Shot Down over Jaluit in the Marshall Islands
by Bob Seedorf
Before this particular night we had laid bombs, laid mines. We had gone on harassing bombing raids, throwing out bottles and small bombs over a several hour period over various islands. We had been on a strafing mission which we took on our own without the skipper's knowledge. Word got to him however.
But this one was the night of a new experiment. I got out to the plane for preflight check and the ordinance men were tying a bundle of what looked like 3/4" pipes, about 3 feet in diameter, a huge bundle about 6 foot long, 5 foot long maybe, in place of the mine that would ordinarily be there. There was a mine under the port wing, but this cluster of tubes was under the starboard wing and so I opened my little engineer's port which is between the hull and the wing to call out to the ordinance men. I said, "What have we got here?" They said, "You're taking incendiary bombs in there. We're going to try them out." What are we going to do with incendiary bombs on a coral reef full of coconuts? We wanted to see if they would be useful in bombing these islands. We had been to these two islands Mili, which is the Southeastern-most of the Marshall Islands, Jaluit, which is the Southwestern-most island.
On previous raids we carried two mines under each wing and dropped them in the channels, in the ship channels leading into the lagoons in each case. Each island got two. After dropping the mines at Jaluit on previous runs we turned up north, inside the lagoon. We could observe the seaplane base so we were well acquainted with the location of various things like the airfield and the seaplane base which were our two objectives. In relating this tale I will not embellish the truth. I don't have to, it doesn't need a Hollywood hype to come across as quite an adventure. As a matter of fact, think in terms of the Las Vegas odds at various points of the adventure and see what you think they might be.
We started out the evening taking off at sunset and flying the several hundred miles up to Mili. The flight was uneventful and we swung around and came to Mili from the north and dropped two magnetic mines by parachute (which dissolves after it's in the water) in the channel, in the main shipping channel. They're set to trip at any number of ships you want to let by, and gets the third or second or whatever you want. We successfully dropped the two and then headed west toward Jaluit. Jaluit is about 300 miles from our home base at Tarawa. It took several hours to fly across because you know our speedy little plane only gets 90 knots - top speed. We were supposed to slide over the reef at low altitude and turn to the north so we'd come upon the airfield - to bomb the facilities at the airfield with the incendiary bombs.
However, as I looked out of my little porthole of the engineer's compartment, I recognized the seaplane base which is further north than the airfield is. I called the skipper on the intercom and said, "Captain, I think we're too far north already because we're passing the seaplane base." He said, "You're right", so we went up the lagoon a little bit further and he says, "We'll hit the seaplane base." We turned parallel to the shore and came in on a pretty oblique angle and about oh, 50 to 100 feet above the ground. I had a big graphflex camera, a huge one, the biggest one I'd ever seen. They asked me to take a picture out through my little porthole, I leaned out the starboard porthole ready to take a picture when all hell broke loose. We were right over the seaplane ramp and I never saw so much gunfire in my life. of course a lot of it was coming from our guns. And bout that time both the engines quit. I threw down the camera and went to work on every emergency procedure I had ever learned or heard about. I cross-fed both fuel lines, wobble pumped either one, and the engines suddenly caught and started firing normally again, and ran about 30 seconds to a minute. It was just enough speed to get us over to the windward side of the island and off about a mile out to sea. At that time both engines went out.
Lt. McCreary was undoubtedly the best pilot in the whole squadron. he was quiet, unassuming, and he just took command of that situation and he set that plane down at sea as though it was a normal landing. Here he is with no engines, wing tip floats up - maybe it was a good thing they were up. He set it down. He immediately called for the wing tip floats to be cranked up. There was no power because the radioman turned all the power off as soon as all the gunfire started which was a very intelligent thing to do.
By this time gasoline was splashing in my face cause it was dripping through from the wing tanks above. I reached up to feel where the gauges were in front of me and the fuel flow gauges were broken out (that tells me how many gallons/hour each engine is using) they were gone. The instruments were on my left hand side, I remember I was bending out the right hand window (I should say starboard and port). As I was leaning out the starboard window all the instruments that were alongside of my seat on the port side were blown right through the overhead.
