Small Speck, Small World, Big Ocean

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I’m going to mix an old story with an item from today’s news and see how it comes out. With a little luck, we’ll get something worth reading.

Back in the 1950’s, we had a men’s clothing store in Augusta, Kansas. It was owned and operated by Paul Stephenson as Stephenson’s Men’s Clothing. The store was located on the east side of the 500 block of State Street, nestled up against the Prairie State Bank, on its north and Mamie Hall’s book store on the south. Paul and his wife (only 60 years and I’ve forgotten her name) were in the store every day, well dressed and professional but friendly in demeanor. Their son, Dick, was a classmate of mine. Dick and I graduated in 1954 and I went to work and I think Dick headed for the University of Kansas. The following year, I was going to attend a wedding and needed a new suit. I went down to Stephenson’s and Paul fitted me with a new outfit and his wife set me up with a lay-away plan to pay for it. Those were the last dealings I had with the Stephenson family.

The Pacific island of Guam has been a big part of the news recently. Its the nearest U.S. Territory to North Korea and they are threatening to take a shot at it with their misguided missiles. Hopefully, sanity will prevail and Guam will remain intact. I faced a dilemma myself, on Guam, and will describe it to you later.

Guam is 7,000 miles from Augusta and if you look at a globe, its just a little speck in the big, blue Pacific Ocean. The island is 30 miles long and from 4 to 12 miles wide with a resulting total of 210 square miles. This makes it the largest island in Micronesia.

I enlisted in the Navy in March of 1957 and after attending Aviation Electronics School in Memphis had joined Patrol Squadron Forty-Eight (VP 48), a seaplane squadron, at NAS North Island, San Diego. In April of 1959, we were scheduled to deploy to NAS Iwakuni, Japan. I had mixed emotions about going. Our twin boys (the surprise of our lives) were just 6 months old. Pat was going to have to cope with raising the boys on very little money while I was gone. Two babies and no money makes for some hard days. I had taken the test for third class (E-4) but the results hadn’t come back yet. The only other way I could make more money was to get in a flight crew and draw flight pay. It was announced that there were 2 openings for aircrewmen and I was thrilled to hear it. As I recall, that would bring in another 90 bucks a month as hazardous duty pay. The only hitch was that to qualify, I must be able to send and receive 16 words per minute in Morse code. I only had a month to learn the code and pass the test because I would still have to attend Survival School before deployment

I passed the Morse code test and attended Survival School which took place partly on the beach and partly in the mountains. The trip to Japan was going to involve island hopping for several days. We would first fly to San Francisco and then, the next day, head west. We would be going to Honolulu, Hawaii, Kwajalein Atoll, Midway Island, Guam, and Iwakuni, Japan. We left and our trip went well until we got just past the halfway point between Kwajalein and Midway and lost an engine. We all went to our emergency stations and started preparing to ditch. I fired up the radar which had a range of 120 miles. The screen was blank! There wasn’t a ship, airplane, island, or even a reef in sight. Meanwhile, the navigator was making a “sunshot” and marking his charts so he would know exactly where we were. The co-pilot was talking to Midway Control and they immediately dispatched a Coast Guard S2F seaplane to meet us and escort us in (or radio our position if we went down). The pilot was busy getting us trimmed up to fly on a single engine. He thought we were a little heavy so he told the guys back aft to throw out some of the equipment. There is a procedure for this so the guys got rid of the stuff on the list. If that hadn’t been sufficient, our clothing and personal gear would have been among the next items out the hatch. I forget how many hours it was, but when I switched on the radar and found that S2F coming our way, we all cheered. We made it to Midway without incident and were there for almost a month waiting for a new engine to be shipped from the states.

We got our seaplane back together and headed for Apra Harbor, Guam. We had a good flight except one of the engine gauges was acting up. It was probably a casualty of the engine failure we had experienced but didn’t show up until we had racked up a few hours of flight. Apra Harbor had a seaplane ramp for the launching and retrieval of planes so we got the plane up on the concrete and parked it again. The Plane Captain (the senior aviation mechanic) ordered a new gauge which would be coming from the states, just as the engine had.

