written by Bob Miller

Photos of Bob Miller during his service in World War II and Bob Miller today

99-year-old Bob Miller came on VBC Happy Hour back in April and shared his story about joining the Navy before Pearl Harbor and spending the next six years serving on 11 different ships. From the Jr. Naval Reserve, which he joined at age 13, Bob then entered the real Navy with Boot Camp at Newport, Rhode Island, in early 1941. Bob started service on the 1854 sailing vessel USS Constellation, then served through the Battle of the North Atlantic, Operation Torch (the invasion of North Africa), Guadalcanal, the Invasion of Southern France, and a series of Pacific invasions, including Lingayen Gulf, Luzon, Iwo Jima, Ryukus, and Okinawa. Along the way, Bob spent time in the Brig, sunk a German u-Boat, was attacked by Kamikazes, and flew into the eye of a hurricane on a B-17. Bob spent much time as a Plane Director on aircraft carrier flight decks. His carrier service included time on the USS RANGER (CV-4), USS CHARGER (AVG-30/ACV-30/CVE-30), USS SUWANNEE (CVE-27), USS CHENANGO (ACV-28), USS KALININ BAY (CVE-68), USS CASABLANCA (CVE-55), and USS TULAGI (CVE-72). The essay below on the rugged, vital jobs of deck crews first appeared in ALL HANDS magazine and is presented here with permission of the author.

Adm. Thomas B. Fargo saluting men on the flight deck aboard USS John C. Stennis

Adm. Thomas B. Fargo, Commander, U.S. Pacific Command is rendered honors by rainbow sideboys on the flight deck aboard USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74). Stennis and embarked Carrier Air Wing Fourteen (CVW-14) are currently at sea participating in a scheduled deployment. (U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 3rd Class Mark J. Rebilas)

The aircraft carrier trembles as she turns into the wind, from one of her halyards streams the Fox flag, a white flag with a red diamond indicating to the ships around her that she is about to turn into the wind to launch her aircraft.  On the flight deck, ready and waiting, are the planes, with the flight deck crews in their colored shirts and matching helmets, yellow, blue, red, brown, green and white.

Yellow are plane directors, blue are handlers.  Without the red shirts there would be no fuel, without the white shirts there would be no bombs or bullets, without the brown shirt plane captains the aircraft would be in no shape to fly, without the green to catapult, the planes could not be launched and the arresting gear would not catch and stop the planes when landing.

The hanger deck crewmen are very important, and are needed to keep the planes in flying condition from the time problems are detected and work all night if needed to have the planes ready for the morning flight and are responsible for bringing the flyable planes to the flight deck from the carriers’ garage below in the hanger deck.

Now the carrier has nosed into the wind and the helmsman has steadied on his new course, and a destroyer will act as a plane guard, and is in position behind and to the right of the carrier ready to pick up a pilot if one crashes into the sea.

“PILOTS MAN YOUR PLANES” the order goes over the bullhorn, shattering the morning stillness.  The red, green and white shirts leave the flight deck to the catwalks on both sides of the flight deck.  The brown shirt plane captains have been busy giving their plane its preflight check climb out of the cockpit to greet the pilot coming from the ready room where he received his orders and is trotting toward the plane where the plane captain helps with the seat belts.

“Now clear the decks, remove all chocks and tie-downs.” At this word, the blue shirt plane pushers run to the plane assigned and remove the tie-down and chocks.  The pilots, by this time are satisfied with the condition of the plane, and the blue shirts head for the catwalks.

“Stand clear of propellers” start your engines comes over the bullhorn, and the planes cough and roar to life.  Soon another and another, making the flight deck throb with the sound of many airplane engines, making it impossible to make yourself heard.

Two men in blue shirts, yank the chocks from the wheels, another man flips off the last tie down gripping the plane to the deck and gives the yellow shirt plane director a thumbs-up signal, signifying that the plane is free from the deck.

The plane director takes his station in front of and to the right of the aircraft where the pilot can easily see him.  He motions to the pilot to taxi his plane forward and spread his wings.  Two blue shirts run beneath the wings and check the wing locks and flaps.

