Boys' Life Article
seafarers' superstitions wore on long past the days when sailors
believed their ship might run over the edge of the Earth. They carried
over into maritime services well into the 20th century, and probably
to some extent into the 21st century. It was common to blame a long
string of bad luck on one poor sap whose appearance on the scene
just happened to coincide with the supposed curse. He was called
a "Jonah," after the Biblical character whose presence on a fishing
boat caused a constant run of bad weather until the crew finally
tossed him overboard where the leviathan of the deep swallowed him.
In this story from a 1938 edition of Boys' Life, a particular seaplane
suffered problem after problem, like water in the gas tank causing
dead stick landings on rough seas, so the pilots and mechanics referred
to it as "Jonah's plane." As with many stories of the era, this
one centers around airplanes and ships.
Table of Contents|
The Boy Scouts of America has published Boys'
Life since January 1, 1911. I received it for a couple years in the late 1960s while in the
Scouts. I have begun buying copies on eBay to look for useful articles. As time permits, I will be glad
to scan articles for you. All copyrights (if any) are hereby acknowledged. Here are the
Boys' Life issues I have so far.
by Blaine and Dupont Miller
Illustrated by William Heaslip
That old jinx ship showed up just when Bob Wakefield had to
compete for the gunnery trophy.
Anchored on the Bering side
of the Aleutians, the U.S.S. Denver rolled constantly in response
to the huge swells of the landlocked sea, so that it was necessary
for the two officers standing on her after deck to brace themselves
Lieut. Bob Wakefield, senior flight officer,
was asking, "You mean we're to fire our fixed machine gun practice
here? Before we go to San Diego, sir?"
"That's it, Wakefield.
The orders just came. Our unit, and the planes on the Helena are
to work together, firing as soon as possible."
protested Bob, "we've just sent our good Albatross seaplane over
to the Helena in exchange for this old crate of theirs that we're
to take south for overhaul."
"I know. It's too bad they
didn't send the word a little sooner, but I'm sure you'll do the
ship proud anyway, Bob."
As the Executive Officer started
on his way to an inspection below, he regarded a plane swung from
the crane, its main float a mass of wreckage. Smiling slightly,
he shook his head and remarked, "I trust you're not superstitious,
Bob followed his glance to the stabilizer of
the plane which displayed in large black numerals"0013". The aviator
shook his head and smiled, but he wasn't feeling very cheerful.
How could he possibly make a winning gunnery score with that piece
Two hours before he had written, "transferred this
date to the U.S.S. Helena" in the log of his old Albatross. He had
hated to give up that ship. Not only was it in excellent condition,
but it had carried him through some arduous hops.
Ajax, whose mechanical skill was responsible for the fine condition
of the plane, had felt the same way, for he had said, gloomily,
"I'm afraid, sir, we're going to regret the day we had to let old
Number One go."
Almost immediately the pilot from the Helena
bringing in the exchange plane had caught his main float on the
top of a swell as he came in fast during a dead calm. The float
had crumpled under the impact and only by quick work had the aviation
unit on the Denver managed to hook the plane to the crane before
Climbing out of the damaged ship, somewhat shamefaced,
Bill Riley had said: "We've always had trouble with this plane.
Dead stick landings, water in the gas. Something is always happening
to her. Why, the crew on the Helena think that she is such a Jonah's
plane that only flight order men will ride in Number Thirteen."
Bob called his assistant, Happy Parker, and the rest of
the Unit together and they received the news that they were to fire
the gunnery practice immediately, with sober, concerned faces. They
knew that the Denver and the Helena were tied for the gunnery trophy,
so that this practice was important not only to them, but to the
When the men had dispersed, Happy said indignantly,
"It looks like a plot to me! Palming this old horse-and-buggy off
on us, and then making us do gunnery with it."
smiled grimly. "It's no plot. Just a mix-up in orders somewhere.
We might as well look her over and see what has to be done."
This inspection proved even more discouraging than Bob had expected.
Replacing the main float was not a difficult matter. The log of
0013 bore out Riley's words. She had led an unfortunate career.
