Point on a third patrol. The enlisted flight crew made their way on foot through the dark night to the flight line located less than half a mile from their Quonset hut.
Wellman, 1st radio, walked with Macbee, 2nd radio. They were both in their early twenties and walked with a spring in their step. Macbee, the older of the two, had been in the navy reserves and was called back into active duty when the Korean War started in 1950. Wellman’s enlistment would have ended in 1950 if the Korean War hadn’t come along. He was given the choice of having his current enlistment extended or reenlisting. If he reenlisted, he would be paid a two-hundred-dollar bonus. Wellman considered that a no-brainer and reenlisted. He had bought a 12-gauge Remington semi-automatic shotgun with the bonus and used it to hunt quail not far from where he had been stationed in California.
Wellman and Macbee greeted the Special Project member who had drawn guard duty when they reached the three aircraft parked on the hardstand that night. There were four planes in the Special Project contingent, but one of the planes had flown a patrol to Japan and would be gone for a week, temporarily flying patrols from that location.
The man on guard duty worked as an aviation mechanic during the day. “Glad to see you guys,” he said. “Not much going on otherwise.” The guard carried a sidearm and a sawed-off 12-gauge Winchester pump shotgun. The guard became notorious because he had carried his shotgun into the enlisted club to buy a drink on New Year’s Eve.
The squadron posted its own guards, the idea being to keep anyone not in the Special Project from knowing what the Special Project was about. Good luck with that. People around the base started calling the Special Project contingent team the “fifty footers.” If you got closer than fifty feet of the aircraft, they’d shoot you.
The crewmen stopped at a Quonset hut office where a yeoman issued them survival gear. They each received a .38-caliber revolver and a bag of survival goodies.
Wellman mumbled something about the need to carry the heavy revolver. “I couldn’t hit the side of a barn with it if my life depended on it.”
Johnson, the ordnance man on their crew, explained, “That’s to shoot yourself if all else fails.”
Wellman laughed. “Thanks, nobody tells me these things.”
Johnson was a lifer, a World War II vet not looking for another job. Balding, of average height, with a sparse frame. Reliable, knew his job.
Wellman checked out the contents of his survival bag before signing it out. Some of the items in the bag made more sense than the revolver. These included a small piece of gold bullion. Always welcome anywhere. Probably the most valuable item in the package would be the waterproof parchment with a message in several different languages that said it would pay the holder ten thousand American dollars if the holder delivered the parchment along with an American airman. Other miscellaneous items included a tube of morphine, a pocket knife, and a mirror.
The yeoman handed Johnson a small mailbag. “Some mail for the Okinawa malcontents,” he said. Patrol flights terminating at Okinawa normally carried any mail addressed to members of a temporarily assigned Okinawa Special Project contingent.
After picking up their survival kits, the crew went out to the flight line to prepare the plane for the night’s mission. Their plane sat first in the line-up of the three on the hardstand.
Sherman, the crew chief, and a member of the ground crew hooked up the auxiliary power unit, and the onboard equipment came alive. Sherman had a stocky build, seldom smiled, knew his business, and had the respect of the rest of the crew. Like most crew chiefs, his skill rating was “aviation mechanic.” He knew the plane’s physical condition better than anyone, including the pilots. He, like Johnson, was a lifer, and the two of them hung out together.
Scarma, flight mechanic, and Bailey, the radar man, pulled the props through a cycle. Scarma and Bailey were the youngest crew members. Bailey, blond, crew cut, eyes that always looked surprised, was a technical whiz who had two years of college and couldn’t wait to get out of the service so he could finish school. Scarma was the opposite of Bailey, probably a lifer, competent, down to earth.
A jeep pulled up and Wellman helped Johnson unload boxes of rations for the flight.
“Hey, what’re we going to eat tonight?” Sherman asked Johnson.
Johnson, in addition to his normal duties of maintaining the plane’s ordnance, had taken on the role of chef. “You’ll be pleasantly surprised when you open the box,” he replied.
In earlier days, Johnson had been a little more daring in the culinary department, often preparing hot meals in a small galley at the rear of the plane. That changed when a plane experienced some negative g’s while Johnson had a pot of peas heating up on the stove. There were peas all over the back of the plane. Since then, box lunches from the enlisted mess or K-rations had become the norm.
Sherman wanted to know if they had gotten any more coffee. “We ran out up front during the last flight.”
