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.


Blogger Asher Abrams said...

Here ends my father's memoir of the Second World War. He left the project unfinished, with the title page for a sixteenth chapter tantalizingly titled "Marching Through New Georgia". But that chapter was never written.

Dad spoke of the war infrequently, and such anecdotes as he did relate are pretty dim in my own memory by now. I'm still in possession of the 37th ID yearbook, and at some future time I hope to add notes to this journal attempting to put its events into some historical context.

But that project will have to wait a bit, as personal obligations - and the wars of our own day - have the greater claim to my attention.

3:00 PM  
Blogger Asher Abrams said...

A rough timeline of my father's life may be found here:
Ken McLintock - chronology.

More family background is at The Town Down the River (homepage).

3:03 PM  

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