THIS TIME HE SMILED
“Spider Webb, where in the hell have you been?” said Major General William L, “Skeeter” McKitterick, USMC when I approach him in March 1951 in the O-Club bar on Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, NC.
“Who, me?” “Is there another Spider Webb behind me?” I thought. Hell, it had been nine years since our only less than five-minute unhappy encounter in another world and another time – August 1942. There was absolutely no reason for him to remember the occasion; or me.
He was LtCol. McKitterick, commanding Marine Aircraft Group 24 at Goleta, CA and I a new 2 nd Lt. naval aviator, separated by a deep abyss in rank and experience – just a name on the group roster.
Completing my required monthly night-flying hours one night, I misjudged my final approach and clipped the power line servicing the base with the tail wheel of a hand-cranked wheels & flaps SBC-4, causing an immediate blackout and disrupting flight operations.
Taxiing to my squadron area following a jeep with blackout lights carrying the Group Officer of the Day brought me face to face with my CO, Captain James A. Booth. He was expressing pleasure that neither the plane nor I suffered any damage, when the Group Operations Officer Major Edward Authier arrived and the atmospheric temperature dropped.
My first official chewing-out include a not too well veiled threat of a possible future in a rifle company before being ordered to report to the Group CO at 0900 the next morning.
A restless night.
At 0845 the following morning I reported to the Group Adjutant, and at 0900 he knocked on the CO’s door and announced me. I was suffering from a severe lack of oxygen.
Col. McKitterick stood less than six feet to my six-feet-four, but I was definitely low man on that totem pole. He did not tell me to stand at ease, so I remained braced with perspiration trickling down my spine. I’m not certain as to the words he used but the message was loud and clear – don’t screw-up again on his watch. After a less then five-minute eternity I was dismissed, did an about face, and departed his office on wobbly legs, uncertain of my future in the Corps.
Captain Booth explained that my greatest sin was in blacking-out part of the town creating a public relations problem. Not all citizens were happy with marines for neighbors, and I had not helped the cause.
My fellow 2 nd Lts were anxious to hear my story for I was the first in the group to be hauled up on the carpet before the Group CO, which brought me fame and recognition among my peers. They didn’t want to abandon me -- nor stand too close at the moment.
I was never again close enough to salute and/or speak to Col. McKitterick before the group shipped out, and in December was promoted to 1 st Lt, indicating no blemish on my fitness report – a surprise and relief.
I was a major flying F7Fs in VMF(N) 531, MAG 24, 2 nd Marine Air Wing, Marine Corps Air Station, Cherry Point, NC in March 1951 attending the retirement party for Major General McKitterick as Wing CG, and found myself standing a few bar stools away watching a steady stream of well-wishers speak to him. I decided to get in line and introduce myself as one of his 2 nd Lts from Goleta days.
Before I could speak, he looked at me and said, “Spider Webb, where in the hell have you been?” I was speechless -- he not only recognized me but also remembered my name. Somehow I stammered that I returned to active duty from the Reserve Squadron in Birmingham. I had never spoken to a general before except to say “Yes, sir!”
He introduced me to a couple of people and starting talking about Goleta days. All the while I was hoping he would not remember the last time I had seen him. He then recounted the story of me blacking out the base and part of the town; however this time was different, for…
THIS TIME HE SMILED.
Lt. Col. (Ret.) Simon L. “Spider” Webb
ANOTHER DAY IN THE OFFICE
Ever try washing down powdered scrambled eggs with navy-issue coffee in a battered tin cup fifteen minutes after being shaken and told its time to get up, at a made-on-site one-piece chow table in a blacked-out field hospital ward tent camouflaged as an officer’s mess on an island you didn’t know existed a month before, at three am local time wearing boondockers (standard issue high top shoes) and a pungent navy-issue poplin flight suit? Oh, factor in 6:23S of the Equator where we slept in our skivvies (standard issue underwear) under mosquito netting. In my rush to outdistance the draft board, I had failed to read the fine print on the recruiting poster advertising “You too can be a Naval Aviator” in front of the Navy Recruiting Office in Little Rock, AR on July 26, 1941.
It was March 1944 and the Flying Goldbricks of VMSB (Marine Scout Bomber Squadron) 243, on their second Solomons tour, had the dawn strike (attack mission) from Green Island to Rabaul Harbor, about 150 nautical miles to the west where the early birds were know to find Jap ships.
