I can tell you exactly where I was on Saint Patrick’s Day in 1944. I was in Havana and very thankful that I was there in one piece after my first flight in an airplane the day before.
As a not yet 21-year-old Ensign, I was the lowest ranking of the twenty-eight officers who crammed into a PBY, a Navy flying boat of the type known as a Catalina. We were leaving Key West for an overnight R&R visit to Havana. R&R is the acronym for rest and recreation, but the first R was not operable. No one on the plane was planning to rest, including the pilot and copilot.
Since I had never flown before I was one of the first to scramble on board. I grabbed a spot next to the port-side machine-gun mount in one of the two Plexiglas housings aft of the wing; they were referred to as blisters.
There were no seats for the 80-mile flight; all passengers were standing as during a rush-hour trolley ride. Only those of us in the blisters could see out.
When the copilot made a final check during a walk around the plane, he told me and an officer in the starboard blister to open our respective canopies as soon as the Cuban coastline came into view, told me to then don the sound-powered telephone headset, and told us both to be ready to throw out the sea anchors, that is, the canvas bags that when dragged in the water upon landing, serve as brakes. The pilot, we were told, would give the command and I was to relay it to the officer on the starboard side. We were warned to be sure that both sea anchors went overboard at exactly the same time.
The pilot made two roaring runs at full power with everything vibrating and rattling and could not get the fully loaded plane off of the water. When the plane went back to the ramp at the seaplane station, I was convinced that the trip had aborted. The pilot kicked out the only two marines, and with the plane thus lightened was able to get the hull hydroplaning, or as seaplane pilots say, “On the step.”
Then the pilot snapped the plane free of the water and we started a gradual climb toward Havana.
The view as we neared Cuba was magnificent. It was worth all the elbowing I had to do to keep others from taking over my choice position. The water below was iridescent blue interspaced with iridescent green. Both colors contrasted vividly with a white sand beach that signaled need to open the canopies and for me to don the earphones.
I never had an opportunity to ask the pilot or copilot about what transpired next. However I’m sure that they decided to have some fun because they knew that I could hear what they said to each other. The copilot started, “The radio tower is straight ahead.”
“You’re coming awfully close to the tower!”
“I see it!”
The copilot screamed, “Geeze,” as the left wing suddenly dropped at least fifteen or twenty degrees as if to dump us on the radio tower that suddenly appeared very close below us. We could see the details of the aircraft-warning red-light fixtures on top.
Also, it seemed for an instant that a few of us were going to tumble out. At least six others agreed and were clawing to hang on to me as I put a strangle hold on the machine-gun mount. Then via the telephone headset, I could hear the two idiots laughing. Undoubtedly, they pulled the same stunt on earlier flights. But something happened in the next few minutes that insured that they were not likely to do it again.
Our attention was diverted by the beautiful sight of Havana from the air. The harbor seems to have been gouged out of the heart of the city. Cubans with crosstown destinations rode water taxis. Dozens were wending their way between the many merchant ships that were crowded inside the harbor because of the German U-boat menace outside. Two rows of buoys defined a relatively short and narrow lane for the coming and going of seaplanes.
Soon after our plane touched the water, in response to the pilot’s order both sea anchors went over the side simultaneously. But the commotion caused by the fly-boys’ joke caused the line for the starboard sea anchor to become foul underfoot of some of the just-frightened passengers. The starboard sea anchor didn’t reach the water!
With speed insufficiently diminished, the plane, being braked only on one side, veered out of the lane and seemed to be chasing water taxis while narrowly missing anchor chains and ships’ hulls. I could hear the panicked pilot and copilot screaming. It’s very likely that in addition to all of the ships and water taxis that were zooming across their field of view, their lives were flashing past.
That evening the pilot and copilot effectively grounded themselves while restoring their courage at the Tropicana.
Another seaplane had to be dispatched in order to return us to Key West.
Copyright © 2005 (text only) by Louis D. Chirillo