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Fred White

Fred White

My WWII Service on the USS Hancock

Fred White


“We arrived off the main Japanese islands several hundred miles off Tokyo. The assignment for our whole task force was to hit military targets in the main Japanese islands and knock out their ability to wage war. Their main assignment: knock us out of the water.”

— Fred White

The Day It Began

Fred's father, Private Ben White, USMC, 1917

Fred’s father, Private Ben White, USMC, 1917

I was born in November of 1921 in Blythe, California. Almost 20 years to the day, on Dec. 7, 1941, I was living in Berkeley studying engineering at Cal. It was bright and sunny, although a brisk December chill was in the air. I recall sitting at my desk in the boarding house I lived in. All was quiet, until one of the freshmen came running from across the street waving his arms and yelling, “The Japs are bombing Pearl Harbor! The Japs are bombing Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian Islands!”

His excitement created quite a commotion among the students. We turned on a short-wave rebroadcast from the local radio station. An announcer had located himself in the Aloha Tower – a lighthouse that’s a Honolulu landmark. He could see what was going on at Ford Island, the main U.S. naval base in the Pacific. He was excited, and so were we.

He reported seeing aircraft like he had never seen before, explosions over on the island waterfront, smoke and fires enveloping the airbase. Airplanes with bright red balls painted on their wings and fuselages were flying right by him, bombing and strafing our Navy. We were at war!

That was the Pearl Harbor attack; that was the day World War II began for me, and the rest of the country.

Start of Career

I graduated from college in 1943 and went to work briefly at Vega, a wholly owned subsidiary of Lockheed, building B-17 and PV-1 airplanes.

Since 1940 the US Selective Service had required all men turning 18 to register for the draft, including me. When my local draft board called me for induction I was deferred because of my work in the defense industry, building airplanes.

[Editor’s Note: At this point Fred became an integral part of Vega’s engineering staff, as a mathematician in the Flight Analysis Department.  Later, on returning from military service, he became a group engineer in charge of the flight manuals group of Lockheed’s Experimental Flight Test Division.]

While at work for Vega I became aware of a U.S. Navy program where you could volunteer to become a naval officer and get assigned to a position in the Navy. There were two jobs in particular that piqued my interest. One was in their Experimental Flight Test Division, at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland; and the other was a job aboard an aircraft carrier where I would be working around airplanes.

As the war continued, the country found a greater need for inductees. Seeing the deferment policy changes forthcoming, I decided to join that naval program rather than be drafted without a choice of job assignment. The decision proved to be a timely one as within a matter of weeks the draft board informed me to report for induction. I informed the draft board of what I had been doing and I was drafted with a report date determined by my starting date in the Naval Officer Training School (OTS).

Naval Officer Training

It was only a few weeks later that I reported to the University of Arizona in Tucson, enrolled in the Navy OTS. During World War I, the same program lasted 90 days, and its graduates were referred to as “The 90-Day Wonders.”  Due to the need for immediate wartime personnel, the school curriculum was abbreviated to 60 days at this time in WWII and I became a “60-Day Wonder.”

It was during OTS I saw a notice regarding an examination to be given by the Navy for people interested in the radar service. So I signed up and took the test. The test questions, to my surprise, were “Duck Soup!” The graphs were similar to the same work I had been doing my whole career, both in school and at Vega. My test results qualified me for the radar program, and at the end of OTS I was ordered to report to Hollywood, Florida, for training.

At the radar training school, they taught us how to use radar to track bogies or friendlies. Bogies were enemies or unidentified things. Friendlies, of course, were our own people. The problems we worked on concerned surface navigation of ships. We helped people on the bridge of our naval ships to work out courses and speeds to change positions, and also worked with the navigators. After training school, I was sent to Hawaii for further training at Ford Island, the Naval training base.

Aboard the USS Hancock

There I learned more about working surface problems for Naval vessels and some Fighter Direction. After graduating from that training, I was assigned a ship: an aircraft carrier, the USS Hancock (CV-19), which was great with me. The chances of getting to Patuxent River, Maryland, as a civilian or as a Naval Reserve Officer were pretty slim.

The Hancock was then moored near the island of Ulithi in the Eniwetok Atoll. I was transported there by a Navy supply ship along with others in my class. I got there about 6:30 one evening in April, after dark. They took me out by long boat. And I looked up – 60 feet – and that’s where I was going to go, in the dark, climbing a rope ladder. There were no lights at all because the concern was to not let a Japanese submarine start shooting at us.

