Friday, July 17, 2009

Found by Accident: "Crossing the Line" by Alvin Kernan

Found by Accident: Crossing the Line: a Bluejacket's World War II odyssey by Alvin Kernan, 1994, 1557504555.

I was searching for a different book or author and ran across this one. I decided to give it a whirl.

Kernan grew up on a ranch in the Wyoming mountains. The nearest town numbered only 800 and their home was snowed in for five months a year. There was no opportunity in the area and Kernan decided to get out after he graduated high school. He joined the Navy in early 1941, trained in CA, and was shipped off to Pearl Harbor.

Kernan was an ordnance guy (bombs, machine guns, torpedoes) for airplanes and assigned to the carrier Enterprise. His ship transferred several Marine planes over to Midway in late November of 1941. Enterprise hit a storm on the way back to Pearl and got back late, on December 8th.

Kernan fought on several ships and ended up being a gunner on a torpedo plane. He was on the Enterprise and alongside the Hornet when Hornet launched Doolittle's planes. Kernan was serving on the Hornet itself when the Hornet was sunk in the Solomons. The Hornet had another ship come alongside to evacuate crew and strung a net across the gap for the transfer. The seas were causing the ships to separate and collide and several crew were killed when crushed between the hulls until the crewmen were able to better time the intervals and escape.

Death was a constant danger. Japanese attacks were the obvious threat but Kernan worked on the flight deck and there was in constant danger from propellers, landing aircraft, live bombs, and the danger of moving around 1000 bombs that could come loose and crush people. Fatigue of four hours on and fours hours off for days amplified the danger. Kernan and his fellow sailors would booze it up and go whoring when ashore and I give Kernan great credit in not glossing over those things. Kernan had a tale of a rest area stuck in a sandy swamp area on one of the miniscule Pac. islands; he had to work as an MP for the craphole drinking spot.

Kernan flew on the first night fight of the war. Kernan's torpedo plane had a radar system and teamed with a couple fighter planes in an attempt to intercept and attack Japanese fighters going after the fleet. The U.S. planes were separated in the dark and unable to meet up - even with radio assistance from the shipboard radar. Kernan's pilot - flying a slow and lightly armed torpedo plane - used the radar signal to maneuver behind and shoot down two Jap bombers with the two .50s in the wings. The U.S. fighters were able to meet up with the torpedo plane and got into formation behind it. At about the same time a Japanese bomber came in behind them - apparently mistaking the Navy planes for fellow Japanese planes. The Jap pilot realized his error and opened up. Kernan - in the rear gunner position - opened up with his single .50 gun. One of the U.S. fighter pilots behind Kernan was MOH awardee Butch O'Hare. O'Hare became quite famous for previous action where he shot down several Jap bombers. O'Hare was directly in front of the Japanese bomber and turned off to pursue it. O'Hare disappeared - was never found - and Kernan feared that he may have been the one responsible for downing O'Hare.

Kernan has a photo of him and the torpedo plane crew a day or two before that night flight - same photo as on the book's cover. Kernan's caption says, "The sharpened features, particularly the noses, of everyone in the picture are characteristic of people in a state of controlled fear." I'd noticed that feature before in wartime photos and wondered on it.

EDIT: Kernan comments on the shit-quality of torpedoes used by the Navy through a good part of the war. Most of the torpedoes would never explode while the Japanese torpedoes worked and worked well.

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