Guardian Angel -- A True Story
Upon landing, near chaos set in. The impact was accompanied by a groan and shuddering vibrations that rippled throughout the aircraft. We were being tossed around like a ping pong ball in a lottery drawing. The warm temperature and high humidity, combined with the incredible aircraft motion, quickly generated nausea and sea sickness among the crew. It was not long before the smell of vomit wafted through the aircraft.
Under such miserable circumstances, the landing had to be rated near perfect. Unfortunately, the rough sea had exacted its toll. A number of rivets (54 by later count) had popped loose. This created a rash of small seawater fountains in the navigation and bunk compartments.
The built-in heavy-duty bilge pump (the "putt-putt") roared into action, and Gimber's crew quickly stuffed sharpened pencils and cleaning rags into the holes and leaking areas. We could only surmise how much structural damage we had received, and just how long we could stay afloat. But the pump and the patches stabilized the situation enough for us to return to our other urgent tasks: namely, locating the rafts, getting a line to them and getting the survivors into the aircraft.
The decision had been made to let the more experienced Snuffy handle the open-sea taxiing. The worst problem was keeping the rafts in sight. Each time someone got a glimpse of them, they would suddenly disappear behind a huge wave or drop out of sight in a deep trough. In the beginning, the situation looked completely hopeless; nevertheless, with Snuffy at the controls, vying with the unrelenting ocean's mischief, the outlook gradually improved. Like a virtuoso, Snuffy played the wind, waves and water to his advantage in order to close the distance between the plane and the survivors.
Exuberance erupted when the survivors finally came close enough to the PBY to reveal their identities. Up to that point, the possibility still had existed that the life raft occupants might be Japanese forces. The close proximity brought with it a new threat. On several occasions, the rafts would disappear, only to emerge heading directly toward our whirling propellers. Several times, while looking out my window, I was forced to close my eyes, not wanting to see the impending destruction of the life rafts and crew.
Finally, with the deployment of both our sea anchors, Snuffy closed the gap and gyrated the aircraft sufficiently so that Gimber could attempt to get a line from the port blister to the rafts. After several attempts, the line was caught, and the hazardous ordeal turned into a three-way tug of war among the rafts, the PBY and the stormy sea.
As the rafts began to come alongside, another disaster threatened the downed flyers. The two rafts suddenly separated,and it looked like we might lose one. But thanks to the frantic hand-paddling of our soon-to-be guests, plus a lucky line toss, they were quickly rejoined.
Then, with heroic exertion and sustained stamina, Gimber and company were able to pull the rafts up to the seaplane and commence the treacherous transfer of the survivors into it.
(Come back next Saturday for the continuing drama of Guardian Angel - A True Story.)