by Sherman Clark Green, 10th ERBS
December 7, 1941 -- an historic day in the Pacific war. But three years later, in 1944, Dec. 7 was not especially marked. Well, not yet.
P-512, an 85-foot offshore rescue vessel, rather resembling a PT boat, and almost as fast, was on station off Alexai Point, Attu, out at the end of the Aleutian Island chain. Alexai Point was a P-38 fighter base for the 54th FS. On this cold, bright, winter day at the standby buoy in the southeast end of Massacre Bay our crew of fourteen were mostly at leisure or busy on individual tasks below decks. Now and then, a radio voice check call could be heard from S/Sgt. Driggs' cramped wireless room below. And, as always in cool weather, the engineers would fire off our twin Packard-Allisons about every hour to keep them warmed and ready. Chief Engineer WOJG William K. Leise was a stickler for engine maintenance and readiness.
"FOXTAIL ONE-TWO; ALEXAI TOWER: WE HAVE A PLANE DOWN!" The control tower operator's voice was strained and loud -- the usual cool cat jive-talk radio code language totally ignored in his excitement. We all dropped whatever we were doing, grabbed warm heavy gear and scrambled to our stations. Engines coughed, boomed and rumbled as deck crewmen slipped the mooring bridle and P-512 swung around and gathered speed toward the outer reefs instead of heading for the harbor entrance. Chief Leise on the intercom protested that the engine's warranties were being voided.
"The hell with that" shouted Skipper CWO C.M. (Mike) Hatton, "Give me all you've got"
Alexai Tower had fixed the spot where a P-38 ditched in the water a couple of miles SE off the point within sight of the beach. "Bring him back any way you can," tower had said. "The pilot has the squadron's Christmas funds in his pocket!"
How Mike snaked us through the reefs, I'll never know. We all expected the bottom to be ripped out any moment as 512 charged among the snaggle-toothed expanse of rocky reefs. A mile or two ahead we could see an orange dot bobbing on the surface. As we neared the raft, we could see the pilot seated, but still upright. He'd been on the water about twenty minutes--almost three times the usual survival interval in those Bering Sea waters.
Mike slackened speed as we came closer. Two husky crewmen unrolled a cargo net down the side as the boat circled to bring him alongside to port. They clambered down to water's edge, and each with a opposite arm, swung him bodily up and on deck to hands waiting to grab him and hustle him below. The pilot had been unable to move or assist in his rescue, being cold and stiff -- almost comatose.
Down below we peeled his bulky soaked flight suit and boots off, as well as most of his clothing. No way could he be stuffed into one of the 24-volt "bunny suit" warmers that resembled Dr. Denton's. He was too wet and awkwardly stiff, so three guys peeled to their skivvies and piled on the berth with blankets over all to try to warm him.
At full speed back we crossed back into the bay, pulled into our Casco Cove floating dock base about 15 minutes later to meet a waiting air base ambulance. For Lt. Bennie Stone, 54th FS, the date, Dec. 7, had become doubly memorable. Not only was he intact, so were the funds for the squadron's Christmas celebration. On P-512 we painted a red cross on another small, white disk that showed from the side of the flying bridge.
Lieutenant Stone later told us that after ditching the plane with its dead engines, he sank slowly in it. He'd been too busy to slide back the cockpit canopy and escape. The cockpit became a darker and darker green, then almost black until the descent slowed, then it started up again and the canopy grew lighter. When the plane surfaced, he had a moment to pop the slider back and roll out on the wing as the plane sank again. "It was like sitting perfectly level in an elevator going down, then up," he said. "I thought it was all over for me on the way down. It was impossible to slide the hatch open against the water pressure," he had explained. Fortunately, God gave him another chance.
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Fifty-five years later, two of Stone's fellow fighter pilots flew via Coast Guard Hercules transport to determine if that P-38 could be salvaged and restored as a museum display. It rests right side up in only 30 to 40 feet of water. If corrosion is minimal, then just maybe it can be saved and restored to be admired again.
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[ Clark's Notes: P-512 was one of five 85-footers stationed at Casco Cove, Alexai Point, or Chichagof Harbor. AAF offshore rescue boats were stationed from Annette Is. in SE Alaska to Attu. I served on boats at Adak, Amchitka, and Attu. We sailed the 104' and 85' boats from Seattle and Los Angeles.
The 10th Emergency Rescue Boat Squadron. (originally 924th QM Co. Boat (avn), served from Spring, 1942, to Jan. or Feb. 1946, from Annette Is. near Ketchikan to Attu in the Aleutians. Boats were stationed at Homer, Kodiak, Dutch Harbor, Chernofski, Adak, Amchitka, (rotating to Kiska), and Attu. (I may have missed a couple.) Thirty boats or so, from 158-ft to 104's, 85's, and 42-footers with several smaller ones back on the AK mainland. Outfit had about 500 men; many were recruited from AK. Crews lived on their boats -- those 42' and larger, and brought the larger ones from Stateside on their own bottoms. We never lost a man nor a boat at sea, despite facing some of the world's worst weather. Saved a number of airmen, brought ill and injured men from outposts for treatment, and ferried outpost crews to and from their duties. It was good duty, but I'm glad I don't have to do it again!
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[ More about Clark:
I was a Sea Scout decades ago, and then became a deck ape draftee in the Tenth Emergency Rescue Boat Squadron, USAAF, in the Aleutians. I was first stationed aboard the HA-2, a 158-foot "retriever" for the first six months, then wintered over 1943-44 in Constantine Harbor, Amchitka, aboard a 42-foot harbor craft, the J-680, an Owens-built cruiser yacht painted gray and equipped with somewhat larger engines than the civilian counterparts were. Then by air and rail to Los Angeles to pick up new construction -- five 85-foot high speed offshore rescue vessels designed for the tropics. We took them up the West Coast and on to Attu. First winter was pretty uncomfortable, but we added plywood panel dead air space insulation and an on-deck warehouse heater that blew hot air throughout the boat. About every twenty minutes we'd go from near freezing to breathless heat.
My tour of duty in Aleutian waters went from Sept., '43 to Nov/Dec. '45 when we brought the boats out to Seattle and turned them in to Uncle Sam for sale at pennies on the dollar. The HA-2 went to the Dutch Government for $1. Just the electronics added to that boat by the AAF beggared that disposal price. ]
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Last Updated: 04 Jan 2013 11:54
Originally published 19 May 2001