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Old 11th May 2021, 14:32
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Return to Yesterday

RETURN TO YESTERDAY

The best job that I ever had was flying the Boeing 737 around the Central and South Pacific. The airline was called Air Nauru. Many of our destinations were Second World War battle grounds. Names such as Okinawa, Tarawa, Guadacanal, Guam, The Marshall Islands, Saipan and the Carolines. These and other remote islands are familiar names to war historians but sadly mean nothing to present generations.

Where time permitted, I would hand over control to the first officer and leave the flight deck to chat to the people down the back. There was always an interesting cross section of travellers. Some were regulars travelling on business between remote atolls, while others were islanders of various nationalities flying across the ocean to visit relatives. The islanders often carried guitars and entertained the other passengers with lilting melodies. From Hong Kong, the airline picked up British civil service passengers and school teachers on their way to Nauru or to Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands. We sometimes carried children on school holidays, travelling solo from England to visit their parents on Tarawa. Usually their parents worked as doctors, administrators, or school teachers, or at the Seamen's Training School on Betio atoll.

There were Chinese from Hong Kong, visiting relatives in the Pacific region, and perhaps Kiribati seamen returning home from years away on cargo ships. From Guam in the Mariana Islands, we would occasionally pick up war veterans from America who were making a last sad pilgrimage to the once bloody beaches of Betio and Makin, or perhaps to the dark satanic jungles of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. From Kagoshima in Japan, Japanese veterans would board our Boeings to be flown back to the same beaches and jungles. Sharing the cabin with these frail old soldiers would be young couples, eager to leave Japan's crowded cities for a honeymoon in the sun on Guam and Saipan.

After chatting to the island air hostesses on cabin and catering matters, I welcomed the opportunity to talk for a few minutes with those passengers who seemed alone and deep in thought. They were just faces in the crowd, yet each had their own story to tell. Tom Cleary was one of those whom I shall never forget.

Cleary was a tall dignified man with a military bearing, sitting quietly towards the rear of the cabin. He was gazing out of the window at an incredibly beautiful Pacific sunset over the the island of Truk five miles below. Truk had been the main base of the Japanese fleet for most of the Pacific battles. I introduced myself and asked his destination. It turned out that Cleary was a former United States Marine on a visit to Guadalcanal from his home in Calgary in Canada. He had retired from the Marines after the war, and was now the President of the U.S. Marine Raider's Association. He had been a Lieutenant Colonel during the Guadalcanal Campaign in the Solomon Islands in 1942.

Since joining Air Nauru in 1976, my travels had taken me to many of the Pacific battle zones. In the Sixties I had flown RAAF Dakotas into the war time strips of New Guinea, New Britain and New Ireland, and in 1940, as a child in England, I had watched the great air battles between the Spitfires of the RAF and the German Air Force over my home in Kent during the Battle of Britain. So it wasn't surprising that I became deeply interested in the history of the Second World War.

I was familiar with the geography and details of many of the Pacific battles and had also explored on foot the battlefields of Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands and of Bloody Ridge situated on the outskirts of Henderson airfield on Guadalcanal. Today, Henderson Field is the airport for Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands. It was named after Major Loften Henderson, a highly decorated Marine pilot who lost his life during the Battle for Midway in June 1942.

The Guadalcanal Campaign was undertaken by the United States Navy and Marine Corps in August 1942 - just eight months after the Japanese had struck their initial blow at Pearl Harbour, Honolulu. The Japanese were constructing a runway on the east coastal plain of Guadalcanal near the Lunga river when U.S. marines landed on nearby beaches. The American forces quickly captured the airfield, setting up a defensive perimeter while engineers hastily completed the runway. Despite desperate counter attacks by the Japanese, aided by shelling of the airfield by warships of the Japanese Navy - the perimeter held. T Battle for Guadalcanal was to last until February 1943. 27,500 Japanese were killed or wounded, while American casualties amounted to over 6000.

Just south of Henderson airfield, a grass covered ridge of high ground rises clear above surrounding jungle. It dominates the airfield with which it is connected by a dirt road. Heavily wooded ravines border the hill on all sides. On September 12, 1942, United States marines of the Raider and Parachute Battalions were well placed in their foxholes, protected by barbed wire and with machine gun posts covering the ridge, when the first wave of Japanese troops came screaming out of the jungle in front of them just after 9 pm. The attack was timed to coincide with the arrival of supporting fire from destroyers just off shore. It was a combined sea and land attack, with Japanese naval units standing off the coast and lobbing shells directly over the ridge and into the jungle beyond, in the general direction of the outposts of the American marines.

