Biography of Francis H. Clifton
VP-23 / VPB-23, USN
Christmas 1942 and how I got there.
On November 11, 1942 at Pensacola NAS, I had completed an eight month Aviation Cadet flight training program and was commissioned an Ensign, A-V(N), USNR with a designation of Naval Aviator. My final squadron was in P-Boats (PBY flying boats) The P stands for patrol. Departing Pensacola, my orders read in part "proceed to San Diego, Calif. and report to the Commanding Officer, Transition Training Squadron, Pacific Fleet for temporary active duty involving flying under instruction......delay for fifteen days.....will count as leave."
I reported into San Diego December 3, 1942. I "completed" the transitional training schedule of six weeks over night and was ordered to San Francisco for transportation to Fleet Air Wing Two wherever it may be. When I asked the yeoman where FLAIR WING TWO was, he said "Pearl Harbor, we will put you on a train to Frisco, there you will go aboard the USS Henderson for Pearl." I went aboard the Henderson at 1530 December 7, 1942. Exactly one year after the attack at Pearl. (I have two December 7ths in my mental history file) We sailed at 1001 on the 8th and arrived at Pearl at 1430 December 16, 1942
On December 18th, FLAIR WING TWO gave me orders to PATROL SQUADRON TWENTY THREE. When I asked the yeoman where Squadron 23 was, he said "It's at Kaneohe on the other side of the island. We'll put you on a bus for the trip over there."
Later that day another set of orders on December 18, 1942 read as follows:
FROM: The Commander Patrol Squadron TWENTY THREE
TO: Ensign Francis H. Clifton, A-V(N), USNR.
1. Reported for duty this date.
F. A. BRANDLEY
Thus, I had found a navy home for the next two and one-half years in VP-23 as it would roam the South and Central Pacific war zones with a short stay on the West Coast of the U.S.
My log book shows my first flight in VP-23 on Christmas Day 1942 was a 700 mile 11.0 hour patrol in a PBY-5A, BuNo 04976 with Ensign La Plant. PPC. (Patrol Plane Commander) I was the navigator for the crew and the only time I got in the cockpit was to pass through it to go to the bow to use the Norden Bombsight to take drift reading. I did get a complimentary "good job" when we hit the return ETA (Estimated Time of Arrival) within a few minutes at the designated point of land on Oahu.
One other fact I remember was the test radio message sent from the base included these words, "On Christmas Day go all the way."
Thus was my indoctrination into my new navy home of VP-23.
I had another Christmas Day flight in 1943 from Noumea to Espiritiu Santo but that's another story for another day.
PBY's carried torpedoes in the regular bomb racks under the wings, one at a time. I know there was a topedo attack in the Battle of Midway without much success. I made a couples practice drops without much enthusiasm.
Bombing of Espiritu Santo
In June of 1943, after a three day flight from Kaneohe, VP-23 was berthed on USS Wright in the harbor at Espiritiu Santo, New Hebides Islands.
I recall several "Red Alerts" but I do not remember an actual bombing.
The most vivid memory of the alerts was the actions of the Wright's crew at the sound of the alert signal. The ship became alive with motion and sound as the crew scurried about slamming and securing watertight doors and hurrying to their battle stations.
Since the men of VP-23 had no battle stations on the ship, all we could do was lay in our bunks and wait for the "All Clear." We were so deep below decks, I think it would have taken a direct hit on Wright for us to have known of any action from any bombing on Santo.
It gives a person an eerie feeling to hear the watertight doors being slammed and secured knowing there is no way out. The only consolation was the thought that we were not far from shore. We greeted the "All Clear" signal with gladness, turned over and went back to sleep.
My Rennell Island Story
This is the way I remember it. In early September 1943, all VP-23 crews were united at Halavo Bay on Florida Island in the Solomons. The 10-12 hour patrols flights of Funtafuti and Espiritiu Santo were behind us and we would start a new type operation in the Solomons. An operation patterned for VP-23's type aircraft, PBY-5's, Catalina flying boats, known in the navy as P-Boats.
If we had been in private business, we could have called our operation; SOLOMON ISLANDS AIR TAXI AND FREIGHT SERVICE. "To Any Island at Any Time."
I do not remember all the islands we went to, nearly all the larger ones, usually to drop off and/or pick up personnel and/or material and supplies with a few "wait here's". We hardly ever went ashore. I do remember going ashore at Malaita, and overnight stays at San Christobal, Ondonga on New Georgia and a small island with a PT Boat base. The passengers could be either military or civilian with a high priority on coastwatcher and their supplies.
One crew had Admiral Halsey as a passenger to Bougainville. Another carried H.V. Kaltenborn, the radio commentator, to Bougainville. Another crew told of the Naval Intelligence service going to Bougainville to interrogate captured Japanese soldiers. The mission was doomed to near total failure due to lack of captives. I do not know of any big names our crew had as passengers. We never knew the list of passenger, sometimes only 3 or 4, other times a plane load.
In the Solomons, there was little air navigation to do, therefore the navigator became a Chief Steward of Loadmaster, which ever the flight required.
Also, in the Solomons, we had quite a bit of "Stand By" time, being ready, willing and able to meet all conditions on very short notice. We would stand by at Halavo Bay, also with the PT Boats at their advanced base and with a F4U fighter squadron on Ondonga. I have forgotten whether it was navy or marine. Future president, Lt (jg) J.F. Kennedy, had left the PT Boat squadron by this time but the big name in the squadron was "Whizzer" White, All American football player, later a Supreme Curt Justice. Several downed air crew personnel were rescued from these stand-by locations.
My Patrol Plane Commander (PPC) was K.F. Richards, Jr. and the other co-pilot was Thomas Mulroy. Tom and I alternated time in the cockpit by flights, not hours. A flight was from takeoff to return to base, regardless of the duration of the flight. However, a new day meant the start of a new flight.
Sometime around the middle of October 1943, we were scheduled for a flight to Rennell Island, a couple hundred miles south of Guadacanal. All crews hoped for a trip to Rennell because of the friendly Polynesian natives there. However, we did not get to go ashore. It was my flight in the cockpit and while drifting on the water waiting for the transfer of personnel and and supplies, I happened to look into the water just outside the cockpit and just beneath the surface of the water only about four feet from the hull was a large coral head. It passed between the hull and wingtip float. We had missed disaster by 3 or 4 feet. Needly to say we headed for deeper water.
A week or so later, another crew was scheduled for Rennell. We told the PPC about our experience with the coral head and warned him about dangers in the waters of Rennell.
A few hours later, a radio message received at the base read "SINKING AT RENNELL". The crew of the singing plane managed to make the beach with the damaged plane. VP-23 sent rescue and salvage crews to pick up the crew and save as much of the equipment and supplies as possible.
I do not know what happened to the PBY hull left on the beach at Rennell by VP-23 in 1943. I have never seen any mention of it in any PBY literature.
----- Francis H. Clifton VP/VPB-23
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