Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Chapter 15: The Cannoneers Had Radar Ears

There was equipment - thousands of dollars' worth - on each island we were on, representing the ultimate in the technology of aircraft destruction. We of the artillery regarded all this equipment with the proper amount of respect, of course, but still, we continued to think very highly of our own natural ears.

It did not take us long to develop radar ears. I think I developed mine as quickly as anyone else did his. Some were more sensitive, perhaps, but not more quickly developed. Early I learned to recognize any Jap plane that came over, whether a Zeke, Hamp, Dinah, or Betty, as a Jap plane, though I never could identify each separate type as I could our own planes. But there was a characterisitic, hollow, metallic whine to the Jap planew which no American plane had, so hearing that sound was really all we needed to put us on our guard and start us edging toward foxholes.

There was good reason for our reliance on our ears. On many occasions a Jap plane would be above us for as much as five minutes (and presumably within range of the radar detectors for longer than that) before the sirens would make it officially an air raid. Since we had been aware of the plane's presence for some time before the alarm was given by the siren, there was much derisive laughter and comment when we finally did hear the siren. "Well, well, well!" we'd apostrophize. "So you finally woke up! Thanks for letting us know." Sometimes the plane would come, circle around, go into its bombing run, drop the bombs, and fly off even before we'd get a "condition red". Then the laughter and remaks would be more bitter than ever. "Condition red, men. That means it's safe now. But if you hear a condition green 'all clear', look out!" It sound strange but it is quite true that this was the case more than once. The plane would come in and drop its bomb load, then scoot away before the condition red sounded. After everything was quiet, the condition green would sound, and then, of course, the plane woudl return!

One of the most reliable aircraft detectors in the battery was Harry Heilman. And, never one to ignore what his ears heard, he was about the first (I think Abe Kantrowitz, the medic, was speedier) to reach a foxhole or bomb shelter. He was assistant to Charlie McCrory, the supply sergeant, and he and Mac slept in the same tent. Heilman would jump up suddenly in the night and call to Mac, "Come on, McCrory, get up! Tojo's comin' over!" McCrory would sit up, listen in vain for the sound of "Tojo", and way, disgustedly, "Aw, Heilman, quit it. You're just dreaming you heard Tojo." "No I hain't. That's Tojo." Harry would then hurriedly put on his clothes and vanish from the tent. Eventually Mac sould hear the plane too and decide that once again Heilman had been right.

The ubiquitous "Tojo" was, of course, an abstraction. Unlike "Jerry," which was used in reference to the Germans, Tojo was used only in the singular. It was always "Tojo" or "he" who released the bombs, piloted the plane, or fired a machine gun in strafing or in self-defense. It was "Tojo" too who fuzed and loaded the shells, pulled the lanyard, and observed the shell burst on those occasions when we were the target of Japanese artillery. The two situations were invariably summed up with "Tojo's comin' over" and "Tojo's throwin' stuff at us," regardless of the fact that there were many men involved in each operation. I suppose it was the result of our attempt - whether conscious or unconscious, I wouldn't know - to personalize something in a war which was so unmitigatedly impersonal.

My ears were also quick to catch another sound, although for a long time I had difficulty in convincing anybody except Audley Long that I had heard it. Audley long had heard the sound too, but his corroboration of my story was hardly satisfactory because brother Long was what I might euphemistically describe as eccentric. However, before a general re-appraisal of my mental equipment could take place, Ray Green, of whose mental stability nearly everyone was sure, fortunately came to my aid and said that he also heard the sound.

The sound in question was a kind of popping or thumping noise which seemed to emanate from the intruding Jap plane, and preceded the noise of the falling bombs. It was only audible at night when everything was quiet. The roar of the plane seemed almost lost in the immensity of the silence, so there was plenty of room, so to speak, for another sound to be heard without being crowded. At first I thought the poping was the backfiring of the plane's engines, but soon I noticed that that the pops corresponded to the bomb explosions both in number and in rhythmic pattern. That is, if there was a short interval of time between the first and second pops and a long interval between the second and third, the intervals between the first explosion and the second, and betwen the second and third would also be short and long, respectively. There were various guesses as to what the popping sounds actually were, but the most reasonable was that they were the sounds of the bomb fuzes being "armed" - that is, ready to detonate on impact.

