Explosive Find:  The Special Attack Tunnels of Miyakojima


“With back hunched, pushing forward the control stick, now comes an end to many countless hopes.”  ~Japanese Suicide Pilot’s last words

I’ve learned while exploring the world to stop and check out all those “historic markers” that most people blow past as they go haphazardly barreling through their lives and down the road.  Driving around Miyakojima, a Ryukyu island in the Okinawa Prefecture of Japan, Jody and I passed just such a monument.  Of course we stopped, and found a more remote but significant trace of war in jungled-covered coral mounds of the Far East.

Roadside Historic Marker

Roadside Historic Marker

After their defeats of 1943, Japan knew they were losing the war.  Looking to the hurried and desperate defense of their homeland, and in attempts to slow the steady but American advance, in March of 1944, Japan began the Shinyo (震洋 Shin’yō, “Sea Quake”) manned Explosive Motor-Boat (EMB) program.  The first models of these kamikaze craft were copied from existing Japanese 18-meter motor torpedo boats, themselves copies of American hulls from the late 1930s.  Initially built of steel and constructed at Yokosuka Naval Base, wood was ultimately selected because of availability of materials.  These boats were just one component of the wider Japanese “Special Attack Units: program which incorporated aircraft, divers, boats and torpedoes in suicide attacks.  Nothing much “special” about that.

Shinyo Suicide Boats

Shinyo Suicide Boats

In August of 1944, the first 400 future boat captains started training near Yokosuka.  The students, all would-be aircraft pilots with an average age of 17, were diverted from flight schools because of the lack of aircraft production throughout Japan, given the strangling American maritime blockade of that island-nation and the ongoing strategic fire-bombing campaign of their cities and industrial centers.

Braving the Banana Spiders at the Tunnel Entrance

Braving the Banana Spiders at the Tunnel Entrance

Initially there was a planned 3-month training period focusing on small-boat handling, mechanics and attack techniques, but the pressing needs to defend the Philippines, Okinawa, Formosa and Hainan Island required hasty deployments starting almost immediately.  In September 1944, the first Shinyo Squadrons were sent to the Bonin and Haha (islands about 600 miles south of Tokyo), and the Philippines.

Tunnel Entrance

Tunnel Entrance

The 41st Shinyo Squadron with 55 authorized EMBs and a compliment of over 100 men were deployed to Miyakojima in March 1945.  On this island, roughly halfway between Okinawa and Taiwan, the Japanese Imperial Navy 313 Construction Unit dug numerous tunnels to hide the unit’s Model 1 Shinyo EMBs at Karimata Inlet and various other locations.  The Squadron was there to defend the island from expected invasion because of the active airfields found there, but invasion never came.  The squadron never had a chance to engage in battle.

Shinyo Type 5

Shinyo Type 5

Type 1, one-man Shinyo EMBs were relatively slow and only capable of speeds up to about 18 knots when fully armed.  Typically, Navy EMBs were equipped with a bow-mounted explosive charge of 500-600 pounds that could either be fired by contact fuse (when ramming an enemy vessel), or manually from the craft’s cockpit.  Army EMBs carried depth charges at the stern and were not considered “true” suicide boats as the pilot was supposed to drop the depth charges, setting off a timed fuse, and run.  Very few pilots survived, however, given there was only 6-seconds to escape from an ensuing massive explosion.  Some boats were armed with anti-personnel rockets to help neutralize surface fires from the ships being attacked.

Type 1 and 5 Suicide Boats

Type 1 and 5 Suicide Boats

The slightly larger and faster two-man Type 5 Shinyo EMBs were powered by two Toyota 6-cylinder automobile engines, armed with a 13.2mm heavy machine gun (roughly equivalent to our 50 cal), and were designed to serve as command & control boats being equipped with radio.

Tunnel Interior Today

Tunnel Interior Today

Over 6,100 Shinyo EMBs were manufactured for the Imperial Japanese Navy, and roughly 3,000 somewhat similar Maru-ni EMBs were built for the Imperial Japanese Army.  Around 1,100 boats were transported to the Philippines, 400 to Okinawa and Formosa (modern-day Taiwan), and smaller numbers to Korea, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Hainan and Singapore.  The vast majority – some remaining 7,000 kamikaze boats – were stored along the shores of coastal Japan for defense against the expected invasion of the Home Islands.  The Naval General Staff expected a 10% success rate, or roughly ~900 successful attacks for the suicide boats.  This was not the case.

emb

EMBs scored very limited successes in the Philippines and Okinawa.  Heavy gunfire from Allied ships and PT-boats (patrol boats referred to as “fly-catchers”), along with relentless attack from the air given allied air supremacy stopped most of boats before they could even be utilized.  In the Philippines in 1944, six smaller landing and patrol craft were sunk, while a few others were damaged.  In the 88 day campaign for Okinawa in 1945, about 700 suicide boats, supported by about 7,000 personnel, were employed against the Americans, sinking only two ships and damaging the same in massive waste of the youth of a country;.  Luckily the boats at Miyakojima were never employed, although many kamikaze pilots flying from that island’s airfields suffered the ultimate sacrifice.

Tunnel Exit Today

Tunnel Exit Today

On Miyakojima, a monument to the 41st Shinyo Special Attack Squadron was erected in 2006.  Plaques there in multiple languages (Japanese, English, Chinese, and German) explain the site’s significance, and the unit’s historic tunnels can be accessed immediately behind the monument.  Three entrances/exits can be found, all connected far inside the complex (~300m), but upon exploration, no other artifacts can be found in this far-flung trace of war, except for welcoming light at the end of the tunnel.

26825840013_b440ff9520_b

An Ignominious End:  T-33s on Okinawa


“History is full of ignominious getaways by the great and famous.” ~ George Orwell

I still don't know how I feel about this....

