Ocean Death

Wayne’s Journal for April 29, 1944 was unusual: there were two entries for the day. One in his usual “matter-of-fact” style with the day’s date for its title, and another to which he gave the title: Ocean Death.

Wayne wrote . . . . .

Sgt. Trellis Wicks and myself as well as several others sat in our Quonset huts, safely ensconced in our bunks and sweated out the boys who were attacking Rabaul on the daily raid. We had watched the boys, in a tight formation of three planes each, twelve in all, stream across the blue sky, and fade from sound and sight into the distance.

We waited, surrounded with the usual suspense that fills the air when fellows you know well are facing death. Wicks lay back in his bunk and napped as I plunged in to Vincent Sheen’s book, Between the Thunder and the Sun. It held my interest very well being a story of the 2nd World War, and intimate scenes of Europe and America, both before and after hostilities began. It included the Battle of Britain, a country that holds my admiration and respect, it all its clarity and heroism of the beaten body, but rejuvenated spirit. A brilliant story, filled with adept characterizations of leading people of state and of the theater, expertly put together by the author.1

I was still reading several hours later when Wicks sighed and sat up in bed. “Are the boys back yet?” was his first query.

“No, they’re still up,” I replied, “but they’re due any minute.”

Then we became embroiled in an argument as to the merits of different automobiles. Don’t know how we started, but we were still engaged when the sound of aircraft filled the air. We counted all twelve of our planes as they circled for their landings. Some of our tension left us. Just knowing all ships have returned is some relief. We sat in silence as we heard the planes, one by one, taxi to their revetments and quiet themselves as the pilots cut their engines. The death of an engine after a safe return is indeed a thrill. There’s a sign of finality about their last gasp for fuel, a vain sucking for gas, which is rewarded only by air, followed by silence that has priority over the usual sounds of mid-day. A jeep’s noise sputters rancorously as it accelerates. In the distance are the whines of the local saw mill grinding relentlessly on, turning out the wood for base buildings.

Then the combat crews burst noisily in the door our out hut, every man talking over the mission at once. All eagerly wanting to tell the story of the mission first. “Lord, what a lousy lot of flak,” says one, “the most we’ve run into in a long time and too damn close for comfort.”

Another pipes up, “I had the devil scared out of me. Was sitting in the radio operator’s seat when a burst went off right under us. It raised the ship, and I grabbed for my parachute with my arms and looked out the window expecting to see half the wing gone. Was damned surprised to find out we were intact. Just to indicate how bad the flak was, we couldn’t even hold formation on the way back.”

Now that is something with this squadron, because it’s noted for its tight formations. The nerves must really have taken a beating.

“Anybody hurt?”, Wicks asked.

Harvey Francis answered, “Well no, but one plane landed at Green.”

Russell continued, “They couldn’t have been hurt, because the ship was under control, and left the formation like a shot from a gun.”

Then a radio operator who I didn’t know dominated the conversation when he asked, “Did any of you guys hear that plane calling three different stations?” and when he got no answer say “Will somebody please answer?” The other boys shook their heads negatively, so he continued, “Well the guy finally got through to somebody and told them Major Yeoman, our C.O., was down at sea. That’s all there was to it.”

“Gee,” said one of the boys, “I hope they all got out of it.” Then everyone was silent for a few moments, each engaged in his own thoughts.

Of a sudden, the chow bugle sounded and there was a banging of mess kits as the men made a concerted rush for the door.

After the barracks quieted, I sat for a moment with my head in my hands and prayed that all the boys safely fled from the crashed plane. Then I, too, got to my feet and woodenly stalked to the mess hall.

If the boys were all lost, it meant that Russell and I would be placed on a crew. Until now, we’d just been spare gunners; and were itching for a chance to get into the fight. However, if the boys who crashed were safe, to hell with crewing up. I couldn’t see myself getting our desires; if it meant the loss of anyone’s life. I’d be the happiest guy on Treasury, if the fellows came back alive. Just to see any one of them coming in the door would be worthwhile to me even though it meant long days of waiting that is pure torture for a man.

The afternoon passed slowly. Even the minutes seemed hours. At length, suppertime arrived and then show time. We all went to the theater area with that sense of foreboding in our minds. A stage show was there; but even its cheerfulness could not eject that sense of futility and suspense that pervaded all our beings. The stage show lasted just a short time when the rain came beating down. The band rushed their instruments and themselves into a truck and drove off. The screen picture came on; but many men left because of the rain, but we could not. None of us wished to go back to the barracks and sit through the long evening hours alone with our thoughts. We watched the picture show, The Magnificent Dope, unfold itself on the screen. Our nerves had so built up that we laughed hysterically at the antics of the characters. All too soon, however, it ended; and we made our way back to the place we call home.

