I found myself sitting in the Wardroom (the Officer's Galley) of the USS Yorktown at Patriots Point on the eve of its 40th Anniversary celebration talking with Rear Admiral James Flatley III, wondering how in the world I got lucky enough to get this interview, and hoping very sincerely I do it justice. Saturday, August 27th, 2016, the Patriot's Point Naval & Maritime Museum celebrated four decades in Charleston, by welcoming nearly 5,000 visitors to roam the decks of the USS Yorktown Aircraft Carrier, the USS Laffey Destroyer, the depths of the USS Clamagore Submarine, and the numerous exhibits on property. There were throngs of people there of all walks of life...everyone from young kids and families, to students, to military veterans in their eighties and nineties wearing their service hats.
The day beforehand the ship had been a bit quieter, hosting a Naval graduation ceremony and a somewhat smaller number of guests, including the Admiral and myself. In the paragraphs that follow I hope you'll get a sense of why I was so excited to be sitting with Rear Admiral (RADM) Flatley learning about his flying days and all about the servicemen who had made the Yorktown famous over the years.
Admiral William Halsey had once said it was only "by the grace of God" there were no aircraft carriers in Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941. RADM Flatley III agreed. There were two carriers in the Pacific at the time of the attack, but neither was in the harbor. Flatley reasoned that if they had made it to the harbor in time, the planes aboard likely would have been shot down as fighting tactics had not yet been developed to compete with the then superior flying of the Japanese A6M Zero.
The absence of carriers in the harbor that day helped the US fleet recover quickly. The aircraft carrier's job was to take the fight (and specifically the fighter pilots) wherever they needed to go, and during WWI their numbers increased to help fulfill that purpose. Built in approximately sixteen months in Newport News, VA, the USS Yorktown CV-10 was commissioned on April 15th, 1943. The Essex-class carrier was named in honor of the the Yorktown CV-5, which had been sunk in the Battle of Midway just six months after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor. RADM Flatley III's father, Vice Admiral James H. Flatley Jr., was the Yorktown's first Air Group Commander in WWII.
Before earning the rank of Vice Admiral, Flatley Jr. was a Naval Flying ace in WWII. He is credited with shooting down 6.5 planes and earned the Navy Cross for courageous service in the Battle of the Coral Sea. Following the Battle of the Coral Sea, he returned to the US to help form Fighter Squadron 10, nicknamed the "Grim Reapers" flying F4F Wildcats. Flatley was not only a talented fighter pilot but also a skilled tactician. Along with LDCDR Jimmy Thach, Flatley developed aerial tactics that helped the F4F Wildcat compete with the Japanese Zero. He attributed the success of the Zero more to the Japanese pilots than the planes themselves and helped identify tactics to beat them.
When WWII came to a close, VADM Flatley continued to serve and helped "save Naval Aviation from itself" according to his son when he began combating the lack of safety standards in the air-training program as the Navy transitioned to the jet age in flying. VADM Flatley's most significant contribution may have been the Flatley Report, which instituted naval safety standards, some of which are still utilized today. Flatley Jr.'s son followed in his father's footsteps by attending the Naval Academy and becoming a pilot. He admitted there were plenty of times during his flying days that he thought "Sorry, Dad," when he had to "wing it" (excuse the terrible pun) in learning a new aircraft.
Following RADM Flatley's graduation from the Naval Academy in 1956 and Flight school in Pensacola, he went on to earn his own recognition in Naval Aeronautics. Early in his career, RADM Flatley received an assignment to be a test pilot at the Naval Air Test Center. At the time, the Navy was using a plane called the C-1 Trader for aircraft carrier delivery duties, but the plane was limited to a rather small payload and a 300 mile range. When a carrier needed cargo delivered that exceeded those limitations, the ship would need to come closer to shore or go without the important delivery. While a plane better suited for this task was being developed, the Chief of Naval Operations wanted to consider an alternative "stand in". He therefore ordered a feasibility study to research and test whether a C-130 Hercules could handle the task in the interim.
For those that know little about military planes (ie. myself prior to this interview), the C-130 is an aircraft with a 132 foot wingspan originally designed as a troop, medevac, and cargo transport plane. Landing one on an aircraft carrier (especially in the early 1960's when aircraft carriers were designed to be much smaller than they are today), was frankly outlandish, if not an outright ridiculous idea. The only thing I can think to equate it to, is parallel parking a 1950s era Cadillac Convertible in a parking space designed for a modern day Mini Cooper.
