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 Lieutenant
United States Coast Guard Lieutenant Luke Christopher had no other options. The wings of his aircraft were completely iced over. He scanned the terrain below for a suitable landing location. He reached
for his radio and contacted the airstrip at Allentown. Permission was granted and as the ground grew closer, he eased back on the controls to the unstable aircraft. The wheels touched down into the thick mud. Lieutenant Christopher drew back on the engine controls and lowered the rpms. The aircraft came to sudden, lurching stop. He undid his harness and got out of the aircraft to inspect the results of his less than fortuitous unplanned landing. Despite the aircraft being stuck in the mud, the aircraft had suffered no damage. Crewmen from the airport rushed to the scene. A close call but one that on March 13, 1936, Lieutenant Luke Christopher could walk away from. Flying nearly twenty years, he had been in the air in a host of different aircraft for thousands of hours and in much worse close calls.
Luke Christopher was born on May 31, 1896 in Cookeville, Tennessee. After receiving his flight training, Christopher flew for the United States Army Air Corps from June 6, 1917 through April 1919. During this period of service, he received advanced flying training with the Royal Flying Corps in Canada as well as specialized training in seaplane and aerial navigation at the U.S. Naval Air Station in Miami Florida. With his multiple skill sets he quickly commanded several coastal aviation patrols during the First World War.
In April of 1919, Christopher started his own flying service and barnstormed across the country in addition to offering passenger service to various domestic locations. After running his own business, he was hired to serve as a test pilot for the Keystone Aircraft Factory in Bristol, Pennsylvania where he was in charge of testing all types of new aircraft bound for the U.S. Army Air Corps. Shifting back to governmental service, he served as a test pilot for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics at Langley Field, Virginia. Until 1929, Christopher also served as the Secretary of the National Aeronautics Association Contest Committee. While he maintained his civilian employment, Christopher held the rank of Major in the Air Corps Reserve and was in command of the 409th Attack Squadron of the Air Corps Reserve. In total, he had spent twelve years in the reserves before accepting a temporary commission in the United States Coast Guard on October 2, 1932. After a little less than three years of service, he received his permanent status as a Lieutenant on September 23, 1935. As of September 30, 1935, he had over five thousand hours of flying experience in a host of different aircraft including seaplanes. During his career in the United States Coast Guard, Christopher was assigned to the United States Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington, D.C., Section Base 9 in Cape May, New Jersey, and served on the cutters Sebago, Cayuga and Hunt. In addition, he served as the commanding officer of the Air Patrol Detachment in San Diego and at the Air Station in Cape May. With only one crash landing during his entire career, in which he had escaped unharmed, his flying career had been stellar and safe. Sadly, that was about to change when a distress call was received from a tanker off of the Virginia coastline.
At 10:28 on the morning of December 5th, 1937, the United States Coast Guard received a radio message from the tanker Charles G. Black. One of her crew, John Barrina, was suffering from appendicitis and needed medical care as soon as possible. Within minutes, Lieutenant Loren H. Seeger and his crew alighted aboard their Douglas RD-4 Dolphin Seaplane - Spica. Heading south from the air station at Floyd Bennett Field, New York Lieutenant Loren H. Seeger scanned the conditions upon their arrival on scene. With choppy seas, conducting a rescue from the tanker was going to be difficult. Lieutenant Seeger circled the tanker to determine his best approach. He indicated to his crew to brace themselves for his approach. Lieutenant Seeger’s hunch had been correct. Though he was able to put the aircraft down safely, one of the seaplane’s pontoons had suffered damage. The seaplane would have to be towed to safe haven. The sickened crewmen remained aboard the tanker. Radio messages to the air station at Cape May were received. Another crew would have to alight to effect the rescue.
Lieutenant Luke Christopher and his crewmen, Chief Radioman Gay A. York and Aviation Machinist Mate First Class Ralph A. Green donned their gear and rushed to their awaiting seaplane, an RD-2 Adhara, V-111. After following a similar but shorter flight plan as Lieutenant Seeger, once overhead, they too faced the same harrowing conditions coupled with the additional pall of the darkness of night. Lieutenant Luke Christopher radioed to a small surfboat from the Assateague Beach Coast Guard Station on scene. Barrina had already been transferred to the surfboat and was awaiting the arrival of the second seaplane. Lieutenant Christopher scanned the region and radioed that he would land in the nearby inlet to conduct the surfboat to seaplane transfer of the patient. Despite the conditions, Lieutenant Christopher and his crew safely landed in the calmer though still treacherous waters of the inlet.