The place was filled with smoke, the body smell of men who are crowded together in too small a space and the fumes from hot bottled beer. All in all, it’s an unpleasant odor, and the sounds of men’s voices raised in speech, talking of this easy girl and that loose woman in words of primitive animalness are certainly no inspiration for rest or for sleep!

At any rate, I removed by clothing and lay naked on the bed as most of the other men do to ward off the heat of evening and tried to shut the different sounds from my mind. It was impossible and it irritated me, but I was glad because the complete story of the crash was told by a member of the crew who had flown the 2nd ship on the mission the major was concerned with.

A flight of boys in the next barracks were harmonizing on an old song entitled “A long, long way from home.” They had been drinking beer and were relaxing through the medium of song. It was to this haunting and sad song that the man began his story. A short story to be true, but a sad story as well.

“As you all know,” he said, “our two crews took off from here yesterday on a barge hunting mission. We proceeded to the coast of New Ireland, but were shut off from the targets by a cloud and a mist which hugged the ground and the ocean. Accordingly, we landed at Green and took off from there this morning. We proceed up the east coast and found nothing in the shape or form of a barge. On the way down the west coast, however, we spotted a Jap bivouac in a bunch of coconut trees. Major Yeoman and his crew went in firing the cannon and the nose guns. After he made his 300° turn coming off the target, we went in and found to our disgust the cannon wouldn’t work and our nose guns were jammed. Naturally, having no strafing weapons, we didn’t follow the major in on the next attack, but continued to circle out of range of the Japanese weapons. The major went in for the second time, pouring cannon and machine gun missiles into the area. He came out again and went in again, this time firing the cannon, spraying with the machine guns, and dropping a five hundred lb bomb. In all these trips, he’d swashed the plane all to hell. He came off the target for the third and last time at an altitude of 50 feet flying well and fast. One moment he was getting the hell out of there and the next moment, the nose of the plane went down and the ship hurtled into the water, broke the surface once and broke in two. The life raft floated half inflated and then sank slowly from sight, following the two sections of the plane. We could see it afterwards resting on the bottom not far under the water. Oxygen bottles from the plane floated on the water, green markers of death. No other thing moved there, and we had to give all men up for dead.

We went back to Green Island heartsick and landed there. No man of our crew smiled. We had been hit hard and below the belt. We didn’t give a good damn for anything. It didn’t help to know either that a Navy TBF went up loaded with five hundred lb bombs with the intention of dropping them on the sunken ship. It was a new model, you know, and we didn’t dare let it rest for fear the Japs would go out and drag it in. It’s pretty awful, believe me, to watch your friends and pals go down and then have your own men go out and bomb them for good measure, even if it is pure necessity. That’s the story men, and I pray God I’ll never have to watch another one like that.”2

In the distance, the boys were still harmonizing “A long, long way from home,” as indeed it was.3 The narrator of the event left. The barracks was silent, perhaps in tribute to the dead men. The lights went out and the men were all content to remain in silence, although there were those who usually talked into the night. I lay there, passing the story in review through my mind, an then said my prayers as always. Then sleep came, blotting from my mind the events of a long day of morbidity.

Commentary & Notes

1 Vincent Sheean’s Between the Thunder and the Sun was published as a Random House Wartime Book in 1943. It was reviewed in Foreign Affairs in October 1943. Woolbert, Robert Gale. Review of Between the Thunder and the Sun by Vincent Sheean. Foreign Affairs, October 1943 (http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/107039/vincent-sheean/between-the-thunder-and-the-sun : accessed 18 April 2014)

2 The calling radio operator was a member of 1st Lt. Alfred Forand’s crew. Maj. James Yeoman and 1st Lt. Forand were on a two-aircraft barge sweep around New Ireland April 28, 1944. At about 1045, B-25H, serial number 43-4512, was lost due to enemy action at Katherine Harbor on the southwest coast of New Ireland. Piloting the aircraft was Major James J. Yeoman, Operations Officer of the 75th Bombardment Squadron. Also aboard the aircraft were 1st Lt. Howard A. Goldstone, Squadron bombardier-navigator; 1st Lt. William C. Craig, Squadron Flight Surgeon; S/Sgt. Charles D. McKinley, engineer-gunner; T/Sgt. James C. Kiker, radio operator-gunner; and S/Sgt. Robert M. Duvall, armorer-gunner. See
B-25H-5 Mitchell Serial Number 43-4512. (http://www.pacificwrecks.com/aircraft/b-25/43-4512.html : accessed 17 April 2014).

On April 29, 1st Lt. Alfred J. Forand, pilot of the aircraft accompanying Major Yeoman on the mission, provided the following statement of what occurred:

Major Yeoman and I took off from Green Island at 0930 to go on a barge hunt around New Ireland. Before we reached the north coast of New Ireland re-tested all of our guns, to make sure they would fire. All my guns fired except the cannon and tail guns.

