This crash had a profound effect on my life even though the crew were not my personal friends. It precipitated my transfer as a replacement from VC-9 to VC-5, which of course made a significant change to my active duty service in the Navy.
Maybe I had met the three crew members in a casual way around Sanford before we, VC-9, went to Pt. Lyautey in April 1954, but I have no distinct memory of them. After all, even though VC-9 and VC-5 shared the balcony and the second level on the eastern side of old Hangar #4, there was a strong rivalry between the two squadrons and we kept pretty much to our own territory. Having been replaced by VC-5 in Pt. Lyautey on September 15th, VC-9 had returned to Sanford. We had had our post-deployment ORI, and I had taken a brief leave to go home and pick up my car. I was scarcely back to Sanford when we got news of the fatal crash of November 8. The details of my "volunteering" are very vague in my memory, but my plane commander had volunteered and I would have followed him anywhere. Preparations were hurried. We recruited Charles O. Reichl, AD3, as our new third crewman, because our former one was a short timer and did not wish to extend. I traded in my car at the local Chevrolet agency with the agreement to pick up a new car on February 15.
We left Sanford on 14 November in FG/2, BuNo 134037, only six days after the crash. On the way to the Med we spent a night in Norfolk, a night in Bermuda, and a night in the Azores. We arrived in Port Lyautey on November 17. I suppose at that time USS Coral Sea was in port in Turkey, which would have precluded our coming aboard. Furthermore, I suppose that some checks had to be pulled on the aircraft and some minor maintenance had to be done. At any rate, on November 21 we did a 1.1 hour test hop of 134037, and on November 22 we made the long 8.2 hour flight to the eastern Mediterranean to land aboard USS Coral Sea, which at that time was steaming off Athens. We replacements arrived two weeks to the day after the crash.
Joppert's (LT Garrett "A." White aka "Joppert T.") and my first task was to pick up and pack for shipment home the personal belongings of LT Grover and LTJG Garreau, whose stateroom we were assigned. Their squadron mates apparently had not felt up to the task. At the time I don't think I thought about it too much, but in retrospect it was rather a macabre way to start duty aboard ship with a new squadron.
And now for a more than minor digression. The stateroom was an eccentric little space in the gallery (02) level immediately to the starboard of the #3 elevator and immediately aft of the major expansion joint that ran across the flight deck just forward of the elevator. With landings going on overhead, the cables being dragged across the deck, the elevator going up and down, and the expansion joint making weird "boings" even in calm waters it was never an easy place in which to nap. To compound the situation there was a shaft at about waist height running fore and aft on the port side that rotated every time the elevator was operated. I recall that when we first entered the space, Joppert slung a garment bag over what he thought was a simple pipe only to have it rotate and deposit his bag on the deck.
We were not long idle in our new squadron. On each of the days November 24, 25, and 26 we made flights of 5.4, 3.4, and 4.1 hours, respectively. We must then have had port time in Athens for about a week. Again we had flights on December 6, 7, and 8. On December 9, we flew from USS Coral Sea back to Port Lyautey. The ship was going back to the States, and we had to remain there for three days until USS Randolph was ready for us. We flew to USS Randolph on December 12 and operated from her for the remainder of VC-5's deployment
But, so far, I have told you nothing about the crash itself. Of course, all of my information comes second hand and most of the details I have only recently learned. Understandably, there was a certain reticence among my new squadron mates in those days right after the accident when I first arrived aboard.
That which I am about to present to you has all been "borrowed" from the web. I will give you a link to the original source in order to give credit and so that you can consult the original, but I feel justified in having "archived" the material here in order to present it in the context of my experience.
1954 Med Cruise
AJ crashes on launch:
Sometime in the fall of 1954, the Coral Sea was participating in "War Games" off the Coast of Turkey with the rest of the Sixth Fleet, and Naval and Air Forces of other NATO Countries. During General Quarters my post was in the lower deck Fire Control Computer and Radar Room where I helped search for and locate enemy aircraft. The anti-aircraft 3" guns and Fire Control Systems and Personnel in our Quadrant were under the control of a Gunnery Officer whose Battle Station was in the Fire Control Director Tower above the Flight Deck and was immediately in front of and slightly below the Admiral's Bridge. During the "War Games", but not during GQ, we were on a 4 hours on, 4 hours off watch. Every 4 hours, I relieved the Gunnery Officer in the Gun-Fire Control Director Tower.
