Section 2, War Stories by Lyle Hansen Copyright 2002
Ceremony on the flight deck of the
Medal of Honor; TBF at deck’s edge.
My leg acted up after a few weeks
There was another patient who had a severe case of the fungus infection we called jungle rot. They had tried all the usual remedies, none of which helped, so had decided to try penicillin. The poor fellow had been wrapped with penicillin-soaked bandages over most of his body. Instead of helping, it seemed to react with the fungus and made the situation much worse. When I last saw him, he was in constant pain, and wrapped like a mummy from head to toe. He was transferred to a hospital ship later when we moved out of the combat zone. I was in sick bay for about a week, and very relieved when allowed to get out, especially because the doc didn’t have to do the amputation he threatened. Listening to the short wave radio in sick bay, we heard Tokyo Rose report that the Belleau Wood had been sunk by a kamikaze! There had been another near miss on the ship that day, but no damage, and we got a big kick out of hearing it. Her broadcasts were usually so far off the mark I felt she did more good than harm to our morale. When she was tried and sent to prison after the war, I thought some of the fuss made over it was overdone. Since she was a U.S. citizen, as a matter of law, I suppose she was a traitor.
The closest call I had was another kamikaze that nearly blew up our ship. We had been called to general quarters for the umpteenth time, and I was at my station on the high searchlight platform. Radar plot showed one bogie (enemy airplane) well outside the destroyer screen to our starboard. Before he was visible to me, the destroyers began firing, and the black puffs of smoke from five-inch anti-aircraft shells marked his location. He then went into a dive and passed between a pair of destroyers, low to the water. He headed for a cruiser that was between our ship and the destroyers, about half a mile away. Now quite visible, I was sure he had targeted the cruiser, and got ready to get pictures of what looked like a sure hit. There was a lot of firing, but he seemed to have a charmed life. Suddenly he climbed up, passing over the cruiser by what looked like only a few feet. As he dove back to near wave-top level, it became clear that the Belleau Wood was his target, and his aim point was the island under my station. At the last moment I stopped trying to get that picture of the expression on his face and ducked down behind a searchlight. I fully expected to be blown sky-high. Crouched behind the searchlight I waited for the explosion I was sure would come. The guns were firing, there was a low-pitched thudding boom, but not quite the explosion I expected. The ship was still moving at high speed. I looked out to starboard and saw a huge plume of smoke and debris rising above the flight deck up to the level of my platform, but rapidly passing astern. I tried to stand up, but found my legs wouldn’t support me. It was as though they were made of jello. I was shaking uncontrollably. After what seemed a long time, but was probably only a few seconds, I was able to rise and see what had happened. Obviously we weren’t hit. The quad 40mm guns just below my battle station were credited with stopping that kamikaze just a few feet from his intended target. One piece of debris that came aboard was a piece of shrapnel about a foot long and perhaps four inches wide. It was imbedded in the flight deck, and was brought to the photo lab to be photographed and included in the action report. From its thickness and the machining marks on its circumference, it appeared to have been from an armor-piercing artillery shell rather than a conventional bomb. Had our light armor been pierced, and the stores of aviation gasoline ignited, much more than just the ship’s command and control center would have blown sky-high. One crewman, apparently believing the ship to be hit, jumped overboard. Search planes were sent out to look for him, but he wasn’t found. Reading through various accounts of the Kamikaze attacks on the task force, I found that this happened April 6. It was a part of the first of several mass attacks called kikusui by the Japanese, meaning floating chrysanthemum. 355 kamikazes attacked during April 6 and 7.
President Roosevelt died in early April and the ship’s chaplain held memorial services on the flight deck. There was quite a sense of loss felt by everyone.
Sometimes things would happen to put a bit of humor into the grim aspects of being in a war. With constant calls to general quarters, the lack of sleep tends to condition a person to sleep whenever an opportunity arises. In one rare lull in the action, a complete white-glove type inspection of the ship was ordered. The photo lab crew had cleaned and polished for hours getting ready for it. The first class petty officer in charge, waiting for the inspecting officers to arrive, sat down to relax when all was prepared. He dozed off, and was sound asleep when the officers arrived. Taking in the situation, the skipper reached for the intercom, and quietly called to report a fire in the photo lab. Alarms went off, and “FIRE, FIRE, FIRE IN THE PHOTO LAB!” sounded loud and clear over the ships announcing system. The embarrassed 1st class awoke with a start. He was not amused, but everyone else was.
