I was sworn into the Navy Reserves on May 30, 1959. I attended the craziest boot camp, that has ever been seen, at Los Alamitos Naval Air Station, in southern California. My mates and I were in the MISS UNIVERSE PAGEANT PARADE, in Long Beach, the last year it was held there. I pushed MISS SWEDEN’s float in the parade. Whatta butt she had. We were also in the Huntington Beach 4th of July Parade, which had JAYNE MANSFIELD as the Grand Marshal. I, personally, got within about 5 feet of her gargantuan TA-TAS. Then I went to DISNEYLAND, and I was in BOOT CAMP.
After that remarkable experience, I started “drilling” with my squadron, VP-774, which flew P-2V Neptune anti-submarine patrol bombers. We drilled one weekend a month. We were called, by some, “Weekend Warriors.” I attended an electronics class, all day Saturday, and half a day on Sunday. Sunday afternoon I could do anything I wanted. I gassed the planes, stood behind them when they started up on the line, and smelled the beautiful exhaust fumes from those R-3350 radial engines; the same engines that were on the B-29s and Super Constellations. I found out that if you approached the pilot of a plane that was going on a flight, and asked if you could go on the flight, the pilot would always say yes. THAT was my Disneyland. The coolest seat, in the plane, was in the nose. You sat in a very comfortable, padded seat, with padded armrests. You had a panoramic view through the plexiglass nose, and you could put your feet up on a steel mounting bracket on which a Ma Deuce .50 caliber machine gun could be mounted. Ray Ban Aviator sunglasses, and I was ready to rock.
I’d been on 3 or 4 flights and was HOOKED. On this particular Saturday morning, just before muster, I found out that a particular pilot, with whom I had flown before, was making a NIGHT FLIGHT, a rarity. I went up to the pilot, and asked him if I could go on the flight. He told me that because we made so few night flights, that everybody wanted to go, and the crew was filled to capacity. But then he told me that one of the regular members of his crew hadn’t been at the morning muster, he was a guy who never missed a “meeting,” and that if he didn’t show up, then I could go on the flight. Hip-Ha and a Coup de Gras. I went to class and, at the afternoon muster, he still wasn’t there. I went up to the pilot and he told me that it was really strange, because this was the first time that his crewman had ever missed a meeting, and he knew there was going to be a night flight. He added that if he wasn’t at the evening muster, I was on the flight. Bitchin’. He wasn’t at the evening muster, so the pilot told me to get some chow, check out some gear at the paraloft, and be ready to board the plane at a certain time.
I was in the ready room, ready to go, with all the other guys. The pilot came in and asked me to accompany him to the counter, behind which were guys who handled the paperwork. He asked for the manifest for his flight, which was on a clipboard, and the clerk handed it to him. He took his pen, and crossed out a name near the top of the list, and inserted my name at the bottom. I was now officially on that flight. I went back and sat down in the ready room. Some of the guys on the flight began to drift out, to walk down to the plane. I was savoring the moment so much, I was suddenly alone. A few minutes later, the pilot walked by the room, saw me and said, “Let’s go, Gearon, it’s time.” “Yes, Sir.” I walked out of the ready room, and the pilot held the door open for me to walk outside, onto the flight line. As I started to walk through that door, the door at the other side of the building BANGED open, and both of us turned to see a guy standing there, out of breath, who said, “Am I too late to make the flight?” The pilot said, “Where the hell have you been?” The guy said, “I’ve been taking final exams all day, I’ve driven like a maniac to get here, speeding and running red lights, and am I too late to make the flight?” The pilot looked at his watch and said, “You’ve got 2 minutes to get your gear at the paraloft and be out at the plane.” The pilot then walked up to where the clerk was and asked for the manifest again. He crossed my name out and wrote his crewman’s name, HAROLD GRIMSLEY, under my crossed out name. He said, to me, “I know how disappointed you are, but I promise you, you will be on the next night flight, even if someone else is the pilot.” “Yes, Sir, thank you, Sir.”
I turned in my gear and headed for the Enlisted Men’s Club. I was only 17 years old, so I just drank sodas. I think there was a small band and dancing. About 10 PM the word was passed that one of our planes was down in the ocean. As far as I knew, there was only one plane flying out of Los Al, and it was the one I was supposed to be on. We found out more about it the next morning. One month later, at our next meeting, one of the crewmen who survived, Nunez, told me the whole story. Meanwhile, two or three weeks after the ditching in the ocean, I attended a memorial service for the one man who went down with the plane, Harold Grimsley. Three others, including the pilot, were killed by “exposure,” or hypothermia as it’s now called.
For just about 50 years, I knew most of the story, but then I found out Harold Grimsley’s name, a lot of new facts about the mishap, and a whole lot about 3rd Class Aviation Ordnanceman Grimsley’s personal life.
