That Damned Torpedo.
A story from the Marshall Islands during World War II
by Bob Seedorf
This will be the third episode I will relate. It has a function that dovetails in with the first episode that we dealt with. That's where we landed a torpedo on the island.
There was another one of those buggers hanging around that ship. I hadn't seen it but I knew they brought two in. We hadn't heard anything about it for about three weeks - four weeks. No, it must have just seemed like that, probably about two weeks. At any rate, one day, sure enough here comes a torpedo. They had been working on it all day up on deck and didn't disclose who was going to carry it but we had a pretty good idea who it would be.
So we took off just about sunset. It was a very miserable day, overhead clouds, lots of wind, not an ideal one for our navigation purposes. We had no modern day LORAN or subsequent - the LORAN is old-fashioned compared to the stuff that they've got now. They can locate a position within 10 or 15 feet no matter where you are on the earth. You've got a little hand-held transmitter. We didn't have a hand-held transmitter. We relied on the skill of our young ensign Willie Williams to take bearings with his octant. The stars determined where we were going to go. Six hundred miles up into enemy territory.
We were still looking for those two cruisers that had been reported in the Kwajalein area. It was a long blustery night and at our full 90 knots cruising speed we had quite a few hours to travel. So, we ate sandwiches, and generally kept quiet and just paid attention to our work. We'd get an inquiry from Willie once in a while, he'd survey the crew and say, "What do you think the wind is blowing? Where do you think it's coming from?" Because we would get a glimpse of it through the broken clouds, we had no help from the overhead sky. It was all clouded over. We had a whale of a time getting a position. So his position was dead reckoning at the greatest. I mean, it really was a problem trying to guess where the wind was coming from and what direction it was from and the intensity.
It came time for us to take a turn to the left and head over Kwajalein Island as we did last time. We flew a little while and we were supposed to be over Kwajalein Island and there was no island. So we flew a half an hour further - still no island. So we started making a box search for it. It was getting to be quite an anxious moment because we had spent about an hour, hour and a half over the target and we had fuel for 600 miles up, 600 miles back and about half an hour over the target area. Well we stayed for another half an hour and still didn't find the island.
So we decided we'd turn south and see if we could find our way home. By now we didn't know where in the hell we were at. We flew south for about 2 hours and we had dropped below the cloud deck being fairly close to the water - about 300-500 feet. Someone spotted an island. We couldn't see how big it was. We didn't know of any occupied islands in this area. The Japanese didn't occupy all the islands in the various island groups and we knew that they had operated out of Mili, Jalut, Kwajalein and a couple of other islands. None of them were in this vicinity so Mac suggested we draw a picture of the island. So he would take our heading, timing each leg, each direction, and as the island would change shape, the atoll would change shape, we would follow that island right around with a compass and time.
By the time we drew a complete enclosure we had a pretty good picture of what the island looked like. So a good group of us, most of the people who were not on watch gathered around the navigator's table like we were at a jigsaw party at home with everyone looking for the last piece of the jigsaw to drop into place. Someone spotted this island and we gathered all our votes. It sure looked like that island. So we took a bearing from that and headed for Tarawa.
Mac had told me, McQuarrie the pilot said, "Seedorf I want you to cut those mixtures back til the engines start cooling off. If you recall we trained for this back at San Diego." What he was referring to was the training exercise that we had in flying towards an island off Mexico and we spent two hours in which he had me cut back the mixture control on the engines. He would cut back on the throttle, lower the rpm, and he had me cutting back on the mixture control so the temperature of the engines would start to drop, then we would turn it up a notch. We flew for two hours. He said "I want your eyes on those instruments every minute of the time." He said, "This is going to be important someday. You're going to have to take and squeeze every drop of time out of the fuel that we have." He said, "The fuel gauges will not register right because you're heading on such and angle. So you have to get a reading on the fuel gauges while we're in fairly level flight and then estimate your fuel consumption from that as to whether we're going to make it or not." We worked on this up in San Diego but nothing like we worked on it when we were trying to get ourselves back to Tarawa.
