Faulty Engine. . . Heavy Fog. . . Gas Low. . . Gyro Out—But, “Mission Accomplished!”
THERE was an unwritten law of carrier war that when pilots came back to their ready rooms after an attack, everybody talked at once and nobody listened. Each pilot, keyed up by the tension of combat, raced on about the freighter he strafed, the Zeke he flamed, or the AA. that ripped a hole in his wing. They all talked at the top of their voices, and gesticulated like Sicilians at a 5-alarm fire.
But this time there was no exuberance, no babble. They silently pulled off their helmets and Mae Wests. A stand-by pilot looked up from a gin rummy game. “What happened?” he asked quietly.
“Howdy got hit by flak. He had to ditch off Miho.”
This was bitter news. Howdy—Lt. Howard M. Harrison of Columbus, Ohio was easily the most popular man in the squadron. And Miho was on the Sea of Japan. Shikoku, the Inland Sea and the main Jap island of Honshu all lay between the point where he went down and the area in the Pacific where the USS YORKTOWN was operating. The weather over Japan was bad and steadily getting worse. The Task Force had never before been able to retrieve a pilot from the Sea of Japan. Everybody knew that the odds against seeing Howdy again were grim.
Suddenly, the teletype pecked out a message:
“8 VF (N) FROM QUAKER WILL ESCORT DUMBO TO RESCUE DOWNED PILOT.”
At this a storm broke. It meant that eight night-fighter planes from another carrier were going to lead a flying boat on the rescue mission.
“Like hell they will,” Lt. (jg) Maury Proctor shouted. “They’ll never find Howdy. But we saw right where he went down.”
Followed by his wingman, Lt. (jg) Joe Sahloff, he bolted from the room and scampered up the ladders to Flag Plot. They were going to ask permission to make the long flight back across Japan.
Thus began what many regard as the most remarkable air-sea rescue the Navy has ever executed. To bring it off, the entire Carrier Task Force had to linger for a nerve-wracking hour practically within bee-bee range of Japan, and one of our own destroyers had to shell the huge rescue plane to bits. But the real reason it succeeded was that two genial but determined Hellcat pilots insisted on pressing home the search for their friend long after the accumulating hazards and setbacks would have made lesser men throw in the towel.
These two—Proctor and Sahloff—were, as the saying goes, “much pilots.” Proctor, who comes from Seattle, was alert, quick off the mark, and apparently unafraid of anything or anybody. Sahloff, whose home is in Selkirk, N. Y., was slow-spoken and easy-going. Absurdly tall, in flight gear he looked rather like an aeronautical Ichabod Crane, but he probably could handle a Hellcat as well as any pilot in the Navy. He chain-smoked big fat cigars. His friends say it is hard to recall ever seeing him without a stogie, except when asleep or flying through heavy flak.
They both thought Harrison was the salt of the earth, and it would have been a thankless job to try to find anybody on the ship who’d disagree. Sahloff summed up this feeling very simply. “Howdy,” he said, “is the friendliest, straightest guy you could ever meet.”
They were flying just behind Harrison when he led the sweep against Miho Airfield. Proctor said: “The gunners got on Howdy as he pulled out of his strafing run. There were so many tracers sailing up past him that he could’ve lit a cigarette just by sticking it out of the cockpit. Then they connected. They hit the underside of his engine, and it put out a long black streamer of smoke and oil.”
Harrison couldn’t see this, but felt a crunching jolt. He headed out over the coast and poured on the coal, putting as many miles as possible between himself and the Mikado. He watched his oil-pressure needle swing slowly to the left. It pointed at 60, 40, 20—and finally zero. He knew his engine would freeze, and he pulled back carefully on the stick and back-tabbed the elevators. The Hellcat skimmed gracefully over the waves with a little bounce now and then, like a stone you’d skip across a millpond.
“Howdy’s a wonderfu] pilot,” Sahloff said. “He ditched about as smoothly as I could land on La Guardia Field.”
