Guardian Angel -- A True Story
After reaching our inbound cruising altitude,
Fisler left the cockpit and moved throughout the
aircraft greeting our unexpected passengers. Exuberance reigned supreme. Gimber, Watson, Forbes
and Cupps were exhausted from bringing aboard our nine Army guests. Since I was handy in the galley, I put Cupps on the radio and proceeded to nourish the hungry. Water was the most popular drink, but was consumed sparingly. After liquids came food. They depleted our food stores pronto.
Thanks to the one-gallon cans of coffee, we had plenty of java all the way back o Pearl. We tendered first aid, mostly sunburn, sea sores and one facial cut, along with a few scrapes. What they really needed was a few days off.
Our ETA at Pearl was about 2300, after dark,
no lights, low on fuel and in a leaky aircraft. "Well, let's look at the bright side,” said Watson. "We’ll be closer to land when we have to use the extra life raft.” The last thing this B-17 crew wanted was to get back into another life raft.
Snuffy took over the navigation from a fatigued Gimber and proceeded to handle the drift meter until dark Then he broke out the trusty sextant and commenced shooting a series of three-star fixes. His results produced a revised heading and gave us the reassurance we needed to fly a direct course back to Pearl. Watson continued to monitor our fuel closely as we got nearer to what he hoped was land. We had cut deeply into our fuel reserves because of the long duration on the water. He was hoping that there was more in the tanks than the gauges indicated.
Snuffy was back on the flight deck now and was
expecting some indication that we were near land and Pearl Harbor. Our passengers were joyous but flabbergasted to learn that they were adrift 500 miles southwest of Pearl. The direction finder fixes
they had been given had placed them northeast.
Then we saw a silhouette of land and located a harbor light. Because of the navigational skills of Gimber and Snuffy, we had hit Pearl Harbor right on the money! But now the challenge was to land safely.
After finding our sea lane lights, we descended slowly. I reeled in my trailing wire antenna while the rest of the crew made their preparations for landing. Since our PBY would be leaking like a sieve,
and we were running on fuel vapors, we radioed the tower and informed them we would not wait for beaching gear. Instead we planned to beach her up the seaplane ramp. We knew the old girl could handle the impact. We gently contacted the water and maintained a high taxi speed. Water was jetting in from the rivet holes, but the putt-putt was working reassuringly. Skimming across the water,
we passed ships, crash boats and standby PBY s as we made our way to the ramp. As we began our
starboard turn, lights came on by the ramp, and
the beaching crew quickly cleared the area.
As we approached the ramp, we reduced speed to lessen the blow, but still maintained enough momentum to climb up out of the water. There was a thud as the bow keel hit the ramp and a slight sinking sensation as the PBY charged out of the bay. A loud shrieking noise attacked my ears, accompanied by a noticeable vibration. The engines were cut and silenced as the plane's momentum continued to sustain the aircraft's onward movement. Then all forward motion stopped, the plane settled and there was complete silence. For a moment, no one said anything; then cheers echoed throughout the aircraft. Now Lieutenant Cooper's statement had real meaning. We were safe at last.
Or are they safe at last? Come back for the final chapter this Monday -- Veterans Day -- to see what sort of reception the higher ups will give them; after all, orders were disobeyed. Praise or punishment?
And benefiting this wonderfully heroic, true tale we'll be sharing photos and video of crew, survivors, and their interaction with Admiral Nimitz on the submarine USS Grayling. In addition, we'll be uploading the inspiring 1990 Memorial Service Video for Naval Aviation Pilot First Class Leonard H. "Snuffy" Wagoner - an emotional and eloquent reminder that "History that is not remembered, is history that never happened."