Table of Contents
The Boy Scouts of America has published Boys'
Life since January 1, 1911. I received it for a couple years in the late 1960s while in the
Scouts. I have begun buying copies on eBay to look for useful articles. As time permits, I will be glad
to scan articles for you. All copyrights (if any) are hereby acknowledged. Here are the
Boys' Life issues I have so far.
Old seafarers' superstitions wore
on long past the days when sailors believed their ship might run over the edge of
the Earth. They carried over into maritime services well into the 20th century,
and probably to some extent into the 21st century. It was common to blame a long
string of bad luck on one poor sap whose appearance on the scene just happened to
coincide with the supposed curse. He was called a "Jonah," after the Biblical character
whose presence on a fishing boat caused a constant run of bad weather until the
crew finally tossed him overboard where the leviathan of the deep swallowed him.
In this story from a 1938 edition of Boys' Life magazine, a particular seaplane suffered
problem after problem, like water in the gas tank causing dead stick landings on
rough seas, so the pilots and mechanics referred to it as "Jonah's plane." As with
many stories of the era, this one centers around airplanes and ships.
by Blaine and Dupont Miller
Illustrated by William Heaslip
That old jinx ship showed up just when Bob Wakefield had to compete for the gunnery
Anchored on the Bering side of the Aleutians, the U.S.S. Denver rolled constantly
in response to the huge swells of the landlocked sea, so that it was necessary for
the two officers standing on her after deck to brace themselves against movement.
Lieut. Bob Wakefield, senior
flight officer, was asking, "You mean we're to fire our fixed machine gun practice
here? Before we go to San Diego, sir?"
"That's it, Wakefield. The orders just came. Our unit, and the planes on the
Helena are to work together, firing as soon as possible."
"But, sir," protested Bob, "we've just sent our good Albatross seaplane over
to the Helena in exchange for this old crate of theirs that we're to take south
"I know. It's too bad they didn't send the word a little sooner, but I'm sure
you'll do the ship proud anyway, Bob."
As the Executive Officer started on his way to an inspection below, he regarded
a plane swung from the crane, its main float a mass of wreckage. Smiling slightly,
he shook his head and remarked, "I trust you're not superstitious, Wakefield."
Bob followed his glance to the stabilizer of the plane which displayed in large
black numerals"0013". The aviator shook his head and smiled, but he wasn't feeling
very cheerful. How could he possibly make a winning gunnery score with that piece
Two hours before he had written, "transferred this date to the U.S.S. Helena"
in the log of his old Albatross. He had hated to give up that ship. Not only was
it in excellent condition, but it had carried him through some arduous hops.
Apparently Ajax, whose mechanical skill was responsible for the fine condition
of the plane, had felt the same way, for he had said, gloomily, "I'm afraid, sir,
we're going to regret the day we had to let old Number One go."
Almost immediately the pilot from the Helena bringing in the exchange plane had
caught his main float on the top of a swell as he came in fast during a dead calm.
The float had crumpled under the impact and only by quick work had the aviation
unit on the Denver managed to hook the plane to the crane before it sank.
Climbing out of the damaged ship, somewhat shamefaced, Bill Riley had said: "We've
always had trouble with this plane. Dead stick landings, water in the gas. Something
is always happening to her. Why, the crew on the Helena think that she is such a
Jonah's plane that only flight order men will ride in Number Thirteen."
Bob called his assistant, Happy Parker, and the rest of the Unit together and
they received the news that they were to fire the gunnery practice immediately,
with sober, concerned faces. They knew that the Denver and the Helena were tied
for the gunnery trophy, so that this practice was important not only to them, but
to the whole ship.
When the men had dispersed, Happy said indignantly, "It looks like a plot to
me! Palming this old horse-and-buggy off on us, and then making us do gunnery with
Bob smiled grimly. "It's no plot. Just a
mix-up in orders somewhere. We might as well look her over and see what has to be
This inspection proved even more discouraging than Bob had expected. Replacing
the main float was not a difficult matter. The log of 0013 bore out Riley's words.
