Excerpt from “Perils of Pegasus” by Duane Thorin – Compiled by Earl Lanning
(Webmaster’s Note: Some photos were taken from newspapers and the scans are marginal)
Hollis would fly the first part of the “air-taxi” service on the morning of January 22, so my presence on deck was not necessary. A leisurely cup of coffee was helping meditation if I could demand of TF 95 a written order to continue flying beyond the time when the inspection check was due, without embarrassment to CAPT Smith or CDR Copeland. Both coffee and meditation were interrupted by the arrival of one of the crew to say I was needed on deck. As they moved the helicopter into position for launch, the left main landing gear had wobbled. There was a broken weld in the machine’s lower framework where part of the gear’s bracing was attached. I slid beneath the machine for a look.
There it was, at last!–The impact point of a hit it had taken during the rescue of AF CAPT Waid. The bullet had struck and weakened a weld cluster in the lower truss assembly, at the point where the landing gear drag strut was attached. Now the welded point had broken. I rolled out from under the machine, probably with a grin on my face, and said “Great!” as I hurried to a phone. Stoddard looked at me curiously and asked “Do you think you can repair it on board?”
“Not so’s we can haul tourists to the island,” I replied while dialing the Exec’s number. “But we can fix it so we can fly for any real emergency.”
There was hesitance in CDR Copeland’s response to my report of the circumstance. Quite understandably, in view of the objections I’d made to him the night before. Also because he would remember I’d spoken of faking trouble with the radio if I’d known I’d be recalled to the ship when I had the infiltrators trapped on the beach. For I now told him the machine was damaged in a manner which could not be repaired suitably for hauling passengers to the island as scheduled, but that I could jury-rig repairs which would make it flyable for any real emergency.
“Well, all right,” he finally said. “I’ll pass the word to the chief of staff. And I’ll be making my morning rounds soon. I’ll stop by to see how you’re doing with the repairs.” There was inflection in his voice as though of worry that he might find I was pulling some trick that he would have to expose.
Hollis arrived in flight gear well ahead of scheduled first flight time. His smile bespoke better than words could have his appreciation of the overall situation.
The first two scheduled passengers arrived, equipped with the usual cameras and film pouches for “inspections”. Hollis told them the helicopter was “down” and they could see we were working on it. One asked how soon it would be ready. When told it could not be adequately repaired on board to fly him to the island he asked, “Well then how are we supposed to get there?”
There was some sober-faced pleasure in politely suggesting that they should check with their “boss” about that. They mumbled themselves away as we affixed a tie-down reel between the left wheel and the step beneath the door of the crew compartment. That would prevent the wheel from swinging aft.
To keep the wheel from swinging forward, we needed bracing within the framework where the welded joint was broken. Crawford and I were beneath the machine working on that when Copeland arrived. First in view was a pair of well-shined shoes and sharply creased trouser cuffs. Next appeared a cap visor with “scrambled eggs” (gilded lacing), followed by the Exec’s inverted face. He smiled a bit and deftly touched his own visor in return as I managed to touch my cap in salute. Still there was anxiety in his expression. His eyes followed my finger to the broken weld and the anxiety disappeared.
Assured that the emergency repairs would serve the purposes I claimed, he directed that he be notified as soon as they were completed. He could then advise 7th Fleet and TF 77 that we were again available for emergency service. I asked if the “inspections” of the island had been cancelled, “No,” he replied, “they’ll go in the ship’s boat.”
The boat was called away just as we had finished the repairs. We moved to the lee rail and watched the inspection party depart. As the small craft wallowed its way toward the island, it seemed appropriate to tell the crew that proved the importance of the inspection and the dedication of TF 95 to their duties.
In about three hours, shortly before noon, the inspection party returned.
Which proved (as was also mentioned to the crew) that the ship’s boat was more efficient than our helicopter for conducting inspections of islands. The unmet flight schedule for the doing the job would have taken all day.
