George Birchell

 

Men of the Lex

Written January 1991

 

I enlisted in the U.S. Navy in the late summer of 1942 after having graduated from high school in Carlsbad, New Mexico.  I was 17 years old at the time and had no clear idea of what I wanted to do, except that I wanted to join the fight.

I arrived in San Diego for boot camp on November 13th, 1942.  Boot Camp Company #41-713.  Henry Fonda was at the same time in company 42-714.  I had a cousin, Norman Taylor, in 714 with Fonda.  We didn’t get to visit much while he was there.  He got sent back to Norman, Oklahoma for trade school.  I think that’s where he finished out the war.

 

After boot camp I went to Aviation Ordinance school-which was in San Diego.  When that was over I was sent to aviation gunnery school.  The gunnery school was located on North Island at San Diego.  When the schools were completed I was assigned to a fleet air wing stationed at North Island.  My job was to help beach the big flying boats-the PBYs & PBMs.  This was a very cushy assignment.  Mostly our crew just sat around and played cards and drank pop, with liberty almost every night, plus sit and watch the waves go by.  (In skirts).

I got bored with that after almost a year so I volunteered for sea duty.  I didn’t know what I would get because we knew there were 2 or 3 carriers in Pearl Harbor that needed replacements.

 

Luckily I was assigned to the Lexington.  There were about twenty of us from San Diego and we were taken over on a new destroyer-the USS Sigourney #643.  It was a rough week going over and most of us got pretty seasick. We new recruits went aboard the Lexington on October 13, 1943.  I was assigned to the V-5 division, which consisted of plane handlers, plane captains and ordinance crews.  Later, I think V-5 was ordinance only.  For about a week I was a plane handler pushing planes, pulling chocks etc.  I didn’t like that at all.

Someone must have finally looked at my records and discovered that I had been through ordinance school, thereafter I was assigned to an ordinance crew.  I always worked with the Torpedo Bombers, the TBFs and TBMs.  It was tough physically demanding work, with lots of long hours.

 

I can only remember a couple of instances where my particular crews work ever gave the pilots any trouble.  One a 50Caliber wouldn’t fire, probably electrical and the other pilot error.  This pilot brought a bomb back aboard ship that was rattling around loose in the bomb bay.  This bomb was armed and just a little tap would set it off.  Four of us took ropes and tied around that bomb bay so it wouldn’t open too far-just enough for the crew leader to get his hand in there and unscrew the fuse.  He did that and proceeded to throw the fuse over the side.  I’m a little miffed by that incident because it was a volunteer call and the crew leader got a Navy and Marine Corp. medal and the rest of us didn’t even get mentioned.

 

The Lex had been on one small sortie before I went aboard. Shortly after I got aboard we went down to the Marshall Islands.  Our planes failed to knock out their airfields and too many planes left to attack us.  So the Japs came out in force the night of December 5th.  It was a full moon and the Japs also were dropping parachute flares.  It was light as day. Being an ordinance crew I didn’t have a specific battle station so I was free to be topside to watch all the fireworks.  Besides that it was too hot to sleep below decks as we were near the equator.

 

I remember thinking when those torpedoes were being shot at us=”What am I doing out here?”  I could be back in San Diego, beaching planes and watching the waves go by.  Then also we had all heard horror stories from the Battle of the Coral Sea, with guys abandoning ship getting badly burned from burning oil on the water and also how the sharks harassed them.  I didn’t relish the thought of going in the water.

 

We had a lot of faith in Captain, Felix B. Stump.  He got on the P.A. system after we took the torpedo hit and said “I got you into this and I’ll get you out” but it wasn’t really him.  It was an ingenious engineering crew that was able to pioneer some new steering techniques that got us back to Pearl Harbor.  Here we unloaded the dead and made temporary repairs. The Lexington was sent to Bremerton, Washington for repairs and those were made in record time.  It was quite a sight to see that ship in dry dock.  This repair time gave the crew a chance for leave and this was my first time home since going into the service.  My Brother Richard a fighter pilot instructor in the Army Air Corps was also able to take leave at the same time.  I think he was stationed at Luke Field in Arizona then.

 

While I was home someone stole my billfold.  I couldn’t believe it after having been in all kinds of rough places all over the West Coast.  Because of losing my ID I stayed around town a couple of days more than I should in hopes that someone might turn in my stuff, but it never showed.  I had a rough time getting back to Bremerton.  Richard arranged for me to fly on a military aircraft going to Oakland, then a train ride to Seattle.  I was late by several hours getting back to the ship so I was put on report and also restricted to the ship for the rest of the time were there.  Back to Pearl Harbor.

 

By now the crews were all well trained.  I could go to the history books and give you dates and places but they have blurred for me.  We were kept busy and well informed on where our targets were going to be and kind of what to expect in retaliation.  As I said before the Ordinance crew didn’t have a battle station so after our work was done loading and arming planes, we were free to roam around and I spent most of my time up on the flight deck.  Because of that I got to see most of the hostile action.

 

One time I saw a twin engine Japanese Betty bomber fly all the way across the fleet, about ten feet off of the water, weaving back and forth and heading for us with a torpedo.  Such a daring, skillful piece of flying.  I kept hoping he would get away and perhaps he did.  I saw a lot of planes shot down.  One time, I saw a Jap plane on fire, flying the full length of the flight deck and then landing in the water, just off the port stern.  Another time our flight deck was strafed by a Jap plane.  Luckily no planes aboard so no damage was incurred.  Once a Jap dive-bomber had been shot down and he landed off our port bow.  When we cruised by he was standing on the wing of his plane hollering for help.  This was before kamikazes were operating.  One of our destroyers picked him up. 

