A short story by
Michel David Lowe
Chief Petty Officer Woodrow August Wilson kicked beach sand and, though he rarely swore, he shouted “FUCK!” at the timeless sea. He stared northeast over the Caribbean, his hand shielding his gaze like some archetype nautical statue. He punched his left palm with his right fist over and over and over again.
A sailor in fatigues ran toward Woody Wilson, grabbed his shoulder to spin him around. Woody recognized the radioman and demanded, “Well?”
“No word from the Missoula, Chief.”
Woody said, “You run all the way from the radio shack to tell me you don’t know anything? The fuck is wrong with you, seaman?” He returned to watching, pacing, and punching his hand.
“I’m sure they’ll make it. Johnny Walker Red is a crackerjack flyer.”
Woody didn’t look back at the radioman. “Thanks, pal.”
By now word had spread across the base that a PBY had been shot up bad; an informal all-hands call passed word of mouth from enlisted and officer alike. A crowd was starting to form on the beach but everyone knew to leave Woody Wilson alone.
He saw the plane before he heard it. Partly it was the distance, the breeze blowing out to sea carrying the sound with it. Partly it was the fact that the PBY was limping home on only one engine.
Johnny Walker Red seemed to be skimming the waves, maybe no more than ten or twenty feet off the deck. Finally he pulled the nose up to stall the wings. The airship slapped the Caribbean waves hard, then continued motoring toward the sailors on the beach.
Without orders men waded into the surf toward the airboat.
“Forget the beaching gear!” Woody shouted. “Just reel ‘er in, boys!”
Sailors abandoned the temporary wheels used to roll the PBY up the concrete ramp and onto dry land. They plunged into waist deep water. A seaman snapped the tow hook onto the plane and circled his arm in the air. On the ramp a sailor sitting on the powerful tow motor gunned its engine and squealed its tires as he popped the clutch. The tractor pulled the cable taut. As the mule inched up the ramp the PBY’s nose swung round and lurched toward dry land and safety.
The assembled men could see oil or hydraulic fluid leaking from the sooty pilot’s side engine. The plane listed to starboard but it looked like the port wing was drooping, too, as if it might fall off into the water. Woody’s keen eye for sheet metal spotted the bullet exit holes on top of both wings; he presumed there were similar holes in the bottom and top of the plane as well.
He ran into the surf and slapped on the hull of the PBY as it left the water and scraped and grinded its way up the launch ramp. Water ran from bullet holes stretching the length of the hull. The water was pink, then red as if the airplane were bleeding out on the concrete.
The topside hatch popped open and the first head appeared. A boatswain’s mate named Rinkert waved and the crowd of sailors on the beach cheered as if Betty Grable had just popped out of a cake.
Tubby Rinkert wiped blood from his eyes but it continued to stream from his scalp, into his face, across his bare chest and out of sight. He had loose meat on his belly. Woody wondered if they were bloody pieces of his little brother?
What about Andy?
* * *
The PBY banked and began a slow right turn. The pilot, Lieutenant Junior Grade Jonathan “Johnny Walker Red” Carter, pressed the throat mic against his larynx and thumbed the push-to-talk button on the airplane’s yoke.
“By the numbers, ladies.”
He heard snoring and fart noises in response.
“Come on now, there’s a Kraut U-boat down there and you sleeping beauties wouldn’t even see it.”
The port gunner winked at the starboard gunner and touched his own throat mic. “Kiss my ass, junior,” said Tubby Rinkert. At twenty-two, Tubby was the oldest man in the plane and entitled to lord it over everyone on board, even the officers.
The starboard gunner made the fisted jerk-off motion to Tubby who grinned back and leaned close to the starboard gunner.
“Ninety day wonder,” shouted the starboard gunner trying to be heard above the thundering drone of the twin engines. The starboard gunner, a petty officer third named Andrew Wilson, didn’t know if Tubby heard him or not but the port gunner nodded vigorously.
“OK then, keep your eyes peeled,” came Johnny Walker Red’s plaintive whine.
The PBY’s flight plan was to fly great figure eights at a thousand feet above the Caribbean Ocean. Nuclear submarines spend months on end submerged, but in 1943 submarines spent most of their time on the surface. German U-boats assigned to disrupt the Panama Canal shipping routes cruised the surface and only submerged to stalk prey or to escape from sub hunters like the PBY circling over head.
The Navy’s first line of defense against enemy submarines was to send PBYs on great circling lookout missions. When a patrol plane spotted a sub, the navy dispatched a destroyer or a cruiser to close on it and sink it with depth charges.
