Pearl Harbor and After
By David W. Zimmer
After graduating from Northwestern University in 1940 with a degree in ecology, I immediately went on active duty in the United States Navy. The war was intensifying in Europe and I felt that the U.S. was going to be in it soon, and I believed that it would be best if I gained experience in the Navy before we were actually engaged in combat. Although the country tended to lean towards isolationism, I couldn’t see how we could avoid becoming involved on the side of the Allies.
I received orders to a destroyer, the Worden, based at Pearl Harbor. At approximately 8 a.m. on December 7, 1941, I had just gotten into my uniform when general quarters was sounded on the Worden. We were one of five destroyers from Destroyer Squadron One that were tied alongside the destroyer tender Dobbin.
When in port, at the sound/call to man battle station, my station was on the ship’s bridge, located several levels above my quarters. While proceeding to my station, I passed a gunner’s mate who was removing Browning automatics from a small arms locker. He said the call to man battle stations was either a drill or we were under attack. As I continued taking ladders to my station, I looked aft and saw several ships tied alongside Ford Island. One of the ships was the battleship Utah (an old battleship used as a target for drills). Upon further observation, it appeared that the Utah was listing to one side. At the same time I observed several aircraft and as one of the planes banked it revealed a large red/orange meatball. The Japanese attack was well underway! The Japanese knew that when the carriers were in port they would have been located where the Utah and cruisers were attacked.
During the attack we were unable to man our main 5-inch and .38-caliber guns. We were able to man our .50-caliber guns and were credited with shooting down a Japanese plane. We were about 400 yards from the battleship Arizona when it was bombed. The exploding ammunition from her magazines sank her. We were just north of Ford Island.
The day following the attack our ship was ready to set sail. Members of our crew and the Dobbin had completed repairs. We departed passing the sunken Arizona, the sunken West Virginia, the capsized Oklahoma, the sunken California, the beached Nevada. The Nevada was sinking and was run aground so that it would not block the entrance to Pearl Harbor. The harbor was covered with oil and debris. Small craft continued to search for survivors.
After departing Pearl Harbor, we joined a Task Force including the carrier Enterprise. During the Japanese attack, the Enterprise was 200 miles west on her way to Pearl Harbor.
Following the assignment with the Enterprise we returned to Pearl Harbor. Extensive salvage operations were underway. The Japanese had inflicted little damage to the major repair operations. The huge job of cleanup and repair was underway.
Worden was assigned the task of escorting the fleet tanker Neosho and the seaplane tender Curtiss to Nouméa, New Caledonia, in the southwestern Pacific. While in Nouméa, we were hit by a hurricane. Damage to ships in the harbor appeared to be minimal. Shortly later we returned to Pearl Harbor.
While leaving Pearl Harbor on the escort assignment to New Caledonia, I had been advised that my orders to flight school had been received. The ship’s captain also advised me that he would not release me. He released me to carry out my orders upon our return to Pearl when an officer from the capsized Oklahoma was assigned to the Worden. To attend flight school I had to resign my reserve officer commission and become an aviation cadet.
I received my naval aviation wings in March 1943 and was again commissioned as an ensign. The irony of resigning my previous ensign commission was that during my flight training as an aviation cadet the order was changed. Reserve officers were permitted to take flight training as reserve officers, however; the order was not retroactive.
Aviation was my way of life and I enjoyed every day of flying. It would have been nice to continue the seniority I had earned as an ensign but that was not to be.
After receiving my second ensign commission, I received orders to squadron VB-133, operating out of Trinidad in the Caribbean. We flew Lockheed PV-1 Venturas. It was an anti-submarine warfare squadron. The squadron was later transferred to the Pacific where we were primarily involved in bombing operations in the Marshal and Gilbert Islands.
There is some humor even during serious combat times. We were flying out of Roi Namur, an island in the Kwajalein Atoll. We had returned from a glide bombing strike on Wake Island and had been debriefed. It was hot and as usual after a flight we always took a brackish water shower. We had removed our flight outfits, draped a towel over our shoulders and proceeded to the shower in the nude: As we approached a small dirt road, we stopped for an oncoming jeep. We waved to the oncoming occupants. As they approached they waved to us. The occupants of the jeep were four female nurses.
