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Eyes of the Fleet

By Dick Smith
10/16/2018 • Aviation History Magazine

David Quinlan pays tribute to his Pearl Harbor veteran father.

Right before 0800 hours on December 7, 1941, Boatswains Mate John J. Quinlan had just finished putting on his uniform before attending Sunday Mass when he heard explosions and strafing. At 0750 General Quarters sounded on Quinlan’s vessel, the seaplane tender USS 22 on the west side of Ford Island at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Seconds after the first Curtiss, moored at berth X-ray bombs dropped around their ship, Quinlan and his fellow crew members were racing to their battle stations on the bow. At 0803 gunners on the .50-caliber turrets started firing at the Japanese fighters and bombers overhead. Two minutes later Quinlan, dodging fire from strafers, had made it to his post at the No. 1 5-inch mount.

Curtiss took a bomb hit on the stern that started several fires and wrecked two Vought OS2U Kingfishers. Minutes later another bomb struck on the starboard side of the boat deck, passed through several shop areas and detonated on the main deck. The engine room crew still managed to light off boilers one, three and four, enabling the vessel to get underway. A little over half an hour after the attack started, men spotted a periscope and then the conning tower of a Japanese midget submarine on the starboard quarter. The 5-inch guns hit the sub twice—but not before it loosed a torpedo that missed Curtiss and blew up a dock. The gunners were later credited with destroying three enemy planes as well as the sub, assisted in the latter victory by depth charges dropped by the destroyer Monaghan.

Aboard Curtiss, 19 were dead, one missing in action and another 25 wounded. John Quinlan escaped injury. One of the ship’s aircraft cranes was destroyed.

In his painting Eyes of the Fleet, David Quinlan has depicted a small portion of the aftermath at Pearl Harbor as witnessed by his father, John. Quinlan’s work is the result of months of research using wartime photos, oral histories and postcards. Of special interest to both father and son was an aerial photograph of the attack. They had seen many views of the devastation but had never before seen pictures from the viewpoint of the attackers. At the bottom corner of one such photo was Curtiss, with the two Kingfishers burning on the vessel’s fantail.

To get the proper perspective for his painting, David Quinlan turned to wartime photos and aircraft portraits by noted commercial photographer Edward Steichen. In 1938 Steichen left behind a career of portrait and advertising photography and entered the Navy, where he was eventually placed in command of all naval combat photography and promoted to the rank of captain. In 1942 he organized the critically acclaimed “Road to Victory” exhibit to promote the war effort.

Quinlan set to work to produce a 36-by- 48-inch oil painting. It was his first work based on a military subject, and he chose oils to give the painting “a feeling of the 1940s period.” The painting’s size and the wide range of blues he incorporated help portray “the enormous power of the sea” that Quinlan’s father had told him about in his remembrances of the war years. The elder Quinlan had often reminisced to his son about the deep blue of the South Pacific and how ships seemed to become enveloped in its swells.

Quinlan’s title is based on the fact that Kingfishers were the eyes of the fleet before radar was common on ships. In addition to serving as gunfire spotters and sub hunters, OS2Us participated in air-sea rescue missions. They could be launched from battleships and some heavy cruisers and then recovered via cranes on the vessels’ sterns.

The Navy’s first observation scout monoplane meant to be launched from a catapult, the Kingfisher was fitted with a centerline float and two outriggers attached near the wingtips for water landings. Later versions were equipped with a larger Edo Corporation center float that was more rounded and had an improved rudder shape. A beaching kit could be attached to the floats to facilitate servicing at forward bases, and a conventional wheeled landing gear was also an option.

The OS2U had a crew of two, a pilot and an observer-gunner. Its enclosed cockpit was positioned beneath a large greenhouse-type canopy.

Powered by a single 450-hp Pratt & Whitney R-985-AN-2 Wasp Junior radial engine, the OS2U-3 Kingfisher had a maximum speed of just over 170 mph at 5,000 feet. It was armed with two .30-caliber machine guns, one fixed in the nose and a second on a swivel mount in the compartment behind the pilot. The normal ordnance load was two 100-pound bombs or 325 pounds of depth charges.

John Quinlan died in 2005 at age 91. “I think the painting is my way of dealing with his passing,” said his son. “He only saw it three-quarters finished, but he gave me the ‘thumbs up’ before he died.”

 

Originally published in the July 2007 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here

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