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U.S. Coast Guard Series The Hurrican Hunted

September 1, 2016

Each month, an interesting aspect of the world’s oldest continuous maritime service will be highlighted. The men and women of the United States Coast Guard follow in the fine tradition of the brave mariners who have served before them. As sentinels and saviors of the seas, the United States Coast Guard proudly continues its commitment to honor, respect & devotion to duty to maintain their vigil - Semper Paratus.

 

The Hurricane Hunted

Airman Second Class James B. Henderson reached forward and grabbed his helmet bag. Placing the bag on his lap, he unsnapped one of the sections and reached in to grab what he hoped would occupy some of his time during the routine flight. Grabbing the dog-eared copy of the paperback, he re-snapped the enclosure and placed his bag back down on the deck. He eased back in his uncomfortable seat and thumbed to the last page he had read. Taking out the half-torn match book cover he was using as a bookmark, he placed it at the rear of the book and continued reading as if he had not missed a beat. “Oh yes,” the main character surmised, “he had a gun in one pocket. It was pointing at me.” Mickey Spillane may not have enamored the critics but he wrote one helluva story Henderson reflected as he continued reading. “It is not smart to be a hero. Not smart at all.” The main character in the book, Mike Hammer had been taking a walk on a barren night across a lonely and quiet bridge when all hell had broken loose. There was a damsel in distress wrapped up not only in her coat with a big furry collar but also in some funny business. The small pudgy faced man who was chasing her stopped when he saw her find the hulking arms of the man in the faded trench coat. The man, unknown to Mike Hammer was not playing games. It was clear that he had a gun pointing at him from the confines of his coat pocket. Once again, the anti-hero of private eyes was in the thick of it.  How, Henderson questioned, would Hammer get out of this one? “I never gave him a chance. All I moved was my arm and before he had his gun out I had my .45 in my fist with the safety off and the trigger back. I only gave him a second to realize what it was like to die then I blew the expression clean off his face.” The man slumped to the icy pavement of the bridge. Hammer had survived the chance-meeting. The young girl, believing Hammer was “one of them,” frantically leapt up to the precipice of the steel structure and then jumped.  Hammer tried to grab her but he was too late. A piece of her coat in his hands and a headful of questions. He peered below to the watery grave of the misfortunate young woman. “She screamed. Good God, how she screamed,” Hammer reflected. Henderson was now thoroughly convinced that the pages of Spillane’s One Lonely Night would surely make the flight pass quickly.  Suddenly, the converted B-29 lurched. Henderson dropped the paperback from his hands. The pages of white pulp flapped as a sudden gust of air flooded the compartment. The last scream he heard was what he read. A wall of fire suddenly engulfed the aircraft. Henderson was thrown to the deck. The aircraft was going down fast. Henderson could not scream. There was no time for that. He had to survive. 

At fifteen thirteen hours on September 19th, 1953 the wheels of the converted B-29 lifted free from the asphalt runway at the Hunter Air Force Base located near Savannah, Georgia. The flight plan was simple and straight forward. The crew was to monitor some weather patterns, update their findings, and then proceed to their home airfield at Kindly Air Force Base in Bermuda.  A week earlier, the B-29, along with several other aircraft, had been flown state-side to avoid possible destruction from a passing hurricane. With the storm now largely dissipated, it was time for the aircraft and her flight crew of sixteen men to return to base and continue their assignment to monitor and track storms. At fourteen twenty-nine hours, the B-29 radioed that all with the flight was proceeding as planned. The weather was clear and the skies provided optimum flying conditions. Cruising at eight thousand feet, the B-29 weather reconnaissance plane was approximately two hundred miles from Savannah, Georgia when the aircraft suddenly lurched. The number three engine had come loose from the wing and swung violently into the number four engine. A horrific explosion buffeted the aircraft. The flight crew in the cockpit fought the controls as the aircraft tumbled earthward. The B-29, catastrophically damaged, hurled faster and faster toward the watery seas of the Atlantic Ocean thousands of feet below. 