Well, they called me to get the wing tip floats down, so I got the manual crank out and had to jump on it because the gears were jammed. I finally cranked and cranked until I got it about halfway up and they said that's fine, just leave it there. So, about this time, we piled up on deck out through the navigator's compartment. The skipper asked me if I could fix it. We pulled off the cowling - had nothing but a cold chisel which didn't work so good on Zeus fasteners - I was ripping it off with my bare hands. I thought I was very strong at the time but I have a feeling that the fasteners were dismantled a little bit by the gunfire that had taken place. I reached in and there was absolutely nothing left inside the compartment just in front of my seat in the engineer's compartment. They had blown out all the fuel lines, and all that was left was in the cross-over feeds that got the engine running for the short period of time. I told him it was absolutely impossible to connect anything up so the captain ordered us to abandon ship.
I immediately thought of my abandon ship drill which I tried to push on the crew all the time, but they knew their part. They had come through very nicely. One of the ordinance men had put the gun in the tail which is underneath the bottom of the boat. He pulled the 30 caliber machine gun out of the way and closed the hatch so that we wouldn't sink on the impact of landing. The radioman's shutting off the power was absolutely phenomenal. I had done the usual job of flooding the fuel tanks with C02 prior to our making the attack run. This keeps any gasoline being hit by an incendiary bullet from flaring up inside the wing itself, inside the tanks. The gasoline was just running out, pouring into the navigator's and radio compartments, running down the walls of my engineer's compartment. It was about 6 inches deep in the bilge.
I had handed out water beakers, they would hold about 7 1/2 gallons of water apiece. We had two of those. I handed out a parachute, the navigator's octant. I didn't need any charts, they wouldn't do any good. They took these aboard. Then I looked for my axe. I got my axe out and I started up in the bow, and started chopping holes in it, and when the water would gush up about the size of my fist I would go to the next compartment.
I was in the navigating compartment when the skipper was screaming at me - wanting to know what the hell I was doing in there and would I please get my butt out of there into this life raft. So I stuck my head outside the navigation compartment for a breath of fresh air and I said, "I'll be right with you captain, just a minute". He said, "Get out here! Get out here!" And he sent McCreary in to find out what the heck I was doing. I told Mac I had two more holes to cut in the bottom of the plane. We didn't want the plane floating back up to the island. So I finished with the two holes and flopped out through the blister into the life raft.
There were five in the life raft we were in which was a little bit larger than the other life raft. They had four in theirs. It took me about half an hour to recover from the gas fumes I had been inhaling all the time I was inside the plane, chopping holes.
I saw, while I was just lying there, Willy had one of the oars. There were four paddles and one of the ordinance men dropped a paddle almost at the beginning, so we lost one paddle. We had three paddles on our raft and they had four on the other raft. The two rafts were tied together with a long line so that we wouldn't get lost, separated from one another. This was midnight when we went into the drink and we paddled and paddled and as dawn broke, we could see the island - very clearly. We were about, I would guess, a half mile off shore and we could see men running up and down the beach paying no attention to us so we kept on paddling. Willy would not let anybody relieve him on the paddle. We would relieve each other about every half hour but he stuck by that paddle from midnight through three o'clock the next afternoon without missing a stroke. You never saw such determination in your life. No one was going to catch him.
We paddled and paddled until we got around the corner of the island and then we let the current just take us and the wind was not directly on our nose anymore. So we got around the corner of the island and we were going to hoist sail. Well, I was elected to rig the sail because I was the only one who knew how to sail in the group. Well, I hoisted the sail that came with the raft. They didn't have a sail on the other boat, we had a sail on ours. It promptly blew out, the wind was too strong for it - it shredded it. So I said, "Hand me the parachute, please", so I got out my hunting knife, a sharp knife, and took the parachute and sliced pieces out of it and rigged the parachute lines and cords into shrouds and forestays and backstays. We had a very good breeze from the East Trade Wind and with a loose-footed sail we were able to make a beam reach with the rig. So we had almost a due South heading. We stayed on this heading all the time that we were in the raft - we would probably have ended up at Guadalcanal in about 2 months.
