NOTES: Recalled April 7, 1994—some 49 years after the event.
Text [in brackets] inserted by Operations Officer Bill Knight.
Pages from Bill Knight's Pilot Log Book —JW.
On the morning of the 21st, we were assigned [by me as operations officer—Bill Knight] to participate in a training exercise with two other B-24s called “Frontal Penetration.” This is a procedure by which aircraft in tight formation disperse when confronted by a weather front, to avoid crashing into each other in the greatly-reduced visibility encountered in frontal weather formation. It was a relatively simple training exercise presenting no particular challenge to execute. I was the radar operator of the crew to which I was assigned. As there were no requirements for radar search and surveillance on this exercise, there were no duties for me to perform. So I stretched out on the deck of the radar equipment compartment located over the rear bomb bay of the aircraft and proceeded to snooze. The other members of the crew for this operation were
These personnel were located in the cockpit and on the flight deck. I do not have any idea of their relative positions and activity at the time of the crash. A total of 8 crew members were on this flight. We did not have a bombadier assigned at that time.
We proceeded to execute the assigned frontal penetration exercise a few times, but eventually, we became bored with this activity. As we were young and jubilant, a decision was made by all concerned to play follow-the-leader. In this activity, the three aircraft flew in trail formation. Our aircraft was the last one in the line. We proceeded to follow the manuevers of the lead aircraft. During one of these manuevers, I was awakened by the aircraft movement. I recall looking out through the tail turret from my position on the radar deck and I was somewhat alarmed and a bit frightened when I saw how very close we were to the surface of the water. I estimated that it was less then 50 feet. I remember saying to myself “I hope they knock this shit off!!” and then I snoozed again. The next event was a bump or thud which awakened me and a second or so later I lost consciousness.
The next event that I recall is that I found myself in the water, treading water. I was about 80 feet from the aircraft. It had broken up at the flight deck bomb bay bulkhead and at the bomb bay waist bulkhead. It was slowly sinking below the water. The first crew member whom I slowly became conscious of was Lt. Stanford, who was in the water about 30 feet from the aircraft and about the same distance from me. I swam toward him to assist him as his eyes were closed and his mouth was open and his head was pitched back as if trying to keep it above water. His face was bloody. I had not completed more then 20 strokes towards him when he went under the water, never to be seen again. I next recall looking around for other crew members. My gaze fell upon Cpl. Dick Tremper who was clinging to a seat cushion. His face was bloody and he was barely conscious. He was about 30 feet from the aircraft towards the front. The next crew member I gazed upon was S/Sgt. Ray Olsen. He had his May West inflated and appeared to be in the best shape of the three of us there in the water on the left side of the aircraft. The aircraft slowly sank below the water. There were no crew members on the other side of the aircraft in the water. I remember saying to myself at that time “Chuck, Sam, Carl and Ed did not clear the aircraft and have been carried down below the water with the aircraft!”
I dimly became aware of the sorry state of my own situation in that I was treading water swimming around surveying the scene and that I did not have anything to cling to. So I started scanning the water for something to support me so that I could rest. I saw the nose wheel with its strut floating in the water towards the front of the aircraft before it sunk. So I slowly made my way over to it and climbed on the strut with my feet and clung to the nose wheel and tried to rest for a bit. I was extremely dazed and almost in an unconscious state. I did not have any idea of the extent of my own injuries, most of which I later discovered were on the left side of my body from my head to my lower left leg. Fortunately, no major arteries nor veins had been cut, nor did I have any broken bones. I next recall seeing Dick Tremper floating on the seat cushion with his eyes closed and his normally thin face beginning to swell badly. He was about 50 feet from me at that time. So I slowly worked the nose wheel and strut over to him and slowly pulled him from the cushion onto the nose wheel with me. He was in an extremely weakened condition, so weak that he could not hold onto the nose wheel. I had to hold him on the nose wheel as he was prone to let it go. At that time I could not communicate with him as he was too weak and unconscious for the most part. His face continued to swell ever larger as the ribs had punctured his chest cavity and permitted the air in his lungs to leak out into the tissues of his body.
