Fantasy of Flight
Byron A. Nilsson
I read with interest the “The Navy’s Aerial Oscar” by David Sears (August, pp. 52–57). The introduction states, “One of Hollywood’s finest Korean War films succeeded by combining glamorous star power with U.S. Navy flight-deck authenticity.” Citing authenticity for flight-deck operations alone was correct, because the rest of the film is pure fantasy.
I was one of three air intelligence officers on board the USS Leyte (CV-32) when she arrived off Korea in the fall of 1950. Our Air Group 3 had F9F-2 Panthers jets, AD-3 Skyraiders, and F4U Corsairs. Although we had high hopes for the Panthers, we soon learned that the ground personnel in the Army and the Marine Corps wanted only the Skyraiders and Corsairs. They told us that the Panthers were almost useless because they could be on target for only a short time (they called them the “fast burners”) and because their ordnance capacity and accuracy was so poor. The Skyraider, on the other hand, carried a bomb load comparable to that of a B-17 and could stay on target for long periods of time. The Corsair could also stay on target for a relatively long time and was highly accurate. The Skyraiders did all the work on the Yalu River bridges, other bridges, and targets. The Panthers flew combat air patrol and target combat air patrol.
Reporters from various magazines visited us, and we asked them why they ignored the Skyraiders and Corsairs in their articles and photos. They told us that people had already read about prop planes during World War II so they had to write about something new, namely, jets. Like Hollywood, accuracy takes second place behind selling magazines and filling seats in a theater.
I thoroughly enjoyed Dave Sears’ article, “The Navy’s Aerial Oscar,” having known some of those involved. “Marsh” Beebe was a colorful character. He’d been naval attaché to Caracas in the late 1950s and brought back a big green parrot. Cisco would perch on Marsh’s shoulder boards during mess dress events but never messed anyone’s dress!
Then-Commander “Jig Dog” Ramage was CAG-19 on board the Oriskany when the movie was filmed. Jig said that the crew was charmed by Mickey Rooney but would have preferred more time with Grace Kelly.
In Tailhook circles, Fredric March’s closing soliloquy often is quoted sardonically. When somebody screws up, the inevitable response is, “Where do we get such men?” (The Reservist reply: “Annapolis!”)
Hal Hewitt, 1st Marine Division, ’52
In David Sears’ review of James Michener’s novel and the subsequent movie The Bridges at Toko-Ri, there is a conspicuous absence of any mention of Ensign Jesse Brown and his sacrifice on 4 December 1950 during the breakout of the 1st Marine Division from the Chosin Reservoir. The two stories are nearly identical.
If, indeed, Mr. Michener did not rely on the story of Ensign Brown and those who attempted his rescue, being the historian he was, he must have known at the time of the heroism of Ensign Brown, as well as that of Lieutenant (junior grade) Thomas Hunder and First Lieutenant Charles Ward, who attempted his rescue. I suggest an article fully describing this incident for inclusion in a future issue of Naval History.
Editor’s note: Ensign Jesse Brown was the first African-American to be trained by the Navy as an aviator and the first African-American naval aviator to see combat—in the skies over Korea—and to be killed in action.
Mr. Sears responds: Mr. Hewett makes an interesting point. The Hudner-Ward-Brown incident was certainly on a par as far as the level of heroism is concerned—and both selfless exploits got lost amid war headlines. As far as I know, however, there is no direct connection between the two. I covered the Hudner-Ward-Brown incident in some detail in my book Such Men as These (Da Capo, 2010), interviewing Jesse Brown’s widow, as well as Tom Hudner and several other VF-42 squadron mates. I also went pretty thoroughly through James Michener’s research records for The Bridges at Toko-ri (via the Library of Congress). I found no mention or documented awareness by Michener of the incident. There is no doubt how the actions and sacrifices of VF-42 (Brown’s and Hudner’s squadron) had a major impact for the embattled Marines in and around the Chosin. As a Marine veteran, Mr. Hewett keeps faith by asserting Brown, Hudner’s, and (Marine) Ward’s stature in the annals of heroism.
Frank B. Tuberville Jr.
Thomas C. Hone’s article, “The Fleet Visits Panama” (August, 58–63) immediately caught my attention. My father worked for the Panama Railroad in the canal construction days (1904–14), and after the canal’s completion he worked for the Panama Canal on Gatun Locks until his retirement in 1947. I grew up in the Canal Zone, went to school there, and later joined the Naval Reserve V-3 program so I could have a ham radio station. On 28 July 1941 I was called to active duty at the 15th ND Radio Station NBA in Balboa as an apprentice seaman. More than four years later on 26 November 1945 I was discharged at Norfolk, Virginia, as a chief electrician’s mate. I never did make it to boot camp, though, because the district communications officer needed a driver who spoke Spanish and knew his way around Panama—he wasn’t about to send me off.
A few things to note: The caption for the opening photo reads, “Sailors quench their thirst at a Panamanian bar,” but Panama had no “bars”—this was a cantina, which occupied many of the street corners in the Atlantic-side city of Colon. A few pages later, the horse-drawn vehicle pictured is a “carrometo.” Hone writes of the Panamanian “peso,” two of which equaled one U.S. dollar, but Panama’s currency wasn’t denominated in pesos—that would have been pre-Panamanian Colombian currency. After the bloodless revolution from Colombia in 1904, the Panamanian currency was established as the Balboa, which was tied to the U.S. dollar in equal value. This conversion rate is what facilitated Panama becoming a banking and money laundering center. In the canal construction days, American citizens were paid in gold coins, and bathrooms and other facilities were marked “gold” and “silver.” This custom was carried into the early 1930s. According to the 1921 pay scale mentioned, an apprentice seaman received $33 a month, but when I reported for active duty on 28 July 1941, this was only $21. What happened to the Navy pay scale in that 20-year period?