I asked a sailor to send my baggage up with me, and he said, “Yes, Sir,” so I started climbing up to the flight-deck. I somehow managed to make it up the rope ladder without falling into the sea. When I got to the top, I felt my way onto the catwalk and met a guy there who said, “Take my hand.” He showed me an access into the inside of the carrier. There it was well lit and filled with people. That completed my introduction as a Naval Officer into the “official” part of the war.

I saw the mess hall was being used for both eating and card playing. There I was introduced to the Combat Information Center (CIC) Officer.  Commander Porter asked me what my experience was, and I replied I had learned how to work surface problems. Porter replied, “Hell, we don’t need people to work surface problems. We need guys who can work with aircraft.” I thought, “Oh, boy” and perked up. I was assigned to the CIC crew, 30 or 40 officers and men who operated the surface-search and air-search radars.

Shortly before I got to the Hancock, a Japanese bomber had dropped a bomb on the ship’s flight deck. The bomb exploded in the airspace between the flight deck and hangar deck, jamming the forward elevator. Consequently, the Hancock was headed back to Hawaii for repairs.

Intercepting the Enemy

Commander Porter told me, in the nicest way, that since they didn’t work surface problems – that they worked with aircraft – I was going to be sent to Fighter Direction School. There I learned how to communicate with airborne aircraft to either intercept incoming Japanese airplanes or whatever else we had to do.

They taught us how to direct our own airplanes, our Combat Air Patrol (CAP), above the ship out to where our bogie contact was. Supposedly the Combat Air Patrol would shoot down the bogie before they got close enough to damage our ship. Hopefully.

I even got into Night Fighter Direction a bit, which was just being introduced as a precise control of our own CAP airplanes to intercept incoming Japanese airplanes at night. The Japs would try to sneak in (yes, they had radar too) and hit our ships, and we would try to intercept them before they could come in and do any damage. I worked very hard on that.

We also had Visual Fighter Direction training. That’s where we stood up on a 30-foot platform on the seashore to simulate a position on the bridge of a ship. We had control of a combat air patrol orbiting about 2,000 feet overhead. The idea was you had an incoming bogie and you talk your friendly pilots into how to go out and intercept the bogie and shoot him down before he could get back to me. There is a certain amount of incentive in this!

It turned out we learned how to track our own airplanes going out and the bogie airplanes coming in. (We had friendly airplanes acting as targets.) So we got fairly good at being able to send our own guys out, turn them, intercept the incoming bogies and “take care of them.”  That was fun.

The Philippines

After the Hancock got repaired, we took our air group and headed for Japan. Osaka is where the Japanese were originating their war effort from at that time.

We went first to San Pedro Bay in the Philippines, where Task Force 38 was being assembled, to destroy the Japanese fleet – wherever it was – and various other Japanese military targets on the main island.

We had pretty well knocked them out of China; we’d taken Okinawa at that time and we had the Philippines back.

Task Force 38 was composed of the same ships that had been deployed previously as Task Force 58. Task Force 58 was commanded by Admiral Spruance. He turned his command over to Admiral Halsey, and Halsey was putting this thing together to go and defeat the Japanese military.

As an aside, when we got to the Philippines, I knew I had two cousins there from Hemet, California, and I was able to get ashore twice:  first to see if I could get a message to my cousins, and the second time, to meet my cousins at General McArthur’s headquarters or nearby. So I was able to spend a few hours visiting with them.

Before we had left Honolulu to go to the Philippines, I went to the Officers Club and bought four bottles of Harwood’s Scotch Whiskey. You’re not supposed to have these aboard ship, but somehow they got into my luggage, and somehow my luggage got aboard ship. Just happened that two of those bottles came along when I went ashore the second time to meet my cousins. They seemed to appreciate this gift very much, and were very careful not to use all of it at one time.

 Destination: Japan

We deployed Task Force 38 and left the Philippines on the Fourth of July, 1945 (five weeks before the war ended) with an appropriate display of rockets and flags. (Sept. 2, 1945 is the day Japan officially surrendered; a truce was declared earlier on August 15.) We went from the Philippines as a Task Force, which is a large number of ships. My Task Group had 13 destroyers, a battleship and two cruisers to protect the five carriers that composed our group.

[Editor’s Note: At this time, the U.S. Navy was operating 6,768 ships, including 28 aircraft carriers, 23 battleships, 71 escort carriers, 72 cruisers, more than 288 submarines, 377 destroyers, and thousands of amphibious, supply and auxiliary ships.]