Fresh water was rationed, so there were “water hours” when fresh water showers could be taken. After a short period of about 45 minutes, the fresh water was shut off and only seawater was available. If you have ever had a saltwater shower, you know that ordinary soap doesn’t work and while you may feel clean while you’re wet, you’ll feel sticky when you dry off. My friend Morton Shapiro was in the shower, nearly finished lathering up, when the water went off completely. Not even seawater was available for a rinse that time. Not at all happy, he returned to the photo lab with his towel and soap. He locked himself inside a darkroom and filled a large stainless sink with warm fresh water and had a nice tub bath!
Preflight briefing in the ready room.
I photographed the pilots and flight crews, usually just before a mission. When they returned, exhausted and grateful to be back on the ship, they didn’t want me to point my camera at them. Flying from a carrier is dangerous even when not under combat conditions. Accidents happened all too frequently. An engine failure during launch ruined the whole day! The forced landing in the sea was generally survivable, but only if the pilot was able to maneuver out of the ship’s way. The angled flight deck used on today’s super carriers didn’t exist.
A photographer in one of the other units, full of bravado, was eager to go along on a mission. Considerably older than most of us, he even had a son in the navy. Assigned to one of the other carriers, he finally got his chance to ride as the fourth man on a TBF flight over Okinawa. The engine lost power just off the catapult and they went in the drink. While the ball turret gunner and the pilot can escape quickly, the radioman and anyone else in the bilge cannot. The photographer was the last man out, and by then the heavily loaded plane was already below the surface. When I talked with him at Guam, he said the airplane was ten or twelve feet under when he finally got out, and he didn’t think he was going to make it. He kept telling me how kindly the doctor on the destroyer that picked them up had treated him. His belligerence had disappeared, and he was applying for shore duty.
Fighter pilot ready to board his Hellcat. He has his parachute harness, inflatable life vest, clipboard,
oxygen mask, and 38 caliber pistol in a shoulder holster.
Plane handling crew preparing a hellcat fighter for launch.
Fighter pilot ready for takeoff.
TBF Radioman at his station in the plane’s “bilge”. 3rd man in the flight crew, he was also the tail gunner.
One of our TBF’s was hit while over Okinawa. A 20mm explosive round exploded inside the radio operator’s body, killing him instantly and splattering his body all over inside the airplane. There was no major structural damage to the plane. Scrubbed out, and with a patch on its skin, the airplane was soon ready for flight. However, the odor in the radioman’s station was sickening, and the replacement crewman became ill while in flight. The airplane was scrubbed again, and wiped down with oil of wintergreen. Still the crew became sick. The airplane was finally jettisoned into the ocean after removing vital spare parts. There was no room to store a plane that couldn’t be used.
Watching for planes to return from Okinawa on the
Belleau Wood’s catwalk at the edge of the flight deck. My friend Morton Shapiro made this photo
Watching for planes to return from Okinawa on the Belleau Wood’s catwalk at the edge of the flight deck. My friend Morton Shapiro made this photo of me.
At times we could listen to talk from aircraft while they were in flight. In support of troops on the ground, the planes would be sent up but held orbiting around some point until directed to a target by the troops below. On one occasion, when the orbiting had gone on for some time and reserve fuel was running low, a pilot began grousing over the radio. “This war is all screwed up. The people running it are all screwed up. Even I am all screwed up!” A belligerent voice cut in with “This is Bull Durham, identify yourself!” The pilot came back at once saying, “I’m not that screwed up!” (Bull Durham was the code name for Admiral Halsey, commander of task force 38.)
Landing signal officer guiding a plane in for a landing on the Belleau Wood.
Safely down, the Hellcat’s tailhook is retracted as it taxis forward.
Plane handling crew parking a Hellcat on the forward
flight deck. Ready to be refueled
and rearmed for the next flight. The damaged fighter in the lower
picture was flown by one of the pilots I photographed just before he took
off. Nearly out of fuel, with the
engine missing and leaking oil, he made a hard landing and both tires blew
out. He had been very concerned
about the big hole in the left wing. After climbing down from the cockpit
he nearly fainted when he saw the left elevator had almost been shot off of
Plane handling crew parking a Hellcat on the forward flight deck. Ready to be refueled and rearmed for the next flight.