We both got in some good strafing on the north side of the island. We covered well the bivouac and supply area above Borpop. Further up the coast, Major Yeoman dropped a 500 lb. bomb on a mission that looked to be occupied. I was down looking for barges while he went in to drop the bomb. I went back to where he had dropped the bomb to see what damage he had done. I lost sight of him then so I contacted him on the radio. He said he was just going over the island. That is the last radio contact that I had with him.

When I got over to the south side of the island, I spotted him about 10 miles down the coast making a pass at what looked to be a small plantation. As he came off of that pass, I was just about up to him, flying at about 1,000 ft. Major Yeoman then went around to make a second pass at the same target. I tried to contact him on the radio but could not get a response from him. I then watched him go into the target and make a normal retreat from land staying low on the water. When he was about five miles away from the target and about one mile off shore, he went straight into the water. The ship landed flat and skidded on the surface for possibly 200 yards. It then settled and started to sink. The ship did not explode but it did break up quite a bit. I immediately had my radioman start calling Shepherd Base while I went down to make a pass at the scene of the crash. As I went by, the wings and what was left of the fuselage were just going under water. That was approximately three minutes after it had hit the water. The raft was out and inflated and debris was also floating nearby. The wheels had evidently been torn from the nacelle because they were still slightly out of the water. I went back and made three or four passes at the wreckage to see if anyone was out. No one was in or around the raft or anywhere near the debris. I finally made one more pass and told my crew to take a good look to make sure about anybody being out. None were out.

The scene of the accident was in Katherine Harbor on the SW coast of New Ireland. I did not go into to see what Major Yeoman was after on shore due to the fact that everyone of my guns had gone out of commission. While making passes at the crash I did not draw fire from shore.

Twenty-five minutes after the crash, I left for Green Island. I finally made radio contact with Shepherd Base after we were well over New Ireland on our way back. My fuel was running low so I could not stay any longer at the scene of the crash.

I landed at Green Island at 1300 just as Dumbo was going out to see what he could pick up.

Missing Air Crew Reports (MACRs) of the U.S. Army Air Forces, 1942-1947, digital image, Fold3.com (http://www.fold3.com/image/28637866/ : accessed 17 April 2014), B-25, Aircraft Serial Number 43-4512.

3 Listen to “When You’re A Long, Long Way From Home” on YouTube: Harry James & His Orchestra, “When You’re A Long, Long Way From Home”, Columbia Records-78-36579-1942; YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8iBWahIMr1Y : accessed 28 April 2014).

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5 Responses to Ocean Death

  1. Pierre Lagacé says:

    On the other side of the world HMCS Athabaskan was sunk off the coast of France.
    My wife’s uncle told us he was aboard and that he was rescued. I could not ascertain if he told the truth. I know he could not have made up this story about the sinking of a Canadian destroyer that killed 128 sailors with 85 other sailors being taken prisoners and 41 being rescued by HMCS Haida.

    I would like to say that I enjoy reading this blog, but the word “enjoy” seems so inappropriate.

    Like

    • a gray says:

      “Ocean Death” is a very poignant entry. It speaks to the loss of fellow airman in a manner very different form official reports. I am sure it reflects many late night conversations that occurred after the loss of fellow airmen and friends.

      Like

      • Pierre Lagacé says:

        I will send my readers later to visit your blog after I have finished reading the older posts.

        I want to do it justice and not simply to reblog one of two posts.

        Ocean Death and April 29, 1944 are two posts I want them to read at least.

        Like

      • a gray says:

        Wayne’s journal entry on March 15 regarding the loss of his friend, Billy Garrity, is an important milestone in his realization of the danger of his world. Billy had been one of his friends at Columbia Army Air Base in Columbia, South Carolina. On April 12, he described the loss of “El Croco”, a B-25 shot down over Rabaul while on a photo reconnaissance mission. The crew was rescued. As I have published the journal entries, I have sensed Wayne’s growing knowledge of the fragility of life among the airmen in the South Pacific.

        Like

  2. Pierre Lagacé says:

    As I said I really “enjoy” what you have been doing with Wayne’s Journal. How he writes about his comrades-in-arms is most commendable.

    You can better understand how my encounter with my first veteran had left scars which have now almost disappeared.

    In his book this veteran never wrote a single line about his comrades-in-arm. It was always me… me… me…

    Only once did he mention someone… When his pilot had part of a propeller blade through his body. How terrible he felt and how dazed he was… Nothing more on the pilot condition which I presume was dead…

    My other veteran told me that what he wrote was all bullshit when he read the description of the crash and the aftermath.

    When I cross-referenced this incident in the veteran’s log book… he had written Pilot at hospital.

    Sorry I had to let it out…

    Like

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