I still don’t know how I feel about this….

haulinga6s-1a6bargeThe A-6E Intruder, the Navy’s premier attack aircraft for 30 years and my initial fleet aircraft I few for four years from 1990-1994, was rather suddenly “retired” in the mid-1990s.  At that time, since the Intruder’s “sundown” came so unexpectedly, several airframes were waiting re-winging at the Northrop Grumman facility at St. Augustine Airport, Florida.  Unserviceable and not worthy of long-term storage, some 44 aircraft were later sunk off the coast of St. Johns County, Florida, starting on June 16, 1995 to form an artificial reef and fish haven named “Intruder Reef” or perhaps even “Naval Air Station Atlantis.”  Burial at sea:  a fitting end, or an ignominious one?

Composite JASDF T-33A Serial 81-5349

Composite JASDF T-33A Serial 81-5349 at Ordnance Tactical, Nago, Okinawa

okinawa-2015-ordnance-tactical-t-33a-81-5349-in-the-weeds-2okinawa-2015-ordnance-tactical-t-33a-81-5349-tail-and-engine-in-the-weedsIt has always amazed me at how such iconic aircraft, built in sometimes massive numbers, reach their final, often times ignominious end.  During a visit to Okinawa’s Pineapple Park last year, I noticed a derelict aircraft I recognized sitting in the weeds of a field across the street.  Upon further examination, this was indeed a T-33 of the Japanese Self Defense Force (JASDF), rotting away under the harsh skies of this sub-tropical island….

Oddly, the aircraft wears USAF markings.

Oddly, the aircraft wears USAF markings.

t-33a-enginet-33-349-better-times-in-2009JASDF received a total of 68 T-33A Shooting Stars, better known as “T-Birds,” from the United States Air Force in 1955, serialized between 51-5601 and 51-5668.  Later, Kawasaki was licensed to first assemble aircraft from components built in America, and then build aircraft from scratch.  They went on to build 210 airframes between 1956-1959, with JASDF serials between 61-5201 and 91-5410.  In Japan, the aircraft were known as “Wakataka” (“Young Hawk”), a name reflecting their primary role as a pilot trainer.  Initially the Japanese used a natural metal color scheme, but began painting them silver in the 1960’s, while those in Okinawa (Naha airbase) were painted differently in an effort to avoid corrosion from the harsh environment found there.

JASDF T-33A 81-5345 nose and cockpit on display in the shop's loft.

JASDF T-33A 81-5345 nose and cockpit on display in the shop’s loft.

cl-t33a-5349-301-1977-10-02hayaku-kupanbacl-t33a-5345-302-1976-07-30komatsu-kupanbaInto the 1980s Japan maintained two jet training squadrons flying T-33As, the 33rd and the 35th.  But other aircraft were operated by other operational squadrons in a proficiency and general support role.  As amazing as it might sound the last of the JASDF T-33As were withdrawn only in 2000 after 40 years of continuous service; in the United States, the last NT-33 was retired only in 1997.  A total of 6,557 Shooting Stars were produced, 5,691 by Lockheed, 210 by Kawasaki and 656 by Canadair.

a8805-1-ordnance-20100217-mav-5

okinawa-2015-ordnance-tactical-t-33a-81-5345-kevin-checking-out-the-cockpitokinawa-2015-ordnance-tactical-t-33a-81-5345-copilot-stationIn Nago, Okinawa, there used to be a military surplus store called “Ordnance Tactical“.  It was a popular place for Marines based at Camp Schwab to have their combat gear customized or modified.  For whatever reasons, two JASDF T-33s were purchased by the store’s owner.  One, sitting out front and wearing very faded USAF markings, is a composite aircraft based on the former Japanese Air Defense Force fuselage from 81-5349, combined with the tail of 81-5382.  Inside the shop, on a second story loft, was the cockpit of airframe 81-5345, which amazingly enough had most of the equipment, controls and instruments openly displayed for visitors to enjoy!

One of the T-33s in better times, 1982.

One of the T-33s in better times, 1982.

t-33-chitose-1973cl-t33a-5345-19940825-yThese aircraft were assigned to the 201st and 203rd Fighter Interceptor Squadron (2nd Air Wing) when they were outfitted with F-104Js at Chitose Air Base in Hokkaido, Japan.  During the Cold War, the interceptors based there, being in such close proximity to the USSR, were tasked with keeping the “Soviet Menace” at bay.

Aircraft #349 in 1985.

Aircraft #349 in 1985.

a88ordnance2010mav-30img_6328a88ordnance2010mav-29img_6327But Hokkaido is a long way from Okinawa, and how these aircraft came to neglect under rather obscure private ownership is forgotten to time, as are probably most of the amazing stories these airframes could tell, if only they had a voice.  From what I understand, the store in Nago has been razed and moved.  It seems that 81-5349 and its associated engine have been sold, but this is hard to confirm, and one source says it has been sold for scrap.  On the other hand, the cockpit display for 81-5345 found its way safely into storage in the shop’s warehouse, its final disposition unknown.  For me, such ignominy seems not so far removed from burial at sea….

Colonel R.M. Stowers, USMC (Ret.), Departed


“Old soldiers never die; they just fade away.”  ~ General Douglas MacArthur’s speech before the joint session of Congress on April 19, 1951

uncle-colonel-bob

Uncle & Colonel Bob

My Uncle, Robert M. Stowers, Col, USMC (Ret.), Marine Corps Serial Number (MCSN): 0-47681, just such an old soldier; hopefully this testament will attempt to slow some of the fade.

My Uncle Bob would have been 91 years old this week.  But old age in 2005 finally did what two wars and 33 years of military service couldn’t…..  One of the most prominent figures and role models in my life, it’s high time I pay tribute to this man, my Uncle, the fighter pilot, a prototypical Marine, an officer and gentlemen, and give him the respect – and affection – that he so richly deserves.