As the plane slipped under the waves, Harrison inflated his life raft and climbed aboard. His dye marker spread a brilliant green circle about the yellow raft, thus clearly identifying his position. His squadron mates, low on gas, could orbit him only a few minutes. They peeled off and zoomed the raft to say an revoir, roaring down to within a few feet of the water. Then climbing in
formation they rocked their wings, gave him a final thumbs up, and disappeared into the clouds over the coast, winging back across Japan to the Pacific.
“That was a sad sight,” Harrison said. ~‘I hope I never feel that lonely again.”
Normally, Proctor and Sahloff wouldn’t have had a chance to try to rescue Harrison. As soon as a pilot ditched, the flight leader was supposed to radio his location and apparent condition to the Task Force, which sent out a Dumbo without delay. But this time things didn’t go according to Hoyle. The message was radioed, all right, but was never received—thanks to the weather and the Hellcats’ extreme distance from the Force. Since the carriers didn’t acknowledge a message of this sort (it would give away their position), Proctor and Sahloff had no way of knowing they had drawn a blank until they got back to the ship.
When they burst into the YORKTOWN’S Flag Plot, Proctor accosted the Chief of Staff, Captain F. M. Trapnell. “Sir,” Proctor said breathlessly, “wouldn’t it be possible to send some of our own planes after Lt. Harrison?” Captain Trapnell took a dim view of this proposal. “We’ve already launched planes from another carrier,” he said. “But, sir,” Proctor persisted, “we saw where he went down—and, well, we just wouldn’t come back without him.” The Captain thought a moment. “You want to go yourself, don’t you?” Proctor beamed. “Yes sir—and may I take my wingman?”
“All right. Be ready in five minutes.” Proctor raced down the ladders with Sahloff at his heels. They threw on their flight gear and grabbed up their navigation boards. Meanwhile, tractors on the flight deck were running around like beetles, towing planes out of the way so a pair of Hellcats could be spotted forward. And simultaneously all the ships in the Task Group—carriers, battlewagons, cruisers and destroyers—wheeled in formation, turning into the wind to launch the two planes.
When Proctor trotted, across the flight deck, he found a maintenance crew working furiously on his plane. “We’re trying to fix the gyro, sir,” a mec told him. “It hasn’t been working right.”
This might have unnerved anybody but Proctor. It was as if a circus aerialist had been informed, just before going into his act, that there seemed to be a little trouble with one of his trapeze wires. For though it was bright and sunny over the Pacific, Japan was buried under a towering overcast. To get lost up there without a gyro would be little short of murder. The Task Group had executed its turn, and Sahloff was revving up his engine. Proctor couldn’t wait much longer. Suddenly Sahloff’s Hellcat shot along the deck and soared off the bow to starboard. Proctor motioned the mec aside, climbed into the cockpit and started his engine. He knew if he demanded another plane they’d have to re-spot part of the deck, and then maybe it would be too late for him to go. While he waited for his take-off signal, he uncaged the gyro to see how it would behave. “It just laid down like a whipped dog,” he says. A few seconds later he was in the air, banking steeply to overtake Sahloff.
Proctor was not the only one who had troubles. In fact, Lt. (jg) George B. Smith, the handsome Californian at the controls of the Dumbo, could have given him troubles in spades. To begin with, he didn’t have enough gas for this trip. His plane—a giant Martin Mariner—had been cruising about the Task Force all morning, standing by to fish out any pilots who happened to go in the drink. In a few hours he was to be relieved by another Dumbo and return to his base, which was Okinawa. When the Task Force gave him Harrison’s position, he needed only the briefest of sessions with his plotting board to find out that he didn’t have a heathen’s prayer of flying that far and then reaching Okinawa. He reported this to the Task Force. But there was not time to wait for his relief, so the Task Force replied: “Proceed to rescue and return to this Force.’
This was not altogether a happy solution. It would entail a risky landing in rough water, perhaps after dark, and even if the Task Force was able to fuel him and everything else went off beautifully, it would still mean a dangerous open-sea take-off and a long night flight hack to Okinawa.
