Al Knack

These are notes taken from my flight log and journal of 1942. This one event made a more lasting impression on me than most anything else I have experienced in my lifetime. / call it "An Encounter with a Submarine" and it is about the events as viewed from the back seat, gun blisters and flight engineer's seat of a PBY5A. Of Patrol Squadron VP-41 Fleet Air Wing Four.

We had taken off in the early morning hours of June 6, 1942, on a scouting sector west from Dutch Harbor south of the Aleutian Islands chain. The plane was a PBY5A, Bureau Number 05011, based at Dutch Harbor, Alaska, and we were armed with four 500 Ib. bombs. I am Albert C. (Al) Knack, AMM 2/C, and I was the plane captain of the Lt. William N. Thies plane crew aboard that day. We were searching for a reported Jap cruiser and possible carriers (two) with supporting ships which had bombed Dutch Harbor on June 3 and 4. The entire area was heavily overcast so our search was by radar above the overcast.

After about three hours and no contact with any of the three other planes that took part in the search, we headed north toward the Islands to complete our leg of the sector and then head for home base. About half an hour later, our first radio/radar operator, Harvey, reported a steady blip on the screen about four miles distant on our port quarter. Lt. Thies made a turn to bring the blip on our flight path and let down to about 250' to 300'. We had visibility of about half a mile. We decided to strafe whatever it was with our .50-caliber machine guns.

I left Wahl, my second mechanic, in the tower (engineer's station) so I could man the port .50-caliber gun. The overcast was too low to allow us to drop a bomb. Maddox, our second radio/radar operator, manned the .30-caliber gun in the tunnel (tail). I opened the blister, uncaged the gun, charged a round into the chamber and pointed the gun as far forward as it would go.

Very shortly, a submarine came into view almost dead ahead, laying still in the water. I was looking at her beam. I had to wait until she was under our beam before 1 could get her into my gun sights. At that instant, I heard and felt the loudest explosion I have ever encountered. The blast knocked me back into the center of the blister compartment between the guns. When I came to my senses, I was lying on my back looking up at the trailing edge of the wing. Getting up on my feet, I saw fire streaming out of the inboard side of the starboard engine and the wing tip floats coming down. Only one thing was on my mind - the seven-man raft was stowed under the navigator's table and the four-man raft was in the bunk compartment. Part crawling and part walking across the catwalk to the navigator's compartment, I pulled the seven-man raft from under the table and carried it back to the blister compartment. (Later, I had to have help lifting that raft off the catwalk!)

Next, I went to the flight engineer's tower and stepped up the ladder between Wahl's feet in order to see the control panel. Wahl was cranking the cowl flaps. The "floats down" light was not on so I told him to get those floats up fast. We were flying on one engine and I was afraid those floats would drag us down. While he was bringing up the floats, I made sure the fuel cross-over valve and the fuel selector valves were both turned to the port engine. (These valves are in the lower part of the panel.) I switched the fire extinguisher to starboard and pulled the toggle - the fire went out!

The bombs had been jettisoned right after we were hit so the racks were empty. There was one pair of arming wires hanging from the inboard rack on the port wing. Somehow that bomb had been released. As luck would have it, the CO2 line was cut right at the point of the cut in the fuel line. Wahl was not a trained mechanic, he was an ordnance man (AOM). Lt. Thies and Lt. Lohse had switched the starboard engine off and feathered the prop, but the fire was being fed fuel from the pump on the port engine. I relieved Wahl in the tower and took over the flight engineer's seat in the tower.

The cylinder head temperature was about 15 to 20 degrees higher than recommended but not in the danger zone. We were in level flight but at about 300' altitude. So with everything stabilized, Lt. Thies began to climb slowly to about 1,500' altitude. At this time, all was very quiet. Thies and I were the only ones in conversation. Our talk centered around trying to adjust the RPMs and manifold pressure to the most optimum settings for flight and engine cooling. We were able to bring the temperature down about 10 degrees, and we were maintaining level flight.

After about an hour and a half, our intercom and electrical system went dead. Our batteries were going down. Harvey and I started the putt-putt (the auxiliary power unit) and got the electrical system on again. We turned off everything, including the radar and radios, leaving on only what was needed for flight. We would turn on the voice radios when we got into range of our base at Dutch Harbor. The generator on the port engine had also quit showing a charge.

Soon, lunchtime rolled around. That was my job. I always made sure that we had a full lunch box. We ate well.

The bottom of our plane had sustained some sizeable holes below the water line. We had several Kapox life vests, so I had Wahl and Maddox stuff the vests into the largest holes and back them up by laying the life rafts over them.

Finally, we entered the Sound in front of Dutch Harbor and dutifully made a recognition turn, a 360-degree circle to identify us as being a friend. We came around the mountain and entered the harbor over the spit and let down for a gentle landing right in front of the ramp. The beach crew had to work fast to get us up the ramp and beached before we sank. We were taking on water pretty fast. Our flight time for the day was ten hours . . . Six hours on one engine! That was the longest six hours of my life.

Chief (CPO) Tobe Cooper's maintenance and repair crew had that plane repaired and we flew it on a two-hour test hop exactly one month (July 6, 1942) later. Two days later we flew that plane with a demolition team to Constantine Harbor, Amchitka Island, to blow up a submarine that had run aground. But that flight is another story.

Albert C (Al) Knack Jr. MAJ USA RET.