She had led an unfortunate career. Everything short of a major crash had occurred
to the craft. As a result, many of the fittings were twisted, slightly, of course,
but enough to warp any surfaces installed.
"Bob, it'll take days to get this crate fixed up, even if we can manage it aboard
ship," protested Happy.
"And, in the meantime we'll lose all the practice time we might have before the
official firing," agreed Bob. "I'm going to the Skipper and see if we can't get
our old plane back."
Captain Rumble listened to Bob's story sympathetically and when he had finished,
asked, "The two units are running a pretty Close race, aren't they?"
"Yes, sir! We're tied for the gunnery trophy. I think we could beat them, Captain,
but they cracked up the plane they delivered to us this morning. Besides that, it
has had so much happen to it that it is badly in need of a major overhaul."
"How was the plane you turned over to them?", "It was in splendid shape, sir,
and that's what I came to see you about. Isn't there some way we can get that plane
back for the practice?" ,
There was a frown above Captain Rumble's formidable eyebrows as he considered
the matter. Finally, he shook his head. "I'm afraid it can't be done, Bob. It's
obvious that someone made a mistake and forgot about this practice when they ordered
the transfer of planes."
"A mistake that is tough luck for us, sir."
"I quite realize that, but after all, the other ship was only carrying out her
orders, too. Unless the Helena chooses to send you back your good plane to use for
the practice, we will just have to make the best of it."
Bob's heart sank. He made one more effort. "You know, Captain, one of the rules
of the practice is that if a plane is forced down during the official firing runs,
the pilot of that plane gets a zero score, because it is also supposed to be a test
of the machine. It doesn't seem fair for us to take that chance with a plane for
which we have not been responsible."
The Skipper's eyes were the sea blue eyes of an old sailor, bright and direct.
Now, he regarded his Senior Aviator with a penetrating stare. Finally, he cleared
his throat with the trumpet-blast sound which was renowned throughout the Fleet.
"Hr-umph! I suppose you are as tired as the rest of your generation of hearing
about 'the days
of iron men and wooden ships'. Hey?"
"Well - er - no, sir. But I've heard the expression."
"I'm going to tell you something - confidentially. Men weren't much different
then than they are today. But from all the years I've spent in the Navy I've learned
He paused impressively, to explode forth his discovery with a bang of one fist
upon the desk. "It is the man - not the machine that counts. All this new, complicated
equipment is very fine. Very nice to have. But whether its a frigate, or an airplane
carrier, Bob, for the long pull, the Navy depends on its men.
"All right. You get up on deck there, and show the Helena we could lick 'em with
a box kite if that's what they'd brought over to us."
The next few days were busy ones for the aviation unit. All the gunnery gear
was carefully checked. Their one good plane was given a thorough inspection. Ajax
worked far into the nights in his efforts to align the Helena's old plane. In the
meantime, the Denver raised steam and moved out along the island string and anchored
not far from the Helena.
The two seaplanes from the Helena were aloft from morning until night. One would
tow a sleeve, while the other made dive after dive, firing long bursts from its
machine guns. After a series of runs, the sleeve would be dropped neatly over the
quarterdeck. Then, the two pilots would shift jobs, permitting both of them to obtain
the maximum firing practice.
For a day or two after the Senior Aviator's interview with Captain Rumble, Bob
and Happy had entertained the wild hope that the Helena might return their plane
to. them. But now, watching the activities on their sister cruiser, it was evident
that the other unit had no intention of surrendering the good Albatross. Until they
were able to place both of their planes in commission, the Denver Unit could get
no practice firing runs. Therefore, it was most exasperating to them, as they labored
over their obstinate craft, to see their competitors practicing early and late.
The sympathies of the entire ship were with Bob and Happy. The contest between
the two aviation units was the most exciting event of many months. In addition,
there was the desire to have the Denver win the gunnery trophy.
In the daytime 0013 was an everpresent problem over which Bob worried and worked.
By night the plane became a demon haunting his dreams. With all of Ajax' good work,
he still wondered whether or not the craft would see them through the gunnery contest
that would soon be upon them.