Johnson replied that he had a full two-pound can in back and they would share that.
Wellman drank the coffee they made during patrols despite its being only lukewarm when perked at 10,000 feet. He liked it hot, but coffee in any form helped keep him awake, and he would need it tonight because he hadn’t gotten much sleep earlier that evening.
Night patrols were pretty much the rule lately, and keeping alert could be a challenge. The boredom factor didn’t help the situation. Most patrol flights were over ten hours long and not very exciting. Military experience has been described as years of boredom interrupted by moments of excitement. That seemed to be an apt description of these patrols.
The crew officers—the pilot, co-pilot and navigator—arrived and started going through the aircraft checkout procedures.
Lieutenant Kelly, the navigator on this flight, dropped a chronometer on the radio desk. Wellman got a time check and set the chronometer to Greenwich Mean Time. He then tuned the transmitter and checked his receivers.
The preflight chores were nearly finished when Lieutenant Peterson and four enlisted electronic surveillance (ES) spooks emerged from the darkness shortly before the plane was scheduled to leave. They didn’t participate in the preflight checkout. The electronic surveillance people didn’t have anything to do with flying the airplane. They were the payload. They all rode in the back section of the plane that was jammed full of electronic surveillance equipment. The enlisted ES people were mostly electronic technicians with special training for surveillance. They bunked with the rest of the squadron’s enlisted personnel but seemed a little distant. Like they knew something you didn’t know, and they weren’t going to tell you what that was.
One of the last things each crewmember did was strap on his harness for a front-carry parachute. The chutes were hung in various places about the plane and could be hooked onto the harness with two buckles.
The plane crew had finished their preflight chores and were on board and ready to go at 2130. It was dark and clear with no moon, although storms were expected along the China coast where they would be flying that night. The propeller engines were started, and a tractor pushed the plane back onto a taxiway where it could taxi under its own power. Lt. (j.g.) Colby sat in the right cockpit seat of the aircraft as it taxied to the end of the runway and went through the pre-takeoff check list. Normally Lieutenant Colby sat in the left cockpit seat as pilot and commander of this plane. He had piloted this plane since the navy took delivery of it from the factory over two years earlier. It had been his plane, his crew. Tonight he would be flying co-pilot.
Lieutenant Colby wasn’t ambitious to be a hotshot navy carrier pilot. He had no desire to be catapulted off a carrier or to land on a moving, pitching deck. He preferred the multi-engine patrol plane. His appearance reflected his modest demeanor. He was a little overweight and not the sharpest looking officer around but an excellent pilot and plane crew commander.
Lieutenant Colby gravitated towards patrol aircraft out of flight school. He liked the planes’ multiple engines, slow and steady. As an ensign, he spent time in a PBM seaplane squadron before moving on to the navy’s latest land-based patrol plane, the P2V. He had qualified as a P2V commander and soon after that was promoted to lieutenant junior grade.
Not long after becoming a plane commander, Lieutenant Colby became aware that a U.S. Navy “special project” was looking for volunteers. There weren’t many details available, but it would be an overseas assignment requiring a two-year commitment, and applicants would have to qualify for a high-level security clearance. The navy also favored volunteers who weren’t married. Lieutenant Colby fit all the requirements and volunteered.
Lieutenant Colby and the other volunteers soon learned what the Special Project mission would be. They would be part of an effort to assemble and deploy the navy’s first dedicated airborne electronic surveillance capability flying P4M aircraft. Two contingents were to be formed with four planes each. One contingent would be stationed in North Africa and the other in the Philippines. Lieutenant Colby ended up in the Philippine four-plane contingent with the task of locating, monitoring, and categorizing electronic emissions along the Asian coastline from Saigon to Vladivostok.
It had turned out to be a good career move for the lieutenant. At a relatively young age, he was in command of an aircraft, the largest and most capable plane he had ever flown, and was part of a mission that had a high priority in the post-World War II U.S. Navy.
The aircraft used for the airborne electronic surveillance mission was designated as a P4M-1Q. The “1Q” indicated that the plane had been configured for Electronic Counter Measure operations. The P4M featured a compromise design in which two conventional reciprocating engines provided the long-range capability needed in a patrol aircraft and two jet engines could deliver speed if the plane was attacked or provide backup power in an emergency. The conventional engines, two P & W 4360s, were the most powerful reciprocating engines ever put into use by the United States armed forces. The jets were J33 turbo jets. The plane had been designed to fight if necessary with gun turrets topside, fore, and aft. Nine officers and enlisted men made up a normal P4M crew, but the personnel on board grew to fourteen for electronic surveillance missions. The payload consisted of five electronic surveillance specialists who rode in the rear of the plane.
