By KEN FINIGIAN
As told to Cori Frank and Chace Anderson
“The plane was on the ground, and the wings were folded back when one gun had an accidental discharge. If the wings had been in the flying position, the bullets might have done more damage than just boring holes in the concrete. After that incident, they didn’t load guns until planes were ready to leave.”
— Ken Finigian
My story is not that much different from all the other stories told by veterans through the years.
I was born in Hartford, Connecticut, in September 1924, the middle child of a restaurant proprietor and a stay-at-home mother. Both my parents were Armenian, and my given name is Vasken, but I’ve been Ken to most people all my life. My brother, Garo, was born a year and a half earlier.
My family moved to Patterson, New Jersey, when I was very young, and that’s when my younger sister, Valentine, was born. Not too long after that we moved to Syracuse, New York, where my father got a job with Remington Typewriter Company.
When I was 12, in yet another move, the family relocated to Detroit, Michigan. There was one more move in 1940 to nearby Highland Park, where I had to change high schools, even though the new one was only half a block away.
I had been going to Cass Technical High School, which was more of an engineering school. I was upset when I could not complete my courses at Cass Technical. It was one big building, and on the 7th floor they had a foundry. Students were doing castings for the war effort in England. Through all the moves and my father’s various jobs, I made a number of very good friends.
At the age of 18 and halfway through my senior year, I got tired of school and dropped out. For about five months, I did a variety of jobs in the Detroit area before my induction into the Navy in June 1943.
I will mention that after completing boot camp and aviation school, I was later awarded my high school diploma in 1945 while still in the Navy. I decided to join the Navy for a couple reasons. My brother had joined the Army Air Corps in 1942, but I liked all the Navy airplanes. And most of my friends had already gone into the service.
I went to the draft board in early June, and they told me I was not due to be called up yet. I told them I wanted to go… “Now!” Two weeks later, I got my draft notice as a selective volunteer, which meant my service would be limited to the “duration of national emergency.”
I was sent to Great Lakes, Illinois, for boot camp, and from there to the Navy Pier in Chicago for aviation machinist school. While there I got sick with scarlet fever. They put me in the hospital at Great Lakes, Illinois Naval Hospital for three weeks, and I also did two stints in sick bay, one week each, on the Navy Pier.
There was generally a lot of illness there. The main issue had to do with the quality of the food that was being served. I heard there had been a sit-down strike by the Marines in 1942 over the terrible food they were served while stationed at the Navy Pier.
I always enjoyed roller skating, and I tried to do it whenever I had free time or when I was on liberty. We sometimes would skate with threesomes and foursomes. I remember the time I skated a threesome with two very tall girls. As we came around, they lifted me right up off the ground—I was 5’6” and about 135 pounds. I tell you, that got a good laugh!
There was a time when I was in sick bay that I decided I wanted go roller skating, so after putting on my dress blues, I just walked out. I managed to get back before the cutoff time at midnight. The next thing I know I am awakened in the middle of the night, and there is a full lieutenant, a lieutenant commander and a pharmacist mate standing over me and grilling me on where I had been. I told them I had been just two bulkheads down visiting my friends and fell asleep. They asked why I had not heard them call for me over the PA system, and I told them I was sleeping.
Then the chief boatswain’s mate got me in the office and started questioning me. I thought he was my friend, so I admitted to him that I had been roller skating. That wasn’t so smart.
I was in the top 10 percent of my class and should have graduated with a 3rd class aviation machinist mate rating, but after I went before the Captain’s Mast, I received a 2nd class seaman rating. That was two grades lower and made me realize the fun I had roller skating had not been worth it.
After completing aviation school in the middle of April 1944, I was sent to Quonset Point Naval Air Station in Rhode Island, and became a member of the Advanced Base Aviation Training Unit (ABATU). The earlier training I received was on repairing biplanes, but at Quonset Point we repaired single-wing TBF Avengers and others I had never trained on.
In September we lived through the Great Atlantic Hurricane of 1944. We had been told to expect high winds, but what arrived was a storm that was so strong it shook the wooden barracks violently. We had 12 by 12 timbers, and even they shook. Fortunately we had no injuries.
