After bootcamp at Great Lakes in 1958 and a stint in Aviation Electronics School in Patuxent River, Md., Radioman 3rd/Class Jim Spence wound up as a radio operator aboard a U.S. Navy four-engine, Super Constellation patrol plane flying out of Argentia, Newfoundland in Airborne Early Warning Squadron 13.
“It was a rock in the North Atlantic off the Canadian coast,” he recalled 50 years later. “It was as desolate a place as you could find, there were no trees. No vegetation at all.
“Weather conditions were horrible. We might take off in 30 to 40 mph. winds. The temperature on the ground might be in the teens. We would fly out over the North Atlantic headed for the Azores on a flight that could last up to 16 hours,” Spence recalled. “I was one of the two radiomen aboard the plane. There were 28 of us in the crew.
“Our job was to spot any aircraft flying toward the United States and report them. We had six to eight radar scopes for spotting incoming planes. Once they found a plane headed for the U.S. the spotter would give me the information and I would send the information in Morris Code to headquarters,” he explained.
On the way to their post, Spence would call the Coast Guard weather station on location in the North Atlantic for weather information. The Coast Guard ship would be battling waves 10 to 40 feet high as it collected weather data at sea for a month or more at a time.
While flying these missions, ice would build on on the nose and leading edges of the four-engine plane’s wings. It was even worse for the Coast Guard ship that would return to base with ice covering its bow that was so thick they took jack hammers to clear the deck, Spence said.
During one of his missions, he and the crew flew their Super Constellation to Iceland.
“I thought Newfoundland was desolate until I got to Iceland,” he said. “We slept in WW II vintage Quonset huts while flying anti-submarine warfare flights out of Iceland. We were the control plane for a squadron of P-2V Neptune patrol bombers.
“The P-2Vs would drop sonar buoys looking for enemy subs. They found two while we were there. I sent this information on to headquarters, but nothing ever became of it,” he said.
The most challenging of Spence’s three-year, four-month and 4-day Navy career took place shortly after he arrived at Argentia (Newfoundland) Naval Base in April 1958 when he first went on patrol.
“The first time I went up we had a plane that was really in rough shape. We had to return to base after four hours.
“On my second flight we had to turn around and come back because one of our engines went out.
“The third flight I went on we were up about a half hour, but never reached our station when two of our four engines went out,” Spence recalled. “One of the engines was on fire and the other one had broken down.
“Weather conditions at Argentia were horrible. The young pilot flying our plane made several passes over the runway before trying to land. He failed to compensate correctly and hit hard in the fog while landing. The plane’s right wing sheered off.
“We skidded about 2,000 feet down the runway with one wing off when the plane flipped over and inverted. For the next 2,000 or 3,000-feet it skidded along the concrete runway tail first until it finally came to a stop,” he said.
“Miraculously only one person was killed. The plane’s electrician wound up being pinned in his seat when the nose gear collapsed,” Spence said. “The other 27 members of the crew escaped.
“I was the first or second person out of the plane. Everyone after me wound up being burned. Burning gasoline was running down on people as they exited the plane. When they came to get us with ambulances, the ambulances almost ran off the runway in the fog.
“After the accident they gave us all a 14 day leave. I went back to my parents’ home in New York. My father told me, “If you don’t go back up there and fly right away, you’ll never fly again.’ Ironically when I returned from leave the pilot who had crashed the plane said, ‘I’m going up again. Would any of you like to fly with me?’ Five of us volunteered to go up with him once more.”
By the time Spence completed his hitch in the Navy he had almost 2,000 hours of flight time logged in missions over the North Atlantic.
He returned home and went to work for the New York Telephone Co. where he worked for 32 years until he retired. He and his wife, Catherine, moved to Florida in 2002.
They have four children: Donna, Eddie, Brian, Kevin, and five grandchildren.
Name: James Joseph Spence
D.O.B: 12 March 1940
Hometown: Yonkers, Ny.
Currently: Port Charlotte, Fla.
Entered Service: 10 March 1961
Discharged: 16 Oct. 1963
Unit: Airborne Early Warning Squadron 13
Commendations: Combat Air Crewman Wings
Battles/Campaigns: Argentina and Newfoundland
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, March 4, 2013 and is republished with permission.
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