Tuesday, December 6, 2011

70 Years Ago - Pearl Harbor

Seventy years ago tonight, as this is written, twenty-nine year old LTjg Jackson D. Arnold, USN, USNA Class of 1934, an Engineering Test Pilot assigned to Ford Island in the middle of Pearl Harbor was at one of the usual Saturday night parties very common at the time.  He and his new girlfriend Muriel McChesney would not get home until early the next morning.  No problems, it was going to be a lazy Sunday.  He could sleep in.  Jack was, in today’s terms, a Party Animal.  He dropped off Muriel at her home a mile or so away near the foot of Diamond Head and went home to what might be generously called sleep.  Things were good, things were stable.  All was well.

Things would change.  Change faster than Jack could imagine.

Just before 0800, Jack awoke to the biggest bang he had heard since he was the Officer in Charge of ARIZONA’s Number Four Turret.  He rolled out of bed, ran out side and looked up.  Divebombers, rolling in on Pearl Harbor, meatballs on their sides.  The bang had been a Jap mistaking his pickle button for a radio key.  A 500 pounder fell a few hundred feet from his front lanai.  He ran back inside, put on his khaki uniform, grabbed his desktop radio and headed towards Pearl, with a quick stop to give Muriel the radio and tell her to keep her wits about her and listen to the radio.

Into his car and towards Pearl.  As he raced along what is now Nimitz Highway, through the cane fields, a military staff car pulled in front of him, shortly thereafter a truck pulled in behind him.  A convoy of three.  Soon a Zero found them, rolling in, he strafed the staff car, which ran off into the cane fields.  The Jap came back around and rolled in on the truck, riddled with bullets, it went off burning into the cane fields.  Jack had had enough of that, he pulled off the road and dove under the car.   After about two minutes, it came to him; there he was under the only potential target.  He decided he would more likely survive if he were a moving target and not hiding under the gas tank.  Back on the road!  In a few minutes he came to the Pearl Boat Facility where he looked for a launch to Ford Island.  No launches!  Then, he looked in the boat shed.  It was full of launches and cowering coxswains. 

Jack jumped into the launch closest to the open boat house door.  A coxswain came out, “You can’t take that, she’s mine.”  Jack said, “Well, she’s going to Ford Island.”  “Not without me driving,” as the coxswain hopped aboard and started her.

Arriving at Ford Island in the middle of the first wave, Jack sprinted across the field, scrambled into the only flyable F-4F Wildat and got her running.  A plane captain clambered up the side of the running aircraft to tell him that not only was the aircraft very low on fuel, but it was totally devoid of ammunition.  So much for his first air to air victory.  With no other flyable aircraft remaining, he looked about for a way to “contribute to the war effort.”

Just before the second wave hit, Jack came across a young Marine who had lost his life in the first wave attack, but kept his BAR from hitting the ground.  Jack, having been on the All Navy Rifle and Pistol Teams and an avid bird hunter felt at home with the Browning.  As he stood there near the base of the new tower, a lone torpedo bomber rolled in to strafe the tower and thus him.  Judging his lead carefully, he emptied two magazines into the Jap, killing the pilot and severing a line or two.  Smoke and flame poured from the plane as it crashed on the field.  The second wave was gone.  Jack went over to the wreck, it was the Torpedo Squadron Commander.  Jack took a bottle of sake from the plane, they would not need it now.  He took a big gulp, passed it to sailors gathering to see what he had found, and ran back to the whaleboat he had taken to Ford Island.

Grabbing the launch, he put out for ARIZONA to pick up survivors.  The first person he pulled from the water exclaimed, “Mr. Arnold! Mr. Arnold! Mr. Arnold!”  Looking at the man, covered head to toe in bunkers, black as a seal, Jack responded, “Sir, you have the advantage of me.  Who the blazes are you?”  The slippery dark form responded, “Sir, it is me, Johnson.”  The Number Four Turret Captain, the Petty Officer with whom Jack had worked on his first assignment out of the Naval Academy. 

