Guardian Angel -- A True Story
The PBY crew was feeling the exhilaration of Saturday night, Christmas Day and New Year's Eve all rolled into one. Our adrenalin surged and our hearts throbbed as we achieved the rescue of the nine badly sunburned and visibly emaciated survivors. We watched with relief as they clumsily climbed aboard the tossing PBY. What an electric moment in our young lives!
We proceeded to distribute the passengers evenly throughout the crowded PBY. The four weakest survivors were bedded down in the four available crew bunks. The remaining five were placed on padded floor pallets in the midships and navigation compartments. The interior of the "poor ole" Catalina was looking more like a homeless shelter than a combat aircraft. Once the last survivor was on board, Gimber and Watson hauled in the sea anchors and one of the life rafts, just in case we needed it on the way back to Pearl Harbor. Then they secured the blister and reported to the cockpit that they had completed the recovery.
At this juncture, it is befitting to praise and commend the incredible strain, struggle and exertion of Gimber, Watson, Cupps and Forbes in their extraordinary undertaking. It is impossible to find adequate words to describe the heroics these guys performed in the cramped quarters of the PBY after-station during those two frantic and hectic hours. Their outstanding performance should be highlighted in the history of Naval Aviation. Without their unsurpassed determination and persistence, superb physical strength and stamina, and sheer guts and grit, our rescue efforts would have been for naught. May God forever bless those wonderful shipmates.
As for me, I spent the entire two hours in my radioman's chair, guarding all the assigned frequencies, maintaining constant communications with Pearl Harbor and ready in an instant to pound out the international aviation distress Signal, "Mayday” in case our tired and leaky PBY suddenly decided to head for Davy Jones' Locker. Furthermore, I had to contend with a constantly twisting and bobbing aircraft with a small, totally inadequate fixed antenna, with unbelievable constant static and interference due to the heavy weather; and, last but decidedly not least, with a few bouts of nausea and vomiting. All these things served to keep my attention span alert and intact. You might say it was just another routine afternoon for a young aviation radioman.
Just after 1700, Fisler passed the word by intercom to prepare for takeoff. This certainly came as no surprise, as our only alternative would have been to hang around and sink. There was continuing concern about the structural integrity of the aircraft after the loss of so many rivets while landing. Moreover, in my opinion, our newly acquired passengers would not fancy the idea of floating around the ocean in a badly leaking seaplane.
Everything was in place: baseball caps, brand new unlit cigars to chew on and nine new faces added to the onboard cheering section. The moment of truth was at hand. I think everyone on the plane probably relived his entire life during the ensuing 10 or 15 minutes. Again, Snuffy was going to be the unofficial ringmaster. He and Ensign Fisler had talked and talked, including hand Signals. Through the entire scenario for an open sea take-off. If ever there was a time and a place for skill, finesse and luck, it was now.
As engine power increased, the waves pounded relentlessly against the hull of the seaplane. The know-how came in selecting the right wave or swell for our surf ride into the sky. Any miscue and the aircraft would slide into a wall of water and suddenly be stopped cold. Like a cat preying on an unsuspecting victim, the two pilots selected a possible takeoff ramp and then throttled up as rapidly as possible. Several times we roared down the face of a wave picking up speed.
Each time, the wave would collapse and hang onto the plane like a child clutching candy.
(Come back next Saturday for the continuing drama of Guardian Angel - A True Story.)