But Smith had another migraine headache. The mixture control for his starboard engine was jammed at automatic lean. As a result, he wouldn’t be able to climb to any great heights to scale the weather front, and there was an excellent chance that the engine would conk out on a take-off.
Furthermore, just three weeks previously he and his ten-man crew had crashed in the heavy swells of the East China Sea, 200 miles off Korea, while attempting to pick up an Army pilot. Drenched and sea-sick, they tossed about in life rafts for 38 hours before an American submarine luckily spotted them. Understandably, they were not amused at the prospect of repeating the experience.
Thirty miles from the Task Force the lumbering Mariner effected a rendezvous with Proctor, Sahloff and the night fighters. The weather had become almost prohibitively bad. As they approached Shikoku they were swallowed in an overcast that hung down from the sky like a row of giant white draperies.
Visibility was awful. ‘We could see just fine up to about 15 feet,” Sahloff says. “I could hardly make out Dumbo, and often I couldn’t see Proctor at all.” In soup this thick there was no danger of interception, so Proctor asked the night fighters to see how high the overcast extended. They vanished upward, leaving Dumbo and its two peppery little escorts alone in the clouds. To stick with Dumbo, the Hellcats had to poke along at what was for them a terrifically awkward speed. As a matter of fact, nothing about their whole performance impressed other pilots more than their skill in flying wing on a Mariner through mile after mile of solid overcast.
“We were a funny sight,” Proctor said. “It was kind of like a big old St. Bernard plodding along through the snow with a couple toy bulldogs beside him.” For some reason, Dumbo had perfect radio communication with Sahloff, but couldn’t pick up Proctor without a great chorus of whistles and squawks. Sahloff and Smith, therefore, did most of the talking. Occasionally Sahloff, like an interpreter, would relay the conversation to Proctor, using another channel.
“We’ll navigate if you want us to,” Sahloff said. “We can find Miho easy. We’re practically old residents there.” “O.K.,” Smith said, “but you’d better be right on the nose.” He pointed out that if, as they first bored into the clouds, they were off by so much as a few degrees, they’d be hopelessly distant from Miho by the time they emerged. And he didn’t have enough gasoline to do any hunting around once they were in the clear. “Just follow us, pal,” Sahloff said. Then, to Proctor: “How do you make it—we on the right course?” Proctor to Saloff: “How do I know? I’ve been sweating it out with this gyro. I was counting on you.” Navigation had never been Sahloff’s greatest gift. “Roger,” he said thinly, double-checking his calculations.
They slogged on in silence for perhaps a half hour, laboriously climbing. Dumbo to Sahloff: “I don’t like the looks of this. Is our heading correct?” Sahloff: “Oh, sure. It’ll probably clear up soon, anyhow.” Another half hour of white silence. Dumbo: “My engine’s started to detonate. We can’t climb much higher. Sahloff: “We ought to hit the top soon. It was only 10,000 when we were here before.”
Sahloff took the liberty of not telling him the news he’d just received from the night fighters—the top had gone up to 18,000 feet, a height which the ailing Dumbo couldn’t possibly reach. Dumbo: “How do you know the front hasn’t moved out over Miho?” Sahloff (ask Almighty forgiveness):
“Oh, it couldn’t do that. It was moving inland when we left Harrison.”
Still another half hour of soup. Dumbo: “If my engine keeps on detonating, I’m going to have to turn back. I hate to say that, but I mean it.” And Dumbo had a perfect right to turn back. Smith wasn’t, like the Hellcat pilots, risking merely his own neck. He had to consider his crew. To guard their safety was his first duty, and if he became convinced that he was throwing away eleven lives in a doomed effort to save one, he could abandon the search with or without permission of the Task Force. As skipper of his plane, he had complete responsibility and on-the-scene authority. Under these circumstances a decision to turn back unquestionably would have been upheld by every braid-heavy official in the Navy. Sahloff outlined this possibility to Proctor. “Tell him,” Proctor said, “that if he turns back now, so help me God, I’ll shoot him down.” Sahloff, suspecting that this intelligence would not reassure Dumbo, decided not to relay it. “We ought to hit Miho in ten minutes or so,” he told Smith cheerily. “We’re doing swell.”