This crew had been pulled together almost three years earlier from various parts of the navy. They had become a cohesive unit that included a real hotshot co-pilot who greased the plane in for landings so smooth it made Lieutenant Colby envious and a smooth-faced ensign navigator who couldn’t fly a plane for beans but got them to and from where they were going without getting lost.
The enlisted crewmembers were competent and reliable and the group had remained pretty much intact while Lieutenant Colby was plane commander. However, changes were taking place as the inevitable result of the navy’s rotation system as well as personnel being released from service after fulfilling their obligations. Certain changes in the plane’s officer complement had been devastating to Lieutenant Colby. His super-capable co-pilot left to return to civilian life as an airline pilot, and his baby-faced ensign navigator had also left the navy to pursue an advanced degree at Berkeley. At about the same time, the commanding officer of the Special Project was promoted from lieutenant to lieutenant commander and reassigned. He had been key in putting together the four planes, crews, and support personnel for the Philippine-based Special Project contingent. He had been a flying commanding officer and was probably the best pilot in the Special Project. His replacement, Lieutenant Commander Higgins, had a patrol plane background, but he had been flying a desk during his most recent assignments. Higgins needed some operational experience to advance his career and, as the Special Project was set up, was also required to be a plane commander. But for reasons that became obvious, Commander Higgins needed an experienced and able co-pilot. This is how Lieutenant Colby found himself in the right-hand seat of the plane that he had been commanding for almost three years.
The pilots completed the pre-takeoff off procedure, lined up on the runway, and set the brakes. The two prop engines and jets were turned up to take-off power. When the brakes were released, the plane jumped forward and, even though fully loaded, lifted off and began climbing at a steep angle. The plane could out climb and fly faster than most prop-driven fighters.
When the plane cleared Philippine air control, it went silent. No emissions would emanate except hourly encrypted Morse code position reports. Occasionally a nervous navigator might ask for a radar position check, but only as a last resort.
All crewmen actively involved in the plane’s operation were tied into the plane’s intercom system. Pilot radio voice communications could also be monitored on the intercom. At times the intercom was active with a lot of back-and-forth chatter, but in the middle of a night patrol it would most often be quiet.
Shortly before the flight entered the “on station” portion of the patrol, the navigator handed Wellman the first encrypted hourly position report to be sent to the navy patrol aircraft network by Morse code. Once the on-station point was reached, the gun turrets would be manned. The two radiomen and radar rotated in two-hour shifts to man the bow turret. The first mechanic and crew chief took turns in the top turret. Johnson, the ordnance man, handled the tail turret by himself.
The baby-faced, neat-as-a-pin navigator had been replaced by Lieutenant Kelly. Lieutenant Kelly had a slightly bulging midriff and his clothes often looked as if they’d been slept in. The navigator’s work space, one of the more roomy spaces in the plane, would start to accumulate maps, scraps of paper, navigation instruments, coffee cups, and food droppings soon after Kelly settled in. However, so far, he always managed to find the way to where they were going and get them back again.
As the plane approached the China coast, the weather began deteriorating. Towering cumulus thunderheads outlined by flashing lightning filled the horizon. The air seemed to be filled with electricity, and the plane became enveloped in Saint Elmo’s fire. Wellman had never seen anything like it, and from the chatter on the intercom, it seemed that neither had anyone else. The electrically charged blue-tinted Saint Elmo’s fire streamed off the wings and the plane’s propellers looked like blue pinwheels. The navigator reported that both the compass and the Long Range Navigation system (LORAN) had gone goofy.
A dark night, the darker the better, had become the favorite operational wish. This had not always been the case. When Special Project operations first started in 1951, flying the coastline from Shanghai south had been like a Sunday afternoon drive. Patrols flew around and inside the coastal islands on sunny afternoons. More care had to be taken around the Korean peninsula and Vladivostok, but south of Shanghai, it had been a free-fly zone. That changed over time as more assets like advanced fighters and command and control systems started showing up, particularly around Shanghai. Recently, all flights in the Shanghai area were scheduled for nighttime hours, as this one had been.
