The Secret Warriors - By W.E.B. Griffin





APRIL 4, 1942

Although there were four passengers aboard the U.S. Navy PBY-5 from Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, most of the plane’s cargo weight was mailbags—regular mail from the fleet, official mail from various Army and Navy headquarters all over the Pacific, some from even as far away as Australia.

The Consolidated PBY-5 Catalina flying boat had been designed not as a transport but as a long-range reconnaissance aircraft. It had two 1,200-hp Twin Wasp radial engines mounted on its high wing. Two struts on each side reinforced the wing, the interior of which contained huge fuel tanks. What every Catalina pilot dreaded was landing shortly after takeoff, when the fuel tanks were full—and thus heavy. If the plane could not be greased in, all that weight was likely to tear the wings off.

There was little danger of that now. The fuel tanks were indicating close to empty. A head wind had been with them all the way across the Pacific from Hawaii. The pilot had even worried for a few rough minutes that he would not have enough fuel to make it to Alameda. A few hundred miles from the coast, the navigator had wordlessly laid his calculation on the pilot’s lap. His projection was that they would run out of fuel an hour and fifteen minutes short of Alameda.

At that point the pilot had had two options: He could throw excess cargo out, or he could try fiddling with the engines to decrease fuel consumption, and thus increase range. Since neither the official mailbags nor, obviously, the passengers could be thrown over the side, the only “excess” cargo that could be jettisoned was the fleet mailbags. The pilot was reluctant to throw away several thousand servicemen’s letters home, so he elected to try the unusual.

He retarded the throttles, thinned the mixture more than he knew he was supposed to, and dropped from 8,000 feet to less than a thousand. The miles he gained by this maneuver would put them that many miles closer to the California coast, and thus increase their chances of rescue if he had to set down in the drink and wait for someone to come looking for them.

Since it was daylight and he was forced to fly dead reckoning, he had no reliable means of knowing whether or not what he was trying was working. He was flying on a course of 89 degrees magnetic at an indicated airspeed of 140 knots. Simple arithmetic told him where he should be. But if he was, say, flying into a 30-knot head wind—which, very likely, he was—then he was making only 110 miles an hour over the water. And if the head wind was not coming directly at him, but from the side, he was liable to be far off his intended course.

He was genuinely thrilled, as well as enormously relieved, when the radio operator came forward and, without asking permission, switched the frequency, and over his headset he could hear a marvelously unctuous, pure candy-ass voice announce that San Francisco could expect to experience evening temperatures of 68 degrees Fahrenheit with a slim possibility of early-evening fog.

“I make it about eighty-six degrees from here, Skipper,” the radio operator said. Mounted on the wing, between the engines, was a loop radio antenna that, rotated until a signal-strength meter reached a high point, indicated the direction to the radio transmitter.

“How far?” the pilot asked as he made the necessary small course correction to 86 degrees.

“Don’t know,” the radio operator said. “I tried to raise Alameda, and couldn’t. I’ll try it again in a couple of minutes.”

The radio operator went back to his desk. His voice came over the intercom in a moment.

“I’d suggest another degree north,” he said. “To eighty-five degrees.”

“Okay. You try Alameda?”

“No reply,” the radio operator said.

Which meant, of course, that they were still at least 150 miles at sea. The commercial broadcast station had a greater range than the shortwave transmitter at Alameda Naval Air Station.

But then, minutes later, Sparks’s voice came over his cans again.

“Got ’em,” he announced. “They can’t read us, but we have them.”

“Thank you, Sparks,” the pilot said. “Keep us advised.”

The pilot looked at the copilot to make sure he was awake, then pushed himself out of his seat. He was now going to make the required airline pilot-type speech to the passengers.

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