From the Archives: Sea Rescue

By: SSgt Norman Miller, USMC

From the Leatherneck Archives: Feb. 15, 1945, Pacific Edition

A shrieking Marine-piloted Cor­sair dived on its Marshall Island target. Its bombs released, smoke and dust shrouding the atoll. Suddenly from the smoking blackness below, tiny red balls of fire streaked toward the sky from a well-hidden gun.

The Corsair shuddered as it dropped out of position. A hundred yards from the barely discernible beach the careening fuselage was swallowed by the treacherous surf.

Slowly an oil slick mixed with the green dye of a marker and the yellow of a life raft. The pilot’s comrades circled overhead, radioed his position, and as gas ran low, turned homeward.

The man in the life raft was alone. His one salvation was the well-organized sea rescue service composed of the Navy’s flying boat, the PBY Catalina, known fondly as the “Dumbo,” and the swift destroyers that ply these waters.

In the past six months, 21 men of the 4th Marine Air Wing, commanded by Brigadier General Louis E. Woods, flying with squadrons neutralizing the Japanese-held islands of Mille, Jaluit, Wotje and Maloelap, had been rescued. Twenty of their comrades, shot down in similar actions, were lost. In other words, more than 50 percent of the men shot down in combat have been rescued, most of them to fly again!

Dumbos landed in perilously rough seas, cracking wingtips while effecting rescues, and, like giant crippled birds, the huge planes have taxied miles across the water.

American destroyers steamed defiantly into the range of Japanese shore batteries to pick up crash survivors, at times en­gaging in running battles with the enemy to accomplish their mission.

The vast reaches of open sea that these pilots crossed to bomb Japanese atolls do not seem impressive on a map, but they are incredibly long distances for single-engine planes.

After leaving their own base, the open sea was their only haven of safety if shot down since the only nearby islands were enemy held.

Once shot down, there was fear in their hearts. Fear of failure to be sighted. Fear of slight injuries becoming serious and the even greater fear of being discovered by the enemy. A man without fear is a fool.

They paddled with all the fury that fear inspires. They gave thanks to the heavy, tossing sea, threatening to engulf them, yet offering protective cover from the enemy. In the next breath they would curse it because it made them equally invisible to rescuers.

There was nothing to do now but con­tinue to paddle in the direction of home, and wait.

The length of time pilots spent in the raft is not a matter fate. It may have been a few hours, a day, a week, all depending on the weather and visibility, but in 21 cases, their vigil was rewarded by hearing the drone of a plane, or the sight of the creamy wake of a destroyer.

Once aboard the rescue craft the men were cared for, given clean, dry clothing and fed. At the same time, a laconic radio message, worded thusly, was sent out: “Pilot rescued by aircraft (or ship). Re­turning to base.”

Despite being shot down and rescued, most of these men again took up the aerial cudgel against the Japanese in the Marshalls. Such was the case of Captain George Franck, former All-American halfback at the University of Minnesota.

His head injured in a crash landing, Captain Franck floated in his life raft for two and one-half hours. He was so close to enemy-held Wotje, that he “could count every coconut tree on the island.”

He was picked up by a motor whaleboat from a Navy destroyer that slugged it out with Japanese coastal guns. The destroyer moved in after a Navy PBY, which landed to affect the rescue, was split in two by a 50-foot swell and its crew of six was sent scampering to a life raft. Overhead, Captain Franck’s comrades, who had raced back to their base to refuel and re-arm, joined the fray. They strafed the enemy guns while Franck and the PBY crew were picked up.

Describing his rescue, Captain Franck said, “It was the best piece of teamwork I have ever seen.”

It is not a usual sight to see an Army B-25 pilot affectionately kiss the hull of a battered, weather-beaten Navy Catalina.

First Lieutenant M.B. Watts of Richmond, Calif., did just that to the PBY which brought him and his crewmembers back to Tarawa one day in June 1944.

Shot down in a bombing run, Lieutenant Watts and his crew were picked up at sea by a patrol bomber piloted by Navy Lieutenant Junior Grade Olaf F. Holm, of La Jolla, Calif.

LTJG Holm landed the giant amphibian between two swells and popped 50 rivets in the hull.

By popping rivets, LTJG Holm meant that there were that many holes in the hull where rivets should have been. In addition, several supports were bent as he taxied toward the men on the raft and the PBY started “leaking like a sieve.”

“Two of the Army men had broken legs and a third was badly cut up,” Holm said. “We had a hard time moving them to our ship, but finally managed it by using part of the catwalk for a stretcher.”

“The Army men kept saying, ‘Thank God we’re safe,’ but we weren’t so optimistic about the outlook. My crew kept plugging up the holes with pencils, pieces of wood, and even their fingers. By the time we were ready to take off, we had a foot of water in the plane.”

With so heavy a load aboard and the water in the hull, Lieutenant Holm decided on a downwind takeoff, and recalling his surfboard riding days, rode the crests of three swells until the heavily laden Navy craft was airborne. Tarawa was reached without further incident.

During the rescue of Marine Second Lieutenant Theodore Wyatt, of Chicago, Ill., another triple play was performed. Lieutenant Wyatt, a 4th Marine Air Wing Corsair pilot, was shot down less than 2 miles off one of the Japanese-held atolls he was strafing.

After hitting the water, he managed to get out of the cockpit and into his raft. Members of his flight sighted him and remained overhead until the Dumbo appeared. Also nearby was a destroyer, but as it neared Lieutenant Wyatt’s raft, Japanese coastal batteries opened up. The Navy PBY landed, but was badly damaged by heavy seas, and the nine-man crew was forced to board two rafts and join 2ndLt Wyatt in the water. The shore batteries switched their fire to the plane and rafts, but a motor launch from the destroyer picked up the men without mishap, as Douglas dive bombers provided a curtain of protective fire.

A split second rescue saved the life of Marine Captain Edwin A. Tucker, of Lancaster, Calif.

Capt Tucker, a member of another 4th MAW Corsair Squadron, was shot down into the lagoon of an enemy base in the Marshalls. Capt Tucker was unable to inflate his life raft, and despite his frantic efforts, watched it sink out of sight. He abandoned his plane and was kept afloat by his Mae West. Twenty-five minutes later he was picked up by the ever-present Navy Catalina.

The rescue was accomplished with­out drawing fire from Japanese gun emplacements fringing the lagoon because of continued strafing by Capt Tucker’s squadron mates, who kept the enemy gunners well pinned down.

Another thrilling rescue amid a hail of bullets was the one of Marine Captain Judson H. Bell, of Bel Air, Md., a member of one of the first units of the 4th MAW to use the Corsair as a fighter bomber. Capt Bell was forced into the water after his plane was set ablaze by enemy antiaircraft fire.

For two hours Captain Bell floated in the water, supported by his Mae West, his life raft having gone down with the plane. A destroyer, dispatched to the scene, was kept away by heavy shore battery fire. The destroyer lowered a motor whaleboat, which made its way, amid a shower of bullets to the captain and carried him to safety.

His 13th strike proved unlucky for Marine First Lieutenant Van A. Dempsey. Flying cover for a dive bomber, Lieu­tenant Dempsey’s airplane was hit by antiaircraft fire. Unable to fly the stricken ship home, he pancaked into the ocean. He too, was unable to launch his life raft and had to rely on his Mae West. After 30 minutes of paddling in the water, he was picked up by a Navy flying boat.

These are only a scant few of the rescues of flyers downed at sea. All of them are victories against the ocean and the enemy. Experienced pilots and gun­ners were saved and went on with their mission of neutralizing the Japanese-held Marshall Islands.