The hill is now known as "Edson's Ridge" after Colonel Merrit Edson, the Marine commander in charge of its defence. To the press in America it became known as Bloody Ridge. The fighting was desperate, because if the Raiders were defeated, the Japanese could fire down from the ridge at the airfield defenders and prevent American fighter aircraft from using the strip. In turn, US navy warships and the transports that they were protecting, would have been open targets for Japanese torpedo and dive bombers. As Tom Cleary told me, it was thought at the time, that if the Raiders had lost Edson's Ridge then Guadalcanal would have fallen to the Japanese. Despite many casualties the Raider Battalion held off repeated banzai charges killing over 800 of their attackers. Tom Cleary had been a marine commander on Edson's Ridge, which later became known as Bloody Ridge. Now 40 years later he was returning there.

One of the heroes of the early Guadalcanal Campaign was Sergeant Major Jacob Vouza, of the British Solomon Islands Constabulary. Vouza had offered his services to the Marines as a scout. One night he spotted a large concentration of Japanese troops moving towards the airfield perimeter. As he attempted to slip past the enemy group to warn the defenders, Vouza was captured by the Japanese, tortured and repeatedly bayonetted, but refused to divulge information. Despite serious wounds, he escaped and managed to reach friendly lines in time to warn the marines defenders of the Japanese presence. He survived the war not only to conduct many patrols against the Japanese, but to receive United States and British decorations for bravery.

As we talked 35,000 feet above the Pacific, Cleary was quite surprised at the extent of my knowledge of the history of the Pacific war campaigns, and in particular that I was familiar with the Battle for Edson's Ridge. When I mentioned reading of the bravery of the native policeman Jacob Vouza, Tom Cleary then told me why he was returning to Guadalcanal.

Vouza was now an old man. After the end of the war in 1945, a grateful United States government had invited him to America to receive a hero’s welcome. Afterwards Vouza returned to his village near Honiara, where over the years he would sometimes receive visits from visiting ex Marines. In 1982 his health began to fade and word got back to American ex- service organizations that Jacob Vouza was a sick man. Tom Cleary as representative of Edson's Raider Battalion Association, was asked to return to Guadalcanal as a last tribute to Sergeant Major Vouza on behalf of the United States government. Cleary mentioned that he had forgotten to pack his camera, so I gave him mine. He gratefully accepted this, and said he would leave it with the Air Nauru agent on his return through Nauru a few days hence.
As we neared the tiny island of Nauru, just a few miles south of the Equator, I invited him to the flight deck for the landing at the smallest country in the world. There he boarded the connecting flight to Guadalcanal. We shook hands in farewell and I felt humble in the presence of this brave man who had fought in such terrible battles against the enemy in 1942.

Two weeks later, the agent on Nauru handed me a parcel. It contained my camera and a letter from Tom Cleary in which he said that old Vouza was very pleased to see him again. They both knew it would for the last time. They had talked of this and that, and of the terrible battle for Edsons Ridge. The old man had wept when Cleary handed over a last tribute signed by the President of the United States. A final clasp of hands, then Sergeant Major Jacob Vouza returned to his village home in the hills outside Honiara, just a short drive in a jeep from Bloody Ridge...

Earlier, Cleary was told that an American marine had returned to Guadalcanal several years after the war ended and had become a church missionary. On meeting the man, he realized that they had both fought the Japanese on Bloody Ridge. It was a reunion of old comrades that day. Cleary had one more task before leaving Guadalcanal perhaps forever - as he too was in the twilight of his life. As he explained to me in his letter, he had some ghosts to lay.
During the lead up to the battle on the ridge, Cleary had led a patrol on a reconnaissance sortie outside the well defended airfield perimeter. They discovered a group of enemy troops camped in a coconut plantation which bordered one side of Alligator Creek. It had been a dark wet night, and Cleary's patrol had quietly swam across the 50 yard wide Alligator Creek on the way back to the perimeter. Worming forward through the reeds bordering the banks of the creek, Cleary set up an ambush.