Some of the airplanes had been moved inland to Grosse Ile Naval Air Station in Michigan, which was 40 miles from my former home. There wasn’t much to do during the storm, so I tried to get leave to go out there too. But I was not in the aircrew, I was a mechanic.
Livermore Naval Air Station
In November 1944, I was sent to Livermore Naval Air Station. The train ride was memorable for a couple incidents that I still remember clearly.
At one point, we made a 20-minute stop in a small town, and one of the guys got off the train, went into town and bought two bottles of liquor for about two bucks apiece. When he came back on the train, he sold one of them for $15, put the other in his small ditty bag and tossed it up onto the luggage rack above the seats. Well, the ditty bag crashed against the side of the train and the bottle broke, sending booze dripping down below. All the guys cheered his misfortune, but at least he made seven or eight times his expenditure on the bottle he sold.
On the same trip, the train pulled off onto a siding to let another train go by. A master chief on board decided he’d jump off and take a bath in a small creek alongside the track. Seeing the chief in the water, the engineer thought it would be clever to start pulling forward.
Thinking he would be left behind, the chief scrambled up out of the creek, getting dirtier than he had been before the bath. In the end, the engineer stopped again, and the man was able to finish his bath.
At Livermore NAS, I worked on the line crew, servicing the planes as a member of Carrier Aircraft Service Unit (CASU) 6. Working on the line was no picnic. Sometimes our day began at 4:30 am and wasn’t over when the various planes landed. We had to inspect and check each plane from top to bottom.
I was a seaman second-class, and I had two first-class seamen under me. One day the master chief called me into his office and told me that if I didn’t take the test to be a seaman first-class, I would be transferred to the mess hall. Right then he took the papers off his desk and shoved them at me. When he called me in later to tell me I had passed the test, I asked, “How about I take the test for petty officer third class?” He said, “I am so glad you asked,” and he handed me those papers.
Well, I passed that one too, and got a little antsy. I decided I wanted to go for petty officer second class. The master chief said, “You’re well qualified, but we already have too many aviation mechanics mate second-class petty officers.”
So I then asked him for a transfer, but he said, “I need you here. Don’t even think about putting in for a transfer.”
Later when the carrier USS Franklin was badly damaged in March 1945, 125 of the 700 aviation machinist mates at Livermore were immediately transferred out to New York to help repair the Franklin. I was not among them.
Then there was the day an aviation machinist mate first class told a group of us to paint the inside of our line shack. The last thing he said was “paint everything.” That’s what we did. We not only painted the ceiling and walls but everything in it, including the telephone, its receiver and the phone cord.
When the guy asked us what the heck we thought we were doing, we told him, “You said to paint everything—well, we painted everything.”
While in the Navy, I worked on the line on all types of operational aircraft like Hellcats, Corsairs, a Dauntless Dive Bomber, Wildcats, TBF Avenger Torpedo Bombers, Helldivers and the SNJ Advanced Trainer.
I did have a couple close calls while working at Livermore. On my first day on the line, I was checking a TBF Avenger and learned a very good lesson. The rotary engines had a tendency to let oil pool in the bottom cylinder, and we would pull the propeller through to rotate the engine to avoid that.
That day I gave the prop a pull and heard a very scary “chug” when a spark plug fired. I realized I hadn’t checked to see if the ignition was off, and it wasn’t. If the engine had burped again, the prop could have rotated a number of times and cut me in half.
Another day I was guiding a Wildcat pilot on the ground while he was starting his engine. I pulled the right wheel chock and then crossed in front of the plane to pull the left chock. Well, a guy in a plane right in front of us decided to check his engine, and he put it to full throttle. His turbulence almost pushed me into the prop on the plane I was guiding.
Flying the Planes
While my duty was as an aviation mechanic, I did do a little flying. I remember one day a full lieutenant had to go to Alameda, and he had an empty seat, so I asked if I could go along. On the way back, he let me fly the plane for about 20 minutes. I was doing “S” turns over what is now the 580 freeway.
Every time there was an empty seat in an airplane, I would always ask the pilot if I could go with him, and the pilot would usually say, “Grab a chute and come along.” I flew in a TBF Torpedo Bomber twice, once in an SBD Dauntless Dive Bomber that was going to the scrap pile, once in a SNJ Advanced Trainer and once in a Helldiver.
