Short Stories

Navel Air Routine Patrol

Posted on 09/24/2020. Filed under: Alfred Wellnitz Books, Auf wiedersehen Prussia 1871, For the Cause; Risks & Rewards, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , |

Cold War Story Nr. 2; Excerpted From Cold War Stories

Picture by R.A. Scholefield

Prologue

This short story, “US Naval Air: Routine Patrol,” although fictional, is a rendition of a number of interesting experiences actually encountered by flight crews during Electronic Reconnaissance patrol flights along the Asian coast from Vladivostok to Saigon during a two-year period between 1951 and 1953. The author flew as a crewman on the P4M-1Q planes utilized for this mission. He completed ninety-five patrols. Patrol flights originated from the Sangley Point Naval Air Station in the Philippines, the Naha Naval Air Station and Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, and the Atsugi and Iwakuni Naval Air Stations in Japan. The original members of the flight crews who volunteered for the special mission did not know what the mission would be except that it would be overseas, and they were obligated to two years of service. Once accepted, they were cleared for access to top secret information and were not allowed to divulge information about this activity until fifty years later. This story has been published in a book of short stores and is protected by copyright laws.

US Naval Air: Routine Patrol

Sangley Point Naval Air Station

The crew scheduled to take off from Sangley Point Naval Air Station at 2200 that night each packed a bag; they would end the patrol at Kadena Air Force Base in Okinawa. They would then fly an out-and-back patrol from Kadena along the China coast north of Shanghai and back along the west coast of Korea 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 less than half a mile from their Quonset hut. Wellman, first radio, and MacBee, second radio, walked together. They had become good friends and spent many of their liberty hours together during the year the crews trained and prepared for this overseas assignment. They attended classes on the new equipment they would be using and maintaining after they picked up a still new-smelling P4M-1Q aircraft, retrofitted for the Electronic Reconnaissance mission, at the Glenn L. Martin Aircraft factory located in Baltimore, Maryland.

The aircraft used for the airborne Electronic Reconnaissance mission was designated as a P4M-1Q. The “1Q” indicated that the plane had been configured for Electronic Reconnaissance operations. The P4M featured a compromise design in which two conventional reciprocating engines provided the long-range capability needed in a patrol aircraft. Its two jet engines could deliver speed if the plane was attacked, plus provide backup power during takeoff and landings or 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 placed topside, fore, and aft. Nine officers and enlisted men made up a normal P4M crew, but the personnel on board grew to fourteen for reconnaissance missions.

A total of eight P4M-1Q planes were initially assigned to the program. Four planes would be sent to North Africa to patrol areas in Europe and four sent to Sangley Point in the Philippines to patrol areas in the Far East. The four planes assigned to the Philippines were flown from the Martin factory in Baltimore to Miramar Naval Air Station near San Diego, California, where the crews and ground personnel spent several months getting acquainted with using and maintaining the new planes and equipment.

Finally, the four-plane contingent was ready to deploy, taking a roundabout northern route to Sangley Point Naval Air Station in the Philippines. The route included stops at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station near Seattle, where the crews spent several days practicing ground control approach (GCA) landings. The four planes then hopped to Kodiak Naval Air Station in Alaska, followed by another stop at Shemya Air Force Base at the end of the Aleutian Chain. The final stop along the way was made at Atsugi Navy Air Station in Japan, where the flight crews were briefed on the P4M-1Q mission. They were also given a scary briefing by a survival expert on what to expect and do if caught behind enemy lines. Wellman—and probably most of the crewmen—thought, Interesting, but this won’t be happening to me.

MacBee, the older of the two, served 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 bought a 12-gauge Remington semi-automatic shotgun with the bonus and used it to hunt quail in California.

When they reached the three aircraft parked on the hardstand that night, Wellman and MacBee greeted the special project member who had drawn guard duty. There were four planes in the special project contingent, but one 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 was 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 team the “fifty-footers.” If you got within fifty feet of the aircraft, they’d shoot you.

Wellman noticed the new bureau six-digit number painted on their plane’s tail, big numbers that could be seen from another aircraft or even from the ground when flying low. Every month a new fictitious number would be painted on the tail. Wellman figured this was supposed to confuse the people they were spying on, and maybe it did, but he didn’t understand how it kept the Chinese or Russians from figuring out what they were really doing.

The crewmen heading out on patrol stopped at a Quonset hut office, where a yeoman was distributing survival gear. They each received a 38-caliber revolver and a bag of survival goodies.

MacBee mumbled something about having 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.”

“Oh,” MacBee replied. “You must have a different instruction book than I have.”

Johnson was enjoying bringing MacBee up to date. “You must have an outdated revision. Better get the latest version or you could get in trouble for not following the rules, particularly about shooting yourself.”

Johnson was a lifer, a World War II vet not looking for another job. Reliable, balding, of average height, with a sparse frame, he 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, including a small piece of gold bullion. Always welcome everywhere. Probably the most valuable item in the package would be the waterproof parchment carrying the message in several different languages that it would pay the holder ten thousand American dollars if the holder delivered the parchment along with a live American airman. Other miscellaneous items included a tube of morphine, pocketknife, compass, and mirror.

The yeoman handed Johnson a small mailbag. “Some mail for the Okinawa contingent,” he said. Patrol flights terminating at Okinawa normally carried any mail addressed to members of a temporarily assigned Okinawa special project contingent. Johnson accepted the bag. “The only reason those malcontents would want to see us,” he replied.

The crew then 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.

P4M-1Q

Author photograph

Sharman, the plane captain, and a member of the ground crew hooked up the auxiliary power unit, and the onboard equipment came alive. Sharman had a stocky build and seldom smiled. He knew his business and had the respect of the rest of the crew. Like most plane captains, his skill rating included 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.

Two crew members, Scarma, mechanic, and Bailey, radar man, pulled the props through a cycle. Scarma and Bailey were the youngest crew members. Bailey, blond crew cut, with 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, 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?” Sharman asked Johnson.

Johnson, in addition to his usual 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 stove at the rear of the plane. That changed when the plane experienced some negative Gs while a pot of peas was heating up on the stove. Suddenly 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.

