Mother of all journeys

The trip planned from Athens. Georgia to the Gardiner’s Bay somewhere in the Western Pacific was half-way around the world.  While I had traveled considerably growing up, I was completely unprepared for the events about to unfold around me.  We left Athens with our few belongings and headed across the country in the middle of September.  For me, the trip to the ship would take a full six weeks.  The first half was uneventful, as that was the portion of the trip under my personal control.  After that I gave control to the Navy for getting me the rest of the way.  It was a harrowing and thoroughly unforgettable experience.  As a Navy doctor had told me earlier, forget everything you have seen here today.  The trip was beyond forgetting.

There were four distinct legs to the remaining part of the Journey.  I arrived in San Francisco a day earlier than specified in the orders.  The Twelfth Naval District was the administrative clearinghouse for all personnel going overseas, and they were to arrange for air transportation to the Gardiners Bay.  At the time the military was the premiere overseas flight service.  Moffett field was the Navy’s base for overseas travel, and was only a few miles south of San Francisco.  They made a special note of my transportation need, and in the process checked my personal records, which I was hand carrying.  I was advised that travel to the Western Pacific required a series of nine shots or vaccinations, seven initially, and two more as booster shots at a subsequent time.

I was flabbergasted.  First I told them I had just received seven inoculations in the medical unit at the Navy Supply Corps School, and asked them to double-check the records for evidence of the shots.  I was assured there was no record of any inoculations.  In a final effort to convince the staff of my fresh shots, I lifted both sleeves to display the scars and holes.  It was a futile effort, as the only compelling evidence was the recorded word in my official personnel record.  They suggested I report to their medical offices for the appropriate immunizations.

The routine was familiar to me by this time, so I took an additional four shots in the left arm and three more in the right.  I inquired if it would be necessary to have a double series of booster shots as well.  The automatic response was no, unless they failed to record these seven shots.  In that case, I would need this second set of seven shots a third time.  I left the Twelfth District Headquarters feeling like a pincushion, but believed myself to be immunized against any bug, which might occur naturally in the orient.  As usual, I was wrong again.  I was learning the Navy way of doing things.  It was not a pretty picture, yet it was precisely the same picture I would see on a recurring basis.

We had several days to rent an apartment, unload our possessions, acquire a few necessities, and prepare mentally for being separated for a few months.  While I knew where I was headed, I had no information about the ships itinerary, how long it would remain in the Orient, and when it might return.  All I knew was that the ship’s homeport was Alameda.  The only facility in Alameda was a Naval Air Station.  It was on the bay, however, and had a docking area where ships could tie up.  This made some sense, as the ship was a seaplane tender, a small one.  Presumably, we were capable of tending some of the needs of seaplanes, a floating service station.

On October 15 I was told to report to Moffett Field well before 0600 the following morning.  I packed my bags and was dropped off at the NAS.  While my orders stated first available air transportation, available means the same as space available.  There was actually space available on the plane.  The only things not available on the plane were the seats.  The plane was a Marine R5D, the same as a Douglas DC-6B, a four-engine propeller-driven plane commonly seen at the time.  A somewhat more immediate concern was the seating accommodations.  The plane was not a passenger transport.  It was a cargo plane which, incidentally, had jump seats along the sides.  The interior of the plane was a cargo space, and was heavily packed with cargo from front to rear.

A jump seat is not really a seat.  It had a canvas cot-like bottom, which ran along each side of the plane.  The front edge of the seat was a metal rail to which the forward edge of the canvas was attached.  Along the bulkhead was a canvas back support, which fit like a hammock.  It was perfectly vertical, allowing no adjustment for reclining, or sleeping.  Finally there was an additional rod five feet above the floor, which ran the length of the plane on either side.  It was fitted with wrist straps, similar to those on subways in New York City for the riders who could find no place to sit.  With these conveniences we settled into our jump seats for the first leg of our journey to Hawaii.  This particular plane, as viewed from one of the windows, shows the right wing and engines from 8,000 feet, working just like they are supposed to work.  I made a special note of the amount of grease, which had accumulated on the planes surfaces, an issue of some concern to me.

