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 Lost Royal Hawaiian
Jack Gotthold shifted in his seat and adjusted his lap belt. With the exception of one round-trip back to New York, he had not been aloft for nearly a year. As the vice president of Gotthold Corporation, an import-export metallurgical company based in New York, he had spent the twelve months in Saipan and Guam on business. Funny, he thought to himself, how much he had flown. During the Second World War, he had completed sixty-seven combat missions over Europe and for his actions, he had been awarded the Bronze Star. Now, instead of sitting on the flight deck and at the controls, he was merely one of fifty passengers awaiting clearance for take-off on the tarmac in Wake bound for Honolulu. Some of the passengers, like him would end their trip there, while others would continue on to San Francisco, California. This stop, having arrived from Guam, had been for fuel and to board one additional east-bound passenger. Finally, the engines of the DC-6 roared to speed. Finally, Gotthold thought to himself, they were about to get airborne – next stop Honolulu. Transocean Flight 512 raced down the tarmac on the second leg of her flight plan and then lurched into the air. Gotthold looked down at his watch. It was 5:58, Hawaiian time. The DC-6A, named the Royal Hawaiian, was on her way to Honolulu.
On the flight deck, Captain William Word confirmed his heading with the flight crew’s navigator, John Hay. Abreast of Wood was his co-pilot, Herbert Hudson. In the jump seat behind him was Leonard Nowell. The flight engineer and an apprentice flight engineer, George Haskamp and Paul Yedwabnick, were busy monitoring controls as the landing gear retracted into the aircraft. The passengers, forty-one adults and nine children, spoke and enjoyed one another’s company as the aircraft reached her cruising altitude. Stewardess Louise Downing and the purser, H.H. Sargent began walking through the cabin ensuring everyone was comfortable.
The DC-6 aircraft design had been initiated during the Second World War. The United States Air Force had requested a new version of the Douglas C-54 Skymaster that would be powered by bigger engines, would have a longer fuselage, and would provide a pressurized cabin. When it was delivered, the war had ended. Douglas Aircraft then modified the design to ensure interest by commercial air carriers. American and United Airlines scooped up several of the aircraft but design flaws were quickly realized after two major mishaps – one of which served as the loss of United Airlines Flight 608 – with inflight fires due to a design flaw. After a four month grounding of all of the effected fleet, the design failure had been rectified.
Thirty minutes into the flight, Captain Wood ordered a position report issued. An hour later, Transocean’s flight crew issued their second position report. Then there was silence. Air traffic controllers at Wake Island could not raise the aircraft. Officials issued an alert. Messages flashed across the Pacific regarding the loss of contact with the flight. Air traffic controllers marked her last known position. She was roughly three hundred and twenty-five miles east of Wake Island. The United States Navy and the United States Coast Guard were notified of the situation. Both services raced to action to try and find the missing airliner and her fifty-eight souls.
On Wake, the United States Coast Guard sent aloft a Consolidated Liberator P4-Y aircraft and an eighty-three foot cutter cast off her mooring lines and set out to begin her search and rescue mission.1 The U.S.C.G.C. Finch, heading from Wake to Midway Island was ordered to alter her course for the search area. Four United States Navy ships to divert from their original course and proceed with all haste to the last known position. Three United States Navy destroyers, the U.S.S. Epperson, U.S.S. Walker, and U.S.S. Phillips, set out to sea from Pearl Harbor as additional vessels were ordered to ready for sea. The United States Air Force launched two amphibious aircraft from Kwajalein and a B-29 from Hawaii as fourteen U.S. Navy aircraft, including twelve P2V Neptune, launched from airfields in Hawaii to aid in the search.
All aboard – either afloat or aloft – strained their eyes for any sign of the missing airliner. The DC-6, they had been informed, carried four twenty-man life-rafts, a single ten-man life-raft, a Very-type pistol and flares. In addition, the aircraft’s survival equipment also included a Gibson-girl transmitter. All hoped that if the airliner had been forced to ditch, a signal would soon be picked up so that the rescuers could find the survivors.
Suddenly, hours after losing contact, a signal was picked up at the Hawaiian Sea Frontier Air-Sea Search Headquarters at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The signal was faint and last only seconds. One moment it had been transmitting. The next second it was gone. The signal had been too short to provide officials an opportunity to identify a fix. Suddenly there was another signal. The hopes of the officials were buoyed only briefly. Once identified, the officials knew that the second signal could not be from the flight. It was identified as being issued from Japan. Transocean Flight 512 had simply disappeared.