Our friends and fellow pilots of VMSB-236 were sacked-out for it was their “off” day; all they had to look forward to was a hodge-podge of missions like artillery spotting for the 3rd Marine Division beachhead on Bougainville, chasing after fuzzily identified Jap ships perhaps within their range, maintaining planes on station for close air-ground support, the odd flight to Munda on New Georgia or even Henderson field on the Canal for spare parts, aircraft engine tests, anti-submarine patrols, a possible follow-up of our mission, or perhaps a totally new reason to be airborne courtesy of Strike Command’s inventive and sadistic operations staff. Yesterday they had the early breakfast, and we the shit details.
Two VMTB (Marine Torpedo Bomber) squadrons shared the day on/day off rotation. We occupied the same sleeping, mess and briefing areas. They took off after us for they were faster. We’d see them in the target area, and they got back before us. The fighters, Navy, Marine and New Zealand were based on another island and we only saw them in the target areas.
In many ways the early strike was the better deal for, unless something big developed while we were gone, we would be on stand-by on our return. That meant that we could sack-out after about 11 am. Standby meant one division in the briefing tent, two divisions on fifteen minute alert, rotating every two hours within the squadron; so we couldn’t wander afar. Also, while all flights are entered in one’s flight log, strikes were highlighted and were all that counted as combat flights. One could spend a career flying the shit details and not be considered a combat pilot. Being a combat pilot was the only sure way to get rotated stateside at a reasonable time in one piece. Combat pilots felt superior to the trash haulers in their transports who slept in buildings on clean sheets at their rear base. At times we envied the hell out of them, too.
Wake-up was some wise guy shaking your cot while pointing a flashlight in your face and saying “Time to rise,” but usually something more colorful. Often there were spontaneous knee slapping retorts worthy of a present day sitcom. We slept four to a pyramidal tent so, if not the first wakened, we knew he was with us before we got the treatment.
Knowing the drill, we operated in the dark on autopilot when awakened. Get out from under the net, fumble for your flight suit, get into it hoping it wasn’t already inhabited by creatures we would rather not imagine, zip it up, shake out and put on socks, fish for your boondockers, shake them out and put them on, then head for the blacked-out chow tent by way of the head (toilet – often just a slit trench). (There were three important things to locate in each pilots camp: 1) the head, 2) the chow tent, and 3) the briefing tent. Don’t worry about the flight line for they had transport and it was their job to get us there. Ships Store and PX were rear echelon luxuries. Booze ration was the 2 oz of medicinal brandy issued after a strike. A very large plus for strike duty.
In the Solomons, a squadron had about forty pilots. Whereas stateside we had twenty-five and eighteen aircraft, here we flew someone else’s planes. Our ground echelon was still at our rear base on Efate, New Hebrides, for only the flight echelon was rotated into the combat zone. Sure cut down on logistics, for they could airlift us in and take out those replaced in one day. We got VIP treatment – top priority – going and coming. (The trash haulers never spent the night.) The rest of the time we just stood in line and hoped for the best – even when going on R&R.
After breakfast we got our gear – cloth helmet, goggles & gloves, Mae West jacket with shark-repellent pouch and yellow dye marker, pistol belt with pistol, cartridge pack, first aid kit, canteen and knife; and our personal chart board with E6B dial computer. (We called them ouija boards.) We kept pencils, note pads, candy bars, etc. in our flight suit pockets. Last thing was to leave all identification except dog tags in our sea bags; then trudge by the head going to the briefing tent.
The briefing tent was the bailiwick of a group of former professor types and three combat experienced naval aviators. Commander “Swede” Larson, whose torpedo squadron made history in the Guadalcanal campaign, ran Strike Command. He knew of what he spoke.
We huddled on benches with our note pads ready while the professor types identified the targets from aerial photos taken the day before. Our ouija boards were round and featured 500-mile radius maps with our base at the center. Grease pencils enabled us to make markings and notes on the surface. We were given radio frequencies, identification codes, plane assignments and formation details; plus TOT (time on target), rescue facility availability, latest info on safe areas on nearby islands and how to approach the natives. We Indians didn’t ask many questions but our Commanding Officer, Executive Officer and Flight Officer could and did. One time Swede asked Tom Ahearn, our CO, what he thought about a particular target, and Tom replied, Commander, my fighting blood just went to my bladder.
