“Buttons,” Espiritu Santo
Wondered several times today whether I’d ever get around to writing this. Well, to start with, a storm is been moving down from the Northeast for the last day or so. Last night, a B-17, filled with “brass hats” and generals, from Guadalcanal, went down, somewhere north of here, due to the lousy weather. We were asked to watch for a rubber boat for the first hundred miles of our outward run this morning. I drew Number Four Sector, bearing 022°T to 028°T from here, out 800 nautical miles. The end of it was only about 170 miles from the Jap flying boat base at Nauru. The skipper, Cooper, and Beswick had sectors 1, 2, and 3, respectively, all to my port (going out.)
Left here about 0600 and headed north at 600 ft. altitude. Weather was overcast with thickening rain squalls. Passed two islands on my port averaging about 200 to 300 feet high. On my starboard I caught a brief glimpse of a fliers’ nightmare — a sheer rising volcanic cone over 3000 ft. high, the top buried in clouds. She rose directly out of the sea, with no beaches and no reef.
The weather got thicker and I soon found myself on instruments completely. The air, or should I say, the sheets of water, were turbulent and through the plane about. At 250 feet off the water, my copilot, Oliver, could see nothing of the ocean and whitecaps below us. Several times I found myself in a violent electrical storm, with the brilliant flashes of lightning giving everyone a tingly feeling (static electricity.)
Gradually the rain got lighter and things began to ease up. Finally broke out into the clear after 400 miles of storm. Completed the 800 miles, turned right, towards Funafuti for 80 miles, then south again, after seeing nothing. The turn to the south was accompanied by many misgivings about the weather.
The storm area we had passed through that morning was now a post-storm area of thick haze. So thick in fact, there was no sign of a horizon. The storm had move south. About 150 miles north of Buttons we started to get into the thick stuff again. No sign of land yet. On and on and still no land. The weather was gradually getting thicker, and I knew it was only a matter of time before we‘d be closed in again. The main thing preying on my mind was that volcanic cone rising assurer 3000 feet out of the sea. The radio compass was useless in that Buttons only broadcast for 3 minutes every half hour. That was barely enough time to get tuned in, let alone take a bearing. The ZB equipment was working and the damned radio range, besides working only 3 minutes every half hour, had never been thoroughly checked on bearings — an invitation to hit a mountain!
Finally spotted one side of that cone about 15 miles to port. It appeared for only a brief instant then disappeared back into the dark gray sheets of rain. A few seconds later we spotted two islands to starboard, so we had a fairly good idea of our approximate position. We were now headed down into the streets between Aoba (6000 feet) and Espiritu Santo (7000 ft.) The inevitable happened and we plunged into a solid black wall of water. After a few minutes I realized that, despite our radar assistance, we were running the chance of smacking a cliff at our three-hundred feet altitude, without ever seeing it. As our position was only approximate within ten miles, our risk was considerable. I reversed course until I got into a little bit lighter stuff, then headed north.
Soon ran into the Torres Islands which we had quite a bit of trouble identifying. The chart showed only four of them, but there were seven! Nice charts!
Fixed our position positively, then again headed south on a set course and speed and an ETA for the northeastern-most tip of Espiritu. Our request to the USS Curtis for M-O‘s had gone unheeded, so now it was dead reckoning, or a sure crash!
Into the black stuff again, and everyone was tense and quiet as the minutes ticked by and the sheets of water tried to beat in the windshield.
The radar operator began reporting, “Land 20 miles on the starboard bow.” — “15 miles.” — “10 miles.” Then, “an object on the port bow, 1 mile!” I looked up from the instruments and for a brief glance to port. There was a PBY headed south with us!
Suddenly on the right a small island passed by. We identified it, then turned a bit to the left as we spotted the coastal cliffs a moment later. God, but they looked good, despite the driving rain.
On south along the coast and suddenly I heard the field tower talking. I called them, “Blondy Tower from 6 Victor 36. Answer.”
“6 V 36 from Blondy. Go ahead.”
“This is 6 V 36. Request permission to land uphill. Uphill.”
“6 V 36 from Blondy Tower. Permission granted to land. Go ahead.”
“This is 6 V 36. Thank you.”
A minute later we broke out into the clear – sunshine and all. Never any saw anything look so beautiful in all my life as the sun shining on our field.
Circled and landed. The dear old earth felt mighty nice underfoot, mud or no mud.
I was the first one back. About 15 minutes later Cooper got in. An hour later the skipper, and another hour, and Beswick got in – just before dark, in the rain.
Everyone was a little skeptical of my story, till Cooper corroborated it. The skipper arrived to say he was damn glad to be back at all!
Beswick had gone so far as to have his emergency gear forward and the crew standing by to abandon the ship for after a water landing! That convinced everyone that we weren’t exaggerating, because when an old veteran like ”Biscuit” goes that far, it’s no simple matter.
Slept damn well!