As soon as the boat was back aboard, Rochester set course back to the fleet’s operating area. Every turn of her screws took us precious seconds closer to the place where we would soon be desperately needed.
LT John Abbott was still over North Korea when he reported himself in trouble. In a smoke-filled cockpit, he nursed his crippled Corsair out to sea before abandoning it. Two minutes and fifteen seconds after flight quarters were sounded, Crawford and I were airborne. The fifteen second margin (shorter than our previous best time) probably spelled the difference between life and death for John Abbott.
CIC gave us the vector as we lifted off. We were well on our way when Abbott’s wingman, (LT Laney) reported the bailout, splashdown, and that Abbott had inflated and boarded his raft. Within but a few minutes after he had entered the water we were over him. But he had been unable to release his parachute and so, acting as a sea anchor, it had dragged him from the raft. He looked quite comfortable, floating on his back, and greeted us with a smile.
Crawford, sling in hand ready to lower it, was concerned about the still-attached chute. “If he can get in it,” I told him, “we can pull him high enough to for you to cut the shrouds.”
Ernie lowered the sling gently onto the man’s chest. Abbott looped one arm into it but then just lay quietly with a pleasant smile on his face. No matter that his body was encased and dry in his regulation Mk IV anti-exposure suit, the frigid water against his exposed neck and vital base of the brain had already disrupted his normal senses and body functions. Not only was he unable to put himself in the sling; unless he could be gotten out of the water and treatment begun within 15 or 20 minutes, he would be dead.
I glanced back at Crawford. He had already put the hood of his frogman suit over his head and was fitting the adjustable survivor strap onto his wrist. When he nodded, “ready”, I eased the machine down closer. Ernie stepped out of the helicopter into Abbott’s raft. I moved away far enough that the rotorwash would not interfere as he worked
From the vantage of the raft, Crawford easily hooked the survivor sling around Abbott and drew it tight. He drew his knife then, and reached beneath Abbott to gather the shrouds and cut them. Momentarily, however, his right hand came back in view, empty. His hands were so benumbed by the cold water that he had not even felt the knife slip away.
An oversight in equipage; we should have had a lanyard on his knife so he could retrieve it in such case. There was no way now, with benumbed hands and other handicaps, that he could expect to remove Abbott’s parachute.
Had there been little or no wind, it remains questionable if that HO3S could have lifted Abbott and his parachute from the water. I frankly think it could have, and would have certainly tried if necessary. But I didn’t have to make that decision. For while holding alongside as Crawford worked, our sweet old HO3S wasn’t hovering. She was riding the wind above the waves like an albatross; twenty of more knots of wind. We had more than hovering power, we had translational lift. The same force which had dragged Abbott from his raft and rendered him helpless, would now help us for certain pull him out.
Now Crawford, aware that we were supposedly not able to pick up a man in that condition, was waving the snaphook of the sling he’d attached to Abbott in a manner questioning if he should hook it on. I nodded “Yes” and moved to bring the cable within his reach. To do that it was necessary to move directly over Ernie to a point where he disappeared from view. Then drifting back brought him into view with hoist cable reaving through the hook. Ernie, still in the raft, was now giving the thumbs-up signal.
The raft was still attached to Abbott. Crawford had overlooked that little detail. Probably his numb fingers could not have unhooked it anyway. And any signal trying to get him to unhook the raft might be interpreted as a signal to unhook Abbott from the cable, instead. So the process was begun to bring up the unconscious man.
Holding just six or eight feet above the water, the cable was retrieved until it became taut. From that point the hoist must remain static until both Abbott and his parachute were clear of the water. To activate the hoist mechanism before that would either rupture its fluid lines or pull the helicopter down to the water.
While the chute was still in the water, full power of the rotor could not be used. Because the hoist boom projected far out to the left, there was not enough “right stick” to counter that much leverage. Still, with only the maximum of power which could be used and yet keep the machine level, we were lifting somewhat faster than expected. An upward surge as the chute came free of the water was so sudden as to cause worry that the man had been pulled out of the sling.
