Commander Mastake Okumiya. a combat hardened Japanese Navy fighter pilot, praised US Navy aviators for their skill and daring shown during their rescue efforts in World War Two.  Okumiya is quoted as saying:

After every mission, the Americans sent out flying boats to the areas in which their planes had fought, searching for and rescuing crews surviving aboard life rafts. Although their duties were extremely hazardous, the crews of these flying boats performed their missions gallantly and there arose few occasions during the war when groups of men so consistently exposed themselves to multiple dangers. Our pilots regarded them as (being) unusually courageous.

Flying their big, black Consolidated PBY-5 Catalinas, crews showed the same determination, successfully completing each assigned mission, whether it was to rescue one man, a flight crew or survivors of a mortally wounded ship.

These rescue missions, which frequently entailed circling or landing in an area under attack were better known as Dumbo flights. This name, appropriate for the big-winged Catalinas so successful in rescue work, was taken from the 1941 Disney animated film of that name. Such flights were given the code name Gardenia.

During WWII, rescues took on various degrees of heroics. In 1941, while flying anti-submarine patrols from Iceland, CAP (enlisted Chief Pilot rating) Joe Higbee volunteered to fly a critically ill young girl, Halla Gudmundsdoffair, from Patrekafiord to Reykiavik.

The flight, necessary to save the child's life, was made at the height of a severe storm. Ragnar Ragnarson, who was researching American wartime aviation activity in Iceland, found a man who had witnessed Higbee's takeoff on the storm-ridden sea. He said, "The plane was taking a terrible beating in the heavy seas. It's unbelievable for it to survive."

In the South Pacific theater of operations, a dangerous rescue mission required the rescuers to also be rescued. On 25 April 1944, Lt. Dick Haase of Patrol-Bombing Squadron Thirty three (VPB-33) eased his PBY-5 off the water at 0700 hours. In a climbing turn to 1000 feet, he swung to a heading for the Caroline Islands northeast of New Guinea. His reconnaissance track would take the crew to within 75 miles of the Japanese-held Truk Islands.

He had been alerted, during the pre-flight briefing, to be on the lookout for the crew of an Army B-24 Liberator shot down over Truk a few days earlier. About 1030 hours, the port blister lookout reported seeing something in the water. Haase began a slow circular decent to check the contact. It was the missing bomber crew.

With swells running six to eight feet high, a conference was held concerning the advisability of attempting a rescue. The unanimous decision was "go". The base was, as customary, contacted for permission to make the attempt. It was granted. Turning into the wind, flares were dropped to get a better read on wind direction and speed to aid in the landing attempt. Several passes were made to get the feel of conditions. Although things were not favorable, concern for fellow airmen prevailed. The landing approach was begun.

Haase began easing back on the throttles until the plane was "hanging on the props" (airspeed reduced to just above the aircraft's stall speed). When he reached the spot he wanted, Haase chopped the throttles. The flying boat impacted the water, skipped once, then came down in a slight starboard wing-down attitude. For the moment, all seemed to be fine as Haase slowly taxied toward the raft.

Cutting the port engine, he positioned the plane alongside the raft. The crew quickly began helping the downed airmen into the PBY. While this was taking place, John Mcintyre, the plane captain, notified Haase that the plane's hull had been split on the starboard side under the tower (the wing support and flight station for the plane captain who monitored the PBY's engine performance gauges).

With the bedraggled Army crew on board, the engines were started. During engine run-up for a magneto check. the starboard engine failed to deliver the desired RPMs. Despite the engine's shortcoming, takeoff was attempted with mattresses held over the hull's rupture by the crew. With the starboard engine failing to deliver enough power, Haase was unable to get the PBY airborne.

The big plane bounced two or three times, apparently causing further damage to the hull. With water pouring into the plane, the crew quickly launched life rafts. Radioman Steve Sikora tried to send SOS calls but with water covering his transmitters he feared they were not being received.

Haase and Sikora, the last to abandon PBY BuNo 08513, clambered onto the plane's wing. It was then they discovered Mcintyre had apparently been thrown out of the plane. Sikora spotted him in the water and dove into the swells to rescue the struggling Mcintyre who had suffered a fracture of his right leg just below the knee.

Lt. Busker, a VPB-34 pilot who had been flying an adjacent "recon" track and monitoring Haase's radio messages, flew into the area. When he saw the crew abandoning 08513, he landed and picked up Haase's crew and the B-24 crew. Then with Haase in the copilot seat, the two made a successful takeoff. Once airborne, Haase relinquished his seat to Busker's regular copilot and went aft to look after Mcintyre. Busker headed his Black Cat for his seaplane tender.

Two months later, a small detachment of VPB-33 crews was stationed on Woendi, a tiny island off the northern coast of New Guinea, to fly Dumbo flights. Just at dusk, on the 14th of July, a message was received from the Army that a B-25 Mitchell had been shot down eight miles from Halmahara Island, which lies just north of the equator some 450 miles from Woendi.

Lt.(jg) George Favorite and Crew Three drew the assignment. By the time all was in readiness, darkness had fallen. In the total darkness of Woendi's harbor, the big PBY roared over the water and took to the air. Favorite's only chart of the Halmahara area was an old National Geographic map.