By listening to these pops we could predict how many bombs would fall - if anyone was interested. Once on Bougainville I heard so many of these pops that the effect was like machine-gun fire. In fact, someone said, "Tojo's strafing." I said, "No, that's bombs. He must be shoveling 'em out of the plane." We took for cover, and sure enough, there was a veritable deluge of small bombs, dozens of them. They were anti-personnel, fragmentation bombs, so did not pack much of a concussion, but they were capable of spraying the area with a nasty cloud of red-hot, jagged steel fragments (mis-called "shrapnel"), so I was glad we were all under cover. They did not land in our immediate area, but a few fragments went singing by.

Another sound we learned to identify quickly was the sound of a falling bomb. First of all, I want to say that bombs do not ordinarily whistle, Hollywood to the contrary notwithstanding. I have heard at least a hundred bombs, and every one of them swished; there was never a peep from any of them. If a bomb whistles, it is because a whistling device is attached to it. A whistle os not standard equipement, and I am quite sure that most bombs are dropped without any noise-making accessories. I hasten to add, furthermore, that a whistle on a bomb would have been superfluous, as far as we were concerned, for the psychological effect of the whistle was admirably achieved by the standard model, swish-bomb type. That is, we hit the dirt and shuddered quite satisfactorily under the swish-stimulus. So conditioned were we that one night in Guadalcanal, returning from a movie, a crowd of us heard a swish and dropped flat on the spot, and some moments had passed before we realized that there wasn't a plane to be seen or heard and that no condition red had been given. Then somebody said that maybe it was "one of them damn birds." He was referring to one of the huge, vulture-like birds, grotesque, black creatures with yellow necks and heads, that lived in Guadalcanal's jungles and made a swishing noise when they flew. At this, we got up, dusted ourselves off, and made metal notes to go bird-hunting the next day.

Chapter 14: Out of the Wide, Blue Yonder

The American and Allied Air Forces earned our respect early. We got our first close-up views of the Lockheed P-38 Lightnings the day we landed. Two were warming up for the take-offs on Henderson Field, and great clouds of coral dust billowed up behind. They were unique planes, these twin-tailed crafts, with their pilots riding atop the wings in teardrop nacelles. Propelled by two powerful Allison in-line engines, a P-38 in flight set up a majestic roar. At low altitudes a whistle could be heard accompanying the roar, and this is the plane about which I first heard it said that the Japs named one of our planes the "Whistling Death." Later I heard the same thing said about the Vought Corsair and the Grumman Hellcat, both Navy fighters.

The P-38 seemed to be strictly an American's plane, that is, it was never popular with the RAF or the RNZAF who preferred single-engine fighters. But the men from down under loved the old P-40's. These Curtiss planes, called War Hawks and also Tomahawks, were of the type made famous by the Flying Tigers, and, in the opinion of many U.S. airmen, had seen better days. But let there be a "condition red," that is, an alert for air attack at Guadalcanal, and the New Zealanders would take off in their P-40's to intercept the Jap planes. A short time later, back they would come, swoop over Henderson Field, and execute "victory rolls" signifying that they had downed enemy planes. More than once I have seen a single RNZAF plane do three victory rolls, meaning that its pilot had got three Jap planes that trip.

The P-39, the Bell Airacobra, was, in my opinion, the most graceful looking aircraft in the sky. Powered by a single Allison in-line engine, which was located amidships, the Airacobra had a long, poiknted nose and trim, slender lines throughout. We used to see this ty pe quite often in Fiji and learned to recognize it by the sound as well as ty its silhouette, for P-39's based at Nanadi frequently used to fly over our Sigatoka area, seemingly skimming the trees. The engine purred "like a sewing machine," I used to say. Americans were not keen on this type of plane either, I understand, although the Russians could not get enough of them. The Airacobra was an unusual plane too. Besides having the engine located in an unorthodox place, it was the only fighter at the time that carried a 37mm. cannon in its nose. This gave it unique value as a tank-buster, which is why the Russians liked it. Having its engine mounted behind the pilot instead of in front of him gave the plane a peculiar invulnerability for quite a while: the enemy, seeking to immotilize it, would always fire at tis nose - where its engine ought to be.

