Tom Moore, Kodiak 1943
North To Alaska
Bill Alberts & Tom Moore, Palm Springs, 1999
However, in early 1941 he received orders: Report to active duty in 24 hours. Already a legendary bush pilot, LCDR Ellis was ordered to establish a scouting squadron in Sitka, Alaska, using the planes already deployed there. Those planes turned out to be one Grumman JRF Goose and one brand-new OS2U Kingfisher.
The Navy simply wanted Bob to close his airline and sell the planes to it. Four of his planes were eventually commandeered, and Bob and the other pilots flew patrols from Sitka as far north as Cape Decision, using his company's Waco. The plane was armed with a Springfield rifle, and there was a hole in the bottom of the fuselage through which he could drop a 100-pound bomb, sighting the target out the window and guessing. It was crude, but it was the outfit from which VS-70 grew.
The XOS2U-1 prototype was first flown by test pilot Paul S. Baker on 1 March 1938, in East Hartford, Conn., and then flown to NAS Anacostia for service trials in August. After initial trials, 54 production OS2U-1's were ordered in May 1939. First fleet deliveries were to USS Colorado (BB-45) in August 1940. By early 1941, OS2Us operated from 15 battleships and a handful of naval air stations. Ultimately, Vought manufactured 1,219 Kingfishers, and the naval Aircraft Factory produced another 300. The Kingfisher was in service at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack and was aboard the USS Missouri (BB-63) for the signing of the official Japanese surrender.
Thomas E. Doll, aviation historian and writer, said, "In its time of war, the Kingfisher performed so well that men are alive today because of its rugged versatility and the dedication of the virtually unsung airmen who plied their trade from the fantail of battleships, the midsection of cruisers and from shore bases."
The strategists feared that we would need fighter facilities should Japan take a jab at North America through southeast Alaska as many thought they would. Engineers and workmen were moved in, and they built a short runway complete with catapult and arresting gear. The floats were taken off an OS2U, and the plane was equipped with its fixed land-plane wheels and a welded tailhook for the purpose of testing the land carrier. The catapult takeoff went well, but the trap was a disaster. The tailhook worked. It grabbed the cable, but it was far too taut. All the gear in the plane that was not nailed down flew out the front end, scattering navigation books, rubber rafts, thermos bottles and even the loop direction-finder antenna down the runway. The pilot and radioman received a few stitches and a week in sick bay, but they recovered. (The vegetation-overgrown runway is still in place against the hill at Sitka, but to this day that Kingfisher test is the only takeoff and landing ever made there.)
Another idea of the 13th Naval District was to bury 50 gallons of aviation gas in steel drums with crank pumps at 80 locations throughout the inland waters of southeastern Alaska. Ellis hired a boat owner and set the plan in motion. Secret maps of the fuel locations were put in every plane operating in the area. There was a request at the bottom of the map to notify NAS Sitka of any fuel used so that the stash could be replenished. No notification was ever given. Jokingly, Ellis wondered aloud whether, after the war ended, he should sell the maps or search out the gasoline for his bush airline, to which he fully intended to return.
After five months of patrols, it was accurately concluded that the I-class submarines had withdrawn to other Pacific areas. About 20 pilots from VS-50 were sent to Kodiak to join VS-70, and I was in that group.
None of us knew what we faced in Kodiak. At VS-50 we enjoyed the talented leadership of LCDR William Leonard, a tough, by-the-rules leader. He did not receive orders to Alaska with us but went into carrier training instead. Bill had a successful career and received the Navy Cross for his persistent raids into Japan.
The group of pilots from VS-50 had about 800 to 1,000 hours of flying time, two-thirds of it in the OS2U. The tales of the exploits of the bush pilot who was to be our skipper at VS-70 had seeped down stateside. Our operations at Sand Point and on the Oregon coast had been quite safe. The weather there was far from ideal, and most of us thought we had little to learn.
