By Warrant Gunner R.J. O’Leary, USCG (Ret)
Most helo rescue operations are pretty straightforward: the survivors are located, taken aboard, and flown to safety. The rescue account that follows is different in a lot of ways. First, it is the first rescue by helo of survivors of a civil airliner crash. Second, the rescue phase took place over several days from the time the survivors were first located.
The time was mid-September 1946; the place was near Gander, Newfoundland. The principal players were aircrew and fixed wing airplanes from the Coast Guard Air Detachment in Argentia, Newfoundland and rotary wing aircraft and crews from Coast Guard Air Stations Brooklyn and Elizabeth City. The ground forces were a U.S. Army doctor and his team, plus several civilian Newfoundland guides. The survivors were passengers and crew from a Sabena Airlines DC-4.
The transatlantic air travel we take for granted today was in its infancy in 1946. Prior to World War II, there was no transatlantic service by landplanes. To give the reader a sense of the span of time the rescue took, actual datelines from the New York Times mark each day’s effort.
Sabena DC-4 No. 00CBG departed Brussels Tuesday, September 17, 1946, for New York. I those early days, two refueling stops would be required, one in Shannon, Ireland, and one in Gander, Newfoundland. After the Shannon stop, the DC-4 headed westwardly over the North Atlantic. At 4:57 a.m. Wednesday, September 18, the Captain contacted Gander for approach clearance. Gander advised him their weather was below minimums; the field was closed. Flights that had been able to land earlier were now grounded.
Gander advised the DC-4 to divert to a nearby field that was still open. The Captain requested the stewardess announce this change of destination to the passengers.
Survivors later testified that shortly after this, the airplane suddenly crashed and burst into flames. Stewardess Jeanne Roocki was the only surviving crewmember. Although in great pain from severe leg injuries, she hobbled and crawled among the survivors to do what she could ease their suffering. At 6:30 a.m., Gander declared an alert on the overdue DC-4. All search and rescue agencies were notified. One of the first to be called was the Coast Guard Air Detachment in Argentia, Newfoundland. The Commanding Officer of this unit was LCDR Larry Davis.
By 10:57 a.m., all hope for the safe arrival of the DC-4 at an alternate was gone. It had exceeded its calculated fuel endurance. Forty-four persons were down in the sea or in the inhospitable Newfoundland woods. Just where they were down was the first problem.
The airport’s emergency plan was activated. Because of the impossible flying weather, only ground search parties could be utilized. By mid-afternoon, the weather had “improved” to the extent that LCDR Davis could launch one of his PBYs to search the area of highest probability. Only one search plane could be used, for fear of a mid-air collision in the search area. In this case, “improved” weather meant a four hundred-foot ceiling, light icing, and virtually no forward visibility. LCDR Davis’s XO, LCDR Jim Schrader would fly the PBY.
Once airborne, LCDR Schrader’s crew spotted five crashes through holes and rifts in the fog. All were checked out and determined to be World War II wrecks. Darkness and poor visibility made further search by air hopeless.
At the crash scene, night was approaching. Clad only in what they had escaped in, the survivors were terribly cold and wet. One of them, a Miss Helen Ruth Henderson, a Girl Scout executive, helped start a fire for warmth and a signal. Later they would lay out a large numeral “18” in stones to inform rescuers how many of them were alive. During the endless night, they listened dismally to airplanes inbound to Gander, droning overhead in the fog.
Special to the New York Times –
Wednesday, September 18, 1946:
Airliner Missing With 44 After Hop Over the Atlantic
Thursday morning the survivors heard a plane “lower and stronger” than the ones before. It was TWA Captain Ray Jennings, flying a DC-4 inbound to Gander. He was electrified to spot not only the crash, but survivors waving coats!
Moments after the sighting, LCDR Schrader’s PBY was on scene. He ordered his crew to parachute survival gear, medical supplies, and especially sleeping bags to the survivors. The DC-4 was located twenty-four miles southwest of Gander, having left a swath of splintered spruce trees in her wake.
A hasty conference among rescue authorities soon elicited the most efficient plan to reach the survivors. They would fly a land rescue party comprised of U. S. Army personnel and Newfoundland woodsmen, under the command of U.S. Army doctor Capt Samuel Martin, to an uncharted pond upstream of the crash site that was large enough to permit landings and takeoffs of PBYs. After landing, they would deploy downstream in rubber boats to the crash site approximately five miles away. At 1:20 p.m., LCDR Davis’ PBY arrived over the pond. Barely clearing the tall trees ringing the pond, he made a low pass, checking for rocks, tree stumps, etc. It looked clear, and the landing went without incident. Before this mission was complete, the PBYs would make nineteen such hazardous landings.