These, then were the first Army aircraft we saw overseas, and for many months the only Army fighters. The Navy strength was better represented in the islands, and we saw the new Corsairs and Hellcats of the Navy (the latter planes replacing the Grumman F4F Wildcats) long before we saw the Army's newest, the Thunderbolts and Mustangs, which were being introduced in Europe. They gave us a tremendous lift; there is something inspiring about a flight of planes, something irresistible in their roar which draws all eyes upward toward them no matter how often they pass overhead. They were such miracles of mechanical ingenuity and workmanship that we couldn't conceive of the Japanese - or of anybody else, I guess - as having aircraft even almost as good as ours. There was a little false optimism in such thinking, a little over-done national pride, but not much. It was the United States, after all that had developed the Norden bomb sight, the multitudes of excellent fighter craft for both the Army and Navy, and those colossal heavy bomber, the B-17, the B-24, and later the B-29. And American aircraft were flying in all corners of the world, with nearly a half-dozen different national emblems on their wings. There were few of us earthbound soldiers, I guess, who did not respond with awe and respect to the sight of these planes.

Another type of aircraft won, not our awe, but a kind of humorous affection, and that type was the small reconnaissance and liaison plane, which was represented by the L-4 (the famous Piper Cub) and the L-5 (built by Stinson.) They were used by Divison Artillery first, and later by each separate artillery battalion, for spotting enemy installations such as gun implacements, troop bivouac areas, motor pools, or supply and ammunition depots. They were flimsly looking, "parasol-wing" monoplanes, reminiscent of the "crates" of World War I, and their air speed was probably not over 90 miles per hour. They were reliable little crafts, however, and I believe we lost only one in all the time our division was using them (which was from the beginning of our New Georgia campaign in July 1943 to the end of the war.) They frequently flew over Jap anti-aircraft batteries of all calibers, but they were never fired upon. The enemy knew that our Cubs had direct communication with our artillery and that if they could not bring down the plane with one shot, so to speak, there was no sense in firing and giving away the position. The Germans also had similar respect and restraint toward the liaison plane. They dubbed it the German equivalent of "First Sergeant" because they always ran for cover when they saw it coming.

On rare occasions we would see one of these planes flying in "combat" formation, and the incongruity of these fragile, unarmed little planes simulating a flight of tough, heavily armed fighters or bombers always amused us. Then a stream of whimsical chatter would usually follow, like this:

"S'pose they're gonna bomb or strafe?"

"Bomb, I guess. They can carry a bomb load of two hand grenades."

"What kind of guns to they carry."

"Oh, a pistol mounted in each wing, I guess."

"I hear the new ones got heavier armament."

"That so?"

"Yeah. A pistol on each wing and a carbine mounted in the nose. Boy, they'll be able to blast hell outa things then!"

"I hear they're gonna carrier-base them Cubs."

"Sure. They're buildin' flight-decks on some of the LST's."

Perhaps I should add that this joking was not malicious or sarcastic - just good-natured. All of us appreciated the value of these small planes, and I imagine we were a little proud of them.

I have said nothing about the bombers - the Flying Fortresses (B-17's), the Liberators (B-24's), and the Billy Mitchells (B-26's) - but then, they spoke pretty well for themselves. They were always a superb sight, whether singly or in formation, especially the Forts and Libs. We saw between thirty and forty on a mission to Munda, and we whooped with joy at this display of air strength, the like of which we had not seen before in our theater of operations.

The sight that really stopped us, however, was the return of a B-17 from an air battle somewhere in the Central or Northern Solomons to its home base on Guadalcanal. (We were still at our Grenade Hill camp, neophytes in the Solomons, and so were pretty impressionable anyway.) The bomber was coming in low and laboriously, because two of its engines had been put out of action by enemy fire. As she passed overhead she was low enough for us to view the battle scars, and we felt like doffing our caps, I think. We could see daylight through a couple of spots in the wings, and some of the gun turrets, or "blisters," were shattered. The tail gunner's place looked especially grim. The gun itself, still and stark, was pointing downward, and the plexiglass housing had been shot all away. Someone reminded us of the saying among Air Force men about the tail gunner on a bomber. "If, after the end of a mission, the tail gunner doesn't get out with the rest of the crew, you don't lift him out - you wash him out with a hose."

Chapter 13: More Yarns About Guadalcanal.

