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Son, Brother, Pilot, Husband, Father

My Virtual Footprint

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Chapter 12 - (excerpt)



Pilots who were scheduled to fly a mission were notified the night before as to the time of takeoff. In the morning a jeep would carry the pilots to the flight line where the planes were parked. Usually the mission comprised a flight of four planes. The flight leader held a very informal huddle at the line and advised the members of his flight the destination and purpose of the flight. I would then preflight my plane and usually patted my plane as I walked around it visually checking it out. I was always touched by seeing this beautiful monster patiently waiting for me to climb into the cockpit like a faithful horse. After settling into the plane, my crew chief lay on the wing, peered into the cockpit and checked the instruments with me as I started the engine and checked the magnetos. I never aborted a mission due to engine malfunction even though there was one time where the mags did not check out satisfactorily. Flights were too scarce to abort for something as minor as that. Besides, I always had that second engine. If everything checked out fine, we taxied out to the runway for takeoff.

Plate64On my first mission I flew as part of a flight of four P-38s from Ie Shima up to Odate Shima, a tiny island a couple of hours flying time north of Ie Shima. Our mission was to fly cover for an Army B-17 and a Navy PBY Catalina flying boat sent to rescue a downed pilot in the ocean. PBY Catalinas were affectionately and unofficially called “Dumbo” because they were so slow and ungainly. As we neared our destination, even though still miles away, we spotted the dye marker stain in the sea that had been released by the pilot. When we got closer, we saw the downed pilot bobbing in the ocean, his bright yellow Mae West highlighting his position in the dye marker. I thought to myself that this pilot probably had been flying a single-engine fighter plane and he had to bail out when he had engine problems. I was lucky to be in a twin-engine P-38. Soon the PBY appeared and prepared to land and pick him up. We circled the area keeping a lookout for enemy planes and for sharks near the downed pilot until the rescue was completed, whereupon the PBY took off and my flight headed home.

It amazed me how quickly fighter command was able to get fighter protection to downed airmen while awaiting rescue, and how quickly air-sea rescue was able to locate and rescue downed airmen. As the war progressed, the rescue of airmen forced down at sea became more important, especially in the Pacific where there were five air forces whose planes were regularly engaged in long flights over great distances of water. In the early years of the war the Navy had primary responsibility for the rescue of airmen down at sea. But the Air Force, believing that it should be as self-sufficient as possible, wanted its own separate air-sea rescue unit. Although the debate was never fully resolved, the Air Force did draft plans for the creation of seven air-sea rescue squadrons. The Fifth Air Force received its first emergency rescue squadron (the 2d ERS) in July 1944. In October 1944 the Fifth Air Force received the 3d ERS. By 1945 seven emergency rescue squadrons were scheduled to be operational in the Pacific. Airmen flying hundreds of miles over open water felt reassured knowing that air-sea rescue was there in case they had to go down in water. Between July 1943 and April 1945 air-sea rescue units working with the Fifth Air Force saved 1,841 downed airmen, 360 of them in the month of January 1945 when the Fifth Air Force had its own emergency rescue squadron.

In the three months before March 1, 1945 an average of two B-29s were ditched at sea in every strike against the Japanese homeland. The Air Force and the Navy eventually worked out a system that enabled them to more closely coordinate their operations and procedures for air-sea rescue. That cooperation resulted in a much better rescue rate. In March of 1945 rescues rose to 74% and in May to 80%, Those figures are especially high when one realizes that the chance of survival and rescue depended on so many variables: the skill of the downed airmen, weather conditions, luck, speed of response of the rescuers, the rescue equipment carried on the downed aircraft and the ditching characteristics of the aircraft involved. Some planes ditched better than others did. Low mid-wing bombers like the B-17 fared better than the high wing bomber like the B-24 because the body of a high wing bomber took the brunt of the crash, often causing it to break up.

Fighter planes were notoriously difficult to ditch successfully. There is only one instance of a P-51 having ditched successfully. Usually the big radiator scoop under the fuselage caused the plane to plow under at impact. The average time between impact and submersion for a fighter was less than twenty seconds, within which time the pilot had to recover from the shock of impact, unbuckle all his harnesses, release the canopy, clamber out of the cockpit with his life raft and inflate his life-jacket and/or life-raft. The fighter pilot who ditched had to know exactly what to do when he hit the water and he had to do it fast. It was the practice of fighter pilots under normal conditions to elect to bail out rather than ditch. Bomber crews usually elected to ditch rather than bail out in order because the bombers carried life rafts that could be deployed when they ditched, and that meant that they avoided spending a great deal of time in the cold water.