Around 2010, wanting to find out more about the incident and the name of the man who died in my place, I went online and started to search. There’s a website, vpnavy.org, that pretty much covers everything about Navy patrol squadrons, the “P” in VP-774, stands for patrol. They had never heard of the incident, nobody had ever heard of the incident, and people must have thought I was a whack-job, because their extensive files didn’t have an incident as I described it. I checked one or two other websites and still no luck. Meanwhile, at just about exactly the same time as I was seeking information on this ditching, Harold Grimsley’s grandson was seeking to find out more information about his grandfather’s death. He knew that he had gone down in a P-2V, off Dana Point, in Orange County, but he sought more information. The grandson had seen a TV documentary, on the Discovery Channel I believe, about a group of people finding a WW1 German U-Boat which was sunk off the coast of California. He contacted ub88.org, which found and photographed the boat, UB 88. The founder of that group told the grandson that he would try to find out something for him. He contacted vpnavy.org, and was told they didn’t have any information, but that another person, me, had asked about the same incident, and was given my email address. I was contacted, and so began an odyssey that nobody could have predicted.
The following is an amalgam of Nunez’s eyewitness account, the official U.S. Navy Accident Report, and my own experiences with the asshole who MURDERED Harold Grimsley:
The crew chief/plane captain was a Chief Petty Officer named Manuel, whom I believe was probably Portuguese. He was a flaming alcoholic, but one who maintained his composure very well, indeed. It used to take 3 guys, all working together, to take off in a Neptune. The pilot had things to do, the co-pilot had things to do, and the plane captain/crew chief had things to do. The latter individual sat on a canvas “seat,” that was stretched across the opening to the cockpit, and manipulated the fuel switches, transferring fuel around and feeding it to the engines. During the flight, he would also monitor the fuel situation, along with the pilot. The asshole, as I will now call him, shut off pumping fuel from one tank, but didn’t tell the pilot. He swore, under oath, that he told the pilot that he had stopped pumping from that tank, and told him that it still had lots of fuel still in it. He was lying through his fucking teeth, but the pilot was dead, so he was believed.
To get from the main part of the plane, the flight deck, to the nose, there is a hatch in the floor, which I have never seen closed, unless someone was sitting on it for take-off, landing, or ditching, which allows you to drop down into a narrow tunnel, which leads you forward, as you crawl on your hands and knees. There is a device which locks the hatch in the open position.
It was a dark and stormy night. It had been raining for most of the flight, and everyone was probably bummed out, because the big thing about night flights was seeing the lights of Los Angeles. At one point, the pilot called for a practice ditching drill. It was discovered that the hatch was down, and stuck; it could not be opened. The pilot secured from the drill and directed that everyone get that hatch opened. There is a rather large fire axe on the bulkhead, and that had to be used to pry the hatch open. The pilot then expressly ordered that the hatch was to remain open, so that the bow observer, Harold Grimsley, could get out of the nose, if they really had to ditch. Otherwise, he would be a goner. The asshole testified that he had originally closed the hatch because a cold wind was blowing out of it.
Ten minutes later, both engines quit running at the same time, and the pilot looked down and saw that one tank was turned off and assumed it was empty. Had he known there was still a lot of fuel in it, he could have gotten an air-start, and they never would have had to ditch the plane in the ocean. He called for ditching stations, and the hatch had been closed again, so Harold couldn’t get out. For 50 years I considered that to be 2nd degree murder, on the part of the asshole. Then I read his testimony in the accident report. He lied again, stating that he didn’t close it the second time, and he didn’t know who did. I expected that, but then he testified that he SAT ON TOP of the hatch, as they were going into the ocean. The motherfucker didn’t want anyone else to hear or feel Harold trying to kick the hatch open. That, by God, Makes it FIRST DEGREE MURDER. His seat, at his radar scope, was his primary take off/landing/ditching station, because it had shoulder straps, as well as the lap belt, so he could go in facing forward. Much more comfortable and SAFER than sitting on the cold steel deck, facing backwards. And that was HAROLD’s ditching station. Eventually, a new crew was made up, that I was assigned to, along with the asshole. I had to fly with that fucker many times, and that was just one reason I decided to go on active duty when I did. I didn’t want him to kill me. Wouldn’t you know, just before my active duty came around, I was assigned to a different crew. That pilot damned near killed me (near-death experience #2), but the enlisted crew chief was really cool, and was the only person to have ever thanked me for saving their life.
I’ve got side-scanning sonar pictures (courtesy of ub88.org) of the tail of the plane, which rests on the flat sandy bottom, at 1,080 feet down. Harold Grimsley’s remains are probably still in the nose/fuselage section, which isn’t visible, and is probably hidden in a gnarly, narrow, steep and deep canyon, just a little N-W of the tail.