Guardian Angel -- A True Story
The tempo immediately shifted into high gear. Fisler handed me a message to send to Pearl
Harbor requesting permission to land and pick up the survivors. Fisler and Snuffy commenced
a full-fledged, step-by-step, verbal rehearsal of the exact procedures to be followed during the operation. Snuffy's calm demeanor and expert knowledge of this type of exercise served as a perfect complement to the recognized piloting ability of Ensign Fisler. There was no doubt about it. We had the best team going for this extremely difficult objective. The atmosphere throughout the aircraft was thick with anticipation.
It was approaching 1500 when the message granting us permission to proceed with the rescue started coming in. But, even in wartime, bureaucracy reared its ugly head. In the reply, we were admonished not to carry out the attempt at any undue risk to the crew or aircraft. What a caveat! Ensign Fisler's response: "Crew, prepare for landing"
Assignments already had been allocated. Fisler and Snuffy would remain on the flight deck. Gimber would be in charge of getting the survivors aboard the aircraft and would be assisted by Watson and Cupps. All three would wear parachute harnesses, life jackets and safety lines at all times. Forbes would guard the tower, and I would remain on radio watch. All hands would wear life vests throughout the operation.
We immediately flew a short distance away from the rafts and jettisoned our ordnance. I was certain that the occupants of the life rafts must have thought we were abandoning them. As we turned back and lined up on the target, I reeled in the trailing wire antenna and buckled up tightly for the open-sea landing. All hands reported they were ready.
With their baseball caps and unlit cigars in place, the cockpit crew was obviously prepared for action. The quiet, confident and experienced Snuffy was the perfect co-pilot for the younger, dauntless and stalwart Ensign Fisler. Mutual respect was unmistakable on the flight deck. Buckled up in my radioman's chair, I had the best seat in the house to watch these two pros perform. Hemingway had never met this crew; if he had, the characters in his novels surely would have been less tragic.
Fisler signaled Snuffy to reduce power and our final approach was under way. The adrenalin was surging intensely throughout the aircraft. Snuffy was handling the throttle quadrant and giving hand signals to Fisler to make attitude and turn corrections. The touchdown target was slightly to the left and just beyond the life rafts. The final landing checklist was completed.
The survivors must have been surprised when they saw the PBY flying low with wing floats coming down and locking into place. Just ahead, the life rafts were tossing around, surrounded by enormous waves. We were now close to the water. Fisler slowly rotated the nose of the PBY upward into a semi-stall attitude.
On signal and with near perfect timing, Snuffy eased the power off, and the aircraft settled into the vast, churning sea.
(Come back next Saturday for the continuing drama of Guardian Angel - A True Story.)
How Did They Get There
After circling for a couple of hours, the PBY left the area and the crew thought they were going to get help. They were settling in for the long wait when they heard the loud roar of aircraft engines above their heads. Startled, they looked up and found the PBY about 200 feet above their position with its moving wing floats half-lowered. Someone yelled, "That son-of-a-b***h is going to land!" The B-17 crew yelled for joy, tempered by fear that the PBY might crash in the heavy seas.
As rafts moved from the trough to the crest of each wave, the crew searched the horizon for any confirmation that the PBY was safe. Soon, they spotted the tail section and then it disappeared. Then, the tail and a wing would appear, slightly closer. After nearly two hours, the PBY neared the rafts and her crew threw lines toward the rafts.