A quick leftward tilt revealed that he was still there. It also revealed that the “tug-of-war” between the helicopter and the sea must have been a bit rough on the body which was caught between them. The draft of the chute against the lift of the helicopter had brought one of Abbott’s arms up to parallel with his shoulder and the other nearly so.
Moments later there was another upward surge, and lessening of pressure on the right stick, sufficient again to cause worry that he had slipped out of the sling. But this time it was caused by the very last of the water draining out of the chute. The trapped water we had brought up initially must have weighed several times as much as the man.
Now it was safe to use the hoist. I triggered to its very top and reached to hang Abbott on the hook which was there for that purpose. After that the cable could be lowered again to pick up Crawford. But the streamed chute began to billow. It could possibly foul the tail rotor. The man had to be lowered to eliminate that danger.
Crawford would have to wait. We had discussed such a possibility. We had placed an extra seatpack raft within my reach to be dropped to him in such an event. I called the still-circling wingman (Laney) and told him I had his man clear of the water and would depart with him after dropping a raft to my crewman. Laney responded that he would deliver a raft to my crewman, so that I could depart at once. I headed seaward and called Rochester for a vector. The full-blossomed chute acting as an airbrake held the helicopter to a maximum speed of about 40 knots.
The Rochester and her accompanying destroyer, Collett, had been following me at flank speed. The cruiser had to lay off pursuit because of shallowing waters. But CAPT Smith, realizing the importance of time, had ordered Collett to continue. She was shortly in view. The inflated raft whipped around the shrouds and streamed the parachute. The helicopter’s airspeed increased then to 60 knots.
There were several things Collett needed to know. First, the man’s condition: Unconscious apparently due entirely to the exposure, no other injuries apparent. Disruption of pulse and respiration could be expected, and probably considerable loss of body temperature. Secondly, with no crewman aboard, delivery of the man might not be very precise. Some extra hands aft to receive him should enable that someone could grab hold and detach him wherever he might first be within reach. Finally, I asked that someone be sent up on Collett’s superstructure to indicate when the “cargo” was in position to be lowered to men on her stern.
CAPT Smith, monitoring my conversations with Collett, noted something which hadn’t been mentioned. On his command frequency, he instructed Collett to be sure someone on the stern had a sharp knife at ready to cut Abbott free. He knew from the initial description to him of our equipment and procedures that the sling would be drawn tight and might be difficult to unhook.
Moments after asking Collett to send a man topside, I was close enough to see someone was already there. But that turned out to be an off-duty engineman CPO who had gone there on his own and was filming the event with a small, hand-held movie camera. As I moved in over the ship, a sailor scurried up the rigging and told the chief of my need. The chief looked at Abbott and at once signaled for lowering.
Moments later he signaled me up and away. Somehow I had managed to gauge my position well enough for that immediate lowering. And, in view of the speed with which they detached Abbott, there must have been some very sharp sailors on the fantail along with a sharp knife.
As I started back to get Crawford, I triggered the hoist to retrieve the cable. But it wouldn’t retrieve. The drag of the parachute had fouled it on the tiedown reel which had been installed that morning to stabilize the port landing gear. That activated a cut-off switch on the hoist boom which ordinarily served to prevent overpressure on the system when the weighted end of the cable “two-blocked”. The cable could still be lowered, but it could not be retrieved. It would have been possible still to pick up Crawford out of the water. But he would have had a ride back to the cruiser dangling forty feet below the helicopter in very cold air.
So Ernie would have to wait some longer. But he would be safe enough, and should be reasonably comfortable, in his frogman suit on the raft which Laney had dropped. Enroute back to the Rochester, instructions were given for the crew’s handling of the cable as I must come in high above and then lower straight down to the deck.
There were no difficulties in that landing. The cable was unfouled and reeled back onto the hoist. Another crewman got aboard to assist in the pickup of Crawford. As we flew toward Crawford, there was chatter on the radio’s “guard” frequency about someone making it to the beach and going into the water. One voice said, “Lay it on ’em!” Another shortly said, “They’re going back into their bunkers! Look at those rascal’s run!”