Thirty minutes into the flight the radar malfunctioned and radio messages became too garbled to be decoded. Despite these problems, the flight continued until stormy weather was encountered. Making the correct decision, Favorite turned the Catalina for home. At 2330 hours, Favorite made a skillful, hazardous night landing and taxied to the beach for repairs.

The next morning, with the weather clear and sunny, the mission was again undertaken. The Army crew, Favorite was told, had ditched eight miles from a Japanese airfield. He was also informed that Army fighters would rendezvous with him to ensure safety for the rescue.

At the reported location, no sign of the downed crew was seen, so a standard expanding search was begun. The half-inflated raft was spotted after 35 minutes search time. The flying boat settled gently onto the swells and the Army men helped aboard. The rescued men were: Captain J. C. Wise, 2nd Lt. F.W. Watkins, 1st Lt. P. Wright, S/Sgt. P. Manes, S/Sgt P.C. Price, and S/Sgt. H.J. Salerno. When the men were safely aboard, the big Catalina lifted off. Their protective escort of fighters finally rendezvoused with the Catalina after it was well on its way home.

On 20 October 1944, MacArthur's forces began the invasion of the Philippines. The principal target was Leyte. The actual push began when the Sixth Ranger Division overran the nearby islands of Suluan, Dinagat and Homonhon near the entrance of Leyte Gulf.   Three days of heavy air, land and sea combat took place as Allied forces made the landing on Leyte. The Japanese lost a fleet carrier, three light carriers, three battleships, six heavy and four light cruisers as well as eleven destroyers. The US Navy lost a light carrier, two escort carriers, two destroyers and a destroyer escort.

Three days after the Leyte invasion began, Black Cats of VPB-33 began operations from Leyte Gulf. On 26 October, a search mission to scour the seas off Samar Island, some 35 miles east of Leyte, was ordered. Admiral Kurita's support fleet had arrived but, after a fierce battle, hastily withdrew. Lt.(jg) George Favorite and his crew drew the mission to search for survivors.

Favorite's copilots were Ensigns Milt Metzler and Tom Gregory. The flight crew members were J.B. Hawk, G. Sheihamer, T. McNelly, P. Diez, P.L. Koster and G. DeLong. They were about to participate in one of the most unique rescues of WWII.

Shortly after beginning their search pattern, a man was spotted adrift in the extremely rough, wreckage-strewn sea. The heavy seas caused the plane to lose sight of the man when his raft dropped into troughs between the waves. A safe landing was impossible. Flying low, the crew dropped a raft with emergency equipment, then watched as it was recovered.

Shortly before spotting the raft, the PBY crew had seen the victorious Seventh Fleet steaming to the southeast some 50 miles from the raft's location. Favorite headed for the fleet.

The consensus of the crew was to try and have a ship of the fleet return to rescue the drifting man. They also knew near-miracles were needed to accomplish the mission. Gregory handled the navigation, plotting wind speed and direction given him by Metzler, who was monitoring wave spume length and direction. When a wave breaks, the spume trails back into the wind. With experience, pilots learn to "read" waves for wind direction and speed with a great deal of accuracy. This skill is valuable in dead reckoning navigation over the open water where there are no visual aids.

Thirty minutes after leaving the drifting survivor, the fleet was spotted dead ahead. With radio silence in effect, the Aldis lamp (used for silent signaling) was broken out but found to be inoperative. With no signaling equipment available, someone had a bright idea as the Black Cat neared the fleet.

Koester, Diez and DeLong, in a desperate attempt to get a message to the last destroyer in the battle line, stood in one of the blisters and made "hitchhiking" gestures as Favorite flew by the destroyer at masthead height. After three passes. the plane crew cheered as the destroyer swung out of line and turned in the direction the Black Cat headed.

As the destroyer followed, the Catalina circled several times to stay within sight. The plane crew noticed that the destroyer was steaming at full "battle station" alert with every gun station manned.

The crew's worry became the problem of finding the man still adrift in his tiny rubber raft. They had flown over 50 miles in uncertain weather to find the fleet; navigation had been made more difficult by circling the destroyer; the odds against easily spotting the raft were extremely great.

Gregory and Metzler again worked together in plotting the return course. As they drew near the spot where they hoped the survivor would be, a shout went up as they spotted the tossing raft dead ahead. Navigation had been perfect.

The Black Cat circled the man until the destroyer arrived and his recovery was completed. Favorite, with his crew waving, buzzed the cheering men on the destroyer before continuing their assigned mission.

During the Philippine invasion, there were frequent confrontations between Allied naval vessels and enemy shore batteries. One such confrontation, reported on 4 December 1944, took place at Ormoc Bay on the west coast of Leyte. A US destroyer apparently hit a floating mine. It broke in half and sank in minutes, flinging crewmen into a debris-laden ocean.

Early in the morning after the battle, two VP-34 crews penetrated a weather front and landed in cluttered Ormoc Bay to rescue as many survivors as possible. The apprehensive crews set to work immediately. There was no interference, however, from shore installations.