USS Hancock, Tokyo Bay, 1945

USS Hancock, Tokyo Bay, 1945

Task Force 38 was composed of four task groups. Task Force Group 38.1 was English and had three carriers. Task Force Groups 38.2, .3, and .4 had five carriers apiece. Three big carriers (CVs) and two light carriers (CVLs) which formed an inner ring when we sailed, surrounded by the 13 destroyers to keep submarines away and the battleships and other ships to provide fire power in case we got attacked.

We had a bit of excitement on the way to Japan. We picked up some bogies on our surface-search radar, quite a ways north of the Philippines. Lo and behold we got courses and speeds on these bogies. I was on watch and ours was not the only ship that reported them, thank goodness. But we couldn’t figure out the bogies’ course or speed. They weren’t going very fast and were 15 to 20 miles away from us, about the limit of range for our surface-search radars.

Somebody finally looked at a map and said, “Hell, those are islands! They’re not bogies, they’re rocks!” It turns out they were the Volcano Islands, which are about midway between the Philippines and the main Japanese island. Anyway, we figured it out before we got too embarrassed.

Targeting the Enemy

We arrived off the main Japanese islands several hundred miles off Tokyo. The assignment for our whole task force was to hit military targets in the main Japanese islands and knock out their ability to wage war. Their main assignment: knock us out of the water.

Just as a matter of information: The Combat Information Center (CIC) controls our aircraft, which are overhead or otherwise operating from our ship. We had VHF communication with the pilots. We had F4U and F6F fighters, and TBM and SB2C bombers. I believe about 80 to 85 aircraft were on board, something like that. We would launch our combat air patrol early in the morning to have them on station while it was still possible to see things in the light and to protect our ships. Anyway, a CIC would control our own airplanes during their missions and our combat patrol overhead. Usually there were about eight to 10 sailors and officers in the CIC group on duty at any given time. Then, at “general quarters” (GQ) or “flight quarters,” we had 15 to 20 people on duty at a time. As I recall, there were four officers and the rest were enlisted men running the radars and doing the plotting.

So as we were hitting the Japanese islands – the targets – we would stay close off shore for two or three days doing this work and then come back out 150 to 200 miles to refuel and rearm. We would meet our tankers and get aviation fuel and fuel on board and also refuel the destroyers that were working with us. The destroyers would come up alongside and we would pass hoses over to them, maybe 100 feet apart. We would fill them up with oil for themselves and whatever supplies they needed (including ice cream). They would then go back out on station and keep us protected.

We did this for quite a little while going as far north as the island of Hokkaido, hitting targets on the Japanese coast. We figured, “OK, we have battleships on board and they aren’t being very aggressive at this point.” So our battleships were deployed separately from the Task Force. Their mission was to go in closer to shore and shell the Japanese munitions plants or whatever else they could find worth hitting with their 16-inch guns. They would come back out, join us and we’d go on and do our business.

After Hokkaido we came back down the Japanese coast to do our darnedest to knock out their military capability, and they would do their best to send Japanese fighters and bombers out to knock us out of the water.

Fred in rare comfort aboard USS Hancock, 1945

Fred in rare comfort aboard USS Hancock, 1945

Case of the Friendly Fighter

I was never on watch while we were attacked and I only heard our guns shot once trying to knock somebody down. A friendly fighter was trying to come on board and land and we initially identified him as a bogie and we shot several rounds at him. Fortunately, we missed and he was able to land on board safely.

We confirmed him as a friendly prior to landing using a radar procedure code named “lights.” Regardless, once on the deck, he was kind of upset.

To our friendly people the term “lights” didn’t mean illumination. It meant turning on an anti-radar signal so when our radar signal would illuminate a target, like our own fighters, the pilot would realize that we were searching and had found them. They would then turn these things on to show up on our scopes, indicating they were friendly.

What a Combat Information Center looks like varies. On the Hancock, it was a space about two decks above the flight deck and one deck below the bridge in the middle of the island structure. We would operate our radars from that particular point.

The sailors would operate the radar and, by phone, talk to the plotters in front of us. The plotters had a big six- or eight-foot-square vertical Plexiglas compass board. On these they would plot little X’s for bogies and little O’s for friendlies, thereby keeping track of any aircraft in the vicinity of the aircraft carrier. It was edge-lit so that grease pencil markings were illuminated for us to see. The plotters worked from behind the compass rose.