The damaged fighter in the lower picture was flown by one of the pilots I photographed just before he took off. Nearly out of fuel, with the engine missing and leaking oil, he made a hard landing and both tires blew out. He had been very concerned about the big hole in the left wing. After climbing down from the cockpit he nearly fainted when he saw the left elevator had almost been shot off of the tail.
Aviation ordinancemen arming fighter with five-inch rockets
Anti-personnel cluster bombs being prepared underneath a TBF bomb bay.
Above: 500 lb.
bombs wait on the flight deck to be loaded. Left: 500 lb.
bombs falling toward their target on Okinawa from TBF. Photo taken by the radioman through the
open bomb bay doors, He borrowed the camera. My officer didn’t want me to fly on
combat missions, I don’t know whether it was because I was married and had
a young son at home, or if he thought my sore leg might be a problem. If I had gone, I would have been the
fourth man in a three-man airplane. Not being trained as an aerial gunner,
I couldn’t be a regular crewman, and would have ridden in the bilge with
Above: 500 lb. bombs wait on the flight deck to be loaded.
Left: 500 lb. bombs falling toward their target on Okinawa from TBF. Photo taken by the radioman through the open bomb bay doors, He borrowed the camera. My officer didn’t want me to fly on combat missions, I don’t know whether it was because I was married and had a young son at home, or if he thought my sore leg might be a problem. If I had gone, I would have been the fourth man in a three-man airplane. Not being trained as an aerial gunner, I couldn’t be a regular crewman, and would have ridden in the bilge with the radioman.
One afternoon there was a real emergency in the torpedo room. A chief petty officer working there went berserk. He was standing beside a partly-assembled live warhead with a ball-peen hammer threatening to blow up the ship if anyone came near him. There is a full ton of high explosive in the warhead of a torpedo. It was said he had been drinking “torpedo juice”, the denatured alcohol used as fuel in the torpedoes. Certainly something had affected his mind. It was very serious situation, in the end handled very well by some of the marines on board. A couple of them distracted him with conversation while another came up behind to deliver a knockout blow and grab his hammer. I never heard what became of the chief, but I suspect he was kept under lock and key for quite a while.
500-pound bomb being brought up to the hangar deck by elevator.
Cigar-smoking ordinance man loads a 500 lb bomb into the
bomb bay of a TBF on the flight deck.
Cigar-smoking ordinance man loads a 500 lb bomb into the bomb bay of a TBF on the flight deck.
Filling a Hellcat fighter’s wing tank with fuel for
extra range. In some cases these had Napalm added for dropping on
enemy positions. The sequence at left shows a hellcat landing before the
plane ahead had taxied forward and the barriers raised ahead of the landing
space. He said he was waved aboard but the LSO said he waved him off. Even so, all would have been fine except
his tail hook broke! He crashed into
his wingman in the plane ahead killing the first pilot instantly. The fire that started was so hot that
both planes were pushed into the sea in order to save the ship. The second pilot was rescued by the man
in the asbestos suit, but the body of the other one was still in the
wreckage when it had to be jettisoned overboard.
Filling a Hellcat fighter’s wing tank with fuel for extra range.
In some cases these had Napalm added for dropping on enemy positions.
The sequence at left shows a hellcat landing before the plane ahead had taxied forward and the barriers raised ahead of the landing space. He said he was waved aboard but the LSO said he waved him off. Even so, all would have been fine except his tail hook broke! He crashed into his wingman in the plane ahead killing the first pilot instantly. The fire that started was so hot that both planes were pushed into the sea in order to save the ship. The second pilot was rescued by the man in the asbestos suit, but the body of the other one was still in the wreckage when it had to be jettisoned overboard.
Kamikaze attacks had been going on for about a month, and supplies were running low. The food seemed to be down to a sort of subsistence level, the main diet being canned tomatoes, rice and Spam. Beans for breakfast was an old navy tradition, and sometimes there were scrambled eggs. The eggs, were powdered, and when reconstituted were of a rubbery texture with a greenish color. The taste was hardly like eggs. So, when our group pulled back from the combat zone to meet a convoy of supply ships, we felt things would improve. Tankers refueled the ships with fuel oil and aviation gasoline. All day there was a steady stream of slings filled with rockets and bombs hoisted to the flight deck and then stowed below. Finally, late in the afternoon, packing cases of food were brought on board. They contained more canned tomatoes, beans, rice, Spam and dehydrated eggs.
Supply ship alongside transferring cargo.