It was now early afternoon. Harrison, still floating in the raft, knew something had gone wrong; otherwise, Dumbo would have put in an appearance hours earlier. He also knew that it was today or never, for the Task Force was pulling out before nightfall. He kept looking anxiously at the clouds along the coast, praying that the wind wouldn’t shift and push them out over the water.
“If that had happened,” he says, “I’d’ve started paddling. I don’t know where I could’ve gone—China, Korea or Siberia —but that didn’t matter. The point was to get away from Japan.”
Earlier, he had had some excitement. A Jap destroyer escort, cruising just at the horizon, was headed in his direction. Unhappily for the ship, however, it blundered onto the scene just as a later wave of carrier planes were swooping down on Miho and Yonago. They sighted it and gave it a thorough working over with rockets and wing guns, leaving it in flames.
“I could hear the AA and see the smoke,” Harrison says. “Then it got quiet again. That silence was hard to take.”
By marking his position with relation to a conical green mountain and some terraced rice paddies just behind the beach, Harrison could tell he was drifting in an off-shore current. It wouldn’t do to be carried too far from the point where his squadron mates left him, so he trailed his parachute in the water as an anchor, and paddled now and then against the tides. “I was glad to have something to keep me busy,” he says. “I didn’t want too much time just to think.” Although Harrison has been in the Navy three years, flying against the Japs all the way across the Pacific from Makin to Eniwetok to Truk, Palau and Hollandia, he says he didn’t think about the war at all.
“I almost forgot there was such a thing as the war,” he says. “For a long time I thought about my wife and family. We’ve a little boy who’s two, and Marilyn, a little girl. She’s just six months old. I’ve never seen her, except in snapshots. And I remembered a couple football games I’d played in, fishing trips—you know, things like that. I was really all right, except for that silence. Once, when I couldn’t stand it any longer, I sang ‘God Bless America’ as loud as I could. I’m a terrible singer, but it seemed like a fine idea at the time.”
While Harrison was giving out fortissimo in the raft, matters were going from bad to worse with Proctor, Sahloff and Dumbo, especially Dumbo. As though Smith hadn’t had enough difficulties, he now developed a bang-up case of vertigo, or loss of sense of balance. This malady, which most often seizes a pilot after he’s been flying blind, can have regrettable consequences, as it temporarily prevents him from telling which way is up. Purely physiological, it’s apt to strike any pilot, whether he’s a novice or hotter than the late Baron von Richtofen. Smith, like all victims of vertigo, didn’t realize he had it. But Proctor and Sahloff could tell right off the bat. First one and then the other of Dumbo’s mammoth wings would take a startling and unaccountable dip, throwing all three planes off course. Sahloff called this to Dumbo’s attention, and ingeniously suggested that Smith keep an eye on Proctor and him: “Whenever you dip a wing, we’ll dip ours.” And so, each time Dumbo faltered, Proctor or Sahloff would waggle his wings until the Mariner righted itself. Actually, both Proctor and Sahloff were worried sick that the cloud front had moved out over the Sea of Japan, and that they had overshot Miho. Proctor to Sahloff: “Let’s keep going 15 minutes more, whatever happens. Just 15 minutes.”
For more than an hour now they had been flying above 10,000 feet, the altitude at which pilots usually put on oxygen masks. But Dumbo planes, not designed to operate at high levels, ordinarily don’t carry oxygen. Sahloff to Proctor: “I’m getting kind of woozy. Think we ought to use oxygen?” Proctor: “Better not. Dumbo probably hasn’t got any. It wouldn’t be fair to Smith.”