When the feasibility study arrived at the Naval Air Test Center, it was handed to then Lieutenant Flatley. There were pilots there with two plus years more experience than Flatley, but nobody (including Flatley himself) thought the flight testing would actually take place. The men thought the idea would be researched, but never tested. "I had the last laugh," Flatley explained. "Because a month later, they were giving me the Distinguished Flying Cross."
Prior to this feat, Lieutenant Flatley didn't even have experience flying multi-engine prop planes. He was a jet pilot. So he traveled to Marietta, Georgia to visit Lockhead, the company that manufactured the C-130 Hercules, to start practicing. Ted Limmer, the lead test pilot from Lockheed gave Flatley, along with copilot, Lt. Cmdr. W.W. "Smokey" Stovall, and flight engineers, Petty Officer Ed Brennan and Petty Officer Al Sieve their introduction to the plane. Limmer spent a matter of hours (yes, hours) giving Flatley his flying introduction to the aircraft. I didn't ask, but this may have been one of the "Sorry, Dad" lack of safety protocol examples RADM Flatley had mentioned to me when he was telling me about his dad's contributions to Naval Aviation. Limmer then left the plane with Flatley and crew for about seven days where they continuously practiced short field landings and takeoffs. Engineers from the Carrier Suitability Branch came out to set up cameras and take extensive measurements while the men trained.
Finally it was time to test things out at sea. The entire flight deck of the USS Forrestal was cleared on October 30, 1963. A sign that read "Look Ma, No Hook" had been painted and affixed to the C-130 under the copilot's window giving nod to the fact that not only would the massive plane have to land on the carrier's deck, but do so without the aid of an arresting hook and wire. The crew approached the Forrestal off the coast of Florida with a pitching carrier deck and 40-60 knot winds. Because of the conditions, Flatley ended up making 42 approaches to the ship to accomplish 19 touch-and-go landings (landing on a runway and taking off again without coming to a full stop). Cameras mounted all over the deck captured the touch-and-gos. After the recorded data was analyzed and all looked good, the Forrestal was rescheduled for the crew to make a full stop landing attempt on November 8th.
Check out the amazing footage of the C-130 landing on the USS Forrestal's deck above.
Flatley used three touch-and-go landings as a warm-up that second week in November before getting clearance for the first full stop landing attempt. Flatley put the propellers into reverse, and he and Stovall laid on the brakes as the C-130 touched down, stopping the aircraft in less than 300 feet. Though the plane stopped with plenty of room on the deck, it was so wide that there was less than 15 feet between the plane's wingspan and the Forrestal's flight deck control tower when it passed by. The plane set down to cheers and laughter from the men onboard.
By the end of the study, Flatley and crew had logged 29 touch-and-gos and 21 full stop landings and take-offs over four trips to the Forrestal. They tested landing the plane and taking off at different weights to determine how much cargo the plane could carry while still being able to safely land and depart. Stovall, Brennan, and Sieve were all awarded the Air Medal for their contributions to the project. And 53 years later, Flatley's landing of the C-130 still holds the record for the largest and heaviest aircraft landing on a carrier. Though proven possible, using the C-130 as a practical carrier onboard delivery transport was deemed too risky as the flight deck had to be cleared to land the aircraft. Apparently an aircraft carrier devoid of fighter jets on deck doesn't make a captain feel very "warm-and-fuzzy". The Gruman C-2 Greyhound eventually came online as a suitable onboard delivery transport, and the rest is history.
Flatley went on to continue flying fighter jets, completed 346 combat missions in Vietnam, became Commander of an Air Wing and then eventually a Battle Group while serving on the USS Saratoga. As Commanding Officer of VF-31, he led the "Tomcatters" in winning both the Battle "E" and CNO Safety Awards during combat deployment: 2,200 squadron combat missions without personnel or aircraft injury or loss, something I think his dad would have been extremely proud of.
He was the first Naval aviator to record 1,600 carrier landings, and held the Navy's record for the most landings on an aircraft carrier for around ten years. At 1,608 total carrier landings, he is still in the top ten. His combat awards include the Silver Star, 2 Distinguished Flying Crosses, Bronze Star with Combat "V", and 30 Air Medals (6 Individual and 24 Strike/Flight). A third Distinguished Flying Cross earned in peace time (a rare accomplishment) for the C-130 work adds to that award total. He retired from active duty in 1987 and was inducted into the South Carolina Aviation Hall of Fame in 2000.