In 1942 the German submarines fled at the sight of a PBY circling over head. The sub would dive and the plane would drop dye markers to show where it had submerged. And sometimes the PBYs themselves would bomb the subs with depth charges. The “B” in PBY stood for “bomber,” after all and each plane carried six charges.
The ocean’s depths were the best defense and worst enemy of the German subs. Under water they could hide and hope the circling planes and sonar-pinging ships would tire of the pursuit. With only a few hours of battery life to power the boat, the submarine had limited options for escape. And under water a submarine could only crawl at a few knots speed.
But in ’43 the U-boat captains developed a new strategy. They discovered that if they shot down the PBY spotter plane their odds of escape increased.
German subs had an eighty-eight millimeter deck gun, a cannon useful for shelling merchant vessels, and a twenty millimeter heavy machine gun. And of course torpedoes. Torpedoes and deck guns were useless against the spotter planes, but the 20mm machine gun was perfect for ruining the day for a Navy PBY and its crew.
A PBY was no more than an aluminum boat with wings. A scaled down version of the famous Pan Am clipper air ship, it was a hull of thin aluminum with an over head wing, two rotary engines, and twin fifty caliber machine guns poking out of port and starboard windows. German 20mm machine guns fired hundreds of rounds per second, and each slug was longer and bigger around than a man’s thumb. Such slugs punched holes in PBYs like an ice pick through toilet paper.
But to fire at a PBY a German sailor had to stand on the deck of the pitching submarine, exposed to the sun and spray and especially Navy fifty caliber machine guns. Fifty cals fire bullets a half-inch in diameter and the submarine deck, streamlined for maximum under water speed, had nothing to shield its gunner while he tried to shoot down the PBY.
So by 1943 anti-submarine warfare in the waters off the Panama Canal Zone was a matter of spotting the German U-boat before he spotted the spotter plane. If the PBY saw the sub before the sub’s lookouts spotted the PBY, then fifty caliber machine gun slugs would do a nice job of clearing the U-boat’s deck and chasing it under water.
The Navy’s tactic was to send up plenty of PBYs and hope they spotted the U-boats on the surface charging their batteries before the German’s spotted the PBY.
The PBY had a forward gunner but because of the high-pitched nose, he could not look down at the sea below him. His gun position was useful for defending against enemy aircraft – there were none in the Panama Canal Zone and Caribbean basin. So the nose gunner was usually a passenger though the waist gunners almost always pressed the nose gunner into relief duty.
And the plane should have been manned by a crew of eight but due to more pressing manpower demands in the Caribbean theatre, the Navy chose to send Canal Zone PBYs up with a crew of six – two pilots and four crewmen. The pilots were officers, the crew enlisted men nominally charged with maintaining the aircraft or the base. But navy sheet metal workers, cooks, mechanics and radiomen doubled as gunners on the PBYs for their constant patrols.
The PBY came in two flavors, the 5 and the 5A. The 5A had retractable wheels for landing at sea or on a conventional runway. The model 5 had no wheels; it could only land on water. What the model 5 lacked in flexibility it more than made up for in fuel and ammunition capacity. Without the added weight of the tricycle wheels and their hydraulic pumps and valves the model 5 had a greater operating range and more firepower than the 5A.
And the model 5 didn’t need wheels anyway. Upon landing in the sea near the beach its recovery crew would wade out to the floating PBY and attach temporary beaching gear – detachable wheels – so the plane could be towed through the surf to a concrete ramp and into hangers and workshops for service and refueling.
Its machine guns poked out the sides of the plane, the gunners protected by bulging glass acrylic bubble windows. This meant that for the gunners to shoot a submarine the pilot had to fly circles above the sub with the plane banked onto its side. The gunner would fire until he chased the Germans off the deck and into the sub or until he ran out of ammo. In that case the pilot would swing the plane around and bank to the opposite side to let the other gunner take his shots at the sub.
In the Panama Canal Zone in 1943 there were two functions for sailors attached to an air wing: fly patrol and patch up PBYs that got hit. Johnny Walker Red was an officer and a pilot and his one and only job was to fly PBYs. Machinist’s Mate Tubby Rinkert and Petty Officer Third Class Andy Wilson were part time gunners and full time tinsmiths.
There’s an old saying in the operating room that the practice of anesthesiology is hours of tedium punctuated by minutes of terror. Soldiers and sailors have always known warfare to be the same.