 

I remember Mog Mog and Majuro.  These were small atolls where we got to go ashore and drink 2 warm beers, play baseball and go swimming without worrying about the sharks.

 

It wasn’t all drudgery, we had movies quite often.  We had a lot of books aboard.  We had cribbage, acey ducey, all kinds of card games with poker being a mainstay.I had a bad case of poker fever for a while.  I would go all over the ship looking for a game.  Another diversion that we had was to get on a work detail to bring supplies aboard.  You could almost always steal a crate of oranges or a box of apples or some such and never get caught. Some of the plane handlers and fire fighting crew brought a dog on board in Seattle.  As luck would have it the dog was loose on the hanger deck one day and darted in front of me.  I was pushing a 500# bomb and couldn’t stop.  It broke the little guys leg and I thought I was going to have to fight a bunch of guys.  This same bunch smuggled a monkey on board.  They told me later that he died on the way back to Pearl Harbor from seasickness.

 

At one time we were at sea for more than 90 days-underway and no land in sight.  We were kept pretty well supplied with decent food and mail came pretty regularly.  I got quite a few letters from home.  We also had the Gedunk ship, with ice cream, candy and coke.

About the only Island where we could see the action taking place was at Guam, when it was assaulted and captured.

 

We carried Marine survivors and wounded from the invasion of Tarawa back to Pearl Harbor.  There was a bitter bunch of Marines.  They took it in the shorts for poor planning, poor intelligence and suffered an awful number of casualties because of it. Of course we went though several major storms while I was aboard and we suffered through at least 2 typhoons.  One of those was in the South China Sea.  It was a real killer.  There were several destroyers and also several baby flat tops that capsized in that one.  Sometimes we would wonder if the ship was going to right itself after a roll.  It was almost impossible to eat or sleep during that time.  I think we were in that one storm more than 24 hours before it finally slacked off.

 

I remember the Marianas turkey shoot.  It was pretty exciting because we could hear the pilots talking on the ships PA system.  Our pilots really clobbered the Japanese in that battle.

 

I remember the night landings when the planes had gone beyond a prudent range for fuel.  A lot of them were crippled and shot up.  Almost all were out of gas and they got back to the fleet after dark.  Admiral Mitscher gave the unprecedented order to turn on the landing lights on all the carriers.  I think it was a safe move because the Japanese were too busy licking their own wounds to do any more fighting that night.  Normally a plane goes back to its own carrier but not that night, they were landing wherever they could find a slot.  Several of the planes had to ditch because they ran out of fuel.  I think most of the crews that survived the water landings were picked up by the destroyer escorts.  This was a very frantic night for the pilots and landing officers and flight deck crews.  Some of the planes came down the groove and wouldn’t or perhaps couldn’t take a wave off.  Several bad crashes as a result and that just compounded the problem of cleaning the decks of a crash and getting things operational again. I stood on the side by the Island and watched it all and helped push at least 2 crippled planes over the side.  No time to waste on them.  I was glad I wasn’t flying then.

 

Then the battle of the Philippines came along and the Japs came up with the Kamikaze idea.  Actually this was not a new idea for early in the war Colin P. Kelly crashed into a Jap ship.  Colin Kelly was an Army Air force pilot who the Kelly Field in Texas is named after.

The day we were finally hit by a Kamikaze I was up on the flight deck waiting for our planes to return from a raid.  Two Japanese planes out of about a dozen got through the outer screen, or pickets and they seemed to pick the Lex as a target.  Our gunners blew one out of the sky but the other kept coming and when he was almost directly overhead I remember thinking “I’ve got to get the hell out of here!”  I got about halfway down to the hanger deck before he hit the superstructure.  There was over a hundred people killed and many wounded.  As for me I got knocked off the ladder and I can’t remember what I did for several hours afterward.  There was no damage to the flight deck so we were able to land planes and continue to function.

 

One of the more heartwarming jobs was dropping supplies to American prisoners in the P.O.W. camps after the Japs surrendered the Philippines. Of course it wasn’t too long after the Philippines fell until the A-bomb came along and then it was on to Tokyo Bay.  The Lexington was the first carrier to enter the harbor.  We had several liberties in Japan.  I didn’t make it to Tokyo but visited Yokasuku and other outlying places.  I still remember the odors.  It was strange to all of us.  One of the more memorable sights was seeing this great harbor full of American ships on a cold, clear night, with a full moon behind Mt. Fuji.

 

Some time in late January we came back to the states.  The Lexington brought between 4000-5000 troops home so we had to stand in line for everything.  People were sleeping everywhere, yet no one complained too much because we knew we would all get home soon.  Lots of high stakes poker games going on.  We landed in San Francisco to a hero’s welcome.  Ships came out to meet us, bands playing, flags flying everywhere.  It was very exciting.

 

I got discharged at Alameda in February 1946 and I hung around L.A. for a couple of days trying to get transportation.  Finally three of us hired a private automobile to take us to El Paso.  I managed to get a bus to Carlsbad from there.

Forty-one years later I rejoined some of my shipmates at the 10th annual Lexington reunion in Seattle.  Hey I remembered several!  This was a very emotional experience for me.  Who knows, we thought we were right.

George Birchell

 

 

 
 
Copyright 1998 by Patty Cannon all rights reserved