Honor Thy Country With A Touch of Class by Joseph R. Scolavino, U.S. Navy
Honor Thy Country With a Touch of Class
Joseph R. Scolavino
This is a true story of a 12 year old boy who lived in Brooklyn, New York at 3502 Avenue P and 35th street. He attended grade school at Quentin Road & 34th Street, Brooklyn.
Joe had a bike and worked in a grocery store after school. Often times he stopped at a private airport called Floyd Bennett Airport and enjoyed watching biplanes with two open cockpits He loved making model planes and finally he wanted to go up in a biplane at the airport, so for 75 cents he sat in the rear cockpit while the pilot took him over Coney Island and back which lasted about twenty minutes. He was 14 years old and thrilled! From that point on he wanted to join the Navy when the war started in Europe in 1939. He continued high school until his last year, but finally left home and joined the Navy in 1943. After about three weeks, the Navy recruiting Board called his parents to come into their offices to sign Joe’s papers since Joe was underage at the time he enlisted. His parents were relieved to know he was ok and signed the documents. Joe was finally a Navy man and ready for his long wait to serve his country.
At this point in time, Joe was told to report to the Brooklyn ship yard to get his assignment. After all Navy recruits were issued the necessary gear, the officers assigned the 22 US Navy men as gunners to handle all guns and ammunition on board ship. Joe was assigned to a 20 mm gun on all his watches aboard the Benjamin H. Bristow supply ship. This ship has two, 20 mm guns, four, 40 mm guns, one, three inch aircraft gun and one, five inch gun on the stern of the ship. The five-inch gun was used to sink ships or submarines that were surfacing the sink the ship. The three-inch anti-aircraft gun was used to shoot down enemy planes.
Before the Navy Men came aboard Bristow, all clothing that was necessary was issued according to size, including summer and winter wear. Then the officers in charge of the 22 gunners then assigned each Navy man his quarters and watch stations for the crossing to England. When the ships would take their position in the convoy to start their 3,000 mile journey to Manchester, England, it was an amazing sight to see so many supply ships in the convoy. The count was about 100 to 150 ships ready in position to start the journey.
The first ship on each flank was called the coffin box. Joe was on the last of three trips across the ocean that could have been classified as the coffin box. Most of the supply ships carried tanks, jeeps, and bodies of fighter planes chained to the ship’s deck. Ropes were tied from the after deck to the bridge to keep the crew from falling overboard. Our food was served amidships and our sleeping quarters were on the after deck.
Whenever the fog closed in on the ships, the order was to zigzag to keep our course from being known. Sometimes it was necessary to use the horns and lights to avoid a collision.
When the light of morning came, it was such a surprise for everyone to see so many ships, no matter where you looked. The wolf packs of German subs felt that they had the upper hand, especially when they had so many targets to choose. The subs sunk hundreds of supply ships and thousands of men lost their lives. Since then, the Navy had used planes on baby flattops, ships that were converted for takeoffs and landings. They carried depth charges and tanks, and had the bodies of fighters chained to the deck of the flattop. It seemed to be a depth charge war with fighters (Germans) and the supply ships had plenty of guns aboard to fight off the planes. Destroyers also kept after the subs with depth chargers. This resulted in fewer supply ships being sunk as they departed the east coast.
We made port in Manchester and would use the same ships on our return voyage. This was due to the fact that the East Coast convoy, which included destroyers, corvettes and other faster US ships, had the speed and knowledge of how to use depth charges. It took about three weeks to unload the hold of the ship Bristow, fill the fuel tanks, load food, and finally secure the hold, amid the bridge and fantail. Upon completion, we finally set sail back to Boston! All of us know that the subs were out there waiting for us. On any one evening just about dusk was when the subs could track their targets. We could do the same, but it was harder to track a periscope, especially when it was dark, with no moonlight. One advantage was when the weather was rough and cloudy, keep in mind, though that the subs had all the time to move when it was light. Then the subs would use the big gun on top of the sub plus torpedoes, which indicated that more ships were firing their big five-inch mm guns.
Before we started the return trip to Boston, the hold of the ship had to be filled with sand and other items to keep the ship from becoming extremely unsteady in a storm. One thing, we had to be just as vigilant on the return trip and do our very best not to lose any ships in the convoy. Remember, in the early forties, some of our ships were sunk when they left the American coast to meet the convoys. The subs were only a few miles from the United States east coast waiting for a kill.
