IT ALL happened 35 years ago, but I still have an after-image, a persistent feeling that somebody across the horizon would like to do me in with a Samurai sword.
The Martines had landed on Guadalcanal Aug. 7, 1942, and had suffered too long without air defense. They were desperate.
I was a second lieutenant, had 322.9 hours flying time in my log, and would learn enough to last a lifetime in the next 100 hours in the Solomons.
We were junior pilots of VSMB 231, who'd never been catapulted before we climbed into our Douglas SBD dive bombers and sat with left hand on the stick and left elbow secured against the hiphone, and suddenly were shot out from the carrier into the dead calm with the engine roaring urgently for air speed.
I'd heard about the awful fighting ahead, but where we stopped at Efate that night, en route to Guadalcanal, British refugees gave us a new perspective. They told of a mission priest at Guadalcanal who'd been found tied to a stake, mutilated horribly and executed. Nuns working with him and had been raped and murdered, too.
The next day we flew an hour and a half over wavter to Espiritu Santo. Then it was four hours over water to Guadalcanal, and we came down out of the clouds and flew low over an airstrip in the palm trees.
Decapitated palms, stark evidence of artillery duels, surrounded the field. An Oriental building called "The Pagoda" stood just north of the strip. From the air, Henderson Field, as it was called, looked like a bad case of smallpox, with bomb craters among parked aircraft, in the coconut groves, and even on the runway.
We circled and I brought my dive bomber down into the heat and humidity and landed where the runway was good. Clouds of red dust rose as we taxied to the revetments. Our Schedule called for a 24-hour day. Three sectors toward the Northern Solomons had to be searched daily. We often flew long-range strikes against ships Sept. 17, four SBDs led by Navy Lt. Turner Caldwell left Henderson field for a base called Gizo. Bad weather turned them back, but on the way home they found another target.
Caldwell gave the hand signal, moving us into column for dive bombing two destroyers and a light cruiser. Then he radioed for the first two planes to bomb the first ship. The man ahead of me and I should dive on the second.
But the other guy's radio wasn't working. He followed the others down and bombed the first ship, leaving me to dive alone.
The others dropped their bombs, nobody getting a hit, and pulled out toward Gualdacanal. If I took that course, I reasoned, I'd come close to the enemy gunners. I banked 45 degrees to the left, and dived.
Tracers soared up toward me, but'd never known anybody who was hit in a dive. Finally, when discretion overcame foolhardiness, I said, "This is it,'" yanked the bomb release and began to pull out of the dive.
Heading low over the water, I flew a few seconds (or minutes - I never knew) before turning right to join the others.
The enemy found me in his sights when our wings were spread aginast the sky. Antiaircraft blossomed around me. Unwilling to fly alone that low in the sky, I turned back.
The AA bursts still followed me. Concussion cracked in my ears. I flew through smoke. Holes were in the wings now. Something was wrong with the radio. I found the antenna trailing where shell fragments had cut it just above my head.
My rear gunner for this flight was T.A. Costello. "Are you all right?" I asked.
"We caught a lot of lead. They shot my rear sights off." He said holes were in the fuselage.
Still the AA followed. Now, we heard the others talking about a float Zero attack. We huddled low in the cockpit and finally were out of range. Trying to join the others now would be a mistake.We were on our own.
And, in the many course changes looking for the enemy, I'd jumbled my bearings. We were lost.
You could always turn north in the Solomons and fly until you hit an island. It was sundown, a mean-looking front closed down around us, when we flew over a beach.
It might be Santa Isobel, I thought, but the ceiling was too low to tell. If it was, then Guadalcanal was south, but we could never fly through the weather that way.
South from the only other island it could be would take us straight out to sea for hundreds of miles. And, already our gas was running out.
"See that island?" I asked.
"Jeez, I'd sure hate to land there."
"That what we're going to do while we still have power."
I picked a likely beach with no reef and headed into the offshore breeze. The SBD of course was no seaplane: the wheels were up. Gradually, we flew slower and slower as I pulled the nose higher and opened the throttle.
