Old 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.
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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 against movement.
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."
"But, sir," 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, Wakefield."
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 of junk?
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.
Apparently 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 it sank.
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 whole ship.
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."
Bob 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?"
"Yes, 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."
Bob's 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 ships'. Hey?"
"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.
"All right. 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.
For 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 trophy.
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 Jonah plane.
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 the side.
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 speed.
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 for gas!"
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 towed alongside.
"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.
"They 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 so accurately."
"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 it?"
"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?"
"Not always. 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."
"And, that's correct," answered the Senior Aviator. "Frequently, you can fire faster if you will throttle back your engine."
As predicted, 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.
Bob laughed. "I've seen squadrons do battle over one hit."
Riding 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 to beat.
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."
"It wouldn't worry you to fly the plane?" Bob asked.
"Not in the slightest."
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. Good boy!"
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 run.
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.
Then, 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.
"I'll do my best, Bob."
"Just take it easy. Get in close before you open fire."
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.
Ahead, in the target plane, Bob said to himself, tensely, "Time to begin firing!"
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 the target.
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.
Bob's 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.
Suddenly, 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.
Now, 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 out.
"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 (Dodd-Mead).
Posted January 12, 2014