When we arrived into port at the Brooklyn shipyard, it took at least five weeks to get the hold cleaned up and loaded up again for the next trip. This time part of the cargo was 105 mm shells. The deck had all the vehicles and jeeps plus a few bodies of fighter planes. Our next route was Scotland where we stopped to pick up a barrage balloon. The barrage balloon was attached to the ship to deter enemy aircraft from diving low and dropping bombs on the ships, crew and equipment. When we headed into the English Channel, we were not informed about any particular port, but the crew had a hunch the invasion would take place from the English Channel, or somewhere near that location.
We saw fighters and bombers arriving from different areas, and suspected they were preparing their equipment and hiding it until D-Day. However, when D-Day arrived we were well on our way home, since all of the supply ships got a good start, along with all of the protection we received from the destroyers and baby aircraft carriers. Later into the trip, we saw plenty of action around the convoy. The convoys, in turn, formed small groups to head in different directions to protect the destroyers, dive-bombers and baby carriers. All of the US equipment had plenty of depth charges to protect the convoy from the submarines.
The officer in charge of the US gunners wanted volunteers to transfer from 2nd Class Gunner’s Mate to 2nd Class Aviation Ordinance Man (AOM). In other words, I became a turret gunner. In addition, I was assigned to be in charge of the bombers panel, which included opening the bomb bay doors, clicking the numbered bombs to drop and inspect the bombs to make sure they are armed.
I had learned all information while attending gunnery school for eight weeks. In addition, my training at the gunnery school provided me with the knowledge to determine the distance between the target and the plane that was actually pulling the target. Before departing for the next assignment, I was sent to a rest camp in Deland, Florida for two weeks to wind down and relax. I played softball, shot skeet and played golf. The only sport I think I was good at was skeet.
Finally, a few of the US gunners were given orders, including myself to report by a certain date and directly to the captain of the seaplane tender called the USS Chandeleur â€“ AV 10 in San Diego. The squadron was made up of fifteen patrol bombers, each with three closed turrets, holding two 50-caliber guns. Each turret was equipped with 2000 rounds of ammunition. The gunner could turn that turret at least 180 degrees in addition to maneuvering it up and down. There was also a 50-caliber gun that was on each side of the body of the plane. You were instructed to use the spoiler on each left side before swinging out the gun, and chain or belt your sides to keep yourself steady. Each man on a mission used a parachute harness in case of emergency. There were parachutes all over the walls of the plane. One merely grabbed a parachute and clipped the two handles. Each parachute had a handle to pull and open the chute! Before pulling the ripcord, we had to make sure we were clear of the bomber while keeping as close to the other flyers in order to be close to our group once we hit the ground. Keep in mind there were twelve flyers in the bomber during day flights while the night patrols, at times, had less crew on board.
I remember one night flight when my orders involved watching the radar screen for a few hours, then taking watch on the engineer’s gas panels in order to check that all tanks of gas were in good shape. One night my orders were to put bunches of metal pieces the size of 12-18 inches into packs of 50, then remove the wrappers, and manually shove the metal pieces down the pipe. If the enemy found it on their radar, you would know soon enough since the bombs started coming toward you. They would see the ammunition on their radar too. However, which was ours while flying east of the Japanese, was sure hard to see 500 pieces and tell which was our bomber.
Once the war was over in Europe, we were now heading to Japan for the fighting. It was going to be tough, but I was looking for what I wanted, since I was 12 years old. Squadron VPB-21 completed a change over from PBM-3D aircraft to the PBM-5 type. The Chandeleur went to general quarters 204 times over 3 Â½ months and then moved to Okinawa. From Kerama Retta in Okinawa, the Chandeleur kept maintaining repairs on the PBM’s. On November 7th 1944, with the wind at 75 mph, many of the seaplanes rode out the storm, and despite all that happened, the planes still met their flights. The food was sent to the planes on rubber rafts. In addition, on the evening of June 21, 1945, two enemy planes approached our anchorage resulting in one enemy plane being hit and exploding while the other plane hit the USS Curtis. These were both Kamikaze planes which resulted in 42 military being killed. I estimate that the ships were about 300-400 feet away from the kamikazes that hit the USS Curtis. My ears were screaming and my eyes became blurry. This was what I called hell, both night and day! Our Pt boats were speeding around the ships and planes to let off smoke, to cover the Kamikazes targets. This went on week after week, no matter what bay we anchored in and around Okinawa. There had to be at least 200 or more attacks that hit us in Okinawa. Also, if on a mission to locate the enemy and we did contact enemy squadrons, we had to give the location immediately and stay at least 8 Â½ miles away from enemy ships and squadrons. The PBM’s were not able to match the enemy fighters. The captain of the patrol bomber would give the command if he was sure what type of planes and the number of firearms it was carrying. You had to fight it out! It was live or die. There was no two-ways about it.
