On Sept. 21, 1945, about three weeks after VJ Day, I was a pilot on the USS Ranger, a pre-war aircraft carrier, about 100 miles off the coast of California. I was a member of VF98, a fighter squadron of the Pacific Fleet, flying F6F Hellcats.
Even though the war in the Pacific had ended, the Navy continued exercises planned long before the armistice, and one of those exercises was designed to qualify pilots for night carrier operations. To qualify we had to make two catapult take-offs and two landings. Not many, but doing those things, in the black of night, from a tossing deck, was a formidable challenge for us first-timers. So the training had to be intense.
During the 12 previous days I had made 15 day landings on two different carriers, and had made over 60 day and night approaches and landings on airport runways. The runways were painted to simulate the outline of a carrier deck, and a landing signal officer would “waive us aboard” just as he would on a carrier. That practice, especially at night, was, because of trees, buildings, and other obstacles, more demanding than operations at sea.
On the 21st, on the Ranger, I made two catapult take-offs and two landings in the morning to get the “feel” of the ship. (The Ranger had the narrowest flight deck in the navy, and width is more critical than length for a pilot. It also had stacks positioned on the port side, near the stern, that folded down during air operations, and they caused turbulence in the air just astern of the flight deck, and that felt just like a stall to a pilot. The Ranger had a “feel” of her own).
Later I went to the pilot’s ready room for a post-flight critique by the landing signal officer, and there were other pilots there whom I did not know. One of them was pointed out to me because he had been, I was told, the second baseman of the Newark Bears. Was I impressed!
At that time I would have gladly sold my 22-year-old soul to be a big league baseball player, and this man was almost there. The Newark Bears were the top Yankees farm team, and it was easy to believe he might some day play in Yankee Stadium. I was eager to talk baseball with him, but during flight operations that was not possible.
As it turned out it never became possible, but I have thought of him, and the conversation we never had, often in the last 56 years.
Later that afternoon I was observing flight operations from the Bridge, when suddenly a hush fell over the ship, all engines were stopped, and everyone’s eyes were drawn to the tail of a Hellcat sticking vertically out of the water, astern and to the port side of the ship. Some had seen the plane crash, but I had not. One of the two destroyers trailing the Ranger, for rescue operations, raced to the site, but just before it got there, the second baseman, (for that is who it was) and his Hellcat, slowly slid from sight, and headed for the bottom. I prayed for him to “get out, get out”, but in vain. The Destroyer stopped and nothing moved on the surface of the sea but the waves, and everything stayed quiet.
After about five minutes, with no appearance of a helmet, a life jacket, or the pilot, the Ranger’s engines started up again, and the planes that had climbed to circle overhead descended into the landing pattern to continue their approaches and landings. The Destroyer returned to its original position. There was nothing left to do.
That night we took off in reverse alphabetical order, so I was next to the last to qualify. I tried to put the accident out of my mind but it was impossible. Waiting around for my turn was nerve-wracking. In those days we were all “cool”, but we were all scared, too. I thought I was the only one who was uneasy, but I now think everyone was apprehensive to some degree.
I catapulted off the deck about two in the morning of the 22nd, into a black night lighted only by the dim light of a crescent moon. My take-off and landings were uneventful, but I still remember the feeling of relief I felt when I cut the engine and climbed out of the plane after my second landing. It had been a tough day.
It was about three o’clock in the morning when I headed to my bunk, but I couldn’t sleep.
I got up, dressed, and went out on to the flight deck. It was relatively quiet as dawn was breaking. There were no planes in the air. We were on the way back to San Diego and I remember thinking that there was a family somewhere to the east of me that would be getting word today that their handsome, gifted, baseball-playing son would never again be safe at home, and what a bummer that was, especially now that the war was over.
He was not the first person I had seen killed since I had been flying, and he was not to be the last, either. But somehow the picture of that Hellcat tail sticking out of the water, the deathly silence, (except for the far-away drone of the planes overhead) and the memory of my silent cry for him to “get out, get out” have stuck with me over the years, and the scene won't go away.
I never even knew his name.