During Flatley's time in the service he wasn't the only hero in the family. When Jim left for his first tour in Vietnam, his youngest of six children was only about two weeks old. His wife, Nancy was a shining star when it came to not only supporting Jim and raising their family, but also contributing to the morale of the service families around her. One of the biggest challenges for the military is quality of life for those enlisted and serving their spouses and families well. It goes without saying that being separated from your family for months at a time while a sailor or soldier is deployed is no piece of cake for the enlisted man or woman or their spouse. A well organized, strong spouse such as Nancy was not only an asset for her family but in keeping informed of the needs of other military wives and families and helping to encourage them. It wasn't uncommon for a commander to enlist the help of such women to help keep them informed of the needs of their servicemen's families. It is a good reminder for us as a local community to be mindful of how we can be supporting the families of our military, especially while they are away from home.
In 1994, Patriots Point in Charleston was on the hunt for a new executive director. A group of sailors involved in the project put Flatley's name in the hat for the position, and he traveled down from Washington DC for an interview. I didn't get the impression it was an overly flashy job offer at the time. Though Patriots Point had made some strides in terms of attendance, it had a long way to go in terms of quality development and sustainability. Jim knew there was a lot of work ahead. In the end, he had such a connection to the USS Yorktown and his father's time spent on the mighty ship, he couldn't resist the move. Nancy can also take some credit for the couple's long-standing presence in the Lowcountry of South Carolina. She liked the area and was ready to stop moving following the active duty days. Mt Pleasant and the Charleston area therefore became home and the couple got to work investing in the community. Thank you, Nancy! We're very glad you stayed.
RADM Flatley served as the CEO of Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum from April of 1994 until the summer of 2001 and played a key role in the museum becoming one of the South Carolina's most popular tourism attractions with more than 270,000 visitors per year. When Flatley joined the team, much of the 350 waterfront acres where Patriots Point resides were undeveloped. That's not a helpful thing when the land was granted to the Patriots Point Development Authority to help support the museum and pay the bills. During Flatley's tenure, he encouraged development on the land where the College of Charleston Baseball Stadium, Tennis Center, and Soccer Stadium now reside along side Patriots Point Links golf course and a growing tourism and hospitality hub. The revenue from that development, program and ticket sales from the museum, and generous donations help keep the museum thriving. Flatley also speaks highly of Mac Burdette, the former Army Colonel and Mt. Pleasant Town Administrator who is at the helm of the museum now.
Education is a major priority for the museum, and they work to encourage it at every turn. Flatley told me that almost every 5th and 8th grade student in the tri-county area will spend a day during the school year at the museum. They have the opportunity to learn history while walking the decks of the USS Yorktown and Laffey or the new Vietnam Experience Exhibit, watching films about the Yorktown's contributions in WWII, climbing into the cockpit of a fighter jet, or participating in the Virtual Reality Space Mission or Flight Academy. The Youth Overnight Program hosts kids from youth groups, schools, scouting groups, and ROTC programs. The overnight guests enjoy touring the museum and ship facilities, sleeping in the berths the sailors once did, and dining in the ship mess hall. Talk about a cool field trip! The USS Yorktown Foundation assists in supporting the exhibits, vessels, and educational programs at the museum, including providing scholarships to schools in lower income areas of the state so that as many students as possible can have a hands on learning experience. Donations to the USS Yorktown Foundation can be made through their website at www.ussyorktownfoundation.org or by texting the word "heroes" to 843-606-5995.
Education was also at the forefront of the recent 40th Anniversary Celebration at Patriots Point. One of the more exciting highlights of the event was watching people get excited about learning and experiencing history. I ran into a friend from church who had brought his children that day. Even though it was a Saturday, the kids, who are home schooled, got to count the adventure as a school day. They didn't seem to mind at all. Guests strolled through the Medal of Honor Museum, the hanger of the Yorktown, and other exhibits surrounded by the people who lived the history themselves. Sailors stood on the decks of ships they were stationed on and greeted visitors. Pilots sat in front of aircraft they had landed on the deck of the Yorktown decades prior and answered the questions of guests who were clearly (and understandably) enamored with them.
