Guarding Convoys of Oil Tankers – Coco Solo
In November 1943 VP-207 was transferred to Coco Solo in Panama. At Coco Solo we flew convoy coverage. I think the convoys were comprised of tankers transporting oil from Venezuela to the US.
We were relieved at Salinas by a squadron flying PB2Y airplanes. Why the Navy bought PB2Ys, I wonder. It was a 4 engine flying boat that seemed to have a lot of empty space. It did have one saving feature, the inboard engines had reversible propellers. These could help the pilot slow dowm on the water so the bow man could catch the bouy. Unfortunately one officer didn’t know this. When a PB2Y aborted a take off and came close to the beach he ordered the flight engineer to cut the engines. The pilot might have saved the airplane by reversing the inboards. The airplane finally broke up on the beach. The area commodore was the guilty officer.
Our convoy coverage out of Coco Solo was mostly done at night. We would usually take off at dusk and fly out to the convoy and circle it all night. We flew with 4 pilots and would alternate times on duty. One crew noticed as they circled the convoy there was a blip on their radar that appeared to be just outside the convoy on the opposite side. When they flew around the convoy the blip disappeared. They decided it might be a German sub, so they decided to fly low level across the convoy. When they got across they saw the sub and circled to attack but the sub surprisingly did not submerge but fired a shot at them. Even more surprising, they were hit. There was no major damage to the airplane. One crew member was hit. Ensign Kelsey, who was off duty as co-pilot got a small wound to his head. The outcome of this engagement was Ensign Kelsey got a purple heart medal and the sub submerged and got away.
The PBM could take off at a weight of 48,000 lbs., and could not stay in the air if one engine was lost at that weight. In April 1944 Lt.Van Alst and crew had taken off at that weight and in less than one hour the starboard engine quit. The airplane landed on the water, but the sea was rough and port float was torn off. The airplane began to sink, so the crew had to abandon ship. Van Alst sent an officer aft to start the evacuation, but the officer jumped in the big raft and shoved off. The rest of the crew had to hang on to the sides of a 2 man raft. Thanks to some flashlights in their life jackets they were seen by a nearby destroyer and picked up that night. The deserting officer was not found and picked up for two days. We never saw him after that. Nobody wanted to.
In May 1944 VP-207 left Panama to go to Key West Florida. I’m not sure why we went there. We spent about a week at Key West. I think we did some training flights. Really it was just a stop over for before flying to Bermuda, our next base.
Bermuda was nice. The air was so clean. We operated out of a bay. About once a week we got to see the Boeing built flying boat take off for its trip to Europe. I think its next stop was an island in the Azores. Its next stop and destination was Portugal which remained neutral during the war.
I don’t remember much about the missions we flew at Bermuda but I do remember a few interesting occurrences. Several of us went in to town for night life and entertainment. There wasn’t any. We went in to a bar and it was very quiet and boring so we gave up and went back to the base. There was some entertainment provided by Lt Van Alst and his friends. One evening Van called transportation for a jeep. Junior officers were not entitled to get transportation so he used a commanders name he knew of and he and a couple of friends took the jeep out on an expedition trip. They went to a dock and took a rowboat out to a merchant ship and climbed aboard and stole the ship’s bell. They took the bell back to boq and many evenings would have drinking parties while polishing the bell.
Another interesting thing I recall was when a Navy task force, including an aircraft carrier, disabled a German sub and boarded it after the crew abandoned ship. The sub was captured a few hundred miles east of Bermuda and was towed to Bermuda. The captured crew was brought ashore at Bermuda. I got to see the captured crew come ashore. They were a sorry looking group of men. I guess life aboard a sub was not good.
Applied for a Transfer to the Pacific
My friend Steve Gillmore and I got bored with life in Bermuda; our flying missions were not exciting and we did not enjoy getting drunk and polishing the bell. So we applied for a transfer to the Pacific where the Navys big war was going on. Surprisingly the transfer was granted.
We got orders to report to Norfolk Va. To be assigned VP-28 which was to be formed and go to the pacific. It was to be a new squadron of mariner sea planes. VP-28 didn’t happen; the Navy decided it didn’t need any more PBM squadrons in the Pacific. While waiting for my next assignment I got leave and went home to Kansas City. While there I met Ruth Williams who eventually became my wife.
My parents were in a social group with Ruth’s aunt and uncle, Ruth and John Davis. They brought Ruth along to a dinner which I attended with my parents. Ruth Williams was a very pretty girl so the next day I called Ruth for a date. We went to a party at the President Hotel in downtown Kansas City. For some reason I brought along Tuni who turned out to be weird. I think my parents neighbors talked me in to it. Tuni brought along a girl friend. Tuni tried to impress us all by drinking Zombies, a very intoxicating drink. After the second Zombie Tuni disappeared. I found him in the men’s room throwing up. In spite of that the evening was OK. During the rest of my leave I saw Ruth several times; we liked each other.
At the end of my leave I went back to Norfolk and asked to go back to sea. Steve Gillmore and I were both assigned to Chincoteague Virginia to go into PB4Y training.