I think I had a total of 8 hours and 45 minutes of flying time. The day I went up in the Helldiver, we did three slow rolls and then flew out along the Pacific coast, waving at the passengers in a Greyhound bus. The pilot that day was Lieutenant Berry out of Bombing Squadron VB-13. Berry later crashed two airplanes while still on the ground.
The first time he lost hydraulic pressure while taxiing near a TBF Avenger and crashed right into it. There were no injuries or fire, but there was a lot of damage.
The second time he crashed, he was taxiing a Helldiver when the control tower told him to stop and turn. He did, but the pilot behind him did not stop and chopped the back of Berry’s airplane off right behind the gunner’s seat.
The gunner behind Berry was flying for “flight skins.” He wasn’t part of the regular crew, but he had to have so many hours of flying time each month to get the extra pay for flying. After that incident, he said he didn’t think he would ever fly again.
The plane that was cut in half was salvaged and parts of it were used on another airplane. I remember they tested the rebuilt plane over the bridge on the Altamont Pass and brought it back in and landed it.
I can remember a number of crashes during my service. There was the time a Wildcat lost oil pressure, and the pilot had to come in with the wind. He glided right across the field, landed on the edge of the runway, skidded onto the grass, first hit a ditch and then a fence, and finally upended the airplane. He walked away unhurt.
Another scary incident involved a Wildcat that had a manual landing gear. The gear needed to be unlocked and hand cranked up once the plane had left the ground.
One day on a takeoff, the pilot thought he was airborne when in fact his wheels were still in contact with the ground. He unlocked the gear, the wheels retracted into the plane and it went down on its belly, cracking the fuel tank open as it skidded down the runway. The pilot, with his parachute on, was up out of the aircraft and on the wing tip while the plane was still sliding along.
As soon as he safely could, he jumped off the wingtip and went running. About that time—just like in the movies—the plane exploded into a ball of fire. The fire crew put 750 gallons of foam on it and then ran out of foam.
When the fire was finally out, all that was left of the plane was the engine, the wingtips, part of the tail end, and the armor-plated seat. Other than his dignity, the pilot was not hurt.
I remember another incident involving a Hellcat. When the pilot applied full power, the right brake failed. He was then pulled to the left, and he lost control.
He crashed into a Howard DGA-8, a high-speed monoplane used for racing in the 1930s. He narrowly missed hitting a gas truck where two guys were refueling another plane.
The Howard was made of wood, and this one was reduced to toothpicks. No one was hurt.
Another time only one landing gear came down on a Hellcat as it approached for a landing. The pilot was not sure if the small emergency explosive unit would fire and unlock the stuck gear, so he pulled the good landing gear up and landed on the plane’s belly—with no foam on the runway. Again, nobody was hurt.
One time I was watching a Corsair practice carrier landings at our field in Livermore. The pilot got a wave off and stalled the aircraft. He came in sideways and totally wiped out the plane. He too was able to walk away. But sometimes these incidents involved armament that could seriously endanger crews on the ground.
Once a Helldiver came back from a practice run with an armed 500-pound bomb that the pilot couldn’t dislodge. The armorers had him land at the far end of the field so they could disarm and unload the bomb.
A final incident I remember involved a Hellcat that had its .50-caliber machine guns loaded. The plane was on the ground, and the wings were folded back when one gun had an accidental discharge.
If the wings had been in the flying position, the bullets might have done more damage than just boring holes in the concrete. After that incident, they didn’t load guns until planes were ready to leave.
During the war we were told never to keep a diary because they did not want them possibly falling into enemy hands, but in a small address book, I did keep track of the airplanes I flew in and the names of the pilots.
We were never allowed to take pictures, and I didn’t have a camera anyway. But there was a fellow who would come around, take pictures and then sell them to you. I have a picture that guy took of me standing alongside a SB2C Helldiver, and I still carry a copy of that photo in my wallet today.
Whenever I had liberty, I would go to the USO Club. At one point I had a girlfriend in Oakland who worked at the USO. I would go to her house and listen to the radio and we would talk. Of course, her mother was always there as well.
