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
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
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,
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
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.