Sharman wanted to know if they had packed any more coffee. “We ran out up front during the last flight.”

Johnson replied that he had a full two-pound can in back to share.

Wellman drank the coffee perked at ten thousand feet during patrols despite it being only lukewarm. 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; 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 an apt description of these patrols to Wellman.

The crew officers—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 Reconnaissance spooks emerged from the darkness. They didn’t participate in the preflight checkout. They picked up their survival kits and were ready to go. The ER 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 ER people were mostly electronic technicians with special surveillance training. 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 crew member did was don an inflatable life jacket and strap on his front-carry parachute harness. 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, no moon, although storms were expected along the China coast where they would be flying that night. The two reciprocating engines were started, the auxiliary power unit unhooked. A tow tractor pushed the plane back onto a taxiway where it could move under its own power. Lieutenant Colby sat in the right-hand seat of the cockpit as it taxied to the end of the runway and went through the pre-takeoff check list. Until recently, he had been the commander of this plane. He had piloted it since the navy accepted delivery from the factory two years earlier. It had been his plane, his crew. Tonight, he would be flying co-pilot.

Lieutenant Colby’s ambition wasn’t to be a hotshot navy pilot. He had no desire to be catapulted off a carrier or to land on a moving, pitching deck. His appearance reflected his modest demeanor. He was a little overweight, not the sharpest-looking officer around, but an excellent pilot and plane crew commander.

Lieutenant Colby gravitated toward 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 was promoted to lieutenant junior grade.

Not long after becoming a plane commander, Colby became aware that a US 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 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 was. They would be part of an effort to assemble and deploy the navy’s first dedicated airborne Electronic Reconnaissance capability. 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, which had 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 US Navy.

The crew had been pulled together two 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 they 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 crew members were competent and reliable, and the group had remained pretty much intact while Lieutenant Colby was plane commander. However, changes were taking place, 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 the way the special project was set up also required him to be a plane commander. But for reasons that became obvious, Commander Higgins needed an experienced and able co-pilot. This was how Lieutenant Colby found himself in the right-hand seat of the cockpit he had been commanding for the past two years.

The pilots completed the pre-takeoff procedure, started the jets, 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 quickly. It 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 boundaries, 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. The plane’s mission was to receive and evaluate signals, not to emit them.

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 back-and-forth chatter, but in the middle of a night patrol it was most often 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 in Morse code. Once the on-station point was reached, the external running lights were turned off and the gun turrets manned. The two radiomen and radar rotated in two-hour shifts to man the bow turret. The mechanic Scarma and the plane captain 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 Junior Grade Kelly. Lieutenant Kelly had a slightly bulging midriff, and his clothes often looked as if they’d been slept in. The navigator’s workspace, one of the roomier spaces in the plane, began to accumulate maps, scraps of paper, navigation instruments, coffee cups, and food droppings soon after Kelly settled in. However, so far, he’d 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; the plane became enveloped in Saint Elmo’s fire, a spectacular phenomenon but not dangerous. Before Wellman ever witnessed Saint Elmo’s fire, he had read about it occurring on sailing ships, when the rigging might be enveloped in the spectacle. However, Wellman had never seen a display of Saint Elmo’s fire such as he was seeing now, 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. The plane’s propellers looked like blue pinwheels. The navigator reported that the long-range LORAN navigation system had gone goofy, most likely due to the same phenomenon that was causing the Saint Elmo’s fire.

A dark night, the darker the better, had become the favorite operational wish for the ER mission. 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 had been a free-fly zone. That changed over time as more assets, in the form of MiG jets and radar detection systems, started appearing, particularly around Shanghai. Recently, all flights in the Shanghai area were scheduled for nighttime hours, as was this one.

North of Hong Kong, the patrol plane approached land and turned north to follow the coast in a driving rainstorm. 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 offshore. 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 to the Chinese and pinpoint their location. 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 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 plus a poor LORAN fix and hoped his guesses about wind speed and other variables were correct.

Kelly caught a break when they broke out of the storm and could see the surface about half an hour after making the turn. Bobbing lights 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; they were almost on top of them. Lieutenant Kelly made a correction to shift their track out to twenty miles, the intended distance offshore. That established the hourly position report that was transmitted back to naval operations in a coded message.

The break in the turbulent weather lasted a short time. Commander Higgins soon announced over the intercom that they were approaching another batch of storms. Sharman was 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. Bailey gave Sharman more than his normal surprised look, but since Sharman had his earphones on, which, combined with the plane’s noise, made normal conversation difficult, he let it go at that. Bailey slurped down the remaining coffee and went forward to relieve MacBee, who was manning the bow turret.

The crew continued to be jostled for another hour as the plane plowed through storm after storm. They had flown halfway through the Formosa Strait before the storms abated. They found clear sky above and low clouds below. 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 between two bad options and went with the LORAN fixes, based primarily on his lack of confidence in his celestial skills. Although different, both fixes shared one thing in common: they were running half an hour behind their expected schedule, which made the predawn schedule to clear the Shanghai area a little iffy.

Relieved that they had gotten through the turbulent weather, everyone fell into the rhythms of a routine patrol. Scarma, the flight mechanic, distributed box lunches and then relieved Sharman in the top turret. Sharman made yet another pot of coffee. Wellman swapped with Bailey in the bow turret, and MacBee took over the radio chores. The plane was controlled by auto pilot while the pilot and co-pilot worked on their box lunches and sipped on cups of the freshly made coffee. The navigator, still not happy with the plane’s track, continued to fuss over his maps.

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, but not before they cut through the edge of the waters designated as part of the Korean War zone. Flying over water in a war zone allowed each crew member to earn a chit that added to the twenty-five needed to earn an air medal for such activities. Medals were important to career officers.

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. The four technicians had been staring at mostly blank screens, kept alert in part by the rough weather they had been flying through. Now the screens were lighting up, as expected, and the barrage of electronic data had their full attention. In fact, the activity had picked up dramatically, and Lieutenant Peterson began to question what they were seeing. Something seemed strange. Lieutenant Peterson observed that 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 were upon closer inspection 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 ER. 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 and queried the pilot. “Commander Higgins, this is the navigator. Permission to turn on radar for quick verification of our position.”