In February 1946, I was transferred to Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia and became a member of Headquarter Squadron, Fleet Air Wing 8 (HEDRON FAW8). We were assigned to maintain twin engine seaplanes called PBMs, which were used for patrolling the Atlantic Ocean and were also used in search and rescue.
PV1s were submarine attack planes, and we maintained them also. A couple months later, I was reassigned to HEDRON FAW5. Again we maintained planes that needed attention, but one in particular that one we polished in its entirety was an R4D (C-47) that was assigned to the executive officer of the group.
I remember the day at Norfolk when I watched a Helldiver take off. I was looking through the open hangar doors as it climbed into the sky. A minute later, sirens began blaring loudly. The plane had had an engine failure and broke apart when it crash landed. Both airmen aboard were killed.
On liberty in Norfolk, we would go to the USO or other sailor hangouts and bars. One evening another sailor friend and I went window shopping along a series of storefronts that were closed for the night. Suddenly a policeman called out to us and started yelling and swearing. He was reeling and very wobbly, standing like a cowboy gunfighter ready to draw. We walked away and made sure we didn’t go again to that part of town at night.
In May of 1946, I had enough points to be discharged. Let me tell you, I was very happy to leave Norfolk behind. I was sent to the place where my service began, Great Lakes, Illinois, and that is where I was honorably discharged.
While in the service, I used to make model airplanes before there were kits to do so. One time I sent the model airplanes home to Highland Park. My sister showed them to her girlfriend who showed them to her boss at Fisher Body, a division of General Motors, and he said would find a place for me when I got out of the Navy. I was discharged in May 1946, and I started there in July. I was given three choices. I could start in the drafting room, I could begin in the wood shop, or I could go to the General Motors Institute and take college level courses working toward a bachelor’s degree.
At that point I really wanted to start making some money, so I chose to be apprenticed as a woodworking engineer. Three months later, they offered me the opportunity to become an apprentice engineering woodworker, and I used the G.I. Bill to pay for the training.
We made forms for the prototypes of General Motors vehicles.
I started at 75 cents an hour, and in 3 ½ years I rose to a group leader, making three dollars an hour. In 1955 we moved from the Fisher Body annex to the GM Technical Center in Warren, Michigan. In the fall of that same year, I became a senior modeler, was put on salary and was enrolled in the company retirement program.
I became a design sculptor and an exempt employee nine years later, and in 1985, I was able to retire after 39 years with Fisher Body/General Motors.
Back when I was discharged from the Navy, I returned to Michigan. My folks had moved out of the house they were renting and had bought a home in Highland Park. While living with them, I met a neighbor of theirs named Maria Zajac. She was two years younger than me and was boarding next door.
Maria and I were married in 1949 and had two sons. Steve was born in 1952 on March 30, and Terry in 1955 on April 2. We just missed April Fool’s Day with both boys.
I have always enjoyed flying, and I got my pilot’s license in 1976. For the next six years, I co-owned a plane with a friend of mine, and we kept it at Big Beaver Airport in Troy, Michigan. By the time we sold it, I had about 250 hours in the air.
Maria and I ended up in Tuolumne County in 1986 by way of Maria’s sister. In 1957 she and her husband had lost their jobs in Michigan and decided to come to California where the job market was much better.
They ended up working at Hughes Aircraft in Southern California and often visited friends in Sonora.
They liked it so much they moved here when they retired. Maria and I visited them twice in 1985 and decided to move here as well. We found a home in Columbia that I live in to this day.
After a long battle with multiple sclerosis, Maria died in 1992. At a bereavement group meeting that year, I met Kay, and we’ve been together ever since. I have two grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
Retirement and Reflection
In retirement, I have spent a lot of time at the Mother Lode Gun Club in Jamestown, where I am a lifetime member and especially enjoyed trap shooting. I am also a lifetime member of Smyth-Bolter Post 58, American Legion.
From 1986 to 1996, I was a volunteer with the Tuolumne County Search and Rescue Air Squadron and at the same time was also a member of the Civil Air Patrol, Squadron 147, in Merced.
I have been a Mason and an Elk for many years, and I was a volunteer with Interfaith until they moved farther from my home.
I’m proud of my service during the war. It was an honor to serve my country for 34 months.
My only regret is that I never left the States; I never was part of the action. I went into the service because I wanted to. Everybody went.