North of Hong Kong, the patrol plane approached land and turned north to follow the coast in a driving rain storm. The flight conditions were ideal for a plane that wanted to be inconspicuous, but a little tricky for the navigator. The plane’s projected track ran twenty miles off shore. Making that turn using dead reckoning in a turbulent rainstorm required a lot of faith in dumb luck. A quick shot with the radar could have verified where they were located relative to the coast. But it could also announce their presence and pinpoint their location to the Chinese. Turning on the radar would indicate to the crew that the navigator didn’t have a good handle on their location, which would have been accurate, but he would rather not admit it. Being a fairly new kid on the block, Lieutenant Kelly didn’t want to appear incompetent. For all those reasons he did not ask for radar. He used dead reckoning and hoped his guesses of wind speed and other variables were correct.
Lieutenant Kelly caught a break when they broke out of the storm and could see the surface about half an hour after making the turn. There were bobbing lights that indicated junks. There were other lights, too, not many but enough to define the coastline’s outer islands. The outer islands were close, too close by half, maybe ten miles away. Lieutenant Kelly made a correction to move their track out to the intended distance off shore. That established the hourly position report that was transmitted back to naval operations in a coded message.
The break in the turbulent weather only lasted a short time. Commander Higgins soon announced on the intercom that they were approaching another batch of storms. Sherman had been in the process of handing Bailey, the radar man, coffee in a paper cup when the next turbulence hit, and he spilled half the cup on some papers on Bailey’s desk. “Gee, thanks,” Bailey said, but Sherman had his ear phones on which, combined with the plane’s noise, blotted out Bailey’s voice. Bailey slurped down the remaining coffee and went forward to relieve Macbee, 2nd radio, who was manning the bow turret.
The crew had flown halfway through the Formosa Strait before the storms abated and they found a clear sky above and low clouds below them. Lieutenant Kelly continued the struggle to pinpoint their location. He had managed to get a couple of low-quality LORAN fixes from transmitters located in Taiwan but questioned their reliability. He decided to do a celestial fix, not a common practice in the flying navy and not his strong suit in any case, but it could be a way to authenticate his LORAN fixes. Unfortunately the celestial fixes didn’t match the LORAN fixes. Lieutenant Kelly had to make a choice and went with the LORAN fixes, based primarily on his lack of confidence in his celestial skills.
Wellman swapped with Bailey in the bow turret and Macbee, 2nd radio, took over the radio chores. Scarma, the flight mechanic, distributed box lunches. Scarma then relieved Sherman in the top turret, and Sherman made another pot of coffee. Everyone felt relieved that they gotten through the turbulent weather.
The low clouds persisted as the flight approached the Shanghai area. They would break away from the coast and head for Okinawa soon after passing Shanghai.
It had been a quiet night for Lieutenant Peterson who oversaw the electronic eavesdropping activities in the back of the plane. Normally the patrol wouldn’t expect a lot of traffic in the ground they had covered, but things began picking up considerably as they approached Shanghai. In fact it began picking up dramatically. Four enlisted technicians sat at four monitoring stations ranged in front of Lieutenant Peterson’s station. All of them had been fighting fatigue caused by boredom all night. Suddenly they were brought to full attention as their screens filled with a barrage of electronic activity. As Lieutenant Peterson observed the data, something seemed strange. A lot of the transmissions were coming from the east, which would be in the ocean. That wasn’t impossible. They had learned early on that among the clutter of junks that filled the sea along the China coast, some that at first looked like one of the many would be discovered upon closer inspection to be bristling with antennas and emitting like mad. But what Lieutenant Peterson was seeing now seemed too persistent and too widespread to be attributed entirely to junk noise.
Lieutenant Peterson got on the intercom. “Navigator, this is ES, we seem to be getting some unusual activity and it doesn’t correlate with our position very well. Can you verify our position?”
Lieutenant Kelly saw this as an opportunity to get a radar fix. “Pilot, this is the navigator, permission to turn on radar for quick verification of our position.”
Commander Higgins was at the controls. “Navigator, can’t you verify the position without radar?”
Lieutenant Kelly felt a need for further help from ES.
“ES, how important is your need for a position right now?”
“This is ES, if you could see what we are seeing you would want to know exactly where you were.”
