Snakes in the water

Posted Nov. 13, 2012, at 9:49 a.m.
Capt. Lester Slate of Exeter is a retired Coast Guard pilot. He flew Navy patrol bombers during World War II.
Capt. Lester Slate of Exeter is a retired Coast Guard pilot. He flew Navy patrol bombers during World War II.

Navy aviator Lester Slate didn’t have to swim faster than every poisonous sea snake in the Kerama Retto lagoon; he only had to swim faster than the one closest to him.

After all, weren’t the sea snakes seeking revenge for their comrade recently gunned down by another Navy flyer?

Slate, now 90 and a resident of Exeter, began his Navy pilot training at the Pittsfield Municipal Airport early in World War II. He later transitioned to the Martin PBM Mariner, a twin-engined and twin-tailed seaplane flown on marine patrols.

Assigned as a co-pilot to VPB-208, Slate went with that squadron to the central Pacific Ocean and ultimately to the Okinawa campaign in April 1945. American troops captured the Kerama Retto islands, which lie about 20 miles southwest of Okinawa, and the Navy stationed three patrol squadrons (including VPB-208) there.

Each squadron was assigned to a seaplane tender, a large Navy ship that had the equipment and trained personnel to service the Mariners; patrol squadron personnel also lived aboard a tender. Slate’s squadron was assigned to the USS Hamlin (AV-15); VPB-208 had 12 planes and “17 to 18 crews,” Slate recalled.

The three seaplane tenders dropped anchor in the Kerama Retto lagoon; each Mariner was tied to a particular buoy near the appropriate ship. Antisubmarine nets guarded the two shipping channels that accessed the lagoon, Slate remembered.

Sailors were warned that the islands and lagoon sheltered some 40 species of venomous snakes, including sea snakes with lethal bites. The lagoon’s waters were amazingly clear, according to Slate; one day a crewman leaning from a hatch on Slate’s moored Mariner noticed a sea snake “kind of curled up” not far below the surface near the plane, Slate said.

The sailor pulled out a .38 and shot the snake dead.

Not long afterwards, bad weather struck the Kerama Retto islands. “We’d been flying all night, and when we came back,” high winds and rough seas kept his Mariner from landing inside the lagoon, Slate said. “We landed in the lee of an island” and taxied toward a net-blocked shipping channel.

“We had to go by that submarine net” by passing near the island, Slate recalled. He climbed onto the port wing and “laid down on the wing where I could see the depth real good,” he said, explaining that from this position, he could signal the pilot if the plane was too close to shore.

The Mariner taxied past the island and into the lagoon; Slate decided to stay perched on the wing “until we tied up at the buoy.” Now the wind caught his plane and pushed it toward another moored Mariner.

“My wing tip was going to hit that plane,” so Slate started running toward the starboard wing; he figured that if he lay far out on that wing, the added weight would cause the port wing tip to lift high enough to miss the moored plane.

Unaware as to what Slate planned, the pilot gunned the port engine; the prop wash blew the fully clothed Slate into the sea. After bobbing to the surface, “I knew I would be at the mercy of the wind if I inflated my life jacket,” he said.

He saw his plane graze the moored Mariner; no one aboard the taxiing plane was aware that Slate had vanished overboard, so his nearest refuge was the moored bomber riding up and down in the waves.

Slate also remembered the snakes in the water. Would they come gunning for him in revenge for their dead buddy? He decided not to hang around enough long enough to find out.

“If you thought that Johnny Weissmuller  was a fast swimmer, you should’ve seen me swimming” for an open hatch on the moored Mariner, Slate said, smiling at the memory.

“I knew there were poisonous snakes in that water. I didn’t want to fool around one bit,” Slate said.

As he splashed up to the hatch, crewmen reached out and pulled him into the plane.

He does not recall seeing a snake during his high-speed swim. “If I had, I would’ve gone faster,” he commented.

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