The Japanese patrol was decimated by machine gun fire and grenades, although some managed to escape. Now 40 years later Cleary returned to the scene of that personal firefight. He waterproofed the camera that I had given to him and swum across Alligator Creek to climb the bank into the plantation. He rested awhile until the inevitable swarms of mosquitos forced him to continue his short journey to the ambush site a few yards from the creek.

He had just taken photographs of the area, when he was stunned to see three figures apparently praying over what appeared to be a small Shinto shrine amongst the trees. The figures were oblivious to his presence as he watched them from among the reeds. Cleary then heard Japanese being spoken, and one man turned slowly around to look in the direction of the creek. He looked old and frail. Cleary felt certain that these were the survivors of the ambush and who, like himself, had returned for one last journey to lay their own ghosts...
In his letter to me, Cleary said he still "hated the bastards", but decided to leave the scene by the way he came - quietly, and across the Alligator Creek, just like 40 years ago....

Over the following years there were others that I flew to the old battle grounds of the Pacific. During a flight into Guadalcanal, one of the cabin attendants (we called them air hostesses in those days), asked if a couple of Americans could visit the flight deck. On introduction, the passengers said that they were ex- Marine pilots who had flown F4F Hellcat fighters from Henderson during the Guadalcanal Campaign. I invited them to stay up front for the landing. Both men were in their sixties and were going back to Guadalcanal for the first time since 1943. They planned to visit some of the wartime fighter airstrips around Honiara, then travel by small boat to the Russell Islands, then to Munda in New Georgia. Munda airstrip had been a heavily defended Japanese stronghold. The defenders had to be pried out of each of their cleverly camouflaged pillboxes with tanks and flamethrowers. Taking the airfield was a battle that dragged on for ten grim days of hand to hand fighting.

One of the former Marine pilots on our flight deck had been shot down into the sea near the Shortland Islands and had been rescued by a Solomon Island fisherman who hid him from searching enemy troops. He hoped to locate his rescuer and had pinpointed his village on his tourist map.

Just 20 miles north east of Guadalcanal and on our flight path into Henderson airfield is the village of Tulagi in the Florida Islands. In 1942, Tulagi was the British Administration capital of the Solomons, and the initial invasion point by the US Marines. I banked the 737 low over Tulagi as both airmen looked over my shoulder at the beaches below. We could make out the rusting hulk of a Japanese destroyer that had been beached in a shallow lagoon. One pilot had tears in his eyes and his colleague quietly explained that the last time they had seen the Floridas, the skies had been full of anti-aircraft fire from Navy ships below, as his squadron had tried to shoot down attacking Japanese fighters and torpedo bombers. Many of their comrades had been also shot down by Japanese Zeroes.

With Tulagi now behind us, we positioned at 1500 feet on downwind leg for Henderson runway 06 and had a clear view of the mangrove swamps forming the mouth of the alligator infested Matanikau River. This had been an area of heavy fighting between American and Japanese forces. As we turned on final approach, one of the Americans pointed out the outline of a former fighter airstrip on the coast from where Lockheed Lightnings had taken off to ambush the famous Japanese Admiral Yamamato. Yamamato had been the commander of the Japanese aircraft carrier group that had attacked Pearl Harbour. The Americans had managed to break the Japanese naval code, and found out that Admiral Yamamoto was scheduled to fly from Rabaul to Munda in New Georgia on an inspection of Japanese forces in the area. Lightnings from Guadalcanal were waiting for him, and his Betty bomber was shot down in flames over Bougainville.

The strip had since been turned into a golf course, but the outline of old revetments could be seen from the air. As we touched down, the Americans were quite moved when they saw the original 1942 control tower still standing as a memorial to those who died defending the airfield perimeter. Our crew waved farewell to the old fighter pilots as I escorted to them to the Henderson Airport terminal. We shook hands, and I returned to my shiny Boeing with its beautiful island air hostesses, while the Americans left on a rusty bus to find their ghosts of battles past.