Right two engines on Navy R5D 1954

We left Moffett and headed over the Pacific for our first stop at Barbers Point, a Naval Air Station around the bay to the west of Honolulu.  This first leg was expected to take about 12 hours.  Given the amenities aboard the plane, those twelve hours stretched into an eternity.  We had taken off from Moffett about 0600 in the morning, and were scheduled to arrive in Hawaii by mid afternoon, their time.  Around 1030 a marine crewmember contacted each of the passengers, and asked if we were ready for our sack lunch.  I said it was early, and would rather wait a while to eat.

I waited another hour or so, then contacted the marine again.  He was gone for some substantial period of time before he returned with his message.  He said I am terribly sorry, sir, there are no more sack lunches.  I asked him to double-check his supply, as I had only asked to delay my meal, not have it consumed by others during the wait.  He returned a second time with the same message. The flight continued hour after hour on an empty stomach.  At 8,000 feet over the Pacific, when you are out of sack lunches, you are out of sack lunches.  I asked on arrival at Barbers Point where I might find some food.  I was told to check the commissary.  After a twenty-minute walk, I discovered it had been secured for the balance of the afternoon.   The next reasonable response I received was to take the Navy bus into Honolulu, where I could get anything I might want.  I had no doubt that this was true.  Given my current run of luck, I was afraid to anticipate what all I might get.

After a long wait, I boarded a Navy bus bound for Waikiki Beach, where I got off at the Royal Hawaiian.  I found a local restaurant, ordered some food, and had my first meal in 28 hours.  I was famished.  After eating, I kicked around on the beach, wandered into a number of shops, and relaxed from the ordeal of the day.  At 2200 the base bus made its routine stop in front of the Royal Hawaiian.  I boarded and took a seat near the driver along with a few other passengers.  The trip from Waikiki back to Barbers Point would take about an hour.  I settled into a real seat, grateful to have a padded seat and backrest, a level of comfort far surpassing the Marine’s greasy airplane.

No more than five minutes into the trip, I began to experience stomach cramps.  I was not exactly sure what was going on, but the early signs were not encouraging.  Five more minutes into the trip I was in the midst of recurrent cramps, acute diarrhea, and bordered on losing control of my anal sphincter.  I discovered the bus, while perfectly comfortable going into town, rode like a tank on the return trip.  As with all navy busses, it had no restroom facilities, and I was too embarrassed to ask the driver to find a public restroom and stop.  The jouncing was aggravating, and I seemed to have few alternatives to my current situation.

Then I discovered there were only two of us on the bus, the driver and me.  To control the bouncing, I moved to the rear seat of the bus, stood up on the cushioned seat, then I crouched down into a squatting position.  The driver may have believed I was either drunk, or out of control.  Through knee action, I was able to eliminate almost all of the jouncing of the bus, and managed to survive the next half-hour ride without soiling myself or the bus.  The nearest facility at Barbers Point was not nearly close enough to the last bus stop, but I managed to arrive in the nick of time.  One thorough evacuation eliminated the entire problem.  What little nourishment I received was sufficient to last till the next morning.  A real bed that evening was a king’s luxury.  The next morning we were scheduled to resume our trip to the exotic Far East.  I was rapidly losing confidence in the entire process.

Early the next morning our crew and passengers boarded the same plane.  We were scheduled to fly a circuitous freight route to Kwajalein Atoll, where we would drop off a load of cargo.  Several hours into the flight, we were offered the usual sack lunches.  As a fast learner, I grabbed mine instantly, as I had already experienced the alternative.  Throughout the flight, I noticed fresh oil streaming from the far right engine, running along the surface, and dripping off the trailing edge of the wing.  Several more hours into the flight we experienced a severe vibration, which shook the entire plane.  There were no speakers on the plane, so we were left to draw our own conclusions about what was happening.  Looking out the right side, it was clear the outboard engine had been feathered, and had slowed to a dead stop.  Not only had the greasy plane lost power in its right engine, but headwinds were also impairing our ground speed.  At the time we were halfway between Johnson Island and Kwajalein.  The headwind was the deciding factor, so it was prudent to turn around and head for Johnson.  We were two hours from Johnson, and with only three engines, we were considered an emergency.  The picture below shows the right wing of the plane with the feathered propeller at about 8,000 feet.  It was a great picture, but not a comforting experience.