Fire and flames raced through the B-29. The crew of sixteen men were tossed to and fro as it plummeted through the early evening sky. Each of the men had to fight their own fight to survive before the B-29 slammed into the water. Henderson found himself surrounded by a solid wall of fire. Henderson was not going to go down with the aircraft. He lunged forward through the fire and made it to a hatch. Tossing himself free of the aircraft, his chute yanked open with a sudden jerk. He watched as the fire-engulfed plane continued to fall from the heavens. Meanwhile, forward of Henderson in the aircraft’s nose section, Sergeant Julian C. Collins and four other crewmen were also fighting for their lives. Their escape hatch was blocked with flames. Then they had another idea. Collins pushed the men through the nose gear hatch. Collins was the last to leave the aircraft. As he left the plane, it began to roll over on its back and as Collins fell out of the hatch, he was violently pulled upward into the sky. His fingers clutched at his ripcord. As he watched the aircraft tumble out of control toward the seas below, he yanked on the cord. His chute deployed and he was jerked upward. The wide expanse of the sea lay beneath his boots. He looked for more deployed chutes. Several were on the horizon. The B-29 slammed into the Atlantic Ocean in a horrific fireball. For Henderson, Collins and the other men who reached the waves below, their harrowing adventure was just beginning. 

Nine men out of the crew of sixteen men had safely parachuted into the Atlantic Ocean. Relying on their training would be the key if they were going to survive. Each of the airmen were wearing their standard issue Mae West rigs.  The vital piece of equipment, in use by the United States military since prior to the Second-World War, was an inflatable personal floatation device. Utilizing carbon dioxide canisters, the vest would inflate to assist in keeping the wearer buoyant. The airmen inflated their vests and then turned to their other emergency equipment including several personal life-rafts that had deployed amidst the crash. The survivors, scattered about across a large swath of the seas, permitted only a few of the men to meet up. Sergeant Larry Charles Graybill had landed near Airman Henderson. The two men swam toward a wayward life-raft. The life-raft, they quickly realized was damaged and it did not remain afloat very long. Soon the two men were bobbing errantly amidst the waves buoyed only by their Mae West vests and their spirits. Further away, Sergeant Collins attempted to nurse a deep cut in his shoulder. Another airman, Philip R. Bruning swam toward him and the two men lashed together their life-rafts. Two Airmen Second Classes, John J. Shanley and Richard S. Barker linked up and settled into their life-rafts. Meanwhile, Airmen First Class Paul L. Dion and Staff Sergeant Edwin H. Sischo had also met up and squeezed precariously into one life-raft. Lastly, on his own was Airman First Class Norman Prosser. Prosser, bobbing aimlessly in the water, agonized in pain. His body had been severely burned when he escaped the flying inferno. As they nine men contemplated their survival of the crash and hoped for a rescue, a new threat circled them from dark waters below. 

At first they thought that the shark repellent would keep them at bay. As the hours passed, the repellent, once poured with vigor, was now depleted. The sharks returned. They would not have their meal plans dismissed so easily. Airman Dion and Sergeant Sischo watched as the six-foot shark circled their little raft. Carefully, fearing that too much movement might upend their tiny raft, the two men batted at the diligent predator with their oars. The shark was not easily fought off. The men, exhausted, hungry, and hurt could not relent in their self-preservation fight. The batting oars continued to ward off the menace. The hours continued and so too did the efforts of the hungry sharks.  

Further away, Airman Henderson and Sergeant Graybill had a similar aquatic “buzzard” of death circling scenario. The only difference was that Henderson and Graybill did not have the luxury of a life-raft or oars to swing at the sharks that had quickly nosed in on their position. Henderson had read prior that hitting them on their snout would stun them and they might steer clear. The two men fought valiantly against their two pursuers. Henderson slammed his fists at the snouts of the sharks as they neared. Graybill followed suit. Initially the advice worked but only Henderson would prove lucky. Graybill’s luck would not hold out. “Something rushed by me,” he later recalled. “Then I felt one hand in a mouth, so I took a poke at him to get loose.” The shark had roughed up his arm but it was not life-threatening. As the nine men fought off the sharks and elements of the rough seas all prayed that a radio signal of their may-day had been issued. The radio call might have alerted their United States Air Force brethren of their plight. If not, their only fail safe would be when they failed to report to the airfield at Kindley. At either rate, all hoped that a rescue would be on the horizon. 

