CORAL SEA AND OTHER REFLECTIONS ©
LIEUTENANT COMMANDER OTIS KIGHT, USN (Ret.)
People will forget
what you said; people
will forget what you did;
but they will always remember how you made them feel.
Below are some musings of the times of long, long ago and far away and yet just yesterday and down the block. To give later thoughts a kind of time frame, all of us on the Yorktown in '42 were of "The Depression" era. Life and death were accepted as part of the ongoing history, without heart bypass, miracle "silver Bullet" antibiotics, hip replacements and things we take as normal now. People got sick; they died. People who lived past sixty-five were "old people". Death did not have the horror or shock it does to the last two or three generations. If we had another Desert Storm, and we (the US) lost two thousand troops in five hours, the country would have a cow. Between Pearl Harbor and Tarawa we lost twice that many and didn't even draw in a deep breath.
Otis Kight, Seaman First Class
On joining the US Navy
I joined the US Navy on my 17th birthday, July 29, 1941, one month after graduating from Clarkston High School's eleven year tour. In fact, the day before, I was shipped from Atlanta to Macon, sworn in, and on a train to Naval Training Station, Norfolk before I knew I was a sailor. Only two basic lessons do I remember from "boot camp". The Chief in charge of our platoon said it years before George C. Scott said it in Patton: "You ain't going out there to die for your country. You gonna make some SOB Jap or German die for his!" And the other from a Gunner's Mate Second Class. He was a turret captain who pulled the triggers on the eight inchers! His quote I can still hear as clear as Memorex- "Kight, they's two things you don't loose in this man's navy - and the other one's your sense of humor!" And as I performed the classic Jack Benny double take with my mouth wide open, he replies, "and when you find out what the other one is, you got the job of Chief of Naval Operations in the bag!" I never did make CNO but I've had a laughingly great career.
Thru boot camp, with all the "aptitude" tests. Aced the Radio test. Above ninety on Mechanic's. Assignment desk figured I got the answers from somewhere, so put me in the "deck assignment" . Turned out to be lucky day, my page was assigned "Aviation Squadrons". They needed "boots" for mess cooking, "coop cleaning" (compartment stewards) and plane pushers. Basic problem, upstairs didn't talk to downstairs about where the ships were located that all these sailors were assigned to go aboard. In mid-November 1941, I was assigned fighter squadron VF-42 aboard USS Yorktown, then somewhere east of the Panama Canal.
Chasing Yorktown around the Atlantic
As a wild swag, I was put on the Wasp (I think it could have been the Ranger!) and headed to Bermuda, where, rumor stated, the Yorktown might be some time or the other. Arriving at Bermuda, the word was Yorktown is returning to Norfolk- so me and my triced hammock and seabag got aboard the USS Greene (APD-36). For those that have never had the chance to serve aboard a flush deck "four piper", with two engine rooms removed, by all means grab it! These were World War One destroyers. You ain't lived, and for a time, you are positive you won't much longer either! The transportation problem was that the Greene was headed for Charleston Naval Base, South Carolina-almost even with Cape Hatteras. The People Who Are Never Wrong stated, "Aw, Shoot- Greene's supposed to go to Norfolk". This is the first week in December, and the "Graveyard of the Atlantic" is looking for the next burial service. Fifteen to "oh my gosh" feet swells, and no ballast in the empty spaces. I did feel like a sailor; and muttering "What tellami doing here?" The ship's Leading Chief, three or four ship's company, and me, were the only ones not seasick. And I had the "con" for a short while. That's when I figured out "whatellami". The next afternoon, we pulled into NOB Norfolk, tied up, and me and my seabag and hammock were aimed for the Receiving Station. The RS was a street away from Unit "X" - the boot camp. Full Circle!
