For the Cause; Risks & Rewards

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


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.


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

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 ( 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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