We were hanging on the prop side, I guess we would barely be two to five miles over the stalling speed of the aircraft. They stall very beautifully, like an elevator. We didn't want to stall, we wanted to hang on there, get back to Tarawa. We were down to a point where we had to trust Willie's navigation. He had to be right on the money. It turned out it was. We got a radio contact with the Mackinaw on base radio and we asked them to send out the cows - that's MO's. McQuarrie said to me, "Seedorf, wring some more fuel out of those sponges". So I said, "Here we go squeezing". So I pulled the mixture control down, slowly down, and the engines were not only cooling off, they were absolutely cold. He said, "Well how much does the fuel gauges show?" I said, "They disappeared an hour ago". So we had nothing. We were breathing air in the tank.
It was an eerie feeling to know we practiced this but we had gasoline at the time that we were practicing, and now we don't have anything. So we made it just so we could see the island and we asked for permission for a straight in - no identification turns, they had to trust us not to be a Japanese torpedo bomber. So we slid in over the atoll, landed in the lagoon right in our landing area. As the plane slowed to its taxiing speed we went to turn around and changed wing tips from one being in the water to the other being in the water. The engine on the high side conked out. It was out of fuel, completely out of fuel. There was some fuel left in the sump of the remaining engine. We had landing boats out to pick us up in case we did go out, they could tow us back to a mooring.
They called Columbus the Great Navigator. He sailed west and he had a whole continent to land on. He didn't have much of a chance of missing it. We had this little dinky island that we happened to hit, took bearings on it, drew a picture of it, and we were going to rename it but we decided to wait to see who occupied it. I think it was a remarkable bit of navigation on the part of Willie in cooperation with McQuarrie. They are two fine navigators. Unbelievable. And its great that the skipper put his trust in these two guys to bring us home again.
In retrospect I try to reason out why we missed that island, what was wrong with our navigation going up, and I figure that when we did take an observation, when Willie took an observation of the waves he read the wave pattern but he didn't take into consideration the fact that the ocean current was not the same direction as the wind. We were getting a cross current and he was reading the cross current and he could very easily in a PBY get a reading that's crazy on the drift. He was puzzled how he could have a drift through the angle he was reading, but we couldn't drop a flare, we'd be liable to be sighted by a ship right in the area or any planes that might be in the vicinity. So we had to peer through the darkness and see the foam on the waves and try to read that, and you can't get an accurate reading when you get a cross current between the wind wave and the sea direction wave.
All during the time that we were staggering along the skies, hanging on the propellers, the historic saying by Amos Farragut, "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead", we had the torpedo, we were going very little towards full speed ahead, that same thought kept rattling through my brain.
Well, two or three days later here comes the torpedo again - they put it back on the airplane. And we took off just an hour before sunset. Everything was routine on the take-off, good take-off, full load of fuel. We were heading up to Kwajalein again, we were going to look for those cruisers. There was a problem that developed that was unusual.
I was working on my log to get the initial start, consumption of the fuel we had to start with. I looked out the port window of the engineers compartment which is up between the wing and the hull, and I called the pilot and I said "Pilot from engineer". He said, "Go ahead". I said, "Captain I think the torpedo is charging itself." Here's the charging propeller at the front end of the torpedo whirring away and spouting steam. What had happened was, there's a safety wire that's put on there to hold the propeller blade until it hits the water and then the wire will break and the propeller will charge the torpedo into coming alive. So the captain said, "What are we going to do about that? What do you think we should do about that?" "It could go off at any time." So the pilot called the base radio and talked with the commanding officer of the district or the area or whatever and got permission to drop the torpedo and try and explode it.
The southern part of Tarawa Island, Tarawa Atoll I should say, is where the inhabitable islands are: BiTio - and I don't know what the other names are, but that is where the natives lived during peacetime. On the northern portion of it, is where the coral barely comes above the surface. There are spots where it's under water and towards the west end that's where they had the entrance to the harbor. We were given permission to drop the torpedo on the north side of the coral and see if we could hit one of the little coral heads, which we did. When Mac released the torpedo, or called for the release of the torpedo, using his pretend bomb sight which is nothing more that the safety belt strap eyes that I hook my safety belt in when I pick up a mooring can - he's got a system. When we dropped the torpedo and watched it go down about 5,000 feet and we hit the coral head right on the button. Nothing happened, the torpedo just broke in half. There was no explosion. And we wondered if the first torpedo we launched really did go on an island, because we did see an explosion. There was nothing happening to it so we wondered if it was one on those lousy torpedoes that weren't firing on the submarines at that time of the war.
At any rate, we landed and that took care of the torpedo. We didn't have
to carry that any more.
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/torpedo.html
Robert Richard Louis Seedorf, May 6, 1922 - January 22, 1999.
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