Our flight schedules were from dawn until dusk, between 6:00 â€“ 8:00 a.m. Take off, with landings at dusk which was any time after 6:00 p.m. The average flight was approximately 12-14 hours. If a plane was damaged, its time would be late coming in, hopefully with minor damage, and with repairs being made immediately. Most of the time the extensive damage to the planes occurred on the day flights. That was the reason for the full crew to be called to fly the day shift.
After becoming a turret gunner, we were required to handle other jobs while we were on day flights. More shooting, bombing and much more time was spent searching for enemy ships that we needed to call in, as well as staying away from their fighter planes. Those were very tough and nerve-wracking orders. Now I was getting what I asked for when I joined the service!
When I returned from the service I spent a lot of time at the Veteran’s Hospital. My eyes were operated on; I was fitted with hearing aids which resulted from the continuous explosion of the bombs. My lungs were diagnosed with COPD and are now in bad shape requiring me to take multiple forms of medication to make my breathing more comfortable along with the use of oxygen 24 hours a day. This was the result of the smoke and bombs. Also, I now take anxiety medication due to service connected post traumatic stress.
During my early days of going to the VA hospital on a regular basis, I received my certification allowing me to be eligible to teach high school and later college for a total of ten years. I now have been retired for sixteen years.
I began thinking back when I was a young boy of 12 or 13 years old when I worked for Mr. Ferrante who was a builder. He hired me to help him a few days at a time and lived in Brooklyn as well. He was wonderful to me. I worked with him three or four times. He even took me to Coney Island! His wife and children help with keeping me fed and happy. He took me and his entire family up to his big home in Liberty, New York. Here I worked with him on his small cottages. He took me into his home for meals as well. The entire family was great to me and I miss them even after all these years and think of them often and my early days in Brooklyn. I hope everyone is going good for the Ferrante family and I think about them every day. It is hard to believe all these years have passed by and I have reached the age of 86.
Even at this age I often think of my younger days and my time serving in the Navy. I am proud to be an American and proud to have served my country.
Additionally, I have inserted a short portion of the war history of the US Navy Patrol Squadrons â€“ USS Chandeleur.
In citing the deeds of the squadron at Okinawa only, we are not forgetting the other months of the day-to-day patrols but since the operation at Okinawa was undoubtedly the largest and most important seaplane operation in history, the facts about the campaign seem the most logical to present.
During the Okinawa operation, mariners of VPB-21 sank nine enemy vessels, probably sank three others and damaged twenty-nine more. In addition to this, many land targets were destroyed or damaged.
Chandeleur based PBM’s drew first blood at Okinawa being in on the kill of a large Japanese submarine two days before the invasion of Okinawa. Our search planes spotted the giant Japanese battleship Yamato on the morning of April 7, 1945 and warned the carrier planes that later destroyed her. During the Okinawa operation, planes of VPB-21 rescued twenty downed airmen, shot down at least one Japanese plane, and flew over five hundred combat missions for a total of 7,000 hours. Close cooperation between ship and squadron made such accomplishments possible and in helping VPB-21 pile up such an impressive record, the USS Chandeleur (AV-10) has definitely fulfilled her primary functions to act as a floating base for the maintenance of seaplanes and for the caring of the crews.
The biggest news stories of the war, the atomic bomb, Russia’s entry into the conflict, and Japan’s surrender often found us underway between Okinawa and Eniwetok and the rapid cessation of hostilities left us very uncertain as to our status.
After seven days availability alongside the USS Laertes (AR-20) to make critically needed repairs in the engine room, our status began to clear as cold weather gear came aboard and the Chandeleur was ordered to get underway again.
The official VJ day, Sunday, September 2, 1945, found us underway en route to Ominato, Honshu, Japan. On September 6, the Chandeleur joined the main force of the North Pacific Fleet about 200 miles off the northern coast of the main Japanese island of Honshu, and thus came under direct command of Comm NorPac Vice Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher, USN.
Reaching Ominato on September 8th with the other units of the North Pacific Fleet, the Chandeleur was one of the first large ships to enter the harbor and anchor. The next morning, Admiral Fletcher received the formal surrender of Northern Honshu and all of Hokkaido from the Japanese envoys on a nearby ship, USS Panamint.
Our PBM’s arrived September 10th and using us as their base, flew routine searches, dumbo missions, and mail and passenger trips to Tokyo. The Ominato operation was the culmination of the Chandeleur’s war activity. On October 16th after the arrival of our relief, the USS Tangler, we at last weighed anchor. Saipan, almost our home port, was our first stop, but in less than 24 hours we had provisioned, fueled and taken on passengers. On the morning of October 23rd, the familiar landscape of Saipan faded from sight and the Chandeleur, her days of war over, headed home.