Squadron Scrapbook
Ops Summaries and Prop Wash

Page Seven

The following articles were contributed by former members of VR-24. Anyone who has photos, stories, and material they wish to share is encouraged to send them to Dick Prather, editor of the VR-24 website.

Atomic Shell Game

Gene Guidotte relates yet another amusing account of one of his flights as a TBM crewman in one of the VR-24 Det’s COD aircraft.

Gino:
On 5 January 1955 six TBM3Rs left Naples on a mission that was classified. The pilots may have known what the mission was but we plane captains didn't. That really didn't matter because, from our crew position in the rear of the aircraft, we couldn't see where we were going anyway. Two hours and fifteen minutes after takeoff, we landed at Alghero, Sardinia. It was not a common place on our itinerary. We were told we would RON (remain over-night) and have a very early departure the next morning. Our hotel bar only stocked Italian beer which was almost as bad as French beer, so our usual party broke up early.

The next morning we had all of the aircraft preflighted before dawn, after which, we assumed our usual hurry up and wait routine. Finally, three of VR22s R6Ds (could have been R5s) taxied in. We were directed to assemble for a briefing.

The VR-22 aircraft brought in a group of armed Navy officers, among them, a full Commander who gave us very precise information on loading our aircraft. He told us that each aircraft would be loaded with four boxes. One in each top compartment, one in the bomb bay, and one in the bilge (crew compartment). The Commander said the boxes weighed eighty pounds apiece and were two feet square. He said we would fly these boxes to the USS Lake Champlain.

The group of armed officers loaded the first two TBMs while we watched and wondered. I was going to be sitting next to one of these things and I had no idea if it was ticking, nuclear, or what.

Then things changed. It seemed that after the first two aircraft were loaded the whole operation became less tense and security more relaxed.

Four boxes were set in front of each of the remaining aircraft. We were told to go ahead and load them. We checked the boxes. Unlike the four boxes loaded on the first two aircraft, the rest of the boxes were poorly made ordinance shipping boxes and had "Practice Bombs" stenciled on the sides. For a lock, each box had a hasp and eye. When we moved the first box it clanked. Something inside was loose. Looking around for the accompanying officers and finding none, we opened the box lid. Inside were three twenty-five pound practice bombs and two small two-pounders. They weren't secured in anyway so we dumped them out on the ramp and handed up the empty box to the plane captain. He placed the first box in the forward compartment and then we passed up the contents one at a time. We proceeded to the next box. Somewhere along the line one of the officers came around the tail of the aircraft. When he saw what we were doing, he made a quick 180 degree turn and left the scene . We waited for the hammer to fall but no one appeared so we continued loading.

Our flight to the "Champ" was uneventful. The first two TBMs were already aboard and unloaded by the time we landed. We quickly off loaded our planes, watched over by Marines armed with M-1s. While unloading, we managed to pop open a lid of one of the rough ordnance boxes when our officer escort wasn't looking. The Marine watching us took a quick step backwards as if waiting for the blast.

We were never told, but rumor had it that the first two aircraft were loaded with atom bomb igniters. No one had heard those boxes clank.

Post Script: We made a six-plane low pass over Capodochino and a rather salty carrier break . Is there anyone out there who took a picture of six beautiful TBMs flying gracefully over Capodochino airport that sunny day in January, nineteen hundred and fifty-five?. I'm sure it would have made a heck of a shot.

Undercover Cargo

Over the years, VR-24 performed a broad range of missions. Some of the more interesting ones were flown in support of U.S. national interests rather than the U.S. Navy. A few were classified at the time. One mission, in particular, might be considered to be of a clandestine nature under the circumstances in which it was carried out.

The crewmembers were notified at around 2200 (10:00 PM) on 17 March 1961 to report to the hangar for a flight that would depart at 0100 (1:00 AM), three hours later. No word was given on the destination. It was classified SECRET. The only clue that the mission might involve long flights into remote areas was the assignment of two experienced radio operators instead of one to the crew. If the pilots knew where they were going, other than south down the African coast, they did not confide in the enlisted crew before takeoff from Port Lyautey.

The first leg of the flight was to Nouasseur AFB at Casablanca. After landing, the plane was parked on a remote unlighted taxiway. Within minutes, Air Force ground crews drove up on tow-tractors pulling four-wheel trailers covered with canvas. The trailers were quickly fork-lifted aboard the plane and tied down in the plane’s cabin.

The Air Force personnel sent to assist in loading departed as soon as all of the trailers were secured. The pilots went to file for the next leg of the flight. Left to their own devices, the crew decided to investigate the load. Loosening the ropes holding the canvas on one of the trailers, they peeled back the cover to reveal a load of tightly packed wood boxes. The labels on some indicated that they held rifles. Others contained ammunition. An unusual load, to be sure, but why the secrecy?

The pilots cleared up part of the mystery once the plane was airborne out of Nouasseur. They informed the crew that the ultimate destination was Monrovia, Liberia, with a fuel-stop in Dakar, French West Africa, now the nation of Senegal. Oh, and the load of weapons; they were reported to be destined for the Liberian Army. But, since there should be nothing against the U.S. providing a friendly country with rifles and ammunition, why the secrecy?

It helps to understand the geo-political situation in that part of the world in the early ‘60s. When this mission was flown, the newly independent central African country, the Congo, was embroiled in civil war. Patrice Lamumba had become Prime Minister of the fledgling nation in the summer of 1960 when he forced Belgium to grant independence to its colony, the Belgian Congo. However, continued interest in the Congo’s mineral rich Katagan Province led several European countries, and the U.S., to support Moise Tshombe, Lamumba’s long-time rival, in declaring it a separate nation. When denied UN assistance in quelling the secession and civil war, Lamumba went to the Soviets who quickly sent shipments of arms and equipment. That triggered a massive and, at times, not-so-covert response from several organizations, including the CIA. Lamumber’s arrest and murder in January 1961 did little to stop the chaos. It went on until 1967 when, after numerous revolts, mutinies, and counter revolutions, Mobutu Sese Seko, one-time lieutenant to Lamumba achieved dominance. He declared himself "President for Life", changed the name of the country to Zaire, and remained in despotic power until deposed and forced into exile by Laurent Kabila in 1997.

VR-24 would carry out a number of missions in central Africa during the decade of the ‘60s. Most of those missions were flown to airlift Europeans attempting to flee the strife in the region. This mission was only a precursor of those later missions.

The crew list and itinerary for this flight were:

Aircraft: R5D 39120
Crew: Plane Cdr. LCDR Phil Jones
Co Pilot. LT Moran
Plane Capt. Vern Maresh, AD1
1st Radio Pete Owen, AL1
2nd Radio Bill Witzke, AL2
Flt Orderly Ted Flo, AE3

Departed Port Lyautey 3/18/61 for Nouasseur.
Departed Nouasseur 3/19 for Dakar, French West Africa. Flight hours: 9.3.
Departed Dakar 3/19 for Roberts Field, Monrovia, Liberia. Lost an engine, returned to Dakar. Flight hours: 5.3
Departed Dakar 3/20 for Roberts Field again. Flight hours: 4.5.
Departed Roberts Field for Dakar 3/21. Flight hours: 3.8.
Departed Dakar 3/21 for Port Lyautey. Lost another engine, returned to Dakar. Flight hours: 1.3.
Departed Dakar again for Port Lyautey 3/21. Flight hours: 7.3

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