This particular morning we were briefed on several Jap ships reported to be in Rabaul Harbor the night before. My division was to hit the most northern transport. Chances were they left over night and we might catch them on the west side of New Ireland headed north toward Truk. If underway, we were to hit the most northeastern one. The plan was to fly northwest and cross New Ireland to be in position to pursue, attack, or fly south to Rabaul and hit the ships or secondary targets. Early fighter reconnaissance flights should tell us where the ships were or thought to be. Hey, nothing was cut-and-dried in our operations. We always had secondary, and sometime tertiary, targets depending on the target area weather and/or new information received after our briefing. The one advantage we had over our Navy fellow pilots was our base wasn’t going to sink or fail to be in the designated location when we returned. (When on Bougainville we did have to circle offshore a couple of times while the Japs shelled the strip.)
We climbed aboard open top trucks after the briefing, to be driven to the flight line in the dark. We were pretty quiet. I, for one, was rehearsing the briefing in my mind and as a captain and division (two three-plane segments) leader trying to assume my most leaderly posture and bearing for the captain and four lieutenants who were counting on me to bring them safely back. Scared? Hell, yes. Afraid is not a Marine option. I most appreciated being single, for a wife was one less thing for me to worry about.
The flight line, a series of revetments, was blacked out and as our trucks drove by the plane captains called their number, someone would holler “whoa”, the truck would stop to let that one off, then proceed. A very high tech operation! With no regular plane assignments we were to fly planes we had probably never flown before; with full faith in the ground crews. A walk around inspection is very difficult in the dark even with a plane captain holding a hooded flash light. I had an ace in the hole. Sylvester “Sal” Garalski, my radio gunner for almost a year, was a trained aviation machinist mate who volunteered for flight duty. Sal was always at our plane before me and did his own walk around before I arrived. He was going up in it too!
This particular morning he met me and said everything was ok before I did my walk around and signed the yellow sheet accepting the plane. (We only saw our gunners on the flight line and tried to give them a brief outline of what we hoped to accomplish on the flight before getting into the plane. Afterwards we had the intercom to exchange information.) Pilots climbed aboard over the right wing root while the plane captain stood on the left to assist getting our seat-pack parachutes and shoulder straps adjusted, our rag helmet radio cord plugged in, and exchange any last minute comments. I had flown the plane before so we had some rapport. They took great pride in their planes and appreciated pilots who brought them back not too much the worse for wear. They didn’t hold us responsible for bullet holes, flak damage or the holes we bit in the parachutes.
Here is a good time to tell you penguins about darkness, for there are many variations – from the proverbial dark and stormy night type to clear dark-of-the-moon type. All naval aviators were required to get in a minimum of two nighttime hours each month to maintain proficiency. When WW2 started the older pilots not in a squadron would try to pick moonlit nights – thus coining the phrase ”a field officers moon.” When WW2 was over the experienced pilots much preferred a clear dark-of-the-moon night. I sure did.
Darkness on the ground and being up in it are two different things. When one is boring holes in the black, darkness takes on a life of its own and plays mind games with ones vertigo, like giving you the feeling you are upside down. Only solution is to blink hard and take a hard look at the gauges, for you may be and must take corrective action. If not, just shake your head and thank God for the gauges. Also, airplanes emit strange noises in darkness and tend to want to take over; this is when discipline, procedures and control must rule if one is to meet the gang at happy hour.
This particular night had been low overcast, which made for poor visibility and a lousy time for formation flying. With a prediction of possible overcast and squalls in the target area, we knew we were going to earn our flight pay that day. Our infantry-type friends always said, “We know how you earn your flight pay, but wonder how you earn your base pay.” At least it wasn’t raining. The Douglas Dauntless SBD had a single rotary engine with a partial exhaust collector ring, so exhaust flames initially blinded us when we saddled up and headed out for take off. Jeeps with blackout lights led us to the taxiway where we could turn on our running lights and hope we were following the correct plane.
Our standard flight formation was two step-down vees of divisions. The skipper or exec lead the first and the exec or flight officer the second; as one of the three always remained on base so we couldn’t lose all three at one time. I led the 3rd division in the first vee – to the leaders starboard. If there were more than thirty-six, the extras would form astern the second vee.