The assumption was that we were now at the heart of the worst flying weather in North America. The Navy's regulations, rules, procedures and standards were all solid, but to fly in Alaska we had to recognize there were extensions, reductions, adaptations and ad hoc decisions not in the manuals.
We got the message from Ellis: The Japanese were not our enemy; the Alaskan weather was. We were not going to be killed by the Japanese. If we died, it would be our own fault. The weather forecasts were inadequate at best. The charts were filled with errors. The planes had prewar instruments and radio equipment -- no new features such as Loran and radar. the Kingfisher had no de-icing gear. We operated on wheels in the winter and floats in the summer, and each dry or wet configuration had its own problems. Tides of 24 feet were not uncommon, and the wind velocity could be deceptive, limitless and devastating. But the worst ogre of all was the fog, for it served no notice. It could form, descend, and blow in or out all within a matter of minutes. We soon learned that the threat of Aleutian weather had been understated.
The office and duty-officer area were equally efficient. The files, Teletype, logs, radio and telephones were within an arm's length. Bob boasted that things were so perfectly arranged that duty officers could stand a four-hour watch in three hours. The walls were covered with charts and bulletins. All incoming and outgoing informational notices had to be initialed by every pilot, every day. One chart noted each day the flight schedule of the entire squadron as well as the weather conditions. It confirmed the awful flying conditions but showed that the planes flew even on questionable days.
Each new pilot, with Bob in the rear seat, took a grand tour of the immediate area in the OS2U. His was a running dialogue, pointing out landmarks and always naming every island, river and mountain peak. What I did not realize was that he was observing our flying ability. He watched every takeoff and landing. There was no notetaking, but he was making a mental flight jacket on each of us.
Ellis would call attention to the differences between flying in Alaska and to what we had been accustomed. We used dead reckoning; our only external aids were the radio range and a weak radio station. Constant tracking of heading, wind and time was necessary. Frequent radio checks were made not only to reaffirm the location but also to keep the radioman in the rear seat at peak performance. One of our early patrols had transmitted an expected time of arrival back at base, but in reality the pair of planes was more than an hour late. This meant that the lead pilot had been blown farther south than had expected. That was typical; the surface winds were weaker than those at cruising altitudes. Dinner conversation was almost entirely about how to judge cross winds from the Bering Sea. The higher the landmass north of us meant the greater the differential between surface winds and winds aloft.
Most of our early patrols were with two planes in loose-stepped formation. The pilots learned to compare wind velocities by hand checks. Most of the time the fog moved in from the north, and the base could spot the approaching threat. A return-to-base order set off a race. Our procedure called for us to fly low, keeping contact with the water while trying to get a radio fix as quickly as possible and report our position every 10 minutes. In turn we received a weather update. When we flew wet, there was always the option to land on the water and wait it out.
One of the most threatening features of the Aleutians is the temperature of the water in both the Pacific Ocean and Bering Sea. With water temperatures between 26 and 34 degrees year-round, death results after 10 to 20 minutes of exposure in the water. During my tour of duty, we never failed to get the plane and crews home. There were several overnight campouts, but the planes eventually got back to base.
By Thanksgiving, Bob had skillfully pulled the entire squadron together. None of us had been aware of how well we were being acclimated to the Alaskan conditions. At no time did we feel we were being turned into bush pilots, but we were. Had he made us far more confident and, at the same time, far more alert to the perils of the area.
The Kingfisher was started by inserting a shotgun shell into a chamber on the engine. The shell was set off with a cockpit switch, and the explosion turned the propeller two or three times. By manipulating the throttle, it was hoped that the engine would catch and start. The invention had its faults, and we had trouble with this device. The starter clogged easily. We did back up the shotgun starter with bungee cords and a leather boot that fit over the tip of the propeller. Two men would pull the cord tight, and a third man let go of the prop just as the tension was at a maximum. It usually worked but could not be used on a floatplane.