He had another problem, too. Who should fire with the old crock? Should he? Or
should Happy? The sensible thing was for him to take their good plane, since he
was more experienced, and presumably would make the most hits for the ship. On the
other hand, he disliked assigning Happy to the Jonah plane.
It was a relief when, after four days, the plane was ready for a test. Even then,
so much time had been devoted to realigning that there had been none available for
checking over the power plant. Bob felt that they could not afford to lose any more
hours of practice, and he ordered the exchanged plane over the side.
Once in the air, he regained some of his old optimism. Although the engine didn't
turn up as much as he should have liked, and while it was rough, Ajax had done a
fine piece of work. Flipper turns to the right and to the left. Smooth controls
and instant response. It flew hands off. It fell into a stall at the proper speed.
Bob was elated. Even though the Denver did not have much time left for practice,
their prospects were looking up as long as 0013 behaved like this! Now to hurry
back to the ship and he and Happy would get going, making up for lost time. In his
enthusiasm, he pulled the craft's nose up and kicked hard rudder. Like a top, the
plane spun around laterally into a roll. Another kick and another roll. Then Bob's
heart skipped a beat as the engine suddenly sputtered and cut cold!
In the rear cockpit, Ajax called, "She's starving for gas!"
Bob checked fuel valves, he boosted the gas pressure by hand. But not a pop indicated
that life could be extracted from the engine. Landing not far from the Denver, 0013
was ignominiously towed alongside.
"Sounds like carburetor jets to me, Ajax," declared Bob in discouraged tones,
"better pull the carburetor and give it a hundred hour check."
"That'll fix her, Mr. Wakefield," promised the mechanic.
Another day of maddening inactivity followed while the Helena planes kept up
their whining dives. Ajax wasn't able to get the carburetor disassembled before
"It will be the middle of tomorrow morning before she's ready to go," predicted
Bob to the anxious Happy at his side, "and then we'll have to synchronize the guns
and boresight. That will take another half day."
"And I've never fired this practice!" deplored Happy for the tenth time, "Give
me all the dope on it."
Again, the Senior Aviator went over the sequence of dives, explaining in detail
how the telescopic sight should be used, how to manipulate the plane.
"What are. the chances of the bullets striking the propeller?" asked the younger
"They won't strike it at all, providing the guns are properly synchronized. Of
course, the gear goes wrong occasionally and sometimes you may come home with a
hole through a blade. Not often, though."
"I've always wondered how the synchronization gear operates so accurately."
"It didn't always. In the early days a pilot who wanted to fire his guns straight
ahead merely screwed a heavy metal plate over each one of his propeller blades.
Then he opened fire indiscriminately. Only a small percentage of the bullets struck
the revolving blades and they glanced off. Of course, sometimes the ricochets went
a bit wild."
"I can imagine they did!" grinned Happy. "My brother Steve used to tell me about
that. He said the bullets used to ping back through the wing fabric."
"It wasn't the safest method," admitted Bob, "and it finally dawned upon some
of the flyers that it wouldn't be much of a trick to connect the machine gun to
the crankshaft of the engine. You simply revolve a cam once for every revolution
of the engine. The cam has two lobes, each of which operates the trigger mechanism."
"That fires the gun, of course, but how do you synchronize it?"
"You mesh the gear of the cam to the engine in such a manner that the lobe comes
at the point you wish to fire. Generally, it is set to fire just after a propeller
blade has passed, thus giving the bullet the maximum time to fly clear of the next
oncoming blade. Besides, if there is a slight delay in the firing apparatus, you
still will not shoot your prop."
"Will the gun fire after the passage of every propeller blade?"
"Not always. The engine may be turning up so fast that the machine gun has not
yet completed its cycle. In this case, it will not be ready for firing, even though
the firing mechanism operates just after the passage of each blade past the gun
"I should think," said Happy, "that there would be times when the faster your
engine revved up, the slower would be your rate of fire."
"And, that's correct," answered the Senior Aviator. "Frequently, you can fire
faster if you will throttle back your engine."