Some people would describe Commander Higgins as a nervous Nelly and the sound of Lieutenant Peterson’s voice convinced him that turning on the radar would be a good idea.
Bailey fired up the radar and what Lieutenant Kelly observed took his breath away. The radar had been set for a range of fifty miles, and Lieutenant Kelly could only see land return. They were at least fifty miles off track somewhere northwest of Shanghai.
Lieutenant Kelly reported in an excited voice, “Pilot, we are off course and over land somewhere northwest of Shanghai!”
Commander Higgins had been tensing up, but he wasn’t ready for what he heard. He instinctively pulled back on the yoke, like he wanted to gain some altitude fast. The plane grabbed for altitude, but with the low power settings, flopped into a shallow stall. The engines surged as the props looked for more resistance.
Radar and 2nd radio, who sat near each other, had listened to all this activity on the intercom. They looked at each other and rolled their eyes.
Commander Higgins came back on the intercom. “Navigator, give us a heading to get out of here, fast!”
Lieutenant Colby added a little levity to the situation, remarked that we probably are waking up a bunch of natives.
Another problem had become apparent. The flight was running behind schedule. Winds that had apparently mucked up the dead reckoning also made the flight slower than predicted, and a hint of light towards the east announced the dawn of a new day.
Johnson, sitting in the tail turret listening to the intercom conversations, assessed the situation as he ate some chocolate he had saved from his box lunch. Hmm, it is almost daylight, he thought. We are over China with no ocean in sight, way off our planned flight path, near Shanghai, a bad-guy hot spot. What the hell! He began scanning the sky intently as the morning light increased visibility. He told himself not to worry. If they were coming, he would see them soon enough. They wouldn’t be sneaking around, they would have guns blazing. Then he did see something that appeared to be moving, fast. It grew in size. He shouted into the intercom, “Tail to crew, I have something twelve o’clock high! It’s closing, two of them!”
Points of light erupted from the lead plane. MiGs. Johnson pointed his sight at the flashes and fired a long burst from his twin twenty-millimeter cannons. The MiGs swept by. None of the other turrets got a fix on them.
Commander Higgins seemed frozen in place. There were procedures for what to do in most every situation. Maybe there were procedures for what to do in the current situation, but Commander Higgins wasn’t doing anything. Other than a couple of orientation flights, Commander Higgins had never been in a P4M and still had some learning to do. Commander Higgins raised his hands off the controls, said, “You got it Lieutenant,” into his mike. Lieutenant Colby began to act. He put the plane into a shallow dive and cranked up the jets. Under normal circumstances the procedure would be to get down low over the water, but in this case the plane was not over water so Lieutenant Colby chose to dive into the cloud cover just below them.
Radio had an encoded attack message in its folder ready to send, and Lieutenant Colby ordered it sent. This would be followed by a position report supplied by the navigator. In this case, their position was slightly fudged to put them over water; in any case, they would be over water in a few minutes.
The cloud cover started breaking up about the time they reached the Yellow Sea. Lieutenant Colby took the plane down to the deck to continue evasive action. The attackers hadn’t returned after the first pass, probably becoming discouraged when the P4M dove into the clouds.
After half an hour with the jets on and military power on the conventional engines, the plane climbed back to altitude and normal flight settings and proceeded toward the Okinawa destination. They didn’t have much choice regardless of conditions because they couldn’t continue burning fuel at the rate they had been and make it to Okinawa.
Apparently the attack hadn’t damaged the plane. Everything seemed to be working normally.
The plane’s conventional prop engines had been operating faithfully all night, and the stress of being under full military power hadn’t seemed to faze them. These engines were the most powerful and complex conventional engines the United States armed forces had ever put into service. Four banks of seven cylinders were ganged together to make an aircraft power plant that was very powerful, but also prone to reliability problems. A major problem with the engine involved the back row cylinders fouling up. This would be contagious and spread once one of the cylinders stopped functioning. These symptoms began to appear in the port engine. Power started to drop, and it became progressively worse. The crew members had experienced this kind of problem a number of times and so weren’t particularly concerned. Lieutenant Colby consulted with Sherman and they agreed the engine had to be shut down and the prop feathered. The crew made the necessary adjustments. The port jet was put into service to help the starboard engine carry the load.
