My Uncle Phil — now Sgt. Philip Ingraham — was off to war. Late in 1942, he joined six other soldiers at McClelland Field, near Sacramento, California, where they were told to keep in touch with the orderly as to their whereabouts. After a few days of waiting they finally got “the word”:
It happened at one o’clock in the morning. I came out of a sound sleep, the orderly shaking me and said, ‘Up and at ’em, Sergeant, you’re on your way.’
Well, we more or less had things in our bags ready to go, so it was a matter of getting showered and dressed and getting our eyes open and get something to eat at the mess hall.
Their ultimate destination was the island of Guadalcanal, still the scene of fighting between the U.S. Marines and holdout Japanese defenders. Their route across the Pacific would take them to Hawaii, Canton Island, and Christmas Island.
After waiting out a violent thunderstorm, they were “shoved aboard” a B-24 Liberator bomber that had been converted to a makeshift transport. They grabbed spots on a pile of barracks bags, and managed to get another hour or so of sleep when the aircraft literally fell out from under them:
All of a sudden that plane did a drop. It hit a downdraft, apparently, and I went right up to the roof of the plane, so did my friend next to me, and we were weightless for just about I would say 10 or 15 seconds. Not being astronauts (we knew nothing about astronauts in those days), and not ever having had any training in weightlessness, that is one of the funniest feelings in the world. Well, we thought we’d had it. When a plane does that, you know, you’re out over the Pacific Ocean and oh Wowee Dog! We thought we had had it! We hollered something, I don’t know what we hollered to each other. Finally everything came down, but funnily enough we didn’t come down that hard. I don’t know how to describe the dynamics of it…. We finally got to talk to one of the crew members on the plane. We dropped something like a thousand feet … in something like seven seconds. Holy Moses! You know, nobody got a scratch in the whole plane. Everyone seemed to be in good shape.
The next morning Phil got his first glimpse of what the war was all about:
I’ll never forget waking up that morning, going to the port side of the bomber and there was Hawaii, a very pretty sight down there. It wasn’t as pretty a sight as it should have been — the remnants of Pearl Harbor weren’t that old.
From Hawaii, Phil’s Liberator continued making its way across the South Pacific Ocean. There cannot be a much greater contrast than there is between the hills of western New York State, where Phil grew up, and the endless expanses of the South Pacific. The Liberator flew low and slow, between 5,000 and 10,000 feet above the sea. Phil remembers coming up on Canton Island, and being amazed that the navigator was able to find it.
Now Canton Island was to be the island which would be our next stop and I will never forget that place. From five or 10,000 feet in the air…as we came into Canton Island that morning…the surf combined with the whiteness of the coral and of course the ocean had a very mottled look, as if someone had taken something and roughed it up with sandpaper. There didn’t seem to be anything to it. You wouldn’t have paid any attention, but of course the pilot knew where he was, and he landed us there.
They stayed overnight on Canton Island, long enough for Phil to be impressed with the remoteness of the place, and the fact that the men stationed there needed one thing above all others: shoes! Canton Island is a coral island, and the coral is razor sharp. It cuts leather shoes and boots to ribbons in a matter of days.
A few weeks earlier, Canton Island had also been the destination for Eddie Rickenbacker, the famous ace of the First World War who was on a fact-finding mission for President Roosevelt. The navigator of the B-17 bomber he was flying in hadn’t been able to find Canton Island, and they had to ditch in the ocean, out of fuel, 500 miles beyond the island. The story of their rescue, after 21 days at sea without food and no water but rainwater, is legendary.
The last leg of Phil’s journey to Guadalcanal was less dramatic than Rickenbacker’s, but nevertheless memorable. It started routinely, but then…
Suddenly it got a little bumpy and one of the crew members came back to us and he said, ‘Fellows, you’d better hunker down there. We’re trying to get over this front ahead of us, we can’t go around it without going back, that we don’t wanna do, but we may even be forced to do that.’ The pilot didn’t see it that way. He was going over that cotton-picking front if he had to pedal out of there, because boy he took us up, and up, and up, and up, and this same crew member came back through and he said, ‘I’m sorry boys, but the crew members need the oxygen, and we haven’t got any for you.’
Holy Moly. The pilot told us later when we got off the plane that we were at 12,000 feet and he thought he was never going to make it over Guadalcanal.
Phil finally arrived at Guadalcanal; although the Japanese had still not given up the island in the face of overwhelming odds, it had largely been secured by the Americans.
Introduction | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8