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Zero Hour

by John M. Robertson

 

It was April 1, but His Majesty’s Ship Indefatigable had been plowing a furrow back and forth across the Pacific for so many uneventful weeks that we were in no mood for April Fool’s jokes. The 766-foot aircraft carrier had been at sea for so long that our captain decided to issue the ship’s company a daily bottle of beer, just to keep the men in practice. In the evenings a gramophone was usually brought up to the flight deck where the men danced–not a hornpipe or a jig–but two-steps, foxtrots and even waltzes. At first the men were shy of dancing with each other, but after a few evenings it became a popular pastime, and kept them in practice in case the carrier put into port.

The British Pacific Fleet, BPF, has been called The Forgotten Fleet. By April 1945, the war was pretty well over back home and the fight against Japan was regarded as an American problem. The BPF was a small task force, equipped with outmoded aircraft and supported by a pitifully inadequate fleet of supply ships. We were waiting for orders to join the Americans and share the final victory over Japan, but as the weeks passed we learned of the political bickering that was aimed at excluding us. The Americans, we were told, would prefer to go it alone and not share the glory.

However, political perseverance paid off, and the BPF was given limited support responsibilities. We moved west across the Pacific until Japanese territory was within striking distance. We were in fact a few hundred kilometres southeast of the island of Okinawa, and that, of course, brought us within striking distance of the enemy’s air force, and that meant work for our defending fighter aircraft.

Aboard Indefatigable, 24 Wing contributed two squadrons of single-seat Seafires, the seaborne equivalent of the Spitfire. The Spit had certainly been a magnificent aircraft in its day, but by 1945–after being converted to carrier use by the addition of an arrester hook–the plane was makeshift at best. At worst, it was a deathtrap.

Landing aboard a carrier involved touching down on a runway that was only a few hundred feet long; a landing strip that often pitched up and down. The Seafire tended to float once the engine was cut. If the plane came in a foot too high, its arrester hook could miss the arrester wires, an event that would result in the plane floating into the safety barrier or over the side of the ship. Even a good landing could end with catastrophe.

One problem was that the Seafire’s wheels were too close together for stability. If a wingtip drooped after touchdown and hit the deck, the aircraft could spin into the island or over the side. The island was what we called the carrier’s superstructure. It housed all the facilities concerned with flying operations, including the bridge. And so even before we came into contact with the enemy, we lost planes in accidents.

Strange as it sounds, my job was that of wing observer to a wing of planes that didn’t include a seat for an observer. It was not the admiralty’s custom to admit they might have made a mistake, or to look favourably on an officer who phoned up to ask what they thought they were doing or to ask for a new job description. So I wrote my own job description and became, in effect, the wing nursemaid. I briefed the pilots, made sure they knew their call signs and codes, marked their location on the silk scarves printed with all the local winds and tides in case they had to ditch, and kept the Ready Room supplied with chocolate bars. I also debriefed the pilots when they came down.

The pilots, in turn, called me Grampa because I was older than they were and happened to sport a full red beard. There were groups of them taking off and landing throughout the day on April 1 and so I was kept reasonably busy. In between the busy moments I went up to the Fighter Direction Room to watch on radar the activity in the sky. I also helped keep the plot up to date in the Operations Room, and stood in for the operations commander while he was on the bridge.

Our radar showed an extra large force of enemy aircraft approaching, a larger force than we had so far experienced. I stood just inside the open door of the Fighter Direction Room, watching the plot develop. Outside the door was a narrow passage that ran between the Ops Room and the bridge. And because the operations commander was with the captain on the bridge, I needed to be available in case the Ops Room assistant needed me. The second in command of the ship was at his action station as far forward as he could go on the flight deck. This was because he and the captain must never be casualties of the same bomb.

The Fighter Direction Room was, as usual, hushed and dim, lit only by the bluish glow of the radar screens. We had already donned our anti-flash gear because even flash from our own big guns could cause major damage to exposed flesh, and flash from an exploding bomb could be fatal. So at action stations we wore a flame-proofed hood that fitted closely over the head and neck and draped loosely over the shoulders and chest. The exposed face was protected by goggles and a removable flap that covered the mouth and nose. On our hands we wore loose fitting gauntlets.

The sailors standing in darkness behind the large vertical Perspex plot were marking up the positions of the aircraft, enemy in red and defenders in green. There was an eeriness about the way the coloured marks would appear on the transparent Perspex as if by themselves, an eeriness that quickly turned to menace as the plot began to show wave after wave of approaching enemy bombers. The only sound over the hum of the ventilation fans was the quiet voice of the director passing the Seafires their courses to intercept the enemy, and the acknowledgments coming raucously over the aircraft radios.

As the enemy aircraft closed in, I could see gloved hands–with exaggerated casualness–checking the flaps covering mouths and noses. I hoped the others in the room were as terrified by the strength of the attack as I was. I had been under attack before, but on that previous occasion I had a gun to keep supplied with ammunition. This time I had nothing to do but watch and wait. I wondered whether the commander was suffering the same stomach churning fear, watching and waiting by himself without even knowing what to expect.