Everything short of a major crash had occurred to the craft. As
a result, many of the fittings were twisted, slightly, of course,
but enough to warp any surfaces installed.
"Bob, it'll take
days to get this crate fixed up, even if we can manage it aboard
ship," protested Happy.
"And, in the meantime we'll lose
all the practice time we might have before the official firing,"
agreed Bob. "I'm going to the Skipper and see if we can't get our
old plane back."
Captain Rumble listened to Bob's story
sympathetically and when he had finished, asked, "The two units
are running a pretty Close race, aren't they?"
sir! We're tied for the gunnery trophy. I think we could beat them,
Captain, but they cracked up the plane they delivered to us this
morning. Besides that, it has had so much happen to it that it is
badly in need of a major overhaul."
"How was the plane you
turned over to them?", "It was in splendid shape, sir, and that's
what I came to see you about. Isn't there some way we can get that
plane back for the practice?" ,
There was a frown above
Captain Rumble's formidable eyebrows as he considered the matter.
Finally, he shook his head. "I'm afraid it can't be done, Bob. It's
obvious that someone made a mistake and forgot about this practice
when they ordered the transfer of planes."
"A mistake that
is tough luck for us, sir."
"I quite realize that, but after
all, the other ship was only carrying out her orders, too. Unless
the Helena chooses to send you back your good plane to use for the
practice, we will just have to make the best of it."
heart sank. He made one more effort. "You know, Captain, one of
the rules of the practice is that if a plane is forced down during
the official firing runs, the pilot of that plane gets a zero score,
because it is also supposed to be a test of the machine. It doesn't
seem fair for us to take that chance with a plane for which we have
not been responsible."
The Skipper's eyes were the sea blue
eyes of an old sailor, bright and direct. Now, he regarded his Senior
Aviator with a penetrating stare. Finally, he cleared his throat
with the trumpet-blast sound which was renowned throughout the Fleet.
"Hr-umph! I suppose you are as tired as the rest of your
generation of hearing about 'the days
of iron men and wooden
"Well - er - no, sir. But I've heard the expression."
"I'm going to tell you something - confidentially. Men weren't
much different then than they are today. But from all the years
I've spent in the Navy I've learned this -"
He paused impressively,
to explode forth his discovery with a bang of one fist upon the
desk. "It is the man - not the machine that counts. All this new,
complicated equipment is very fine. Very nice to have. But whether
its a frigate, or an airplane carrier, Bob, for the long pull, the
Navy depends on its men.
You get up on deck there, and show the Helena we could lick 'em
with a box kite if that's what they'd brought over to us."
The next few days were busy ones for the aviation unit. All
the gunnery gear was carefully checked. Their one good plane was
given a thorough inspection. Ajax worked far into the nights in
his efforts to align the Helena's old plane. In the meantime, the
Denver raised steam and moved out along the island string and anchored
not far from the Helena.
The two seaplanes from the Helena
were aloft from morning until night. One would tow a sleeve, while
the other made dive after dive, firing long bursts from its machine
guns. After a series of runs, the sleeve would be dropped neatly
over the quarterdeck. Then, the two pilots would shift jobs, permitting
both of them to obtain the maximum firing practice.
a day or two after the Senior Aviator's interview with Captain Rumble,
Bob and Happy had entertained the wild hope that the Helena might
return their plane to. them. But now, watching the activities on
their sister cruiser, it was evident that the other unit had no
intention of surrendering the good Albatross. Until they were able
to place both of their planes in commission, the Denver Unit could
get no practice firing runs. Therefore, it was most exasperating
to them, as they labored over their obstinate craft, to see their
competitors practicing early and late.
The sympathies of
the entire ship were with Bob and Happy. The contest between the
two aviation units was the most exciting event of many months. In
addition, there was the desire to have the Denver win the gunnery
In the daytime 0013 was an everpresent problem over
which Bob worried and worked. By night the plane became a demon
haunting his dreams. With all of Ajax' good work, he still wondered
whether or not the craft would see them through the gunnery contest
that would soon be upon them.