Higgins replied, “Can’t you verify the position without radar?”

Lieutenant Kelly felt a need for further help from ER.

“ER, how important is your need for an accurate position right now?”

“This is ER. If you could see what we are seeing, you would want to know exactly where you are.”

Some people would describe Commander Higgins as a nervous Nelly. The tone of Lieutenant Peterson’s voice convinced him that turning on the radar would be a good idea.

Bailey fired up the radar. What Lieutenant Kelly observed took his breath away. The radar was set to read the surface below them for a range of fifty miles; Lieutenant Kelly could see nothing but land beneath the plane. 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, 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 propellers sought more resistance.

Plane captain Sharman and second radio MacBee, who had been listening to the conversation, looked at each other and rolled their eyes. Sharman leaned over and poked MacBee. “Bet we are waking up a bunch of villagers down there.”

MacBee laughed. “Hope that’s all we are waking up.”

Commander Higgins came back on the intercom. “Navigator, give us a heading to get out of here, fast!” The navigator had apparently been thinking the same thing and immediately came back with a new heading. The plane banked sharply and headed toward the ocean and safety.

Another problem had become apparent. The flight was running behind schedule, and a hint of light toward 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. He checked to see that his twin twenty-millimeter cannons were ready if needed.

During the previous month one of the contingent’s four planes had been jumped while flying a ligament track near Shanghai, off the coast. Two MiGs had made a firing pass. The pilot put the plane into a power-off diving turn. The MiGs made two more firing passes, but the turning plane made a difficult target, and the MiG pilots were likely inexperienced. The plane did not suffer any damage. The tail gunner used up most of his twenty-millimeter stores, also with no apparent effect. That attack had occurred in the morning, near daybreak.

Johnson considered the circumstances. The Chinese didn’t have night fighter capabilities, but it had become light enough to launch daylight-capable fighter planes. Obviously, there were MiGs in the area; obviously radar had been tracking their lost flight. The chances of something bad happening were high. He began scanning the sky intently as visibility increased in the morning light. He told himself not to worry too much. If MiGs were around, they would make their presence known with guns blazing. Johnson’s thoughts were interrupted by something moving high almost directly behind the him. He shouted into the intercom, “Tail to crew, I have something twelve o’clock high! They are closing. Two MiGs!”

Points of light erupted from the lead plane. 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. He had been getting acquainted with the P4M flight procedures, including the unique circumstances associated with the mission. Higgins had flown several orientation flights, but this was his first experience as pilot and commanding officer during an operational patrol flight.

Before Lieutenant Colby requested permission to take control of the aircraft; he had already begun to act. He put the plane into a shallow dive and cranked up the jets. Under normal circumstances the procedure would be to drop down low over the water, but because the plane wasn’t over water, Lieutenant Colby chose to dive into the cloud cover below them.

Radio always had an encoded attack message in a 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 since 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 three hundred feet above the surface to continue evasive action. The attackers hadn’t returned after the first pass, probably discouraged when the P4M dove into the clouds.

After half an hour with the jets and military power on, the plane was taken back to its normal altitude and normal flight settings. It proceeded toward the Okinawa destination. They didn’t have a choice—they couldn’t continue burning fuel at the current rate 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 a very powerful aircraft power plant that was also prone to reliability problems. A common problem with the engine involved the back-row cylinders fouling up. Once one of the cylinders stopped functioning it could become contagious and spread. 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 several times and so weren’t particularly concerned. Lieutenant Colby consulted with Sharman, 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 system they had been flying through all night now dominated Okinawa. As they approached the Okinawa air traffic control boundaries, the starboard engine blew. It wasn’t the fouling problem experienced by the port engine. It was unexpected and unexplainable sudden failure. There hadn’t been a decision to shut it down; it had shut down with no permission from anyone. The condition of the aircraft became perilous as 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 was no longer an in-training patrol for Higgins.

The plane stabilized after the starboard jet came online. The crew’s faces reflected the change from easygoing camaraderie to serious concern about the plane’s survival. Wellman confirmed the location of his parachute, although bailing out over the ocean during a storm didn’t seem like a good idea. Ditching a plane in a body of water was a perilous undertaking in any case; ditching in an agitated ocean offered a nearly zero chance of success. Better that Lieutenant Colby land this thing on terra firma.

Once the plane had lost both conventional engines, it had no generators. It now depended on batteries for electrical power. Fuel was another major concern. They were nearing the end of the flight. Most of their fuel would normally have been consumed by this time. However, they had used the jets over China, and they were burning even more fuel now by using the jets. The navigator calculated that the fuel remaining left no margin for circling or staying in the air above the airport. They had to go straight in.

The crew turned off everything electrical not needed to fly the plane or communicate. 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. That 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 moved 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. The voice started off calm and reassuring, but as they descended, the corrections—were they right or left, above or below the glide path? —came faster and more urgently. The plane bobbed like a cork on an agitated pond. The GCA controller talked fast and sounded frantic when he shouted that they were 350 feet below the glide path and ordered them to pull up and go around. The crew listened to all of this on the intercom. There was a lot of puckering. They knew their fate depended on the skill of Lieutenant Colby. Lieutenant Colby ignored the GCA voice and somehow brought the plane back to the glide path before he 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 before the starboard engine stopped running, followed shortly by the port jet. They had burned the last fuel on board the aircraft and were blocking the main Kadena runway.

The storm continued to rage with heavy wind, rain, and flashing lighting. 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; it wouldn’t be moving off the runway until a tow tractor showed up.

After the rough but safe landing on Mother Earth, the crew’s anxiety dissipated. Abundant smiles and back slapping were occurring. They didn’t mind one bit that they were temporarily stranded on Kadena’s main runway in a rainstorm. Bailey, the radar man, asked Sharman what had happened to make the starboard engine quit the way it did. Sharman shrugged. “I hope everyone brought extra clothes, because if we have to change an engine, we’ll be here for a while.”

Finally, a tow tractor appeared. The driver and his helper, clothed in heavy rain gear, attached the tow bar and pulled the plane and crew to the parking spot where the local special project contingent waited in the pouring rain to greet them. Sharman dropped out of the plane, ducked under a wing to avoid the rain as much as possible, and supervised the chucking and tying-down process.

