Choose The Lemonade

We got to San Diego and I went to North Island Naval Air Station in Coronado to check in at Patrol Squadron Forty-Eight (VP 48). I introduced myself to the personnel guy and he surprised me by saying, “You’ve got the highest test scores in the squadron.”(In boot camp, recruits are given a battery of tests that will later determine job placement.)  I was quite taken aback as I hadn’t thought of it as being a big deal. Of course, my records had been shipped to the squadron ahead of me so they knew all about me. It made me feel uncomfortable, and I knew it was going to be like the kid on the playground that’s different… everyone wants to try him on for size. We went ahead and took care of the personnel business, and the guy took me to the electronics shop and introduced my new boss, the Chief that ran the shop. Over the next few days, I was settling in and learning the things I needed to know. Then, one morning, the chief called me into his office and told me that I had been assigned to mess duty for 90 days. I couldn’t believe it! Everyone knows that only the screw-ups are assigned to mess duty or KP (kitchen police) as the Army calls it. “I don’t even eat in the mess hall. I’m married and draw $30.00 a month for “Commuted Rations” which means I buy my own groceries. My record is clean and there’s no reason for me to be penalized or punished.” The chief told me that these assignments are made by the Leading Chief, and I would have to take it up with him. I had just been handed a bag of lemons.
The Leading Chief is the senior enlisted man in the outfit. His word is law, and he has almost as much power as the Commanding Officer. In our case, the Leading Chief of VP48 was Big John Honchurak. I had only been in the squadron for a few days, but I already understood that nobody wanted a confrontation with Big John. Big John was 6’3”or 6’4” and probably weighed 220 or 230. He was lean and a tough-looking son-of-a-bitch. I went to Big John’s office to make my case. He listened carefully to what I had to say and then told me to report to the Mess Hall Monday morning. I think I was just handed another bag of lemons.
I reported to the Mess Hall Monday morning at 6:00AM as instructed. There were several of us new guys, and the first task was to give us our assignments. I watched as other guys were given different jobs in the galley (kitchen) and around the Mess Hall. Then, I was told that I would be working in the head (restroom). Again, a job for a goof off! What the hell? I didn’t get it. It’s looking like another bag of lemons.
I thought about it and decided there was no reason to pout. If that was the job they had for me then that’s what I would do. I knew I was a “working fool” and could out-work anyone so I might as well give it my best shot.
The head was large. I don’t remember exactly, but it probably had 6 or 8 stools, 3 or 4 urinals, and 3 or 4 sinks. It had just barely been cleaned for quite some time. I spent two full days scrubbing it from top to bottom. The civilian maintenance workers kept everything functioning well so it was just a matter of getting rid of the accumulated grime. All the porcelain was polished until it gleamed. The brass and stainless steel parts were shiny, and the walls and mirrors were spotless. The third morning I only had to spend an hour or so tidying up and I was done. I decided that with everything looking so good I may as well go out and have a smoke. I was leaning up against the building and enjoying my break and I looked up and saw the head cook coming toward me. The Head Cook is like the Leading Chief in that he’s got the power. This guy was a stocky Italian named Rocky, and he also looked like a guy you wouldn’t want to mess with. I figured he was going to give me hell for being out there and smoking rather than working. But, when Rocky started talking, that’s when the lemons started turning into lemonade.
Rocky told me I had done a good job and that the place probably hadn’t looked so good in years. Then he asked me if I’d like to work with the cooks and have cook’s liberty. Liberty is time off and cooks liberty was based on a duty schedule called “5-2.” I don’t remember the details, but you worked two days and then took 5 days off, and the following week, you did the just opposite. You worked 5 days with 2 days off. Rocky went on to tell me that I would start at 5:00AM and get off when everything was done in the early afternoon. He told me I would work with the cooks until it was time to serve, and then I would become a “Line Supplier” and keep the steam tables supplied in the chow line. It sounded great to me and I said so. He welcomed me to the job and said he’d see me in the morning. That was the beginning of one of the best summers I ever had.
The job was good, but the time off was wonderful. Pat and I were new to Coronado and new to California so each day was an adventure. We didn’t have any money but that didn’t keep us from going to the beach and the library and walking in downtown Coronado. A couple of times we came up with the money to ride the ferry across the bay to San Diego. We splurged and bought a Scrabble game and had tournaments that lasted all day. Pat would put on a pot of beans in the slow cooker, and we’d get wrapped up in our Scrabble game and forget everything until we smelled the beans burning. Pat was pregnant and would crave things. She particularly missed ice cream, so she made her own. Some powdered milk, sugar, and vanilla mixed in an ice tray and put in the freezer compartment fixed her right up. Sometimes she would stick popsicle sticks in the tray and make ice cream bars.
Toward the last month of Mess Duty, we were able to move from our apartment near downtown and the library to Navy housing. The Navy housing project was located on San Diego Bay near the Coronado Golf Course.  A few days after we had moved in, one of our neighbors had been transferred and was moving out. He had an inflatable life boat that he didn’t have room for, so he gave it to me. Pat and I spent a lot of time rowing around in the bay and really enjoyed it. One day we rowed down along the golf course and since the water was only about a foot deep, we saw a bunch of golf balls. We paddled around and picked up enough to fill a bucket. Later, I took them over to the Pro Shop and sold them.
After I had been on mess duty for a while, I happened to see the personnel guy from our squadron. He told me that the reason i was assigned to mess duty was that the Leading Chief figured that a person with such high test scores must be a prima donna, a panty-waist, or a sissy and wouldn’t know how to work. He was sending me to mess duty to get me straightened out. Big John’s attitude changed after he heard that I was one of the hardest working guys in the galley and had earned a job with the cook’s liberty. His change of heart was proven a couple of months later when we were surprised by the birth of our twin boys. Pat had uremic poisoning and was supposed to stay in bed, so I had to put in for emergency leave to take care of all of them. Big John had those papers pushed right through and had me out the gate in nothing flat.
If you’re handed a bag of lemons, don’t fret. Just turn them into lemonade.
Dave Thomas
August 20, 2020

