On March 6, 2008, I left the continental United States in an F/A-18D Hornet belonging to the Bats, a sister squadron to my own formerly based in Miramar. I say formerly because on that day they initiated a permanent move to Iwakuni, Japan. The Bats, VMFA(AW)-242, are leaving southern California forever to be the Marine Corps’ forward-deployed Hornet squadron in Japan. As most of their pilots and WSOs were busy moving their families across the Pacific, the squadron needed some extra aircrew – called augments – to actually fly their aircraft. I was lucky to be chosen. Pictures from the trip, should you be interested, can be found here.
The plan was to fly the aircraft to Hawaii and spend two nights, then fly the aircraft to Guam and spend two nights, then fly to Iwakuni, whereupon I and the other augments would hop a commercial flight back to the United States. The reason for breaking up the trip into segments like that is due to the fact that a Hornet is not designed for long-distant flight, and a squadron of them requires the accompaniment of several tankers (all owned by the Air Force) in order to make it from the west coast to Hawaii, then to Guam, then to Japan. So there are a lot of moving parts. The reason we wait for two days everywhere we stop is so that if there are any problems, there is padding built into the schedule to get everyone caught up.
The mission, called Coronet West 448, kicked off on March 5 with a brief covering the first leg of our flight. We would take off from Miramar, meet the tanker and refuel airborne just south of the bay area, then continue on to Hawaii. These flights are precisely planned so that at every stage a fighter has enough fuel to make it to some runway. It is a little frightening to consider that you might conceivably find yourself over the Pacific Ocean without the required fuel to make it to land…there is a lot of water out there to get lost in. And there are many things that can go wrong: the tanker might not be able to extend the refueling apparatus; the tanker might not be able to pump fuel; the fighter might not be able to accept fuel; the fighter might develop some sort of systems failure; in fact any conceivable weather or mechanical failure might render aerial refueling impossible. I left the brief that day slightly apprehensive.
On March 6, everything looked set to go as planned except for one detail: one tanker would have to slide 24 hours, so only two thirds of the aircraft could leave that day. The other third would catch up the following afternoon. I was crewed up with a fairly new pilot, so our first attempt to accept fuel from the tanker was a little rocky (I won’t even try to explain the tricky flying required to put the fuel probe of a Hornet into a small wobbling basket and hold it there while flying at 300 mph). Eventually we got the fuel we needed and after that the trip went much more smoothly. Six hours later, we were approaching the Hawaiian Islands from the north. We had an uneventful approach to MCAS Kaneohe Bay (on the north side of Oahu), if you don’t count the breathtaking volcanic scenery of the island itself. I don’t know if I have ever, even in photographs, seen more vertical mountains. The air station sits on a little flat peninsula which defines the west side of Kaneohe Bay, and seemingly just a few miles inland the land rises suddenly to fierce, jagged, green ridges. It was exotic and exciting. I felt Hawaii–and the rest of the trip–promised good things.
Though we landed in the afternoon, it took until evening to get to our hotel. Fortunately for us, we had government-rate rooms in the Outrigger Hotel on Waikiki beach, which turned out to be quite a luxurious place to stay. Unfortunately, it seems the entire island south of the ridges rising above Kaneohe bay consists of an ugly, congested, urban mishmash of Honolulu and its several suburbs. But Waikiki was beautiful, and my room had a view of the beach and the water. I got to see my first Hawaiian sunset that night. I met up with an old friend of mine from flight school who is stationed at Kaneohe Bay, and we grabbed some sushi while catching up a bit. Then, tired from the flight, I went back to the hotel and went to sleep.