Hearing about Pearl Harbor
Not having been paid for five weeks, I stayed in the barracks that night. This was Saturday, December 6, 1941. Sunday morning breakfast, "standing by to stand by" to transfer to my squadron! Dinner ("lunch" to the unlearned), and listening to Glenn Miller on a radio one of the guys had. When the news came, I remember having to teach most of the guys there where Pearl Harbor was, and what it meant. My Uncle had been aboard the Utah, back in the Twenties, and tho he never got to Pearl, that was one of his unrealized dreams. And he sure gave me all the info on it.
On joining USS Yorktown (CV-5)
An hour or so later we were all triced up, and on the way to the piers and the Yorktown. I was assigned a berthing space, which was the mess hall. You could hang your hammock after 2100 (9.00pm), and could sleep in until 0515. At 0530 the Boatswain would relieve one end of your hammock lashing if you were still in it. "Trice up and stow" was the way to go. After the first night, Monday, it was to Hangar LP-14 on the Air Station to install armor plate, self-sealing fuel tanks, and off to war. It would be eight years before I saw "Sugar City" again.
There was billet on Yorktown for a radio striker, and one slot for a plane pusher. I had a full seabag, including tennis shoes - and the other guy didn't. So after deployment, I was third guy in the number 10 plane pusher crew. After working hours, I had volunteer tours in the bakery, parachute loft, and laundry.
To Pearl Harbor
On to Pearl Harbor in first of January, 1942. Very discouraged that my government would lie to me about the actual loss. A very dark feeling concerning the needless loss of good men.
The Marshall-Gilbert Islands Raid
On to hit and run raids around the "Coconut Continent" islands of the South Pacific. My specific assigned task was to move aircraft around the flight and hangar decks. Ten of us were a crew. There was no "slack" when we were at GQ (general quarters). When the aircraft were all out, we were assigned secondary tasks. Mine was as ammunition booster for the US Marine detachment manning the water cooled .50 caliber machine guns mounted on the starboard forward catwalk. I got into the forward magazines, right below the flight deck, pulled out a magazine can, about sixty pounds, and "toted" it about fifteen feet aft down the catwalk to the guns. They took it from there. The gunners on that battery could dump ammo faster than a two year old could get rid of breakfast, or as the other plane pushers described it, "make bullets disappear faster than a paycheck". It should be noted that all attacks were made from the port side, not our starboard side.
When Ensigns Scott McCuskey and John Adams shot down the Japanese Kawanishi "Mavis" flying boat off Jaluit, I didn't have remorse that over half a dozen good Japanese aviators had died, just the thought that Scott had when he reported over the radio, "We just shot his ass off!". The enemy had died for their country.
Yorktown holds the line in the South Pacific - March 15 to May 1, 1942
After the raid by Yorktown and Lexington on Lae and Salamaua, Lexington departed March 16, 1942 for Pearl Harbor and overdue repairs and alterations. That left Yorktown and her escort warships of Task Force 17 to hold the line against the Japanese in the South Pacific. We patrolled the Coral Sea from March 16 to April 20 when Yorktown put in to the Tonga Islands for for much needed upkeep and provisioning.
I made Seaman Second Class (SEA2c) in March 1942 due to having a Navy-type jackknife on me at the right time, I was advanced to Seaman First Class (SEA1c) in April 1942. The (W-1) Warrant Officer that somewhat controlled the plane pusher mob mustered all of us one slack day in April, and stated: "Every one with a pocket knife - one step forward". We were all SEA2/c at the time. Me and another out of about fifty stepped out. "You two are now rated Seaman First". That was his way to ensure we all carried knives. At the time the aircraft were secured to the flight deck with "nine thread" which was a very rugged manila rope line . If it was wet, and stressed, the securing knots wouldn't release easily. Ergo, the term "Rope wrench" was coined, and all those of adult responsibility carried one, labeled in the Small Stores issue compartment as "knife, pocket, folding". Earlier in life I knew it as a "boy scout knife". This was one wrench that "one size fits all" was most applicable. Slick way to be sure everyone had a Rope Wrench if one was needed!
At a recent Navy Fighter Squadron reunion, whose history dates back to the Battle of Midway, and the Battle of the Coral Sea, several of us were asked about the hardships experienced at that time. Food, living conditions, refueling, even clothing.