Somebody else was in trouble nearby. I switched the radio to “guard” channel, identified myself, and asked for details. The man now in trouble was Abbott’s wingman, LT Laney. It was his own seatpack raft which he had tried to drop to Crawford, instead of a cannister on a bomb rack which one or more planes in a strike often carried. He had twice before made such a drop successfully. But this time the raftpack caught on his plane’s tail assembly, fouling its controls. Laney could do little more than hold his Corsair’s wings level as it belly-landed itself on the enemy shore, skidding to a stop about a half mile from the water.
Enemy troops came out of their bunkers. (The area was fortified against possible amphibious invasion.) Laney outran his pursuers to the beach (no small feat in his cumbersome anti-exposure suit), and continued out into the water as far as he could go and still keep his nose above water. The troops fired at him from the water’s edge until other aircraft arrived to drive them back to their bunkers. Now Laney’s squadron mates assured that they could keep him covered until I could return for him after picking up my crewman.
So Crawford had no raft! Except for the fact that I had “promised” to provide one if I had to leave him, that fact of itself was not worrisome. His life jacket was adequate flotation and the frogman suit protection from the cold water. His water confidence training combined with his basic nature was assurance that he would not panic.
When we reached him, he deftly attached the hook of the his harness on the cable and was out of the water, homeward bound moments later. He felt cool, he said, but not really cold; except for his hands in which he now had no feeling at all. The other crewman opened his anti-exposure suit and held Ernie’s chilled hands against his body.
It was likely, once he was back aboard Rochester, that the medical corpsmen would want to cut the frogman suit off of Crawford in order to quickly start warming him from such heat loss as he may have suffered. “No way I’ll let them do that!” he said. He wasn’t chilled enough to warrant such urgent action. When we arrived on board he even objected (without success) to the corpsmen’s insistence that he ride down to sickbay in their stretcher and covered with blankets. Hollis was on hand to inform that the ship’s doctor was on his way aft, to be delivered to Collett on the way to pick up Laney.
The doctor arrived momentarily, escorted by two of my men who helped stuff his quite large body into an anti-exposure suit. He didn’t look comfortable, and also did not look happy. In fact he was quite otherwise in both regards, very eager to make that fact known to all around, and to blame me for his discomfiture.
“Why the hell didn’t you bring him here,” he shouted, “instead of taking him to the destroyer?”
“Because,” I replied, probably then without rancor, “I’m not sure I got him to the destroyer in time, but I know he would have been dead by the time I got him back here.”
“Well, they say he’s alive…” I heard the doctor say. There followed a further tirade about better facilities aboard the Rochester, how would I know he’d be dead if I’d brought him to the cruiser, and so on. But I’d started tuning the doctor out immediately after he’d said the man was alive. Whatever else he might have to say right then was of no interest. More important words were coming via the radio. After a glance to make sure the doctor was strapped in, we lifted off to get on with the mission.
The doctor continued to complain as we flew toward the Collett, paying little or no attention to the crewman’s explanation of the procedure for lowering him to the destroyer. And being put down aboard a destroyer in the Sea of Japan could scare the daylights out of someone who hadn’t paid attention to that. The more usual state of that body of water was a series of swells running in one direction with wind and choppy waves running another. On better days and certain courses, midst the rhythm of pitches and rolls, a destroyer might run flat and level regularly for a period of about 20 seconds. On the course Collett would have to hold that day for delivery, her deck would level only momentarily as she rolled from side to side. In order to put him on deck at that precise moment, we must start our passenger down while the ship was heeled full tilt.
The crewman had tried to explain all that to the doctor, and advise him not to look down while he was being lowered. But the doc wasn’t in a listening mood. He looked down as the hoist began to lower, and grabbed the bottom of the doorway with both hands. (That scene was also filmed by the engineman CPO with his small movie camera.)