Things would change for Jack.  In five weeks, he would marry his new girl friend Muriel, a marriage that would last over 60 years.  In less than a year, he would be a full Commander, form a new Air Group, Air Group Two, be the Torpedo Squadron Commander, with a very short but more successful career than the Jap Commander he shot down.  He would be Air Group Two’s first Commander or CAG for her first War Cruise on HORNET, the second carrier of that name.  Shooting down four more Japs, he would command the most successful Air Group of the war.  After the war, Jack would be Air Officer on BOXER, one of the first jet pilots in the Navy, then go into the Bureau of Naval Materiel.  He would design space suits, pioneer new techniques in aircraft and ship procurement.  Then finally he would be the first Commander of the newly formed Naval Materiel Command, the biggest command in the Navy.  He would retire as a Four Star Admiral.  But, he would always be known as Gentleman Jack whose men would follow him anywhere.

More later!

Friday, November 18, 2011

More than saving a life

We are coming up on the fourth anniversary of the passing of Jackson D. Arnold, Admiral, United States Navy.  The year before Jack died I was going through Christmas cards with him asking who was who and he told me this story when we got to one from Joe Wilson.

Known to almost all who knew him as Gentleman Jack.  Uniquely positioned in history, born a year after the first aircraft touched down on a ship, he started flying biplane seaplanes, flew the very first jets off carriers, designed the first space suits and ended up his career as the first commander of Naval Materiel Command.

Much of what he did in his naval career made huge impacts on the course of Naval Aviation and the course of several wars.  But nothing he did had more impact on a life than a single strafing run on HIRYU while he was Commander of the Air Group (CAG) on the second HORNET.

Near the end of her first war cruise, HORNET was Flagship of RADM Jocko Clark’s Task Force 58.1 for the Battle of the Philippine Sea.   Six Grumman TBF Avenger Torpedo Bombers from Belleau Wood, one of the Task Force’s four carriers, hit the Japanese carrier HIRYU.  She was burning strongly.  HORNET’s fighter squadron attempted a low angle dive bomb attack on her.  After dropping his bombs, Jack dropped down to strafe the deck with his F6F Hellcat’s six .50 caliber machine guns.  While the bombs had done little apparent damage, between the bombs and the torpedoes, HIRYU’s aviation gasoline tanks had been breeched.  Jack’s strafing run set the vapors off and the vessel sustained mortal damage.

At the time of time of the attack on HIRYU, a young Japanese pilot was bolted in the cockpit waiting to take off on a Kamikaze mission.   Imprisoned in his cockpit, he waited with terror, then resignation as HIRYU was torpedoed, then bombed.  Just as it looked like he might survive, he looked up to see a dark blue Hellcat with 99 on the nose and a white meatball on the tail strafe the deck.  He was sure he would be hit.  When he was not, he relaxed.  Then the gasoline vapor explosion came.  Surely he would burn to death, but then a ground crewman let him out of what would have been a high explosive coffin.  The ship sank from under him, he survived, was picked up and somehow managed to live through the remaining 14 months of the war.  Had HIRYU not sunk, he would have launched on a one way mission, perhaps taking an American ship with him, perhaps not. 

Because of the attack which sank his ship, the young pilot survived the war.  After the war, disillusioned with the Japanese War Party, tired of killing, he wanted to know more about the people who beat the invincible Japanese.  What he found was a Christian country.  As he learned about the country, he learned about Christianity.  In it he found the meaning and peace missing from his life.

The young pilot became a Christian, perhaps at first because of the peace our Lord offers, but soon because there was no other way.  He eventually immigrated to the United States, adopting the anglicized name of Joe Wilson.  He sought out the identity of the pilot of the Hellcat with 99 on the nose and the white meatball on the tail.  Joe lived in San Diego, he found the pilot only a few miles from him in Rancho Santa Fe.  A call and he made arrangements to meet Jack almost 30 years after the sinking.  They talked about the war, they talked about the attack.  But, they also talked a lot about what happened afterwards.  Each year thereafter, Joe sent Jack a Christmas card thanking him for saving not only his life, but most importantly giving him time to find Christ, thus saving his soul.