To pass the hours of tedium sailors will tell each other lies, play cards, drink, and sleep. PBY-122 was equipped for all those contingencies. Johnny Walker Red earned his nickname through serious and diligent application; Tubby Rinkert was an inveterate card shark; Andy Wilson snoozed whenever possible. Early on in the Navy Andy had learned the military maxim perhaps first codified in the army of Hannibal: don’t walk when you can ride and don’t stand when you can sit. And never pass up a nap.
Though sleeping on patrol was generally frowned upon in the Navy, it was nevertheless customary for most PBYs to carry a cot mattress for a weary sailor to catch forty winks during the long patrol flights. With no insulation from the roar of the twin Pratt & Whitney rotary engines, only the most determined or weary sailor actually slept in the seaplanes.
And to his dying day Andy Wilson insisted he was not sleeping that day in March 1943 when PBY-122 crossed swords with U-257 over the azure waters seventy miles north east of the Panama Canal.
Johnny Walker Red had been on forward lookout duty with the copilot, Ensign Thomas Cherry, flying the plane through a miles-long banking left turn. Johnny Walker Red and Tubby Rinkert were the lookouts. Ensign Cherry righted the plane to straight and level flight, ready to return control to Lieutenant Carter who would then pilot the plane in the long right hand banking turn while Cherry and Andy Wilson searched for enemy subs.
During the time the PBY is flying straight and level it is essentially flying blind to the waters beneath it. The waist gunners can look down at an angle and fire the big chain guns, but not at a target directly below. The nose gunner can see and shoot straight ahead, but, like the waist gunners, he is blind to the ocean below. That is why the pilots fly banking circles – to afford the gunners both visibility and opportunity should a suitable target come into view.
U-257 had been hunted by a Navy cruiser yesterday. The Missoula had very nearly caught her prey. But for the guile of her captain who pushed his crew and his boat beyond what should have been possible to endure, U-257 would have been sunk by Missoula. Her captain had killed the screws, taken on sufficient seawater ballast to neutralize and then reverse her buoyancy, and allowed his boat to settle into the soft bottom of the sea.
The sub lay there, silent, beneath the waves all day yesterday and all night. With no cavitation sounds or engine noises to home in on, the cruiser could do nothing but circle aimlessly where the submarine might be, banging away at the sea floor with active sonar pings. Eventually Missoula’s props receded as she gave up and resumed her patrol.
U-257 lay in its sandy berth. The air became stale and heavy and still the sub remained submerged. Hours more passed and the lights began to dim as the batteries’ gave up their last amps.
When all reasonable men and all unreasonable men would have given the order to surface, U-257’s captain held his sub on the bottom. When his chief engineer reported there was no longer enough power to turn the screws, he nodded and dismissed the man. When the lights finally flickered out, the captain ordered his men to use flashlights to operate the valves that opened the compressed air tanks and blow the seawater ballast from the submarine.
A Teutonic cheer erupted when U-257 shifted and then began its slow ascent to the surface. When the sub breached, all hatches were thrown open to flood the boat with fresh salt air. The first man on deck looked up to the sky and saw that U-257 had surfaced directly beneath the belly of an American patrol plane.
With the boat’s batteries dead it was impossible to submerge again. The diesel engines underway, U-257’s captain decided he had hidden from the American Navy long enough. Here is where they would stand and fight.
The crew already had U-257’s heavy machine gun assembled and an ammunition belt loaded. The gunner looked to his captain standing in the submarine’s sail. The captain shielded his lighter from the fresh breeze, lit a long overdue cigarette, looked back to his machine gunner and shouted, “Feuern!”
The trick to firing any rifle is that the bullet doesn’t follow a straight line path to its target. Instead, gravity pulls the bullet inexorably and constantly toward the center of the earth the instant it leaves the gun barrel. To shoot straight at a target is to shoot short of the target, to miss low. The gun’s sights, if they are properly adjusted for the distance to the target, trick the marksman into aiming his weapon above the target so that the combination of forward velocity and gravity will send the bullet in an arc to its destiny.
Trying to shoot a heavy machine gun that is bucking from recoil with every one of the hundred shots per minute while aiming up at an airplane a thousand feet in the air above you throws all the geometry and calculus of good marksmanship out the window.
The truth of the matter is that even the most skilled machine gunner is just making an educated guess when he releases his first volley. He has to aim high, maybe wide if there’s a cross wind, lead his target, that is, aim ahead of what he really wants to hit, all with no knowledge of such absolutely essential data as the target’s true altitude and velocity.