P5M Seaplanes: Hops but no Jumps

After a six month deployment to Naval Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, our squadron (VP 48) returned to Naval Air Station North Island at Coronado, California. There were a lot of personnel changes going on. Many of the guys were going home on leave. Some were being transferred out, and, of course, some were being transferred in. The new guys included pilots, co-pilots, navigators, and potential crewmen. The officers needed to get used to the type of reports and data they would receive from the operators of the ASW gear, and the enlisted men needed to become proficient as operators. The electronic technicians needed to learn to operate the power panel and operate the HF radio, and how to use Morse code.


The future pilots and copilots needed to get in some stick time in order to get qualified. Unfortunately, on these hops, their favorite destinations were Catalina Island and Hearst Castle. If I had a dollar for every time I have circled these two places, I could buy my own P5M.


At the time, I was a third class petty officer, pay grade E-4. Officially, that’s a Third Class Aviation Electronics Technician. I didn’t have enough time in grade to test for Second Class. Having a wife and twin boys meant that I was working hard and looking for opportunities to advance and also to save money. The flight pay was important to me. Also, being married, I received what was known as commuted rations, COMRATS. COMRATS amounted to thirty bucks a month to pay for food at home in lieu of eating in the chow hall. When I was on duty, I could eat in the chow hall, but had to pay for it. However, flight crews received box lunches when flying short hops or a box of groceries they could prepare in the galley if they were making long hops. The grocery meals were usually steaks, canned vegetables, fruit, bread and butter and coffee. At the end of a flight, the other married guy and I would divide up any unopened cans, sticks of butter, coffee, or whatever else was left over. Every little bit helped.


What I remember most was the condition of the airplanes. We had P5M-1’s on deployment, but when we returned, they were to be replaced by P5M-2’s. The P5M-1’s were tired and they were suffering from a lot of flight time, some hard landings, and a lot of vibration. The results as we experienced them were engine failures, electrical fires, and hydraulic leaks. These were problems that increased the heart rate and adrenaline flow.


Protocol said that when you got aboard the aircraft, the first thing you did was don your parachute harness. The harnesses were just a bunch of straps with some rings and snaps and were no big deal to wear. The parachutes were stored in racks in the plane and could be grabbed if needed. The chutes themselves were maybe 14 x 14 x 2, and just attached to your harness with a couple of snaps. During this training period using the old planes, I got real good at attaching the parachute. It seemed like every hop I was on turned into an emergency, and I was ordered to grab my chute and head for the exit hatch. Fortunately, I never had to jump.