On the morning of the crash, I relieved the Gun Officer at 4 AM. As a cold, grey dawn broke that morning, I happened to turn the Gun-Director toward the starboard rear and was suddenly startled to find myself staring directly into the eyes of the Fleet Admiral who was only about two feet away from me. The Admiral was looking straight ahead with his folded arms resting on the window sill of his Bridge and his chin resting on his arms. As I remember it among the many differing types of aircraft aboard, were three AJ 2s. They were reputed to be the largest planes that could be landed and launched from our ship. These planes had two large wing mounted propellers and and a jet engine in its belly. Scuttle-butt had it that they were long-range carrier-based bombers capable of carrying Atomic weapons. In the exercises of that day, two AJ-2s were to make a practice run over Turkey simulating an atomic or other attack deep into Stalinist-Criminalcommunist Russia. The third AJ 2 was a tanker carrying Aviation fuel which was to re-fuel the two Bombers before entering Soviet air space. Not long after Dawn, Flight Quarters was sounded, the AJ-2 Cow was first up to the launch position and hooked onto the catapult. ( Having served for almost three years on Carriers and always having sleeping quarters directly under th flight deck, I had witnessed many, many hundreds of landings and take-offs, from the side-deck cat-walks or Fire Control Directors. I had a pretty good idea what the Airdales had to do to land and launch planes.)
Preparing to launch planes, the Coral Sea had increased speed; the "Cow" was rev-ving up all three engines; and the longer than three-football-fields-ship started to heel over as it turned into the wind. Before the Coral Sea had completed its turn, and while the ship was still "heeled over" I heard the order or saw the signal to launch aircraft. The Ship had not fully turned into the wind and the Flight Deck was still canted over. I was astounded. I turned the Gun-Director around and looked directly into the Admiral's eyes and signalled with my hands that the ship was not level. The Admiral looked straight ahead with his chin on his arms.
The Pilot brought his engines up to take-off power level; the jet engine was blasting a red-white tail; the signal was made to launch; the huge fuel-laden plane shot forward. But because of the slant of the deck, the right wing was noticeably lower than the left wing. After clearing the Carrier, the Pilot immediately tried to level the wings; the move went too far. In a split second, the left wing was now lower than the right wing had been a moment before. The desparate Pilot made a radical move to right the plane but this time the right wing-tip caught the sea. The plane cartwheeled into the sea and there followed an instantaenous, gigantic, explosion of aviation fuel. As the Coral Sea passed the tremendous fire-ball fifty yards to starboard, the radiant heat was so intense that I almost panicked as to whether I should get out of the Gun Director. As the flames moved furthur aft on our right hand side, I once again was looking directly into the Fleet Admiral's eyes. He never moved his eyes to mine; he just kept looking straight ahead with his chin resting on his arms.
Only the life-jacketed body of the enlisted crewman was recovered. I vaguely remember that the enlisted man aboard the crashed AJ2 was a Petty Officer. It seems that the only Petty Officer on your list of the deceased is AT2 Billie Patterso. AT2 may mean Aviation Technician Petty Officer 2nd Class. An enlisted man, as the third member of the crew of such an important aircraft, should be a Petty Officer of experience and maturity, whatever his duties were.
[Submitted by Jack Brennan]
Follow-up to the story. Dialogue between Jack Brennan and Kay Chamberlain, a niece of one of the crew from the AJ.
[Kay] My uncle Leon Rex Grover was a pilot on the Med cruise in 1954. He and his navigator Garth Garreau were catapulted off the USS Coral Sea. I believe my aunt said he was overloaded with fuel. They crashed on take off.
[Kay] Thanks for the info. I can't help but wonder what was going on in the Fleet Admiral's mind. My Aunt has told me that my uncle had a predawn refueling flight. He had 5000 lbs. of fuel on the AJ. She said she was told there was not enough wind. The wing tipped to the right - then left - the AJ hit the water and exploded. I have to assume That you witnessed my uncle's demise. Your words and my aunts seem to confirm that it was the same event. This happened in November of 1954. He was promoted to Lt. Commander after his death. If you have anything to add please feel free to email me. Admiral Charles Stevenson had asked my aunt about her feelings on a Congressional Investigation into the accident. We all have felt that something "fishy" was going on.
[Jack] I did witness the crash. As a none expert, my opinion is that the plane left the ship before the ship had completed its turn into the wind and consequently, the ship had not leveled itself or returned the flight deck to level condition. The plane was catapulted off the deck at the same angle of cant as the flight deck. As I remember it, the plane took to the air with its right wing lower than its left wing. The pilot immediately took action to right the plane but the left wing went past level, and then the left wing was lower than the right wing. The pilot tried to level the plane in the opposite direction, but this time the right wing went too low and caught the sea and the crash ensued. The accident did not happen pre-dawn. It happened after dawn broke with plenty of daylight.
[Kay] Do you think the Admiral was lost in thought and didn't see your signal? I know this all happened a long time ago. It just amazes me to find someone who witnessed this event. I was almost 4 months old when this happened.