I recall looking at Ray Olsen in his May West and he appeared to be conscious and making the best of it. At that time I thought that of all of us there in the water he had the best chance of surviving the accident, as for some mistaken reason I felt that the May West assured survival. At no time did I make any effort to bring him over to the nose wheel nor did I swim over to him to check into his actual status. He did not request any assistance from me nor did he ask to join us. I had enough problems of my own to worry about. The May West radio that was used for emergency communications to permit location of downed airmen was floating in the water about 30 feet from us on the nose wheel. However, its significance was not apparent to me then in my dazed state. I made no effort to recover it and to tie it to the nose wheel. Now, this seems somewhat strange to me, as I was trained as a radioman and knew fully well how to use the radio and its significance, but there I just simply did not put it all together. I recall seeing the envelope which contained the signalling mirror and I recovered it in the hopes that the mirror was still in the envelope and that it would permit me to signal to any aircraft searching for us. But my expectations were disappointed as it was empty. The mirror had slipped out of the envelope and had sunk to the bottom. About this time—I really don't have any idea how much time had elapsed since the crash, it could have been as much as 30 minutes—a B-24 came flying by and we three in the water could see the man in the right waist window who was apparently scanning the area. We all raised our voices and shouted and waved our arms, even Dick recovered enough strength to participate in this activity. But the B-24 just flew by, not seeing either us or the debris from the crash floating in the water. We were terribly disappointed. A short while later another B-24 flew over and we waved and shouted, but it was a repeat of the first B-24 fly-by. They just simply could not see us or the debris from the crash in the water. Of course, we were bitterly disappointed again.
However, this second experience profoundly changed my attitude in that before the two fly-bys we had hoped to be rescued rapidly and that all we would have to do is wait to be seen. Our sole effort would be to signal to them as best we could. After the second fly-by, I gave up all hope on this scheme as we had tried it twice without success. I slowly convinced myself that if we were going to make it, we would have to do it on our own. By now, Dick had recovered from the shock of the crash, so that he could muster enough strength to hold onto the nose wheel most of the time. He suffered relapses of extreme weakness but then he would recover. This was most fortunate as I needed both hands and arms to move the nose wheel and strut supporting Dick and me through the water. I saw the peaks of an island § on the distant horizon which I estimated to be 5 miles distant. It could have been considerably greater or considerably less than that estimate, but I was resolved that we were going to make it to that island. From that position in the water my horizon line was less than 1.2 miles. If the peaks had an altitude of 3000 feet, then my horizon line would be 66 miles. Pointing the nose wheel towards the peaks I could see in the distance, I began to move the nose wheel with Dick and me toward the peaks by using my hands and arms in a breast-stroke fashion. Continuously I moved us towards the peaks throughout the remainder of the day, stopping only to pull Dick back onto the nose wheel when he suffered a relapse of extreme weakness and was unable to hold on. His appearance steadily deteriorated as the air swelled in his tissues. He no longer had a neck. The air had swelled his neck to the size of his head. He was in very bad shape, much worse than me. We saw sharks in the water nearby, but suddenly they were dispersed by a group of dolphins who stayed around the area for awhile and sequestered the sharks from the area. Of course, I was very happy to see them as we would have been defenseless against the sharks.
§ Isla San Cristóbal.
We did not see any more aircraft for the remainder of the daylight. As the sun set, I tried to position the location of the peaks relative to the stars so that I would have some way of guiding myself towards the island at night. About this time, we heard screams for help from Ray Olsen in the far distance. We could not see where they were originating from, but we could faintly hear them. This was the last time I had any sign of or from Ray Olsen. I continued pumping the nose wheel towards the last known sighting of the island using the stars as a guide to its direction from us. Slowly and dimly in the far distance, we could hear the surf pounding on the rocks. At that point I could use the sound of the surf to guide me to the island. I made the decision to leave Dick on the nose wheel and to swim to the island and try to get help. I told him to hold on. I removed my dungarees and shoes and swam towards the sound of the surf. I don't know how far I swam. To me it appeared to be a long time. I swam ten crawl strokes, ten backstrokes, ten breast strokes, floated to rest for a bit, then repeated this routine over and over again. The sound of the surf became ever louder until finally I reached the rocks of the seaside bluff against which the surf was pounding. Slowly I crawled up the rocks while being pounded by the surf. I reached the top of the bluff which to me at that time appeared to be awfully high. It took a good while to accomplish the transit from the surf to the top of the bluff. It was still dark when I reached the top of the bluff. I immediately passed out from extreme fatigue. I do not recall any other event that night.