During our last few weeks at Guadalcanal we had a two-week period of firing practice and Divison problems. That period differed from the maneuvers we held in Fiji in that the Battalion remained in one location the whole time. That was fortunate indeed, for we had rain almost every day, and moving howitzers in and out of position in mud is no easy task.

I was seldom at the gun position. Usually the entire instrument section was assigned to the OP. There were few specific duties for us; we operated phones or radios if the communications sections were short-handed, we prepared grid sheets or overlays for maps when needed, and that was about all. The main object in our being there was to pick up what we could on artillery observation and OP procedure.

The procedure for fireign problems as related to OP work was as follows. Targets were picked out, usually by the Commanding General of Division Artillery, Brig. Gen. Leo N. Kreber, or by the Div. Arty. Executive Officer, Colonel Kenneth Cooper. These targetw were designated on the firing charts or maps which were in the hands of the Battalion staff. Then each RO (Reconnaissance Officer) was assigned a problem.

For example: The Battalion executive, Major James Nellis, would say to A Battery's RO, "Gawthrop, take the next problem. Group of trees just short of the draw that's 400 yards to the right of the Base Point. Enemy personnel with maybe some light artillery or mortars.

Gawthrop: Battalion concentration ...

Nellis (interrupting): No! Wait a minute. What are you going to waste a whole battalion's fire power on that area for? One battery's enough for that. Now, go ahead.

Gawthrop: Able Battery adjust, shell HE, charge 5, fuze quick. (He pauses while the operator relays these commands. He studies the terrain, inspects the firing chart, and refers to his firing tables.) Base deflection ... right ... two eigh. (Pauses again.) Number two ... one round, at my command. Quadrant ... three seven zero.

The operator reports the commands and then becomes the center of attention as everybody waits for him to receive the message "Number two ready" from the battery operator. When he does, he repeats it.

Gawthrop: Fire.

Operator: Fire. (Pauses, then winces a bit as the phone brings in the blast of the howitzer as it is being fired.) On the way.

Then all eyes ar turned toward the target area, as everybody watches for the shell burst. A ball of dark grey smoke appears, suddenly, like a raindrop on a window pane. Gawthrop then makes his sensing, that is, tells whether the burst is over, short, right, or left of the target. He calculates his adjustment and sends down the next command which he hopes will compensate for the miss. Assuming that it does, that the next shot is a direct hit, he may call for all four guns of the battery, usually as a volley or volleys (all four guns firing in unison). Usually Nellis gives the command, "Cease firing, end of mission," for he is interested in using only as much ammunition and time as he feels is necessary to illustrate the problem. He then gives his critique in his characteristically crisp and laconic speech.

The procedure is repeated with each officer present. Some do well, and some blunder all about the place. When they do, they usually get their ears burned to a crisp by Colonel Cooper if he is around. This doughty old colonel was an officer in the old tradition. He had risen from the ranks of private in World War I, and now, wearing a full colonel's silver eagles, he knew practically all the answers. He had an uncanny eye for sensing bursts and could land a direct hit with one adjustment almost any time he wanted. But any lesser officer beware who thinks that anybody could do it!

One of the first things that even enlisted men are taught about OP fire control is not to "creep up on a target," that is, if the first round is short, don't make the next shot land short also. Increase the elevation of the gun or guns enought to take the second round well over (beyond) the target. Bracket the target, in other words. That was dinned into our heads so much that we thought that any OCS grad would know at least that much. But we saw one who didn't. Or else he was so sure of himself that he did not think it was necessary to bracket the target. He could make a direct hit in one jump. Like Cooper. He thought.

Well, he never finished his problem. After three adjustments of 100 yards each, the target still looked just a hundred yards away from the burst. Then Cooper caught on to what he was trying to do, and he told that second lieutenant to sit down in a truly impressive and elaborate way.

Whenever Lieutenant Colonel Henry L. Shaver came to grips with a firing problem there on the OP, there was always the interesting speculation on whether he was going to blast us all off the top of the hill this time or the next. Before leaving the camp for the OP we used to tell the rest of the men in the Battery: "We may not see you fellows again; Shafer's firing a problem today."