While Dr. Martin and his team rafted downstream, PBYs circling overhead tracked their progress and guided them by radio to the point where they would beach their rafts and climb uphill to the crash site. Even now the weather would not relent. At times, the PBYs had only a two hundred-foot ceiling over the hills and no forward visibility.
Finally at 7:00 p.m. Thursday, Dr. Martin and the advanced elements of his team arrived at the crash. Dr. Martin was stunned to learn that he had three times as many survivors to treat as had been sighted from the air. They wasted no time in setting up tents and providing the survivors with the first shelter from the elements they’d had in two days.
Agonizingly, the walkie talkies that had guided them all day chose that moment to die. The outside world would have to wait until tomorrow to learn who had survived.
Thursday, September 19:
Rescuers Arrive at Wrecked Plane; Report Survivors
Friday morning radio contact was reestablished with the crash scene. Dr. Martin radioed out the critical condition of some of the survivors. He emphasized that many would not survive the long jostling portage back upstream to the PBYs at the lake. There had to be a better way!
There was a better way, and mission commander Larry Davis wasted no time in requesting it. Although very much in its infancy, the helicopter had existed in experimental form for about four years. The only operational rescue helicopters in the United States were at two East Coast Guard Air Stations.
The available helos were a far cry from Blue Thunder; they were essentially twoseater trainers designed by Sikorsky. An HNS-1 and an HOS-1 were available. Since they did have the speed or range to fly to Gander in time to be of any assistance, they would have to be flown to Gander in Army Air Force Air Transport Command C-54s, a freighter version of the downed airliner.
It was not just a matter of rolling the helo into the C-54 and taking off. The HOS- 1 had to be broken down into seven component groups to fit through the C-54’s cargo door. The pilots cab was skidded into the C-54 on a sheet of felt with less than an inch to spare.
It was learned that several of the survivors had broken backs and necks. They had to be loaded aboard the helo in litters and make the flight in a litter. There was no way the HOS could accept the litter internally without extensive modifications to the helicopter and the litter. This was accomplished in minutes by AMHC Carl Simon. Using a saber saw he cut an opening in the bubble nose of the helo. He made the largest possible cut-out, but the litter was still too wide. The solution was to squeeze the litter to a narrower dimension against the concrete wall of the hangar with a tractor. An aluminum frame and Cleco fasteners permitted re-installation of the Plexiglas cutout after the survivor was aboard.
The second helo, the HNS-1, and its crew were already airborne, climbing through the heavy rain showers over the Carolina Capes. Aboard as crew were the number one and two helo pilots in the Coast Guard. CDR Frank Erickson, who was literally the father of the Coast Guard helicopter program and LT Stewart Graham. Also aboard were the skilled technicians that would reassemble the helo.
At thirty minutes into Saturday, our C-54, AAF No. 2558 lifted off from Floyd Bennett Field. Aboard was the only hope for life some of the survivors had, HOS-1 CG No. 75610. Also on board were those who would give her life again, our technicians and the pilots, LT “Gus” Kleisch and LTJG “Red” Bolton. Three of the four pilots had started their Coast Guard careers as enlisted pilots.
Friday, September 20:
18 Survivors Found in Bad Condition at Wrecked Plane
At 10:00 a.m. Gander time, our C-54 rolled to a stop on the ramp. As we opened the plane’s door, someone on the ground shouted, “How long will it take to get that thing together?” One of the mechanics answered, “Tomorrow, probably.” The voice on the ground answered. “Then don’t bother taking it off; they won’t last that long.” In an unprecedented display of mechanical skill, our mechanics had it ready for a test flight six hours later!
At 3:12 p.m. LT Kleisch and I were airborne for the crash scene. Our PBY escort over the rugged terrain was welcome.
As we hovered for the landing, I noticed Dr. Martin’s troops were moving the survivors from the crash scene to the small clearing on which we were landing. When we touched down, our wheels sank deeply into the muskeg soil. This was nearly disastrous because our carburetor air intake was on the bottom of the fuselage. I leaped out to assist the ground party who was trying to lift the helo. Gus skillfully gunned it upwards while we slid a folded tent under it as a temporary mat.
Dr. Martin came to the helo door and conferred with Gus. He wanted to evacuate the eight most seriously injured that day. Gus agreed and explained that we were flying the HOS-1 on borrowed time. We had waived a grounding order on a “calculated risk” basis to fly the mission. Instead of flying each survivor to Gander non-stop, we’d ferry them to the nearby lake where the PBYs were waiting to safely fly them to Gander hospital.
