USS Flier: Court continued

Posted by Rebekah
May 24 2010

So now we return to the cases of Chester Payne and John Cowie, but first, a map.  Yes, I finally got Google Earth up and running again.  Well, sort of, my wonderful hubby found it and got it up and running for me.  Thanks hun!

Here you can see Flier's approximate route from Pearl to Johnston Island for refueling. They went south for only a short time before turning west. Over the course of the two days it took to get there, she went 733 miles and went through 11,446 gallons of diesel.

That’s not your imagination, Johnston Atoll really is in the middle of no where.  It’s so remote and unvisited that there is no evidence for any native people ever living there, and, following WWII, the military used Johnston Atoll to store and then dismantle a variety of chemical weapons.  Today, it’s a Wildlife Refuge and administered by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, much like Midway Atoll.

See? Middle of Nowhere.

So that is where Flier is (or was, sixty-six years ago) located.  Back to our story.

There are three types of Court Martials, which is the name for a military court.  If you were a fan of the TV show JAG, what you mostly saw where the two more serious types of court martials, a Special and General Court Martial which was judged by  a panel of officers.  A Summary Court Martial, which is the type on the Flier today, is more informal, judged by one officer (in this case, Lt. Liddell) and the accused is not permitted legal counsel, though they are encouraged to present evidence, interview and cross-examine witnesses and testify or remain silent at their choice.  They also have the right to refuse the Summary Court Martial, though I suspect that would lead to a full-blown Special Court Martial.  But, if you felt the officer judging you would not be impartial, or you wanted legal counsel,  I suppose that was an option.

Depending on the rank of the accused, punishment can range from confinement, hard labor for 45 days, loss of some pay,restrictions, or even demotion in rank.

John Cowie, apparently disobeyed a lawful order while the Flier was on a practice run on 12 May.  What happened is not recorded in the Deck Log, and as they were not yet on patrol there are no War Patrol Reports to draw on.  What happened in the hours leading up to the Captain’s Mast which lead to this Summery Court Martial was a practice radar approach, a battle simulation with the crew firing water slugs out of the Forward Torpedo Tubes, and quick dives and course changes.  As an Electrician’s Mate, I have no idea what legal order Cowie might have defied.

Chester Payne might have been an interesting case.  An African-American from Ohio, Payne was likely stuck in a world that both valued him and disrespected him depending on where he was.

It’s no secret that the navy was fairly well segregated in WWII.  African-American sailors were often assigned to hazardous duty focused on manual labor or, if they were assigned to ships, were often restricted to the “simple” jobs in the Galley as cooks, bakers, mess attendants, and Stewards.   In the submarine service, this presented a rather funny paradox, because these African American sailors were not excused from becoming a qualified submariner.  So while officially limited to supposedly simple job ratings, they were also expected to be able to fire a torpedo, fix an engine, aim and fire a weapon, or any other of the hundreds of complex jobs and understand the hundreds of complex systems aboard a submarine. So in terms of technical aptitude, these sailors were just as able as their white counterparts.  In fact, the officers and COs of Halibut, Trigger, Drum and Haddock specifically sited  several of their African American sailors with serving with distinction during enemy attacks and the two African American sailors on the Puffer, James Pruitt and James Patton were instrumental in helping their boat and crewmates survive the infamous 38 hours depth charge attack.

Secondly, the food aboard a submarine was far more important than on a Navy base or surface ship.  One of the ways the Navy offered perks to the men who might volunteer on a submarine was submariners got the best food available.  Each submarine was given nearly twice the amount of per man/per day money to purchase food stores than a surface ship. My grandfather, who wasn’t on submarines, refused to touch Spam or any other kind of canned meat from the moment he got home, until he died at the age of 89, because he ate it so much during WWII.  Meanwhile, we have records and recipes showing submariners were getting barbecued pork, shrimp creole, teriyaki steak, roast beef and mashed potatoes, pizza, anything they wanted (including an ice cream machine for homemade ice cream.)  The galley staff, in a way, were the heart and soul on a submarine, and their skills highly prized.

So aboard a submarine, African American sailors often found a good measure of equality, and when they went on shore leave with their crew mates, they were billeted in the same hotels or accomdations, often with their white crewmates as roommates.

But step outside the submarine base, or the submariner’s hotel, and they stepped back into a world of strict separations, despite the Naval Uniform.  More than one African American sailor got into trouble displaying–sometimes unwittingly–the freedom and respect he had earned and enjoyed on boat in the wrong quarters of town.

It was a very fine line to walk, but African American sailors acquitted themselves so well, that following WWII and the rapid desegregation of the military by President Truman in 1948, many shot to positions of prominence and authority.

So what did Chester Payne do?  We may never know.  He might have done something innocent or unknowingly that was taken wrongly by the locals in Honolulu.  He might have done something on purpose to make a point, or might have gotten drunk, who knows?  The record does not say.  What it does say is he fought with shore patrol and knocked them overboard (possibly indicating they chased him down to the warf and/or onto the Flier herself), and Captain Crowley decided that the charges were serious enough and the evidence clear enough to warrant a Summery Court Martial.

The two cases took an hour and twenty-five minutes, and the record says this about the conclusion: “…adjourned at 1045 to await action of convening authority.”  Nothing more is said about this case in either the deck log or war patrol reports.

What did Lt. Liddell decide?  Both men were aboard for the second patrol, so he obviously did not decide to remove the men from the boat.   Cowie, during the second patrol, is still an EM2c, though Payne is listed as aCk3c (Cook Third Class rather than Seaman First Class,) and I’m afraid I’m not knowlegable enough in military rankings to know if that’s a lateral move, a demotion, promotion or a job description rather than ranking.  The results are probably in the men’s naval records.

Two and a half hours after the Summery Court Martial, Flier approached Johnston Island to refuel, guided in by one of Johnston’s pilots, Lt. LAMB, USN, who, in the balmy weather, was transferred aboard with no problem, unlike Midway.  They left after only three hours with a full tank of fuel, and set a course for 293 degrees True, a little west-northwest.  She was on her way to the Philippines.

An article about African American sailors in the submarine service in WWII, and a book based about those experiences.

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