DOWN RANGE IS NO PLACE TO BE….
The memory of the first highpower round I ever shot at Camp Perry is still sharp. It was August 18, 1975 and the Members’ Cup required 20 shots. Standing on the 200 yard line of the 1,000 yard range, then known as Vaile, I looked up range and noticed shooters on Rodriguez Range doing the same thing, only they were to my right and 200 yards behind me. There are few things more distracting to the shot process than knowing you are down range of several dozens of loaded 30 caliber rifles about to go off.
It turns out I had no reason to be concerned, this had been going on for more years than I had been alive. We were safe, well outside of danger fan of the Rodriguez riflemen and, anyway, who would want to sacrifice ten points to pick off a portly shooter who would make a poor trophy mount. Never the less, I was still down range and that is never a comfortable place to be.
I was sort of use to the sounds of being down range during shooting. The 200 yard firing line at Quaker Hill, my home club, was just out of the maximum range of the shot fired from station number one of the skeet field. The pitter patter in the leaves of the trees, as an ounce or so of #8 shot rained down a short, but safe, distance away, was a common enough sound. Serving targets during a highpower match accustomed me to the crack of a 168 or 173 grain 30 caliber bullet passing overhead.
Distracted from my prep, my thoughts went to Olympic rifleman and battleship sailor Willis Augustus Lee, Junior. Lee started his shooting career with the U.S. Naval Academy Rifle Team. As a Midshipman he competed in the inaugural National Matches at Camp Perry, Ohio in 1907. There he won both the National Trophy Individual Rifle and the National Trophy Individual Pistol matches, a still unmatched feat, on the very ranges where I stood. Lee had trained on the outdoor ranges at Naval Station Annapolis on Greenbury Point across the Severn River from the Academy.
Thirty five years later Midshipman Lee was now Rear Admiral Lee and broke his flag on the battleship USS Washington.During the Second Naval Battle of Guadalcanal he was aboard when she sank the Japanese battleship Kirishima, the only United States battleship to sink an enemy battleship in a one-on-one gunnery duel during World War II. It was, most certainly, the last time the world would witness a battle of such leviathans.
And here two of my passions, shooting and aviation, intersected. In Lee’s time Greenbury Point was also the site of the Naval Aviation Camp where Lieutenants Gordon ‘Spud’ Ellyson, Naval Aviator Number One and John Towers, Naval Aviator Number Three, experimented with a Curtis A-1 Triad.
Pioneer aviators Ellyson and Towers were familiar names to me from my green and salad days as a Naval Aviation Officer Candidate at Naval Air Station Pensacola. Naval Air Station Ellyson Field was located northeast of “Mainside” and, in my day, the sole intermediate and advanced training site for rotary-wing Naval Aviators.
To make my connection to Ellyson a bit closer he was also stationed in my hometown, New London, Connecticut, during the Great War. He qualified in submarines which made him the first of a very rare breed of Navy men who were entitled to wear both the wings of a Naval Aviator and the dolphins of a submariner. Unfortunately, his promising career was cut short when, on his 43rd birthday, he crashed into Chesapeake Bay while on a night flight from Norfolk, Virginia, to Annapolis, Maryland.
Towers went onto a distinguished career in Naval Aviation. He established NAS Pensacola, the ‘Cradle of Naval Aviation,’ and planned and led the first air crossing of the Atlantic in Curtis NC flying boats. Retiring as a vice admiral the Navy named the airfield at Naval Air Station Jacksonville, Florida, in his honor.
When Ellyson first arrived at Greenbury Point he found Towers in the hangar working on the A-1, so he grabbed a wrench and joined him. As they went about their work Ellyson thought he heard angry wasps zipping about. He asked Towers if the wasps bothered him. Towers casually replied, “No, there are no wasps. The sound is ricochets from the rifle range.” It seems an oblivious Navy civil engineer had sited the hanger directly behind the Academy’s rifle range butts.
A seemingly unconcerned Towers reported that the Midshipmen only practiced musketry on Wednesdays and Fridays and that most hits were high in the eves of the building. Considering the hazardous nature of aviation at that time a few bullet holes in a hanger’s roof didn’t seem like much to worry about. In fact, the enlisted men entertained themselves by chalking circles around the holes, counting as many as 30 in a day.
The laissez-faire attitude came to a screeching halt the day a bullet punched a hole in the wall, zipped through the hangar chest high, scattering sailors port and starboard, before it splintered the wooden wall on the far side of the hangar. Ellyson quickly ordered everyone out of the area.
Returning the next morning Ellyson found the wings of the A-1 perforated by ricochets. As they stitched Irish linen patches over the holes and painted them with aircraft dope to tighten and stiffen the fabric, Ellyson was deep in thought.Weighing all aspects of the situation he concluded that aviation was dangerous enough without adding bullet wounds to the already inevitable possibility of the broken bones, burns, and drownings that usually incurred when the flimsy wood and cloth aircraft crashed, as they so often did.
Pragmatically Ellyson directed that they would no longer work when the range was in use.
I didn’t have that choice and went back to work, shooting a nine for my first record highpower shot at Camp Perry.