As it was, we sailed during the daytime, during the daylight hours, and then tried to catch some sleep at night. We pulled the rig down and stowed it, and left one man on watch to keep the life rafts 90 degrees to the wave pattern cause there were some fairly steep waves. Every so often one would crest. You had to be on alert in order to keep the life raft running down the surf. The other raft, whoever was on watch must have fallen asleep several times because they overturned three times during the time we were out there - each time at night. They lost one of the beakers of water - 7 1/2 gallons of water, and they lost most of their supplies out of the boat, whatever they had. I took the octant and threw it out and kept the box for bailing - that was its greatest use.
When we abandoned ship it was just about midnight, and we were around 300 miles from home, all by ourselves. We had had radio silence up to and including the time we went into the water so no one would know where we at. What do you think the Las Vegas odds were of our coming out of this so I would be standing here talking to you?
Well, we went along and one of the days, I don't remember which one, they were a little confused, we had a school of sharks visit us. They were from 6-7 foot down to about 2 foot. It must have been a school of about 10-12. The biggest ones would slide under a raft and rub their fin on the bottom of the raft. They must have liked that feeling of scraping on the raft. Maybe they were knocking some barnacles off - of their fin, not off the raft. This went on for about 3-4 hours I would guess and during this time the skipper wanted to shoot one of the sharks. We had one ordinance man who was wounded. He was in the other life raft with the skipper and two other people. We had a confrontation between the two - between the wounded man and the skipper. The skipper was going to shoot the shark. every time he put the pistol - pointed it down toward the sharks - the ordinance man would push it away. He said "The next time you put that down I'm going to stuff it down your throat." He said "What's the matter? Why shouldn't I shoot one of these?" "You'll start a frenzy feeding that we'll ever see the end of." "Oh, ok. Well, we won't do it." Willy wanted to just catch a little one with a spear - going to put a spear on the end of a paddle. Willy was thinking of food. And we talked him out of that - again. As soon as blood would hit the water you'd have had a real fight on your hands. So eventually, the sharks left us and it was not a half and hour later - maybe an hour later, a whole school of porpoises came bouncing along. They would leap out of the water and they were going past us in the direction that the sharks were going. There must have been six, eight of them. They were having a great time. I'm glad they didn't want to play with us.
On the afternoon of the fourth day we were sailing along the same Trade Winds that we had before - the same direction - and someone said they heard the sound of an airplane. We started scanning the horizon and pretty soon we could tell it was more than one plane. Somebody in the other life raft spotted the first PBY. You could tell a PBY from any distance, its the little old whale with the upturned tail. Then they spotted two, three - there were six of them. They were quite a few miles apart. They were sort of going past us on an angle. What they were doing was making a big return sweep to start home on the last day of search. When they got abreast of us we were shooting off hand flares and got no response; flashing with mirrors, nothing. So we finally set off smoke bombs. We set off two smoke bombs and immediately one of the planes peeled off and started coming toward us. They ended up making a big circle around us flying at intervals and we were in the center of this wheel. We hauled down the sail and got everything together so we wouldn't fall overboard with this stuff with the jumping around that we were doing.
One of the planes, apparently the senior pilot of the group, was making an approach for a landing. At this time it would be a good end to the story if we were all picked up safe and were headed for home. One of the hairiest parts of the story comes right at this time. There is a technique in open sea landing that was developed by Pan Am pilots. They would hit the top of one wave, bounce to the second wave and slide down the second wave, and it takes a very special hand in order to accomplish such a thing. We apparently did it in the middle of the night with no lights or anything. It shows you what a pilot I had. But the senior pilot was coming in at us and he's lining up right on the life rafts so that he would land short of us and we'd taxi over to him, and we'd climb aboard. Sounds like a good plan. The plane kept on floating and floating, he missed the top of the wave and the tail hit first in the water, because he was in an extreme stall position and there's a metal portion, a fairing, that goes out underneath the rudder. With the rudder over to one side to correct for the bad bounce he was making, the tail cone bent up and locked the rudder to one side and the wave flipped him right straight up in the air. He threw on full power.