Thank God for tracers.
Every tenth machine gun bullet fired contains a special compound that trails after the slug leaving a trace of burning gun powder and magnesium in its wake. Tracers are like illuminated arrows pointing the path of the bullets. Shooting tracer rounds the gunner can simply direct his gun like a fireman aims his hose, ignoring the quadratic equations that describe the projectile’s arcing path, but noting where the water goes and then moving the stream until it hits what he’s aiming at.
As U-257’s first few machine gun slugs arced toward PBY-122 the patrol plane’s crew exchanged pleasantries over the intercom system.
“By the numbers ladies.”
Fake snoring followed by fart noises filled the pilot’s ears.
“Come on now, there’s a Kraut U-boat down there and you sleeping beauties wouldn’t even see it.”
“Kiss my ass, junior.”
Tubby Rinkert leaned in close to Andy Wilson so he could hear. Andy always came up with the cleverest lines.
“Ninety day wonder,” Andy shouted leaning toward Tubby.
By leaning close to Tubby in order to better disparage their pilot, Andy Wilson lived another day.
Only one round of U-257’s first volley struck its target.
The German machine gun slug passed through the aluminum bottom of PBY-122 with no more resistance than an X-ray through skin. It flattened slightly and veered a hair to the right, but that was all. It passed through thin air where moments ago Petty Officer Andy Wilson’s head had been and then struck the handle of his .50 caliber machine gun shattering both handle and trigger.
Tubby saw Andy’s gun handle shatter and pointed for Andy to turn around. Andy looked and saw that his machine gun was ruined but did not immediately grasp the significance of the fact until a row of holes appeared in the bottom of the plane, dancing an irregular pattern like a drunken seamstress zigzagging what should have been a straight hemstitch.
Andy and Tubby shouted into the intercom at the same time and the result was a stew.
“Fuck-my-Kraut-sub-shot!” was the best Johnny Walker Red and Tom Cherry could understand.
“What the hell’s going on back there?” asked Ensign Cherry. Johnny Walker Red didn’t wait for the answer. Without warning he tromped on the left rudder pedal and pushed the yoke forward and hard left. The big plane nosed over into a power dive and banked fifty degrees.
U-257 and a stream of arcing tracers swung into view in Johnny Walker Red’s side window. The gunner on deck was slow to respond to the spotter plane’s sudden maneuver and his third volley was wide right of the mark.
Tubby released a hellfire spray of machine gun slugs. Spent cartridges spewed from the gun’s ejectors with some rattling onto the plane’s floor and some flying out the gun port.
As the PBY spiraled in both gunners got their bearings and they homed in on each other. German slugs whistled in through the port side of the plane and out through the over head fuselage. American slugs splashed the ocean beside the submarine then thumped onto its deck then off the other side into the ocean.
The German firing paused momentarily while the U-boat’s crew loaded another ammo belt; Tubby didn’t stop firing for an instant. His slugs panged the deck around the submarine’s machine gun chewing men and machinery like a meat grinder. Bone and blood sprayed as slugs tore the gunner in half and took off another crewman’s leg. The German machine gun spun round on its gimbals like a clock with its hands gone crazy.
Tubby swept the deck sending German sailors overboard and headfirst into hatches. One man remained on deck, at the command post atop the sub’s sail. He smoked a cigarette and stared at the American plane. Tubby swung his gun around to address this Kraut – he was either courageous or desperate to finish his smoke. Either way, he was a dead Kraut.
And that was when Tubby’s gun stopped firing.
“I’m dry,” he shouted into the intercom.
“Starboard gun, heads up!” said Johnny Walker Red as he leveled off the plane and then banked steeply right. “This cat’s got a taste for mouse!”
Looking through the copilot’s side window he could see the sub swinging back into view. But Wilson wasn’t firing!
“Starboard gun, starboard gun, shoot the fucking Krauts!” he shouted, but Wilson’s gun remained silent.
The submarine had another gun crew in place and was busy reloading. The German gunner stood behind his gun, cocked it, and opened fire on the right side of the PBY.
“Wilson choked!” Ensign Cherry shouted to Lieutenant Carter. “He’s too scared to shoot back at ‘em!”
“Starboard gunner, shoot your fucking gun or I’ll come back there and shoot you!” Johnny Walker Red howled into the intercom.