“She hotly dissented, pointing
to her wings and cuff stripe,
insisting that her passengers be saved first.”
Very much against her wishes, Stewardess Jeanne Roocki was ordered out first by Dr. Martin. She hotly dissented, pointing to her wings and cuff stripe, insisting that her passengers be saved first. As Gus lifted off, she entered the record books as the first survivor of a commercial airline crash to be rescued by a helo. When Gus landed lakeside, he had the same problem with the muskeg terrain, but this time he was ready for it. The Argentia Air Detachment quickly provided two air drops of 2×12 planks which we lashed into landing mats, one lakeside and one at the crash scene. Canada’s first heliports?
After landing at the lake, each survivor had to be transferred by liferaft to the PBYs. To remain stationary, the PBYs had taxied towards shore with their gear down until they were “aground.” Some of the Belgian survivors had been freed of Nazi occupation only a year before. They recognized the insignia on American airplanes.
One critically injured Belgian gazed at the USA star on the helo as he was loaded aboard and said, “Thank God for the Americans, I knew they’d find a way.” For an instant, I was ten feet tall!
At 7:45 p.m., with the eighth and most critically injured survivor aboard, LT Kleisch took off and daringly flew him directly to the hospital to avoid extra handling. It was a very lonely trip over rugged terrain. It was entirely dark when he landed.
After Gus left, I joined those still at the crash scene. As the fire crackled, I tried to imagine how it must have been for the survivors before we arrived. I was successful – suddenly I realized I hadn’t eaten since yesterday. Then the Army introduced me to “C” rations, and I climbed into a soggy sleeping bag and tried to sleep.
Saturday, September 21:
Helicopter Begins Air Crash Rescues
Morning came quickly, and we had a lot to do. Soon the air was rent with the sound of two helicopters! The second helo had not been able to participate in the first day’s operations. A spectator had nearly walked into the tail rotor during a test flight, requiring the pilot to forcibly apply the rotor brake, which sheared a difficult to replace pin.
I took the first helo aboard our forest heliport, feeling like an LSO on our tiny pad. For the remainder of the morning, LTJG Bolton in the HOS and LT Graham and CDR Erickson in the HNS airlifted ambulatory survivors to safety.
Up to now, our mission had been to fly people out; now some were being flown in. One of them sobered our joy: he was the airlines managing director. His wife and child were not among the survivors. We left him alone with his grief.
Suddenly it was all over! LT Graham landed once more and told me to hop in. My flight log for that date shows a twenty minute flight in HNS-1 CG No. 051 back to civilization.
In October 1947, the New York Times summarized this rescue as “one of the strangest and most successful rescue operations ever undertaken.”
In formal ceremonies, RADM Ed Smith, USCG, Commander Eastern Area awarded Distinguished Flying Crosses to the helicopter and PBY pilots who had participated in the Gander operation. The enlisted technicians received Letters of Commendation from the Commandant of the Coast Guard. In addition, the Admiral presented a number of Belgian military awards to the group authorized by the King. The Belgians did not forget the “Americans who would find a way.”
Years later, I was at a gathering of World War I pilots. The Belgian Ace Willy Coppen was there. I had deliberately worn the two-tone blue rosette in my lapel that came with my Belgian Silver Order of Leopold. The aging fighter pilot’s eyes were still eagle sharp. When he spotted the tiny award, a smile of recognition came over his face. He pumped my handed and demanded, “How many did you kill?” For once I was caught completely off guard. I stammered, “I-I saved eighteen.” Pausing as my words sank in, this tiger of another time said more softly, “Yes, perhaps that is better.”
Warrant Gunner R. J. O’Leary, USCG (Ret.), enlisted in the Coast Guard in 1939. His first assignment afloat was as seaman on a coal-burning cutter. His next assignment was “to duty involving flying.” His principal World War II assignment was as aircrewmember on antisubmarine warfare and air-sea rescue airplanes. Among his more unusual decorations is the Belgian Silver Order of Leopold, awarded for his part in the helicopter rescue of survivors from a crashed Belgian airliner. After retirement from the Coast Guard, Mr. O’Leary pursued a twenty-three year career with United Airlines, retiring as manager of a flight training center in San Francisco Bay and in the process was licensed as a Master in the US Merchant Marine.
Mr. O’Leary is an avid Naval Aviation history buff and model builder. Several of his models are displayed at the National Museum of Naval Aviation.
He is married to the former Mary Byrnes of Brooklyn, New York. They have five children.
More About The Sabena Rescue: Rescue in Newfoundland – Sabena Air Crash