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Veterans Day 2015: Hung on for life during bomber training

This 1951 photo shows John Lee of Bellingham, third from left in front row, with his crewmates who flew submarine patrols in the Bering Sea out of Kodiak, Alaska.
This 1951 photo shows John Lee of Bellingham, third from left in front row, with his crewmates who flew submarine patrols in the Bering Sea out of Kodiak, Alaska. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

In September 1948, I left my hometown of Buffalo, N.Y., and joined the U.S. Navy.

While I was in boot camp at the Great Lakes training center, every piece of my clothing was stenciled “JJ Lee.” For my entire four-year tour of duty, my name, John Lee, was changed to “JJ.”

My final year of duty was spent as part of 10-man crew aboard a two-engine P2V patrol bomber flying submarine patrols in the Bering Sea out of Kodiak, Alaska, during the “Cold War.”

In December 1952 we returned to our home port on Whidbey Island. At that time our flight crews were reduced in size for the purpose of pilot training. I served as plane captain for the remainder of my tour of duty with the squadron.

We did an exercise called “touch and go.” The pilot trainees, with the aid of a qualified pilot, would takeoff, circle the field and land, takeoff again, circle and land, ad infinitum. We also did navigational and instrument training sessions.

The trainee was required to wear an eye shield and fly “blind” with only the aid of the instrument panel. We got “lost” on more than one occasion.

It was during this time that an unforgettable incident occurred. After takeoff, we discovered the lock pin that secured the front wheel while parked had not been removed.

Tex told me to hang on the back of his belt while he lowered himself into the wheel well.

John Lee, Bellingham Navy veteran

We were unable to retract the wheels. The pilot said we would have to go back to the field and land in order to have it removed.

Up jumps our radioman, a hulking, stalking mass of true Texan. “You don’t have to land Skipper, JJ and I will get it out.”

Down to the wheel well we went. Tex told me to hang on the back of his belt while he lowered himself into the wheel well.

We were four, maybe five thousand feet above the Strait of Juan de Fuca, a heartbeat away from a long fall and a swim with the fishes.

I found myself spread-eagled across the wheel well, my hands locked in Tex’s belt as he slowly lowered himself down and reached for the pin. After what seemed the better part of an eternity he yelled “OK.”

When I hauled him up, we sat for a moment and grinned at each other. He had the pin in his hand.

The year John Lee joined the Navy was corrected Nov. 11, 2105.

John Lee lives in Bellingham

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