To illustrate: One day Shafer stepped up confidently to fire a problem. In his nasal drawl he described the target he had selected. The first response was a collective blink. Perhaps we had misunderstood. One of the other officers spoke up. "You mean that spot over there near that draw, Colonel?" Shafer said no, no, he meant the spot about five hundred yeards nearer. Well, that was practically the base of the forward slope of the hill we were standing on. Doubting glances were exchanged all around, but nothing more was said.

This probem actually was to be fired by Fire Dirction Center, that is, given the target, FDC plotted it, computed the firing data, and converted the data into firing commands which it sent to the battery assigned. Shafer was to give only the sensings. Soon the message from FDC came: "Unsafe to fire. Quadrant will be below the minimum elevation."

Shafer was annoyed. He got on th ephone and talked to someone at FDC, probably the S-2. "Unsafe to fire!" he snorted disbelievingly, and asked the S-2 to show him. Apparently the two agreed that there was a slight margin of safety, enough to permit firing the problem, anyhow. With a smile of victory on his face, Shafer stood straight up and addressed us. "It's safe to fire, but everybody get back off the hill. Everybody get back behind the top of the hill; but it is safe to fire."

Laughing at this retreat of Shafer's to a compromise position, we nevertheless complied swiftly, searching for little hollows on the side of the hill away from the target area and far below the top of the hill. Then, in those hollows, we held our breaths as, a few minutes later, we heard Shafer give the command, "Fire." We heard the shell pass over us so close that it seemed as if we might have touched it just by reaching up. We heard the burst: very close indeed. Shafer ran to the top of the hill to catch sight of the smoke before it had drifted too far. Well, he hadn't killed us with the first shot; he would try again. We groaned as he sent down his sensings. Then came the second round; we could almost feel its hot breath. From ths sound, we couldn't tell whether the second burst was closer to us or not. Shafer had a nother look. Then he surprised us all by giving, "Cease firing, end of mission." Had the second burst really hit the target, or was he afraid that another adjustment would wipe us all out? We never found out. Probably only Shafer knew the answer. Of one thing we were certain: we were glad Shafer had finished his problem.

Firing problems always meant that time for moving was not far off. The Battalion had done well, we were told, in the Guadalcanal problems. Too well, some of us reflected glumly.

We returned to our base camp to find that the mosquitoes had taken over. Until we had got them smoked out, the more susceptible of us had to go around even in the daytime with mosquito repellent smeared all over our faces and hands. The mosquitoes used to flock about me so much that for a couple of days I worked outside with a head net on. In most places we didn't need head nets even at night. Fortunately, beofre too long the Malaria Control Unit, which had been doing and continued to do a fine job, visited our area and got rid of the mosquito nuisance for us almost entirely.

For the short period left before departure for New Georgia we enjoyed a remarkable degree of relaxation. It was like the mid-term holiday between semesters, following the big exam. I think passes were issued, although I may be thinking of when we returned to The Canal from New Georgia. But we were allowed to wander around a bit. Some men looked up buddies in other outfits scattered about the island. Some took advantage of the excursion program while it lasted and went to Tulagi, a more "civilized" island than the one we were on. Mostly, however, we hung around base camp and listened to the radio, tuning in Radio Tokyo for a good laugh, or we went to the movies.

We had had that radio working almost since the day we landed. All the news broadcasts from the States were listened to avidly, particularly the commentaries of Sidney Rodger. During air raids some of the men found it diverting to tune in on the talk going on between one American plane and another, and occasionally between an American and an English-speaking Jap. Presently a story got circulated about a conversation between an American and a Jap that was supposedly picked up by our radio. The Jap was taunting the American tand telling him to come up and get him. Finally the American answered him, saying that he was not coming up - he was coming down on him, after which he dived on the Jap and shot him down. It makes a good yarn, anyway.

The biggest laugh we got over the radio was not from Bob Hope or any other comedian; it was from Radio Tokyo. In May the Japanese sent over a huge air armada, exceeding even the Tulagi-Guadalcanal raid of April 6. This May raid, which was the last raid of any size that the Japs were able to send over the Southern Solomons, consisted of about 116 planes. If they thought that the size of it would insure a successful day-light raid, they sadly underestimated our air strength. Only a fraction of that number ogt over Guadalcanal, for most of the 96 planes that were shot down were intercepted long before they reached the island. The remaining twenty fled for their home base. Yet Radio Tokyo gloated, "A devastation air strike by our planes hit the island of Guadalcan with such force that it is doubtful if any human being survived. All twenty planes returned."

