Swatow, China, January 1953, P2V ditching, PBM crash and rescue
Remembering “Big John” Vukic
By Commander Mitchell A. Perry, USCG (Ret)
In 1953, we were stationed at the Coast Guard Air Detachment, Philippines on Sangley Point U.S. Naval Station, with two PBM-5Gs, a Grumman Albatross and a Grumman Goose. Our two primary missions were SAR (search and rescue) with and for the Navy and logistic and administrative support to five isolated Coast Guard manned Loran A stations in the Philippine archipelago. Three of the Loran stations had jungle airstrips for the Albatross and two of the Loran A stations required water landings and we used the PBM-5G’s.
Coast Guard PBM-5G: This photo is of a sister aircraft to CG PBM-5G NR. 84738 that flew the Swatow Mission
We scheduled our logistic flights with mail, movies, fresh food, and repair parts, flying to each Loran station each day of the five-day week. Occasionally our logistic routine was interrupted with a Navy, U.S. Air Force or Philippine SAR incident.
January 18, 1953 was a quiet Sunday afternoon in quarters, when I received a phone call to scramble a rescue PBM. I asked, “how come you’re calling me, I don’t have the ready crew duty?” I was told that “Big John” Vukic had flown the SAR PBM-5G No. 84738 to the coast of Red China to rescue a Navy P2V crew in a life raft off Swatow.
Lt. John Vukic, in PBM-5G No. 84738 located the P2V crew in a half-inflated life raft floating along the Red Chinese shore near Swatow. “Big John” or “John the Greek” was one of the most experienced “open sea” seaplane pilots having many PBM flight hours and had flown with Captain MacDairmid on the PBM open sea landing tests off San Diego. With no friendly surface vessel near and with daylight hours getting short, Big John made the decision to make an open-sea landing to rescue the P2V survivors in the half inflated raft.
The open-sea landing was successfully accomplished and the Navy P2V crew picked up. Four JATO rockets were installed and an open-sea take-off started. Full take-off power, on the step, the JATO rockets fired and the right engine quit cold. The PBM cart- wheeled to the right, crashed and broke up. Now the Navy Admiral, in command, had two plane crews in “enemy” waters to be rescued. A Navy destroyer was to arrive after dark.
Meanwhile back at Sangley Point Naval Station, a second PBM-5G No. 84722 at the head of the seaplane launching ramp was being loaded with case after case of million candle power parachute flares. With Lt. Frank Parker as co-pilot, LTJG Charles Fischer as third pilot and navigator, we took off for China into the sunset. I can’t remember much about the navigation but we had Loran A charts and some old British Admiralty charts of the Chinese coast and we located Swatow.
Communicating with the Sangley Point Naval Station Rescue Coordination Center, we were able to contact the Navy destroyer that arrived on scene. We homed in on the destroyer and they picked us up on their air search radar. We were now in a solid stratus overcast on the Chinese coast. The on-scene destroyer put us in a GCA type racetrack pattern and it was now dark. The destroyer was maneuvering in shoal waters along the rocky Chinese coast and was not too happy with their old British Admiralty charts. The on-scene commander in the destroyer asked us to drop two parachute flares at a time, when requested, to light up the area to assist them
in their navigation and to assist in locating the survivors from the two plane crews. the destroyer crew did a fine job and after several hours was able to locate Lt. Vukic, his chief flight mechanic and several crew members from the Navy P2V. Because all the operations were classified and from different commands other than Sangley Point Naval Station, we were never able to talk to the destroyer or P2V crews afterward.
I left Lt. Parker to fly the GCA pattern with one of the radiomen in the cockpit and I went aft to the waist to help the ordnance man uncrate and drop the parachute flares. After about four hours in the GCA race track pattern and dropping 34 flares, we returned to Sangley Point Naval Station, landed in the dark, tied up to a buoy and tried to sleep until dawn, when the VP-40 beaching crew took us up the ramp. It was a long night,
Things were pretty sad at Sangley Point. We were glad for Lt. Vukic, his flight engineer and the P2V flight crew members that were saved, but very sorry to lose Lt. Stuart the co-pilot and four Coast Guard crew members and the P2V crew members that were lost. The failure of the PBM right engine on take-off was later believed to have been caused by the separation of the flexible fuel line from the firewall to the pounding engine when hitting swells on take-off.
“Big John” felt very sorry and responsible for the crew members he lost on that unsuccessful take-off. The PBM-5G No. 84738 crew members were awarded the Coast Guard Gold Life Saving Medal, 5 posthumously. We later asked Coast Guard Headquarters (7,000 miles away) for permission to wear the Navy China Service Medal. This request was forwarded to the Navy which said “no” as we were not in China long enough to qualify. This may be correct for those of us who made it back from China, but those who died in the crash have certainly been there long enough to qualify 39 years? I wish I could talk to members of the Navy P2V and the Navy destroyer that did such an outstanding job of rescuing the downed flight crews.
“Big John” died a few years ago, but I’ll always remember him as we TransPac-ed PBM-5G No. 84738 together, worked and flew together, and were off Swatow where No. 84738 crashed and sank. John later told me when he was swimming around in the cold dark Chinese waters and trying to signal the rescue destroyer, that he could hear the other PBM grinding around above the overcast and dropping the parachute flares that lit up the area like daylight. I wonder what the local Chinese thought was going on that night.