One of my earliest memories of childhood, sometime in the very early 1970s, involved airplanes, and I believe to this day was an experience that set me on the path which I followed for the next 35 or so years.  My Uncle Bob, then a full-bird Colonel in the United States Marine Corps, flew into Coast Guard Station Miami (Opa Locka airport), in what I believe was a T-28 Trojan, the manly radially-powered basic flight trainer of the time for the Navy-Marine Corps team.

Marine Corps T-28 Trojan

The first thing I can tell you about that day was the way my Uncle was met, treated, and respected by those around him.  It was evident, to even a small child, that this was a man of some import, someone who’s confident presence seemed to seep from his very pores.  My brother Boyd adds that we found ourselves in a restricted area of the base, walking around the flight line ramp looking at the aircraft parked there.  Security rushed up at one point to chase us away (or worse), but when they found out we were waiting for Colonel Stowers, we ended up being treated like VIPs!  In the end, there was ground crew waiting, a car and driver, and salutes all around.

T-28 Trojan Cockpit

T-28 Trojan Cockpit

The second thing, and really the last thing I recall of that day, was of being placed into the seat of the cockpit, where I was much too small to even think of seeing over the instrument panel.  Seeing the orderly array of “steam gauges,” along with the plethora of switches and levers was enough to awe-inspire a young boy, already inspired by the then vibrant space program in our country.  But then I’m pretty sure my Uncle reached over and turned on the aircraft’s power (battery).  Immediately the aircraft was possessed with life, with lights flashing on, while some instruments started their slow precession to operation with hums, hisses and whirls.  I distinctly remember Colonel Stowers hitting the annunciator “press-to-test,” a button that causes all the warning lights in the cockpit to come on for pre-flight checks….

t-28-trojan

T-28 Trojan, one of the last of our Radial Engine Aircraft

This event, probably something my Uncle thought would entertain a young boy for a few moments, has had a lasting impact on my entire life.  It would be a little facetious to claim that as such a small child I decided right then, right there to fly combat aircraft in the military.  But I am going to claim away!

I was even more surrounded by aviation.  My oldest sister Jan married a Vietnam War vet who came home in 1970 after two years of intense combat in-country, as good as I can remember it.  Harvey was a door gunner in the Navy’s newly established gunship attack helicopters (HAL-3, Helicopter Attack Light) flying Hueys (actually the UH-1 Iroquois) tasked with supporting from forward operating bases various Special Forces.  Another more direct linkage to flying was through my brother, 8 or 9 years older than I am depending on what time of year you consider.  Boyd was dead-set intent on becoming a pilot, and was flying when I was in grade school, which means I was flying in grade school!  Needless to say I go pretty good flying IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) since I couldn’t even see over the dash at the time.

But it all traces back to my Uncle.  So, who was this man, and how did he continue to shape my life as I grew, matured, and attempted to follow in many of his footsteps?

My Uncle in the late 40s or early 50s. I too have a Harley Springer today!

My Uncle in the late 40s or early 50s. I too have a Harley Springer today!

Uncle Bob as a Baby

Uncle Bob as a Baby

Robert M. Stowers was born on October 16, 1925, in California, and enlisted as soon as he (legally) could in the Volunteer Naval Reserve V-5 Naval Aviation Cadet (NAVCAD) program in 1943 right smack dab in the middle of World War II.  This program was a way to quickly generate many more aviators for the fleet, far more than the Academy and ROTC could provide at the time, in a crash attempt to meet the demands of world war.  Bachelor’s degrees were waived, but cadets were required to complete one within six years to keep their commission.  Basic service and flight training generally lasted 18 months, where candidates had to agree to not marry and serve for at least three years on active duty.  In comparison, today’s obligations for military pilots can range up to 12 years (from wings), but then again, we can marry anytime we want…although we are still highly discourage during flight training and don’t expect any leave for a honeymoon!

SNJ Trainer in the 1940s

SNJ Trainer in the 1940s

Following some college, he went to US Navy Flight Preparation School at Cal Poly starting in June 1944, then to St. Mary’s College Pre-Flight program (California), and finally to Navy Primary Flight Training at Naval Air Station (NAS) Glenview, located in the suburbs of then Chicago.  I can only imagine the aircraft he had the pleasure to fly; most likely the N2S “Yellow Peril” (a militarized Boeing Stearman), and quite possibly the SNJ (navalized T-6 Texan).  He completed flight training at NAS Corpus Christi (Texas), then the largest naval aviation training facility in the world most likely flying the T-28 Trojan, and reported directly to the US Marine Corps Officer Candidate Class.  After completion, he was commissioned a Second Lieutenant, United States Marine Corps, on March 20, 1946.

Navy N2S Yellow Peril at NAS Corpus Christi, 1943

Navy N2S Yellow Peril at NAS Corpus Christi, 1943

There’s a pretty interesting and somewhat unlikely intersection here concerning my Uncle’s flight training.  From 2008-2011, I worked for the Naval Aviation Museum Foundation, the economic engine supporting the Navy’s National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida.  I happened to be talking to one of the people that work on archiving material in the museum’s warehouse, and mentioned that my Uncle had gone through flight training back in the 1940s.  He asked for Bob’s full name, and approximately what year he would have gone through, and noted that the museum had literally tons of historical paper documents stored away.  He would see if he could find my Uncle’s records.  A few days later, I returned to my office at the Foundation, and sitting there atop my desk, were a set of old, discolored yet official-looking folders.  Upon examination, indeed my Uncles flight training records had been retrieved, now in my hands.  These records are not with me as I write this from Okinawa, Japan, so regrettably I can’t quote.  But, I will tell a secret:  my Uncle actually didn’t do so well as a flight student!  He made up for it in combat, though, as one shall see.