“My gun’s fucked!” shouted Wilson, forgetting to activate his intercom. Switching it on, he repeated his message. “They shot up my gun, skipper! It’s FUBAR and don’t shoot!”
As answer a line of German slugs punched through the fuselage leaving thumb sized entrance and fist sized exit holes. Slugs danced along the PBY’s ribs, its aluminum frame, leaving gashes, gouges, and holes in the airplane’s bones. Wilson’s gun mount shattered and Wilson dove for the deck. By this time Tubby had fed another ammo belt into his gun.
“Skip, port side’s reloaded!” Tubby said.
“Hang on,” was Johnny Walker Red’s reply.
Johnny Walker Red yanked the yoke, stomped the rudder pedal and barrel rolled the PBY and now Tubby was pointing his machine gun straight down at the sub. He unleashed his fifty-caliber fury and exploded his second German machine gunner.
The captain sucked in his last lung full of smoke and tossed the butt into the Caribbean. Shouting rapid-fire orders, he and his crew ducked to the safety of their boat. A steel hull sufficient to withstand the pressures of many fathoms of water was impervious to the machine gun bullets fired from the American airplane.
The battle had lasted less than three minutes.
“I think we got our asses shot off,” said Ensign Cherry.
“Yeah, but I don’t want these Krauts to get away,” answered Lieutenant Carter. “Phone in our position. I’m gonna crack that egg.”
Cherry tried to radio base but couldn’t raise anyone on any frequency. Finally he picked up the Missoula, a cruiser that was about an hour away.
Johnny Walker Red leveled out the PBY and looped around for a pass over the submarine. The depth charges hanging beneath the plane’s wings were preset to twenty-five, fifty, and seventy-five feet. If he dropped a twenty-fiver close enough to the sub the shock wave might rupture its hull, maybe sink her, but for certain keep her on the surface. No Kraut dives a leaky U-boat.
The PBY nosed over as Johnny Walker Red pushed it into a shallow dive toward the submarine. Two sailors poked their heads from hatches and began firing grease guns at the plane but without tracers it was impossible for them to tell for sure where their bullets flew.
The yoke bucked in Johnny Walker Red’s hands. Control surfaces rebelled at the disrupted airflow over them and through their bullet holes shaking the plane as she dived.
Ensign Cherry released the twenty-fives with a hearty, “Bombs away!”
To keep the airplane balanced depth bombs were dropped in pairs, one from beneath each wing. The port and starboard charges tumbled toward the submarine as Lieutenant Carter pulled back on the yoke. His plane leveled and then began to climb as he poured on the gas.
The two gunners had to poke their heads into their bubble windows to follow the bombs as they flew toward the boat. They struck the water at the same time. One arrowed into the Caribbean while the other, striking a wave, skipped like a stone across a pond. The wave hopping depth bomb skipped once, twice, arced onto the deck of the submarine and ricocheted off the sail and into the water beside the sub.
The first bomb exploded twenty yards from the boat sending a geyser of seawater into the air and raining on the deck. Then the second one went off.
Because of its crazy trajectory the second bomb went off almost directly beneath the U-boat, a fifty-five gallon drum of high explosive detonating mere feet from the sub’s hull. The force of the explosion lifted the boat out of the water! It bobbed on the waves and began listing to starboard.
Men poured from her hatches.
A few minutes later Cherry spoke up.
“I hate to break up the fun, but we’re running out of gas. Krauts must have nicked a tank or something.”
Johnny Walker Red scowled at the gauges then made a command decision. “Tell the tin can we can’t stick around any longer. Let the rust pickers earn their pay.” Then he switched on the intercom. “You boys OK back there?”
The first word Chief Petty Officer Woodrow Wilson heard about PBY-122 was that it was limping in after taking a shellacking from a Kraut sub. He nearly shit.
Woodrow Wilson and his younger brother Andrew had requested and been granted the same posting, not unusual in the pre-war Navy. These days this was not such a good idea.
In November 1942, on Friday the Thirteenth, a Japanese submarine torpedoed the cruiser Juneau in the Solomon Islands. Seven hundred sailors including five brothers from Iowa named Sullivan went to Davy Jones’ locker.
The Army sent out word to break up families serving in the same unit. Navy brass considered the same policy but in the end rejected it and settled instead on a recommendation that sailors handle the situation on their own by one of them requesting a transfer. But throughout the war it was possible for brothers to serve together on the same ship or mend broken PBYs in the same Panama Canal Zone. Though Chief Woody Wilson and his brother were technically in different units – they served in sister squads under the same lieutenant – they repaired the same aircraft and flew the same missions. Just not together.