The only backup for starting the floatplane in the water was to revert to pulling the propeller by hand while standing behind it on the float and holding onto the cowling. The dialogue between the brave "yanker" of the prop and the cockpit was the same used in World War I aviation: "All clear." "All clear." "Switch on." "Switch on." "Contact." "Contact."
In Cold Bay when the temperature was below zero, we had to erect a canvas tent around the engine, place a kerosene heater in the tent and warm the engine until the prop could be turned by hand.
Another problem with the Kingfisher was a quick imbalance that occurred on water when anyone walked out on a wing. The wing float would go under, capsizing the plane unless the person dived into the water in time. To go out on one wing, another person had to balance by going out the same distance on the other wing.
Once in a while our pilots would ride in the rear seat with Bob. It was a pleasure to watch [him] at the controls of his takeoff and landing. It was as if he had a computer. The Kingfisher became an extension of his nervous system. Bob and the plane merged into a cooperative and efficient pair.
Routine patrols, weather permitting, were about three to four hours long, morning and evening. It was our task to identify all shipping by comparing their call letters with a code that changed weekly. The ship would run up the signal flag with its four call letters and a letter-number-letter code next to it that had to match. Returning to base, we would fill out a report giving its time, location, call letters, size, etc., and encode it for forwarding to the 13th Naval District. In Alaska we never saw more than one or two ships on patrol.
The more exciting patrols were prompted by some reported problem. There were numerous searches following a report of a possible enemy ship, usually a submarine. It is easy to mistake a fishing vessel for a submarine. The reports ranged from sightings of a single ship to a full-blown invasion. The sightings were usually at times of poor visibility.
The routine at Cold Bay was similar to the one at Kodiak. We were there for the winter months, and the days were short on daylight. We had a hazy sunrise at 1100 and a hazy sunset at 1400. And that was on clear days. Clock time meant little. Mess hours were kept sacred, which meant breakfast and dinner were never held during daylight. The short periods of daylight made for longer sleeping hours, and the weather helped the cause. In checking the log, the longest period with no flights was from 6 February to 17 February 1944. We had a severe snowstorm, and it appeared that it would never end. The storm covered our huts, runways, jeeps and machinery. The wind could not be measured since all our wind instruments were blown away. The poker games ran long. In addition, we were only 25 miles from the Pavlof Volcano, and the eruptions caused constant earthquakes. Unless the earthquake knocked someone down or banged the food off the table, we paid absolutely no attention to the tremors.
The sun came out at last, and just as we resumed patrols, we learned that we were to be rotated back to Kodiak in March. We also learned that Bob Ellis was being replaced as our skipper and sent out as the C.O. of NAS Adak, Alaska. His replacement would be LCDR Jack Egan, a long-time friend from VS-50.
In a way, the experience was less about World War II than it was about an opportunity given to a group of Americans who shaped how they thought of themselves and their country. The challenge was met by everyone -- Bob Ellis, the men of VS-70 and those who supplied the Kingfisher.
Moore served tours of duty in VS-50, subsequently transitioning to PBM-3 Mariners during the formation of VH-1. He left active duty in February 1946.
He later went on to work in the entertainment industry as a CBS executive and then as president of ABC-TV until 1970, after which he founded his own production firm. he retired in 1985.
Mr. Moore was the first president of the Naval Aviation Museum Foundation and presently serves as a vice president. He has also served as vice chairman for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. During his career in the entertainment industry, Moore was awarded six Emmys and two Peabodys for broadcast excellence.
He currently owns and operates a commercial wine vineyard in St. Helena, Calif.
CAPT E. Earle Rogers, II USN, (Ret.)
Editor in Chief, "Foundation" Magazine
Copyright Naval Aviation Museum Foundation, firstname.lastname@example.org
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Names of VS-70 squadron members include William Dau, Lawrence L. Hauke, Thomas W. Moore, Jack Egan, Vincent Quillen, Richard K. Reckner, James W. Spencer, William M. Alberts, Robert E. Ellis, Ray Compton and Peter Klein.
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