NAS Miami (Opa Locka) in 1947

NAS Miami (Opa Locka) in 1947

VMF-222 Patch

VMF-222 Patch

After F-4U Corsair operational training at NAS Miami, now Opa Locka airport, and Carrier Qualification training at NAS Pensacola, Florida, on either the USS Ranger (CV-4) or the USS Saipan (CVL-48), or perhaps both, he was assigned to 2nd MAW (Marine Air Wing) at MCAS (Marine Corps Air Station) Cherry Point (North Carolina).  The Corsair was still a preeminent front-line fighter of the time, powerful and heavily-armed, and carrier-capable, as rudimentary jet-engined aircraft were only just starting to be produced in 1945-1946.  He served a truncated tour with “The Flying Deuces” of Marine Fighting Squadron 222 (VMF-222) flying Corsairs, but as part of the massive reduction in force in the post-World War II years, he was assigned to the reserves starting in August 1947, where he continued to fly Corsairs at NAS Los Alamitos, California.

Uncle Bob and Aunt Gloria

Uncle Bob and Aunt Gloria

Aunt Gloria in 1943

Aunt Gloria in 1943

Somewhere in there, at least the story goes to my recollection, my Uncle Bob met his wife-to-be, my Aunt Gloria, my Mother’s sister, during flight operations.  She worked in the office where the pilots logged in at arrival on NAS Pensacola.  She saw the young and handsome First Lieutenant Stowers and whispered to her girlfriend co-worker that she was going to marry that guy.  It was a long distance relationship though for three years since he was stationed in California.  It turns out that Gloria’s premonition came true, but not without a little prodding.  On one of his trips across the country, an exasperated Gloria put out a friendly ultimatum:  don’t come back unless you’re going to marry me!  He flew back to California, called back and asked, “Can you get a wedding ready in a few weeks?”  “You better believe it!” was her excited response.  And she did.  They married in 1955 at NAS Pensacola in the base chapel that is still there today.

Wedding Day, 1955

Wedding Day, 1955

However, a nasty little policing action, better characterized as the Korean War, intervened.  Bob was recalled to active duty in August 1950 as a result of that conflict, and after refresher training and duty at MCAS El Toro (California), he was posted in June 1951 to Korea.

Corsairs at El Toro, 1949

Corsairs at El Toro, 1949

VMFA-312 "Checkerboards"

VMFA-312 “Checkerboards”

vmf-212_korea_logoThere he flew with the “Checkerboards” of VMF-312, still flying the venerable piston-powered Corsair, where his unit became the first such engined squadron to shoot down an opposing jet aircraft, a North Korean MIG-15, no doubt supplied and even piloted by the Russians.  Bob also served afloat with the “Devil Cats” of VMF-212 aboard the aircraft carrier USS Rendova (CVE-114), experiences of which he would write to me about during my first flying assignment afloat in 1991.

My Uncle Landing on the USS Rendova during the Korean War

My Uncle Landing on the USS Rendova during the Korean War

vmf-212-corsairs-afloatvmf-212-afloatRendova, having been deactivated after WWII, was recommissioned in early 1951 in support of the Korean War effort.  Rendova was an escort carrier of the Commencement Bay-class, displacing 10,900 tons and over 550 feet long, and with a complement of 1,066 Officers and Enlisted, about 1/9th the displacement of today’s supercarriers,  with half the length and about 1/5th the personnel.  In another odd Far East Fling intersection, the ship and her air wing conducted their final training at Okinawa, where I currently reside.  As fantastic as it might seem, she launched her first Close Air Support (CAS) sortie on September 26th, just 4 days after embarking and qualifying the marines of VMF-212!  During the next months she cruised off the west coast of Korea, where the ship and air wing together recorded 1,743 sorties in support of the war.  This time period includes a couple of battles with which many may be familiar:  Heartbreak Ridge and Port Chop Hill.  Rendova completed her last Korea War support operation 6 December 1951.

USS Rendova loaded with Corsairs

USS Rendova loaded with Corsairs

The Blacksheep of VMA-214

Pappy Boyington

Pappy Boyington

Uncle Bob ended his service in Korea with the famous “Black Sheep” of VMF-214, which had traded in their Corsairs for F9F Panther jets, probably the first jet aircraft my Uncle flew.  The “Black Sheep” became famous in the Pacific during WWII, led by rouge and unconventional Marine Major Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, for inflicting serious damage against what many would say were superior Japanese forces.  In fact, a short-run TV series about their exploits was produced from 1976-1978 called Baa Baa Black Sheep, which I watched without fail.  At an airshow I attended with my Uncle in the 1980s I had the pleasure of meeting “Pappy” Boyington, a man my Uncle knew personally, just before Pappy died from cancer.  In one of the larger displays in his home, my Uncle Bob proudly displayed his over-sized VMF-214 patch, along with a silk scarf adorned with its image.

1st LT Stowers was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) for his actions during the Korean War.  His citation reads:

dfcThe President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Distinguished Flying Cross to First Lieutenant Robert M. Stowers (MCSN: 0-47681), United States Marine Corps, for heroism while participating in aerial flight as Pilot of a Fighter Aircraft against the enemy on 3 September 1951. First Lieutenant Stowers as a member in a three-plane flight flew through adverse weather until contact was made with an airborne controller, who directed the flight to two bivouac areas. In spite of extremely low visibility, dangerous terrain and in the face of intense automatic weapons fire, First Lieutenant Stowers made a series of coordinated attacks with napalm, rockets and strafing until all his ammunition was expended and four hundred enemy casualties inflicted. First Lieutenant Stowers’ aggressive leadership and fearless devotion to duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”

Corsairs of 312 afloat on USS Rendova

Corsairs of 312 afloat on USS Rendova

He received a second award for the same medal, and although the full citation cannot be found, the synopsis reads:

First Lieutenant Robert M. Stowers (MCSN: 0-47681), United States Marine Corps, was awarded a Gold Star in lieu of a Second Award of the Distinguished Flying Cross for extraordinary achievement while participating in aerial flight while serving with a Marine Fighter Squadron, in action against enemy aggressor forces in Korea.