Unbeknownst to the survivors, a radio signal had been sent and picked up both in Bermuda and by the radio communications station at The New York Times. The message, garbled at best, set off phone calls but all went unanswered. Interestingly enough, the radio communications office at Hunter Air Force base had closed at seventeen hundred hours. It was not until twenty-three fifteen hours that the B-29 was reported overdue by personnel at the Kindley Air Force Base in Bermuda. Immediately the United States Air Force launched a sister B-29 to search for the missing plane. In addition, flash messages were issued to all sea-going vessels and to the United States Coast Guard to keep a sharp look out for any survivors. As cutters and commercial vessels scanned the horizon for any debris of the aircraft or survivors, a SA-16 Albatross float plane of the Forty-Sixth Air Rescue Squadron was launched from Westover Air Force Base in Massachusetts. Meanwhile, the harrowing hours continued for the nine souls in the sea as the sharks continued their deadly game. 

Meanwhile, further south, Captain Francesco Perilli stepped onto the bridge of the S.S. Nassau. His radio officer passed him the communique. Perilli ordered his helmsman to make an immediate course change to the search area. He and his men would render any aid possible to the down aviators. At thirty minutes past zero four hundred hours, Captain Perilli and his men were notified by the Albatross to proceed to a new position. Flares had been sighted. Soon after, Perilli saw the waving arms of men in a small life raft. Perilli ordered his men to the rails. In short order, one of his life-boats was lowered into the choppy seas. The brave-seafarers pulled the aviators from the water and then, after their mission was complete, were tasked with yet another. The Albatross, while attempting to land to assist in the rescue mission had suffered a broken pontoon. Efforts to save the aircraft had failed. Perilli and his officers and crew then rescued the nine aviators from the Albatross. Following orders from the United States Coast Guard, Perilli and the S.S. Nassau steamed toward New York with their six survivors from the hurricane hunter B-29 and the nine aviators from the Albatross. Meanwhile, further away, three men remained at the whim of the seas and floating bait for the incessant attacks of the sharks. 

Thankfully, after nearly twenty-two hours in the water, the S.S. Seatrain Georgia arrived to pull the last three survivors from the sea. Soon after they were brought aboard, the three survivors, Norman Prosser, Paul Dion and Edwin Sischo were transferred to a United States Coast Guard cutter. The cutter raced to Charleston, South Carolina to get Prosser’s burns treated as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, assets of the United States Air Force, the United States Navy, the United States Coast Guard and a host of commercial vessels, continued to scan the waters for any other survivors of the B-29 crash. Despite their collective efforts, the remains of the seven missing crewmen were never found. 

The September 19th flight of the converted B-29 weather reconnaissance plane or “Hurricane Hunter” was a terrible day for the men of the United States Air Force and their families. Seven of the sixteen man crew had been lost when their aircraft suffered a deadly equipment failure and forced their plane into the wide expanse of the Atlantic Ocean. Thanks to their dedication and fortitude, the nine men who landed in the water relied on their training and their daring-do to fight off the elements and an unknown number of hungry sharks. Thanks to the diligent efforts of Good Samaritan mariners and the collective efforts of the United States military the seven airmen were brought home to the safety of port. 

The crash of the B-29 “Hurricane Hunter” reminds all of the dangerous efforts of those men and women who gather weather information in the face of sometimes less than ideal conditions. In this instance the Hurricane Hunter had become the hunted. Though forced down by mechanical failure and fire, the men had to fight the very worst of Mother Nature and the hungry sharks of the aquatic world to survive. As we march through hurricane season and as we watch the information presented on various news networks and agencies of impending and inbound storms, lest we not forget the brave souls of the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the men and women of our military branches including the United States Coast Guard who brave the very worst of weather conditions to ensure up to date information for the masses and, in the very worst moments, who launch into harm’s way to provide assistance to those facing adversity.  To the men and women who brave the worst - including the seven men of the Hurricane Hunter flight of September 19th, 1953 - may they never be forgotten for their sacrifice as true sentinels and saviors of the seas.

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