Jokingly, I told the crewman not to step on this one’s fingers since he was a doctor and might need to use them. Actually, it posed a serious problem. The crewman had to make sure there was no slack in the cable. Nor did he dare hoist up for fear the doctor might try to get out of the sling and fall. Meanwhile, time was being wasted which would be much better spent getting to Laney. When he was finally pried loose and lowered, we had to hold the poor fellow suspended for a while until we could synchronize again with the ship’s roll.
The aircraft covering Laney had set up a beautiful cloverleaf pattern, leaving hardly a moment when there was not some firepower ready for release on the enemy emplacements. They conserved that firepower until we might be in range of the enemy’s weapons, then laid it on heavy during the time it took for pickup and departure.
Laney was visible from some distance out, directly ahead and upwind. I veered off to the left, in order to make the approach crosswind for speedier pickup. Laney assumed we didn’t see him and set off a smoke flare. That unfortunately might have served an enemy gunner as an aiming point. If so, no rounds came close enough to be heard during the pickup and departure.
Again in that pickup the extra hours of practice and talk sessions with the crewman paid off royally. Tilted leftward in a sideward flare to stop directly above Laney, he remained within my view as the crewman let the sling slide down and virtually lassoed him. There was no need to pause in hover, the man was properly in the sling. Just a touch of power until the cable became taut, then full power to take us upward and seaward as the cable was retrieved to bring Laney into the cabin. We were well out to sea by the time Laney was actually in the helicopter.
Laney asked at once about his wingman, and the crewman who’d gone into the water after him. Told that Abbott was apparently all right, he mentioned that the two of them were classmates in flight school and had worked closely together ever since. He sat in silence for a while, then suddenly blurted out:
“Oh dammit! I forgot my camera!”
“You forgot What? I wondered if I’d heard correctly.
“My camera!” he said. “I had a camera with me, and I know I got some good shots of you picking him up. But I left it in the damn plane! I forgot it!”
His disappointment with himself was great. He could use a bit of kidding. “Now that was awfully careless of you,” I said. “Really no excuse for it. D’you think we ought to go back and pick it up?”
That broke his tension. He laughed in amusement at himself. We bantered a bit more about it and decided there was probably no point in going back since one of those “thievin commies” probably had stolen it already. Now that this rather hectic operation seemed to be winding down, a little levity was good for myself as well. Besides which I shared his disappointment about the camera. His pictures of the pickup would have been very nice to have, together with the a copy of the movie film I hoped might be gotten from that chief aboard the Collett.
There was no visible difference about the ship when we put down aboard Rochester. Yet there seemed to be something special in the atmosphere. Corpsmen were at hand to escort Laney to sick bay. Ensign Hollis came along side during shutdown and said, “I’m sure glad it was your turn to fly, chief. I don’t think I could have handled this.”
Well, neither could I have done so when I was no more experienced than he. After thanking him for the commendation, I asked about Crawford’s condition. “He’s fine–real fine,” Hollis said. “But they’re keeping him down in sick bay ’til the doctor gets back, and he says he’d sure like to see you as soon as you have time. You guys did one helluva job…”
The afterdeck “talker” interrupted with a phone call for me from the Exec. After expressing personal commendations for the rescue itself, Copeland said, “I think your crew set a new launch record for this one — two minutes and fifteen seconds.”
He then started to express something for me to pass on to the crew. I interrupted: “Our O-in-C is pretty proud of us, too, Commander. He’s here talking with the men…..”
As was expected, Copeland sensed my purpose at once. “Oh—-Mr. Hollis is there? Put him on the phone, would you please?”
After speaking with Copeland on the phone, Hollis assembled the men around himself to relay to them whatever the Exec had said.
A sharply contrasting picture flashed in memory: Only four months earlier that same ensign and cluster of sailors were assembled near the loading ramp of a chartered aircraft at Travis Air Force Base, while I used the gold hashmarks of my dress blue uniform to break into the lineup of Army officers and latch onto a block of seats for all of us aboard that aircraft.
