Sunday, December 11, 2016

It Was A Dark and Stormy Night!

It Was A Dark And Stormy Night.

     "It was a dark and stormy night" is an often-mocked and parodied phrase written by English novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton in the opening sentence of his 1830 novel Paul Clifford. The phrase is considered to represent "the archetypal example of a florid, melodramatic style of fiction writing," also known as purple prose.  Nevertheless, he became famous by using the phrase in the first sentence of his novel.   I'm not trying become famous or anything of the sort, and although his novel was fiction, I assure you this is an actual event I played a small part in.  Here are the facts as I remember them.

     It WAS a dark and stormy night.  I was on the bridge of the USS Jamestown AGP-3 (Motor Torpedo Boat Tender), as the duty signalman on the night of October 17, 1945.  The ship was laboring under heavy sea conditions, visibility was low with a low overcast as well.  Lt. K. W. Prescott who was our Executive Officer, was Officer Of The Deck, and except for the extremely bad weather, everything was routine.

     We were underway heading for Borneo if my memory serves me right, when all of a sudden out of no-where, a Billy Mitchell B-25 flew right over the ship.  He immediately made a steep turn and returned to pass over us once again at extremely low altitude.  The captain was informed and we all realized that the planes actions clearly indicated he had no desire to leave us.  All attempts at radio communications were to no avail.  If a plane was ever in trouble, it didn't take much thinking to agree this one had a problem.  The question was, what to do?

     We were operating under complete blackout conditions, and there wasn't much we could do.  But we decided to try and help the stricken plane by visual means.  Among the many things which we as signalmen used for communications between ships ie. Flag Hoist, Semaphore Flags, was a devise called a Signal Gun.  It was about two feet long, and about four inches in diameter, and it contained a very bright light bulb.  It was basically a rifle that emitted a very narrow beam of light.  Pointed directly at the receiver of the light, it made it possible under blackout conditions to use a bright light at the exclusion of anyone other than the person it was pointed at.  In that way, you had a degree of security from disclosing your presence to any possible enemy which might be in the area.  It worked well under normal conditions, but if you weren't exactly on the target, the narrow beam would make it difficult for the recipient to see it.  Adding to the physical restrictions of the Signal Gun under proper use, throw in the fact that you are trying to fire the light at the cockpit of a fast moving plane.  On top of that, we were in heavy seas with the ship rolling and pitching intensely, which made matters worse.  The Captain ordered me to send the magnetic heading from our position at the time, to the nearest port of Zamboanga, Mindanao.  I know that part of the flight training given by the military is the requirement to be able to read the International Morse code.  I am positive that the pilot of that ill fated plane, 1st. Lt. Austin C. Fitzgerald U.S. Marine Corp. was really glad he paid attention during his flight training class when he was taught the Morse Code.

     I very slowly but surely sent the Morse Code of the magnetic heading to Zamboanga.  I repeated it over and over.  All the time, the plane kept circling and circling the ship.  It was decided that another visual aid might be of aid.  The captain ordered we turn the ship almost 270 degrees and take up the magnetic heading to Zamboanga.  That pilot immediately realized that we were using the ship as a pointer and he flew the plane directly over the center-line of the ship and disappeared into the dark horizon ahead.

     Many things transpired during my tour of duty on the Jamestown during the four years I was a crew member that caused me worry, but nothing compared to my worrying for the crew of that plane.  The weather was terrible and I knew they were in trouble.  I didn't hold much hope for them. 

     Imagine our surprise a couple of days later, while at anchor in Borneo. when a B-25 Billy Mitchell came out of the blue and started buzzing the hell out of us.  We knew immediately  that it was the same Billy Mitchell B-25 that we had seen a few nights earlier.  It was evident by the actions of that bird that it was a happy one.  Let me explain something.  You have to understand, since I am a pilot myself, that airmen are a breed apart  from the rest of humanity.  First of all, when you fly a plane, the pilot becomes a part of the plane as he maneuvers it through the air.  It's as if the mass of metal turns into a living thing responding as a living entity responding to the subtle kin-esthetic inputs of the pilot.   It isn't a case of a plane with a pilot in it, nor is it a pilot in an airplane.The plane becomes the pilot and the pilot is the plane  It's a metaphysical thing that only pilots understand.  That plane was showing its exuberance at being alive as well as the crew was.  I cried inside myself with the joy of knowing they had made it after all.

     I have often wondered what ever happened to those valiant and brave airmen since that fateful night in October 1945, and I prayed they made it to the end of the war safe and sound.  I have always felt bad about the fact that I didn't follow up in trying to locate that pilot and crew, but at a subsequent re-union of the USS Jamestown, Lt. Prescott (Now Captain USNR) who was the officer of the deck that night was quite surprised when I showed him one of my WWII mementos.  I am duplicating them verbatim for all of you  to share with me. 



AGP-3/F15                                                                                                       28 October 1945

From:                                                  The Executive Officer
To:                                                       JOHNSON, Wallace Albert, SM1c  USN 360-47-98
Subject:                                              Letters from Port Director Zamboanga, Mindanao
                                                             Dated 21 October 1945.

1.      The subject letters are forwarded to you in a much as this command believes that your performance as duty signalman the night of October 21st. was instrumental in giving the pilot his "steer home", and should therefore give you great pleasure in the realization of a job well done.

                                                             K.W. PRESCOTT,
                                                             Lieut., USNR.

                                                                                                                            21 October 1945

To:                                                      The Commanding Officer,  U.S.S. Jamestown AGP-3.

1.     The enclosed message was left with us for delivery to you after your departure last night.  We were unable to effect delivery because you were out of voice range and therefore take this means of doing so.

                                                            Lt. (jg), MAC BAIN SMITH
                                                            Officer of Port Director
                                                            Zamboanga, Mindanao.


     On Wednesday October 17, 1945, while flying on a routine local hop, all of my Radio and Radar gear burned out and the weather closed in completely in this area.  With 2 hours Gas left and no idea where I was, I fortunately sighted you and was able to get a steer home.  On behalf of my crew, we tried to contact you to have you all over for dinner, but missed you twice.  If you are ever in this area again please come up to Marine Bombing Squadron 611.  There is nothing we won't do for you.  God bless you all.  

                                                            AUSTIN C. FITZGERALD,
                                                            1st. Lieutenant,
                                                            U.S. MARINE CORP.


   Wallace Johnson MBA MCEC
      Apollo Project Test Pilot  
       (The Lunar Landing Mission)    
         Commander Spaceship DEWAJ 
     Crew Member USS Jamestown (AGP-3)
   Cell: 510-541-6154


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