One hundred and ten degree heat radiated from the flight deck of the amphibious assault ship USS Boxer (LHD 4) as an MH-60S Seahawk helicopter swooped in and dropped a message resurrecting an 80-year-old aircraft-to-ship alternative communication method.
Historically, war tends to accelerate change and drives rapid developments in technology. Even with superior modern capabilities, the U.S. Navy still keeps a foot in the old sailboat days and for good reason.
During the sea battles of WWII, U.S. Navy pilots beat enemy eavesdropping by flying low and slow above the flight deck and dropping a weighted cloth container with a note inside. This alternative form of communication was termed a “bean-bag drop.” During the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo, Japan, a Douglas SBD Dauntless pilot spotted a Japanese patrol vessel approximately 50 miles ahead of USS Enterprise (CV 6). The pilot believed he had been seen by the Japanese and decided not to use his radio but flew his SBD over the Enterprise flight deck and dropped a bean-bag notifying the ship of the Japanese patrol boat ahead. A video posted by Archive.org shows actual video of a SBD rear gunner dropping a bean-bag down to the Enterprise flight deck that day and shows a Sailor picking up the bean-bag, then running to the island to deliver it up to the bridge.
The bean-bag design progressed when USS Essex (CV 9) ran out of them and Navy pilot Lt. James “Barney” Barnitz was directed to provide replacements. Barnitz went to see the Essex Parachute Riggers and out of their innovation, the bean-bag was cut and sown into a more durable form. Fast-forward 80-years to August 2019 where Boxer’s Paraloft shop was tasked to make a new bean-bag specifically for a helo-to-deck drop.
“I started with the original measurements of the bean-bag used on the USS Enterprise in 1942 and built this one to withstand the impact of a drop but also weighed down for an accurate drop,” said Aircrew Survival Equipmentman 1st Class Carlos R. Freireizurieta, who works in Boxer’s Paraloft shop.
“The WWII bean-bags were filled with stuffing but the one I made is weighted down with a one-pound steel bar sown into the bottom of the naugahyde (artificial leather) and webbing package,” said Freireizurieta.
The message container Freireizurieta created was dropped onto Boxer’s flight deck as a proof-of-concept option for silent communication. Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 21 crewmembers onboard an MH-60S Seahawk delivered the container.
“We’ve got the best communication technology onboard our helos [helicopters] but today we practiced the use of a more conventional form of aircraft-to-ship communication in the event electronic communication is not an option,” said U.S. Navy Lt. Taryn “SISS” Steiger, the pilot who flew the HSC-21 Seahawk tasked to drop the bean-bag on Boxer.
Aboard Boxer, Aviation Boatswain’s Mate (Handling) 2nd Class Bradley Peterson darted toward the bean-bag container dropped on deck, scooped it up and ran it to Senior Chief Aviation Boatswain’s Mate (Handling) Cedric Williams who delivered the message to the intended recipient, Capt. Jason A. Burns, Commander, Amphibious Squadron FIVE.
“The purpose of the bean-bag drop was to show timely pilot-to-ship communication can be done without electronic transition,’ said Lt. Cmdr. Michael Brown, the HSC-21 detachment officer in charge. “Together HSC-21 crew and Boxer demonstrated timely communication from the aircraft to the ship during EMCON [emissions control] procedures.”
The fleet of the 1940s was outfitted with single regular-frequency-band radios and the power switch was safety-wired in the “off” position so that the crews could use only in abject emergencies. The broadcast waves of those radios would bounce back and forth between the earth’s surface and the ionosphere, and transmissions from such equipment could be detected over the horizon by both friendly and enemy forces. Listeners could detect and plot the direction of the senders, even at great distances.
Under radio silent conditions, Boxer leadership could send a message to pilots using a helicopter’s onboard mechanism or briefly landing on the flight deck.
“In some cases, we use our rescue hoist to deliver and retrieve parts and messages or we would land and have someone get out and retrieve the message,” said Steiger.
With modern-day aviation advancing technologically and despite new levels of communication between aircraft and ships we cannot forget those before us who have pioneered tried and true alternative communication methods. Lt. James “Barney” Barnitz’ legacy carries on today as was demonstrated onboard USS Boxer.
Boxer is part of the Boxer Amphibious Ready Group and 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit and is deployed to the U.S. 5th Fleet area of operations in support of naval operations to ensure maritime stability and security in the Central Region, connecting the Mediterranean and the Pacific through the Western Indian Ocean and three strategic choke points.