At 18 Jim Williams of Seminole Lakes subdivision south of Punta Gorda, Fla. became a Navy plane captain aboard four different aircraft carriers during his three years of service in the 1960s.
“The flight deck of a carrier is the most exciting and the most dangerous place I’ve ever been,” the 71-year-old Navy-man recalled 50 years after he served aboard his first carrier, the USS Yorktown (CV-12). Those turning propellers were like big meat cleavers. If someone walked into one they were going to die.”
When Williams became a plane captain, his job was to maintain a Douglas A-4 “Skyhawk” and keep it airborne. It was an attack aircraft with a single seat, single jet capable of flying from a carrier.
“My first experience on a carrier was aboard the USS Yorktown. I was 18 and it was night when I first walked out on the deck of the Yorktown. They were doing training flights off the California coast.
“There were no lights on deck, it was really black. Jets were running and propellers were turning on deck, but you couldn’t see them.
“I was scared, so I turned right around and came back in and told my petty officer: ‘No way. I’m not going out there again. You can take me to the brig.’
“‘Yes you are,’ he replied. ‘You’re coming with me. I’ll show you the ropes.’
“I held his belt when we went out on the flight deck again. After that outing I became initiated. It took a little time but I got used to working on a carrier’s flight deck.”
Most of his time in the service he was tending to an A-4 flown by a Navy carrier pilot who was improving their carrier landing and takeoff skills. Williams and his unit, Squadron VA-125, spent several weeks at a time off the California coast working with these pilots as they practiced takeoffs and landings.
“I was on my second trip out aboard the carrier ‘Hornet.’ This was the ship Jimmy Doolittle’s squadron flew from to bomb the Japanese six months after they bombed Pearl Harbor, during the start of World War II. It was a very historic boat.
“It was also the ship where I almost met my demise. I got blown off the deck one night from the exhaust of a jet that was taking off. It blew me off my feet into the nets on the side of the ship.
“I had been busy readying my aircraft for takeoff and not paying attention to what was going on on the deck. The exhaust knocked me down and rolled me off the deck into the net.
“I crawled out of the net, finished my job and got my airplane off. Then I went below, smoked a pack of cigarettes, drank a pot of coffee and tried to settle down,” he recalled decades later.
“On my next outing I was sailing aboard the carrier Hancock. We went to Hawaii for 30 days. It was there we helped both Navy and Marine pilots qualify. Nothing much happened aboard the carrier except that Marine Corps pilots tore up a number of A-1 ‘Skyraders’ trying to take off and land. They lacked experience making carrier landings.
“We returned to Pearl Harbor and I was sent to Attack Squadron VA-22 also stationed at Lemoore Naval Air Station in California where I had been. I went on a two week cruise.
“On that cruise an F-4 ‘Phantom’ tried to takeoff when their canopy blew off and the pilot and his back seat guy did a left turn, dove into the sea and the plane disintegrated. They never saw the two pilots again,” Williams said.
“I was on the flight deck about 40-feet from the airplane when it took off. It was night and we were on a training exercise off the California coast when it happened. It’s something you never forget.
“On Nov. 8, 1963 we sailed out of San Francisco aboard the carrier ‘USS Midway’ on our cruise to the Far East. We were in Pearl Harbor tied up at the dock at Ford Island and were taking on supplies when President Kennedy was assinated. That was the height of the ‘Cold War’ and may people thought the Russians might have killed Kennedy.
“We immediately went to sea on alert. At the same time all the submarines in Pearl Harbor left too,” he said. “When we came back, after the scare passed, we were the senior ship in port. The day of the President’s funeral in Washington we fired a 21-gun salute to honor him because we were the senior ship.
“We left Hawaii and continued our cruise east accompanied by the carrier ‘USS Kittyhawk.’ On our way to Subic Bay, the Philippines, the two carriers operated against each other.
“In those days the ‘Kittyhawk’ was the latest and greatest war ship in the fleet. It had four catapults to our two, but we out-launched them and out-recovered them. We beat ’em bad,” Williams recalled with a chuckle.
“We lost two pilots during those exercises. A ‘Phantom’ attempted to land one night but came in too low, hit the flight deck and exploded.
“From Subic Bay we went to Japan. We probably made 10 ports in Japan. The people in Japan were great.
“By Christmas 1963 we were in Hong Kong celebrating with a bunch of British, Australian and Canadian troops who were there, too. It was a lot of fun for a 21-year-old sailor,” he said.
When Williams returned to the States aboard the Midway he only had a couple of months until he was discharged from the Navy in July 1966.
He got a job in sales working for Ampex Corp. that made electronic equipment. More than 20 years later he went into aircraft sales. From 1987 until 1993 he sold turbo props, jets and helicopters to people all around the world.
Williams and his wife Janeane retired and moved to the Punta Gorda area five years ago. They have three children: Kirk, Karlene and Dix.
Name: James Williams
D.O.B: 27 July 1943
Hometown: Detroit, Mich.
Currently: Punta Gorda, Fla.
Entered Service: 26 Nov. 1963
Discharged: 5 August 1966
Unit: USS Yorktown (CV-17)
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, March 30, 2015 and is republished with permission.
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