Lt.(jg) Joe Ball and his crew snatched two officers, one the skipper of the destroyer, and 54 men from the water. Ball lifted his PBY-5 off the water with a total of 63 men, including his crew, aboard his flying boat.

Lt.(jg) Mel Essary, the pilot of the second Black Cat, and his crew hauled in 43 men and three officers for a total of 53 persons aboard his flying boat when it lifted off. Of 102 men rescued by the two VP-34 crews, eleven of them were seriously injured.

On 25 December, Lt.(jg) Jack Thurman of VPB-33 was in the "ready" tent, his crew preparing PBY 08449 for Dumbo duty. An emergency call came in for an immediate air-sea rescue. Thurman, whose plane was ready, took the call and a stand-by crew was called for the Dumbo assignment to cover a Lockheed PV-1 Ventura strike.

The downed airman, Flight Leader Vanderpump, of the Royal New Zealand Air Force, was easily spotted about a mile offshore at Atalikllkun Bay where he had ditched. An onshore breeze was drifting him toward the Japanese-held island. Thurman landed on the easy rolling swells and taxied to within 50 yards of the New Zealander. Cutting his port engine, he eased up to the raft and the crew helped Vanderpump aboard. Just as Vanderpump climbed aboard, two rounds from a shore battery splashed down some 50 yards beyond the PBY.

It was a Japanese error.

Vanderpump's squadron mates had been circling over his raft. When they saw the shell splashes, they roared down in their F4Us with guns blazing and plowed up a quarter mile of beach. Thurman got the PBY into the air as quickly as possible and departed.

The same day, Lt.(jg) Jack Jones rescued another RNZAF pilot, Squadron Leader Kiles who had been shot down 25 miles from Kavieng, New Ireland. Jones had been flying for several hours before the rescue. When he landed at Emiru Island, he had less that 50 gallons of fuel remaining.

These two rescues provided a special thrill to the participants. Each took place on Christmas Day, 1944.

Steve Sikora. ARM 1/c (Aviation Radioman. first class) who saved John Mcintyre's life during Haase's rescue effort, was involved in a second 1944 air-sea rescue.

Lt.(jg) Minter Aidridge and Lief Johnson were flying Army and Navy personnel from the Admiralty islands to the Philippines. The weather was overcast, but a break in cloud cover occurred and a drifting raft was spotted in the Philippine Sea. With a calm sea, the rescue of four Army airmen aboard the raft was safely completed.

A New York newspaper carried this short item:

'Ever been disappointed? So were four Army airmen adrift on a life raft for 17 days and 20 hours. In that time 30 aircraft and two convoys were sighted but every effort made to contact their attention failed. Then a Navy Catalina, aboard which was Steven Sikora, picked them up.'

1st Lt. R. Wright, one of the B-25 airmen, rescued by Favorite and his crew, was so grateful he assured them that he would name his first child "Gardenia" to commemorate the rescue. In 1985, in Captain R. Knott's book, Black Cat Raiders of WWII, he saw a photograph of his rescue, credited to Favorite.

Wright then contacted the Navy for Favorite's address and wrote him. Later, Wright and Favorite were able to meet. Wright explained to Favorite that he hadn't kept his promise to name his first born Gardenia;  it had been a boy.

On 26 May 1944. Lieutenant Floyd Reck and his crew were scheduled for a Gardenia mission. Shortly after they reached their assigned area they spotted a raft rising and falling on the slow rolling swells. There was no problem in landing and retrieving two downed B-25 airmen, one a pilot, the other a young sergeant gunner.

After the war, Reck remained in the Navy and attended aeronautical engineering school. After a three-year tour of duty in Trinidad, Reck was assigned to Transport Squadron VP-6 flying routes over the north Atlantic. In March 1950, because of fog, a flight was grounded at Argentia. The crew was relaxing in the bar when a group of Coast Guard officers entered. One of the officers, a young Ensign, stared at Reck for several seconds, then walked over and asked if Reck had ever flown PBYs in the south Pacific.

When Reck acknowledged that he had done so, the Ensign extended his hand and said, 'Sir, you plucked me out of the water off Wewak (on the north side of New Guinea) in 1944.'  The Ensign was the young sergeant of the downed B-25. After his discharge, he had received an appointment to the United States Coast Guard Academy.

From: CO Eleventh Fighter Squadron
To: FLAIR WING 4, Memorandum No. 5-46. 7/~ 19'42


By Jacob W. Dixon, 1st Lieut. Air Corps

I don't have much use for the Navy being an Army man.

But I must take off my hat to some pilots of this sea-faring clan.

These boys didn't give a damn for the weather and Jap lead meant even less.

I've seen 'em fly through storms aplenty, their planes a riddled mess.

I'll always remember the way they informed us of Jap positions at~a.

And they told us almost to the minute the time the attack would be.

Then - when we went on the offensive and flew with no land in sight.

We knew that in the clouds above us, a rescue plane watched the flight.

They even patrolled where we were fighting to save us if we fell

They hid in the clouds from the 'Zeros' and the ack ack could go to hell

So here's to those boys of the Navy a bunch of damn good guys

And especially to those great pilots who flew the PBYs


This story appeared in Air Classics magazine.

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