In March of 1959, I was on my second mission as a Combat Aircrewman in a large U.S. Navy patrol aircraft. I, and ten other men comprised the crew. I had been an aircrewman in a previous squadron of smaller aircraft, and had many hundreds of hours as a search-radar operator, along with several other aircrew jobs. My first mission with the new squadron was uneventful, so much so, that I don’t recall anything in particular about it. On this day’s mission I was to serve as radar operator, the long-range eyes for the entire flight crew. Our mission was to leave our home base at Naha, Okinawa, patrol an area of the East China Sea up toward Japan, then back down past Okinawa, and through the Formosa Straits to southern Taiwan. The mission started off in an ominous manner, however, because the navigator told me as he sat down at his table beside my position, that I was not to talk to the pilot about anything, without going through him first. This was not standard procedure, but I could not argue with him, as he was a Lieutenant Junior Grade, and I was a mere first class petty officer. I had bad feelings about that deal, even before we left the ground.
Our leg up to Japan was routine. We scoured the seas looking for, and plotting the presence of shipping traffic. The radar usually picked up the ships at a range of one hundred miles or more, long before anyone could see them. Then the radar operator would vector the pilot toward the ship in question so we could take pictures, record data about deck cargo, plot the position, speed, etc. On this mission, the only way I could talk to the pilot, without going through the navigator, was if he contacted me first. Occasionally, the navigator would ask me for a “radar fix” to some prominent point of land, so he could cross-check his dead reckoning navigation, or his skills at using a device called LORAN. Sometimes he would use a sextant to observe the stars through a plexiglass dome above our heads. We finished our northbound leg, and headed south down past Okinawa, and on to Taiwan. After about nine hours of flight time, we entered the Formosa Straits, a channel separating Taiwan from mainland China. Scattered all along the China coast were very prominent rock formations that presented very distinct radar presentations. If you have a map of the coast, and the radar is functioning, you get an absolute fix on your location.
About half way down the straits, the navigator asked me for a fix to “point Chevrolet”. Those prominent rock formations were called, by our American crews, by the names of American automobiles. There were Oldsmobile, Ford, Plymouth, etc. Each had its own unique radar presentation which exactly matched the visual presentation on the navigation charts. I maneuvered the radar bearing cursor around to Chevrolet, and ran the range strobe out to its distance. Then I told the navigator the range and bearing to “point Chevrolet”. He grabbed his dividers and compass and applied them to his big navigation chart, then with an air of superiority, gave me a supercilious look of disbelief and disdain. He was too good a navigator, in his mind, to believe my precise location, which did not agree with his superior navigation. At that time we were too far from any land to see anything, and we had also encountered thick fog. We were flying in the “soup”, as aviators like to say. We were supposed to be heading almost due south through the straits, but I could see we were drifting west toward the China coast. There was no immediate worry, however.
We were bound by international rules to observe the twelve-mile limit on approaches to China, as well as other countries in the area. As we continued on through the straits, five or ten minutes passed, and the navigator asked me for a fix to “point Plymouth”. I obtained that fix, and reported it to him. He plotted it on his chart and just shook his head. I looked very determined back at him, and he said, “You’re wrong. We’re sixty miles from there.” He showed me where he thought we were. A person who had no experience at all could see by the radar that we were not located where he said we were. But he could not see the radar scope from his position. Well, there was still no immediate concern, as we were still about twenty miles from the China coast. We were still in dense fog, otherwise the pilot would have seen the coast. But, I could not tell him, due to my orders from the navigator. We flew on some more, and when we were about to cross the twelve-mile limit, I told the navigator that we were about to cross. He just shook his head, feeling sorry for that poor incompetent radar operator.
A few more minutes went by, and I was getting scared. China would shoot us down if we got too close. As we approached the three-mile limit, still in dense fog, I shouted to the navigator, “We’re three miles from the coast. We’d better tell the pilot to turn away.” Again, he ignored me. About that time, I panicked. I jumped up and told the navigator, “Sir, look at this radar scope. If you don’t tell the pilot to turn, I’m going to bail out.” The navigator casually got up, slowly stepped to the scope, and looked. Then he jumped back to his seat and hastily called the pilot on the intercom. He tried to say in a calm voice, “Pilot from Navigator. Sir, there seems to be a controversy between the radar operator and myself. Please turn ninety degrees to port for a while.” The pilot immediately turned away from the coast. By the time we got turned away, we had flown one half mile inland into Red China. Even then, the fog was too thick for the pilot to know we had overflown the mainland.
It was only about thirty seconds after our turn that our radio operator picked up a message for us directly from the Pentagon Building, relayed via San Francisco, Honolulu, and Iwakuni, Japan. The radio operator told the pilot that we had an urgent encrypted message from Naval Headquarters at the Pentagon. The pilot said, “Well, decrypt it and read it to me.” The pilot still did not know of our close call. We were still in the fog. The radio operator decrypted the message, then read it to the pilot. It said, “The United States of America has just received its one hundred and fifty-first serious warning for violation of Chinese Communist airspace. You violated that airspace. China informs us that you would have been shot down in another thirty seconds, if you had not veered away.” Well, you can’t believe how irked the pilot was, at the radar operator. He came back over the intercom and asked me, “Radar, what in the hell is the matter with you? I can’t believe you didn’t see the Chinese coast on the radar. I’m going to have your butt. Why in God’s name didn’t you tell me?” He also used a lot of cuss words, vernaculars, etc., and I couldn’t blame him a bit.
I was glad to tell the pilot about my orders from the navigator, and that I had tried to convince him of our situation for more than thirty minutes. The pilot came back on the intercom with, “Oh, I see now. Radar, I’m sorry I jumped all over you. I understand your dilemma.” I said, “Thank you sir.” The pilot then added, “Radar, whenever you’re flying with me, you have my permission to talk to me anytime, anyplace, for any reason, regardless of anything anyone else says. Do you understand?” I told him I did. That was good, because we stayed together as a crew most of the time. He reestablished my faith in our ability to function properly. Then the pilot said, “Navigator, I’ll see you in my quarters immediately after we land. Do you understand?” The navigator meekly said, “Aye aye, sir.” We landed at our destination, Tainan, a small Chinese Nationalist Airbase in southern Taiwan. As most of the crew was caring for our aircraft, we could see the navigator following the pilot to his quarters. Of course I do not know what the pilot, a Lieutenant Commander, had to say to the navigator, but I can make a good guess. That navigator stayed with our crew for quite a while longer, and he never again caused me any trouble, or doubted any of my radar observations.