That's the first time I inspected a PBY bottom, in all my days of working on them, from such a vantage point. We were looking straight up at this plane that was trying to climb out like a fighter plane at a 45 angle. We'd never gone up at that angle. Well, he wasn't able to sustain it. He stalled out and the plane was right over us and pinwheeled to the right and the wing tip came in first and it tore the wing off right at the struts. There's a center section, there's struts that come off the hull of the plane up to the joint and then it ripped the end - about 25' of the wing off. The pilot was able in this maneuver of climbing at 45 and stalling out, he stalled out to one side of us. He didn't land on us at any rate. It sure felt like it though. It was a hairy moment.
The plane flopped back down on its one good wing because the weight was in its favor so it had a wing tip float and the main hull. We paddled over to him and no one was hurt, not even slightly injured. The plane was sound, there was nothing wrong, there was no leaking, and the engines were both working. So all he did was lose half a wing or a third of a wing.
That didn't make for good flying. So, as we paddled up the skipper hollered to the people on board and said, "Tell the rest of the planes to stay aloft. Don't anyone try a landing." Word came back, "It's too late! Dowset is on the water."
Because the plane captain on Dowset's crew was Joe Hamilton Smith, who was a fellow I met the first day I joined the Navy. Before we even got to Boot Camp we met him in the hotel. There were 20 of us from Chicago that slept overnight in a seedy downtown Chicago hotel under the auspices of the Navy. We hit it off so well everybody thought we knew each other for years. But Joe was the plane captain which was the equivalent of what I was in my crew. We were both plane captains, we had both gone to school together, played softball together at the Navy pier, we did everything together. So as we paddled up to his plane he looked at me and he said, "Snoozy, do I have to take care of you all the time?"
Joe was standing on the outside of the hull, just forward of the blisters, with his feet on the strut and I decided I would go up and join him. As I went to get out of the life raft, up on to the strut, I almost fell on my face I was so weak. I hadn't had anything to eat for a long time and it was amazing how weak you get in a few days. Joe grabbed me and hauled me up and we had a few kind words for one another. We crawled inside the plane and part of the crew from the disabled plane came over. All of our crew was there, including our one wounded man, the ordinance man, Sondraker. He was a real crazy guy, I mean he was laughing, he could make jokes, he could keep you going on a stand-up basis for hours. He had kept his sense of humor all during the time. He was wounded in the arm. He was in the other life raft and they kept on treating him and he came through it in good shape.
The decision was made that we would try to take off and we would leave a skeleton crew with the disabled plane. A destroyer would come up and pick them up at a later time. We tried to take off up-wind, down-wind, and cross-wind, and every time we'd get up a little speed we'd crash into another wave. We were just too overloaded to be able to take off. So the decision was that the two planes would taxi all night. We did that.
Sondraker, he was starting to ache, feeling pain, and they had morphine that was in the emergency kits in the plane's first aid as well as the life raft. So they decided we would inject a tube of morphine into his leg. These guys weren't experienced at it and they were bobbling around with it and he got disgusted and he said, "Give me that damned thing." He jammed the needle in and squeezed it and he was fine.
We were sort of huddled into one another. It was a stripped down plane meant for this open sea rescue stuff so it was light as possible. So, instead of having bunks to sit in or lie in we were lying all over the bottom of the plane with life jackets and anything else we could get to pad ourselves. And we taxied, and taxied, and taxied, and dawn started to break. We look out the blister windows and there sits a big old destroyer, and the big number on that destroyer was 666 - the USS Black. She'd come out of Tarawa and she spent the overnight at high speed to come out to get us. So we took all of our crew except my pilot, he stayed with the airplane that was going to take off, and the skipper of the squadron stayed with the plane that was going to take off, and the rest of us piled into life rafts and paddled over to the destroyer. All the people on the disabled plane paddled over to the destroyer.
