LA GRANDE — Seventy-five years ago, Hugh McNaughton woke up in a Hawaii hospital in pain, a little confused but most importantly — and perhaps miraculously — a survivor.
McNaughton, a gunner’s mate in the U.S. Navy who grew up in La Grande, had been rushed to the hospital three days earlier after the plane he was flying in crashed on Christmas Eve 1943 near Honolulu after returning from a patrol flight.
The plane was carrying 12 men who were part of a naval flight crew squadron. Six of the passengers died in the crash. McNaughton said the plane’s instrument panel went out and then it hit thick fog.
Then his world went blank.
“I don’t remember anything after that,” he said.
McNaughton, who is 96, was later sent to a hospital on the mainland, where he recovered from burn injuries over a six-week period. The veteran, who now lives in Florida, said the crash changed his perspective.
“I realized how precious life can be,” he said.
McNaughton believes he survived the crash and his four-year stint in the Navy because of divine intervention.
“Sometimes I had an angel in my pocket,” said McNaughton, who lived in La Grande for 10 years in the 1930s and early 1940s.
In December 1943, McNaughton was completing his multi-month stay in Hawaii, where he was a member of Squadron VPB-27, which made flights in search of Japanese submarines. The squadron was to bomb any submarines it spotted. McNaughton said none of the planes he ever flew missions on ever spotted a Japanese submarine. They also never encountered Japanese planes or anti-aircraft fire.
McNaughton believes this was because the Japanese had lost the Battle of Midway more than a year earlier.
“The Japanese had been pushed to the South Pacific,” he said.
The Midway Islands in the Pacific Ocean, where the famous battle was fought in June 1942, are almost midway between Japan and the United States.
McNaughton started his journey to Hawaii in the spring of 1942 after completing his sophomore year at La Grande High School. He left the Grande Ronde Valley to work in Portland. He worked at the Kaiser Shipyards, where Liberty ships were being built. Liberty ships were cargo ships used by the U.S. military during World War II.
McNaughton enlisted in the U.S. Navy in June 1943, about seven months before his 18th birthday. He was inspired to enlist before his birthday because he knew he would be drafted if he waited until he was 18 to join. McNaughton was worried that he might be assigned to the U.S. Army and serve in its infantry.
“I did not want to be sent to a muddy battlefield in Europe,” he said.
He received gunnery training at the Banner River Naval Air Station in Florida, where his skills were tested during plane flights. McNaughton would fire at an air sock-type target being pulled by a plane traveling at least 150 miles per hour between 400 and 600 yards away.
“It was quite difficult because the target was moving,” he said. “To hit it, you had to shoot ahead of it.”
McNaughton said it was easy for evaluators to see how well gunners were doing because each of their bullets were painted and each man fired bullets of a different color. Paint from the bullets was dispersed on the target upon impact.
McNaughton’s many assignments during his military stint included loading bombs into planes, something, he said, that was not as dangerous it sounded because the bombs were not ready for missions.
“They had no fuses,” he said. “They were not ready to blow up.”
Returning to La Grande
After being honorably discharged in 1947, McNaughton worked as a machinist. His return visit to La Grande in late October marked the first time he had been in Union County in eight decades. McNaughton said he was delighted to see the Liberty Theater being restored. He recalled that it was the top theater in La Grande during his childhood.
“It had the best movies,” he said.
McNaughton, who came to La Grande with his daughter, Dee Schoenly, and her husband, Stuart, was brought up to date about how La Grande was doing during a meeting with Mayor Steve Clements.
“I was really nice of him to meet with me,” McNaughton said. “He is a neat guy.”