Arm’s Length from a Jap Battleship
By Sgt. Bill Reed
YANK Staff Correspondent
Pearl Harbor, Hawaii [By Cable]—George H. (Pluto) Platz AMM1c, a chunky Navy aerial gunner from the Bronx, N. Y., recently came close enough to a Jap battleship to touch a cable trailing from the stern.
Platz's TBF (Grumman Avenger) was based on a carrier of the Independence class, covering the Saipan operations with other units of the Pacific Fleet. Our landing force had been on Saipan for six days, and the warships patrolling the Philippine Sea expected a counterblow by the Jap Navy. For the first time, torpedoes were attached to the carrier's planes. Crews long accustomed to dummy torpedoes worked eagerly to get the TBFs into battle dress.
When word was flashed that the Jap Navy was edging closer to Saipan, eight fighter planes and four TBFs jumped from the carrier and 10 minutes later joined five more TBFs from another flat-top. It was late afternoon, and there wouldn't be much more daylight. What was far more serious, would the gas supply last long enough for the planes to find the enemy, do their work and fly back home to their carriers?
Lt. (jg) George P. Brown of Rochester, N. Y., acting executive officer of the group, was piloting the plane in which Platz flew as aerial gunner. It was no secret on the carrier that Brownie wanted a Jap flat-top. He'd flown 21 missions already, mostly long-range thrusts over Tarawa, Wake, Makin and Kwajalein, but he had never once come across anything larger than a Jap tanker. Brownie wasn't boastful or overambitious in his quest for a Jap carrier; he simply wanted one, that was all, the way some boys dream of becoming President or playing centerfield for the New York Yankees.
Before he took off from the carrier, Brownie confided to his squadron commander, Lt. Jim Alton; "This looks like it. I should get a chance at that carrier of mine."
The flight started out like any other flight. The men chewed gum, Brownie gave instructions to the pilots of the other planes for a rendezvous after the attack, and everybody kept his eyes open for what might prove to be the biggest target of the Pacific war.
The first bad break came after the planes had covered 100 miles: two of "the fighters developed engine trouble and turned back." It was a bad start," Platz says. "We knew the fighters were important. In a torpedo-plane job, the fighters and dive-bombers act as cover for the slow-moving TBFs. They're supposed to divert attention and draw ack-ack, leaving things comparatively safe for us. We have to go in low, as low as 300 feet, which makes us a swell target. If any dive-bombers were assigned to us on this mission, they never showed up. And now two of the fighters were out of the show. To make matters worse, Zeros came out to meet us, and that kept the fighters busy."
While the fighters and Zeros scrambled around the sky, Platz sighted some enemy tankers below. And then, in the distance, there loomed the sight that every American flyer in the Pacific has dreamed about: Jap battleships, cruisers, destroyers and carriers. They were dispersed in a wide area, separate groups of them. There was a carrier riding close to a battleship, and surrounding them were faster cruisers and destroyers.
In the largest group were two carriers, a battleship, two cruisers and about six destroyers. The larger carrier sat high up in the water, the prize of the lot, a 28,000-ton warship of the Hayataka class. Platz knew instinctively that Brown was going to head for it. He did and ordered three planes to follow him.
The flak started immediately. It came up like a curtain, thick and deadly. When small dark puffs of smoke popped around the plane, followed by gushes of white and then blinding fire, Platz knew his TBF was sailing through a barrage of phosphorous shells.
Brown dropped the nose of his plane toward the sea at 4,000 feet and was about to glide in to the carrier from 1,000 when the TBF suffered its first damage.
"Jap tracers had been getting closer and closer," says Platz. "Then the plane jumped and rocked. They had hit us below the turret in the fuselage. Part of the wing was flapping off, but I didn't realize we were on fire until the turret became hot. The radio gear under me was covered with white smoke. I tried to call the pilot, but the radio wouldn't work. Everything was smoking. I decided to get the hell out."
Platz worked his way to the hatch and found Ellis C. Babcock ARM2c of Buffalo, N. Y., the radioman, waiting for him. He'd been strafing the most active destroyer when the TBF was hit. Platz grinned at his shipmate, shoved him out and then jumped.
Both watched their ship continue on toward the carrier. For the first time they realized that Lt. Brown was still at the controls. The flaming plane streaked toward the carrier, now attempting to escape by turning sharply to the right. It turned at exactly the right moment and Brown's torpedo rammed into its side, a dead hit.
Then a TBF piloted by Lt. (jg) Benjamin C. Tate of Pulaski, Va., swung in from the same side and caught the carrier amidships with its fish. Platz and Babcock, still parachuting down, saw the wakes of three torpedoes converge on the carrier. It rocked and heaved. The prize plum had been plucked.
After strafing the carrier's planes, Tate climbed out of the range of ack-ack and hunted for the other TBFs. He finally found Lt. Brown's plane, no longer aflame but smoking and rocking from side to side as it flew at a low altitude.
“I could see that his aerial had been shot away, the tail and fuselage were full of holes and the bomb bay was still open," Tate says. "Brown was sitting in the cockpit, as dazed as a football player at the bottom of a pile-up. I tried to get him to follow me, but he couldn't. He held up his right arm and pointed to the blood on it, then to his body. My gas was running low, so made a careful check of his position and headed home. We ran out of gas within sight of an American destroyer. We got into our rafts and watched our plane sink three minutes later.”
The destroyer's searchlights found them quickly. Tate's radioman, J. F. Siwicki ARM2c of Mattapan,| Mass., signaled with his flashlight and shouted for joy when the searchlights blinked back an R (for Roger). "It was the most beautiful signal I ever saw/' Tate said.