My position was usually on the right-hand position of three plan-position indicator scopes, 12-inch television tubes. We would use grease pencils to mark the radar returned position of targets on the scopes, thereby keeping track of what the target was doing. Incoming targets indicated with X’s, and circles for targets going out. The fighter director’s problem was to circle our righters to a position just behind the incoming bogies so the bogies could be shot down.

‘Sea Clutter’ Woes

I never really got to intercept a Japanese guy, but I got totally embarrassed one time. I was on watch one time while we were refueling and had a minimum watch with me.

It was a dark and stormy afternoon, and there I was all by myself. We had a lot of sea clutter static showing on the scopes all around our positions so I couldn’t see our own Combat Air Control people very well.

All of a sudden I could see a bogie out there. Holy Smokes, I thought, that’s not good.

So I tracked him for a short time. The bogie was not doing anything. He was just orbiting out there. And I figured that’s not a good thing to be having around anyway. So I sent my combat air patrol out to intercept him. About that same time, the bogie turned and went in the same direction I was sending my own airplanes. Going away – well, OK, that’s what I want to see but I still have to figure out what he is. And my own guys were right behind him. I thought, something’s going on here. Maybe this guy is not as unfriendly as I thought.

I gave my friendlies a direction to go 90 degrees to their flight path and they did. The bogie did the same thing. This is not good: He’s following my orders. Hmmm. OK.

So I turned my fighters to come back toward the ship and the bogie turned around immediately afterwards.

I suddenly realized that what I was doing I was ordering my own people to intercept an imaginary bogie. I’d lost track of my own guys in the sea clutter: They were about 30 miles out, doing what I’d told them to do until I suddenly realized these are our own people doing this. I told them to abort and directed them to come back to the ship.  It all turned out OK. High-altitude winds had caused our CAP to drift away from overhead and I had lost them in the sea clutter. So we got them back and got them on board.

I talked with one of the guys later and explained what had happened – he was as dumbfounded as I was as to how it could have happened. So that was my big intercept problem of the war. We did have a big storm where one of the destroyers got damaged pretty badly and had to leave. Afterward, we refueled and regrouped and the whole task force, minus that destroyer, went back to ending the war.

 News of a Truce

On the morning of August 15, we had deployed two strike groups to go and bomb Japanese targets and I was on watch. My job was to maintain communication with the Strike Leader.  The Strike Leader maintained an altitude of about 17,000 feet or so – well above our own people in keeping control of the strike group he was in charge of. Our own pilots had not yet begun their attack routine so they were fully armed, full of fuel, and ready to do their job.

Then the word came through from Halsey to the Bridge and then to us that a truce had been declared. We were ordered to abort our people and that the war was now on hold.

I got ahold of the strike leader. It was at exactly 0640 that I got word from Halsey through the Bridge people to abort the strikes. So here is my log of my conversation with the strike leader to abort and come back to the ship. They didn’t drop any bombs. And they heard me! And all hell broke loose on the communication frequency. They were all really happy. So we got them back on board.

There was some confusion as to what to do with the armament on board. We finally decided that our bombers should drop stuff in the water. The formations they were flying were one above the other. The guy on the bottom said, “Hey look out I’m right below you!” Some other conversation also took place there. So we got them all back on board. Safely!

Fred (center) with shipmates Jim Rutherford and Ira Briehan at Emperor's Palace

Fred (center) with shipmates Jim Rutherford and Ira Briehan at Emperor’s Palace

Tokyo Ruins

But the Japanese still had some people who didn’t want to quit. So our combat air patrol was busy and the Hancock CAP shot down one Japanese bomber that afternoon. Four other Japanese airplanes were also shot down that day after the truce was declared.

Halsey had radioed us to “shoot them down in a friendly manner!”

Some of the Jap pilots were furious. They didn’t like the idea they’d been defeated. They were going to be kamikazes and fight their own war and do some damage. One of our pilots got credit for the first kill, and there were four others shot down that afternoon trying to make kamikaze runs to our task group.

We went ashore twice after the truce. I never saw Hiroshima or Nagasaki.  But I did see some of the ruins of Tokyo and the bomb damage to the southern part of that peninsula.

Half a dozen of the officers of our team, including me, took the electric train from Yokosuka to Tokyo for a picnic on the lawn outside the Emperor’s Palace. It was near one of the main gates. No damage there, as the palace area was intentionally spared.