We settled slowly and then with a jolt landed in a tremendous wave. Then a squall hit. Three hours later, we stumbled, exhausted, onto the beach, dragging the rubber draft.
The jungle looked an impenetrable backdrop behind the sand. If this was Santa Isobel, I thought, this very beach often became a highway for enemy troops reinforcing Guadalcanal.
We covered our tracks with sand, creeping into the bush, and turned the raft over for shelter. Setting down for a stormy night, I munched emergency rations. Costello slept.
Often I dozed out of sheer exhaustion. The danger was discovery and whatever capture might bring. The jungle was full of fireflies that, to my overwrought nerves, suggested Japanese soldiers carrying cigarettes. Reality came at last with daylight.
We chose our goal: Far up the meandering costaline shimmered a leaf-hut village.
Burying the raft, we covered our tracks again, and walked at the edge of the water where the waves covered them for us.
Our feet were soon raw from and in our shoes as we pushed on through shallow water. The village still shimmered remotely.
At sundown, a wide channel stopped us. It was beginning to rain again, and across the water were two villages, one frame and the other native.
We elected to swim for the frame building, but a strong current carried us down near the other. Wet and tired, we crawled ashore and slept on a reed bed in an empty hut.
The only sign of life inside was a calendar with Japanese characters. Costello took my automatic apart and restored it to firing condition after the day in salt water. I fell asleep with it tied to my wrist. Tomorrow would be Sunday.
Drums woke us up. Momentarily, I wondered if we'd been disovered by cannibals, and they were assembling for boiled SBD pilot.
But the drums stopped. The village seeming deserted, we climbed down and found a large, square building.
People were singing inside. I laughed at the utter simplicity of it all. I knew that song in any language: "Praise God from Whom all blessings flow. . ."
"It's all right," I said. "This is a mission church."
We hung our belts around our necks, disarming ourselves, and spread our arms when the natives come out of church. "We're friends."
They stopped, skeptical. Then, sure we weren't Japanese, they crowded around. Shown the guide lines of my pocket map, they said we were on Santa Isobel after all, by Ortega Channel.
They fed us yams, brought clean clothes left by the missionary, took our muddy flight gear for washing, and urged us to go upstream to some "Chinese."
Could they tell Chinese from Japanese? I resisted. But my doubts were overcome by the urgency, as they saw it, of leaving at once. By canoe, we followed Ortega Channel to one of its tributaries.
Then we followed the smaller stream until we came to three schoonners hidden under the trees. On one of the decks, a lanky man, all smiles and clearly Chinese, clung to the riggling.
This was Chan Cheong. he led the way on foot, and we followed by canoe through smaller and smaller streams until we came to a clearing and his own comfortably residence.
He'd been a trader at Tulagi and now carried on his business from this hideout. Chan Cheong sent a message to that Native Medical Practitioner who would become a legend among the Coastwatchers who helped people like Costello and me. His name was Geoffrey Kuper.
Chan Cheong's wife and two sons lived with him, and he managed a comfortable living, under the circumstances. We slept in feather beds. Hot tea waited on our shaving stand every morning. Breakfast was a crepe of pancakes and apricto preserves. We had fish or chicken or duck for dinner.
The runner came back with a letter from Kuper telling us when to meet the rescue plane. Three fires at the beach would signal, "all clear." We came down from the jungle in canoes and paddled out to the amphibian as three fighter planes patrolled the beach at treetop level.
The Coastwatchers played an absolutely pivotal role in sending warnings that saved our lives. They also functioned widely as an underground for refugees, as in my case and Costello's.
A few of us left Guadalcanal for Noumea, and from there we had orders to San Diego, by aircraft carrier. I knocked at my sister's door, in Coronado. She stood looking strangely at me, through the screen door. It was a month after I'd landed my SBD at sea. Headquarters had never reported me found. My sister was sure I was dead.
"Do you know what's out about you?"
"No, I just got back."
"Tou're supposed to be missing in action."
That never happened because of Geoffrey Kuper and Chan Cheong. If you ask me, they ought to be canonized.