Daytime practice was to take off in three plane sections but at night singly, so I was not able to identify the plane ahead until it pulled into the runway and I could make out its tail markings. Rack up another for the line chief; he got us out in proper order. I was number thirteen to take off so I revved-up, checked my mags, swallowed hard, grit my teeth and in full pucker, released the brakes. There were subdued directional runway lights and the running lights of the plane ahead for guidance. After airborne I kept scanning the turn-and-bank indicator, air speed, rate of climb instruments (we had no artificial horizons) and the lights ahead while getting the wheels up – actually I could see the exhausts and lights of several planes ahead.
We were then over the ocean, and you haven’t seen black until you see the ocean at night under an overcast. We made a standard rendezvous and there were enough running lights visible for me to get us in position to the starboard and below the skipper. By this time we had completed a 180 and were approaching the island under the overcast. Then all hell broke loose!
Marine Corps standing order: EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED. For some reason never given us, a New Zealand anti-aircraft 20mm battery opened fire. (Another bite out of my parachute.) We were still under an about 2500’ overcast with our running lights on, and had just taken off over them. When tracers lit up our sky, and despite being on radio silence, several expletives and garbled messages erupted. I automatically turned starboard with no way to give any hand signals. My lads followed; I could see my wingmen, Tom Wyatt to port and Richard Mulberry to starboard, and Sal said the second section was in place. Sal kept other formations in sight but before I could maneuver toward them the skipper said plan B, which was the alternate rendezvous area.
As I was headed away from what had been a formation, I opted to climb through the overcast and came out at about 6000’ only to find an about 75% overcast higher. (OK, buddy, this is what I was trained for and my people expected; so lead! Also, this is how flight suits get pungent, gloves discolored and helmets sweat stained.) Plan B was a point at 10,000’ bearing 75 degrees and approximately 20 miles from the lighthouse on the southern tip of New Ireland. Sounded easy in the briefing room – it was a well-known and recognized landmark in good weather. (Also, that is where Marine ace – 25 kills – Bob Hansen was shot down strafing the area.)
The sky was rapidly getting a pre-dawn look as we gained altitude and made a dead-reckoning approach. I spotted a couple of formations ahead and above that, about the time I was ready to turn and hide from, began to circle and join up and turned out to be our SBDs. I joined up on the skipper. We were still under radio silence and I knew his gunner had informed him that we were there. There was a mean-looking wall of weather over New Ireland that looked impenetrable to me. No other planes joined us and in about a half-hour someone came on the air saying return to base. (We learned later that the skipper’s radio was out.) The skipper led us down through the lower overcast and on arrival discovered a large rainsquall covered most of the island. We circled offshore at least 30 minutes before the squall moved enough to make out identifying landmarks.
The skipper signaled right echelon and my buddy Bob Marshall slid his 2nd division under us to our starboard. The skipper put his division in line astern and proceeded toward the still unseen runway along the southeast shore, disappearing into the squall. I took a deep breath and followed suit. I was at about 200’, wheels and flaps down, with canopy open getting drenched when I spotted the runway, made a port turn and touched down. Whew, what a relief. I taxied to the end closing my landing flaps and fishtailed looking for planes ahead and hoping one wasn’t on my tail. An open jeep with two soaked marines appeared to lead us back to the flight line. As I turned to follow them Sal said all my boys were behind us. Tremendous feeling of accomplishment.
We stood under a wing to sign the yellow sheet – with no discrepancies. The squall moved on as we rode back to the debriefing tent where that first cup of coffee sure hit the spot. My flight suit was beginning to dry by time I got to my tent to towel off, put on dry skivvies and sack out till lunch.
What did we accomplish that day? We didn’t lose a plane. We brought back our bombs. We didn’t fire a round. We burned a lot of gas. We got two hours of nighttime flying. We got our 2oz of brandy, which most saved for happy hour. We earned our flight pay, and had a good topic to critique at happy hour.
What did we learn that day? We did what we were trained to do. We gave it our all with no visible payoff. We gained confidence. We gained a lot of mutual respect among ourselves. We remembered the old saying, if you want to wear those wings, you gotta go; but you don’t gotta come back. We went, came back, and stood a little taller.
Bob shook me when the chow tent opened for lunch. I got into some clothes and walked over wondering what the supply boys had provided that day. Given the way the day had started, it would probably be that damned Australian mutton again, Ugh!
What the hell, it still counted toward twenty; and we were one day closer to going stateside.
Semper Fi, Mac!
Lt. Col. (Ret.) Simon L. “Spider” Webb