My second day in Hawaii was all my own. We were scheduled to fly out the following morning, so there was nowhere (literally) I had to be. That suited me: I enjoyed a large, luxurious, and expensive breakfast at the hotel, sat on the beach for a while, then met up with my flight school friend for some sightseeing. First, though, we had lunch at a famous restaurant called “Duke’s,” named (as I discovered) for a famous Hawaiian who not only won several Olympic medals in swimming, but became the de facto ambassador of Hawaii, surfing, and the “Aloha” spirit around the world. All that sounds pretty cool, but my friend and I were disappointed by the restaurant itself. It was essentially a tourist trap, with mediocre food and high prices. I guess I shouldn’t have expected better from a place like Waikiki. I had intended to see the Arizona Memorial and the USS Missouri, but due to our lunch and the traffic we didn’t make it to those sights until after 3:00 PM, which is when they closed. So we contented ourselves with a tour of the WWII submarine USS Bowfin, meticulously maintained as it must have looked to the sailors who crewed it, and headed back to drive around the east side of Oahu.
My friend had told me that it was pretty east of Honolulu (and suburbs), but nevertheless I was unprepared for the scenery. On the east and northeast side of Oahu there are no beaches that compare with Waikiki, but there is very little development and the land is rugged. The road snakes along the side of steep slopes that seem to run all the way down to the ocean floor, and small islands project out of the water like giant stakes. It felt wild and exotic–it recalled the sense of awe and excitement I first experienced when landing among the fantastically vertical cliffs surrounding Kaneohe Bay returned after being submerged temporarily by tawdry tourist attractions. We capped the evening with dinner at a bar/restaurant obviously filled with (and enjoyed by) locals; it was loud, tasty, and fun. Afterwards my friend dropped me off at my hotel.
The following morning we met early and drove back over the island to Kaneohe Bay. We received another tanker brief that was much like the first, only it applied to our planned eight-hour trip to Guam this time. It was very hot on the flight line as we manned up and started our aircraft, but the take-off was uneventful and we were treated to a large left turn which allowed us one last pass over Oahu on our way east. We then formed up on the tanker and headed out over the ocean.
About five hours into the flight one of our aircraft reported some mechanical issues. For about half an hour we tried to help them along, but new problems kept developing and eventually the aircrew decided to they would take the aircraft to the closest divert field. As it happened, the flight lead ordered my jet to accompany them (we always fly in pairs for safety). So we headed over to Wake Island, a tiny little atoll in the middle of nowhere, but conveniently right along our intended flight path. Wake, when I first saw it, took my breath away. It is like a jewel in the midst of the vast blue Pacific, which extends as far as the eye can see in every direction. Wake consists of three islands that form a crooked “V” with a still, turquoise lagoon inside. As we circled to line up on the runway, its colors were very bright under the tropical sun, and it looked like the stereotypical “desert island.”
The runway on Wake Island occupies nearly the entire southern arm of the “V,” with base operations and parking spots on the south side. Once we had taxied, shut down the jet, and climbed out, I was struck immediately by how bright, hot, and flat it all was. On one side was the pale lagoon, shimmering in the sun; on the other the deep blue choppy ocean, bounded by a gentle break and brilliantly white coral sand. The contractors and Air Force personnel who keep the island running met us at our jet with white pick-up trucks, helped us unload our gear, and drove us around to the north side of the “V” where the living area is. Surprisingly, there was everything necessary for a reasonable quality of life: barracks, chow hall, gym, store, and bar. We quickly fell into the routine of the island.
Because the only source of food was the chow hall, and it was only open three times a day (for only an hour each time), life on Wake was pretty much dictated by its schedule. Besides that, however, we were free to do as we wished. There were pick-up trucks to get around the island (we were told, “if it has a key in it you can take it”), kayaks for exploring the lagoon (which you could also swim in), an old WWII (think Saving Private Ryan) landing craft they used for deep-sea fishing, tennis courts, trails to run on, and–best of all–ruined fortifications explore and artifacts to find from the Japanese occupation of 1941-1945. We led a wild and aimless life the four days we stayed there. On the first night I took a kayak and tackled the reef that shelters the lagoon (and wiped out several times due to the four-foot break), then joined my comrades at the bar, which is of note in and of itself. Every squadron that has come through Wake on the way east or west since WWII (it seems) has left a plaque, a decorated ceiling tile, or some kind of paraphernalia. The place was a veritable museum. After some solid drinking there (which we would repeat almost every night), we grabbed a pick-up truck and went tearing along the coral roads of the island, stopping every once in a while to gaze at the uncountable stars that shone in the unpolluted skies above. And from this first day life didn’t change much.