The raid of April 6, almost 24 hours after we had landed, was somethign to watch. I forget how many Jap planes there were, but there were enough! There were dogfights (though those in the May raid were more exciting, being almost over our heads), and there was lots of ak ak. The ships and land batteries sent up a terrific barrage. Enemy planes came down like moths in a cloud of Flit. We suffered losses: one tanker was set afire, and a warship was damaged or sunk. Both were near Tulagi, the island which bore the main brunt of the Attack.

It was amazing how punctually a raid followed up the arrival of a new convoy. Old campaigners on The Canal told us that there was good reason to believe that a Jap sending station, located deep in the hills that overlooked Lunga, was radioing information about our shipping to a Japanese base further up, but it always eluded our detection. Apparently our division put credence in such reports, because infantry patrols, one of which was commanded by our Harry Prose, were sent into the hills ot investigate. As far as I knews, nothing of what they were looking for was ever found. This is not surpriseing. The Japanese had an extraordinary facility for doing things right under our noses. Like the one who directed artillery fire on a beach on Empress Augusta Bay which disrupted operations there for a time. He was found, finally, with a walkie-talkie radio, a short but safe distance from the shelled area, and he had had the effrontery to be wearing GI fatigue clothes too!

The most annoying thing about these raids was that they often interrupted a good evening of movie entertainment. Of course, there were nights when the show was so bad (say, a Grade-B, would-be comedy of ten years ago) that a raid was a welcome relief, but generally we preferred the movie. If the raid proved to be of short duration, or if the alarm was just a scare, nearly everyone would wander back to the show area from their fox-holes (if, indeed, any had gone to fox-holes to begin with) and agitate for the resumption of the movie. On moonlit nights we could almost always count on an air raid, even calling the hour when the Japs would be over, and many a baleful eye was rolled up a th the moon. It was during our second stay at The Canal that we most fervently wished for an interruption of a movie. I forget what the main picture was, but before it came on there was a "Special Feature" announced with much flourish. It turned out to be a showing of Leopold Stokowski conducting the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra in the Stalingrad Symphony of Shostakovich. The performance was for the "benefit" of servicemen, who made up most of the audience, and was introduced by Mme. Litvinoff, wife of the Soviet diplomat. As the musicians gave out with the cacaphonies, the camera wandered about the audience picking up rapt expressions on the faces of the men. One GI, who looked as though he'd rather be anyplace but where he was, drew a sympathetic "We know just how you feel, bud!" from Germaine Gogreve, and we who had been writhing at ths Shostakovich noise, laughed. A sympathetic chord had been touched.

There was, I think, only one stage show put on by professional entertainers while we were at Guadalcanal, or at least, at our area, but it was quite good. The tenor, Felix Knight, was one of the entertainers, and the only one I can recall now.

Gradually everybody began to get serious again. Sometimes men wouldn't find the time to go to a show. Our next move would take us right into combat, so the evening activities were more or less related to that impending event. Men went through barracks bags to see what clothes needed mending or replacing, listened closely to the latest reports on the war's progress, wrote letters, and weeded out non-essential items which would have to be consigned, often reluctantly, to the fire. All of us, I think, were in good physical shape and all together, except Andy Kaltz, who left half of his thumb on North Island, New Zealand, and Vern Friend, who was leaving half of his thumb on The Canal. Working with his crew on the howitzer one day, Friend had said, "There goes my damn thumb," and, to the astonishment of his gaping gun crew, had walked off to the aid station. His thumb had been sheared, as by a meat cleaver, by being in the way of the heavy spade as that part of the gun was swinging free. Bob Perkins and I, while still in one piece, had narrowly missed tangling with a shark, while we were taking a refreshing respite from our "policing" or salvaging detail. We'd been warned that there were sharks and had been advised to keep someone with a loaded rifle on shore to watch for sharks and warn us. Perkins and I were farther out than the rest when the alarm was sounded, consequently we were the last ones to get out. Being not quite so hefty as Perkins, I sprinted out of the water a couple of paces ahead of him, and I'm sure the shark was nipping at his heels. Aside from these minor misfortunes and near-misfortunes, Able Battery was able and ready, though I'm not sure it was willing, to push on to New Georgia.

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