It was my first combat attack on a Japanese-held island in the Pacific, and sitting in the cockpit of a Navy "Hellcat" fighter plane on the rear deck at 4:30 in the morning I was breathing the noxious fumes from the stack of the USS Enterprise, so I quickly put my oxygen mask on as SOP, standard operating procedure.
Horrendous lightning and thunder were all around that dark morning in 1943, so naturally we all figured we would never be launched into that terrible storm. Just then came the command: "Start your engines!"
The battle plan was to assemble a large air-striking force to arrive at the island's airport before daybreak, where we would first "sweep" any enemy aircraft from the skies, and then attack all planes remaining on the ground.
But the towering cumulus thunderclouds made assembly in force impossible, and after launch I could find only one of my squadron to join up with. He was senior to me, and an experienced combat pilot, so I was extremely gratified as we headed toward our target, just the two of us.
At an altitude of about 30,000 feet we ducked in and out of the huge black clouds as they formed aerial canyons. As we departed one cloud we were intercepted head-on by two Japanese Zero fighters, and we fired at each other. Within moments we fell back into the next towering cloud formation ahead, hardly able to see each other.
In the clouds we turned back to re-engage, and as we did so, we caught sight of the enemy in an ideal firing position, with us slightly above. My squadron mate and I blazed away with our 50-caliber machine guns, 12 total,and both enemy fighters exploded in a mighty fireballas we fell back into a huge black cloud bank.
Now we had become separated in the darkness of the clouds, and the unthinkable happened: My engine began misfiring. My heart almost stopped with each misfire.
All alone, I climbed for altitude advantage, and I found that the engine ran a bit smoother if I backed off the throttle. Suddenly, I popped out of a cloud top at about 35,000 feet and, frantically searching the sky, I saw only one tiny black spot on the horizon. I threw my fighter plane toward this possible enemy.
We closed at over 800 miles an hour, combined speeds. I was into my final firing run when I identified him as a friendly Hellcat, so I immediately broke off and we went our different ways.
At that moment I realized that my engine was still misfiring and I was low on gas - and where was I? Lost in the Pacific. Visual navigation was impossible, so I resorted to a navigation radio, which gave me a course to fly back to my carrier.
I stayed at high altitude for better radio transmission and to stay out of the worst of the weather. As I flew, I performed "square-search" patterns but never saw my carrier because of the storms.
Finally, after much frantic prayer, I had to do the dreaded "emergency call," dreaded because all my friends would know I was lost. "Mayday, Mayday, this is Navy 370, with an emergency - missing engine and very low fuel, request course and immediate landing, over!"
To my relief they replied immediately, and gave me the course and turned the entire fleet around, just to land me aboard. As I landed, I caught the coveted third arresting wire to bring my fighter to a halt. When my hook was free, I gave the engine a blast to move forward a bit and then the engine died. It was out of fuel.
Philip L. Kirkwood, a 1939 graduate of St. Petersburg High School, is a retired Naval commander. He practiced general dentistry for more than 34 years in Clearwater. He lives in Seminole.
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