The contingent petty officer in charge approached him. He wore a poncho, and his face peeked out from under the hood. He asked the question that most concerned the men at the Okinawa outpost: “Hey, did you guys bring any mail?”

“You bet,” Sharman 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 US 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. The crew members had been awarded letters of commendation for meritorious achievement during aerial flight. In addition, Commander Higgins had been awarded a cluster to add to his air medal.

The way Wellman remembered it; their meritorious achievement involved surviving their own ineptitude. Somebody was sure gilding the lily, but he had to admit it had been one patrol that turned out to be less routine than most.

Photos shown on this page were taken by the author.

There was time for a little socializing

Wake me up when we get there

Addendum
The P4M-1Q, A Cold War Warrior

The P4M Mercator was a rare bird. There were two prototypes and nineteen production models. One of the production models, BuNo 121452, was lost in an accident in Chesapeake Bay on March 8, 1951. The other eighteen production models were converted to the P4M-1Q configuration to be used for the Electronic Reconnaissance mission.

From the 1950s through the 1970s when the Korean and Vietnam wars took place, the Cold War was at its peak. The peripheries of the communist nations were continually patrolled by United States Navy and Air Force aircraft. Sometimes these flights were intercepted, resulting in the deaths of two hundred navy and air force airmen in hostile actions. The public knew very little of this activity. As far as the United States government was concerned, it wasn’t happening, so it couldn’t protest if one of the reconnaissance aircraft that officially didn’t exist was attacked or shot down.

The website Intrusions, overflight, shoot downs and defections during the Cold War (http://myplace.frontier.com/~anneled/ColdWar.html) attempts to list all the documented intercepts. The author of “US Naval Air: Routine Patrol” has found the website’s list of intercepted intrusions and shoot downs voluminous but not complete. However, the site includes many pages and likely has listed most significant incidents. During 1952 and 1953, the period in which “US Naval Air: Routine Patrol” took place, there were thirty-two incidents of reported 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; 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 “US 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 Reconnaissance experience was more boring than exciting. The most excitement occurred because of the weather or mechanical problems.

The author was aware of two intercepts involving the four-plane contingent while he was associated with it. One of the incidents has been listed in the Intrusions, overflight, shootdowns and defections website; the other one was not.

The one mentioned occurred April 23, 1953. US 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 P4M returned fire. The P4M was not hit, and as far as the crew could tell their return fire did not damage the MiGs.

A second incident is based on the excited talk of enlisted crew members who said they had been attacked by MiGs off Shanghai. The incident can’t be found in any literature the author has seen, nor did the author see or hear anything confirming the attack at the time it occurred. The only source of information the author had at the time was the word of enlisted crew members.

These two incidents occurred within a month or two of each other. What were other P4M crew’s reactions to this aggressive activity by the Chinese? The author can only speak for himself. One odd reaction, as he remembers it, was jealousy or envy of the crews that had experienced the attacks. “Why can’t our crew have a little excitement once in a while?” Of course, the ideal scenario would have MiGs making multiple passes and never hitting a thing. The reality was that a lone patrol plane attacked by MiGs far from any assistance would have the odds stacked against it.

The author did have an opportunity to send an “under attack” message while on a patrol along the west coast of Korea. It was a dark night, and the ether was filled with a barrage of electronic activity. Things can get spooky under those kinds of conditions. The officer overseeing the Electronic Reconnaissance surveillance in the back of the plane suddenly excitedly reported that fire control radar had locked onto the plane. The pilot ordered the author to send the “under attack” message by Morse code and diverted the plane from its planned route. Nothing came of the incident except a debriefing when we returned to Atsugi Naval Air Station in Japan. The crew wasn’t spouting off to anyone about how they had been attacked by a mysterious enemy on a dark night.

The author left the Sangley Point P4M contingent at the end of 1953, by which time it had been given the VQ1 squadron designation. In June 1955, VQ1 moved its operation to Iwakuni, Japan. While flying out of Iwakuni and Atsugi, VQ1 P4M-1Q aircraft were involved in two deadly intercept incidents. The first occurred August 22, 1956, when BuNo 124362 was attacked off Shanghai by Chinese MiG fighters. A Morse code message that they were under attack by enemy aircraft was received from the plane. That was the last message received from the plane. The crew of sixteen, four officers and twelve enlisted men, were lost. Search and rescue efforts recovered one body, and three more bodies were recovered later. The author saw a list of the crew members lost and knew one of the ER specialists who rode in the back of the plane. He had been part of the original P4M-1Q crews operating out of Sangley Point.

BuNo 124362 had also been involved in an attack a year earlier, as described by Jim Edison, the pilot. “I was the pilot of 124362 in the spring of 1955 when we were attacked about ten miles off Tsing Tau by two MiGs. It was a dark, clear night, and we were close enough to the airport to observe them take off and come straight at us. We did a power-off tight spiral to 300 feet while they fired 30 mm shells over the cockpit. Our tail gunner fired several hundred rounds in return. We kept turning under the MiGs and they appeared to lose track of us, and we departed at max speed, which was 385 knots. At the time, the Chinese were training in the MiGs, so that might explain their inability to press the attack. My aircraft, 124362, was later downed by the Chinese in 1956. I left the squadron a few months before that happened, and most of those lost were my crew. At that time, during those types of missions, we flew ten miles off the coast.”

Another incident occurred on June 16, 1959, when two North Korean MiG-17 Frescos attacked P4M-1Q BuNo 122209, patrolling at seven thousand feet thirty miles off the east coast of North Korea. Pilot of the P4M-1Q was Commander Don Mayer, and Lieutenant Commander Vincent Anania was co-pilot. The tail gunner, PO2/c Corder, manned the pair of twenty-millimeter cannons. The MiG-17s closed rapidly and showed astonishingly good aim on their first pass. PO2/c Corder never had a chance to defend the plane; the first attack scored extensive hits across the Mercator’s fuselage and wing. PO2/c Corder was hit badly, injured by over forty pieces of shrapnel that left him incapacitated. The P4M-1Q Mercator dropped down to just above the ocean. The MiGs came around, making more firing passes on the crippled plane. The engines on the starboard side were both disabled, and the rudder was badly damaged. The two port engines running at maximum power caused an asymmetric thrust, and the plane began to roll over. The mechanical controls were ill-suited to counteract the imbalance, and it took all the strength of the pilots keep the plane level. The MiGs made three firing passes before pulling up and turning back toward North Korea. The MiGs only had enough fuel capacity for short flights and likely broke off the attack in order to be able to return to their base.