As predicted, it was nearly noon of the following day before Ajax announced that
0013 was ready to go. A test flight proved successful and the Denver aviation unit
made preparations for practice runs the next day, the last before the actual firing.
Long belts of ammunition were made up; cotton sleeves, to be used as targets, were
stowed in intricate designs upon towing boards.
The planes were out the entire day. Each pilot repeated time and again long,
howling dives with his eyes glued to the telescopic sight. But, if the Denver's
seaplanes made many runs that afternoon, the Helena's did likewise. Bob groaned
as he thought of their four wasted days.
The hits in the sleeves had been counted following each run and now, at the end
of the day, the pilots were able to analyze the results. Bob found that a few runs
had brought him back into his old form and his scores were improving. Happy's sleeves,
however, were scarcely touched, and he was utterly discouraged, even though the
last targets showed a few holes.
The great day dawned with fair flying weather-as fair as could be expected in
the vicinity of the Aleutians. By the toss of a coin it had been decided that the
Helena's pilots were to fire first, while the flyers from the Denver acted as observers.
"The duty of an observer," explained Bob, "is to ride with the tow plane to make
certain all of the safety rules are observed. We'll take turns doing that. The other
man will stay on the ship to recover and count hits in the sleeves. If there is
any doubt about anything, we have the authority to make a decision."
"That shouldn't be hard to do," remarked Happy.
Bob laughed. "I've seen squadrons do battle over one hit."
Riding in the rear scat of the tow plane, Bob observed that Bill Riley's approaches
were smooth, sure. With the first pilot's runs completed and the target dropped
aboard, the observers took charge of the sleeve. Spread out on the well deck, it
was surrounded by the aviation unit. On his hands and knees, Bob began to circle
each hole with black crayon. Thirty-two holes - sixteen hits. Well above average!
Riley's junior pilot made his runs. His first official practice, he was tense and
nervous. However, he made fourteen hits. A total of thirty for the Helena. A good
solid score that would be no setup to beat.
Returning to the Denver, Bob felt depressed, but not hopeless. Happy asked, rather
diffidently, "May I make a suggestion?"
"Of course, fellow."
"Since a plane that is forced down loses its score, and since you're the one
who is going to get the hits - I think I should take Number Thirteen."
"It wouldn't worry you to fly the plane?" Bob asked.
"Not in the slightest."
The Senior Aviator hesitated a moment. What his assistant had said was true.
Not only that, but Bob realized suddenly, that perhaps he had reached the stage
where he must relegate responsibility to others occasionally.
He smiled, "Okay. Good boy!"
It was an excited Wardroom which sent its aviators aloft to their official firing
runs that afternoon. All of the crew. off duty were ranged along the lifelines on
deck. Their cheers drowned out as Bob opened the throttle of his plane for the first
Shortly afterward, flying high over the target. he jockeyed for a desirable position.
Then, exactly right, he eased back on the throttle and pulled the nose of his craft
up. Losing speed for an instant, he let the nose whip down toward the muslin sleeve,
pulled back on the charging handle, and removed the cover from his sight.
Then the control of the plane became nearly mechanical. Bob moved the stick in
response to the image in the retina of his eyes. Forward moved the cross-wires until
they were leading the target. Up just a trifle to allow for droop. Careful for fear
of slipping or skidding the speeding craft.
Then, as the white bulk of the target loomed up large, Bob's fingers gently squeezed
the trigger. A resounding blast filled the cockpit, during which the cross-wires
held their relative position. With the burst finished, the pilot threw the stick
violently forward to drop under the target by the narrowest of margins.
More runs followed. Some down from directly overhead, others from the side. Always,
Bob held his plane in a vice-like grip as he fired the gun.
Once more aboard the Denver, standing by his target, Bob waited anxiously as
Riley counted the hits. There were plenty! The count showed fifty-eight holes -
a total of twenty-nine hits - permitting Bob to paint an "E" on his plane for excellent
But when Wakefield rushed over to Happy, he was thinking solely of the Unit's
score. "Fellow, we need only two hits now to give us the trophy!"
Parker had a frown on his face, for, realizing his heavy responsibilities, he
had become taut.