They all seemed a bit uncertain then. A shy young ensign, puzzled and perhaps a bit embarrassed for having been designated officer-in-charge of something he didn’t feel at all capable of handling. And a random assortment of sailors, all new to helicopters and some quite as new as the ensign to the Navy. They’d heard tales of the high-performance and “heroism” of old timers in the helicopter business. They could not but have been wondering then if they could live up to their squadron’s reputation.
Now they knew full well that they could do so. In the singular hour just passed, their helicopter had performed what some would have regarded an impossible rescue, plus a “routine” one; despite an unusual sequence of handicaps and complicating factors. And every one of them knew he had himself played a significant part. They had not merely lived up to their squadron’s reputation, they had added substantially to it.
So they had passed one test with flying colors. Probably they did not realize that another test of sorts was about to begin. How would they handle the new “glory” they now were sharing, when the flood-tide of congratulations began pouring on them from around the ship and later on from back home.
For several reasons, I was confident they could handle it well. For one thing, because it hadn’t happened early in the cruise. They were not a group apart here aboard Rochester. They were “shipmates” now with the Rochester men, even though they were not technically “ship’s company”. So a good share of the congratulations they would get aboard the Rochester would be of the off-handed, or even back-handed, variety. “So you did something great today — from you we wouldn’t expect anything less!”
Because of the squadron’s overall reputation, they would recognize that today’s action simply qualified them as full-fledged members of a very distinguished group. But probably the main reason this bit of glory wasn’t likely to go to their heads was because it wasn’t “easy” glory. There’s an old saying, probably from the cavalry days: “When you’ve really earned your spurs, you will wear them well.” These men had worked hard to bring themselves to the level of proficiency which had been vital to the rescue of Abbott. Because it was so well-earned, their bit of glory would be self-satisfying and therefore, never need be boasted of.
Such were the thoughts generated by the sight of the men receiving, through Hollis, an immediate “well done” from Rochester’s command. So engrossed were they now with Hollis as to be virtually unaware of my presence just a few yards away. That was a most pleasing development. For though they had always been respectful of Hollis, and admiring of his candor about his own inexperience, they were fully aware of his general dependence on me. Jokingly, they would sometimes say theirs was the only detachment with a “Chief-in-Charge” instead of an “Officer-in-Charge”. Now they had a measure of both. They weren’t listening and talking with Hollis because they had to. They were sharing with him the good feeling of real achievement.
“Cripes!” I thought amusedly to myself. “I’m an orphan! I’m an outcast! They’re so wrapped up in conversation with their O-in-C that they’re ignoring their ‘C-in-C’. But of course, all I did was fly the damn’ helicopter. They’re the ones who put us in the air in time.”
It was a perfect time to slip quietly away and visit Crawford. Poor fellow–down in sick bay — all alone……
Ernie was anything but alone. In sick bay pajamas, perched on the fresh linens of an adjustable bed, talking with an admiring audience of corpsmen and patients. “Oh, I’m sorry,” I said as he saw me enter; “–didn’t know you had company. I’ll come back later,” and stepped back as though to leave.
“Come back here, dammit!” was his reaction. With nods of greeting to myself, his audience quietly moved away.
“How’s the man doing?” he wanted to know, referring, of course, to Abbott.
“It looks real good,” I told him, and gave such details as were known from the latest reports. Fully conscious, some areas of numbness, but chances look good for full recovery. There had been no heartbeat or breathing when he arrived at Collett’s sick bay, and his body temperature was down to 92. But Collett’s Chief Pharmacist’s Mate had everything ready, knew what to do because of Arctic experience, and brought him back. “It was close — awfully close. Just a few more minutes — maybe only seconds…..”
“–and we’d have lost him.” Crawford finished what I’d been saying. “Goddam –!” He shook his head slightly, with a sad look perhaps at the thought that our efforts might so easily have been in vain. Then brightening, “but we got him! Oh God, that feels food!” Another pause, then: “We did it! We actually did it!”
