Neptune Patrol Runs Cover The Pacific
By Jack Burby (1954)
The shark-nosed blue navy planes you see winging over Honolulu now and then patrol a regular beat that takes them within sight-and sometimes gun range-of the coast of Communist China.
They are P2V Neptunes, scout planes whose nine-man crews roam the western Pacific's shipping lanes, checking freighters, looking for submarines, keeping an eye on things the way cops test locks on empty stores at night.
PART OF THE JOB is patrolling the narrow straits that seperate Chiang Kai-shek's nationalist army on Formosa from the long sweep of the Red mainland, looking for signs of Communist activity.
Several months ago, one of these patrols carried a Neptune within range of Red guns. They shot the plane down.
ONE SQUADRON of the two-engine Neptunes, VP-Six, is just back from a six-month tour that took the fliers to Guam, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Japan, Formosa and Okinawa.
It will stay at Barber's Point naval air station for six months to a year, picking up new pilots and maintenance men and getting used to 12 modernized versions of the Neptune, the P2V-5.
Then the men will head west again for six more months of duty as the eyes of the fleet.
CMDR. PHILIP BANKHARDT, China-born son of a missionary family who commands the squadron, sat down yesterday with reporters and four of his pilots to describe the work of the "Blue Sharks."
It all begins in Hawaii, "the best place in the world for training," the commander said. Pilots new to the patrol business learn to fly the plane, fly gunnery and rocket missions and learn communications techniques.
ONE OF THE big jobs of the Neptune is anti-submarine warfare. Hawaii is a good training ground for this too, with Pacific submarine headquarters at Pearl Harbor.
Pilots fly anti-submarine missions to learn their habits and the ways to destroy them.
ONE DAY the training ends and the Neptunes are gone from island skies.
VP-Six went from here to Guam on its last tour. When the squadron arrived, a typhoon was closing in on the island. The first few planes got down, but the rest were left flying the radio-range in blinding rain, slowly draining their gasoline tanks with no way to get down.
When the planes were getting dangerously low on fuel, the weather suddenly cleared. The circling planes dived for the airstrip and landed. The typhoon closed back in and the field stayed closed for another 36 hours.
"An act of God," said Lt. Ellery Tuck, 32, a reserve officer who taught music at the University of Hawaii and worked for the CAA at Honolulu airport before being called in.
FROM GUAM, the squadron went to Sangley Point in the Philippines. It was here the Neptunes worked the regular shipping lanes, flying nine-hour search missions.
When they saw a liner or freighter, they would drop down to take its name, nationality and course. The information was relayed to base.
One of the shipping lanes covered by VP-Six is used by Iron Curtain ships on their way to China. The reaction of the crew to the Blue Sharks was this.
"The British and American sailors never paid much attention except they'd wave their hats or something," Lt. Edward Wilbur, another naval reservist said.
"But on the Soviet ships they'd line the crew up along the rail and they'd all stand and shake their fists at us."
THE PATROL missions go around the clock, night and day. Take-offs come at all hours, at midnight as well as noon.
There are special missions. Cmdr. George Coleman, executive officer of the squadron, recalled the last of these.
The Neptunes flew 24-hour cover for the U. S, destroyers as they escorted LSTs carrying 14,000 former Communist prisoners to their new homes on Formosa after the Korean repatriation job was finished.
"We moved to Okinawa for the mission," he said. "The weather was so bad the whole time we made all our landings and take-offs by radar."
THE FORMOSA missions were the toughest, 10 to 13 hours in the air over the wintry straits with 40-knot winds bearing down out of Siberia and Chinese guns waiting if they got too close to the Red coast.
Did the Reds take any shots at them? "Don't know," Cmdr. Bankhardt said. "If they did, they missed us."