by Donald Bradford
I was leading a unit of six boats across the North Sea, bound for the coastline of Holland. We were expecting to meet a large Southbound enemy convoy in which was a big supply ship that had been fitted out for the blockade running to Japan. Our orders were to sweep the convoy route until we found it, or dawn broke. If it was sighted we were to sink it al costs.
As always when an important sortie had to be laid on the weather was unpromising. The wind was blowing hard and the sea had a nasty chop to it that foretold of a wickedly uncomfortable night. Still, there was no rain which was a blessing and although the clouds were low they were white and feathery, scurrying hurriedly toward the East and showing intermittent patches of blue sky.
With the sea dead astern, we were charging along at about 20 knots, in “line ahead,” with an occasional boat “taking charge” as a comber lifted under it’s stern and shot it ahead as it rode the crest of the wave, temporarily out of control. Consternation and panic was caused on the bridge at the seemingly inevitable collision with the ship ahead, until just in time the wave shot by and repeated the trick on each boat in succession up the line. We had just approached Brown Ridge, our half way point across the North Sea, when I heard the faint noise of airplane engines and hurriedly signaled for all boats to reduce speed to six knots so that the line of our creamy high speed wakes on the water would not attract the attention of a possible German spotting plane.
As the noise became louder and louder, I could hear an uneven beat and sputtering as if the engines were unhappy and liable to break down at any moment.
All eyes were aloft, trying to spot the aircraft. From the sound, it appeared to be circling above the cloud layer right over our heads. Then we saw it — nosing down toward the sea about half a mile away to starboard with fire licking one wing. It was a Flying Fortress. The pilot was obviously going to make a crash landing in the sea. As we watched spellbound, I saw the first of the dark specks plummet from the fuselage as the crew commenced to bail out.
The sight of the floating parachutes broke the spell that was holding me as I followed the plane along it’s graceful glide to destruction. Grabbing the R/T microphone, I broke my rule, “no transmissions except in sight of the enemy,” as I passed out the order for the boats to scatter and rescue.
I charged my boat towards a cluster of three parachutes which were rapidly drifting away to the Eastward. As we gathered speed, I saw them drop into the water, one after the other. Through my glasses, I could see that two were in serious difficulties and unable to cast off their parachutes. The wind was blowing them across the water like a couple of ten meter class yachts with spinnakers set.
There was only one way to get them — drive eastward at top speed and having passed them, to lie “beam on” in their path and let the wind blow them against our hull. This we did and soon a couple of very waterlogged airmen were gasping and retching on out deck. Now to find the third in the bunch. Without the white of his parachute to guide us and in the fading light, it was a hard and urgent task. The tumbling sea did not promise long life for the best of swimmers — even with a “May West” around his body.
As we quartered around, reports of success or failure began to come in from my other boats. Quickly totting up the score, I realized that this missing man was the only man (out of eight chutes we saw) not accounted for.
After a quarter hour of fruitless searching, I was becoming desperate. Time was short and out operational orders were concise and clear — we had to be in a certain spot by a definite time — come what may.
It looked as if the unfortunate Yank — if still alive would have to be abandoned. As a last measure, I moved about half a mile to the east and fired a red Very light into the air. It worked. Faint on the wind we heard a shout and knew that he was somewhere upwind of us. Steaming slowly into the west, we fired a succession of “lights” and guided by his shouts, we soon picked out a dark head occasionally showing in the water.
A couple of my ratings, Emerson, the ginger-headed pom-pom gunner of Grosverner House, and Wilson, a radar operator and machine gunner, were over the side in a jiffy and between them, with the aid of a length of rope, enabled us to haul the three parts drowned and completely exhausted man on board.
I reformed my unit and, going up to full speed to make up for the lost time, set a course for the starting position for our sweep along the Dutch coastline.
After my Coxswain and Bill, the First Lieutenant, had worked on the three survivors for awhile, getting the salt water out their congested lungs and finishing up with roll of blankets and the traditional Naval medicine — a tot of rum — they were fairly comfortable. Not all the boats could report such happy results. Three of the other five died, two from injuries and one after artificial respiration had been tried for nearly three hours.
I questioned one officer named Don, who had been the bombardier, and discovered that their plane had been on an excretes flight over the North Sea and had been jumped by a couple of German fighters. The crew were all new and fresh from the States and it had been their first taste of sharp and sudden death. I was very astonished to discover that none of them had seen the boats until we actually maneuvered alongside to pick them up. I had somewhat naturally assumed the Captain of the aircraft had seen us as he came out of the clouds and decided to bail out there and then — rather than struggle nearer to the English coast.
The remainder of the trip was uneventful. The weather lived up to our expectations and the fury of the wind and sea as they clawed and pounded us on the homeward crawl the following morning is something that lives in my memory yet.
We berthed at Yarmouth in the early hours of the afternoon, wet, cold, sodden and dispirited — a glum crowd. As I had sent a signal to Base during our plod home, reporting the American survivors on board, there were a couple of small ambulances and a staff car waiting to pick them up and whisk them off to their airfield somewhere in Norfolk.
They were a tough and friendly bunch and had practically recovered from their enforced bath by the time we berthed. As we all had a drink in my small, wet cabin before the left, one of them turned to me and said, “Say Captain, I guess you fellows need that rum that they hand out in the Navy of yours to keep you from longing for that comfortable spacious bench in the park to sleep on.”
It was an apt, concise summing up of the crowed uncomfortable conditions under which we lived.