One break, however, came during the second day. One of the Thai workers had told us he’d take us fishing, and we were pretty excited. We weren’t prepared for the lean Thai helper who meticulously sharpened a well-used and wicked-looking blade for what seemed like hours while we waited, nor for the Saving-Private-Ryan landing craft that chugged up to the pier to pick us up (complete with a drop-gate in the prow in case we needed to assault an island. The fishing procedures seemed laughably simple: attach a hook and lure to a sturdy parachute cord, tie the other end to something very sturdy (like a stanchion), throw out the line, and don heavy-duty rubber gloves. I admit initial skepticism. But when the first line went taut with such suddenness that a fine spray of salt water coated us, I was suddenly in the middle of it, pulling in the parachute cord with all my might. Hand over hand, the line cutting almost through the glove, fighting against the fifty-plus pound fish on the other end. It had to be fast, too, because we quickly learned that taking our time meant a shark hit our fish. Soon we were catching Ono, large fish from fifty to seventy pounds, at a rate of one every few minutes. It was astounding. They would come aboard very much alive and very mean-looking, thrashing their silver tails and snapping away with some very carnivorous jaws. To kill them, we hooked them with a harpoon as soon as they were out of the water, pinned them to the deck, and beat their heads with an aluminum baseball bat until they stopped twitching. Seized with a wild and violent glee, we took turns spearing the fish then clubbing them unconscious, whooping with delight, spattering ourselves with gore, and reveling in the wild light we saw reflected in our eyes. It was tremendously exciting. The crystalline blue sea, the endless clear horizon, the dark smudge of Wake Island in the distance, and the almost-unbearably bright white tropical sunlight were very relaxing until that line would sing and vibrate, and suddenly there would be a flurry of exertion, men straining against the cord and lining up with harpoon and bat. Blood and sweat would fly, and we cheered each other as we tossed yet one more monster into our rapidly-filling cooler. One such event, however, found us hauling in a much smaller fish, and as one of us wound up to deliver the satisfying death blow to the head, he was surprised to find the Thai driver in his way. Protecting the struggling fish with his body, he endeavored to communicate that smashing this fish would poison the meat. As we all sheepishly backed away, our senior member laughed, gestured at the bat, and told the Thai, “sorry, but that’s all we know,” and it was true. Our admittedly one-sided struggle with the fish had turned into a wild quest for dominance which we entered each time with whole heart. In that case, it was a good thing we were stopped, too–the fish we’d caught was yellowtail, not ono, and would yield a tasty meal later on. It went into the cooler like all the rest, which was huge and had a disturbing tendency to quiver and rattle around as the life continued to leave the bodies of our prey. As it filled up, we began to head back to the little harbor, noticing suddenly that we were tired, festooned with blood and brains, and eager to enjoy a well-earned meal of tuna and ono.
But more work was to come. We struggled once docked to haul the heavy fish up to the butchering tables, where the disturbing lean Thai with an exceptionally sharp knife expertly and effortlessly gutted the fish. At one point, though, he paused: taking a little piece of raw meat on that frightening blade, he approached our senior member, bowed, and offered it to him. There was a moment of utter silence amid the carcasses, blood, and sunshine as we all realized the opportunity at hand: we were about to eat the freshest, tastiest sashimi I have ever eaten. And after we’d all eaten the raw flesh of our foes, we headed back to the barracks to clean up in high and somewhat awed spirits. The utter abundance and ferocity of the ocean lingered in the back of my mind as I emerged, showered, again into the tropical dusk. But the fresh fish was delicious…as was the large sashimi plate the Thais had prepared for us.