As we took on fuel for the return to Nauru, a small flag raising ceremony was taking place on the tarmac near the tiny departure lounge. About 10 elderly Japanese tourists were gathered around the flag, each stepping forward in turn and making a short speech in Japanese. The group leader held the flag of the Rising Sun, and after the little ceremony was over there were grave farewells between them and Solomon Islands government officials. The tourists were to board our aircraft to return to Japan by way of Nauru, Ponape, and Guam.
While I signed the load sheet, our airline agent explained that the tourists were former Japanese fighter pilots who had fought the Americans over Guadalcanal in 1942. The tour leader spoke halting English, and I invited him to the flight deck for take off. He had flown the float-plane version of the Mitsubishi Zero fighter. He seemed fascinated at the complexity of the Boeing cockpit. During the 700 mile flight to Nauru, he brought each surviving member of his squadron to the cockpit, and acted as an interpreter while the first officer explained the controls and inertial navigation systems. On arrival at Nauru, they all bowed courteously to our crew before being ushered gently to the waiting Boeing 727 to Japan.

Some weeks later, we were flying to Tarawa in the former British Gilbert Islands, when I was introduced by the senior air hostess to another American war veteran. He was the image of a well known American screen star of the Forties called Jimmy Durante. Durante was a wise-cracking comedian who wore a trademark baseball hat and was never without with a cigar clamped between his teeth. Our passenger, who was well over 70, was also a fast talking type, complete with cigar and hat, and had fought on the beaches of Tarawa in November 1943.

My first officer was a man of wonderful wit, and soon was chatting away to the old United States marine. We descended a few miles earlier than usual, with the intention of bringing the Boeing down to 500 feet over the invasion beaches of Betio, which is one of several atolls that surround Tarawa lagoon. In 1943 there was a vital airstrip on Betio, and the Japanese defenders had been well dug in. Today Betio is an overcrowded slum, and the wartime airstrip long since bulldozed for housing. A runway long enough to take jet airliners has since been built at Bonriki, some 15 miles from Betio. As we flew low over Betio, we could see its unusual bird like shape which was easily recognizable from old combat photographs.

The tide was out, revealing the rusting remains of landing barges and other debris of war. The Battle for Betio lasted for three days, with 1027 American marines dead and 4000 Japanese defenders killed in action. Most of the Americans were killed while storming the beaches. The Japanese defenders were well protected behind sea walls of logs and sand covered concrete and steel bunkers. Huge guns were placed to cover any American attack from both the ocean and lagoon side of the atoll. Fifty years later, the remains of these guns can still be seen pointing out to sea. The Japanese defenders had buried 44 gallon drums in the ground. Each drum concealed a sniper who would fire at the nearest US marine, and disappear until the next target came past.

As we flew low over Betio, our veteran became quite excited and pointed at Red Beach, the code name for a strip of sand 500 yards long and leading to a jetty.

"That's where we hit the beaches" he said. "The Japs were everywhere hiding in empty gasoline drums, and the bastards killed most of my platoon. The only way we could get them was to toss a hand grenade into the drum". The first officer looked very thoughtful for a moment, then remarked in a serious tone, "Jesus - I bet that made their ears ring!".

His marvellous wit was quite lost on the old marine, and I was still laughing when a few minutes later, I was slow to round out and banged the Boeing on to the runway in the worst landing I had done in months - and in perfect weather conditions! So much for laughter being the best medicine... I think the landing frightened the old chap worse than the Japanese had ever done!



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Old 11th May 2021, 15:33
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Centaurus, thank you. I remember the Air Nauru B727 quite well in the hangar at Tulla. I was also well acquainted with the Coast watcher although I didn't understand, as an 18 year old, why there was all the Marine insignia in his house. I still see his daughter every year or so. Did you ever run across CApt. Ray Wensor? He was Ansett but one of the few endorsed as an astro navigator - before GPS replaced the bubble sextant on the 727.
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Old 12th May 2021, 14:00
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I enjoyed your recount of yesterday’s Centaurus - thankyou.
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Old 12th May 2021, 15:13
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I was also well acquainted with the Coast watcher although I didn't understand, as an 18 year old, why there was all the Marine insignia in his house. I still see his daughter every year or so. Did you ever run across CApt. Ray Wensor? He was Ansett but one of the few endorsed as an astro navigator - before GPS replaced the bubble sextant on the 727.
I was mystified by your reference to a coast watcher or his marine insignia as there was nothing in the article about coast watchers.
I hadn't heard of Captain Ray Wensor probably because I never flew for Ansett. I also had no idea that the 727 had a bubble sextant. I thought it had the usual IFR nav instruments(ILS VOR ADF etc) and maybe Omega later?

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Old 13th May 2021, 02:36
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Ray was a charming fellow although, being at opposite ends of the seniority list, I never had the opportunity to fly with him.