Bob and Robbie, c1958

Bob and Robbie, c1958

LSO directing a Landing

LSO Directing a Landing

LSO Paddles

LSO Paddles

fj-2fury-vmf-451-in-1954Following his combat tours in Korea, he served at NAS Pensacola as an LSO (Landing Signal Officer) Carrier Qualification instructor (I remember the worn set of vintage “paddles” he displayed in his home!).  He returned to El Toro assigned to the “Death Rattlers” of VMA-323, fling the F9F Panther and then the F9F Cougar, a swept wing version of the Panther.  Bob was later reassigned to 1st ANGLICO (Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company) in Hawaii.

West Coast FJ4Bs of VMF-323

West Coast FJ4Bs of VMF-323

vmf-451vmfa-333-c1975His subsequent duty with the “Warlords” of VMF-451 at Atsugi, Japan, involved flying the FJ-4 Fury and both the day F8U-2 version and night/all-weather F8U-2N versions of the Crusader.  In the early 1960s, he was assigned again to the newly re-designated MCAS Opa Locka, this time with the “Fighting Shamrocks” of VMF-333, still flying the Crusader but transitioning airframes there to the F-4 Phantom II.

Flying the Fury in the 1950s

Flying the Fury as a Warlord in the 1950s

F-4 Phantom of VMFA-333, Cherry Point

F-4 Phantom of VMFA-333, Cherry Point

F9F Panthers

F9F Panthers

F8 Crusaders

F8 Crusaders

I remember talking to him about this time flying in the military.  He recalled that it seemed like they were getting a new airframe every year, and within each year, significant upgrades or even highly modified versions to the ones they already had.  This was before the Navy decided to standardize aircraft operations, and 2-seat trainer versions were seldom available or even built.  He said they literally would get a brief, read what he called a “pamphlet” on the new aircraft, and then simply “kick the tires and light the fires!”  I can only imagine how steep their learning curves were in the 1950s and 60s, a culture of flying so different that what I was experiencing in the highly regimented, more modern Navy Aviation.  In his home in Hollywood after retirement were displayed a large series of aircraft models, reflecting the wide array of aircraft he had the pleasure of flying.  I can recall only the following, although I am for sure omitting some if not many:  the F-4U Corsair, F9F Panther and Cougar, FJ-4 Fury, F-8 Crusader, A-4 Skyhawk, and the venerable F-4 Phantom.

Somewhere along the line he got his Masters in History

Somewhere along the line he got his Masters in History, yet another similarity as I minored in Military History….

as-an-f-8-pilotHe also claimed that his serious hear loss was due to operating with canopies open during takeoff and landings, especially from the aircraft carriers, prior to ejection seats, giving the pilots some chance of escape during cold cats or crashes on landing…WOW.  Becoming a part-owner in a local charter business, Bob and my brother would often fly to the Bahamas.  At the time Uncle Bob was very hard of hearing, and since headsets (with individual volume controls) were still somewhat rare, he would turn the volume on the radio almost all the way up.  But when he wasn’t looking, Boyd would turn the radios back down, and so the flights went, playing tug-of-war with the volume.

F-4B Phantoms of VMFA-513 in 1964

F-4B Phantoms of VMFA-513 in 1964

Following duty in the Pentagon with the National Military Command Center, he commanded the “Flying Nightmares” of VMFA-513 at Cherry Point in 1967-1968 flying F-4Bs.

ta-4f-skyhawk-c1971

TA-4F Skyhawk

vma-513-insigniaThen there was Vietnam.  During that unfortunate conflict, Bob, now a Lieutenant Colonel, deployed in 1968 and flew combat missions in Marine Corps F-4 Phantoms and TA-4F/OA-4M Skyhawks with MAG-11 based at Da Nang Air Base, Vietnam.  In August 1967, the Marine Corps introduced the two-seat TA-4F Skyhawk to combat operations in Vietnam.  Converted into the OA-4M designation (Observation/Attack), the Marine Corps leveraged the aircraft’s good low-level fuel specs, FM radio (for contact with ground units) and excellent rear seat visibility, a combination that resulted in a superb vehicle for Visual Reconnaissance and Tactical Air Coordination, commonly called “Fast-FAC” (Fast Forward Air Control) operations.  Armed with two pods of 5-inch “Zuni” rockets, one each for target marking using smoke and high-explosive, and full 20mm ammunition for the aircrafts twin cannons, the aircraft was an immediate success.  And in 1969, when Bob was overseas and in command of MAG-11’s Headquarters and Maintenance Squadron 11 (H&MS-11), all of the Skyhawks in theater were placed under his charge.  Although I remember my Uncle telling me about his one ride in an A-6 Intruder (my primary platform flown in the Navy) during his time in Vietnam, the Skyhawk was the only airframe we shared as aviators, me having flown the aircraft in Advanced Jet Training at NAS Pensacola in 1989-1990.

LtCol Stower's A-4 in Vietnam

LtCol Stower’s A-4 in Vietnam

As Commanding Officer in Vietnam

As Commanding Officer in Vietnam

TA-4F Skyhawk of HMS-11 in 1969

TA-4F Skyhawk of HMS-11 in 1969

mag-11_insigniaAs Commanding Officer of H&MS-11 from 15 October 1968, LtCol Stowers flew combat missions from Da Nang.  He most likely flew almost daily Skyhawk missions, in addition to other F-4B sorties, many involving then secret strikes in Laos.  At the time, the Skyhawk mission became known by the unit callsign “Playboy,” homage to the F-4U Corsair FastFACs of earlier times in the Korean War, and each pilot was assigned a discrete number.  Bob was “Playboy Pilot #69.”  Normal missions were two-cycle, with airborne refueling in the middle, for an average sortie length of about three hours.  Some Playboys flew three missions per day in the summer of 1969, easily logging over 100 combat flight hours per month.