He had another problem, too.
Who should fire with the old crock? Should he? Or should Happy?
The sensible thing was for him to take their good plane, since he
was more experienced, and presumably would make the most hits for
the ship. On the other hand, he disliked assigning Happy to the
It was a relief when, after four days, the
plane was ready for a test. Even then, so much time had been devoted
to realigning that there had been none available for checking over
the power plant. Bob felt that they could not afford to lose any
more hours of practice, and he ordered the exchanged plane over
Once in the air, he regained some of his old optimism.
Although the engine didn't turn up as much as he should have liked,
and while it was rough, Ajax had done a fine piece of work. Flipper
turns to the right and to the left. Smooth controls and instant
response. It flew hands off. It fell into a stall at the proper
Bob was elated. Even though the Denver did not have
much time left for practice, their prospects were looking up as
long as 0013 behaved like this! Now to hurry back to the ship and
he and Happy would get going, making up for lost time. In his enthusiasm,
he pulled the craft's nose up and kicked hard rudder. Like a top,
the plane spun around laterally into a roll. Another kick and another
roll. Then Bob's heart skipped a beat as the engine suddenly sputtered
and cut cold!
In the rear cockpit, Ajax called, "She's starving
Bob checked fuel valves, he boosted the gas pressure
by hand. But not a pop indicated that life could be extracted from
the engine. Landing not far from the Denver, 0013 was ignominiously
"Sounds like carburetor jets to me, Ajax,"
declared Bob in discouraged tones, "better pull the carburetor and
give it a hundred hour check."
"That'll fix her, Mr. Wakefield,"
promised the mechanic.
Another day of maddening inactivity
followed while the Helena planes kept up their whining dives. Ajax
wasn't able to get the carburetor disassembled before noon.
"It will be the middle of tomorrow morning before she's ready
to go," predicted Bob to the anxious Happy at his side, "and then
we'll have to synchronize the guns and boresight. That will take
another half day."
"And I've never fired this practice!"
deplored Happy for the tenth time, "Give me all the dope on it."
Again, the Senior Aviator went over the sequence of dives,
explaining in detail how the telescopic sight should be used, how
to manipulate the plane.
"What are. the chances of the bullets
striking the propeller?" asked the younger pilot.
won't strike it at all, providing the guns are properly synchronized.
Of course, the gear goes wrong occasionally and sometimes you may
come home with a hole through a blade. Not often, though."
"I've always wondered how the synchronization gear operates
"It didn't always. In the early days a pilot
who wanted to fire his guns straight ahead merely screwed a heavy
metal plate over each one of his propeller blades. Then he opened
fire indiscriminately. Only a small percentage of the bullets struck
the revolving blades and they glanced off. Of course, sometimes
the ricochets went a bit wild."
"I can imagine they did!"
grinned Happy. "My brother Steve used to tell me about that. He
said the bullets used to ping back through the wing fabric."
"It wasn't the safest method," admitted Bob, "and it finally
dawned upon some of the flyers that it wouldn't be much of a trick
to connect the machine gun to the crankshaft of the engine. You
simply revolve a cam once for every revolution of the engine. The
cam has two lobes, each of which operates the trigger mechanism."
"That fires the gun, of course, but how do you synchronize
"You mesh the gear of the cam to the engine in such
a manner that the lobe comes at the point you wish to fire. Generally,
it is set to fire just after a propeller blade has passed, thus
giving the bullet the maximum time to fly clear of the next oncoming
blade. Besides, if there is a slight delay in the firing apparatus,
you still will not shoot your prop."
"Will the gun fire
after the passage of every propeller blade?"
The engine may be turning up so fast that the machine gun has not
yet completed its cycle. In this case, it will not be ready for
firing, even though the firing mechanism operates just after the
passage of each blade past the gun muzzle."