The next thing I recall was awakening to the stinging bites of what appeared to me to be thousands of horse flies feeding on my body. The sun was up. It felt very good to be warmed by its rays, as the experience in the water all day and night had left me very, very cold. However, the flies were an unbearable nuisance. Their bites stung me into an alert state. For the first time since the accident I saw the cuts, gouges and lacerations in my left leg and left arm as I tried to chase the flies away. From their bites on the back of my left shoulder, I knew that I had an injury there too. Chasing them away from my head, I felt the cut on my scalp. I had to keep moving to keep the flies off. I struggled to my feet and began walking ten steps at a time then resting for a bit, while fighting off the flies continuously. I continued this procedure throughout the day, staying by the coast. I did not see any aircraft that day. I passed out on a rock that night from extreme exhaustion, thankful only that the flies did not bother me anymore. I had not seen any evidence of the debris from the crash along the shore that day.
The next morning, the flies were back and stung me into an alert state. I began to repeat the procedure of limping, stumbling 10 steps at a time, interspersed with rests of unknown duration. I stayed along the coast. Early that morning, I saw the nose wheel and strut on the beach of a small inlet, with Dick lying beside it half in and half out of the water. When I reached him, he was still breathing and barely conscious. His features now had been horribly deformed by the air in his tissues. He appeared to be an overblown balloon. Slowly and carefully, I pulled him from the water up onto the sand and to a shady spot afforded by the bluff in its relation to the sun at that time. I tried to make him as comfortable as I could, given the severe limitations of my own strength and the extremely fragile condition of Dick. I told him that I had not found any help yet, but that I had to continue seeking it and that if I found any food or water I would return with it to him before continuing. I left him there and proceeded to climb the rock to the top of the bluff and slowly make my way along the coast. I was extremely thirsty, not having drunk any water for a couple of days. So I descended into the water to wash my mouth out in the sea water. I did not swallow any of it. The water both cooled my body and kept the multitude of flies away from it for the period I remained in the water. I had just ascended from the water and was slowly making my way around the base of a black basaltic cliff at water's edge, when an O-47, a single-engine midwing aircraft used for observation, was observed flying low along the coast in my direction. [I did that! We had seen an oxygen bottle, so we knew we were at the right island.] My white body against the black basaltic cliff [naked on top of a rock] made it easy for the observer to spot me as the aircraft flew over. I waved to him frantically as this was the first aircraft we had seen since the fly-bys at the crash scene. The aircraft turned and made another pass at me, rolling its wings to let me know that they had seen me. What a tremendous sense of exhilaration and relief swept over me to know that they had seen me and that a rescue would happen soon and most of all that we had made it. We had survived the accident at incredibly slim odds that we would do so. The O-47 circled again and made another low pass and dropped a weighted message to me. It landed in the water. I proceeded to the water's edge and to enter the water. The aircraft made another circle and came at me very low over the water wagging its wings telling me to stay out of the water. I slowly climbed back up on the bluff. [Couldn't make radio contact with the base, so went back and got a C-47 with blankets, etc.]
The O-47 made another low pass and dropped another weighted message which I was able to recover easily as it fell on top of the bluff. The written message wanted to know how many other survivors there were, if any, and the direction in which they were located from me. On the next pass I held up one arm to indicate one survivor and pointed in the direction where Dick Tremper was located. [I made one more pass and Beebe folded his arms to indicate no other one near.] The aircraft disappeared and I did not see it again. A short while later a couple of the squadron airplanes flew by, circling the area briefly wagging their wings to let me know that they had seen me too. They then disappeared over the horizon. An hour or so later a crash boat came by the shore and picked me up in a dinghy and brought me on board. As I was extremely thirsty I asked for water and plenty of it. This they gave me very slowly. Oh that water tasted good! Later on, on the return trip they brought me a sandwich. The boat returned to Little Seymour where I was put in the care of Dr. Rodger Hackley who proceeded to treat the several wounds I had. It felt so good to be back with the outfit and above all to be alive! To have survived! To have not given up nor in!! To have my faith rewarded that we did make it. Thank God!!!