Yuba City Flood – 1955
By Barrett T. Beard
Two days before Christmas 1955, a helicopter rescue took place that changed the direction of Coast Guard aviation occurred on the two days before Christmas 1955. This case firmly bonded the helicopter to the Coast Guard in the public’s mind and laid the groundwork for all future aircraft acquisitions. It took only one helicopter with a hoist and four very brave crewmen to change the future of CG aviation.
Northern California’s biggest flood disaster struck Yuba City with the bursting of a storm-weakened river dike on 23 December 1955. More water than cascades over the Niagara Falls poured out through the breach into the city. One Coast Guard helicopter, a HO4S from the Coast Guard Air Station, San Francisco, the only helicopter in the region with a hoist and rescue basket, hoisted 138 victims to safety within 12 hours. The first 58 in peril were born away in darkness, their rescue aided only by the beam of a small hand-held searchlight. By Christmas Eve, the Coast Guard assisted in saving over 500 stranded people by helicopters and small boats brought into the area. The floods, scattered across 75,000 square miles, drove 112,000 people from their homes, injured 4,325, and kill 82.
Forty-year-old, Lieutenant Henry J. Pfeiffer piloted a Coast Guard C-54 Skymaster from Honolulu to San Francisco in the same storm that devastated northern California two days previously. The following day he flew the station’s HO4S helicopter for twelve hours and fifteen minutes assisting flood victims in Jenner and Guerneville, California.
Pfeiffer next flew from San Francisco to begin his new task in the suddenly flooded Yuba City in the early morning darkness of Christmas Eve flying beneath the Pacific storm’s low clouds over the housetops with flood waters reaching their eaves. He discovered where trapped victims had chopped holes in roofs to escape to their only island of refuge from rising waters in their homes.
Flying the helicopter in the storm darkened night between trees, high-tension lines, television antennas and telephone wires, Pfeiffer hovered just feet above a roof where a stranded mother cuddled her two young children. Crewman, Chief Machinist’s Mate Joseph Accamo, in the helicopter’s cabin lowered the basket and began the routine that would repeat itself through the night from house-top to house-top to tree-top to power pole—anywhere people took refuge. Children and mothers draped in wet nightgowns (or nothing) were loaded into the helicopter some clutching a soaked blanket or holding tightly to a wrapped Christmas present.
Pfeiffer grew weary from the strain and accumulated hours of torturous work. The plan was to switch off with Lieutenant Commander George F. Thometz, Jr. for a few hours allowing time for Pfeiffer to rest. However, Thometz had only a few month experience flying helicopters and had done no live hoists. Pfeiffer had three and a half years helicopter flying time.
Weariness forced him to finally relinquish his task but he had to fly out from their high-ground drop-off location and get one more person before stopping to rest. A paralyzed woman was trapped in a flooded trailer. Only Pfeiffer knew exactly where the woman was and how to reach her. He wearily climbed up into the still running helicopter once more. (The helicopter’s engine was not shut down during the night, even for fueling, for fear they could not restart it.) In the pre-dawn darkness, Pfeiffer eased the helicopter down into a hover directly above the near totally submerged mobile home. Accamo lowered Machinist Mate Rouland to the trailer’s roof with the hoist. Roulund, with ax in hand, chopped a hole in the roof large enough to squeeze through. Inside he found the paralyzed victim floating on an air mattress with her face just beneath the ceiling. While waiting as Rouland moved through head-high water in the trailer, Pfeiffer maneuvered through trees to reach more victims on a roof of an old two-story building. As he neared, he saw where muddy water washed away the image of Santa Claus’s face painted on a second floor window.
In the trailer, Rouland waded slowly, maneuvered the floating mattress to the door, opened it, and floated Mrs. Dingeman out of the trailer still on the air mattress.
With refugees hoisted from the old rooftop, Pfeiffer returned to the trailer, flying around trees and between poles once more, picked up the woman and Rouland.
The two pilots making alternate flights through the night rescued thirty-two adults, eighteen children, two dogs, a kitten, two teddy bears, and five dolls. Bedraggled survivors, some clutching children were lifted from treetops where there was a danger of tangling the rescue basket and hoist cable. A man was snatched from atop a power pole where he tied himself with broken wires. A naked woman, her nightdress ripped away by the rushing water, was rescued from an attic dormer. Three children were hoisted from a rooftop where nearby still stood a wooden cut-out of Santa Claus on his sled drawn by eight reindeer.
Pfeiffer continued flying their single helicopter alternating pilot duties with Thometz throughout the day with until near sunset Christmas Eve until they extracted the last saddened and sodden survivors from the deluged city. In twenty-nine continuous hours of flying, Pfeiffer and Thometz rescued 138 people. When Pfeiffer returned to San Francisco late on Christmas Eve, his limbs were swollen and joints stiff. He was awakened early Christmas morning by his young son shouting, “It’s Christmas, Daddy, it’s Christmas!”
Note: The flood gained national attention and was written about in Look, Life, Newsweek and Time magazines. It made the front page of the New York Times on December 25. Besides the devastation, the fact that it occurred during the Christmas season awakened the sympathy of the nation.
At the time of the Yuba City flood, there was still a debate within the Coast Guard over whether seaplanes or helicopters were better for rescue operations. Amazingly one helicopter and four outstanding aircrewmen changed the future of Coast Guard aviation. By 1960 the helicopter was on its way to becoming the primary rescue vehicle of Coast Guard aviation.