We always knew at least a day ahead when the fleet was coming. The planes would fly into Coco Solo while the ships were still one day away at sea. The waters in Gatun Lake were mineral-free, and thus made good boiler feed water. As this was before the days of anti-fouling paint, ships would often anchor in the freshwater lake and layover a few days to drop their barnacles. In 1927 I received my first white Navy cap thrown to me by a sailor on board the Saratoga (CV-3) in Gatun Locks as she was making her first Panama Canal transit. Thanks for refreshing a few old memories!
James Ross, U.S. Army, Retired
Lieutenant Colonel Tom McKenney’s article “Charting a Course Toward Rescue,” (October, pp. 44–49) about POWs on Formosa (Taiwan) during World War II was extremely interesting. I was a U.S. Air Force brat and lived in Tainan, Taiwan, from 1967 to 1969. My Boy Scout troop would periodically go camping at a large lake, known to us as Coral Lake, located midway between Chiayi and Tainan in the foothills. I remember a statue in the lake’s administration building depicting a malnourished man. The explanation given to us was the dam was either built or at least modified by POWs. The lake is also in the near vicinity of the Republic of China’s military academy (I’m assuming it’s still there) and one of its training areas was at the lake. Of course, it could just have been a story or mistranslation given to young boys.
As most military historians will remember, Formosa was a Japanese colony and had a significant Japanese military presence leading up to World War II. Many of the forces involved in the invasion of the Philippines were based out of Formosa. The obvious remnants of those Japanese bases were still used by the Republic of China and U.S. forces while my father was stationed there.
Remembering the 5-inch/38
Captain Gregory J. Sanial, U.S. Coast Guard
Joseph Todd’s “In Contact” comments (August, p. 8) regarding Norman Friedman’s article “The Ubiquitous 5-inch/38,” (“Armaments & Innovations,”April, pp.10–11) point out that the 5-inch/38 mount was used in new construction as late as 1963. In fact, the 5-inch/30 was used in new construction even as late as 1972 when the twelfth and final Hamilton-class cutter, the USCGC Midgett (WHEC-726), was commissioned in March. All 12 Hamilton-class cutters, many of which deployed to Vietnam and provided naval gunfire support from their main battery, had a single 5-inch/38 mount forward. This was replaced with a 76-mm mount as part of the Fleet Rehabilitation and Modernization Program in the late 1980s.
I served as the final commanding officer of the Hamilton-class cutter Chase (WHEC-718) from 2009–11 and also served as the commanding officer of Hamilton-class Sherman (WHEC-720) in 2011. When I was in command more than 40 years after their commissioning, neither the Chase nor Sherman had a 5-inch/38, but I do remember the 5-inch/38 mount and its impressive capabilities from my days as a cadet on board the cutter Ingham (WHEC-35) the summer of 1985 while serving as a hot case-man inside the turret during GQ1.
Joseph Todd’s “In Contact” recollection of the USS Bradley’s accurate naval gunfire support of the Marines in II Corps Vietnam was déjà vu for me. I was the gunnery officer on board the very same ship (FF-1041) in February 1970, under then-Commander Joseph Metcalf III as commanding officer. (He later became a vice admiral, commander 2nd Fleet and headed the Grenada rescue mission.)
We were patrolling from the coastal town of Phan Thiet northward as far as the south edge of the DMZ. One night we received a frantic call for fire from a Marine company-sized unit under attack by an estimated battalion-sized North Vietnamese Army (NVA) Regular unit. Our Navy call sign at the time had been changed from the “Comet Express” moniker of Mr. Todd’s experience to “Ivory Coast.” Later the Navy would change to using daily, two-character call signs to improve radio security. We’d hear: “Ivory Coast, fire mission, coordinates . . .” then “ten rounds, high explosive, danger close, fire for effect!” from the Marines’ gunfire spotter. “Danger close” meant our troops would be within about 100 yards of the shells’ impact, so our naval gunfire support (NGFS) team had to be damn accurate, especially since this was in the pitch-dark night!
Metcalf had the foresight to have our team go ashore a week earlier and meet the Marines whom we were tasked with supporting. Our NGFS team learned about the unit’s operations, radio-call procedures, and combat tactics that helped us understand how to place our rounds for best effect. Suddenly, all that training exploded into reality! I was in CIC running the targeting, and my department head, Lieutenant Dick Krapohl, weapons officer, was in the director firing the mission. He laid those rounds on target perfectly with time-fuzed air bursts—a total of 51 rounds out beginning less than a minute after getting the call for fire. I had received Vietnamese language training, and we could clearly recognize enemy voices in the background on the Marines’ field radios when the fire mission was being called. Now that’s “danger close!”
The next day, several of the Marines in the embattled unit flew by helo to the Bradley to say thanks—and be treated to steaks and ice cream. They informed us that although three Marines were wounded, no one was killed. Our gunfire decimated the NVA unit and broke up the assault so quickly that the enemy did not have time to remove their casualties from the battlefield, as they typically did. Marines counted 50 enemy troops KIA that morning. Our young sailors got to interact with the young troops they helped save. A lot of American sons went home alive to their mothers because of good training and hard work by everyone. The spirit of the Navy–Marine Corps team could not have been finer tuned than after that incident. Bravo Zulu “Ivory Coast!”