I spent most of my afternoons on Wake exploring the historical sites or reading quietly in my suite. It seemed like paradise, but sadly even paradise grows cold. After four nights, I was ready to leave – not yet bored, but aware that I would be if I stayed any longer. Fortunately, the jets were fixed. We took off into a splendid turbulent tropical sunrise. At this point most of us were feeling it was time to start heading home. So though Guam promised more beautiful beaches, luxurious tourist accommodations, and a nightlife, we were already looking forward to Japan. Unfortunately for my jet and one other, that wasn’t to be. No sooner had arrived at our hotel, our flight lead got a call from the maintainers saying that one of our jets was seriously broken. So, taking counsel, our lead decided that my jet would (again!) stay with the broken aircraft and accompany it to Japan when it was fixed.
After the initial bitterness of being left behind again, the four of us who remained on the island tried to make the best of things. The hotel boasted a nice pool complex, several bars and restaurants, a great weight room, and we had a car to explore the island with. Our days were even lazier than they had been on Wake, and we struggled to fill the hours of five full days with working out, sitting by the pool, and reading. One afternoon we went to a picnic on the base-owned private beach; several times we drove to base solely to check the internet. For the most part we were unhappy, because the area of the island wherein we stayed was an expensive tourist trap, and the area we drove through on our way to base was a depressing succession of dumpy strip malls. However, on our last day, three of us drove around the island to sight-see, and my eyes were opened.
Guam is shaped like an elongated bean roughly oriented north/south, with a dogleg opening to the west. The south part of the island is very rural and hilly, dotted with pretty little villages, and covered with lush tropical vegetation. I was amazed to see both that every cemetery we passed was immaculate and glorious with flowers, and that every church looked new and well-cared for. That, coupled with the heavy tropical scenery and the always-visible, always-beautiful ocean left in my mind a strong impression of a simple, happy, careless life. Here, away from the tourism of Hawaii, away from the sunwashed bleakness of Wake, away the dirty northern part of Guam, here was finally the “Island Life.” The whole region was uncrowded, uncluttered, and polite. We trundled along narrow, curvy two-lane roads surrounded by fantastic vistas of mountains and water. Midway through the trip we arrived a Umatac Bay, the site of an ancient native village and Magellan’s landing on Guam in 1521. The placid, clear bay lapped at the foot of a simple church and some small houses and stores; it was overlooked by a benign Spanish fort and surrounded by dramatic and beautiful headlands. It was an area so pristine it left me with a great sense of peace. And though I desired very much to go home, after seeing that I was sorry to leave Guam.
Our flight to Japan the next morning was uneventful. We landed finally at Iwakuni, eight days late, and were greeted with beers. After unpacking the jets and re-packing our stuff for commercial travel, we retired to the inn on base without any desire to linger or celebrate our arrival. We just wanted to go home. The next morning we arose early to catch a taxi to the train station, a train to Hiroshima, a bus from Hiroshima to the Hiroshima Airport, a plane from Hiroshima to Tokyo’s commuter airport, another bus to Tokyo’s international airport, then a red-eye from Toyko to Los Angeles. After an uncomfortable nine-hour flight, we went through customs in the United States and fortunately hopped aboard the very next flight to San Diego. Amazingly, through all these connections we never went wrong. I guess we finally made up for the “bad” luck of the trip over that left us stranded on Wake and Guam.
One of the reasons I joined the military was for the opportunity to travel, and for the first time in my career that wish was granted. It recalled to me the romance of both the age of explorers and the Second World War to set off across the huge expanses of the Pacific to look for–and land on–such tiny pieces of land. For two weeks I got to see a part of the world I was neither knew nor cared about, but in the end I am grateful that I did. It turned out to be my greatest adventure so far.