The most acceptable response went something like this.
You that are audio purists never had the joy of bringing in a program from The Grand Ole Opry on your crystal set. Static, wavering volume, white noise. We never had heard of Dolby stereo, transistors, chips, Bose speakers. So, we didnt know what we were missing. We also had not heard of air conditioning, freeze drying, shelf-stored milk, underway replenishment by helicopter, teflon, Nomex, and penicillin. It was an age of accepting tincture of iodine, belladonna, Octagon Soap. If it didnt use vacuum tubes or have a grease fitting, we didnt really accept or trust it. The symbol "R & R" wasnt in our language. The Chief says, "Take it off, fix it, put it back on". Today its "remove and replace - with a new one!
The South Pacific was romantic, but only in the musical. Berthing compartments had a temperature of 95-110F in the afternoon, and cooled off to 85 by reveille. Oh yeah, this was also before the popularity of deodorants. So most of us would take one blanket (for padding) and head for the bomb nets. These were nets under the flight deck for the crew to dive into during air attack. They were made of corrosion resistant metal (not steel) with about two inch squares. Always a cool breeze when under way. We in the Air Department had it made. We could see daylight all day, and most of the time, starlight too. A work day was from two hours before dawn to two-three hours after sunset. The "black gang" - the engineers - had temps of 110-130F, and shifts of four hours on, two off. Sometimes, during their entire work day! That was the way it was, it wasnt questioned, just accepted, and cussed.
Remember in context. This was only thirty-nine years since Orville launched at Kitty Hawk. And we had already advanced from sail and coal to Bunker "C". This was a petroleum product too thin to walk on, too thick to swim in. And when a four inch transfer hose busted or broke, it was the most miserable ugly mess ever made by humans. In the early fifties (1950s), we discovered that if one applies CO2 (dry ice from 15lb fire extinguishers) to the entire mess a fire axe breaks it up into large hunks that can be thrown overboard. Then diesel oil will cut the remaining film.
Creature comfort consisted of all cotton clothing in the tropics. The ships laundry was most efficient, but a person needed at least four sets of dungarees with underwear to change if one could stand his own stink. So most of us would take a shower - all salt water except 10 to 15 second rinse off - with our underwear on and with salt water soap. And we all had soft, baby pink skin too. With a base pay of $21 to $38 monthly, and a seabag instead of lockers, space for four sets of dungarees was out of the question.
Context again, a pair of "Penlast" (made by Federal Prison labor, shoe last) dress black shoes was six dollars. No sales tax. One of the most practical techniques was that of rolling all clothing and keeping them tight with two small pieces of cotton twine, called "Clothes Stops". Uniforms were all turned inside out, folded as per regulation, and rolled, and tied. They came out clean, pressed, and ready. Both Whites and Blues.
One reason for the underwear/shower routine was the notorious effect of sending anything to the laundry. Large amounts never came back. Especially socks and underwear. All clothing was stenciled with the owners name which was visible on the dungarees, but not on socks or underwear when worn by some pilferer. So we kept three sets of skivvies - worked out real good. The good part of hot berthing compartments was that the wet skivvies dried in about an hour. Us on the plane pusher crews also wore tennis shoes which got washed about every week. We found out that 100-octane gas and engine oil was a good remedy for athletes foot (spik itch) so we didnt remove the medicine too often. It worked for us, but never got mentioned in the New England Journal of Medicine).
The heat question really never came up as a civil liberties principle. After enjoying sixteen summers fairly close to Atlanta, where the temp cooled down to 90F by sunrise - shoot, we had it made aboard ship! The most brutal conditions were in the North Atlantic in wintertime. I still have both big toes numb from frostbite just working on the flight deck of the Wasp on a two day trip from Norfolk to Bermuda in November, 1941.
Finally, it was a good time, and the saying still goes "Its easier to wipe off sweat than goosebumps"!
