Coast Guard Aviation Tragedies


Eastwind's J2F-6 Crash©
December 15, 1945

By Ken Freeze

Reprinted By Permission

CGC Eastwind and the Greenland Patrol

Soon after the outbreak of World War II, the large icy island of Greenland became one of hottest strategic locations in the North Atlantic. Greenland was in the ideal location to be used by aircraft hop-scotching their way to Europe from North America, but it also held another important role.

Being able to predict the weather four or five days in advance became critical to the war efforts of both sides. The key to being able to predict the weather over Western Europe was having weather stations located on Greenland.

Control of Greenland and the waters surrounding it became vital to the war effort. So much so that President Franklin D. Roosevelt himself ordered the "Wind" class ships completed and rushed to the defense of the Danish army trying to defend Greenland against the Nazi invaders. In the autumn of 1944 the new ice-breakers, Coast Guard Gutters Eastwind and Southwind, joined the Greenland Patrol.


The Eastwind's J2F-6 on a scouting mission.

The "Wind"-class vessels represented the latest in icebreaker technology. They were relatively small, broad ships, with a length of 269 feet and a beam of 63 feet 6 inches. Their diesel power plants generated 12,000 horsepower which was ample to drive the hull through ice 3-feet thick. Besides a host of innovations on the new cutters, there was also room allotted for an amphibious aircraft and a pair of derricks to handle it.

Upon arrived in Boston, Captain Charles W. Thomas took command of the ship. He had orders to find and destroy the German weather stations on the East Coast of Greenland. 

Besides a good ship and a good crew, the key to accomplishing this mission would be the Grumman J2F-6 Duck which had been placed aboard before leaving the West Coast. While the pilot and air crew were to play a critical role in the Greenland campaign of 1944, it turned out to be perhaps their finest accomplishments. For just a little more then a year later, tragedy would take the lives of two.

Eastwind's Aircrew

Unlike the air detachments of today, where air crews and aircraft are attached to a cutter only for the period of a patrol, the Eastwind's JF2-6 and crew were permanently assigned to the Eastwind. The Eastwind's aircrew consisted of one officer and three crew. The pilot, Joseph T. McCormick, know to the crew as ‘Lil Mac’, had come aboard the ship an Ensign as part of the pre-commissioning detail, as did the other three airmen.

Captain Thomas wrote about McCormick in his book ICE is where you find it, published in 1951. "His daring and skill as a pilot more than made up for any lack of physical stature. McCormick did not possess normal nerves," Thomas wrote. "Like most Coast Guard aviators, he had a reputation as a foul-weather flyer---an attribute necessary to the peacetime operation of the service. It was said he needed only to extend his arm horizontally prior to take-off. If he could see his finger tips he gave the order to "let 'er roll!"

McCormick, was supported by Aviation Radioman 1st Class B. C. Robinson, Aviation Machinist Mate Edward Hedman and Aviation Machinist Mate Hultgren.


Photo courtesy Warren Bonner

Warren Bonner served as a MoMM3 from 1944 and was an acting Chief Petty Office aboard the Eastwind when he left the ship 1946, and knew the flight team well.

"Lil Mac was a fearless flyer," said Bonner. "The only problem he ever had with the plane was icing. One time the plane iced up so bad it didn’t look like he would make it back. He just barely cleared the beach to land in the water by a few feet. He was always able to bring it down safely."

"Robinson was a great guy, always helpful, always serious about the planes communications. He also filled in as aerial photographer when needed and was quite good," said Bonner.

December 1945 - The Last Flight

After their Greenland patrol in the fall of 1945, the Eastwind headed back for its homeport in Boston. It was to be there for 30 days to undergo repairs and resupply before heading back to the waters off Greenland. As the Eastwind was approaching the breakwater, just outside the inner harbor, the J2F-6 was readied to be launched. It was going to be flown to the Grumman maintenance facility in New York City.

"Before the plane was put over the side, the pilot would start up the engine and make sure all the systems were working fine. Then the plane would be shut down, hoisted over the side by the crane operator and then started up again," said Bonner. "The plane was in perfect condition or McCormick would never have signaled the crane operator to release him after being lowered to the water."

After the J2F-6 was released from the crane it taxied away with McCormick and Robinson aboard.


Photo courtesy Warren Bonner

"I was topside on main deck just forward of twin 5" gun mount, securing the cover plates on the fuel in/out take lines," said Bonner. "Lil' Mac and Robinson taxied away from the rear of ship about a 100 yards, did a 180 and made a run back toward the ship on the port side."

"Just as the plane was about 50 yards ahead of the ship and 50 to 75 feet in the air, the roaring engine exploded into a fireball," said Bonner. "I was so shocked I couldn't believe it. I practically fell to my to my knees with shock from seeing the explosion."

Bonner said that after the explosion the plane nosed into the ocean and disappeared in an instant. Nothing but small scraps of the plane were found and, as far as Bonner knows, the bodies were never recovered.

Bonner never heard if any cause for the explosion was ever determined. "I went on leave and when I returned we had a new captain and about half the crew was new. I never did find out what had happened," said Bonner.

It had been a bad year for the crew of the Eastwind. McCormick and Robinson had been the second and third crewmembers killed that year. EM1 R. J. Harley had been killed earlier by a freak accident during the patrol up north.

Harley, an electrician's mate in engine room #2, was swept overboard during an ice alert. All hands had been called to the main deck to muster. Each was given sledge hammers of wood to break the ice from the superstructure as the ship had become top heavy with ice. A big sheet of ice broke loose from boat deck above Harley, crashing behind him and forcing him over side into the frigid artic waters. 

 

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