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A Moment of Silence
Lt. Jg. Howard Hassett USNR © 2007

Crew 18 was the last crew in our squadron of 16 PV's.  We had two command pilots, Lt. Bob Markham and Lt. Charles Parker, both where seasoned pilots on their second tour of duty. My self and a crew of four would alternate missions between the two pilots. I don’t know if we flew more missions because of this, but at times it seemed that way.  Our group, squadron VP137, was given special training with new radar equipment for attacks on enemy submarines at night. The training took place at NAS Alameda and NAS Crows Landing, California.

August 9, 1944 the VP137 aircraft, equipment and personnel were loaded aboard the USS Nassau (CEV-16) for transportation to Hawaii; all arrived at Ford Island on the Fifteenth of August.  After unloading all personnel, aircraft and equipment, everything was delivered to NAS Kaneohe under operational control of FAW 2.

August 22, 1944 a six aircraft detachment was sent to Midway Island Airfield to conduct daily patrols.  Crew 18 with Lt. Bob Markham was Pilot in Command while I flew in the right seat as Co-Pilot. We traditionally had an additional crew of four at their respective battle stations.  Initially we were assigned to conduct some additional training, carrying out attacks on mock enemy warships off Midway. We came in low and fast, what a rush.  Man this is the most, and we couldn’t wait to see some real action.

October 15, 1944 VPB 137 (VP was changed to VPB, Patrol Bomber.) We were deployed south to Mokerang Field, Los Negros on Admiralty Island. This was all part of island hoping our way to the Philippines.

January 1,1945 we found our way to Tacloban Field on Leyte.  What a shock, when we landed at Tacloban, the runway had been constructed from a steel mat laid on sand.  When the tires hit, it sent up a roar like I had never heard.  We were one of the first squadrons there, and somehow it seems we were ahead of supply.  All we had to eat for days was good ol' Spam.  Our Navy cooks were masters at preparing in a multitude of ways. God Bless these creative hero’s.

January 3, 1945 In the early AM the ground crew loaded our planes with gas and bombs, the time had come to put training aside and act on what we had been trained to do.  With all the aircraft at the ready it was an awesome sight and all the crews were at the ready for an early morning mission.   However, just prior to manning the ships a single Japanese Bomber, in a surprise raid, bombed our field.  We lost nine aircraft and two were badly damaged. All of our special radar equipment was lost, and now all of our special training was to no avail. Nonetheless the next squadron coming into Leyte replaced our planes; we were back in the business of Patrolling and Bombing.

January 18, 1945, Crew 18 - Lt. Parker in Command, myself in the right seat and our crew of four were assigned a sector flying southwest out of Tacloban to North Borneo.  We conducted the pre-flight on the PV-1 49624 and checked with the crew chief, all was well and we were good to go.  From the beginning of the mission there were some very ominous looking clouds starting to build.  At the age I am now, I can’t remember if we were in South Pacific monsoon season or not.  I do remember however, that I have always liked reading weather.  And on that day, I remember thinking that by after noon these clouds could build into vicious storms.

Well, we take off, clime to altitude and pick up our heading of 225 Mag. Around two plus hours out we see the island of Balabek, a small island south of Palawan and north of Borneo.  Once there we located and enemy radio station which became an immediate target of opportunity.  We dropped down strafing the building and then flew on. It was not much to talk about.  We then picked up a heading of 218 and started down the coast of North Barneo to confirm that some oil fields were destroyed by earlier strikes. Now it’s time to head back with 500 plus miles ahead of us, mostly over the open waters of the Sulu Sea.  We have stretched this mission to the limit. Checking gas tanks for the long flight home we find one tank is totally empty, 100 gallons gone.  We have a problem. The PV1 had a normal cruise speed of 170 Knots/Hour and burned 100 Gal./Hour.  Finding ourselves 500 miles out our calculations tell us we need 600 Gallons to be on the safe side and make it back. Not knowing if the empty tank had already been transferred or indeed we lost 100Gal+ to ground fire over Balabek, we started to plan the most economical flight possible.  We jettisoned our bomb load 1500 pounds, climbed to 10,000 Ft. to pick up the Westerlies and boost us along.  If all goes well we can make it back OK. However, Murphy’s Law is still in effect!!  As we proceed over the Sulu Sea about 1 Hr out, so far so good.  The best approach to Tacloban field is a pass between Samar and Leyte; it’s a safe way home.  But oh no! Murphy’s Law.  A massive thunderstorm was parked over the pass, and the sky was black as black can be.  We entered it at 2000 Feet and found ourselves in absolutely brutal turbulence.  It was always my job to fly instruments along with the pilot; my mode was always hands off but eyes on.  But all that changed in a heartbeat.  When the turbulence became so severe, Lt. Parker let go of the controls yelled out “I CAN’T DO IT,” I yell back “I’VE GOT IT.”  OH MAN!! This is hard to write.

