This Pearl Harbor veteran is undergoing a facelift

By LAUREN KING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 5, 2016

CHANTILLY, Va. — Seventy-five years after surviving the attack on Pearl Harbor, this World War II veteran is worn out.

Its paint is faded, windows broken.

But it is the only known Sikorsky JRS-1 remaining in the world, and it is the only Pearl Harbor-related aircraft in the Smithsonian Institution’s collection.

It is on display in the Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar at the Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va., where workers are busy restoring or preserving other aircraft.

Jeremy Kinney, a Smithsonian curator, said it’s unclear exactly what the future holds for the plane — preservation or restoration. The final treatment plan for the aircraft will not be finalized until sometime after 2020.

“This is pretty far gone,” he said, making it a strong candidate for restoration.

Despite its condition, its importance is clear. “This is an object that was there,” he said. And its World War II story is fascinating.

Between 1937 and 1939, 17 of these utility transport amphibians were purchased by the Navy. Two were for the Marine Corps. The aircraft, adorned in green, orange and yellow, were for moving people and equipment, Kinney said.

Assigned to utility squadrons, the aircraft duties consisted of towing sleeve targets for anti-aircraft or machine-gun practice from battleships, cruisers, destroyers and submarines; photographing and chasing torpedoes for submarine and destroyer practices; photography of all kinds; mapping far-flung areas; making mail hops; and flying flag officers, senators “and so forth,” according to a weekly newsletter from the commander of the utility wing to the chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics on Sept. 22, 1938. The new Sikorsky planes were also able to perform as towing or photographic craft at higher altitudes.

In September 1939, a squadron detachment headed for Pearl Harbor in Honolulu, and served until the arrival of the remainder with the Pacific Fleet in June 1940.

Days after its arrival, the squadron was “hard at work and five towing missions alone were rendered on June 25, 1940,” according to a VJ-1 unit file from the Naval History and Heritage Command. “This high ratio was continued until December 7, 1941.”

Retired Lt. Cmdr. Harvey Waldron, in a 2011 interview with the Smithsonian, said he was reporting early for watch that Sunday when Japanese planes came into view and started the attack.

The JRS-1s were not damaged.

“They were not ready for anything,” Kinney said. “They were just sitting there.”

Unarmed, the planes took off at 9:50 a.m. to look for the Japanese fleet. Some members of the crew grabbed rifles to take in the plane.

Marine Corps Sgt. Thomas E. Hailey “clothed only in his underwear and armed with a rifle, volunteered and went up in an airplane that was leaving on a search mission where he remained for about five hours, returning to the Air Station about 4:30 that afternoon,” according to his Navy Cross citation. He’d lost his clothes that morning when he had to swim from the capsized USS Oklahoma to another ship. He volunteered to fly aboard the Sikorsky after manning an anti-aircraft gun during the continued Japanese attack on Battleship Row.

One of the VJ-1 planes is believed to be the first Navy plane to contact Japanese aircraft in the air, the unit history said. Shortly after leaving Oahu, a single-engine aircraft appeared on the Navy plane’s tail, according to a history from the Pacific Aviation Museum on Ford Island in Hawaii. The pilot dove for the water’s surface and two Marines poked their Springfield rifle barrels out the windows. The aircraft flew off and the Navy plane continued north. Low fuel forced them to turn back within 50 miles of the Japanese fleet.

Waldron, who was scheduled to fly aboard a JRS-1 that Sunday morning, said the night watch was told to keep working and he and others were told to “go see what he could do.” He saw wounded heading toward the control tower, which was still under construction, and helped direct people to the main floor. The wounded were on the untiled concrete, but at least they were inside. Attempts to wipe fuel off of them was difficult because it was sticking to their skin, Waldron said. Navy corpsmen eventually took over and Waldron checked back in with “base radio,” which had taken over communications because of damage to the rest of the facilities.

Waldron learned he would be in the air, on patrol, at 3 a.m. Monday. The radioman was told to get some sleep. He napped on the hangar floor.

“And it was in this very aircraft that’s behind me that we flew that day,” he said in the Smithsonian interview. “And I flew several times in this very aircraft during that week, looking for the Japanese fleet.”

The utility plane patrols continued for days, regardless of armament, the unit history said. Its services were also expanded because of the demands of war. The squadron went on search and patrol missions, provided submarine and convoy coverage, conducted rescue flights and offered towing flights to help train the growing Pacific fleet. Records indicate there were few days that went by without the planes in the air.

VJ-1 records at the National Archives indicated there was at least one instance where a JRS-1 was on a routine search flight when it engaged an enemy submarine. It was the morning of May 16, 1942, according to the once-classified report from plane commander Lt. H.K. Edwards, when the crew spotted the submarine with its conning tower awash 3 miles ahead.

“I could not see the submarine from my seat so I turned the controls over to Ensign Halsey. He made a dive at 140 knots, slowing to 110 knots at 100 feet to drop. As the plane dived, the submarine submerged slowly. It appeared that we came upon him as he was leisurely submerging at daylight.

“As the bombs were released the submarine was clearly visible just under the surface and moving very slowly. Ensign Halsey brought the plane back and dropped the starboard bomb along the submarine’s path. The first bomb had dropped where the submarine should have been with its slow forward speed.

“There was considerable oil around the spot as if the submarine had been sitting there all night. When we left there was considerable more oil. There was not the necessary debris coming to the surface to prove a sinking but we think the submarine may have been damaged severely enough to force him to surface frequently.”

The squadron completed a little more than four years at Pearl Harbor, and on July 31, 1944, it headed to Moffett Field in California, its new homeport.

On Wednesday, most of the attention will turn to Pearl Harbor, where events are being held to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the attack.

In Washington, Smithsonian curator Laurence Burke will discuss the Japanese attack at the National Air and Space Museum.

About 30 miles east, the Sikorsky JRS-1 will be standing by in the hangar at the Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Center, much like it did in the early hours of Dec. 7, 1941.

twitter: @laurenking

The Sikorsky JRS-1, in the Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar at the Smithsonian's Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia.

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