The destroyer was going to start up and make a wake to flatten the waves out and Dowset's plane would take off in this wake. I was the last one to board the destroyer and as I left our plane my skipper said, "Make sure you take those life rafts aboard because we don't want to leave them out in the ocean. They cost money." So, as I stepped on to this Jacob's ladder, there's a big Bosun's Mate up at the top of the ladder, he signaled the bridge with a big swing of his arm and that thing kicked like a mule and I was swinging backwards on the ladder. I got up towards the rail and two big bruisers each grabbed me by the seat of the pants and tossed me on to the deck. I said, "Now make sure you bring those life rafts aboard." This guy, this big Bosun said to me, "You're worried about a life raft", he says "We've got two Jap destroyers bearing down on us, they're 50 miles away right now." So he said, "You just don't worry about the life rafts, we'll take care of them." What they did is sank 'em.
We were escorted to the Chiefs' Quarters and they served us some soup which really went down well. And we took our life jackets off for the first time in many a day. They gave us the Chiefs' bunks to sleep in, to lie down in. We konked off, I mean we were really tired. We woke up about 6 hours later and all our Mae Wests were gone and in their place was big old puffy kapok life jackets. They didn't know a thing about it. What it is is the destroyer people, they hate these big kapok things, they're so bulky. And so any time they can get their hands on a Mae West why they grab it. We didn't care, that was a cheap price to pay for the rescue they did.
Well, as it turns out the destroyer made a wake but the good plane never got to it. They were unloaded, with a much lighter load they hit the throttles, bounced out in the air even before they got to the wake even. The destroyer had taken off a little too fast. So they were airborne. They did a good job, I mean there was no problem. And all night long we had had a couple of planes from our squadron circling us so that we wouldn't lose contact. The destroyer could home in on the plane that was circling up above. We had sailed over 50 miles which was the margin between the Jap destroyers and the Black.
But the Japs were homing in on us too at the same time. So it became kind of a race to get out of there. Well, we ended up arriving offshore of Tarawa, outside the harbor, at sunset, and they said you can't go ashore, there's a condition red, there's an air raid about to take place. We don't need this. So they sent a landing boat out from inside the harbor. The destroyer couldn't go into the harbor in this condition. So he laid off the harbor mouth and they took us in with a landing boat. As we were going from west to east through the harbor to our base, we were based aboard the Mackinac at the time, we got half way across the harbor, across the lagoon and the Japanese started dropping bombs. They were dropping them north of where we were at and the island that they were trying to hit was south of where we were at. The anti-aircraft guns on the island were shooting all over the place and the searchlights were flashing across the sky above the island. However, there was a burst of shells, big guns going off outside the harbor. It turned out that the Black had a radar control on their guns, their anti-aircraft guns, three inch guns. And they turned the searchlights over to where the shells were bursting from, they were from the destroyer we had been on. There were the Jap bombers with the destroyer's shells bursting right on their nose. To make sure that I didn't get hit with any shrapnel or falling debris, I had a comic book in my hand and I held that over my head, of course that was going to protect me from nothing.
We got back to the ship all right. We got a good night's sleep. They gave us a couple of days off for rest. We were assigned another plane about three days later. It was in the morning and I was going out to do some work on the ship because we had lost our prime gal that was always in ready condition for us. We wanted to get the new one up into good shape too.
But I was stopped from leaving at the ladder going down to the landing boats. I said, "I've got to get out to my plane." About three fellows grabbed me and said, "No, the skipper's holding a meeting on the after deck." So we went to the fantail of the Mackinac and there was our whole squadron lined up in an order that I hadn't seen before. So they put up my whole crew, all the enlisted men were advanced in rate. That's the day I made chief. The first thing they did was they gave me a hat with a device on it, then they took it away from me and promptly threw me over the fantail. I was welcomed warmly by these crusty old chiefs who had 30 and 35 years in the Navy. They made me at home up in the Chief's Quarters. We were given three days rest and then we started flying again. We had some other adventures at some of the other islands. Not nearly as adventurous as this though, thank God.
Originally published by Dave Robison as part of the Bob Seedorf pages on his 'First-Hand Accounts' site.
URL of original: http://flag.blackened.net/daver/1sthand/seedorf/shotdown.html
Robert Richard Louis Seedorf, May 6, 1922 - January 22, 1999.
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