Serving in Vietnam

Serving in Vietnam

It was during his 15 month deployment to Vietnam that my Aunt Gloria took advantage of an opportunity to be close to family.  Remember, Gloria was my Mother’s sister.  They ended up living a block over in our neighborhood of Ives Estates.  Of course I was only two or three years old, so I have no recollection of this time.

vietnam-1969vietnam-hoochI remember sitting in his home’s living room, an overly long room, terrific for entertaining.  At one end was his wet bar, adorned with most of the military paraphernalia he chose to display.  One evening while I was visiting he got out some old photo albums, and he proceeded to tell me about “some of the crashes” he was involved in.  Some?  One is enough in this modern, zero-defect Navy, and I had NONE.  There were pictures of a bomb-laden A-4 (from what I remember) which had run off the runway and suffered a collapsed main-mount from a high-speed abort on takeoff, always a risky exercise in jet aircraft, let alone one slung with high explosive ordnance.

Fast FAC Mission in Vietnam

Fast FAC Mission in Vietnam

The Playboy’s operating environment was characterized by non-radar, visually acquired and manually tracked antiaircraft weapons fire, so moving low at 200-500 feet above ground level at nearly 400 knots while smoothly maneuvering in three dimensions almost completely negated any potential firing solution.  Skyhawks were in and out of a gunner’s envelope almost before he could react, so they were seldom fired on with any accuracy, and almost never hit.

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usaf-patch-usafe-cmd-10-accs-squadron-eucom-abn-command-silk-purse-b-pitumblr_inline_mo0hi5pmkt1qz4rgpBob returned to the states in approximately 1970, serving at MCAS Beaufort, South Carolina, where I’m sure he flew that Trojan down to Florida and gave me one of my earliest, more prominent memories.  From there he took duty at Headquarters, Marine Corps with the Inspector General’s office.  His final tour was with the European Command’s Airborne Command Post at RAF Mildenhall, England.  In this last tour, Colonel Stowers acted as part of an austere airborne battle staff standing ready 24/7 to assume interim nuclear weapons control authority if European Command’s terrestrial Command Center was destroyed or rendered inoperative in Operation Silk Purse.

Promotion to Full-Bird Colonel 1970

Promotion to Full-Bird Colonel 1970

We visited my Uncle in England during his final tour, when my parents started to travel the world, dragging me along as a very young and impressionable boy.  I remember his huge house being coal heated and located on an old, run-down WWII English airfield, which still had many of its bomb shelters and fighting positions still in place.  We did visit him in his official offices, but those memories are only vaguely recalled, but I remember celebrating the 4th of July there that summer.  The highlight of the trip:  a bat getting caught in the upstairs bedrooms of the home.  A BAT!  Pretty big deal for a boy from bat-less South Florida.

Retirement Medals

Retirement Medals

Robert M. Stowers retired from Active Duty as a full Colonel on July 1st, 1976, 33 years after first enlisting in the military.  In addition to campaign and commendation awards garnered during his long service to country, he was awarded two Distinguished Flying Crosses, the Bronze Star, and Five Air Medals, all with Combat “V” for valor under fire in combat.  His post retirement was spent in Hollywood, Florida, and involved flying until the late 1990s in general aviation and air charters, along with almost daily golf outings on the course adjacent to his home.

The Stowers in the mid-70s

The Stowers in the mid-70s

I saw a good deal of my Uncle growing up in South Florida after he retired.  It was about a 30 minute drive to his home from mine, which was the location for many if not most of the larger family gatherings of the late 1970s and 1980s.  I was fairly close to my slightly older cousin Suzanne, and I slept over the Stowers’ house on many weekend.  Having nearly an Olympic size pool (with a waterslide) of course made his home a natural hangout; the sheer size of the place allowed room for even the reception of my brother’s wedding when I was 16 (I think).  Oh, and at that event, hiding behind my Uncle’s full wet bar described above, my best friend Joel and I drank ourselves into a stupor using the ample booze available.  To this day I cannot drink, nor even suffer the smell of a screwdriver!

The Stowers in the mid-80s

The Stowers in the mid-80s

One of the funniest stories involving my Uncle happened during my college years, where I was enrolled in the Navy Reserve Officer Training Corps (NROTC) on scholarship to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in upstate New York.  I was in my freshman year, where Midshipmen are treated, well, like the neophytes they are called.  Sometime in September or October that fall, I received an urgent message to report to the “MOI” – the Marine Officer Instructor, some unmemorable Captain.  Changing into uniform and literally running from my dorm to the Armory offices, I knock, uncover and report.  There the MOI and his enlisted henchman “Top” were waiting.  Keep in mind it’s something like 1830 on a week day not normally involved in unit business.

Giving Robbie Away

Giving Robbie Away in 1979

And there ensues a line of questioning, more transmit from the MOI and receive on my part.  He wasted no time in firing for effect:  “Midshipman King, you understand that your vision will preclude you from being a pilot?”  “Yes Sir,” I respond somewhat confusingly.  Of course I know that.  I knew my dreams of being a military pilot, and most likely an astronaut, were ended before they even really ever began when I had to get glasses in grade school.  But I was on “Plan B,” an effort to get as close as I could get:  become a Naval Flight Officer (NFO), and hopefully attempt a transition waiver to pilot and/or astronaut from within as standards were loosened over time.  By the way, today you can have corrective surgery and be pretty much whatever you want….

Bob and Gloria and Bride Robbie

Bob and Gloria and Bride Robbie in 1979

“Midshipman King, you understand that you may have an opportunity to transition to pilot once commissioned, but that there are no guarantees!”, said more as a emphatically factual statement than question.  This time a slight pause…and then a less enthusiastic response from me, “Yes…Sir.”  What was going on here, I thought to myself?  There were probably a couple more statements pretending to be questions, and finally, the tone trailed off, “Midshipman King, do you have any questions?”  I stood there at attention, staring at some Marine Corps “oorah” framed-photo on the wall, seeing those two relatively blankly serious faces staring back at me through my peripheral vision.  “No Sir.”