Some of the 727s had provision for a sextant sight. I well recall a flight over to Perth one dark night. The then chief nav was along for sextant recency. At each position, after he had completed his ritual incantations and pleadings to the Navigation God, I would pass over the omega (might have been INS - can't recall which tail we were on) lat/long for him to check.

Being the cheeky little fellow I was, the first was correct and subsequent massaged by several miles progressively worsening as the flight continued. There were mumblings from behind and quiet periods of rechecking calculations, as you would imagine.

When we approached the hills and he saw where we were the cockpit environment took a decidedly obscene turn. All was forgiven after the first round or two later in the bar.
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Old 13th May 2021, 04:46
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I thought you might have heard about the British Coast Watcher on Guadalcanal.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_Clemens
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Old 13th May 2021, 14:08
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Yeah, I also worked for the old Air Nauru as a F/O. Great destinations, great aircraft and lots of fun at times but only for short time.

There were several Captains that loved to go back to the cabin and chat to the flight attendants and punters ( or chat up) ? There was one in particular who did this on every sector and always brought back an audience to watch him turn into a tyrant and bark orders whilst acting as a tour guide. So much for a sterile cockpit. His P/As were more like a short novel or a history lesson.

I was rostered to fly with him to Guam one last time, a 4 hour sector with a departure around 2AM from Nauru. As always about 2 hours into the flight, back he went which was fine with me as I didn't have to listen for awhile. On the downside it was a company requirement to wear the quick donning oxygen mask when alone and above FL250, pretty uncomfortable for extended periods and talking with Oakland ( San Francisco) radio on HF without SELCAL. Additionally locking the cockpit door was not permitted in these circumstances. It was as black as, with occasional lightning flashes and constant weather requiring many diversions. Busy but happy. The senior attendant came up several times to let me know the Capitano was deep in conversation with all and sundry, holding court as usual. God I was tired.

I advised the cabin 30 minutes to go and commenced descent on profile, about 10 minutes later, at FL150 I cycled the seat belt sign and very soon the door burst open and here he was with 2 Sumo sized Pacific Islanders. Those familiar with the 737-200 may appreciate what is required to get 130kg dudes onto the 2 jump seats provided. Unlikely we would ever get out of the cockpit in a hurry. El Capitano switched on the dome lights at about the same time as the unmistakable whiff of hard booze these guys had downed hit me. At about 6000' and being vectored downwind for AGANA 's main runway Captain Bligh took control, switched off the dome light and continued to act as tour guide for the benefit of his admirers. The running commentary didn't stop until he planted it about 2500 feet in from the threshold. It was 4AM local time.

Hard to believe someone so unaware of basic airmanship, sterile cockpit procedures and CRM and yet bangs on about safety. We had some words after disembarking and he didn't understand what my problem was.

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Old 13th May 2021, 16:20
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I thought you might have heard about the British Coast Watcher on Guadalcanal.
Martin Clements. I visited him at his house in Clendon Rd, Toorak, many years ago. His stories of the Guadalcanal campaign enthralled me. On his mantelpiece was a figure made of ebony of Joseph Vouza. In 1953, Martin Clements wrote his memoirs in "Alone on Guadalcanal." It is one of the finest books I have read. He died in 2009
See: https://www.amazon.com.au/Alone-Guad.../dp/1591141249


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Old 14th May 2021, 12:29
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I used to see Martin a few times a year at his club right up until his last year or two. He was a thorough Gentleman. I first met him as a callow youth about 1968. I well remember Clendon road.
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Old 14th May 2021, 14:44
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Originally Posted by dysslexicgod View Post
I used to see Martin a few times a year at his club right up until his last year or two. He was a thorough Gentleman. I first met him as a callow youth about 1968. I well remember Clendon road.
Funeral was magnificant
Church then procession down Clendon Rd
Hearse
Piper
Flagbearers AU UK US
US Marine Guard
Rest of us

At 86? all following inc Piper were directed inside
Waiters with no choice of drinks - Single malt only

Last edited by Deaf; 14th May 2021 at 14:46. Reason: Wrong order
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Old 15th May 2021, 12:09
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no choice of drinks - Single malt only
Definitely my kind of gathering!!

And yes, There are some times where a Barossa Shiraz simply is not appropriate!
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