"I should think,"
said Happy, "that there would be times when the faster your engine
revved up, the slower would be your rate of fire."
that's correct," answered the Senior Aviator. "Frequently, you can
fire faster if you will throttle back your engine."
it was nearly noon of the following day before Ajax announced that
0013 was ready to go. A test flight proved successful and the Denver
aviation unit made preparations for practice runs the next day,
the last before the actual firing. Long belts of ammunition were
made up; cotton sleeves, to be used as targets, were stowed in intricate
designs upon towing boards.
The planes were out the entire
day. Each pilot repeated time and again long, howling dives with
his eyes glued to the telescopic sight. But, if the Denver's seaplanes
made many runs that afternoon, the Helena's did likewise. Bob groaned
as he thought of their four wasted days.
The hits in the
sleeves had been counted following each run and now, at the end
of the day, the pilots were able to analyze the results. Bob found
that a few runs had brought him back into his old form and his scores
were improving. Happy's sleeves, however, were scarcely touched,
and he was utterly discouraged, even though the last targets showed
a few holes.
The great day dawned with fair flying weather-as
fair as could be expected in the vicinity of the Aleutians. By the
toss of a coin it had been decided that the Helena's pilots were
to fire first, while the flyers from the Denver acted as observers.
"The duty of an observer," explained Bob, "is to ride with
the tow plane to make certain all of the safety rules are observed.
We'll take turns doing that. The other man will stay on the ship
to recover and count hits in the sleeves. If there is any doubt
about anything, we have the authority to make a decision."
"That shouldn't be hard to do," remarked Happy.
laughed. "I've seen squadrons do battle over one hit."
in the rear scat of the tow plane, Bob observed that Bill Riley's
approaches were smooth, sure. With the first pilot's runs completed
and the target dropped aboard, the observers took charge of the
sleeve. Spread out on the well deck, it was surrounded by the aviation
unit. On his hands and knees, Bob began to circle each hole with
black crayon. Thirty-two holes - sixteen hits. Well above average!
Riley's junior pilot made his runs. His first official practice,
he was tense and nervous. However, he made fourteen hits. A total
of thirty for the Helena. A good solid score that would be no setup
Returning to the Denver, Bob felt depressed, but
not hopeless. Happy asked, rather diffidently, "May I make a suggestion?"
"Of course, fellow."
"Since a plane that is forced
down loses its score, and since you're the one who is going to get
the hits - I think I should take Number Thirteen."
worry you to fly the plane?" Bob asked.
"Not in the
The Senior Aviator hesitated a moment.
What his assistant had said was true. Not only that, but Bob realized
suddenly, that perhaps he had reached the stage where he must relegate
responsibility to others occasionally.
He smiled, "Okay.
It was an excited Wardroom which sent its aviators
aloft to their official firing runs that afternoon. All of the crew.
off duty were ranged along the lifelines on deck. Their cheers drowned
out as Bob opened the throttle of his plane for the first firing
Shortly afterward, flying high over the target. he
jockeyed for a desirable position. Then, exactly right, he eased
back on the throttle and pulled the nose of his craft up. Losing
speed for an instant, he let the nose whip down toward the muslin
sleeve, pulled back on the charging handle, and removed the cover
from his sight.
Then the control of the plane became nearly
mechanical. Bob moved the stick in response to the image in the
retina of his eyes. Forward moved the cross-wires until they were
leading the target. Up just a trifle to allow for droop. Careful
for fear of slipping or skidding the speeding craft.
as the white bulk of the target loomed up large, Bob's fingers gently
squeezed the trigger. A resounding blast filled the cockpit, during
which the cross-wires held their relative position. With the burst
finished, the pilot threw the stick violently forward to drop under
the target by the narrowest of margins.
More runs followed.
Some down from directly overhead, others from the side. Always,
Bob held his plane in a vice-like grip as he fired the gun.
Once more aboard the Denver, standing by his target, Bob waited
anxiously as Riley counted the hits. There were plenty! The count
showed fifty-eight holes - a total of twenty-nine hits - permitting
Bob to paint an "E" on his plane for excellent marksmanship.
But when Wakefield rushed over to Happy, he was thinking solely
of the Unit's score. "Fellow, we need only two hits now to give
us the trophy!"