The weather deteriorated as the plane approached Okinawa. The weather system they had been flying through all night now dominated Okinawa. They were approaching the Okinawa air traffic control boundaries when the starboard engine blew. The condition of the aircraft had become perilous and it started losing altitude. Colby still had control of the plane, and Commander Higgins gave no hint that he would be resuming command. For all intents and purposes, Commander Higgins had become a passenger sitting in the pilot’s seat. This would no longer be an in-training patrol for Commander Higgins.
The plane stabilized after the starboard jet came on line. The crew’s faces reflected a change from easygoing comradery to serious concern about the plane’s survival. Wellman checked the location of his parachute although bailing out over the ocean during a storm didn’t seem like a good idea. Ditching the plane in an agitated ocean didn’t seem much better. Better that Lieutenant Colby land this thing on terra firma.
As a result of losing both conventional engines, the plane had no generators. It now depended on batteries for electrical power. Fuel was another major concern. They were getting near the end of the flight. Most of their fuel would normally have been consumed already, plus they had burned extra fuel when they used the jets over China and they were burning even more fuel by using the jets now. The navigator calculated that making it to Kadena would be iffy with no margin for doing any circling or go arounds.
The crew turned off everything electrical not needed to fly the plane or communicate. Voice communications hadn’t been established. They used Morse code to inform Okinawa air traffic control of their predicament. They were cleared for a straight-in approach to a Kadena airport runway. Weather conditions were described as deteriorating and they would be using a Ground Control Approach (GCA) for the landing. GCA meant that a person on the ground would talk the plane in for the landing. As they approached the Kadena airport, Very High Frequency (VHF) communications were established with the control tower and GCA.
They lined up for the approach and got into the glide path. Because of the driving rain and heavy wind squalls, visibility varied from insignificant to zero. The crew could hear the GCA voice directions on the intercom. It started off as a calm reassuring voice but as they descended the corrections as to whether they were right or left, above or below the glide path came faster and sounded more urgent. The plane bobbed like a cork in an agitated pond. The GCA controller talked fast and turned frantic when he shouted they were 350 feet below glide path and to pull up and go around. The crew listened to all of this on the intercom. There was some general puckering, but they knew their fate depended on the skill of Lieutenant Colby at that point. Lieutenant Colby ignored the GCA voice and somehow brought the plane back on glide path and smacked the plane down hard on the runway. Lieutenant Colby’s usual landings weren’t noted for their smoothness so the landing could be classified as near normal.
When the plane rolled to a stop, the jet engines idled for a few minutes and then the starboard engine stopped running followed shortly by the port jet. They had burned the last fuel on board the aircraft and were parked on the Kadena main runway. Emergency vehicles and fire trucks filled the runway but there were no tow tractors among them. Lieutenant Colby informed the control tower that the plane had no power and couldn’t taxi and wouldn’t be moving off the runway until a tow tractor showed up. Finally a tow tractor appeared, and the plane and crew were pulled back to their parking spot, where the local Special Project contingent waited in a pouring rain to greet them. Sherman dropped out of the plane, ducking under a wing to stay out of the rain, and supervised the chucking and tying down.
The contingent petty officer came over to him. He wore a poncho and his face peeked out from under the hood. “Hey, did you guys bring any mail?” The question brought Sherman back from his recent survival mode to answer the question that most concerned the men at the Okinawa outpost. “You bet,” Sherman replied. “We have your mail.”
A year later Wellman, now a civilian making use of the GI Bill, checked his mail and found a letter from the U.S. Navy.
It seemed that the navy had reviewed the events of the flight that got lost, was attacked by MiGs, and landed in a rainstorm with two engines out. As a result, the crew members had been awarded letters of commendation for Meritorious Achievement During Aerial Flight, and in addition, Commander Higgins had been awarded a cluster to add to his air medal.
The way Wellman remembered it, their meritorious achievement was surviving their own ineptitude. Somebody was sure gilding the lily, but he had to admit that it was one patrol that turned out to be less routine than most.
The Secret Cold War Aerial Conflict
The P4M Mercator was a rare bird. There were two prototypes and nineteen production models. All of the production models were eventually converted to the P4M-1Q configuration to be used for the electronic surveillance mission.
During the fifties and through the sixties and seventies when the Korean and Viet Nam wars took place, the Cold War was at its peak, and the peripheries of the communist nations were continually patrolled by United States Navy and Air Force aircraft. Sometimes these flights were intercepted, resulting in over two hundred navy and air force airmen dying due to hostile actions. The public knew very little of this activity. As far as the United States government was concerned, it wasn’t happening, so the country couldn’t protest if one of the reconnaissance aircraft that officially didn’t exist was attacked or shot down.