Dave Thomas



Small Speck, Small World, Big Ocean


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


Seaplane Story 10: SAR

Search and Rescue duty (SAR) is mostly remembered as an uncomfortable 24 hour period that happened about every 6 weeks. It was uncomfortable because after checking our plane and turning up the radar and all the other electronic gear, and the other guys checked the engines and controls, we spent the rest of the time in the “Ready Room” trying to sleep on some wooden benches.

We had 4-section duty schedules which meant that you had to stay on the base for 24 hours and be prepared to work at any time, day or night. It’s tough on married guys because you can’t go home and see your wife and kids. It’s part of the deal you signed up for so you just grin and bear it. Search and Rescue duty was divided up between several squadrons so you didn’t catch that assignment very often.

My crew never got called out once for a SAR mission but there was one night that was out of the ordinary. The Control Tower called and said that a fog bank would be rolling in about midnight and the bay would be socked in until at least 10 o’clock the next morning and take-offs would be impossible. We were ordered to get airborne and head east to the Salton Sea for the night. On the east side, San Diego County ends in a range of mountains that go up to 6 or 7,000 feet and then the terrain drops to the desert floor and is below sea level. The creation of the Salton Sea is a fascinating story in itself. You might want to look it up on a map and Google it. As an aside, about 3 or 4 miles east of the Salton Sea is an abandoned Army Training Ground. I was told that the U.S. Army trained the Tank Corps here in this desert environment during WWII to get them ready to take on Field Marshal Rommel and the Germans in North Africa. The buildings are gone but you can still see the concrete pads where the barracks stood. Anyhow, the Salton Sea is a giant lake in the desert that was used as a diversional landing spot for seaplanes when the San Diego weather got bad. For some reason the Atomic Energy Commission had a place there on the water’s edge and they had a boat dock, sleeping accommodations, a mess hall, and some buoys anchored in the water that we could tie up to.

We flew over to the Salton Sea, landed, and tied up to a buoy. The normal procedure when leaving a plane secured to a buoy, or “swinging on the hook” as they called it was to leave two crew members aboard the plane to handle any emergency that might come up. We drew straws and I was one of the lucky guys. As we were in the desert and the weather was hot, we elected to sleep out on the wings rather than in the two bunks in the after section of the plane. There was a gentle breeze that stirred up the water and rocked the plane just enough to make it perfect for sleeping. I thought it was great…what a life! The wind came up about dawn and rocked the plane more seriously. In less than 30 minutes I was sick as a dog. This was the first time in my life I had experienced motion sickness. Growing up, I had always ridden every carnival ride, merry-go-round, Ferris wheel, and anything else that looked like fun. When a couple of crew members came to relieve us for breakfast I went ashore but couldn’t eat. My equilibrium was such that I indeed looked like a drunken sailor. It took 2 or 3 days to get back to feeling normal though I still can’t tolerate boats or carnival rides. Fortunately, airplanes don’t bother me.


Seaplanes were big during the 1930’s, 40’s, and 50’s. Besides their Navy duties there were many commercial models that carried passengers and cargo all over the Caribbean and the South Pacific. The Russians have finally developed a jet powered seaplane but it will probably never gain widespread use. I guess the seaplane has gone the way of the horse and wagon.

Dave Thomas
March 26, 2012. revised February 17, 2015

Scroll Down For Pictures

10a vp48p5m & Hangers 

Picture 10a: Shows the seaplane hangers at NAS North Island. The two hangers look like giant concrete Quonset huts. They can still be seen when looking across the bay from San Diego or from Point Loma.

10b Last P5M-now a museumbird

Picture 10b: This picture is of the last P5M. It rests at the Flight Museum at Pensacola, Florida.

10c On the Ramp

Picture 10c: This plane has just been pulled up the ramp by the tractor and the recovery team.

10d vp48p5m

Picture 10d: I’ve never seen P5M’s flying in formation like this. It must be a fly-over for an air show or special event.




The Gooney Birds of Midway Island

I was an aircrewman in seaplane squadron VP 48 (Patrol Squadron Forty-Eight). As the time approached for our deployment to Iwakuni, Japan, story-telling in regard to the flight across the Pacific increased. Our seaplanes had reciprocal engines and due to their range, the trip meant that we would be island-hopping across the ocean. We would first fly from San Diego to San Francisco. Then, we would go to Hawaii, Kwajalein, Midway, Guam, and Iwakuni. From San Francisco on, they were all 10 to 12 hour flights.