Parker had a frown on his face, for, realizing
his heavy responsibilities, he had become taut.
my best, Bob."
"Just take it easy. Get in close before you
There was dead silence as the plane was hoisted
over the side. Ajax, remaining with the exchange plane, was in the
read cockpit, as impassive as an Indian.
Aloft, now, in
the towing plane, Wakefield looked back from his place in the forward
cockpit. Happy's dives looked good. Smooth, easy turns and he was
getting in close, too, before he fired.
Then, with one more
dive to make, Parker look his position well above the target. Suddenly,
the nose of his Albatross reared up and the craft fell off to begin
its downward plunge. Faster and faster it came, leaving a trail
of smoking oil fumes. The pilot began to wrap the plane up into
a steep flipper turn. Closer and closer he approached.
in the target plane, Bob said to himself, tensely, "Time to begin
But the pursuing plane continued its closing course.
Suddenly, Wakefield, again looking back, felt his throat contract.
His heart began to pound as the diving plane headed straight for
the sleeve. The tell-tale puff of black smoke was emitted, indicating
that the pilot had begun to fire. But, Happy had followed Bob's
advice with a vengeance. He was too close! Apparently, he realized
it now, for 0013 suddenly dove straight down in an effort to avoid
Bob turned forward quickly as he felt a powerful
pull on his plane. For an instant, his craft hesitated, then lunged
forward as the towline carried away.
The sleeve crumpled
up for an instant as it fell clear and then once more streamed out.
Looking below, Bob could see that Happy had picked it up with his
starboard wing. The plane was scarcely under control. The right
wing dropped violently with the drag of the inflated sleeve. From
the maneuvers of the pilot to right it, Bob knew that Happy was
fighting desperately to hold his machine level. He would be exhausted
in a short time even with Ajax in the rear cockpit to help him.
And even then, it would be unsafe to attempt a landing.
Bob groaned. The crew of the stricken plane could bail out safely
enough at this altitude. But, the loss of the machine would throw
out Happy's score. They would lose the trophy.
first impulse was to pick up the microphone, but he thought better
of it. Happy had his hands full now without any advice from him.
Gradually losing altitude, the plane worked into a slow
right turn. It seemed as though Happy was unable to hold it on a
straight course any longer. The tormented craft made a complete
circle. Another. It was then that Bob noticed that, the circling
mahine was working its way over toward the Denver.
Bob let out a cheer. The next turn of Happy's plane would bring
it approximately over the Denver. Out onto the starboard wing was
clambering a figure. Ajax! Inching his way out, the mechanic grasped
flying wires in his burly hands. Wires which must cut as the slipstream
strove to tear his grip loose.
The wing went down still
further as it bore the weight of the figure moving out toward the
struts. The circle tightened, became smaller. The load was becoming
too much for the pilot. Ajax would have to free the target pretty
soon, or the plane would spin down out of control.
over the ship, the plane had tilted into nearly a vertical turn.
Ajax was standing almost to the horizontal. It was now or never.
"Cut it!" screamed Bob as he anticipated loss of control.
Why didn't they bailout? They'd both go down with the doomed plane
at that low altitude.
Suddenly, the lowered right wing shot
upward as a white sleeve dropped and fluttered to the surface alongside
the cruiser. Even with the plane again in level flight, it was several
minutes before Ajax could work his way back to the cockpit
The entire ship's force was on deck to see the marking of the
recovered target. It appeared as untouched as when it first went
"None there," remarked Riley, "turn it over."
There in one end was a hole. A second. Three. Four in all.
Two hits! The Denver had won the trophy!
As Bob went over
to Happy and Ajax to congratulate them, he thought how right the
Skipper had been. "Wooden ships" indeed! He'd match Happy and Ajax
in a frail seaplane against any "iron men" the Old Navy ever had!
Lieutenant Bob Wakefield is a familiar character
to readers of Boys' Life for he has appeared in many of its stories.
He is the hero also of two interesting books by the same author:
Bob Wakefield, Naval Aviator and Bob Wakefield, Naval Inspector
Posted January 12, 2014