The surfboat raced alongside the seaplane and the stricken patient was gingerly transferred to the aft section of the seaplane and placed on a cot. With the transfer complete, Lieutenant Christopher thanked the surfboat crew’s assistance and slowly turned the nose of his seaplane into the wind. He informed his crew that they were going to alight. After the crew ensured that their patient was secured in the cot, they strapped into their own harnesses. With the two engines of the seaplane gaining speed, the seaplane bounced across the waves. Having attained the necessary speed, Lieutenant Christopher pulled back on the yoke and the seaplane lurched from the waters of the inlet. Within seconds though, something went terribly wrong. One of the aircraft’s pontoons had snagged an unseen fishing net. The heavily laden net held the seaplane in its clutches. The seaplane, weighted down by the errant net caused one of the seaplane’s wings to dip into the water. The Adhara immediately slammed into the cold and dark waters of Chincoteague Inlet.
To make the horrifying situation even worse, the Adhara had inverted in the crash. Chief Radioman York fumbled in the darkness of the fuselage. Blood flowed his head and into his eyes. He wiped away the blood so he could see. Equipment inside the seaplane had slammed through the fuselage and water flowed quickly into the seaplane. York searched for his fellow crew and the patient. He found Barrina and pulled him out of the sinking seaplane and onto the wing. He then returned to the badly damaged fuselage. His fellow crewman, Green was struggling to release his harness and was in the early stages of shock. York assisted Green from his seat and guided him through the hole in the fuselage to the safety of the wing. The two men shouted for help but heard nothing. York told Green to watch Barrina. He was returning to the cockpit to find Lieutenant Christopher.
Once inside, he worked his way into the cockpit. Lieutenant Christopher was badly hurt and partially submerged. York quickly released his harness and pulled him out of the seaplane. With the assistance of Green, the two men pulled their pilot to the wing. York and Green continued to yell out for help but none arrived. York jumped into the water to see if he could touch bottom. The water was too deep. His plan to try and wade ashore for help was thwarted. He climbed back aboard the wing with his comrades.
Meanwhile, a Coastguardsman aboard the surfboat informed his coxswain that he thought he heard shouting in the distant darkness. Immediately, the surfboat swung around and began their search. They had no idea in the darkness of the night that the Adhara had crashed. Within a few minutes, the surfboat’s search light lit up the wreckage of the seaplane bobbing dangerously in the water. The Coastguardsmen pulled alongside the sinking seaplane and transferred the men to their surfboat. The surfboat raced to their station at Assateague Beach.
Upon arrival at the station, the four men were provided first aid and then placed in ambulances for transfer to the United States Coast Guard Station at Ocean City and then onto the Peninsula General Hospital in Salisbury, Maryland. Despite the efforts of medical personnel at the station and in the ambulance, Lieutenant Luke Christopher passed away at thirty minutes past eight o’clock. Chief Radioman York and Aviation Machinist Mate Green were treated for their injuries and Barrina was operated on for his bout of appendicitis.
On December 5, 1937, the United States Coast Guard and the aviation community had lost one of its brightest and most daring pilots. On December 9th, funeral services for Lieutenant Christopher were held at his home in Cape May, New Jersey. After transit to Washington, D.C., Lieutenant Christopher was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery. United States Coast Guard Aviator #16 had been lost in the line of his sacred duty to save those imperiled on the seas. Lieutenant Luke Christopher was posthumously awarded the service’s Gold Lifesaving Medal for his “heroic daring in endeavoring to save a man from the perils of the sea.” The flight crew’s Chief Radioman, Gay A. York, also received the same medal for his heroic efforts in the rescue of the patient and his fellow crew.
As they did in Lieutenant Christopher’s time, the men and women of the United States Coast Guard’s aviation community remain ever vigilant and ready to alight into the heavens to ensure the rescue of those in need. Whether they race into action aboard a Lockheed HC-130 Hercules, a Sikorsky MH-60T Jayhawk, a C-37A Gulfstream, or an Airbus MH-65 Dolphin, the Coast Guard aviators stand ready as set forth by the service’s mantra of Semper Paratus. These daring and heroic men and women ensure that those who need saving will be saved and that is why the traditions set forth by Lieutenant Christopher and his crew aboard the Adhara on December 5, 1937 will never be forgotten as today’s aviators ensure the torch of responsibility shines brightly as they race to the rescue as this generations sentinels and saviors of the seas.