How Did They Get There -- A True Story
This December 30, 2013...
Seventy-two years ago today, 1st Lt. Earl J. Cooper and his B-17E (41-2402) crew spent the night in high winds, mountainous waves, two leaking rafts and a long way from base…
The rafts filled with water and the wind kept them chilled to the bone. They had to deflate their life vests some to make more room on the churning rafts. Just before dawn one raft filliped over and two of the crew struggled to turn it over and get back in then grabbed the other two who were having trouble getting in. They were weak and it was hard to sit upright. The night seemed to never end; they were a sad lot by dawn. The seas and the wind continued. They began to lose hope; they knew they could not survive another day and night like this. About noon, the wind eased a little and the sun broke through the clouds but the waves remained high. They had a moment to share the orange and sip their coffee and hope that Castro’s guardian angel was still with them.
It was about 1:00 pm or so when they heard and saw an approaching aircraft. It was close enough that they fired several flares. There was no response and they were down to their last flare. Finally, the aircraft flew closer and they fired their last flare. There was a long wait then finally, the aircraft banked in their direction and began to drop in altitude heading straight for them. They were spotted. Now what?
It was a PBY Catalina flying boat and she circled several times maintaining the rafts location. On the third run, she dropped us a life vest with a thermos of water, fruit juices, canned bread and other foods. This was joyous! But the seas were too rough for them to land. However, they did know our location and could send a ship to pick them up if they made it through another night and day. She circled until about 5:00 pm and then left the area. At least now they had a chance, but another night and day lay ahead in the high winds, and mountainous waves.
The B-17 crew had settled in for the long wait for ship rescue with their food and water already consumed when low over the crest of a high wave came the roar of two Pratt & Whitney engines. The PBY was about 100 feet above the wave crest with its wing floats beginning to lower. Shock and joy ignited in the crew with one of them yelling “That son-of-a-bitch is going to land!!! Please God help them!!”
Disbelief hit the crew hard. As the wave took them to the crest, they looked for the aircraft they did not see anything but ocean. Did it crash? Then they would sink into the wave trough. Up again on a wave crest looking for any sign and then down into the trough again. They moved up the third crest and spotted the bow then the engines, the wings and then the tail heading toward them. Someone yelled, “They made it!!” As the PBY came closer, it clearly became a serious danger. The high waves could push the PBY and the rafts together causing a collision.
Now the dance began. The first attempt to bring the rafts to the right blister gun port brought the rafts head on with the spinning propellers. As the aircraft and the rafts dropped into the trough, the PBY spun to its left and brought the rafts to the open right blister. Five men were pulled into the PBY as the wave crested. The second deflating raft began to pull away on the wave crest. A rope was tossed from the PBY to the raft and it soon moved closer to the blister as they moved into the next trough. Lucas grabbed the lower blister opening while the others climbed over him to enter the aircraft. Lucas was weak, blacked out, then fell into the water. He remembers a strong large hand pulling him out of the water and into the aircraft. He saw a blurred face of 1st Class William Watson and blacked out again. They were all safe, inside the PBY - now to get airborne.
The B-17 crew was spread out inside the PBY – 4 in the bunks and 5 on the walkway. One life raft was brought inside – just in case. The pilots began their run down the wave crest. The aircraft was shaking and groaning, fighting the ocean to break suction and get enough air speed for rotation. The first try was a failure. The second try pushed the bow into a wave crest. On the third try, the engines were maxed out and the bird was working hard to gain the needed rotation speed. Up the crest they went and as wave dropped, the PBY stayed in the air. Quiet engulfed the PBY. The only sounds were the engines pulling them higher into the sky and the wing floats retracting. They were off the ocean and heading home. Cooper yelled “We’re saved!!” Ensign Fisler stuck his head out of the cockpit and yelled with a reassuring smile, “Saved my ass!! We have 500 miles to fly!!”
During the flight back to Pearl Harbor, 2nd Class Warlick radioed Pearl Harbor of the successful rescue and the damage to the aircraft hull. The B-17 crew got dry and warm and sipped water. They did not get back to Pearl Harbor until about midnight and then, because of the damage to the PBY hull during the water landing, the PBY had to make a high speed run and fly up the sea plane ramp. The pilots nosed her up the ramp and she skidded across the tarmac until she came to a halt and slowly rocked onto one wing float. This was a PBY 5 – no landing gear. There were a lot of people waiting for them – Army, Navy, Medics. They were back to Pearl and on the way to the hospital. They never saw the PBY crew again. War has a way of doing that but they were all grateful for their courage, skill and that the PBY crew chose to do what was right not what was correct. The PBY Catalina will always have a special place in their hearts and Castro’s Guardian Angel was with them – all the way.