There was little extra space in the radio shack, but the Wilson brothers had managed to squeeze a cot into a corner. They stood watch for each other: if Woody was flying patrol, Andy monitored the mission from the radio shack. Likewise Woody paced, drank bad coffee, or snoozed while Andy was in the air. It wasn’t as if they could help each other but more like a psychic bond that stretched from the one on land to the one at sea, like some of the safety and security of the earth could extend an umbrella to the other one.
Woody was three years older than Andy and a petty officer second grade by the time his little brother was old enough to enlist. Big brother had done his best to watch over little brother, but it was a big navy and sometimes things happened that were beyond even a Chief Petty Officer’s control. Like the time Andy picked a fight with a petty officer third class who just happened to be the fleet’s welterweight champ. It seemed like he ought to be able to take the smart-ass little boatswain’s mate, but the smaller sailor had mopped the deck with Andy.
And there was another time when Andy got into a scrape with some dame in Virginia Beach, or rather, her husband the MP. How was he supposed to know she had a husband and that he had a Colt .45 on his hip?
But throughout all his adventures in the navy, Andy had managed to keep his skin in one piece. Until now.
Maybe he was OK this time, too. Woody raced to the radio shack. A jumble of emotions tumbled through his head at once: fear, anger, remorse.
Because Woody wasn’t at his usual perch in the radio shack, pacing and drinking burnt coffee while his little brother was in harm’s way.
There had been this girl. Not your ordinary Panamanian whore mind you but a clean girl, a nice girl. And somehow after a night of romance with this nice girl, Woody had over slept and his baby brother had gone on patrol with him lying in the arms of the nice girl and now Andy had been shot up by the goddamn Krauts.
An electrician’s mate the brothers played poker with was working on some of the gear in the radio shack when the call from PBY122 came in. The duty officer pulled the crew manifest and read off the names of the men on board. The electrician heard “Wilson, AJ, Petty Officer Third Class” and ran out of the radio shack looking for Woody Wilson.
The electrician’s mate found the missing Wilson brother with the nice girl from last night. Woody grabbed his shirt as he fled from the nice girl’s bungalow, hitched up his pants and ran faster.
When he reached the radio shack, Woody burst through the door and ran up to the duty officer. Panting he said, “Lieutenant, my little brother is on PBY-122.”
The LT whistled. “They got shot up pretty bad today.”
“Any casualties, sir?”
“Krauts shot the shit out of the plane and that’s the God’s honest truth, Chief. They’re down to one engine, structural damage. Even shot the aerial off the plane. We couldn’t hardly raise ‘em on the radio. Had to relay everything through a tin can.”
“But the men?”
“No word. Let’s just hope Johnny Walker Red can land what’s left of his plane.”
The ride back to base was less tedious than usual for PBY-122 and her crew. The plane alternated engine gasps with bone shaking shudders. The number one engine finally gave up the ghost ten miles from the Canal Zone.
Aeronautical engineers will praise the virtues of twin engine aircraft with their superior speed and lift. And if you lose an engine, you’re not powerless because you’ve still got the second engine.
But the funny thing about having a German submarine shoot out one of your engines is that you are not comforted by that remaining lone rotary Pratt. You pray, God, don’t take my last engine!
The pilot and copilot were too busy keeping the craft aloft to enter into philosophical discourse or religious contemplation. They dealt with feathering the prop on the dead engine, switching the flow of fuel between the wing tanks to keep the plane balanced, calculating weight, airspeed, and distance, and steering an airplane that insists it wants to fly in left hand circles while they wanted it to fly straight and level.
But the gunners in back are another matter. With the fighting and patrolling over, they have no real duty but to sit and wait. Maybe pray. Passengers. Dead weight.
Andy Wilson and Tubby Rinkert sat in their gunner’s seats and stared at the holes in the deck. The engine noise was too great for them to carry on meaningful conversation and, after the number one died, they didn’t much feel inclined to conversation.
Without realizing why, Andy began to survey the damaged PBY with an eye toward the repair effort necessary to get her back into combat. He had no opinion about the number one engine since he knew little about power plants in general and less than nothing about the big rotary Pratts. But he knew his sheet metal.
And this one would be a doozy.
It would take him and Woodrow a week just to hammer out the jagged edges of all the bullet holes. Then they’d have to patch the holes with aluminum and rivets. And that assumed the structural damage to wing spars and fuselage ribs was minimal enough to even salvage the PBY. The starboard machine gun mount would need replacement. Tubby’s gun port was shot up, too.