Martin Marlin P5M-2

Some of the most interesting stories we heard, and certainly the funniest, were about the Gooney birds of Midway Island. A Gooney bird is an albatross with a 7 foot wing span that looks beautiful and graceful in the air but is so clumsy it looks like a clown when taking off or landing.

We got to San Francisco okay, spent the night, and then on to Hawaii for the next night. The 3rd day we got to Kwajalein with no problem. We got up the next morning on Kwaj and it had been raining and the sky was ugly. After breakfast, we went down to the pier and took a boat out to our plane which was tied to a buoy in the harbor. After filling up with gas and lunch supplies (and coffee, of course) we hung the JATO bottles (jet assisted take-off). With a full load of gas and rough seas we would need some help getting in the air. There was a coral reef that formed the outer edge of the harbor so that pretty much defined the limit of our take-off run. The sea was a little choppy but the pilots thought we could get off alright. The pilot increased the power and we started our run down the sea lane. The choppy seas were beating the devil out of us but we got up to speed and they fired the first pair of JATO bottles. This was supposed to put us up on the “step” where we were planing just as you do in a motor boat when your speed is sufficient to cause you to ride on the crest of the waves. Normally, that first pair of JATO bottles gets you up on the step and then, when you have enough speed, you fire the second pair of bottles to lift off.

The pilot fired the 2nd pair of bottles in an effort to get up on the step but it didn’t help. We didn’t have enough speed to fly but we were sure closing on that coral reef at a pretty good rate. Our pilot stayed with it as long as he could but had to give up and pull the power off and abort. We taxied back toward the pier and tied up to a buoy and waited for the boat to bring us four more JATO bottles. The pilot, co-pilot, and navigator had all been watching the wind and the currents as we made our first attempt at taking off and after discussing it, decided that with a slight change in heading we could get enough lift to get off all right. We hung the new JATO bottles taxied back out into the sea lane and this time, got into the air and headed for Midway.

In the middle of the day, we passed the half-way point, the “point of no return”, and Kwajalein Air Control had handed us off to Midway Air Control. We were at 10,000 feet and probably doing 140 knots, and as far as you could see in any direction there was nothing but the beautiful blue Pacific. All of a sudden, the starboard engine belched out some smoke and started making some weird noises. The pilots shut down the engine and feathered the prop as the navigator checked his numbers and calculated our position. As the rest of the crew went to their emergency positions, I fired up the radar and took a couple of sweeps with the antenna. I could see for about 120 miles and there wasn’t a ship in sight. Meanwhile, the pilot had sent a Mayday call and was now talking to Midway Air Control. The pilot gave our current position, heading, airspeed, altitude, and all that stuff. Midway acknowledged and said that they were launching a Grumman UF-1 Search and Rescue plane that will meet us and accompany us to Midway. The Grumman is a smaller seaplane than our Martin P5M but if we went down they could drop us additional life rafts or supplies. For them to make an open-sea landing was not a practical idea.


Grumman UF-1 Albatross

The pilot gave the word to jettison some of the on-board equipment that we could do without and the crew heaved it out the port hatch. The next thing to go would have been our clothing and personal gear but fortunately it didn’t come to that.

It seemed like it took forever for the Grumman to meet up with us. Our navigator figured out what time I should be able to spot him on radar and sure enough…there he was. When he was close enough to eyeball, we were thrilled! The flight on in to Midway was without incident and we made a smooth single-engine landing.

Midway Island had been a waypoint for seaplanes for many years. There was a large concrete ramp extending into the water for launching and recovering the flying boats. They had and maintained several sets of wheels also. The P5M didn’t have landing gear or wheels. The wheels were designed with floats and at the time of recovery were towed by a boat out to the airplanes and attached by a simple pin and clamp device. Then, a cable was attached to the tail at the keel position and the plane was towed up the ramp backwards by a heavy tractor-like piece of equipment known as a Buddha.

We went through the recovery process and after being towed up the ramp our plane was parked on the apron nearby. We were finally in Gooney Bird Land and surrounded by hundreds or thousands of the creatures.