WWII Veteran Bob Miller on VBC Happy Hour, April 24, 2023

The plane director points up the deck to the next plane director and the plane rolls forward to be catapulted.  Slowing down, the pilot turns his plane toward another yellow shirt plane director who stands near the port catapult.  This plane director coaxes him into position. That is my job, as the petty officer in charge of the plane directors on the flight deck.

The catapult crew spring into action, one green shirt connects the hold-back release to the plane, as two others slither under the plane, very close to the spinning propeller, to attach the catapult “bridle”, a noose-like length of strong wire rope which will throw the plane into the air.  The pilot releases his brakes on the catapult and the plane moves a little forward making the cable secure in the catapult.

The flight deck officer signals the pilot to move his head back against the head rest and apply maximum power, then the officer makes a circular motion with his hand for the pilot to increase his throttle to full power and with his outstretched arm points go, and the plane is shot into the air. When all the planes leave on that mission, the flight deck is usually then cleared for any emergency landings as the ship slowly turns back to its original course, also making sure all the ships around them turn at the same time.

Aircraft launches from the flight deck aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt

An F-14D Tomcat from the “Black Lions” of Fighter Squadron Two One Three (VF-213) launches from the flight deck aboard the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) in 2006. Roosevelt and embarked Carrier Air Wing Eight (CVW-8) are currently underway on a regularly scheduled deployment conducting maritime security operations. (U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate Airman Apprentice Nathan Laird)

This operation is repeated throughout the day, launching the next flight and clearing the deck for the returning planes landing with the aid of a landing signal officer guiding them to a safe landing. The plane has a tail hook which the pilot manually extends and catches one if the 4 cables stretched across the deck.

Two green shirts run out to make sure the hook is clear of the cable and the plane director motions to the pilot, who retracts the hook and close the flaps and is directed to taxi forward of the barrier so the barrier can go up and the deck is cleared for the next plane to land.

Another plane director will direct the pilot and blue shirts to fold the wings and park the plane and lock the tail-wheel and chock the wheels.  The fire crew are ready for every landing, in case of a crash, fire or fuel spilled on the deck.

Bob Miller as Plane Director on the cover of the 1945 Navy Aviation News

Bob Miller as Plane Director on the cover of the Navy Aviation News

On the TULAGI I made a few changes; first, the method of positioning the plane on the catapult, second, I had the carpenter shop make a ouija (pronounced wigi) board (a scale model of the flight deck and flat scale models of each plane with the wings folded), which I used to plan parking the planes forward of the barrier.

 I also removed the chain across the forward edge of the flight deck used to keep anyone from falling.  Doing this, I was able to park more planes forward of the barrier and would not have to send any down on the elevator, stopping the planes from landing.  During the invasion of southern France, by making the change to the catapult, we broke the fleet record in the time it takes to send each plane into the air.

The shirt colors have changed a little after WWII.  I think the plane handlers wore brown on the TULAGI . . .

Modern Flight Deck Crew Color Guide

  • Aircraft handling officer
  • Catapult and arresting gear officer
  • Plane director – responsible for all movement of all aircraft on the flight/hangar deck
  • Catapult and arresting gear crew
  • Visual landing aid electrician
  • Air wing maintainer
  • Air wing quality controller
  • Cargo-handler
  • Ground support equipment (GSE) troubleshooter
  • Hook runner
  • Photographer’s mate
  • Helicopter landing signal enlisted personnel (LSE)
  • Ordnance handler
  • Crash and salvage crew
  • Explosive ordnance disposal (EOD)
  • Firefighter and damage control party
  • Aviation fuel handler
  • Trainee plane handler
  • Chocks and chains – entry-level flight-deck workers under the yellowshirts
  • Aircraft elevator operator
  • Tractor driver
  • Messengers and phone talker
  • Air wing plane captain – air wing squadron personnel who prepare aircraft for flight
  • Air wing line leading petty officer
  • Quality assurance (QA)
  • Squadron plane inspector
  • Landing signal officer (LSO)
  • Air transfer officer (ATO)
  • Liquid oxygen (LOX) crew
  • Safety observer
  • Medical personnel (white with Red Cross emblem)