The bad news was that this looked like a couple of weeks of hard work, pounding aluminum from Reveille till Taps and then the same thing again the next day. The good news was that flight crews were expendable, planes were not. The Navy would spare no effort to get PBY-122 back into the air and while he worked on her repairs Andy would be exempt from sub patrol. He was far more valuable as a full time tinsmith than a part time waist gunner.
Tubby looked at Andy and saw a smile creep across his face. He leaned in towards him and shouted, “What’s so funny, laughing boy?”
Before Andy could answer, the plane lurched.
When an airplane suddenly loses or gains altitude without warning, passengers always say the plane hit an air pocket. But planes pass through the air all the time they are flying and they are actually in one huge air pocket, the one that envelopes the earth, the one we call the atmosphere. There are rivers of cool air aloft and winds and uneven surface heating and cooling. The atmosphere is full of bumpy little places where, relative to the surrounding sky, the air is rapidly rising or sinking, where it is more dense or less dense. And one of these downdrafts was the air pocket that PBY-122 encountered.
The plane dropped fifty feet in a tenth of a second and Tubby experienced a temporary stimulus overload. His eyes told him straight and level while his inner ear told him sunk like a stone. His stomach, sensing an imminent containment breach, ejected the warp core.
As Andy leaned in to share his thoughts on airframe repair, Tubby vomited on him. Fully. Like a bucket’s worth of puke.
Embarrassed, Tubby swiped at his mouth with his sleeve and hollered, “Oh man! I’m really sorry!” He yanked his puky shirt over his head popping buttons as he did so.
“What kind of shit have you been eating?” Andy unstrapped and stood up, puke dripping from his head and face. But when he took his first breath and got a whiff, Andy’s stomach heaved in sympathy and he threw up on Tubby.
Tubby said, “Aw shit!”
Andy said Ralph.
Tubby unstrapped himself from his seat and stood. Andy slipped out of his Mae West and then his shirt tossing the puke soaked rag into the sodden pile between them. They both sat down.
“What the heck did you eat?” Asked Tubby leaning in so he could hear Andy.
Andy leaned toward Tubby and said, “Your sister is one sweet tomato!”
“Funny guy. You think you and your brother can put this piece of crap back together?”
“We can patch the skin but it all depends on the spars and ribs,” Andy answered pointing to where a Kraut twenty had shredded a rib at their feet.
“What about all these holes?”
“As long as we don’t sink we can hammer these out.”
“What do you mean, sink?”
In his most condescending voice Andy said, “This, my lad, is a sea plane. We take off and land in the water.”
Now it was Tubby’s turn to make the jerk off motion at Andy.
“I’m just saying, we got enough holes in the hull we’ll probably sink when Johnny Walker Red sets her down,” said Andy. “Too bad this isn’t a 5A – we could land on the airstrip.”
“Jeeze, Wilson! You got your hammer with you?”
“You see any hammers?”
Tubby tried the intercom but it didn’t work anymore so he crawled to the cockpit, slicing his left leg on a razor sharp tear in a rib. He poked Johnny Walker Red in the shoulder and said, “Skipper, we got a lot of holes back there in the hull.”
“Yeah, well I guessed that much.”
“A lot of holes in the bottom.”
“Yeah, what’s your point?”
“Hey! You’re bleeding!” Ensign Cherry said. “You hit?”
“Naw. Cut my leg on one of the hundreds of HOLES in the deck.”
“Well don’t do that, seaman,” was all Ensign Cherry said.
Tubby shrugged and crawled aft.
“What’d the skipper say?” Andy asked.
“Nothing. Cherry says don’t cut yourself on any sharp metal.”
“Ninety day wonder. He say how far out we are?”
“Go get the others. I’m thinking of something.”
Tubby crawled to the rear of the plane and summoned the other two crewmen, Petty Officer John “Jack Knife” Sharp and Boatswain’s Mate Mickey Harmon, to the gunner’s perches amid ship. Mickey was the nose gunner but for now he was just another passenger.
“We got a lot of holes in this boat,” Andy began. “When Johnny Walker Red sets her down we’re going to start taking on water.”
“You saying that Kraut sub sank us?” Jack Knife asked.
“Not yet, fellows. I got an idea.”
“So we’re all ears,” said Jack Knife.