"I'll do my best, Bob."
"Just take it easy. Get in close before you open fire."
There was dead silence as the plane was hoisted over the side. Ajax, remaining
with the exchange plane, was in the read cockpit, as impassive as an Indian.
Aloft, now, in the towing plane, Wakefield looked back from his place in the
forward cockpit. Happy's dives looked good. Smooth, easy turns and he was getting
in close, too, before he fired.
Then, with one more dive to make, Parker look his position well above the target.
Suddenly, the nose of his Albatross reared up and the craft fell off to begin its
downward plunge. Faster and faster it came, leaving a trail of smoking oil fumes.
The pilot began to wrap the plane up into a steep flipper turn. Closer and closer
Ahead, in the target plane, Bob said to himself, tensely, "Time to begin firing!"
But the pursuing plane continued its closing course. Suddenly, Wakefield, again
looking back, felt his throat contract. His heart began to pound as the diving plane
headed straight for the sleeve. The tell-tale puff of black smoke was emitted, indicating
that the pilot had begun to fire. But, Happy had followed Bob's advice with a vengeance.
He was too close! Apparently, he realized it now, for 0013 suddenly dove straight
down in an effort to avoid the target.
Bob turned forward quickly as he felt a powerful pull on his plane. For an instant,
his craft hesitated, then lunged forward as the towline carried away.
The sleeve crumpled up for an instant as it fell clear and then once more streamed
out. Looking below, Bob could see that Happy had picked it up with his starboard
wing. The plane was scarcely under control. The right wing dropped violently with
the drag of the inflated sleeve. From the maneuvers of the pilot to right it, Bob
knew that Happy was fighting desperately to hold his machine level. He would be
exhausted in a short time even with Ajax in the rear cockpit to help him. And even
then, it would be unsafe to attempt a landing.
Bob groaned. The crew of the stricken plane could bail out safely enough at this
altitude. But, the loss of the machine would throw out Happy's score. They would
lose the trophy.
Bob's first impulse was to pick up the microphone, but he thought better of it.
Happy had his hands full now without any advice from him.
Gradually losing altitude, the plane worked into a slow right turn. It seemed
as though Happy was unable to hold it on a straight course any longer. The tormented
craft made a complete circle. Another. It was then that Bob noticed that, the circling
ma-hine was working its way over toward the Denver.
Suddenly, Bob let out a cheer. The next turn of Happy's plane would bring it
approximately over the Denver. Out onto the starboard wing was clambering a figure.
Ajax! Inching his way out, the mechanic grasped flying wires in his burly hands.
Wires which must cut as the slipstream strove to tear his grip loose.
The wing went down still further as it bore the weight of the figure moving out
toward the struts. The circle tightened, became smaller. The load was becoming too
much for the pilot. Ajax would have to free the target pretty soon, or the plane
would spin down out of control.
Now, over the ship, the plane had tilted into nearly a vertical turn. Ajax was
standing almost to the horizontal. It was now or never.
"Cut it!" screamed Bob as he anticipated loss of control. Why didn't they bailout?
They'd both go down with the doomed plane at that low altitude.
Suddenly, the lowered right wing shot upward as a white sleeve dropped and fluttered
to the surface alongside the cruiser. Even with the plane again in level flight,
it was several minutes before Ajax could work his way back to the cockpit
The entire ship's force was on deck to see the marking of the recovered target.
It appeared as untouched as when it first went out.
"None there," remarked Riley, "turn it over."
There in one end was a hole. A second. Three. Four in all. Two hits! The Denver
had won the trophy!
As Bob went over to Happy and Ajax to congratulate them, he thought how right
the Skipper had been. "Wooden ships" indeed! He'd match Happy and Ajax in a frail
seaplane against any "iron men" the Old Navy ever had!
Lieutenant Bob Wakefield is a familiar character to readers of Boys' Life for
he has appeared in many of its stories. He is the hero also of two interesting books
by the same author: Bob Wakefield, Naval Aviator and Bob Wakefield, Naval Inspector
Posted December 1, 2023
(updated from original
post on 1/12/2014)