While operating out of Roi Namur, we made many strikes on Japanese held islands. On some occasions our planes coordinated their missions with Marine Corsairs. The marine aircraft were stationed on Roi Namur.
Some of the islands we attacked were Nauru, Kusaie, Mille Wotje, Jaluit. On some occasions the tactic used against targets was a coordinated multi-plane glide bombing run, pushing over at 6,000-8,000 feet and reaching speeds of 280 to 300 knots (322-345 m.p.h.) in a 45-degree dive. Bomb loads were usually six 500-pound GP (general purpose) with contact or short delay fuzing, dropped by the pilot in a train. Sometimes single aircraft were sent on recon missions.
After returning to the states I was stationed at Naval Air Station Green Cove Springs in Florida. There I received training in Chance Vought F4U Corsairs. The war ended during that period and because of my significant multi-engine experience, I was transferred to NAS Banana River and qualified as a plane commander in Martin PBM Mariner seaplanes.
It was during this time frame that I requested a reclassification from reserve to regular U.S.N. status and my request was approved.
After WWII my naval career continued with duty in the Atlantic and Pacific Fleets. I shall list some of the assignments that were very important aspects of my career. I will include a few events that I experienced which were unusual, at least in my view.
I flew with two squadrons following WWII that were standouts for me. They were Patrol Squadron Five (VP-5) stationed at NAS Jacksonville, Florida and Airborne Early Warning Squadron Fourteen (VW-14) stationed at Barber’s Point, Hawaii.
We flew Lockheed P2V Neptunes in VP-5. Our primary mission was antisubmarine warfare. Although stationed in Jacksonville, we deployed to several overseas areas. This included Argentia, Newfoundland, Canada; RAF Base Luqa, Malta; and Puerto Rico in the Caribbean.
We flew four-engine Lockheed Super Constellations in VW-14. Our mission was airborne early warning and the aircraft was equipped with search and height finding radar and electronics counter measures. Our mission was to fly an airborne barrier between Midway Island and Adak Island in the Aleutians. This was a 12- to 14-hour round trip flight out of Midway Island. At this time the Russians were over-flying the North American continent. There were airborne early warning Wings in both the Pacific and the Atlantic.
Two events occurred, one while flying out of Argentia and the other while flying the Pacific barrier.
I was piloting a Neptune at the time. We were on a flight in which we were on instruments (IFR) most of the time. Approaching Naval Air Station Argentia, I contacted approach control and requested clearance to continue my IFR approach. I was cleared to continue my instrument approach and cleared to land. We were in our final approach, descending and at about 500 feet, zero visibility. At that moment a red wing light passed our aircraft on the right. The light was so close that if we had been on the wing tip we could have touched it. We continued our approach and landed. Control had erred and my conversation with control will not be written.
While flying the barrier in a Super Constellation and approaching radar range of Adak, we experienced engine problems on our number three engine. We feathered the engine. We tried to locate a field somewhere along the Aleutians that had acceptable landing conditions. Conditions were extremely poor: low visibility, blowing snow, gusting winds to 40 m.p.h.. While trying to decide what field we would go to, our number four engine started cutting out. The engine had to be shut down and feathered. We had two engines out on the starboard side. There was no alternative but to land at Adak.
We were cleared to Adak and advised to report when we were over the Adak radio station at 1,000 feet for GCA (radar ground control approach). We reported over the station at 1,000 feet and were cleared to continue our GCA approach. We were advised the ceiling was 100 feet and visibility less than one quarter miles with a surface wind gusting to 40 m.p.h.. We continued our approach and were advised that ceiling and visibility was zero. Our wind was gusting from left to right My co-pilot picked up the strobe light which centered the runway and the threshold orange lights which was the pre-runway lighting. The landing was one of my best. The tower advised that we should shut down and as soon as they could someone would come to the plane.
Two factors have been vital to my career and the life of my family. During my deployments away from home, my wife Dorothy raised our four boys. She did a remarkable job. Our family remained complete because of her family loyalty.
The second was the death of my brother. He landed in Europe on D+1 Day. He was wounded in the hedgerow battle in Normandy. He was wounded a second time and spent time in a London hospital. In March 1945 he crossed the Rhine and was killed by a German sniper in Altweid, Germany.
Commander Zimmer died in 2011 at age 93, at Bloomfield Hills, Mich.