“Dismissed.”  As quickly as it started, it ended.  I about-faced, marched out of the office, covered, and walked slowly back to my dorm room, thinking that I surely was in trouble for something.  And I can tell you that in the following weeks I held my breath around the MOI and his Master Sergeant, both of whom seemed to very often seek or single me out, waiting for the other shoe to drop.  But it never did….

Uncle Bob in the 90s

Uncle Bob in the 90s

Until I was home that year for Thanksgiving.  Of course being the proud up-and-coming Naval Officer that I was, I was wearing my uniform.  And, in true King fashion, Thanksgiving for the family was held at my Uncle’s palatial residence in Hollywood, Florida.  Seeing my Uncle again and shaking his hand, we chatted about things we always chatted about – planes, flying and the military.  And he happened to mention that the current Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Paul Kelley, was a friend of his.  I think they met in Vietnam and served together later at HQMC.  He went on to state that he asked the General to look after me.  HOLY SHIT!  I was screaming on the inside!  It all suddenly made perfect sense:  the mid-week, after-hours call to duty, the questioning, the impromptu run-ins with the USMC staff at the unit.  Yikes.  I can only imagine how every single staff member at that NROTC unit must have thought, knowing that I had a personal connection to the Marine Corps Commandant after a personal call from him or his office!  Too funny.

By the way, my eyes remained much too bad for any chance of a transition to pilot during my service (20/100 was the cutoff; that’s me times 2 or a little bit more), and the same limit applied to the military’s astronaut program.  I have since had PRK and have 20/20 vision in each eye, but my reading vision is now completely shot.

Uncle Bob at the Turn of the Century

Uncle Bob at the Turn of the Century

My brother Boyd also recalls the type of cool-cookie, seasoned aviator my Uncle had become.  On one charter flight from Miami to Haiti in a twin-engine Cessna 310, Uncle Bob failed to brief Boyd that when at cruising altitude, he was going to switch to the aircraft’s auxiliary fuel tanks which he would let run dry.  He was sitting reading the paper and doing the crossword puzzle (which he would always be doing) while Boyd was hand flying when the right engine started to cough and spurt.  Boyd, being in a small plane over the middle of the ocean, immediately puckered-up and prepared for the worst.  Uncle Bob, however, didn’t even put his paper down or even look away from the crossword puzzle that was subsuming his attention.  He just casually reached down and switched to the main fuel tank, putting life-blood back into the failing engine, restoring it to full functionality.

My cousin Suzanne's Wedding, 1988

My cousin Suzanne’s Wedding, 1988

I think the last time I saw Colonel Stowers in Uniform was at my cousin Suzanne’s wedding in 1988, the year I graduated college, was commissioned in the Navy, got married (and had a baby), and started flight school.  At the time my Aunt Gloria, Bob’s wife, was declining quickly from throat cancer.  I remember attending the wedding and seeing my Uncle, still so very handsome with his close-cropped military hair and penetrating ice-blue eyes.  He was, and always will be, a hero almost larger-than-life.

I didn’t see much of my Uncle after leaving home for flight school in November 1988.  The military has a way of doing that to you.  My Aunt died that year, and at some point my Uncle married a woman we know simply as “Sally.”  And that marriage ended up chilling a large portion of my relationship with Bob (and to a large extent for his kids, or so I’m told).  Sally didn’t seem to care for children, and I had two.  She seemed snooty and unwarm.  Sally and Bob moved into a stuffy, sterile, and much smaller home.  But some shared family holidays and vacations continued.

Pilot with the Warlords

Pilot and Marine Corps Captain with the Warlords

Uncle Bob died on October 23, 2005 at 80 years of age, while I was assigned to Tactical Air Control Squadron 12.  At the time, I was afloat as part of Commander, Amphibious Squadron 11 on the USS Essex (LHD-2), en route to the Northern Arabian Gulf in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.  I don’t even recall my family, being overly reticent about such news, even informing me at the time about his passing.  Not that I could’ve done anything about it.  It was as if he just disappeared into the night for me, one day there, the next day simply not.  He is survived by his son Larry, daughters Roberta “Robbie” Schappert and Suzanne Hogan, and many grandchildren.  His gravestone, found in Fred Hunter’s Hollywood Memorial Gardens North (Section 2, Lot 20), reads:

Robert M. Stowers, COL US MARINE CORPS

WWII KOREA VIETNAM

Distinguished Flying Cross, Bronze Star Medal W/V

gravestone

Old soldiers never die; they just fade away.  Never more apt than for Colonel R.M. Stowers, USMC (Ret.).  He will live on forever in the hearts and minds of those he led, touched, and loved.  I am honored to have known such a great man, and hope that one day I’ll find that I have made him equally as proud to have me as his nephew.

Colonel R.M. Stowers, USMC

Colonel R.M. Stowers, USMC Retired, Departed

Losing their Hearts in San Francisco:  The San Francisco Maru of Truk Lagoon


“Come back.  Even as a shadow, even as a dream.”  ~Euripides, Greek classical tragedian playwright

Built in Japan in 1919 by the Kawasaki Dockyard, The SS (Steam Ship) San Francisco Maru was a medium-sized freighter of the time specifically designed for the Japanese Yamashista Kisen Line.   She was a 385ft, 27ft beam, 5,800+ ton passenger-cargo ship that served as part of Japan’s wider commercial fleet involved in world-wide trade.  The word “Maru,” meaning “circle” in Japanese, has been used to designate a Japanese merchant vessel since the 16th century.  Although the exact reasoning of this particular ship-naming convention is lost to time, the idea of a safe circular journey for ships and their crews is probably not far from the mark.  As to the city-name?  The Japanese at the time often named ships to reflect their primary destinations.