To stop his engine from detonating, Smith decided to lighten his load. He ordered the crew to jettison whatever wasn’t nailed down. They threw out ammunition, provisions—almost everything but personnel. Yet the engine still coughed and spluttered. Dumbo to Sahloff: “My engine’s backfiring to beat hell. Are you really positive we haven’t overshot?” Sahloff: “Positive.” Then, to Proctor: “We’ve got to do something to keep this guy from turning back. Any ideas?”
After a moment’s thought, Proctor took out his plotting board and pencil. As Smith watched, he appeared to make precise and detailed calculations with his compass and charts. At least he shoved the board back into the instrument panel, nodded affirmatively, and gave Smith a thumbs up. (He later confessed that he’d just doodled. “I was so nervous I couldn’t have added two and two,” he said.)
Then Sahloff had an inspiration. Next time he saw Smith looking in his direction, he reached down into the shin pocket of his flight suit and pulled out one of his big fat cigars. With a sensational lack of concern, he flew the Hellcat with one hand, while with the other he slowly peeled off the cellophane and cigar band. He sniffed the cigar appreciatively, nibbled one end, and stuck it in his mouth. Then he reached for a pack of matches. Holding the pack in his out-sized palm, he somehow lit a match by scraping it against the striking surface with his thumb. He cupped his hand over the end of the cigar and puffed. Presently there was a blue haze in the cockpit. He cracked open the hood, flipped out the match, and settled back in his seat for a good, relaxing smoke.
Smith observed the entire show—first with incredulity, then with exasperation, and finally with a grin. “That did it,” he said later. Very soon after this they broke through the clouds into sparkling sunshine. Directly below they saw Miho Airfield, and directly above were the night fighters.
The Japs welcomed the rescue party with a barrage of heavy flak. The bursts strung out below and behind them like clusters of black umbrellas, but by jinking violently, they got through without a nick, and cruised out over the sea to look for Harrison.
They found more than they had bargained for. Not only could they see Harrison on his raft—they also could see another pilot on another raft several miles north of Harrison. This was Ensign John H. Moore, a Corsair pilot from another carrier, who had to ditch shortly before Dumbo arrived
As Proctor and the night fighters led the Mariner down for its landing, Sahloff joyously zoomed Harrison, executing the maneuver with such enthusiasm that Harrison says he narrowly escaped joining him in the drink.
But everything at this point was by no means beer and skittles. On the contrary, the sudden discovery that there were two dunked pilots instead of one was almost sufficient cause for hysterical laughter. This would give the Japs ample time to send up a swarm of fighters from nearby airfields, and it meant that Dumbo would have to make a long taxi run over the water, burning up its few extra gallons of gasoline.
However, Dumbo rose to the occasion by carrying out the two rescues in model fashion. It taxied over to Harrison and, circling, threw him a line. “They yanked me over the waves like an aquaplane,” Harrison says. When he came aboard, dripping but jubilant, he proceeded to hug each and every member of the crew. (His benefactors, painfully aware of crises yet to be faced, were less demonstrative.)
Disengaging himself from Harrison’s wet embrace, Smith taxied the big plane along until it reached Moore. They picked him up with celerity, and then, almost exactly 45 minutes after landing, the Mariner began to thunder over the water for a take-off. By the grace of God, the backfiring engine withstood the strain. And the Japs, for reasons as inscrutable as their faces, failed to send up fighters.
As the escorts joined up with Dumbo, Harrison climbed into the top gun turret to get a glimpse of his friends. Proctor flying just off the port wing, could see him easily. He promptly thumbed his nose at Harrison, thereby impairing the dignity of what might otherwise have been a touching reunion.
Late that afternoon the Task Force maneuvered in tight circles close to the shores of Japan. Within easy kamikaze range, it had been scheduled to retire at high speed immediately after its last strike. But instead, the entire force, the biggest and most powerful the world had ever seen, was waiting for a single plane —Dumbo.
Hundreds of officers and men crowded the flight deck and catwalks of our carrier, looking into the sunset for the first sight of Dumbo’s bulky silhouette. Among those who watched and waited were Proctor and Sahloff. Dangerously low on gas, they had been ordered to pull away from Dumbo on the last part of its return trip, and had flown back to the carrier at normal Hellcat speed.
