The stuff that saturates newspapers and e-mail this time of year set off some reflections. As a kid, the Fourth of July was to me second in importance only to Christmas. Beginning with our January birthdays, my brother and I saved our pennies for the day in late June when we would spend hours in Klingansmith's store laboriously selecting fireworks. We sought the biggest bang for our buck well before the phrase was invented. And year after year, Bob and I staged one great Fourth of July celebration after another.
But my most memorable Fourth of July, ever, was in 1945.
As you know, I was a Navy pilot. In late 1944, I was assigned to a squadron that flew large, four-engined airplanes equipped for aerial mapping. On the morning of July 4, 1945, ours was one of four squadron planes that took off from Iwo Jima and set a northerly course for the island of Honshu, Japan. We had been told that battered elements of the Imperial Japanese Fleet might be hiding along the shore of Tokyo Bay. We were to fly up to Tokyo's front door and try to find and photograph them.
As we neared Honshu, wispy cirrus began appearing above us and below, a blanket of clouds could be seen at 10,000 feet covering the land ahead. Shortly, a dozen P-51 Army fighters assigned to fly cover for us materialized, dropped their auxiliary tanks and took up their positions. Ahead, someone spotted the snow-clad cone of Mt. Fuji poking up through the gray blanket which by then obscured everything below.
The blanket extended as far as we could see, so as we neared the most promising target area, we decided to go down and find out what lay beneath. We popped out of the cloud layer at about 7,500 feet only to find another thick layer below at two or three thousand feet. Mt. Fuji now presented us with a view of only its middle - a truncated cone suspended between cloud layers which obscured both base and summit..
Our chances of locating and photographing anything on the ground appeared to be nil. We were flying in the white middle layer of an Oreo - socked in above and socked in below. Nevertheless, our quartet split into pairs, in an attempt to cover opposite shores of Tokyo Bay simultaneously. A half hour of nothing followed - no flak, no enemy fighters. We just droned along, unsure of where we were, with clouds above and below. Radio traffic began picking up. The P-51 guys began muttering about fuel. This was mission was futile, crazy, not worth the risk, a waste of time. Everybody wanted to bag it and go home.
Then, "Jesus, look at that!"
Dead ahead was a rapidly widening hole in the blanket below. And there, bathed in rain and gray cloud wisps, was a large jumble of ships lying at anchor or berthed at makeshift piers. A miracle, a million to one shot! There followed much yelling on the intercom - making sure that our photographers were catching every element of the scene below. We passed over the hole in less than a minute, then banked sharply for another pass. But the hole in the blanket had closed.
Our fighter escort lit out for home shortly after. We nosed about for another half hour in the cloud sandwich hoping for another hole, then turned South, also. Once back on Iwo, there was no celebration. It had been a long, tense day.
Next day, I'm told, there was an article in the New York Times headed, "Navy Discovers Remnants of Japanese Fleet."
Happy Fourth of July.