Gooney Bird Landing

Albatross/Gooney Bird About To Make A Crash Landing

(notice the look of terror on its face)

We were on Midway Island almost a month. Most of that time was spent waiting for the new engine and some associated parts that turned out to be faulty. Most of those days waiting for parts were spent either swimming or sitting in the shade of our plane’s wing and watching the gooney birds. They were so graceful once airborne but looked so ridiculous when taking off or landing. Naturally, they walked or ran like a duck, all spraddle-legged and freaky looking. They had to run several yards before getting enough speed and lift to get into the air. After watching them, we decided that the most successful take-offs were those where the bird making the take-off run, ran across a bump or hill or berm that caused enough of an up-draft to give them the lift needed to get airborne.

Landings were really a challenge. Every square foot of ground had a bird sitting on it so there was no clear “runway”. And, the birds always came in too fast. You just knew that any attempt to run on those ugly little feet wasn’t going to work. But, they would come swooping down, lower those feet, and start stepping on the heads of every bird in their path. This went on for several feet until they finally stumbled and crashed.

There were a few birds that could make a decent landing and we didn’t know if they were smarter or just lucky. The birds acted much like an airplane making a landing on a short runway. As they made their approach, they would pull their hose up and into a full stall and then take the power off slowly and settle to the ground. Beating the wings slowly allowed them to control the descent. I’m supplying a link to a video that shows one bird making a good landing as I have just described.

Words can’t do justice to the actions of the gooney birds. Watch the video that I’m providing the link for. There’s a lot of funny stuff on the Internet. Do a search on “Gooney Birds of Midway Island, Gooney Bird take-offs, Gooney Bird landings, etc.” and the results will give you some good laughs.

Dave Thomas
October 24, 2014


Seaplane Story 9: Chow

The electronics compartment is amidships in the P5M and has a section for a tiny galley. I guess the compartment was 8 or 10 feet long and had a hatch (door) on each end. There were racks on both sides, from floor to ceiling, that held all the electronic gear and the wiring harnesses. However, on the port side and at the rear of the compartment, was the galley. The space was about 3 foot wide and had a counter with a built in electrical cook top that as I recall had 2 burners. The counter top had a built-in receptacle and a small stainless steel coffee pot to plug into it. Every crew had replaced the coffee pot in their plane with a household pot capable of making 12 cups. The planes used 400 cycle AC power rather than the standard 60 cycles like in your home but the coffee pots worked ok. Beneath the counter was storage for metal plates, pots and pans and silverware. Above the counter and mounted on the bulkhead was a stainless steel water container that probably held 3 or 4 gallons and could be removed for filling.

On short hops of 2 to 5 or 6 hours the mess hall provided us with box lunches that were pretty good. On long training hops or patrols we were provided with a box of groceries that featured steaks, canned vegetables, bread and butter and whatever else was necessary to make a meal.

The coffee pot was always plugged in as soon as we were airborne and we drank coffee anytime we weren’t busy. The steaks were prepared at times that were convenient for most of us depending on what the mission was. A hot steak dinner and coffee were always welcome. We tried to rotate the kitchen duty so nobody got tired of it.

Dave Thomas March 13, 2012


Seaplane Story 7: Tender Operations

We were supposed to have flown to Sangley Point, in the Phillipines, to avoid a typhoon that was headed for our base at Iwakuni, Japan. An hour or so after we were airborne we lost an engine and were diverted to Buckner Bay, Okinawa where the seaplane tender, U.S.S. Pine Island, was  currently stationed. The Pine Island had returned from being out to sea for gunnery practice and was tied up at the pier. Our P5M-1 seaplane was to be lifted aboard the ship by the giant crane at the stern and we would have an engine replaced.

The ship’s crew came out in two utility boats (I forget the proper name for those boats) to where we were tied to a buoy and with a boat on each side of the plane maneuvered us to the stern of the ship (see picture 07a). Crew members removed inspection plates from the top of the wings and fuselage to expose the brackets to which the lifting bridle from the crane would be attached. They also attached some ropes that would trail off the wings and could be used by the deck crew to guide or stabilize the plane. One rope or line was placed along the top of the wing almost reaching from wing-tip to wing-tip. This was to be a safety line for those of us to grab in case of emergency. They asked for 4 volunteers to stand in strategic spots on top of the wings. If the plane should become unbalanced while being moved it would be our job to hold onto the safety line and move one way or the other until the plane regained equilibrium.

