Air And Sea Rescue

Photograph of PBY Catalina

Combat operations in the Pacific often left survivors of wrecked aircraft or sunken ships stranded deep in enemy territory or far out to sea. Rescue of these survivors helped maintain manpower levels and boosted morale.

Survivors at sea who could not be reached by surface vessels could sometimes be reached by flying boats or seaplanes. Airmen shot down over jungle had poor prospects of survival unless they could reach a coastline from which they could signal for help and be rescued. Nor were the prospects good for airmen shot down over Japanese territory; many were summarily executed. One airman, Oliver Rasmussen, evaded capture on Hokkaido for ten weeks, turning himself in only after the Japanese had broadcast their surrender.

A sizable fraction of operational losses of carrier aircraft occurred during the hazardous operations of landing or taking off from the carrier. It was therefore customary for a carrier to have a lifeguard destroyer stationed some distance astern to rescue aircrew whose aircraft went into the water during these operations.

The crew of an aircraft in trouble over water could either bail out, relying on their parachutes to get them safely to the surface, or attempt to ditch in the water. The likelihood of successfully ditching was strongly dependent on aircraft type; B-17s were particularly good at surviving a ditching at sea, while B-24s were very vulnerable to breaking up and sinking before the crew could escape. B-29s came somewhere in between. Air Force fighter aircraft were notoriously poor at surviving a ditching attempt, with only a single P-51 successfully ditching during the entire course of the war. Fighter pilots thus almost always took to their parachutes. It is perhaps unsurprising that Navy pilots had a significantly better survival record when ditching large aircraft than did Army pilots.

Survival once the aircraft was down depended on suitable equipment and proper training in its use. Proposals to add watertight compartments or flotation equipment to aircraft were not acted on. Instead, the Army Air Forces sought improved life rafts to replace the hodgepodge of unsatisfactory one- or two-man rafts with which it began the war. The Type A-3 raft, a five-man rubberized fabric life raft, was standardized in 1943, and later improved as the Type A-3A. About 150,000 of these 36 lb (16 kg) rafts were produced. The Navy used a similar design, and also designed the one-man AN-R-2A, which was built into the parachute harness and which was also supplied to the AAF. The AAF criticized this design as difficult to inflate and board, and in May 1944 adopted its own C-2 life raft for fighter pilots. By 1945 the AAF had developed a large life boat suitable for air drop.

Life rafts invariable included a variety of survival gear, as described by the Army Air Forces official history:

In 1942 the one-man AN-R-2A raft's equipment was simple: repair kit, bailing bucket, two paddles, concertina pump, two bullet-hole plugs, sea anchor, can of drinking water, seat pad, and two hand paddles. No food was included. In 1944 distress-signal flares, a sponge, signaling mirror, and desalting kit were added. Standard multi-place raft accessories included also fishing tackle, first-aid kits, and a packet of religious booklets. Devices used to attract the attention of rescue searchers comprised signal mirrors, sea-marker dyes, colored smoke, and, where possible, a Gibson Girl radio.

The radio was a small transmitter that was powered by a hand crank, which also generated an automatic SOS signal. The antenna was taken aloft either by a kite or a hydrogen balloon. The radio got its name from its hourglass shape, designed to let the user hold the radio firmly between his knees while turning the crank. Gibson Girl radios first saw operational use in July 1942, but were not in universal use for another year.

The most vital item of survival equipment proved to be the water supply. In the absence of drinking water, life expectancy was measured in days, and under very hot conditions, a man could die of dehydration in less than 48 hours. Under temperate conditions, the minimum daily water requirement is about six pints (three liters) per day, but in the hot climate of the South Pacific, the requirement could easily double. Solar stills weighing a few pounds (kg) apiece and producing up to two pints (one liter) per day were available, but procurement difficulties meant that few reached the combat zones before the war ended. However, by September 1944, desalinization kits were in use that used chemical precipitation of salt from seawater. The process was inefficient and the product foul-tasting, but it removed enough salt from the water to make it drinkable, and the desalinization chemicals were much lighter than the supply of drinking water they replaced.

