Saturday, April 5, 2008

War Stories: Dreamboat

Every military aircraft is equipped with a device called the IFF (Identification Friend or Foe). It’s a microwave-frequency transponder that is set to return a specific code when it receives an interrogation signal. The IFF is designed to prevent military anti-aircraft units from shooting down their own aircraft. The code is changed at regular intervals so that enemy aircraft can’t disguise themselves as friendly aircraft to penetrate air defenses.

The B-29 was no exception. However, the Radio Operator Jim G* would turn off the IFF whenever the Black Magic flew over Japan. There are two reasons for this: First, by returning an unknown code, the aircraft would instantly identify itself as an enemy. If it returned no code, the Japanese might invest a few precious minutes attempting a visual confirmation before opening fire. Second, even though the code pulse is very short, it is directional. An aircraft returning a code in response to an interrogation signal could theoretically be triangulated, revealing its position, course, airspeed and altitude to enemy gunners.

During one mission, Jim G* followed his normal procedure, turning off the IFF. Unfortunately, he forgot to turn it back on for the return trip. The B-29 was flying over the Pacific Ocean, which at that time was full of American warships.

One of those ships was an American submarine, running on the surface. This is back in the days before atomic power, when submarines ran on diesel engines whenever possible to conserve battery power. Submarines traveling on the surface are very vulnerable to air attacks, so the deck guns were always manned, and sailors with binoculars scanned the skies from the conning tower. One of them spotted the Black Magic and reported it to their Radio Operator, who in turn “pinged” the aircraft to identify itself.

It’s easy to imagine some nervous 19-year old sailor behind one of those deck guns, watching nervously as a large, powerful, heavily armed aircraft approaches them from the horizon. To their credit, they didn’t open fire. Instead, the radio operator broadcast the following message: “Dreamboat, dreamboat, dreamboat. Let your cockerel crow.”

When Jim G* received that message, he knew instantly what they wanted, and switched on the IFF device, probably saving their lives.

When I first heard this story from Jim G*, I suspected that the Navy Radio Operator had a poetic nature. But I did a little research, and “cockerel” is British Navy slang for an IFF device. How an American submarine crewman acquired this terminology is a mystery. As for the expression “dreamboat,” I’ve found some references that suggest that the term refers to a B-29 that has been forced to ditch at sea, so perhaps it was a veiled threat. In those day, you took threats pretty seriously.

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