CHAPTER 5

BONUSES OF BEING SHIP'S POSTMASTER

In the1930's shipboard Post Offices were branches of the New York, NY post office. Regardless of our geographical location our postmark was NEW YORK (USS West Virginia Br.)  My fiscal  accountability was to the New York Postmaster.

A big bonus was having  my own private office.  I kept my cot and bedding inside the Post Office so I could regulate my own sleeping hours.

I used the office as a private location to meet with men.

Military leaders have concluded mail is more important to fighting men than food. Like the weather forecaster,  when men got good letters they gave me the credit but if they got no mail or bad news they blamed me.

Because everyone does business with the post office every person (including the Admiral, Captain, all of the officers and men knew me by sight and name.  I also knew most of the 1500 by name including their regular correspondents and wives and girl friend's names.  At one time we had five James Smiths on board and it was a little effort to keep them straight by divisions.

My contact with the entire crew enabled me to develop relationships leading to sharing the Gospel with them  I had many opportunities to serve them over and beyond the call to duty which softened their hearts. Most of the men sent money to family members every pay day which was the 5th and 20th of each months. Every payday my assistant and I wrote about $10,000 worth of money orders in amounts averaging less than $25.00. To avoid long lines, I devised a method where patrons would pay the money order fee in advance along with their application.  I would write the money orders at night so all they had to do on payday was present the number I gave them and pay the amount due generally in round numbers.

Crew members were allowed to send telegrams through our ships radio system.  I was bonded and responsible for the Communication Funds.  (This was to be a critical factor after the ship was sunk December 7, 1941)   I could not be transferred from the ship until all funds were accounted for.  I turned the cash collected over to the ship's Disbursing Officer daily who in turn sent a check  to the Postmaster at New York.

As Navy Mail Clerk, I received $30.00 per month extra pay.

Since mail is so important to morale, we used our aircraft to make mail runs once or twice a week when within 200 to 300 miles of land.

Battleship aircraft were launched from the ship on a gun powder fired catapult. I'll never forget my first launch.

A ladder is used to climb into the rear cockpit.  The plane, a canvas winged bi plane (designation SOC 3, S for scouting, O for observation, C for Curtis the manufacturor and 3 the model number. On the ship the plane I flew in was nested in the catapult cradle on top of turret three.. It is a seaplane with a main float and two wing floats.

The pilot and I got aboard wearing life jacket, parachute, and then fastened our shoulder harness safety belts.

To test the engines the catapult car is locked to the catapult and the engine revved up to full speed. The noise and vibration is indescribable.  An engineering problem is how do you get the plane to stay on the catapult with the engine running at full speed?  The answer is a steel band called a "breaking strip".  It is strong enough to keep the plane in the car and break when the car reached the end of the catapult.

So the routine is like this.

We get into the plane and  assume a crash position with our neck aligned with our bodies and arms hanging loosely at our sides. The catapult officer unlocks the car from the catapult and the plane eases forward against the breaking strip as the pilot locks the throttle in full speed. With the catapult pointed into the wind and the ship going at top speed the catapult officer waits for the ship to reach the maximum uproll (so the catapult will be pointed up into the air rather than down into the sea). He orders "Fire".  The cables to the catapult car have a six to one leverage so we race down the catapult car track attaining  a speed of 60 miles per hour in 60 feet.

The first sensation, as body fluids lag  behind, is feeling as flat as a pan cake.  One’s arms are stuck to the back of the seat and you try to bring them back to normal position but the sudden momentum is in control and it takes a few seconds for blood circulation to normalize.

Getting back aboard ship is another experience.  The Battleships make a 180 degree turn.  The powerful engines cause the ships to slide sideways as they turn.  This creates a "slick" and for a few minutes even a rough sea is calm in the :"wake" of the ship.  The planes land one by one and taxi up to a "sled" being towed by a boat "boom" perpendicular to the ship and are hoisted aboard.

But wait.  I generally rode with the pilot of the third plane.  By the time we landed the sea had begun to get rough again.  We couldn't stay in the air because the fuel was getting low. The only alternative was to land in the churning sea.  To slow the plane's speed for landing the wing "flaps" had to be lowered.  When we touched down the strain on the planes frame caused it to vibrate and sound like a sack of tin cans being rattled together.  The next step was to raise the flaps so the plane could taxi to the towing sled while the ship was moving at a speed of eight to ten knots.

The mechanical device for raising the flaps was like the sprocket wheel and chain on a bicycle except it was operated by hand. As soon as the plane hit the water my job was to raise the flaps.  Sometimes we would hit the water so hard it would knock the breath out of me and I had to resume breathing before being able to move the flaps.

When we had taxied to a position over the sled a  hook on the plane's float engaged the sled and we were the hoisted aboard.

All of the Battleship's recovered their planes simultaneously. Once committed to a landing there is no alternative. If a wave caught one of the wing floats it would break off.  The remaining float was heavy enough to turn the plane over. This happened so frequently the plane crew could slide down the wing and wrap themselves around it and end up on the upside down float without even getting wet.  The float had a hook on it.  A boat would tow the plane to the ship, and it would be hoisted aboard.  The mechanics would remove the engine, dry it out, replace the wing float and the plane was soon ready for the next flight.

The plane in which I rode never suffered the loss of a wing float but I often saw the planes on each side of  me break a float and turn over.

Once we had reached an altitude of about 1000 feet, the pilot would say, "Downing, put your stick in the hole.  I am going to take a nap."

