I was an O-4 down in Iwo Jima, the same island of World War II fame, and now an outermost air defense outpost, containing a small picket of Japanese Air Self-Defense Force personnel. They “flew” F-104’s mostly, or at least they were rumored to – the many times I was down there, I never actually saw one leave the parking ramp, far less take the active runway.
We used to head down to Iwo from Atsugi, our home base in the Tokyo region, in the Kanto plain. It was to Iwo that the forward deployed air wing went to “bounce” – practice carrier landings – the sound of our GE F404 engines apparently being pitched at a level inappropriate to the exquisitely sensitive Japanese ear, of which no few were assembled in the densely populated environs of our home base.
Iwo was fun in a way, if you can label anything fun having to do with the mindless repetition of field carrier landing practice – FCLP. You flew a couple of times per day, and there was no one to complain about your throttle settings, there were caves to explore and LST beach to stare at uncomprehendingly, and Suribachi to climb, and a six pack of Budweiser beer per aircrew to enjoy with the movie “Spinal Tap” on the VCR, since that was somebody’s favorite movie and no one else ever remembered to bring a tape down from Atsugi.
I hit a seven iron off Suribachi into the boiling surf one day, just because I could. I felt afterwards a little bit like I’d broken wind in church just as the organ stopped, because there’s every kind of ghost up there, and all of them died hard, and I could sense that none of them approved of my frivolity. The caves themselves honeycomb the island and were a wonder to explore, so long as you could put aside thoughts of the Korean slaves who carved them out of the hot volcanic rock, not to mention the shrieking Imperial Nipponese Infantry boiling out of them with bayonets fixed in the dark of the night. You could find the odd bit of war detritus – helmets, and light machine guns and vials of medicines and the like, as well as many, many empty sake bottles brought down by descendants of the 20,000+ Japanese soldiers that had died there, refusing to give in, a fighting spirit that contributed in no small measure I suspect to a couple of eventual sorties over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Large bottles they were too, which set me to thinking, sake being sneaky potent, and JN’s not customarily celebrated for their tolerance of vast quantities of strong spirits.
It wasn’t all beer and skittles of course – what is? – for the dining was Japanese military cuisine mostly, which had the simultaneous disadvantages of being both industrial quality chow, and born of an alien culture. It’s not all sushi and sashimi over there, nor even shabu-shabu and fried shrimps tossed into the chef’s hat of the smiling waiter at your table, himself with a ringing knife and spatula, the genial rogue, no: It’s also small quantities of bland miso soup for breakfast, and fish heads with fish scale condiments, as well as very great quantities of sticky rice for all other meals. As much sticky rice as ever you could wish. Which after a week or so would make even the heartiest American aviator gag.
Iwo was an interesting place to fly out of – as I’ve already mentioned, it’s a volcanic island, and it is in fact only the most prominent spur on the rim of a huge undersea volcano. In the day time, zorching around down low, just for the pleasure that was in it, you could quickly tour the rest of the rim, a chocolate drop mountain thrusting out here or there from the sea in a broad arc of maybe 10 miles diameter – all of them entirely unoccupied, apart from some birds for whom it was always wise to keep a weather eye, the larger of which could take your head off, hit one wrong, and even the smallest capable of playing the fool with your fan blades once they’d gone down an intake.
Speaking of weather, it could go from “what me, worry?” to “OHMYGOD” in the span of one lap around the pattern, and with no real precision approach capability your humble scribe had the opportunity on several occasions to add to his already burgeoning supply of gray hairs. I recall taking off one night to a wisp of fog at the departure end of the runway, the stars blazing above like diamonds on black velvet, and by the time I was back on the ball some seven or eight minutes later, it was “99 Dragons, taxi lights on,” and the LSO’s were talking us down. By the time you got to landing weight, there were no suitable divert fields in range, so it was either land there or go for a swim somewhere else. Having no options does tend to focus the mind wonderfully, but even so on that particular night, while I managed to clear the runway I had to wait just off the taxiway because while the runway’s white lights were just barely visible, the taxiway’s blue lights were not, and taxiing home to parking over the turf, using the mag compass as your only guide was considered very bad form indeed.
Ordinarily the jets were loaded for landing weight and a bit, so that we could turn right into the pattern and commence the mind-numbery of FCLP. On one particular evening, the first night go, just as the sun went down, my wingie and I were treated to the pleasure of a full bag of fuel. That’d give us the always treasured opportunity for a couple of quick hacks at each other once we’d made the sun come up again by rising up to catch it.
It was purple dark beneath the overcast cloud deck at 3000 feet MSL, we were zipping along and I’d already pushed him out to a defensive combat spread. All things considered, the right thing to do would probably have been to level off and get him back in formation, close aboard for our climb through the weather. But that would have taken time, and we were driven by the need to be on time for our bouncing, time being, as it always is, of the essence.
“Scroot,” said I to myself, and then “Burner, meetcha on top,” to my wingman. Himself was a clever lad, and quickly intuited the desired effect, matching me in selecting full afterburner, while levering back on the stick to follow me up in a 45 degree climb.
I broke out of the clouds first, because being the flight lead, that’s the nature of things. I looked over and down to check my wingie’s position in the gloom below, and if I tell you will you believe me? That in all my years of flying I don’t know that I ever saw such a wondrously beautiful thing as the glow inside that cloud deck resolve itself all suddenly into an FA-18 leaping from the clouds like a beast darting from a snare, highlighted against the darkness and contrasted with the sun’s dying rays like a rocket ship, herself in full grunt, the afterburners lighting up the cloud and the sky. It made my heart skip, and if I’d had a camera at that moment to take a picture you’d all know my name by now, because that’s how famous I’d be for the taking of it. But for all the unexpected, slack-jawed, childlike wonder of that moment, it’s stuck inside my head and the beauty of it – to which these words do not give justice – will sadly die with me some day.
We had just time to scratch and claw at each other for a turn or two before heading down to bounce. The fight finished up, as mine always do, with me metaphorically standing over his lifeless corpse, chest heaving, a bloody knife in my hand.
It’s my story, he may tell it differently.
Down to field we went, the bloodlust satisfied, and the tedium yet to begin. At least we had two things to look forward to after ten landings and a test wave-off or two: A six-pack of Budweiser beer and “Spinal Tap” at eleven.
It was enough.