Lt. Warren R. Omarck of Valley Stream, N. Y., pilot of still another of the TBFs, had a grandstand seat at the show. He was the third in line when the planes went in for the attack, but his dive was too steep and he had to level off again.
This brought him in position 35 or 45 seconds behind the others. Robert E. Ranes of Milwaukee, Wis., his radioman, tried to take pictures on the way down, dividing his time between that and a .30-caliber gun and reporting the position of Jap tracers to Lt. Omarck.
"The carriers were firing too high and the cans were shooting too low to benefit the Imperial Government," Ranes recalls with a chuckle. "But they came too close for comfort at that. I felt I could reach out and grab a handful of smoke On the way to the rendezvous point, a Zero and a Val (Jap dive-bomber) swooped down on them. J. E. Prince of Camden, Ark., the turret gunnery was a busy man for a while. He scared off the Zero and opened up wide on the Val. Apparently neither Jap was in the mood to give chase and both turned back.
Lt. Omarck's plane continued on and also met up with Lt. Brown, who still seemed dazed and bloody, just as Tate had found him. Brown's TBF was evidently out of control and constantly losing speed. Omarck did everything he could, turning on his wing lights so Brown could see, hovering around as the crippled plane dropped closer to the sea. At 2045 hours, Omarck's gunner reported: "We've lost him.
"I made a few S turns," says Omarck, "but Brownie had disappeared. I think he fainted in the cockpit and crashed. I went on in and called the ship to tell them about Brownie because I didn't think I'd get back."
Lt. Brown was never heard from again but Omarck's plane made it back to the carrier—with less than a gallon of gasoline to spare. The engine coughed three or four times after the TBF hit the deck and then died.
But the adventure was far from over for Platz and Babcock. They landed safely in the water and bobbed around for hours within sight of the Jap fleet. Platz found himself an arm's length of an enemy battleship.
"I thought I might be sucked into the screws," Platz said, "but the warship's wake pushed me away. I ducked under what was left of my Mae West and, when I came up, I was close enough to touch a large cable trailing from the stern."
After the American planes left, Platz says, the Zeros clustered around the blazing carrier and tried to land. Explosions rocked the big ship, and soon it was ablaze from bow to stern. The Zeros sought out berths on other carriers while cruisers and destroyers gathered around the stricken flat-top, playing their searchlights, picking up survivors and signaling furiously to other ships in the neighborhood. They worked until what Platz and Babcock figured was midnight and then moved away, apparently realizing that other American planes and ships might be heading in their direction. The two Americans could see the silhouettes of the ships moving away reluctantly leaving the carrier to its fate.
"It could have been an Orson Welles production or a Fourth of July pageant,'' Platz says. "The night was filled with the shrieks of drowning men, with blinking lights and piercing whistles. To Americans who'd been saying 'Remember Pearl Harbor’ it was a beautiful sight."
Then the carrier disappeared in the darkness like a setting sun.
Platz and Babcock had been watching the Jap warship from different spots in the water. They blew loudly on their Mae West whistles now in the hope of contacting one another but were unsuccessful until dawn approached. "We couldn't see each other," Babcock says, "until we got within about 10 feet, and when we did meet we began to ask each other silly questions—like 'Have you got a raft?' Then we locked arms and floated till sunrise."
"We'd been in the water about 10 hours," Platz says, "and our teeth were chattering. I could feel Babcock shivering and I guess I was, too."
The life jacket Platz wore had been half ripped away by shrapnel, and his back and buttocks had been seared by flying metal. The wounds were more like scratches than the ones he sustained over Makin that won him the Purple Heart. "But they sure felt uncomfortable," he says.
Shortly after dawn, American fighter planes flew high above them, so high that Babcock decided not to risk wasting his dye marker. About a half-hour later however, more planes appeared at a lower level, apparently on a search mission. Babcock released the dye and he and Platz churned the water with their legs to attract attention. The planes swung around and went back but returned quickly with three TBFs, each of which dropped a rubber raft. Babcock and Platz recovered two of the rafts, tied them together and climbed aboard.
Then began a long wait. The men watched the planes disappear and gratefully drank water and ate food tablets they found in the raft compartments. They knew the planes would be back but they also realized it might be hours.
The day grew hotter and hotter, and the wait proved even longer than they had anticipated. Platz found some sunburn lotion and rubbed it gently into his wounds. Hours passed. The two men sprawled on their rafts and waited.
About noon, Babcock thought he heard someone swimming toward the rafts. He propped himself up and scanned the water. About three swells away he saw something that made him gasp and call to Platz. They both sat up and stared incredulously: it was a Jap aviator swimming frantically toward them.
"We didn't know what to do” Platz says. "As he got closer, we realized it was no optical illusion. We could see his fat round face, slanted eyes, thin mustache and cropped hair. He was waving a pistol in one hand."
The two Americans had only a hunting knife. They grabbed for their paddles and began pushing away as strongly as they could.
"The swells kept bringing him closer," says Babcock. "We didn't stop to figure that his gun was probably so wet it wouldn't fire. We paddled hard and gradually pulled away from him. Finally the Jap became tired out, and we could see him inflate his trousers and use them as a float. Soon we lost sight of him."
About 11600 hours an OS2U (Kingfisher) dropped from the sky and skidded over them. The flying boat had already picked up a fighter pilot, but Platz and Babcock were taken aboard until another Kingfisher swooped down to share the load. Babcock was transferred to it, and the two planes returned to the U. S. fleet off Saipan. The adventure was over.