Battle of the Coral Sea, 7-8 May 1942
One of the strangest things I ever saw happened on Yorktown at Coral Sea very late on the afternoon of May 7, 1942. This was the first day of the battle, and I remember there were two Japanese aircraft I personally saw trying to land on Yorktown! Our F4F Wildcat fighters were preparing to land on Yorktown at the same time. I can recall extremely colorful language - even for an experienced sailor- from our Yorktown pilots (VF-42) concerning getting the crap shot out of them by our own gunners! This all happened within the space of about twenty minutes. It was almost at sunset. They (the Japanese) both made it the heck out of there. I don't remember anyone trying to claim credit for shooting them down. Maybe up, but not down!
On the second day, I remember having a feeling - for the first time- that there were people out there that meant ill to my ship. The resultant attitude was: "You're not going to hurt my ship", and I went back under the flight deck for another magazine can of .50 caliber. The near miss on the starboard bow came about twelve-fifteen feet from me, clipping a wire cable in the middle strand on the catwalk guard rails. Most of our squadron crew were under the flight deck, laying on "bomb nets" which were woven nets of about half-inch wire rope, with somewhere near two inch square openings. Most of our kapok life jackets were spread out on the nets. They stayed dry, aired out and were a comfort to lay on. We expected danger from the topside, not from below. So our only fatality in the squadron came from the shrapnel from the near miss, hitting an ordananceman in the thigh, and he bled to death before anyone realized he had been hit. There was an opening between two life jackets, and that's where the bomb particle went.
We worked all the rest of the day, like Trojans, spotting, respotting (Ed. moving Yorktown's aircraft); looking up for the dive-bombers; along the horizon for the torpedo planes. Finally, after dusk, and dark, and night time, we were secured, sent below for our cold salt water shower with a fresh rinse, and then to relieve the damage control parties sorting out the bomb damage on the two and three decks. Up to the time of Coral Sea, I had only read in Hemmingway's novels about "the sweet smell of death". The area was a full disaster, and I realized what the "sweet smell of death" really was. There were parts and particles; some ship, some shipmate. The bomb landed in a compartment used to stow arresting cable components, and particles of arresting cable had limited the bomb blast. We sorted out pieces of ship from parts of the soda fountain, and put pieces of the crew in body bags, the other trash in garbage cans until the compartment was clear enough to use shovels, then fire hoses, then Cresol (a cresote disinfectant) and swabs. And always the "sweet smell of death". And the thought crossed my mind then, and many more times, where is my number? There was sadness, and respect, for the dead, but not the wholesale celebration this present generation embraces. We gave them a military burial at sea, and went on with the business of war.
As far as fear, or terror, no! There was none of it anywhere I could see or hear. Just a pure dedication to fight the enemy with all that we had, to survive with our ship.
Upkeep and resupply at Tonga
Afterwards, when we pulled into Tonga (I can't spell the actual port). Nuke-something - we were over that part, and ready for whatever. A set of undress whites and neckerchief, and see if there was at least one native girl left that had not been chased up into the jungle by the Queen. I will never forgive the big mouth that told the Queen about U.S. Sailors. When we dropped anchor in the Friendly Isles, we had been at sea for 109 days. I think that was finally bested by the USS Nimitz during Desert Storm. That record almost went "platinum". It was spoiled for me when the new Navy babies all had a beer allocated if they were over 21.
The Coral Sea Battle served me well. It was "Combat 101" that let me know what to really expect at Midway. I am still amazed and thrilled every morning when I see light through square cornered windows. My thoughts are "done won again". And when it's time to vote, on any level, I secretly vote about five hundred times - for all those who gave their all so I can vote. So I thank each and all of you, for remembering. And all those that gave all so we could be among those that remember and appreciate. Those that are remembered are not gone.
Always, in remembrance,
© Copyright Otis Kight. All rights reserved. This story has been reproduced in its present form on the Pacific War Web-site with the permission of the copyright holder, and as a result of collaboration between Mr Kight and the author of this web-site. The text of the story cannot be reproduced elsewhere without the permission of Mr Kight.