The P4M-1Q had two engines out, a badly damaged rudder, and a fuselage and wing peppered with cannon rounds, but was still flying. It headed for the nearest friendly air facility in Japan, the Miho Air Force maintenance base. The plane made a successful landing at Miho. The wounded tail gunner survived. The P4M-1Q BuNo 122209 was determined to be unrepairable and was scrapped.

At the about the same time that the P4M-1Q contingent deployed to Sangley Point, another contingent of four P4M-1Q planes and their crews were deployed to NAS Port Lyautey, French Morocco. They patrolled European, Russian, and Iron Curtain borders to monitor electronic emissions.

As with the Far East contingent, there were likely many interesting unreported incidents during patrols of the Russian borders and countries under their control. However, none of the P4Ms were lost to adversarial actions. Two P4Ms were lost to other causes during the period they performed electronic monitoring in the European theater, one due to mechanical problems and the other to an accident.

On February 6, 1952, P4M-1Q BuNo 124371, staging out of Nicosia, Cyprus, was flying a track that took it to the Black Sea and along the coast of Ukraine. While over the Black Sea, the crew experienced a reciprocating engine failure and aborted the patrol. A jet was utilized to compensate for the lost engine as the plane headed back to Cyprus. Mountains over eight thousand feet high lay ahead. The jet couldn’t provide enough power to top the mountains, and the plane had to fly between the mountains on its return trip. The jet had also consumed more fuel than would normally be used. As they approached Cyprus, they ran out of fuel and made a dead-stick landing in high-sea conditions east of Cyprus. Fourteen of the fifteen men on board managed to launch a raft and get free of the plane. After the raft was launched, the aircraft commander returned to the plane for some reason and was lost. The other crew members were rescued by the British HMS Chevron after floating for several hours in the heavy sea that made it difficult to locate them.

On January 6, 1958, a VQ-2 P4M-1Q was being flown from Port Lyautey, Morocco, to Norfolk, Virginia, for the complete checkup required after accumulating a certain number of hours. Nearing its destination, the P4M crashed at Ocean View, Virginia. Four crewmen were killed and two survived. Three civilians were injured. The cause of the accident was never determined.

The P4M-1Q planes were withdrawn from service in 1960. Though their service life was short, they had contributed much to the nation in the early days of the Cold War. A total of eighteen P4Ms had been converted to the 1Q version for use in electronic surveillance warfare. Four of the P4M-1Q planes were lost, two after being attacked, one to mechanical problems, and the fourth to an accident.

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Black Blizzard

Posted on 11/13/2015. Filed under: Short Stories | Tags: , , , , , |

A Short Story

Black Blizzard

Dalhart_Dust_Storm_tn

Photo from US National Archives and Records Administration

PREFACE

Black Blizzard describes the effects of an epic dust storm on a family living in the Northern Plains of the United States during the Great Depression and devastating drought of the dirty thirties. The storm being described occurred in May of 1934 and was witnessed by the author when he was a young boy.  The storm being referred to is described in the book DUST BOWL The Southern Plains in the 1930’s by Donald Worster, pages 13 and 14.

“It was the May 1934 blow that swept in a new dark age. On 9 May, brown earth from Montana and Wyoming swirled up from the ground, was captured by extremely high-level winds, and was blown eastward toward the Dakotas. More dirt was sucked up into the airstream, until 350 million tons were riding toward urban America. By late afternoon the storm had reached Dubuque and Madison, and by evening 12 million tons of dust was falling like snow over Chicago−4 pounds for each person in the city. Midday at Buffalo on 10 May was darkened by the dust, and the advancing gloom stretched south from there over several states, moving as fast as 100 miles an hour. The dawn of 11 May found the dust settling over Boston, New York, Washington, and Atlanta, and then the storm moved out to sea. Savannah’s skies were hazy all day 12 May; it was the last city to report dust conditions. But there were still ships in the Atlantic, some of them 300 miles off the coast that found dust on their decks during the next day or so.”

Black Blizzard

Although it’s the middle of the week, my younger brother Donald and I don’t have to go to the one room school where Miss. Tilmans teaches all eight grades; some kind of a family emergency. Actually she didn’t teach all eight grades because there are only seven of us kids in four different grades this year. Six of us are from three families that have been in school as long as my brother and I have been. One boy’s folks just moved here this year and are renting a farm house to live in.

I’ve just turned nine, and am finishing the third grade. My brother is a year and a half younger, but because of how our birthdays are, he is only a year behind me in school. I started on time and Donald started early. Besides that he is kind of smart, but I would never tell him that.

I like my brother’s name better than mine. Herald is my name, kind of an old-fashioned name. Donald isn’t so old fashioned. You never heard of a king with that name.

Grandpa led the team of horses that he had just curried, brushed and harnessed and hitched them to the dump wagon. The team looked a little odd because they weren’t well matched. The big horse, named Prince, and the small one named Bess were a good match when it came to pulling since Prince was a little lazy and Bess went all out all the time. They were both black, which helped some to make them look like a team.

In 1888 Great Grandpa Mueller had brought his family from Wisconsin and homesteaded land in northeastern South Dakota; land that Grandpa Mueller now farmed. Grandpa had been ten years old at the time. Grandpa said his Pa got tired of digging out stumps in Wisconsin so headed for the prairie. Trouble is there weren’t any trees on the prairie so they had to build a house with sod. Grandpa talks about how the family lived in a sod hut for five years.