The rafts provided with B-29s carried a Very pistol with a limited supply of flare cartridges. These were effective for signaling air-sea rescue aircraft at night, but only if the user knew to fire the flare at right angles to the aircraft to produce a highly visible trail of smoke. Untrained users tended to fire the flare directly at the rescue aircraft, which presented only a tiny red dot to the aircrew.

Both the Army and Navy used the Navy Type B-4 kapok life preserver. This was filled with the water-displacing kapok fiber and so retained its buoyancy even if damaged. However, the AAF complained that the B-4 had insufficient buoyancy to support an airman in full flight suit, and it was replaced with the inflatable rubberized fabric B-5 in 1944.

In the United States, prior to war, responsibility for air rescue lay with the Army when an aircraft went down over land and with the Navy when an aircraft went down at sea. In the Pacific, the U.S. Air Force relied on Navy and allied rescue services until 25 August 1943, when the Emergency Rescue Branch was activated. Organization of the first Air Force air-sea rescue squadrons followed. A Navy proposal to give principal responsibility for all air-sea rescue to the Coast Guard was rejected in favor of a liaison committee headed by the Commandant of the Coast Guard.

A combined services air-sea rescue school was opened at Keesler Field, Mississippi, in the spring of 1944, which trained four squadrons and sixty replacement crews by the time it was disbanded on 22 April 1945.

Valuable as air-sea rescue was, it was always chancy. Of the 1310 Army airmen who were known to have gone down at sea during the strategic bombing campaign against Japan, 654 were rescued. By the end of the war, some 2400 men, 14 submarines, 21 flying boats, 9 super-dumbos, and five ships were available for air-sea rescue off Japan.

Coast watchers. Coast watchers formed an important part of the air-sea rescue network during the Solomons campaign. The most famous example was the rescue of the survivors of PT-109, including future President John F. Kennedy. More significant at the time was the rescue of 165 survivors of Helena. Though most of her crew were rescued by escorting destroyers, fear of air attack caused these to withdraw before all the survivors could be located and taken aboard. The survivors drifted ashore on Vella Lavella and the sailors were hidden in the jungle by coast watcher Henry Josselyn. Turner eventually mounted a major operation to rescue the men, who were picked up by two APDs escorted by eight destroyers. Coast watchers rescued an estimated 120 Allied airmen during the first year of the Solomons campaign.

"Dumbo." PBY Catalinas were equipped for air-sea rescue and were known as "Dumbos," after the Disney cartoon character. Each "Dumbo" carried a doctor and pharmacist's mate. Formal operations began in January 1943 and by 15 August 1943 at least 161 aircrew had been rescued by these aircraft. By the end of the year, three or four "Dumbos" took off with each large air strike to follow the aircraft to their targets and orbit some distance away to rescue any downed airmen. "Dumbo" missions were often very hazardous, taking place close to enemy airspace, but did much to improve aircrew morale. The "Dumbos" came to be heavily escorted and fiercely defended by grateful fighter pilots.

During the strategic bombing campaign against Japan, a number of B-29s were fitted out to drop motorboats to downed crews in the ocean. These "super-dumbos" were assigned in groups of up to eight to escort the largest strikes, and circled some 50 to 100 miles (80 to 160 km) off Japan until called for.

U.S. Air Force air-sea rescue squadrons. Although authorized in August 1943, these squadrons were only slowly activated, with just two operating by the summer of 1944. Another was operational by the end of 1944, but the remainder were not activated until the war was almost over. The squadrons were equipped with PBY Catalinas, with a small number of L-5s for liaison and multi-engine trainers (usually AT-7 or AT-11) as utility aircraft. 4 Emergency Rescue Squadron was also equipped with eight specially modified B-17Gs carrying lifeboats.

Lifeguard Submarines. During the air strikes preceding the Gilberts invasions, the Pacific Fleet experimented with deploying submarines near target atolls to rescue downed aviators. This proved so successful (a number of aviators being rescued and the morale of the aviator corps being greatly boosted) that the deployment of lifeguard submarines became a standard feature of carrier strike planning for the remainder of the war. Some 504 aircrew were rescued by lifeguard submarines before the war ended.


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