So now I am in Command.  Thank God for the good training at Pensacola, it was all there when I needed it.  I started a climbing standard rate, 180-degree turn to the right and we soon broke in the clear.  We were on the backside of the weather front, finding ourselves on the west side of Leyte.  It was a tranquil setting compared to the thunderstorm, we were over a large bay studded with three little islands in the middle.  The surface of Ormoc Bay looked fairly smooth, the only short way home was blocked, and PT boats were working in the area.  At this point we were considering ditching.  We tried to signal them with our hand strobe light, SOS, MAYDAY, they didn’t get it.  Every one takes their ditching positions and performed their assigned duties.  1. Place a parachute pack in the door to prevent it from being jammed on impact.  2. Get the raft ready to take out.  3. Have Maywest on and ready.  4. We are going to ditch!  5. I then lean out the airplane to the point you can see the props turning. Finally dropping to about 200 Feet we are just flying on fumes.  According to training we “drag” the area to see if a beach or water landing is the best.  We are low and slow when Murphy’s Law rears it’s ugly head again.
Yes, Lt. Parker reaches over to the flap controls, puts the craft into a full Flaps down position and we go into a steep dive.  I knew we were going to be “SOL.” I took the ship again, shoved the throttle controls to the firewall and spun the elevator trim tab as fast as possible.  We pulled out feet above total disaster and turned out to a flat and waiting sea.  Again parker yells out “I’ve got it.”  Well, two pilots cannot fly one airplane at the same time, so I let go of the controls. The plane is at full power and trimmed out, all hatches are open and we ready to ditch.

Seconds before hitting the water I experienced something I’ve never experienced before.  There was an eerie moment of silence, peaceful and total silence. Orders were being given, actions were taken, visually you could sense things were happening, the props were still turning; but there was only silence.  My immediate thought was that this was a space or a knifes edge somewhere between life and death.  I also experienced knowing that whatever the outcome, I was OK with the ending.  There was no panic, no hysteria, just a great sense of peace. Years later I would only be able to attribute this moment of silence to the Grace of God.  However, the calm and peace I felt were suddenly removed when we HIT THE WATER. I was alive! What an impact. Before I could open my quick release belt and make my exit through the hatch above; the water was up to my chin.  Lt. Parker finds his way out and also out our Crew Chief.  The chief yells to me that the turret gunner is hurt and still in the aircraft.  Without thought I went back into the sinking plane, into the cabin, grabbed our gunner, popped his Maywest and pushed him out.  I then exit the door, pop my Maywest and go out after him.  All the while yelling at him to swim or get sucked down. Parker and three crewmen are in the raft no more than fifty feet away. They pull us into the raft, and for the most part the men of Crew 18 are well.
One of the PT boats we saw earlier rushed to our aid, plucked us out of the Pacific, and dried us off.  They informed us of how lucky we were and told us we stayed afloat only 36 seconds.  Once out of the water things got a little fuzzy for me, all I could feel was that I was safe and five others were alive as well.  I thanked God and I thanked Crew 18.  They performed spectacularly and I Salute them.  The PT Boat Captain then took us to a nearby troop carrier where we put aboard.  Once underway we set course to go around Leyte by the dark of night and were dropped ashore at Tacloban Field.  There was no fan far and no brass band, we just walked back to camp. My pal Pat Daily who made light of the whole situation greeted me.  However, I remember I was in no mood for those that took our ditching lightly.

So now, here I am, how do I tell my story?  Do I tell the story of crew 18 and Lt. Parker’s Breakdown?  Do I swallow everything and not file a report.  Does it really matter, your damn right it does!  Every man that risks his life in the air deserves the best.  Myself and five other people are alive because of my flying.   It was my decision to tell the truth of what happened that day just as I am telling it now.

I chose to convey this truth to Captain Jack Porter and let him deal with it, as he summarily did.  In that moment of truth, Parker was taken off flight status and I was labeled a whistle blower. 

February 17, 1945 we flew from Clark Field, Luzon still in the Philippines, VPB 137 was instructed to fly a four-plane mission and strike Surigao Town.  March 1945 a detachment of six planes was sent to Clark Field Luzon with another detachment of eight remaining at Tacloban.

May 1945 three aircraft attacked Butanol Refineries at Mato and Shoka, Formosa. Crew 18 was once again involved, this time with Bob Markham Command Pilot and myself as Co- Pilot.  The mission was to attack the refineries with rockets.  We came out of a storm crossing the beach at tree top level and spread out to come in on the target from three directions Markham stuck our eight rockets into the refinery as did the other planes.  It was blown to smithereens. While inbound to the Butanol Refinery we saw a railroad bridge that looked like a great target of opportunity that we might hit on our way out.

So, reaching the bridge we are once again low and slow and headed back out to the water.  We have three 500 Lb. Par-Demolition Bombs, we should be able to take out the bridge no problem.   OK, bomb bay doors open and bombs armed we start in.  Damn, all of a sudden we see tracers coming up, so it’s bombs away.  The next thing we know, the plane dipped violently, “ WE’RE HIT, WE’RE HIT.” The antiaircraft gunners have found their mark leaving a large whole in the right wing, just a few feet out my window.  Markham corrected the plane and we are still flying.  We followed the river out to sea and called for Captain Jack.

As we cross the beach we see an aerial sticking up out of the water, it’s a US Sub, just in case we have to head to the water again.  The storm we flew out of on the way to the target was still there on the way back, we needed some help.  Before we knew it, Captain Jack pulls up on our wing and assesses our damage.  He stays with us all the way back to Clark Field, what a comfort. We were on instruments most all the way, and Markham was doing a masterful job.

As we near Clark Field Captain Jack is instructing us on finding out our stall speed.  At altitude we stall it with wheels up and with wheels down; this was definitely hairy but we needed to know. He also instructs us not to use the flaps, as the right flap was pretty well gone. Markham maintained absolute dead on control while approaching the airstrip and we kept our air speed up. Air speed is crucial when you have a fractured bird.  He signaled wheels down and we made perfect landing. I can’t say enough good things about Lt. Bob Markham!!  As we where taxing back to our revetment a Red Cross Girl drove up beside us giving a “V” for Victory sign. God I almost lost it, I wanted to cry but big brave Navy Pilots don’t cry.  I finished out my tour flying with Bob Markham.

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