I have a hard time imagining how one would build a sod hut. If you tried to cut a block of dirt out in the field, it would fall apart. You couldn’t build anything out it. But Grandpa said that when you cut a block of soil out of the prairie you could hardly tear it apart with your hands even if you were strong. The sod was grass, dead plants, roots and dirt all tangled together. Grandpa said the prairie is a stubborn thing; wind, dry weather, floods, fire didn’t hurt it. Only the plow, which turned the sod over−like turning a turtle on its back, could kill it.

Grandpa has big rough hands, deep tanned face from being out in the weather no matter how hot or cold it might be. He likes to farm, you can tell that. My Pa; he don’t like to farm, and he doesn’t. He helps Grandpa sometimes, but we only live on the farm, because we don’t have any other place to live. We live in the same house as Grandma and Grandpa. We live in the upstairs. We used to live in town, but Pa had been laid off from a job he had with the John Deere dealer. The dealer l aid off everyone that wasn’t family and there weren’t any other jobs; so we moved into the upstairs of Grandma and Grandpa’s house. There are two rooms upstairs, a small one and a big one. Donald and I use the small one for a bed room, and the other room is sort of a kitchen living room during the day and a bed room at night for Pa and Ma. The upstairs is cold in the winter and hot in the summer, but Pa said we would have to make do, and we do.

Pa works on the WPA, and Grandpa does too when he isn’t busy farming. Grandpa says you can’t make a living farming with the drought and depression going on at the same time, but he keeps trying. It seems like all the farmers put in some time on the WPA except the Dahls. Donald and I walk through the Dahl place on the way to school. They are Hover people, the only Hover people I know about. Mr. Dahl said people that worked on the WPA couldn’t take care of themselves. It seemed like that is just about everyone except the Dahls. They worked a big farm, but it seemed pretty run down. I think my Grandpa does a better job farming than Mr. Dahl does.

Pa went to the tool shed, got a couple of shovels and carried them out to the to the dump wagon. Pa is taller, thinner than most people, and looks worried most of the time. Pa says he makes a dollar a day shoveling gravel. Grandpa, who takes a team and wagon besides his shovel, made twice as much. Pa said if we didn’t have the garden, a free place to live, we wouldn’t be able to make it.

The grown-ups are always talking about the hard times which can be either the depression or the drought; or both. I can understand the drought. You can see it. It has been dry for so long I can’t remember what it’s like to have enough rain. Last summer the crops dried up, wilted in the fields, the lake near where we live has dried up and this spring it’s so dry crops aren’t coming up. The only thing that seems to grow is Russian Thistles.

You can’t see the depression; people talked about it all the time, but you can’t see it. It has something to do with the WPA, Roosevelt, and grandpa’s farm. I heard the grown-ups talk about the bank foreclosing on Grandpa’s farm, then the bank went busted and an insurance company now owns the farm. But the insurance company doesn’t seem to want the farm so Grandpa rents it on shares. The insurance companies’ share must have been pretty small last year and it don’t look good so far this year.

Pa called to Grandpa. The boys are off school, they’ll come along.”

“Ya, good, they like to play in da sand”

Pa turns and looks at us. “You kids fill Grandmas’ cob box before we go. Wear your jackets; it’s going to be cool.”

Grandma and Ma would be baking bread today, so Grandma needed her cob box full. I liked Grandma, she never seemed to get mad, no matter what, and her part of the house is always neat and clean. Sometimes our part of the house isn’t so neat and clean. Us boys are probably a big part of the problem.

It’s cool for the second week in May, so our lined jackets feel good. It takes two wash tubs of cobs to fill the cob box so Donald and I have to make two trips. It takes longer than it should because we get into cob fight after the first tub. Donald grabbed a handful of cobs and started pelting me so I had to get back at him. We used the corn crib as a shield to sneak up on each other.

Pa called, “Hurry up boys, Deming will be docking our pay if we get there late.”

We finally get the cobs done and run to the dump wagon where Pa and Grandpa are waiting. We are going to a gravel pit on the other side of the dry lake where Grandpa, Pa and some neighbors will be hauling gravel to a road about a quarter of a mile away from the gravel pit.

The dump wagon is like a regular wagon except rubber tired wheels replace the wooden spooked steel rimmed wheels and the triple box made for hauling grain and things like that had been taken off and replaced by a bunch of loose planks. The loose planks make up the bottom and sides, of the dump box which after it is filled with sand, is pulled by Prince and Bess to where the gravel is to be dumped and the loose planks are tipped to unload the gravel.

We take the short cut to the gravel pit that runs through the dry lake bed that had been fenced for pasture. Young green grass covers the dry lake bed. Pa observes, “Lot of grass in this old lake bottom; too bad its foxtail.”

Grandpa agreed with Pa, “Cows will eat Russian thistles before they eat that stuff.”

I knew the dry lake bottom grass would grow about a foot high and sprout a fluffy heads which is probably why they called it foxtail. You would never see the cows or the horses graze on it. We stop to open a gate made up of three strands of barbed wire hooked to a willow branch that separated two lakebed pastures. We would have to go through two gates all together, but the short cut saved half a mile, making it only two miles to the gravel pit.

Grandpa fusses about the wind.

“Hope the wind don’t get stronger, could start blowing; nothing to hold da dirt. The wheat and oats should be coming up, keep the ground from blowing. The seeds are just sitting there; waiting for rain.”

The rest of the crew that will be hauling today is already at the gravel pit standing around talking when we get there. There is Isadore Quist, the tall Swede, with a team and wagon, Frank Deming, an Englishman, who brought a shovel and tea in his mason jar. Frank also keeps track of who is working and how many hours they worked. The Bork brothers, Eric and Jon, with a team, wagon and two shovels are standing off to the side. That would be the crew for today.

Donald and I head for the pile of sand we use to crawl up to the holes ground swallows had made near the top edge of the gravel pit. We start enlarging the holes and building roads between them to make an imaginary town in the sandpit wall.

Deming took out his time book, looked at his watch, “Time to start shoveling, got to give Roosevelt a full day’s work for his dollar. Did you listen to him the other night? ”

“Ya,” Grandpa says, “The whole family, even da boys.”

Isadore hadn’t listened. “My battery’s ver dead. I don’t make enough shoveling sand to buy new vons. Everyting is always oke doke anyva.”

