WILL THIS IDEA FLY
By: Richard G. Weston*
It was a cold day in January, 1943 when I arrived at a small train station with scraggly palmetto trees in Charleston, SC. After getting a ride to the Charleston Navy Yard and going through the usual naval paperwork of being assigned to the Commissioning Detail of the USS Stevens DD 479, I finally found my way down to the dry dock where the Stevens was berthed. Much to my surprise there was what looked like a rail contraption amidships aft of number two stack instead of a set of torpedo tubes and a five inch gun mount. This was my first initiation to the fact that the Stevens was going to carry a scout float plane aboard. It sounded pretty neat until I found out the Stevens also had a two thousand gallon hi octane aviation fuel tank below the aft deck. At this time the plane was still at the Naval Air Station in Brunswick, GA. When I met the pilot, it turned out he was Lt. (jg) Harold Smith a Frankford High School, Phila., PA Jan., 1936 Class Mate of mine.
In due course we got the plane aboard, took it to Guantanimo Bay, Cuba on our shakedown cruise, up to Argentia, Newfoundland and the North Atlantic for more training and finally to Chesapeak Bay for flight evaluation. It was at this time that "Smitty" asked me if I wanted a ride. I had never been in any sort of airplane before and I jumped at the chance. As a passenger, I would take the place of the radioman-machine gunner. I climbed up and into my seat inside the machine gun ring. The catapault was trained out athwartship and since the catapault was sixty feet long and the Stevens had only a 38 feet beam, we were hanging out ten feet beyond the port side. Ens. Lee Fadem, our Torpedo Officer was in charge of firing the catapault. Our catapault was compressed air propelled and it took forever to recharge but since we only had one plane, it didn't matter.
When we were all set, Smitty revved up the engine to the red line and we waited for Lee to fire the catapault. The pilot had a head rest which he pressed his head back on firmly and set the controls for a little more than level flight in case he temporairily blacked out during the accelleration (We had to gain flying speed in the 60 foot length of the catapault). The passenger had no head rest so he had to put his head down by his knees during the takeoff or break his neck. So there I was with my head down waiting for the big blast and I am sure I was saying to myself "what am I doing here?" when suddenly the roar of the engine died down. It had taken too long for Lee to make up his mind when to fire with the ship rolling. Fire at the wrong time and we go into the water! After the engine cooled down we started the whole process over again but this time we had a perfect launch and when I could raise my head, we were climbing up into the sky. With my head down, the accelleration during takeoff wasn't as bad as I thought it might be and it was over in about two seconds. The view was great from above and the Stevens looked like a needle laying in the water it was so long and narrow.
After a while of having a good time flying around Chesapeak Bay, it was time to land and be retrieved aboard ship. Landing the plane on the bay was the easy part, next, was getting the plane aboard. The Stevens towed a rope mesh mat from the port side from a horizontal boom. The ship was to turn to port to make a slick or smooth place in the water. The plane was to taxi onto the mat where a hook under the float would engage so that the ship would be towing the plane alongside after the plane's engine was cut. A larger boom was swung from the port side of the ship with a cable hanging down. The pilot was to hook the cable to a fitting on the body of the plane forward of the pilot. Once the cable was hooked the plane could be lifted and swung amidships over the catapault and lowered on to the cradle. This sounds so easy but remenber the ship is underway and rolling port to starboard as well as pitching. Crewmen with long poles padded on the end were to keep the plane from banging into the ship while this was going on. Although it was fairly calm when my flight returned and we got back aboard with no mishap, it was not always so. When we tried it out in the ocean, sometimes the plane was damaged.
We did take the plane to the Pacific in July and even to the Marcus Island raid only 600 mile from Japan and then to the raid on Tarawa Atoll all in company with a fast carrier task force (they sure needed our float plane) before we went back to the Mare Island Navy Yard in Vallejo, CA to have the whole system removed and our proper armament restored. At the time, the scuttlebutt was that it was Roosevelt's idea but regardless of whose idea it was, it was proved it was impractical.
RETRIEVING THE KINGFISHER
* Served aboard the Stevens as First Lieutenant