Everybody felt a mounting tension, for the sea had grown alarmingly rough. Even if Dumbo’s fuel held out, landing on these swells would be a precarious business.
Suddenly a cheer went up from all hands. Dumbo had been sighted, trudging slowly in from the west. As it drew closer it looked like nothing so much as a tired old box-car, preposterously outfitted with a wing and a tail assembly. Yet it also looked game and faithful, and there was only admiration in the cheer. Dumbo gradually descended lower and lower over the water, until at last the spindrift was lashing at its pontoons. Everybody held his breath. All at once a rolling swell seemed literally to reach up after the plane. Tons of salt water pounded against its hull, and Dumbo, shuddering, lunged upward. Smith gunn’ed the motors and miraculously lifted the plane back into the air. “For a moment there,” Harrison says, 1 wished I was back in the raft.”
On his next attempt, Smith came in cautiously behind a 45,000-ton battlewagon. When he was 50 feet off the water, the battleship executed a sharp, skidding turn. This left an incredibly smooth slick, pressing out the waves and swells like an enormous electric iron. Dumbo put down in the center of the wake, gliding along the surface as smoothly as if it were landing on a silky lagoon.
There was no time to refuel Dumbo, and even if there had been, it very likely wouldn’t have been able to take off in the swells. A destroyer was ordered alongside to remove the pilots and crew. As soon as it had taken them aboard, it trained its 40-millimeter guns on the ponderous plane. A few bursts did the job. Harrison, Moore, Smith and the crew stood side by side on the destroyer’s deck and watched silently as the last of the smoking wreckage disappeared under the waves.
It was a War Bond buyer’s nightmare, for the price of a plane this size is in the neighborhood of a quarter of a million dollars.
But nobody cared about that. As Proctor said later to Sahloff, “What the hell? We got Howdy back, and that was the only thing that mattered.”
When we read the manuscript of the story on page 4, which we have called “Operation Dumbo,” and which the author had titled “The War’s Greatest Air Sea Rescue,” we let out a whistle of joy that is an editor’s way of indicating he has just stumbled onto the end of the rainbow. Believe us it doesn’t happen often.
“This guy can write,” we yelled, as we passed the manuscript on to one of the other editors.
Later, we discovered that we weren’t uncovering unrecognized talent. The author already had an acquaintance with the editors of half a dozen leading magazines in the country, including Saturday Evening Post. Nothing was left to us but the satisfaction of knowing that we were in harmony with the great brains. You don’t have to draw $25,000 a year to know good writing.
We got hold of S. P. Walker, who, until recently was Lt. (jg) S. P. Walker, USNR, and this is what we learned about him. He is a graduate of Princeton University, class of 1935. He went, after college, with the New York Times, and worked as re-write man for four years. Then he went into advertising. He wrote the Arrow Shirt and Four Roses copy for Young and Rubicam, and was. still with that firm when he entered the Navy in the spring of 1944 as Lieutenant (jg). His first assignment was with DCNO for Air, in Washington. From there he was sent to the Pacific as Press Officer on the staff of Rear Admiral Arthur W. Radford.
When the victory fleet sailed into Tokyo Bay, Lieut. Walker was with the first group of correspondents to go ashore in Japan. From that experience he wrote a piece which The Saturday Evening Post ran in its November 3, 1945 issue, and which we know most Navy men have read and discussed. It was titled, “A Japanese Officer Explains Nippon’s Mistakes”
Mr. Walker is back with Young and Rubicam following his release from active service. He is married and has two children.
The story of the rescue of Lieut. Howard Harrison, “Operation Dumbo,” has a tragic conclusion which was not confirmed in time to be included in the article. During the last strike against Japan, August 15, Lieut. Harrison and Lieut. (jg) Sahloff were shot down while engaging superior numbers of the enemy. They are both listed today as “missing in action.”