Cargo net coming aboard with more bombs.
Storing the supplies.
Rocket motors on the elevator coming up to be
assembled by ordinance men prior to installation on the Corsair fighters on
the flight deck.
Rocket motors on the elevator coming up to be assembled by ordinance men prior to installation on the Corsair fighters on the flight deck.
5-inch warheads for rockets
5-inch warheads for rockets
Attaching 5-inch war-heads to rocket motors on the
flight deck; Man on the right is over the housing for an arresting
cable. These cables are caught by
the aircraft’s tailhook when landing on the flight deck.
Attaching 5-inch war-heads to rocket motors on the flight deck;
Man on the right is over the housing for an arresting cable. These cables are caught by the aircraft’s tailhook when landing on the flight deck.
Dud rocket to be dumped over the side. Defective rockets brought back to the ship would detach from their mounts and go slithering down the flight deck when the arresting cable stopped landing planes. I saw recent pictures on the internet showing the same problem existed with planes returning to the USS Stennis from Afghanistan
Clearing the flight deck for an emergency landing.
SB2C returning to the task force from Okinawa. Photo taken by a Belleau Wood aircrewman.
The second fatality of a combat photographer during the time I was one of them occurred on a flight in a plane like the one in the picture above. Badly damaged by
anti-aircraft fire, and with the intercom knocked out, the photographer in the rear seat apparently thought they were about to crash as the plane continued to lose altitude. He bailed out, but was not rescued. Ironically, the pilot was able to get back and made a safe landing.
Many ships in the task force were damaged by the Kamikazes, but few, mostly destroyers on picket duty away from the main force, were sunk. If the damage was slight and repairs could be made while underway, the ship stayed to continue the battle. One hit on the Hornet resulted in major damage to one of her elevators. When the action was over and the damage assessed, an announcement was made that the Hornet would leave our battle group with two destroyers as escorts and go to Bremerton, Washington for repairs. While watching her make a wide turn and head eastward, for a few moments I wished the Belleau Wood could have a similar bit of damage! Home never sounded so good. Being aboard on temporary duty, I’m sure if the ship had left the battle zone, I would have been moved to a different ship anyway. Fortunately, the Belleau Wood had only near misses while I was aboard. Our gunners and the ones on the ships around us were either very good, or as I came to believe, it was probably just good luck. If you happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, you may be killed. But there are times as well, when one can definitely be in exactly the wrong place and still be completely unscathed. Logic doesn’t seem applicable to everything.
After nearly two months of almost continuous action, our battle group withdrew. Okinawa, while not completely secure, was entering a mop-up phase. The army and marines had to continue in those efforts until mid-June as I recall. During the night before we reached our Ulithi anchorage, the destroyer squadron held maneuvers, making practice torpedo runs on our own battleships. Running in a tight formation at full speed in darkness, signals somehow became confused. The squadron made a turn in one direction, as ordered, but one ship turned in the opposite direction. The result was a collision between the Ringold and the Yarnell, one shearing the bow off the other. Fortunately, since both ships were at general quarters for the torpedo drill, there were few injuries, but I think I heard one man was killed. Chief’s quarters on a destroyer are at the extreme end of the bow. They were sheared off on one ship and smashed flat on the other. Watertight bulkhead doors are always closed while at general quarters, so there was no danger of sinking. The tin can without its chief’s quarters was towed into Ulithi stern first the following day.
It was finally time for me to leave the Belleau Wood and rejoin CPU#6. I had only a few minutes notice, and a new regulation I was unaware of, stipulated that anyone leaving the ship must have a white hat. No blue-dyed ones, no baseball caps, must be a white hat. I didn’t have one. Ship’s Service wasn’t open, so I couldn’t buy a new one. Frantically searching for a solution, I came across my friend Morton Shapiro, and he was wearing a white hat! There was no time left for formality. I lifted the hat from his head, bid a hasty goodbye, and was down the gangplank to the waiting boat while Mort was still yelling. I didn’t see him again while we were both in the service, but tried to make amends years later. While in Chicago on a trip for my employer, the Boeing Co., I remembered Mort’s home town was Chicago. I found his name in the phone book, called and bought him a good lunch while we reminisced about our times together.
The Bennington and the San Jacinto returning to the
Fleet Anchorage at Ulithi Atoll.
The Bennington and the San Jacinto returning to the Fleet Anchorage at Ulithi Atoll.
(See Section 3 to continue.)