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No shortage of hair-raising flights

James H. Castle enlisted in the Navy and caught the tail end of World War II in the Pacific. Joining the fray in its last stages did not prove an impediment to several hair-raising experiences.

Before he arrived in the war zone, in fact, his nerves had been thoroughly tested while flying training missions in an Avenger torpedo bomber.

After graduating from Lockport High School, Castle had gone to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute for five or six months on a military career path that would have yielded an officer's commission, but he made a U-turn, deciding the commission was not for him.

That decision opened the door for training as an aviation radio and radar operator aboard the three-seat Avenger. During training above the Atlantic Ocean off Florida, he experienced a crash landing.

"We had a water landing off Fort Lauderdale. The motor quit, and we crashed at 300-feet altitude," he recalls.

As his training progressed, the lifelong Lockport resident headed west.

Again, he experienced a crash landing, this time on land in California.

"We had a runway crash at Alameda Naval Air Station," he says. "The motor quit again."

So when he finally arrived in the war zone in the summer of 1945, he was well-prepared for whatever might come his way.

"We weren't in any major battles, but we did strafe Japanese junks and other small watercraft," Castle says. "It wasn't much. We had a turret with twin 50-caliber machine guns and fixed guns on the wings."

When the war ended, he was assigned to the China Sea and flew sorties that sometimes took him on an unexpected historical sightseeing trip, flying above the Great Wall of China.

"There was Communist unrest, and every day, we went out and did that patrol," he says. "We didn't shoot at anything, but we were shot at. Our job was to observe and report."

But this aviation warrior still had one more hair-raising experience left while assigned to the USS Boxer.

"We were heading back to the aircraft carrier. Something went wrong with engine, and I was in the bilge, the lowest part of the aircraft, and I couldn't see a darn thing," he remembers. "I heard the pilot say, 'We're going in!' I put my seat belt on and grabbed my knees and waited.

"He made a pretty good landing in the China Sea. We got the raft out, and the plane sunk. Two or three hours later, a Navy destroyer came by and picked us up."

Soon after that, Castle was transferred to Guam and eventually sent back to California, where he was discharged from Treasure Island Naval Air Station.

He was given the choice of getting a train ticket home or being paid 3 cents per mile and making his own arrangements to return to Lockport.

"There were three of us, and we elected to take the 3 cents per mile," he says. "Between that and my mustering-out pay, I had about $300 in my pocket. We then bummed our away across the country hitchhiking.

"Our first ride took us to Reno, where I lost every penny on the craps tables. Eventually we bummed our way to Salt Lake City, and I called my father collect, and he sent me a train ticket."

From there, Castle moved back to his Lakeview Parkway home in Lockport, where he was born and has lived ever since.

***

James H. Castle, 86

Hometown: Lockport

Residence: Lockport

Branch: Navy

Rank: Aviation radioman second class

War zone: Pacific

Years of service: 1943-46

Most prominent honors: Pacific Theater Medal, Navy Occupation Service Medal, American Campaign Medal

Specialty: Radio/radar operator in Avenger torpedo bomber

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