A website, Intrusions, overflight, shootdowns and defections during the cold war (http://myplace.frontier.com/~anneled/ColdWar.html), attempts to list all of the documented intercepts. The author of “U.S. Naval Air: Routine Patrol” has found the website list of intercepted intrusions and shootdowns voluminous but not complete. However, the site includes many pages of incidents and likely has listed the majority of significant incidents. During 1952 and 1953, the period in which “U.S. Naval Air: Routine Patrol” took place, there were thirty-two incidents involving intercepts of aircraft flown by the United States and its allies near or within the borders of communist nations. Not many of these activities made the news since they were treated as top secret by the United States.
These numbers need to be put into perspective. During a two-year period starting in 1951 and ending in 1953, the author of “U.S. Naval Air: Routine Patrol” flew on ninety-five patrols lasting approximately ten hours each. That is approximately fifty patrols a year. The four-plane contingent the author was associated with operated at about the same level and flew around two hundred patrols a year. That four-plane contingent was only a small portion of the overall reconnaissance activities occurring around the periphery of the communist nations at the time. In other words, the electronic surveillance reconnaissance experience was more boring than exciting. The most excitement occurred because of the weather or mechanical problems.
There were three intercept incidents involving the four-plane contingent that the author was aware of while associated with it. One of the incidents has been listed in the Intrusions, overflight, shootdowns and defections website while the other two have not.
The one mentioned occurred on 23 April 1953. U. S Navy plane BuNo 124369 was attacked by two MiG-15 Fagots while flying off the Chinese coast near Shanghai. The MiGs made several firing runs and the crew of the Mercator returned fire. The Mercator was not hit, and as far as the Mercator crew could tell, their return fire did not damage the MiGs.
Other incidents occurred which may or may not have been a threat. One such incident occurred when the author, as radioman of BuNo 121453, had been ordered to send an under attack message while on a patrol along the west coast of Korea. The officer overseeing the electronic surveillance activities in the back of plane had reported excitedly that fire control radar had locked in on the plane. The night atmosphere had been filled with an exceptional display of electronic activity, filling the scopes the technicians were observing. On a dark night, it can get spooky and imaginations can be effected. Nothing came of the incident except a debriefing when we returned to Atsugi Naval Air Station.
The third incident the author was aware of is based on excited talk by enlisted crew members who said that they had been attacked by MiGs off Shanghai. This incident can’t be found in any literature the author has seen.
There are documented attacks of other Mercators in other theaters and at later dates. On 22 August 1956, a U.S. Navy P4M-1Q (BuNo 124362) disappeared after a nighttime attack thirty-two miles off the coast of Wenchow, China. There were no survivors among the sixteen crew members.
P4M made crash landing after attack over the Sea of Japan
As a work of the U.S. federal government, image is in the public domain.
On 6 June 1959, while flying a patrol mission over the Sea of Japan, a U.S. Navy P4M-1Q (BuNo 122209) was attacked fifty miles east of the Korean DMZ by two MiG-17 Frescos. During the attack the aircraft sustained serious damage to the starboard engine, and the tail gunner was seriously wounded. The badly damaged plane was able to land at Miho Air Base in Japan.
In the European Theater on 14 January 1960, a P4M-1Q flight originating out of Incirlik Air Base, Turkey, was lost with all sixteen crew members.
Also by Alfred Wellnitz
Finding the Way
From Prussia to a Prairie Homestead
Deficit Triggers Hyperinflation, Terrorism
For the Cause
The Cold War Turns Hot in Korea
And Why Young Men Went To War
For the Cause
Risks and Rewards
About the Author
Alfred Wellnitz grew up in rural South Dakota, served in the United States Navy, and worked in technology as an electrical engineer. After retiring from engineering, he worked as a real estate agent before deciding to become an author at age seventy-three. He has since published three novels and numerous short stories. Alfred’s first novel, Finding the Way, was awarded an Honorable Mention in the 13th Writer’s Digest International Self-Published Book Awards, and PushBack was a finalist in the ForeWord Review’s Book of the Year Awards. Alfred now lives with his wife Joan in Bloomington, Minnesota.