Friday, April 1, 2011

My Dad: One of the "Lucky Seven Marines"

When my father died two years ago, his wishes were to be buried. So, we had to decide what clothes to bury him in. We had a little time to decide, so we were going through his closets and into the attic looking for a suit or something respectable. We weren't planning on a viewing, so it didn't much matter. I wanted him to be comfortable. I mean, if I were going to be buried in one outfit for eternity I would want it to be 100% cotton and loose-fitting. And maybe a scarf to keep my neck warm. To be honest, I can't remember what we chose for him to wear. I can only remember what we didn't choose: his Marine dress blues.

As I mentioned before, my dad was a Marine for two short years. He rarely talked about it so neither did we. His sister Marion had asked if we buried him in his uniform and I had to tell her no. She said that the family was very proud of his service. I recently came across some memoirs my dad was writing in his later years, trying to capture his thoughts before his dementia set in. I'm going to include an excerpt here.

In July, 1946, after graduation from high school, I was unable to enter college. Returning veterans had priority. So, four pals and I enlisted in the Marine Corps, which had lowered its enlistment term to two years in order to fill the holes left by all the departing marines. To get to boot camp at Parris Island, SC we took a train from Detroit to Atlanta, switching to another train for PI. Boot camp was shortened from 12-weeks to 5, again to fill the holes.  When we entered the Corps, we were given the option of line duty (infantry) or aviation. I wanted line duty, but my friends all voted for aviation, so I went with them. From PI we entrained for the Marine Corps Air Station at Cherry Point, NC. Upon arrival there, I was assigned to communications, and then specifically the coding room, where cryptographic machines were located. This room was in a heavy safe, which I unlocked each morning and locked up each night.   

One day, my lieutenant, a pilot, wanted to fly to New York City for Christmas shopping. I was invited to go, along with four others. The plane we took, a JRB twin-engine Beechcraft, was the general’s plane, and I sat in his seat, with radio headphones. The co-pilot was another lieutenant who had won a Navy Cross in the Pacific by downing a Japanese kamekazi suicide plane as it dove down toward Admiral Turner’s flagship off Okinawa.  As our plane took off from CP, heading north, we ran into a storm system that slowly was moving north. We landed at Norfolk and waited two hours before taking off again. Over Baltimore we smelled gasoline but couldn’t determine where it was coming from. Approaching the New York area we were above the storm, but found a hole in the clouds and saw land below. The pilot decided to dive through the hole and then fly beneath the cloud cover. We went down fast, before the hole closed up, and I recall seeing the air speed indicator in the cockpit, bouncing off a pin indicating maximum speed. When we pulled out of the dive I felt like my cheeks were going to touch my knees! We were over the ocean, and after a few minutes saw the Long Island shore. Our plane captain, who cleaned and maintained the plane, another corporal, being from Long Island, recognized where we were and directed us in to Floyd Bennett field (Naval Air Station) in Brooklyn.    

Upon landing, the receiving crewmen noticed all the cracks in all of our plexiglass windows. Further examination showed that on the upper surface of where the wings joined the fuselage there were 5 or 6 raised wrinkles, about a half-inch in height, on both wings. These resulted from the severe pullout of the high-speed dive that our plane had made. As a result of the severe strain that our plane had been subjected to, Navy inspectors decided that the plane could no longer be flown safely and, therefore, had to scrap the plane. They later found why we had smelled gasoline over Baltimore – mechanics at Cherry Point had installed the fuel pump upside down. How that could have happened I don’t know, but it explains why, after leaking gasoline in flight, we had landed with only one or two gallons left in our tank. The Marine magazine Leatherneck wrote an article about this incident, entitling it Seven Lucky Marines. My lieutenant was punished by being expelled from the Corps, for he had only visual clearance for the flight, not instrument clearance. No mention was made of the danger he had placed all of us under.

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