However, all along the rail line to Tokyo and across the street from the palace were ruins you wouldn’t believe.

Hardly anything was standing – either bombed out or burned up. I have no idea how they kept the rail lines going. There were pieces of cement buildings, walls, pillars, etc. with nothing around them but scrap cement.

There was a big department store in Yokosuka that was still open for business. We entered through a back door. There wasn’t a front door left.  We bought some stuff, paying for it with cigarette money, which was cash that I was able to get by selling tobacco to the Japanese who were always surrounding us. The Japanese we met and dealt with were very polite and friendly. Some spoke English, but not many. They didn’t seem upset at all to see us, just glad that we had quit hurting them.

We did not stop bombing the Japanese homeland after truce was declared, but not with explosives. Our pilots searched for prisoner of war camps and dropped sacks of food any other supplies on the roofs of our men’s barracks. (We hoped that no one was hurt by the cans of spam the sacks contained!)

The Hancock then became part of the postwar Magic Carpet campaign. We cruised to Okinawa and picked up 1,500 CB’s for transport back to the states. Then we went on to Long Beach. I was detached and sent to Portland, Oregon to be part of the commissioning crew for the escort Carrier USS Sicily. I was appointed CIC officer for the newly built ship, and then served in her until my discharge the following year.

I returned to Lockheed immediately. Vega had been absorbed by that time, so I was assigned to the Lockheed corporation as an engineer, part of their Experimental Flight Test Division. A later promotion made me a supervisor of their Flight Manual Group. This continued until April of 1977 when I retired with 34 years of seniority and I moved to Sonora.

The people we met in Sonora were friendly. They smiled at us as we walked down Washington Street.

Fred's photo of a section of Tokyo in ruins, 1945

Fred’s photo of a section of Tokyo in ruins, 1945

Making Aircraft History

My work with aircraft was concluded but the sky continued as something enjoyable for me to look at, even though the amount of air above our earth is comparably equal to the thickness of an apple’s skin. But the horizons are unlimited – available to all who travel – they reach to the edges of this world. And to help those who would navigate these skies in airplanes was the major task I had undertaken. More than 50 models of aircraft were produced by Lockheed during my time there. The ones I enjoyed working on the most were called Blackbirds, the U-2s, A-12, YF-12, and the SR-71. The U2s with their 100-foot wings and the A-12s and SR71s, with their delta wings, that reached over 2,000 miles per hour while cruising across this country above 80,000 feet.

The performance charts we produced for Lockheed, the Navy and the Air Force showed the distances needed to take off and land, the spaces required to climb to cruising altitude and to descend, and the speeds and heights to fly at in order to reach a destination. Our flight manuals provided descriptions of the aircraft, operating instructions and limits for their use.

The Blackbirds only needed a little over five hours to reach Okinawa from their home base in Nevada, and the slender ones could fly from California to England unrefueled.

One time, I flew all night in the Constellation “Columbine” – “Ike’s Kite” – the only VC-121E – to prove that my performance charts were accurate.

Fred (tallest at right) at McClellan Air Force Base

Fred (tallest at right) at McClellan Air Force Base

Marriage and Family

Another time, we took the prototype PO-1W to Patuxent, Maryland, to demonstrate to the Navy that radar-equipped Constellations were capable of detecting incoming aircraft from Russia. That was in April of 1950 in Washington, DC., when I met Clare, who would be my wife of almost 41 years. I lost her in 1991.

Together, Clare and I had two children: Ellen, of Lansing, Michigan and Stephen, of Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. Five years after Clare’s passing, I met Paulann, with whom I will live the rest of my life. We were married in 1996.

Paulann has two children; Frank, of Los Alamos, New Mexico, and Sandra, of Reno, Nevada.  We also have five grandchildren – four girls and one boy. On April 6, 2016, Paulann and I celebrated 20 years of marriage.

Fred and Paulann celebrating 20 years of marriage

Fred and Paulann celebrating 20 years of marriage

Reflections

I have been lucky all my life. First, to have been born to parents who knew how to love their children, could teach them to be responsible in their obligations to others as they grew. To be able to select and then train for a career of my choice and then engage in that field. To continue to apply the necessary parts of that training during military service in a time of national emergency and associate with others (both officers and enlisted personnel) in that activity. To benefit from that service experience in responding to and directing others in a critical line of work later in life.

As carved on Inscription Rock in southern New Mexico:

Paso por aqui  [“I passed this way”]

I hope I did well.

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