Grandpa agreed, “Ya, Roosevelt say’s everything getting better.”

Isadore continued, “You know I shipped an old boar pig last month. You don’t get much for them, but he veighed 400 pounds. Shipped it to St Paul, thought I vould get enough maybe to buy a can of snuff. Know vat I got?

Grandpa didn’t know, but a boar hog wouldn’t bring very much.

Vell, I got a bill. The shipping and selling cost vas more than dey paid for it. Vod you believe it?

Eric Bork laughed, “Have you paid the bill?”

“Vell I sure hope they aren’t holding deir breaths.”

We are keeping busy on our imaginary town along the pit ridge but something strange is going on. Instead of getting brighter, like it should, it’s getting darker. The sun, which had been bright, now looks like a red ball in a dark sky. It’s really weird. We can tell that the wind is really howling even though we’re protected in the pit.

We can hear the men talking about the wind. They are talking loud, almost shouting to be heard. Isadore said. “Yeses Christ, dis vind could blow you avay.”

Jon Bork laughed, “Maybe to a better place.”

Isadore agreed. “Dat vodent be hard to find.”

Jon continued, “When we moved here they told us that the wind would blow the next day if the sun sets in the west. That was no lie but they didn’t say how hard it would blow. Where is all this dirt coming from?”

Grandpa answered, “Fields, “My fields, your fields, every field in da county.”

Isadore agreed, “Ya and mixed in vith da dirt are my seeds.”

Grandpa continued. “I found some seed sprouted yesterday, maybe it will hold.”

“How in the hell could seeds sprout? “Frank wanted to know.

“The field was bare all last year. Must have been a little moisture. Anyway, there were sprouts.

Donald and I hunkered down right next to the edge of the pit, pretty much out of the wind and it didn’t seem too bad. We keep working on our town being built out of swallow nesting holes. Despite the wind, the men kept loading wagons and hauling sand.

Everyone brought a dinner pail or sack for the noon meal. There is pork between thick slices of Ma’s bread in the Karo gallon syrup pail Donald and I  normally carry to school. Pa and Grandpa. shared a similar syrup pail. While eating my sandwich I felt the grit from all the dust flying around grinding between my teeth. It seems like it’s getting darker and the wind is blowing harder as we eat lunch.

Jon Bork knew about a way to measure how hard the wind was blowing. “Hang a log chain on a post, if it’s sticking out straight, it’s blowing real hard.”

Isadore said that it must be sticking out pretty straight today.

Grandpa finished his lunch, looks around and announces, “I don’t know what anyone else thinks, but I think it’s time to head home.”

Isadore agreed.

The Bork men thought they could stick it out, wanted to get a full day’s pay.

Frank settled the matter. “I’m marking everyone down for half a day.”

That did it; everyone gathered up their things and started getting ready to leave.

Frank lived half a mile from the gravel pit, so headed off on foot across a field for home. The others got their teams ready to leave.

The end gates and side boards are set up on our wagon and Pa tells us kids to lay down on the plank floor. That gives us some protection from the wind.

We get out on the road and the full force of the wind hits. I stick my head up above the side boards but pull it back real quick when sand big enough to sting hit my face. I know we have to go west and the wind is blowing from the northwest so we are facing the wind.

Grandpa yells at Pa, “I can’t look into the wind, the horses will hafta take us home.”

Pa yells back, “Think they know where they’re going?”

“Hope so.” Grandpa replied, “We’re going where ever they take us.”

Prince and Bess aren’t hesitating. They are keeping a steady pace going somewhere.

Donald and I lay on the plank boards, our bodies pushed against one another as a way to get more protection from the wind.

I feel Donald’s body jerking. He’s sobbing.

“What’s wrong?”

“I’m afraid”

“It is just a dust storm, can’t hurt you.” I put my arm around him. “We’ll be home soon.  Everything is going to be alright.”

It’s a dust storm for sure, but I had never seen a dust storm like this one. I don’t want to admit it, but I’m not feeling very good either. It’s not like being afraid, like being afraid of lighting in a bad thunder storm. There is something else about this storm, something evil. It’s as though God is angry and decided to destroying the land.

The horses stopped. I hear Pa shouting at Grandpa, “Gate, they took the short cut.”

Pa gets off the side of the wagon. Then the wagon starts moving again. Pa is leading the team through the gate. He gets back in the wagon and horses take over again until we get to the next gate.

It felt good to know we were going in the right direction and almost home. Prince and Bess know what they’re doing. They’re probably as anxious as we are to get back to shelter. They want their barn and some oats and hay.

It’s only a short time and we are in the farm yard where the big windbreak on the north side cuts the wind way down. The horses are unhitched; left loose to find their way to the barn. First the horses go to the water tank; snort bubbles to clear their dust filled nostrils, drink deeply, and then head into the barn. Pa tells us to go to the house and he and Grandpa will take care of the horses.

It is early afternoon, but Ma has kerosene lamps lit to hold back the darkness. Dust is streaming into the house through leaky windows and around the doors. Ma pulls off our jackets, takes a wash cloth and wipes our faces. The wash cloth becomes black with dirt and Ma rinses it out a couple of times before she gets most of the dirt from our faces.

Ma’s not saying anything but I can tell she is upset.

It’s soon evening and time for chores and Grandpa and Pa go out into the storm to do the chores. That night we are all eating at Grandma’s table. The wind is howling and nobody is saying much. I don’t know why we are eating together. We did that when there was some special occasion, and this didn’t seem like a special occasion.

When we are sick or something like that, us kids hardly ever have trouble sleeping, but with the windows rattling, the house creaking and the air filled with dust, sleep isn’t coming easy. Ma gives us some damp cloths to put over our faces. It keeps out the dust but a cloth on the face isn’t good for sleeping either.

We must have fallen asleep because I’m awake and something has changed. I figure out  what it is; the wind isn’t blowing anymore. It’s quiet outside, very still. I fall back to sleep.

I’m awake again and hear people moving around. Chores were being done, and I can smell bacon frying. .

We sit at the breakfast table and the grown-ups start talking about what had happened. Nobody can remember a storm like the one we had yesterday.