“Okay, here’s the plan. Most of the holes are right here in the center of the belly. So we put the mattress over the holes to keep the water out while we land and taxi. Once the plane stops it’s every man for himself.”
“We’ll need to hold the mattress in place over the holes. We don’t want it to float off,” Tubby said.
“Good point. We’ll lay on it, all four of us cross ways, to keep it in place.”
The others nodded and Mickey and Jack Knife crawled aft then dragged the cot mattress forward.
“Here, let’s put it so it covers as many holes as possible,” Andy said.
“Like this, fellows,” added Tubby.
“Stinks like puke up here,” said Mickey. “One of you two get scared and toss your cookies?”
Tubby and Andy pointed at each other and Jack Knife and Mickey laughed, the first laughter since the encounter with the German submarine.
The number two engine idled down and Ensign Cherry yelled something from the cockpit but they didn’t have to hear him to know they were on final approach. They could see out the ruined starboard gun port that the PBY was flying low and parallel to the beach.
“This is it, boys!” Tubby shouted.
All four sailors lay on the cot mattress, Jack Knife and Tubby only half on it. Andy and Mickey square in the middle of the mattress when the PBY’s hull settled onto the waves.
An empty PBY-5 weighs almost 21,000 pounds. Fully fueled, armed, and manned she can weigh over 35,000 pounds.
So here’s the thing about the physics of flotation: if a body, say a PBY, weighs 25 or 30,000 pounds then for it to float, the ocean must press back on it with force equal to the PBY’s weight. Less force from the ocean and the object sinks.
PBY-122 hit the water with a force of nearly 30,000 pounds multiplied by its landing airspeed of thirty knots.
Each twenty millimeter bullet hole under the mattress became a high pressure fire hose and the mattress became the cork in a bottle of warm champagne.
Jack Knife and Tubby were flicked off the sides of the mattress. Andy and Mickey rode it like flies on top of a piston, launched straight up against the ceiling as if shot from a cannon. And for each fire hose entrance wound in the belly of the plane there was an equally jagged exit wound in its ceiling.
The sharp aluminum sliced their backs to ribbons and they cracked their heads on the fuselage ribs.
All four crewmen were stunned by the hydraulic pressure and shock when the plane hit the water. Mickey and Andy hung onto the mattress that was now a bucking bronco. The PBY skipped and skimmed the waves and each time it hit the water the two seamen bounced off the ceiling.
When the plane settled into the water, fountains gushed from the Kraut bullet holes in the bottom and sides, any part of the plane that was below the water line. It began to fill with salt water. Johnny Walker Red gunned the number two engine to taxi closer to the beach but with only a single working engine the plane wanted to yaw and wallow in the waves.
The beaching crew was already wading the surf to the plane. Someone attached a cable and made a “spin ‘er up” motion with his arm. The little tractor, nicknamed a mule by the sailors, yanked the PBY toward the beach and the concrete ramp. Nobody bothered with the temporary wheels and landing gear.
“Just reel ‘er in, boys!” yelled Chief Petty Officer Woodrow Wilson.
Sand flew from the mule’s tires spinning and straining to heave the mortally wounded PBY onto the ramp and out of the water. The beaching crew waded clear of the plane. On the concrete ramp the plane listed to starboard; its hull scraped the concrete with a loud, grinding noise. Seawater mixed with blood rushed from its open wounds.
On the ground the plane looked like Swiss cheese. Woody ran up to the cockpit. Johnny Walker Red throttled the number two engine down and killed it.
“How’d you keep her in the air, Skip?” he shouted to Johnny Walker Red.
“Factory FUBAR, Chief. They built this one out of steel.”
“Yeah, I hear they’re rationing aluminum for the war effort.”
Johnny Walker Red grinned.
By this time the crewmen were crawling one by one out of the top hatch of the wrecked plane. Woody searched each man’s face. Finally his brother emerged, spotted Woody, and waved.
When Andy reached Woody the older brother was prepared to be angry but at who? Instead he clapped him on the back and gave him a big bear hug. His arms came away sticky and soaked in blood.
“Are you hit?” Woody began inspecting his little brother, turning him around to look at where all the blood came from.
“My back’s all scratched up and I’ve got a pretty good lump on my head. I’m okay.”
Just then the plane groaned and the port wing sagged as the last spar holding the wing stiff gave way.
“You lucky son of a bitch,” Woody said. “This thing’s scrap now. I’d have had you hammering holes out of this piece of shit for a month!”
“That’s me. Lucky son of a bitch.”