One such pilot was a gentleman named Bill Watkinson (Lieutenant JG). I had seen him roaming the hanger of the Yorktown the day prior to the 40th Anniversary Celebration. I'm not going to lie. I followed the guy. He had a service hat on and screamed, "I've got a story a story to tell" from a mile away. That's just an expression of course. He didn't scream at me, though I wouldn't have blamed him...after all I was following him. All kidding aside, I was hoping for the opportunity to meet him and find out a little about his story. He strolled the hanger walking from plane to plane. He'd pause and spend time with them the way you'd envision someone would sit silently with an old friend. Eventually I saw him speaking to some other visitors about a plane and took the opportunity to introduce myself shortly after. I found out he was one of the special guests for the weekend's celebration and made a plan to catch up with him the following day.
Watkinson flying a FM2, a later version of the F4F Wildcat.
I reintroduced myself the next day and watched for quite some time as visitor after visitor came up and shook Watkinson's hand, thanked him for his service, asked for autographs, flying tips, and career advice. I knew I wasn't the only one who wanted to hear his story. I found out he was one of about six night fighter pilots who called the USS Yorktown CV-10 home during WWII. A night fighter was an aircraft specifically modified to be used at night or other times of poor visibility such a bad weather. The night fighters were used to lead other groups of pilots through poor visibility to their intended targets.
Watkinson went on to tell me about one such mission during the war when the Hellcat F6 he was flying was hit by Japanese fire. He was on a dive bomb attack when what appeared to be 40 mm shells hit the plane and started peeling the metal off Watkinson's wing. Other boats wanted him to make an emergency landing in the water, but the Yorktown let him return to the carrier for a no flap landing on deck. He was thankful. Once the plane was safely on deck, the crew found that he had lost half his left wheel and had a hole in the wing big enough for another sailor to stand in. Watkinson noted, "If that had hit anywhere else on that wing, why, it would have fallen off, and I would have been in Japan one way or another. That was kind of scary, 'cause I didn't want to go to Japan". That seemed to go right along with his assumed rules for success during the war: "Number one was to do what they told me to do. Number two was to stay alive."
Bill Watkinson poses with his plane after it was hit during a dive bomb attack in WWII. As you can see, the wing sustained substantial damage.
In regard to Watkinson's plane, they put a new wheel and a new wing on it, and he flew it the next day. That seems to be in-tune with other sailors' recollection of pilots' actions. Bill Brendle, Gunner's Mate on the Yorktown during WWII noted he never remembered any of the pilots saying they weren't going to go out again even though they didn't know if they'd be coming back. Brendle said of the pilots, "They won the war for us. I admire every one of them." Parachute Rigger, Jesse Rodriguez, who sailed over 375,000 miles on board the Yorktown, shared they "lost a lot of pilots". They were all not much older than Rodriguez at the time- 18, 19, 20 years old. "I loved my pilots", he said. "I loved their comradery, their patriotism, and their willingness to fight."
Comradery and patriotism seem to be alive and well at Patriots Point whether a 40th Anniversary Celebration is happening or not. The day before the grand event as RADM Flatley gave me a tour of the flight deck, he met and began talking with two other veterans. At other points during the weekend I saw other vets shaking hands with friends and strangers alike, reminiscing about their time in the service. I got to hear about some of these sailors' stories simply because I asked, and they were willing to share.
In the Yorktown's film The Carrier Will Lead, From Battle to Victory, the ship is compared to a mother - a place of safe haven where sailors would return and feel protected. I can't imagine a day goes by at Patriots Point where the museum is not occupied by active and retired military. I get the impression members of the military come to visit from all over whether or not the USS Yorktown, the USS Laffey, or the Clamagore were their specific "mother" ship. Ben Couillard, an Aviation Machinist's Mate who appears in The Carrier Will Lead was quoted as saying of the Yorktown, "This ship went to war to save our country. And I love this old ship. We feel like it's our ship". Choking back tears he continued, "It belongs to the crew". Thanks to Ben Couillard, Jim Flatley, Bill Watkinson, and all those who are willing to share their ship and their story with us.
~Dedicated to the men and women of the United States military and the families and friends who support them.~
Audra Gibson is a Christian, photographer, surfer, and a lover of music and teriyaki steak bites. She doesn't like to be cold, and she's a bit of a cheese snob, but that's not her fault (she was raised in a gourmet cheese shop). Traveling Ink was her little brain child and she's very happy that you're here. She'd be oh so happy to recommend her favorite restaurant in town, take pictures of your family, or organize a night (or weekend) of fun for you.Website: www.audragibson.com