“There are tree branches all over the yard,” Pa says, “Some trees down, must have been blowing fifty-sixty miles an hour, maybe more.”

Grandma reports that there’s no screen door on the porch, “Don’t know where it went.”

“Grandpa says he’s not worried about the trees or screen doors.  He asks, “Vat happened to the land?” Grandpa worries about the land. Grandpa doesn’t own the land anymore, but he treats it like it’s his.

Grandpa says he’s going to the back of the trees on the north side of the yard to look where he found the grain sprouting a couple of days ago. “Anybody want to go with me?”

The whole family wants to go. I want to go. Maybe things haven’t changed. What happened yesterday wasn’t real.

We all go outside and walk toward the grove of trees that run along the north side of the farm yard. We find drifts of black dirt in the trees that weren’t there before, some are two feet deep. The sun is pushing its way up into the sky but there was a kind of an eerie glow, not the usual bright light of a sunny day.  Pa says all the dust in the air is making the sun look like that. After a rain or snow storm everything seems fresh, the sun seems brighter, and the air seems purer, but this morning doesn’t seem like that. Today everything seems grey and the air smells dusty.

We reach the field where Grandpa said he had seen seeds sprouting and It didn’t take long to see and understand what had happened. Grandpa had been right. Some seeds had sprouted, and some of them are still hanging by their roots. The top soil had blown away with most of the seeds but some of them that had sprouted clung to the soil.

Nobody is saying anything. Grandma put her arm around Grandpa’s waist, as if to comfort him.

Grandpa points to the edge of the field west of where they were standing and says, “That’s where we cut sod for the hut when we homesteaded this place.”

I try to imagine what that must have looked like. A prairie as far as one could see, Great Grandpa and Grandpa cutting out blocks of the prairie six inches thick and a tangle of plants and roots so tough you couldn’t tear it apart with your hands, even if you were strong. No wind would be strong enough to blow that sod out of the ground.

 

Alfred Wellnitz Published Book and Short Story Information at:

http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=alfred+Wellnitz&x=19&y=12

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 short story 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.

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Cold War Short Short Stories

Posted on 09/09/2015. Filed under: Short Stories |

Cold War Short Short Stories (100 words or less)

By

Alfred Wellnitz

 

Navy Boot Camp, 1947

He was a Georgia cracker, a redneck. What could you expect? A nigger is a nigger and that is what he called him. Just recently the company commander had lectured about Truman’s executive order that said discrimination would no longer allowed in the armed services. Maybe the Georgia cracker didn’t believe that, but the nigger did and he picked up a bottle of ink and flung it, hit the cracker on the side of his head, knocked him dizzy. Then what happened? We never saw the cracker again and guess they told the nigger to be careful what he threw

Memphis, 1948

The bus rolls to a stop, I get on, sit right behind the driver. I, the only negro in the class, just completed a year’s training to be an aviation electronics technician at the Memphis Navy Air Training Center. Being in the top ten percent I graduated as a petty officer second class. More passengers going to Memphis get on as it moves through the training center. The bus reaches the main gate. The driver turns and looks at me, says, “You have to move to the back of the bus now.” I move to the back of the bus.

Chosen Reservoir 1950

Damn, must be twenty below, so many cloths I can’t find my pisser and I’m still freezing. Chinese everywhere, small arms fire from everywhere. It should be getting light soon and the attack should end. I hunker down in my shallow hole. My mind wanders—ponders my escape from that Dakota farm; a world to see, to experience. There is a scream, “Medic, medic!” A mortar round shakes my hole! I hold the M1 in my frozen hands. I rise up; fire my rifle into the darkness. Maybe milking cows wasn’t all that bad.

War Torn City Recovers 1950

Two American Marines recovering from wounds wander a Tokyo market, a short break from the horrors of war on the Korean Peninsula.

Tokyo bustles, factories hum; making cigarette lighters out of GI discarded beer cans, half price Leica knock offs, the world’s finest china.

Two women stand out. One; a young woman, beautiful as many young oriental women are, a face like porcelain with fine features, a tiny but full body. Beside her: an older version of herself. Both are dressed stylishly in shades of blue.

The older woman approaches the marines, “You like daughter, only 3,000 yen, all night.”

Whidbey Island Naval Air Station 1951

Four Navy Patrol planes stopped at Whidbey Island to practice some ground control approaches before flying the northern route via Alaska to Japan. In the evening two crew members visited the enlisted men’s club, noticed quite a number of unattached women. They talked to a couple of them. They said their husband’s patrol squadron had just deployed for a six month tour in the Philippines. They wanted to know if the men wanted to go into town where there were some swinging bars.Said they enjoyed these deployments but the time seemed too short.

Did You Bring Any Mail?

A navy patrol plane based in the Philippine leaves to patrol the Chines coast. Its destination is Kadina Okinawa. They carry a package of mail for the Okinawa ground crew. Off Shanghai the plane develops engine trouble. They feather one engine and as they approach Kadina their good engine begins to lose power.

It is night and violent storms envelope Kadina. Ground Control Approach shouts:You’re low, Abort!!! Impossible, the plane can only descend. Somehow the plane bounces and stops on the runway and is towed to its parking pad where a ground crew member asks, ““Did Ya bring any mail?”

 

Copyright © 2015 by Alfred Wellnitz

 

All rights reserved. No part of these short short stories 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 these short short stories are either the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

 

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U.S. Naval Air Routine Patrol

Posted on 05/03/2015. Filed under: Short Stories |

 

Routine Patrol Cover

 

U.S. Naval Air

Routine Patrol

 

By

Alfred Wellnitz

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Prologue

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

Routine Patrol

Sangley Point, Black & White

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.

P4M at Kadena Okinawa

P4M-1Q

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.

ADDENDUM

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.

Damaged P4M

 

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

Novels:

 

Finding the Way

From Prussia to a Prairie Homestead

PushBack

Deficit Triggers Hyperinflation, Terrorism

For the Cause

The Cold War Turns Hot in Korea
And Why Young Men Went To War

 

Short Stories:

For the Cause

Risks and Rewards

Auf weidersehen

Prussia 1871

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.

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