The rear seat "stick" looked  like the lower end of a crutch.  There was a bayonet like latch on one end and a rubber tip on the other.  When not in use it was housed in a rack on the side of the cockpit..  When in place it reached the top of one's knees.  That meant I had to lean forward to fly the plane.

Once I had the stick engaged I would wiggle it to shake the plane and let the pilot know I had control.

I only had three instruments:

A compass to keep on course

A bubble like the one in a carpenter's level to keep the plane's "attitude" at the right angle in the vertical plane

A similar bubble to keep the wings level in the horizontal plane.

I had no throttle or forward visibility.

On a prop plane the torque of the propeller tends to cause the plane to spin in the opposite direction.

It is plain hard work to keep the plane level.  And then with the short stick to move the airleons one's back hurts and there is the tendency to lean backward unconsciously pulling the stick backward  causing the plane to climb. We were supposed to fly in formation. But there was no voice communication with the radioman and aircraft mechanic flying the other planes who had the same problem.  Since we had no the throttles the plane keeping the most constant altitude would get ahead.  When we were about to lose sight of each other we would wake up the pilot to get us back in formation.

Having landed in the harbor,  we would taxi up to a ramp.  Swimmers would swim out and attach a line to our plane.  Then a Ford tractor would pull us up to shallow water.  The swimmers would place a cradle with wheels on it under our float and we would be pulled up the ramp.  To take off again the swimmers would take us into deep enough water to remove the cradle and we were on our own.

Carrying the mail was never our main mission.  Every time the planes took off it was a training mission.  We did search for submarines, drop depth charges. and do dive bombing.

In the middle thirties we had our canvas winged planes upgraded to metal monoplanes capable of doing vertical power dives.  I will never forget my first vertical power dive.

At an altitude of about 12000 feet the pilot nosed the plane over and put on full throttle.  We were simulating dive bombing on our own ship. As the ship got closer and closer, I was sure we were going to crash into it. I closed by eyes, braced myself and waited for the end.  But seconds rolled by and no crash.  I opened my eyes and looked over the side of the plane. The ship was getting farther away. We had pulled out of the dive without my knowing it.  The "G" forces are so strong while diving that you still have the sensation of falling while actually climbing.  One learns to trust the instruments, not body sensations.

The nearest disastrous experience while flying occurred due to  a mechanic's error. The rear seat on our plane rotated 360 degrees, like a barber chair, so the machine gun can be fired  in a circular path.For take off and landing it is locked facing forward with a pin.  In doing maintenance a mechanic had failed to engage the pin.

When we were catapulted the seat spun round and the mail bags under my feet hit me in the head and flew  into the ocean. (They were recovered before sinking but the outgoing mail was delayed until next trip) .   In the spinning around process the tabs on my life jacket were pulled and the life jacket inflated.  With parachute harness and life belt also around my waist there was no room for the inflated life jack and I was so squeezed I couldn't breathe.  Also the seat locked to the rear with my face down at an 45 degree angle.   I quickly found the co2 bottle release valve and emptied the life jacket. But I couldn't reach the release pin so remained in this uncomfortable position until being rescued after landing. You can be sure that afterward I checked the lock pin before being catapulted.

Shortly before the attack on Pearl Harbor the West Virginia had a radar with bed spring like  antenna installed.  By this time voice communication had been installed on our plane

I was involved in the first radar test.  It was a weird feeling.  Previously when we were out of sight of the ship or land we were out of anyone's observation.

In the test a ship's officer directed us to fly various courses and altitudes while he tracked us.  He then had us maneuver at will and every time we changed course or altitude he confirmed that he accurately tracked us.

A new age had begun. No longer were we limited in knowledge as to  what we could see with our eyes. Too bad it was not in use on December 7, 1941.

As a Postmaster I was always the first and last ashore.

About an hour before getting underway for a voyage, I would take the last mail ashore.

After Morena and I were engaged I used this time to phone her in Los Angeles just before the ship left for Hawaii. She was on the phone with someone else.    I kept trying and  finally after half an hour got through for a brief conversation. By the time we got back to the ship the impatient Captain had already gotten the ship underway and we had to catch up with it at 3 or 4 knots and be hoisted aboard while running alongside.

One of the Admirals aboard had numerous girl friends. On my last trip ashore He would give me some change and a written message to send a Western Union Telegram from a pay phone.

He and I had a good relationship because he trusted me not to reveal  his intimate secrets.  The messages I gave the operator over the phone would have made me blush if the operator thought I was the composer.

PS.  During part of the time we lived in  Washington, D.C.,from 1943 to 1946, Morena’s sister in law Marguerite and nephew Stephen lived with us.  Morena’s brother Bud was on the Queen Mary making trips from New York to Europe.  When the ship came to New York, he was able to come to Washington  to see Marguerite and Stephen.

Marguerite worked part time at a small department store in the next  block named IDA'S. One of the other sales persons was an Admiral's wife.  This became known after she committed suicide. She was the wife of the Admiral whose messages I sent.

PPS: While in New York in the late 1940's the Captain of the Nespelen, in which I served from 1947-1950,  used to hang out at the Commodore Hotel bar.  He told me about an old man who hung out at the bar.  He claimed he was a retired Admiral.  My captain gave him a bad time until he produced an ID card. He was the same Admiral mentioned above.

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James W. Downing
2650 Stoneridge Drive
Colorado Springs, CO 80919
Ph/fax 719 598 1461
E mail jimmorena@aol.com

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