And then the Japanese attack developed, and the uproar began. We had rapid-fire Oerlikons and pom-poms, and dual purpose 4.5-inch guns that sounded like bombs exploding each time they fired. The ship’s hull shuddered and vibrated and everything that wasn’t tied down fell crashing to the decks. Several times I was certain the carrier must have been hit as a particularly heavy blast seemed to shake the whole ship. Up above, my pilots were forgetting their radio discipline in the excitement of the melee that was taking place, and I wished I’d stayed outside to watch the real battle.

Strangely, the terror inside of me melted away during the early moments of the attack. I could definitely hear the whistle of falling bombs and the terrible scream of dive bombers, but I felt as I had so many times before while participating in dive-bombing operations. I could recall dangerous times when enemy flak flashed past our wing tips and my fear had changed to exhilaration. There were even times when I yelled obscenities at the enemy and dared them to hit me.

And then–amid the roar–I suddenly felt the need to sneeze. Without much hesitation I ripped away the flap covering my mouth and nose and leaned out the doorway of the Fighter Direction Room. I don’t know how many times I sneezed, because in the middle of it there was a frightful explosion that flung me back into the darkened room. When I opened my eyes, I noticed right away that the blue glow from the radar screen was gone. The illuminated plot was dark and there was subdued swearing. I could also hear the sounds of the battle blaring out over the loudspeaker. The noise was mixed with the calm voice of the director handing over control of our fighters to his opposite number in HMS Formidable. It was then that someone reached over and removed the blackout screen from the window. A hazy light streamed in and I could see flames and black smoke belching up from the flight deck.

There seemed to be no major damage in the Fighter Direction Room. The blast had thrown me back through the door, so it must have come from the passage. I heard the roar of escaping steam and I guessed that there had been a rupture in the pipe carrying superheated steam up to the ship’s siren. Dangerous, but certainly not major damage.

I regained my balance and then walked along in darkness to the Ops Room where the roar of the steam drowned even the sound of the Seafires’ radios. I noticed daylight filtering in from a jagged space where part of the Ops Room wall had been. The light was competing with swirls of thick black smoke that smelled horribly of what I hoped wasn’t burning flesh. In one corner of the room I gazed through a gap in the deck and saw flames at flight-deck level. I also saw the bottom half of a body.

Nearly every wooden cabinet and chart drawer in the Ops Room had been smashed by the blast. Charts and files were flung everywhere. The Ops Room assistant was sprawled over the chart table. The blood had stopped pouring from his nose and ears, so even in my inexperience I knew he was dead.

When the explosion below ripped open the hole in the Ops Room deck, the blast must have instantly killed the assistant and then rushed down the passage toward the bridge. I was suddenly aware of how lucky I had been to sneeze.

With the Ops Room out of commission, we would have to activate the emergency Ops Room which had been prepared for this eventuality. The operations commander would want to know so I made my way along the passage toward the bridge. That’s when I discovered that I’d been right about the steam pipe that ran up beside the companion way–the main access from the flight deck to the bridge and every other part of the island.

The pipe must have ruptured somewhere below, and scalding steam roared up the stairwell and continued up to the next deck where the admiral’s bridge was located. The steam was pouring up with such force that it didn’t seem to have time to deviate onto the landing, so I risked it and jumped across to the entrance to the bridge.

Not much was happening on the bridge. The captain was out on the wing looking down at the flight deck, and reports were coming in on the sound powered telephones. I reported to the operations commander who simply roared with laughter when he saw me. “Did you get permission to resume shaving?” he asked. All ranks needed the captain’s permission either to discontinue shaving and grow a beard, or resume shaving and take it off.

I felt my face with my hand, and there was no beard, just a rough stubble. When I pulled my hand away and looked at it, my fingers were black.

“Must have been the flash, sir,” I said.

“You weren’t wearing flash gear?”

“Took my mask off to sneeze, sir.”

“Alright. When you get out of this steam trap get back aft and activate the standby Ops Room.”

Part of the emergency equipment in the Fighter Direction Room was a rope secured beside the window. By the time I got back there, the fire outside had been extinguished and the direction staff were evacuating by rope. I followed them down, and for the first time realized we had been hit by a kamikaze. The Japanese plane had crashed on the flight deck right beside the island, blasting the base of the superstructure and destroying the crash barrier support. It had not been an armour piercing bomb, so the flight deck sustained little damage. However, the main blast had been taken by the flight deck sick bay, manned by a surgeon from Ontario who was killed along with a Seafire pilot who had reported sick.

The following day the ship’s photographer, who had been on deck throughout the whole incident, showed me a large glossy photo taken immediately after the kamikaze hit. Debris was still in the air, huge chunks and small pieces, and there was probably dirt on the camera lens. Somehow all had combined to form an eerie image that appeared to be just in front of the exploding aircraft. It looked like a small man wearing a parachute harness, grinning broadly and running from the aircraft. The ghost of the pilot? But why would a kamikaze pilot bother with a parachute?

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