After the rigging and other preliminary work was done, we volunteers climbed up on the wings and were ready for the thrill of the day. I had worked the “angel board” in the oil fields so was used to working high. I figured that the giant crane would be jerky and that the plane would probably sway while we were in the air. However, the ride was smooth as silk! That crane operator really had the touch and it was a neat experience. I’ve got several pictures of planes being lifted and think only one or two of them showed men on the wings so I’m wondering what the difference is that requires a balancing team on one plane but not the next. I remember that it was overcast that day so maybe they were afraid there would be some wind. Who knows?

I think we were aboard the Pine Island for 3 days by the time we had changed the engine and run it for a few hours. That’s the only time I was aboard a ship during my 4 years in the Navy. The chow was great! I’ve never had a bad meal in a Navy mess hall.

It was a smooth trip back to Iwakuni and the typhoon had missed the base completely.

Dave Thomas
March 7, 2012, revised February 16, 2015

07a Pine Island

07b Aboard the Tender


Seaplane Story 6: Seaplane Tenders

The Seaplane Tender that operated in our part of the world was the U.S.S. Pine Island (AV 12). The tenders were designed to be floating maintenance shops that could operate on any ocean and support seaplane squadrons and keep them flying. They carried a full supply of parts including new engines. They were identified by their large afterdeck and two giant cranes, one at the stern and the other amidships. They could pick up a P5M with an empty weight of 50,000 lbs. and place it on the afterdeck for engine swaps or other repairs.

In 1959, a typhoon was headed for Japan and our squadron was ordered to get airborne and head for Sangley Point, the Philippines. We took off and were only about an hour out of Iwakuni when we lost an engine. Sangley Point was a seaplane base but was too far away. We were informed that the Seaplane Tender, U.S.S. Pine Island (AV 12), was operating out of Buckner Bay in Okinawa and they would support us if we diverted to there. We got there ok and landed during a squall. The winds weren’t bad and a single-engine landing was no big deal. We’d been told on the way down that the Pine Island was out to sea for gunnery practice and wouldn’t be back for a couple of days. We had a pleasant vacation while we waited. The base assigned a boat and driver to take us ashore for meals and to sleep at night. I slept on the base one night and slept aboard the plane the second. For 2 days we dived off the wings and did a lot of swimming. On top of a wing was a good place to lie around and get a sun tan too. The Pine Island finally showed up. We were getting up-tight about not having our mail or being able to make an international phone call to our wives. The only way a sailor could make an overseas phone call was with the help of Ham Radio Operators. They would pick up your call and patch it through to the person you were calling. Sometimes it took a couple of hours before a connection could be made.

In one of the next stories I will talk about picking up a seaplane and putting it on the deck of the Seaplane Tender.

Dave Thomas
March 9, 2012

Seaplane Story 6_1

Seaplane Story 6_2

Seaplane Story 6_3

Seaplane Story 8: Oops!

We were flying a routine patrol of the China Sea. We left Naval Air Station, Iwakuni and flew across Japan’s Inland Sea which is so picturesque with what seems to be hundreds of islands. They are mountain peaks sticking out of the water and are tilled and farmed right up the hillside to the top. We flew past the southern tip of Korea and were soon scooting along just south of China. It was a stormy day with lots of wind and big black clouds that blocked our view of water most of the time. The wind became so violent we decided to cage the radar antenna to avoid damage. To “cage” the antenna means to put the system on stand-by which locks the antenna in a straight ahead position and doesn’t allow the normal side-to-side scanning operation. We tooled along like this, thinking that we would soon run out of the storm and could resume a normal patrol. All of a sudden there was a break in the clouds and we could see the surface of the water. There was a strip of yellow against the normal brownish color of the sea. looked like a yellow river was flowing into the sea. That’s exactly what it was…the Yellow River! Everybody was yelling as I switched on the radar and the first sweep showed that we were just a couple of miles off shore. We were in the middle of the Cold War and we didn’t know if we would be greeted by the Chinese Air Force or if the anti-aircraft guns would start firing. Our pilot, Lt. Surovik, jerked that plane around and we got the heck out of there. Oops!

