Flying the South Pacific

When I was stationed with the 345 Tactical Airlift Squadron (TAS) at Yokota AB, Japan, I spent so much time flying in and out of places like Osan, Kwang-Ju, and Kimhae that when people ask me where I was stationed when I was in Japan, I reply, "Korea".

The other half of my life was spent either at Clark AB in the Philippines, or in the Pacific Ocean at large. Occasionally, I'd even RON at Yokota!

Of my time over the high seas, I spent much of it between Japan, Iwo Jima, and Marcus Island, in an area otherwise known as "the Devil's Triangle" (see also Bermuda Triangle). I have some nifty pictures of unusual cloud formations I took while flying there, but none of UFO formations.

Iwo Jima means, in Japanese, "Sulfur Island". It is aptly named. Iwo is volcanic in origin, and has numerous steam vents that can be easily found by the smell of brimstone they emit. The sulfur content is high enough to stain everything around the vent yellow and gray. There is a "North" island, which is nothing more than a mountain that sticks up out of the sea. Between the two islands is a popular whale route.

The old WW II runway is totally overgrown with Mimosa trees, the only dominant indigenous vegetation remaining. The animal life consists of several wild goats, numerous rats and 3 dogs named "JR", "Dingo", and "Shithead". Their job is to keep the rat population in check.

The new runway runs across the center of the island. From "shipwreck beach" to "the cliff" it runs about 6,000 ft, along the side of a hill and is swayback. There's a road that cuts across the center that leads from the Coast Guard (LORAN) station at the bottom of the hill to the parking ramp at the top of the hill. We made one flight in every Wednesday.

Coming in from the West, Mount Suribachi is on your right. You actually do fly over some land before reaching the runway. The terrain slopes down towards the runway causing higher than normal approaches. Coming in from the East, you land at the end of the cliff. The combination of coming in over the water to a cliff several hundred feet tall, and the swayback runway leads to a landing illusion that caused some of my copilots to want to plant us in the side of the cliff.

My war story concerning Iwo consists of my flight in on Christmas Eve (1981), bringing in the USO tour1 and Christmas packages.

The weather was canine manure. We held as long as fuel permitted, and then went in for a TACAN approach. This was against MAC regulations that prohibit going down for "look sees" when the weather is below minimums. Everything was floor to ceiling, and wall-to-wall cloud. It was like flying inside a ping-pong ball. My copilot called out Mt Suribachi as we reached the Missed Approach Point. Two seconds later I saw shipwreck beach.

Although I still couldn't see the runway itself, I knew where I was in relationship to the runway, and considered that "runway environment", and pressed on for another couple of seconds. The ADF (the station was abeam the end of the runway) needle swung, and my copilot yelled out, (somewhere in pitch between soprano and alto - remember we had all male crews back then). "There's the runway".

We were about 500 up, on centerline, and about 20 degrees off runway heading, and about 500 feet from the threshold. I chopped the power and slipped in for a landing. I broke a few regulations, and bent a few more, but I did so as safely as possible. We were well above the elevation of Suribachi, and the only obstacle was the LORAN tower on the far side of the island. The Missed Approach procedures would take me well clear of it.

My reward came on landing rollout when we passed the road. The entire human population of the island (all 36 of them) was out beside the runway cheering. We spent every possible minute on the island (they don't get company often), and took off one second before "dark" (we weren't supposed to do night missions at Iwo). Upon return from the mission my Ops officer didn't ask any questions although he knew the weather was below minimums.

Normally, the weather is much more cooperative. It's usually warm, moist, and breezy. In better weather we would explore the island. The "Coasties" were proud of "their" island and frequently provided tours to Mt Suribachi, and were willing to conduct tours or draw maps of any other point of interest on the island.

These points of interest include, of course, Mt Suribachi, which does indeed command an entire view of the whole island. Atop the hill, under the respective flags of each of the nations, are memorials to both the American and Japanese forces who fought there.

Another point of interest is "shipwreck beach". The Japanese commander knew that there were only two places where the Americans could land. He took his landing craft, and barricaded one of the beaches by scuttling the craft offshore. The Americans hit the other beach.

We are all familiar with the famous sculpture depicting the flag raising by the marines on Mt Suribachi. What is less known is that the original is carved in relief on a cliff face on Iwo itself. Unfortunately, the stone is very soft, and shows signs of erosion already.

The soft stone, allowed the Japanese to build an extensive tunnel system all over the island. There are many natural caves that have been widened and connected to form underground villages. The more ambitious spelunkers in our group really enjoyed checking them out. I, myself, have only been in one of the larger, more well explored ones, the so-called "hospital cave".

Cave exploring can be more than exciting. People have been known to find human remains, unexpended ordnance, and worse. I'll stay to the well-beaten path, thank you.

Other activities include swimming (watch out for exotic marine life), snorkeling, fishing, and whale watching.

P.S. For you John Wayne fans, the sand is actually black. Some of our more enterprising crewmembers would bottle the stuff and sell it to the marines on Okinawa!

  1. No, it wasn't Bob Hope. It was a 5-piece band. Somehow, I don't think that "playing Iwo" is the hottest thing on their resume.