On the morning of July 13th, crewmen aboard the U.S.N.S. Barrett spotted something on the horizon. The captain of the ship ordered all stop. A yellow inflated life raft bobbed in the tranquil waters of the Pacific Ocean. Debris littered the water. Suitcases, clothing, a woman’s shoes, pillows, and wreckage from the aircraft floated silently amongst the waves. There was no sign of life. The life-raft and items from the debris field were quickly pulled from the water onto the deck of the transport. The life-raft was marked with the initials of the Transocean Air Lines. They had found the wreckage. The captain ordered engines full speed ahead. Maybe, he pondered, others remained awaiting to be saved. Other ships received word of the discovery and altered their courses accordingly. Twenty-five miles further west, the scene turned ominously more gruesome.
Three more life-rafts were recovered. None of them had been inflated. All were shredded and floated aimlessly amidst the swirling waves. Sadly, the crewmen aboard the U.S.N.S. Barrett, also recovered seven souls, two of which were children, from the stark white chomping teeth of a shiver of sharks that had also converged on the horrific scene. The medical officer aboard the transport noted the conditions of the bodies. He stood up after kneeling next to one of the dead. He removed his khaki combination cover and pulled a handkerchief from his pocket to wipe his brow. The captain of the transport looked into his eyes and awaited some sort of response. “There is little hope for any survivors in view of the conditions of the bodies found,” the doctor offered solemnly. Three of the bodies pulled from the savage sharks had been badly burned and mangled. The bulk of the bodies had been stripped naked and none of the bodies recovered were wearing life-jackets. It was clear that those aboard Transocean Flight 512 had died a horrific and horrible death. For the next two days, the crewmen aboard the transport spotted more bodies in the worsening sea conditions. Thanks to the crewmen’s heroic efforts, an additional seven bodies were finally recovered. The sharks were not fond of the attempts to recover the others. For those eleven souls, the vast blue expanse of the Pacific Ocean would forever be their tomb.
Messages ashore provided the details of the grim reality. “No possible chance to find survivors alive,” was received ashore. Many quickly believed that the airliner had been lost after a ho
rrific explosion. With little hope of rescue or recovery, the United States Coast Guard, United States Navy and United States Air Force, surrendered to the forces of nature and reality. The fate of the Transocean Flight 512 would have to be determined by investigators. The U.S.N.S. Barrett was ordered to Guam.
No other debris or bodies were ever recovered. Aircraft investigators were flummoxed as to the cause of the lost airliner. Transocean Flight 512 marked the first loss of a commercial airliner over the Pacific since the Second World War. The public demanded answers. Sadly, few were provided. Because the aircraft’s main fuselage was not found or recovered, no determination could be ascertained if there had been any mechanical or structural failures. While flight path weather reports provided to Captain Wood had noted clear conditions, another aircraft slightly north of the flight path reported severe turbulence and thunderstorms. While many speculated that the airliner had been brought down by sabotage, there was no evidence to support the claim. The Civil Aeronautics Board, without significant wreckage and clues, was therefore unable to determine what had happened aboard the doomed flight from Guam to Oakland, California.
The fifty-eight souls aboard Transocean Air Lines Flight 512 had been lost over three hundred miles east of Wake Island. Whatever the cause of the crash, it mattered not to those men, women and children aboard. Their goals and dreams had been smothered by an undetermined cause as they flew thousands of feet in the air toward Hawaii on July 12, 1953 and to a much-needed respite from work or to loved ones.
Racing to the rescue had been the men of the various sea-going and aerial assets of the United States Navy, United States Air Force and the United States Coast Guard. All of the services banded together in a herculean humanitarian mission to try and find survivors. Sadly, despite their quick call to action, the servicemen were forced to face the grimmest of tasks – the recovery of those lost in the horrific crash of Transocean Air Lines Flight 512. A flight full of fifty-eight souls who had a wide-breadth of life behind them and life ahead of them had been lost. All though their lives were cut short in a matter of seconds when the DC-6 was lost, for an unknown reason, as she flew through the heavens on her way toward Hawaii.
The men and women of the United States Coast Guard are tasked with a heavy burden of responsibility in their day-to-day missions. The sudden shift from normal missions to one that requires the search and rescue and sadly, recovery of those deceased due to an accident or other reason, is one that requires a steadfast resolve to maintain composure and fortitude. The men aboard each of the vessels or aircraft called into action to search for the Transocean Air Lines Flight 512 and her 58 souls aboard, knew that they might be required to do ensure that those lost were recovered with dignity and respect so that the loved ones who had been left in the wake of the loss could be provided closure to a horrific moment in their lives when one of their loved ones had been lost. It is that duty that remains a constant for the men and women serving in the United States Coast Guard that forever enforces their roles and responsibilities as sentinels and saviors of the seas.