Another time, we were tooling along our assigned course and the crewman  who was sitting at the port lookout station in the aft section of the plane comes up on the intercom and says” look out the port side!” We looked out our windows and there was a Russian MIG flying along side us with a Chinese pilot at the controls. Oops! In order to slow down to our speed the guy had his flaps down and his dive brakes extended. He didn’t smile or wave but just stared at us and gave us the “stink eye.” We were in International airspace but there was no one around and he could have bagged us and no one would have ever known what happened. Oops again!

Dave Dunn asked if we ever had any obstructions in the sea lanes when we were taking off or landing in the bay. It was pretty rare to have a problem. The sea lanes were  marked by a series of buoys and the locals were aware of the traffic. Also, when air operations were being conducted there was always a Navy Crash Boat on station. It was painted International Orange and could move fast to herd errant boats away. The seaplanes also had their own Control Tower and the Air Traffic Controllers were supposed to watch for trouble. It did happen that one evening, at dusk, we were coming in and had a little problem. Evidently, the Air Traffic Controllers were tired and weren’t paying attention. I heard our pilot request clearance to land. The tower came back with a “Cleared to land.” The next thing I heard was our pilot saying “Crap!” And then, he said, “Tower, look to your right, at 2 o’clock!” It turned out there was a destroyer chugging right up the bay. Oops! The tower told us to take a wave-off and go around again and then apologized. Well, we went around and then landed and got the wheels on and got pulled up the ramp. The pilot was the first one out of the hatch and said he was going down to the tower to have a little talk with the boys. Well, our pilot, Lt. Surovik,  was 6 foot 5 inches tall and looked like he ate horse shoes for breakfast and picked his teeth with a crow bar. Our crew was happy that we wouldn’t be in the tower when he got there. Oops, oops, and oops!

One day a crew was preparing for a JATO take-off for a training flight. The Ordinance man, Smith, loaded the JATO bottles on a fork lift and headed for the plane. As you will recall, the JATO bottles are hung from the crew hatches (doors) in the aft section of the plane. Smith was approaching the plane slowly, slipping the clutch and trying to baby up to it. We all knew that this particular fork lift had a “trick” clutch that should have been replaced a long time ago but this guy thought he could handle it. Well, all of a sudden the clutch engaged and the fork lift leaped forward plunging the forks through the skin of the aircraft on either side of the hatch! Oops! The forks didn’t strike any of the structural members. They just went through the skin so the damage was minor. However, the damage to Smith’s ego was mighty big and we rubbed it in every chance we got. Oops!

Dave Thomas
March 10, 2012. Revised February 17, 2015

Seaplane Story 1


As I was going through some pictures this morning I found this picture I can use in this seaplane story but can also tie to some family history.

The picture I’ve attached is of a Martin Marlin P5M-2 seaplane. The tail identification, “SF”, indicates that it belongs to Patrol Squadron Forty-Eight (VP-48) and the “7” tells you that this plane is #7 of a 12 plane contingency. So, this plane’s call name is “Sugar Fox 7”. I flew in Sugar Fox 7 a number of times but was normally in Sugar Fox 1, the skipper’s plane, as I was the lead technician in that crew.

The P5M-2 was an Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) aircraft and was packed with sophisticated electronic gear in order to hunt submarines. Once a sub was located, the plane was capable of firing rockets or dropping bombs on the target. The cylinder hanging under the starboard wing, near the pontoon strut, was a 1 million candle-power searchlight that created a lot of excitement when you caught a sub running on the surface at night and illuminated him. The plane normally carried a crew of 10 or 11 men with varying job assignments.

In the picture, the plane is heading west and is flying parallel to the edge of Point Loma, a peninsula that juts out into the Pacific. The water that is shown just above the seaplane, from left to right, is the San Diego Channel, connecting San Diego Bay with the Pacific.

Finally getting to the point of my story, on the ground, below Sugar Fox 7, and located along the hillside, is Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery. Among the many veterans buried there you will find the gravesite of our cousin, Donald L. Thomas, a WWI veteran. His wife, Loyce, is buried in the same plot. From their resting places there is a beautiful view to the south of the city of San Diego, the San Diego Channel, North Island Naval Air Station, the city of Coronado, and on the horizon, Tijuana, Mexico. Of course, looking to the right, you see the beautiful blue Pacific.


Dave Thomas
March 13, 2012, revised February 15, 2015