“We sure did,” I said, “and we got him in time.” The first part of Ernie’s remarks were expression of his feelings for having saved a man’s life. The last had to do with the fact that the equipment and the techniques we had practiced and talked about so much had actually worked.
“How about yourself?” I asked. “How’re you doing?”
“Aw heck,” he said, “I didn’t really need to come down here. I wasn’t cold. A little chilly, but no more than a fellow gets on deck in the cold. Just a hot shower was all I needed. That’s what they had me do after they checked my temperature — take a hot shower.”
“What was your temperature? Did they say?”
“They said it was only down a half-degree, and nothing to worry about. The only thing — the only problem was my hands. They weren’t cold — that is they didn’t feel cold — just numb, no feeling at all because they were so cold they lost all feeling. They hurt like hell for a while when the feeling was coming back.”
The tight wristbands on the frogman suit probably contributed to that numbness. Gloves (which frogmen wore in cold water) might have helped. Could he have worked the equipment with gloves on?
“I think so,” he said. “Sure I could. The sling and harness — hooking on — they’re real easy to work. Felt like I was wearing gloves anyway; boxing gloves like you said it would feel. That’s why I lost the knife.”
“I should have had a lanyard on that.”
“You can’t think of everything.”
“True. But I should have thought of that.” Then changing the subject, “How are they treating you here? Looks like you’ve really got it made.”
“They’re treating me like royalty,” he said, “…like I was hero, or something. Gave me a shot of brandy medicinal, they call it — first thing. Then just a while ago one of ’em came in and said I looked so bad he’d brought me another one. Guess they could get away with it ’cause the doc’s not here. If they give me another shot of that I’ll probably be askin’ you to take me back out there.”
“Don’t tell the rest of the gang about that,” I cautioned, “or they might all want to go.”
“Dammit, I don’t need to be here,” Ernie complained. “But they’re saying they gotta keep me here ’til the doc gets back, so he can check me. How long do you think that’ll be?”
“Hard to tell. I expect he’ll stay on the Collett until Abbott’s in good enough shape to be brought aboard here.”
“Well, I guess that’s where he’s needed most right now.” There was a tone of resignation, as if he expected he might have to remain in sick bay for several days.
“Not really,” I said. “But he might learn something.”
“What do you mean?” came a puzzled response.
“I’ll explain that later,” I said. “But I think we can get you out of here before he comes back. I’ll go to the Exec if I have to. He’ll understand.”
There was no physical reason for Ernie to remain in sick bay. But one could understand the corpsmen’s reluctance to release him without the doctor’s orders. I could also understand Ernie’s eagerness to get out. No matter the sincerity of the corpsmen’s admiration for him, the special “hero” treatment made him uncomfortable.
But the special attention he was getting in sick bay was nothing compared to what was in store. For the next several days (unless something more dramatic happened) Ernie and I would be “big news”. We’d be called “heroes”, explicitly or implicitly, in many of the accounts. The media always needs “heroes”.
“Heroes” and highlights — the dramatic aspects of an event — are all that modern media can usually convey. Which is unfortunate, really; because most dramatic successes in real life are the consequence of much undramatic effort. Crawford and Thorin would not have become “big stars” in this show, had it not been for the stellar performance of a sizable “supporting cast”, many of them unknown as well as unseen.
To begin with, the record-setting, deck-handling proficiency of our crew was not due solely to our own efforts. A call to flight quarters involved many ship’s company sailors. The big rifles of the after turret didn’t swing aside by themselves, rails didn’t lower themselves, or other afterdeck equipage clear itself out of our way. Rochester men did those things, so efficiently it all just seemed to happen. Not once were we delayed in either launch or operations by deficiency in ship’s company performance.
This is not to say things weren’t done well on other ships, including aboard Toledo. But the Rochester sailors consistently did them better. They were enjoined in support of our operations because Rochester’s command gave our mission high priority.
