Fairwing Brazil

Tales of the South Atlantic

By John R. Harrison PhoM2/c-USNR


 

 

 

 

 


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December 7, 1941 was a relatively warm and pleasant day for winter time in Northern Delaware. I had been bouncing and shooting a basketball in our backyard when my mother came to the back shed door and called me to come in, that there was an important announcement coming in on the radio about the Japs and an attack on Pearl Harbor. This was about three weeks after my seventeenth birthday and I expected to graduate from high school the following June. Our immediate thoughts were about my brother, Bill, who we had learned was due to leave from San Diego Naval Base to go to Hawaii in December. Fortunately, he was not due to leave until December 10, 1941, so he was safe for the moment.

Even though many events tended to indicate that our country would sooner or later be involved in the conflict raging around the world, we did not expect that we would be catapulted into the conflict by the Japanese at that particular time. Our country had just been starting to emerge from the depths of the Great Depression in the 1939-1941 period and it was not an era of “Great Expectations.” High school graduates from our small rural village where economic life depended on four local industrial mills, or on farm labor on the many surrounding family farms, could largely expect to become either mill workers or farm laborers. While my two older brothersand I, as well as our boyhood friends, had the benefit of stable and loving family life in a fine rural village and had obtained a good education through the 12th grade level, there were very limited affordable opportunities for collegeeducation. I had always wanted to go to the US Naval Academy at Annapolis but lack of 20-20 vision made that impossible.

So, on that fateful Sunday, it can be stated accurately that my future course in life was largely unplotted and unknown. It was also primarily subject to external world affairs, which were certainly outside my control. Very soon I would fully comprehend the meaning of President Roosevelt’s words when he said, “This generation of young Americans has a rendezvous with destiny.”

Many stories have been told, books have been published, and motion pictures made about World War II and the experiences of the people who were participants in that momentous conflict. Amazingly, there is still more to be revealed and reflected upon, particularly about the Battle of the South Atlantic and the valiant efforts of the Brazilians. There were several “theatres of war,” and most of the activities of the armed forces of the combatants and the local civilian populations in the other sectors of conflict have been well described in the many publications which are available. However, not much has been written, published, or distributed about the conflict in the South Atlantic Ocean between the Axis Power submarine and surface vessel forces and the combined forces of Brazil, the United States, and Great Britain. Nor does the American public realize the scope and depth of the efforts made by the Brazilians as our allies.

Since I had the good fortune to serve in Fleet Air Wing 16 in Brazil during 1943-1944, and preserved many photographs which depict wartime activities in that area, I have been able to assemble this collection of photographs and accompanying commentary by my shipmates and myself to help delineate some of the historical record. I have also supplemented this material with maps, photos, and commentary from references to put things into context and complete the picture. It was a privilege and an honor to serve our country and the cause of freedom during World War II. One month after graduating from high school in June, 1942, (at the age of 17) I enlisted in the U.S.. Navy for a “minority cruise.” It was clear that service in the military was certain and I had always wanted to go to sea in the Navy. In addition to fulfilling my obligation as a citizen, my intent was to pursue interests in photography and aviation which had started with building detailed models of military aircraft and subsequently photographing the models.

From an initial assignment (after boot camp at Newport, Rhode Island) I was sent to Patrol Wing 9, headquarters squadron at Quonset Point, Rhode Island Naval Air Station to serve as a “striker” (apprentice) in the Photo Laboratory. Initially I was to go to Pensacola to attend the Navy’s school for aerial photographers but the class had already started so I was sent to Quonset Point instead.

During the fall of 1942, I began flying as a lookout in PBY patrol planes escorting convoys in the North Atlantic on their way to Britain or Murmansk, Russia. The evening before I was to go on a convoy coverage flight, I would try to be asleep by 2000 because a very early wakeup call was impending. Normal reveille was at 0600 at which time the Master-at Arms (MAA) (a salty and assertive Boatswains Mate first class) would walk down the line of metal bunks clanging his night stick on the feet of the bunks and saying “all right, hit the deck”. However, when we were due to go out on a patrol flight, the MAA would tap one on the shoulder and whisper “get up and dressed, you have 45 minutes to get down to Seaplane Hangar no.2 for your flight.” That wake-up call would be at about 0400 and we would have to hustle because putting on long john underwear, 2 pairs of woolen socks, two sweaters, dungaree pants, heavy fur lined arm pit length leather flying pants and flight jacket, along with mukluk type lined flight boots, gloves, and helmet took a fair amount of time.

The jump seat in the “blister”* on the side of a PBY gets a bit chilly and uncomfortable during a 10 to 12 hour flight over the North Atlantic in the winter time in an unheated airplane. Electrically heated clothing was not available in the early months of the war. We usually ate most of the flight rations early in the flight because after a few hours the bread froze hard as a rock. Despite the heavy fur lined leather flying gear it was not possible to keep ones feet warm.

Our discomfort paled into insignificance contrasted to the potential perils faced by the merchant marine seamen who would be sailing into the “Black Hole,” that area in mid-ocean where no air cover could be provided to the convoys at that time. They, for a long time, were the unsung heroes of World War II.

 

 

 

John R. Harrison
johnharrison24@gmail.com

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