The San Francisco Maru

The San Francisco Maru

During World War II the Japanese were in desperate need to meet the logistical needs of their new Pacific empire, suddenly stretched far, wide, and thin.  Many commercial vessels were thus taken into service of the Emperor, a fate no different for the San Francisco.  Following her requisition by the Imperial Japanese Navy, the ship was detailed to transport military cargoes between the Japanese homeland and far-flung Pacific destinations.  Like most of the other Japanese merchants during WWII, the San Francisco was armed, in this case with a single 75mm/3” deck gun forward to both defend against surface submarine attack, and to provide an opportunity to attack and capture other unsuspecting merchants she happened to meet along the way.

Although damaged by aerial bombing in 1943 while delivering supplies in New Guinea, the San Francisco suffered her fatal blows after arriving at Truk Lagoon (current day Chuuk, part of the Federated States of Micronesia) in February 1944.  Packed with war materials, including cargo holds full of bombs, mines and torpedoes, she arrived just days before a massive American attack on this Japanese stronghold.  During Operation “Hailstone” (ラック島空襲 Torakku-tō Kūshū, lit. “the airstrike on Truk Island”) between 17-18 February 1944, waves upon waves of US Navy carrier-based planes were launched against shipping found at Truk, as well as the significant military presence Japan had built up there since the end of World War I.  After the first day’s attacks, the San Francisco was observed and reported by US forces as being on fire with smoke belching amidships.  The next day, she was reportedly hit by at least six 500-lb bombs, and was left burning furiously and sinking stern first.  At least five crew members were killed.  Operation Hailstone is often referred to as the “Japanese Pearl Harbor” due to the massive damage inflicted on the Japanese fleet.

Basic Orientation of the Wreck Today

Basic Orientation of the Wreck Today

It’s position lost to the fog of war made even more obscure by the passage of time, the wreck was “discovered” in 1969 by Cousteau (no doubt with the help of locals who all but knew her location), but was not dived again until 1973 when the ship’s bell was recovered and her identity confirmed.

Bow Gun of the San Francisco

Bow Gun of the San Francisco

The San Francisco lies very deep, and rests on an even keel with the superstructure beginning at ~140fsw, weather deck at ~165fsw, and the sea bottom around 210fsw.  Upon descent, her wreck remains invisible, and only passing about 50’fsw do her twin masts first come into view, themselves reaching up only to 105’fsw.  Heading from the forward mast to the bow, you cross over the open access to cargo hold 1 and finally reach the vessel’s most impressive and picturesque deck gun at ~150fsw.  Most deck guns of the wrecks in Truk are covered with an immense amount of growth, but due to the depths of the San Francisco, this is not that case of her wreck.

Hemispherical Mines of the Forward Cargo Hold

Hemispherical Mines of the Forward Cargo Hold

After touring the gun – a must on this shipwreck in Truk – one should immediately descend down into hold 1 forward, where you will find a cargo space packed with hemispherical landmines, at one time destined to help defend the beaches and shallow waters of Truk Lagoon against potential Allied invasion.  Watch the depth here though; the hold descends down to almost 200fsw!  Exiting up and aft out of hold , immediately proceed aft and around the forward mast to hold 2, where divers will find a plethora of scattered aerial bombs, complete with tail fins and the remains of their original wooden packing crates, along with the remains of Japanese trucks in the hold’s ‘tween decks.  Still deeper, drums of fuel can be seen.

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Perhaps the highlight of visiting the San Francisco, however, are the three iconic Japanese tanks still found resting on the ship’s main deck.  These tanks, built by Mitsubishi, are Japanese Light Type 95 HA-Go tanks covered in with ½” armor.  They appear toyishly small in appearance, but would have been manned by a crew of three and could make up to 30mph on a six-cylinder, air-cooled 120hp diesel engine.  Weighing ~7.5 tons, the tanks were armed with three weapons:  a 37mm main battery turreted gun, and two 7.7mm machine guns, one forward (non-coaxial) and one rear-facing.  The tank was only mildly effective against infantry and was never designed for armored battles, and with an extremely cramped interior, only the lightest armor, and a hand-operated turret, the tank suffered enormously in battle as more modern battlefield weapons came into play.  Two tanks are found on the starboard side of the ship, with one to port.  This is perhaps the most photogenic part of the wreck, and if your bottom time is already limited (as it is on this wreck), make sure to reserve at least a few minutes for these infamous tanks.

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From here, our planned dive run time required us to start our long ascent to the surface, where we completed our accelerated decompression profiles as we went.  It’s hard to leave the wreck, especially seeing the cratered remains of the superstructure (severely damaged from bombing), and knowing that the rear cargo holds contain a mixture of trucks, crates of ammunition, more mines, some depth charges, and scattered torpedoes….  How this wreck failed to detonate under such intense bombing is hard to imagine.  Equally as befuddling is the lack of other visible damage from the other reported bomb hits of the 2nd day’s attacks.

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But exploring the 2nd half of this ship, where those five unfortunate souls who lost their hearts in San Francisco can be remembered as a shadowy dream, will have to wait for my return to Truk Lagoon.  Until then, stayed tuned for more “Traces of War” from this year’s adventures exploring this iconic battle site.

Sharknado!!!


Okay, so it’s more like a shark circus.  Or at least that is what it’s called  aboard the MV Orion, a scuba live-aboard in the Emperor’s fleet that we were guests on this past September.  Jody and I booked this scuba vacation (her first live-aboard) coincident with our 5th anniversary, to a far away, exotic location that many Americans have never heard of:  The Maldives.  Go ahead, look it up on a map…I’ll wait.

There will be a lot more written about this particular vacation, but this video is all I wish to share at this point.  Oh, and listen with the music turned all the way up.  I have something in excess of 1,500 scuba dives from all over the world, but this dive easily tops the list.  The video was shot from sunset going on to full night, with a large domed wide-angle lens, so the action was really much closer than it often appears.

What else can I say, except what Jessica said upon surfacing from this dive:

BEST … DIVE … EVER!