We spent the next few days enjoying Apra Harbor. The guys at the Coast Guard Station said we could use their snorkeling gear whenever we wished so we took advantage of the offer. Swimming in Apra Harbor was like swimming in a high-priced aquarium. The water was clear and only 8 or 10 feet deep where we were. You could look down and see beautiful coral formations on the bottom and there were things moving in time with the water that looked like flowers moving with a spring breeze. The fish were awesome! Every color and shape of tropical fish you ever saw in a pet store was there. There were also sea cucumbers and other strange things I had never read about and couldn’t name. The Coast Guard guys even told us that if we could spear an octopus we could take it to a store in town and trade it for a case of beer. One of the guys in our crew took this to heart and spent a lot of hours in the water before he finally speared an octopus. We had a van assigned to our crew. I was the only person with a Navy Driver’s License so I drove him into town. Surprisingly enough, he traded his catch for a case of beer.

The gauge finally arrived and we went over to the Navy Supply Depot and picked it up. The next morning, the mech’s were going to install the gauge and turn up the engines while the rest of us did our chores. The guys were needing razor blades, cigarettes, and other items so I said I would make a run to the Naval Exchange (PX to you Army folks) at Naval Air Station, Agana. I hurried up and checked out the radar and the other electronic gear I was responsible for and took off.

I must have arrived at the Navy Exchange at rush hour. There was a small crowd going through the main entrance and just as many coming out. I joined the throng and as we shuffled along toward the front door, I spotted the tan of an officer’s uniform coming at me. As the gap between us closed, I looked up and saw the gold bar of an ensign on the collar. Then, I saw his face…my God, its Dick Stephenson! We shook hands and moved out of the way of the throng so we could talk. Dick and I were going through the “small world” routine and “what are you doing here” and I had something else churning in the back of my mind. Do you remember that I said I had a dilemma on Guam? Well, this is it! When I look at Dick, I see a gangly kid riding a bicycle around the streets of Augusta. The last time I saw him, he still had peach fuzz on his cheeks. How can I salute this kid when we part company? If I didn’t salute and another officer noticed it, I could be reprimanded. Or, if Dick decided to make an issue of it the outcome would be bad. I wasn’t in the mood to be chewed out for some petty offense. While we were talking, my mind finally got the fact that the Navy had taught me that you salute the uniform, not the man. Dick and I finished talking and shook hands. I saluted and he returned it and we both lived through the event.

We took off bright and early the next morning. We were all relieved to think we might finally complete our trip. A few minutes after we were airborne, our Pilot and Plane Commander (PPC), George Surovik, got on the intercom and announced that we would do a little sight-seeing on the way. He said that he and the co-pilot and navigator had talked it over and had filed a flight plan that would take us over Iwo Jima. Iwo Jima is about 800 miles from Guam but wasn’t far off our track to Iwakuni. We were all anxious to see the infamous place that had cost so many lives. As we passed over the island, Mount Surabachi was still big, black, and as ugly as it had been in the newsreels when I was a kid during WWII. It’s amazing how many memories and how much sadness can be evoked by the sight of such a place.

We finally got there! Iwakuni is down toward the southern end of Japan and is located on the Inland Sea. We landed and taxied over to the seaplane ramp and snagged the buoy. While the boat was towing our wheels out to us, we could see our squadron gathering on the sea wall to welcome us. We got our wheels attached and were towed, tail-first, to the top of the ramp. One of our crew opened the rear hatch but before he could get the ladder mounted and start down, the guys on the ramp started handing up cans of ice cold beer. I took a few swigs and when my turn came, I started down the ladder. I got about half way down and was suddenly grabbed by what seemed like a dozen hands. I was carried to the seawall and tossed over it. I landed in the drink and started treading water. I noticed that I was the only guy that had been tossed in. I yelled up at the rotten guys that had done it and asked them, “What was that for?” “You made Third Class”, they shouted! Hot dog…another pay raise! Things are looking up!

Dave Thomas
August 24, 2017

 

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