To allay our fears, the captain invited each of the passengers up to the cockpit for a look around, and discussion of our circumstances.  To that moment, I had been fighting cigarette addiction, and had stopped smoking for almost six months.  The terror at the time broke the ice, and I bummed my first cigarette shortly after we turned around.  I had seen too many movies where the person about to be hanged was asked if he had a dying request.  The response was almost always for a cigarette.  I might have asked for a female, but there were none on the plane.  I smoked cigarettes for the next ten years following that incident.

When it came my turn to go to the cockpit, I sat on a third seat between the pilot and copilot.  I asked about the fluid streaming from the engines.  The pilots immediate response was that these planes seep oil constantly.  If they don’t seep, something is wrong.  Then I asked about his experience with situations like this.  His reply was both clear and convincing.  His exact words, which I etched into memory were:  “Son, during the war, I flew a plane exactly like this one with one engine gone, and a second engine on fire.  We made it back with no problem. ” With that response, I was satisfied that we were all in good hands.

After an hour, we were joined by a military transport.  Strapped to its belly was a huge lifeboat, which could be released at will, splash into the water, and presumably be available for survivors.  Comforting as this thought might be, the process by which we physically transfer our bodies from a plane at 8,000 feet to a boat hanging from the belly of another plane at 8,000 feet was anything but comforting.  A short time later, a third plane joined our small flock of military aircraft.  It was a seaplane capable of landing to retrieve our bodies, should they survive.  I concluded it was better not to anticipate the process.

We landed on Johnson Island, a beautiful atoll, which is exactly one mile long, a quarter of a mile wide, and twelve feet above sea level at its highest point.  Its function was to support the airstrip, which covered the island from one end to the other.  The Navy maintained the base as a support and repair facility as needed for planes straying into that part of the Pacific.  We had no idea how long we might be stranded on the island.  Shortly after our arrival, we were told the plane would require a replacement engine.  It would have to come from Hawaii or the mainland.  With this information, we prepared for an extended stay.

There were almost no trees on the island, making it difficult to imagine we had been stranded on a tropical paradise under waving palm trees.  At the same time, the weather was ideal, with temperatures ranging from 78 to 82 degrees in a gentle breeze always blowing across the island.  In addition to the regular meals through the commissary, and nice quarters for all on the plane, there was an officers club, which opened every day at noon.  As we were in a tropical climate, there were no windows in the club, only shutters to deflect the afternoon rains, when they came.  The comfortable furniture and the cold beer turned this austere atoll into a week of R&R from the traumatic first half of the flight overseas.  With luck, we might face the rest of the trip with a higher level of confidence.  Seven days later the plane’s engine was replaced, and was sitting on the tarmac at Johnson Island ready to go.  It is shown below in October 1954, a beautiful plane from a distance.  It was time to leave our tropical paradise.

R5D repaired and ready to go

Only one additional experience added to the level of anxiety I developed during the trip.  We landed on Iwo Jima where we picked up a radial engine for another aircraft.  It was huge, and was lashed tightly into the area directly between the wings, because its weight was a substantial load factor.  We required the entire length of the runway before lifting off.  When we did, the wings tips of the plane appeared to bend ten feet above their normal position.  I was convinced we would hit some heavy weather, and finish plunging between them.  It never happened.

Five days and two additional flights later I arrived in Sasebo where the Gardiner’s Bay was scheduled to dock.  I discovered deep breathing again, having survived my fourth airplane emergency.  This first flight overseas was, in my experience, the Mother of All Journeys.  Looking back upon it is a vastly superior experience.

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