CAPT Smith’s contribution to the rescue of John Abbott went beyond just that character of his command. His order for Collett to follow us into shallowing waters was vital to Abbott’s survival. His instructions to Collett’s skipper to direct his men to cut Abbott free when he arrived may have saved only a few more seconds. But ever second was important for Abbott.
How many of Collett’s crew should be regarded as “supporting cast” is impossible even to guess. The point is that had any of those men involved, aboard either Rochester or Collett, failed or been markedly deficient in their tasks, that spectacular pickup (for which Crawford and I would be acclaimed), and all the effort that had gone into enabling ourselves to do it would have been for naught. It would have been all too similar to the rather bad joke about a surgical team claiming their operation was a great success, even though their patient did not survive it.
By the Grace of God and with the help of more than a few mortals, our operation — Crawford’s and mine — was, in fact, a great success. But out of all those men — known and unknown, seen and unseen — who contributed to that success, how does one pick the heroes?
The answer is that “one” can’t, really; and needn’t even try. Circumstances select heroes in real life — providing that there are some good men on hand to select from. So the best assurance there’ll be one at hand when needed is to be surrounded by dependable men who neither think of themselves as heroes nor aspire to be so regarded.
Fortunately for John Abbott, there was such a man at hand when he needed some heroic help. It was not an aspirant “hero” who hooked him onto the hoist. Ernie didn’t go into that frigid water after a medal. He went to help a fellow man in distress.
Success or failure of heroic effort will always entail some measure of chance and risk. Forethought, training and proper equipage will improve the odds. That is well demonstrated by comparison of Crawford’s success with Chester Todd’s unsuccessful attempt in similar situation 14 months previously. Todd was no less capable or determined than Crawford, but he was grossly ill-equipped. Had he been equipped with the simple, special sling which he and I subsequently devised — the very same which Crawford used on Abbott — Todd probably could have hooked that man on despite the several other serious handicaps.
Rescues similar to the one which Crawford made have since become almost commonplace. That does not lessen one iota the heroic character of his action. Neither is that diminished by the fact that he was well-equipped and had some special training. There were several serious uncertainties confronting him, which no longer exist because he eliminated them. In the face of those uncertainties, he put his own life on the line for just the possibility of saving another. That’s heroism, in the real sense of the word.
As for the rest of us — I’ll credit myself with having done something a bit outstanding with respect to the “state of the art” of helicoptering at that time. That’s proficiency, not heroism. The same is seen in the work of Collett’s Chief Pharmacist Mate, without which Crawford’s efforts and my own would have been in vain.
Among those various others who contributed in ways large or small, there’s not likely a one who regards himself as a “hero” for having done it. Just good sailors, dependable men doing their jobs, with some extra care and effort because they knew another man’s life hung in the balance.
What manner of recognition do such men deserve or need? They will have a considerable portion of it within themselves; the warm feeling of having helped someone in need. Perhaps the most accurate manner of recognition and commendation ever devised is the Navy’s traditional “Well done”.
When sincerely given for a truly good performance, it touches everyone who contributed even in a small way to the mission’s success, yet excludes anyone who knows he should have helped but didn’t.
Ernie Crawford, some months later, was awarded the Navy Cross for his action. No doubt he cherishes that fully deserved award; perhaps more for the memories it stirs than for the medal itself. Yet from his reaction when it was presented, he still may cherish even more the award I gave him in Rochester’s sick bay that very afternoon — the certain news that the man he’d gone in after was fully conscious and appeared on the road to full recovery.
But Ernie missed the honors bestowed on the rest of us later that afternoon. (The “rest of us” means all hands aboard Rochester and Collett.) An announcement from the bridge invited all hands not on duty to go topside to witness something special. After forming up for return to their carriers, the entire strike force of Task Force 77 did an impromptu fly-by to let us know their feelings about our performance. Sixty or more planes returning from combat strikes were strung out in small formations. As they passed starboard of the two ships, in unison all dipped a wing in salute.
In my view, the Blue Angels, at their very best, could not exceed that for performance. And a boatload of medals could never match it for honors.