DITCH AND RESCUE

By Wayne Hokom

 

The author recalls the October 16, 1956 Ditch and Rescue of Pan American Flight 943 -- 43 years later.

PRESS HERE for the Official Report of the incident. This report is courtesy of Doak Walker's 255 web site.

CGC PONCHARTRAIN

In October of 1956 I was a seaman on the Coast Guard Cutter Pontchartrain. I had graduated from college in 1955 and was fulfilling my commitment to the Coast Guard Reserve to spend two years of active duty.

I was assigned to the Pontchartrain in November of 1955 and this was one of a number of patrols I had made to Ocean Station November, Western Pacific Ocean, midway between the West Coast of the United States and Hawaii. The Pontchartrain's homeport was Long Beach, California.

I was a Radarman striker assigned to CIC. Chief Bob Southern was my "Boss". His was one of the few names I can remember. Others were a Sonarman named Brock, Quartermaster First Class Kapalulu, a Hawaiian, and of late through the internet and a telephone phone inquiry, Doak Walker, a Radioman. Officers I remember include an ENS Abrahams and LTJG Frost.

Our principal job on patrol was to monitor "winds aloft" and we had civilian weathermen aboard to perform that function. CIC tracked the weather balloons they launched.

Our secondary assignment was to assist aircraft as they traveled to the mainland or Hawaii. We would give them a "fix" on our position and track them on radar. The active time for this activity was during the midwatch, midnight to 0400 hrs.

The Captain of the Pontchartrain was Commander Earle, making his first patrol. The prior skipper was a stickler for training and the crew’s readiness can be directly attributed to him. Captain Earle was a nice guy and a good skipper, he later commanded the Eagle, but he was lucky to have a crew that was ready for the emergency that occur on the 16th.

When the Pan Am Clipper, a Boeing Stratocruiser, indicated a "May Day" situation, my assignment was to control other aircraft in the area. I was required to keep them away from the general area. Not an easy task as it turned out. They wanted to watch the ditch and I suppose take pictures and then race them to the mainland.

The aircraft called in around midnight and landed at daybreak. Seas were perfect. The tail broke off the plane as expected. I can remember rushing to the bridge to see the plane as we approached and after seeing the wreckage thinking no one had survived. I believe I reported this to a circling aircraft. All 31 on board survived with just a few cuts and bruises.

I remembered that I brought a camera on the patrol for the first time. Cameras in those days did not set themselves automatically. Mine was a Kodak Retina.

Those of us that did have cameras were allowed on the bridge to take pictures immediately after the ditch. Mine came out fine We sold our photos to the highest bidder when we arrive in San Francisco with the survivors. I sold two of them to Collier's Magazine. The CG put a stop to that practice after this event. I believe they established a duty photographer on each ship.

During the wait for the plane to ditch, a LTJG gave me settings for my camera. He forgot he had infra red film is his camera. His did not come out.

The story of the ditch was well documented in the December 1956 issue of Collier's and in many news stories. The popular TV program, Robert Montgomery Presents, dramatized the ditch, and the movie, "High and the Mighty" was loosely based on the event. I have seen the event documented on television on a program called "Rescue". It was shown on a cable station. I attempted to buy the tape but it was very expensive and I decided not to.

I believe there was a Navy Carrier that was trying to get in on the action but could not get there in time. They wanted to take the survivors to San Francisco but the Commandant wouldn’t hear of it. I understand that at the time the Coast Guard was appearing in front of Congress for appropriations and the success of the rescue played a large role in the Commandant getting what he wanted.

Our welcome in San Francisco was terrific. Fire boats, streamers, National TV etc. etc. We all were given advancement in rank. I can remember getting my third class stripe sewn on at a Navy store on the Embarcadero.

The writer that Collier's sent with us back to Long Beach to document the event was Cornelius Ryan, who later wrote, "The Longest Day" and other great books.

PanAm was very gracious. They gave every crewman on the "Ponch" a fifth of fine whiskey. I remember getting Ballantine's Scotch and getting the bottles of the crew members that were to young to drink and could not take their ashore.

Months later I was able to sell my photos to a German Magazine. I was able to make a few thousand dollars from the pictures. Not bad in those days. I believe I bought a "hi-fi" with the money.

 

Not long after the rescue I was transferred to Point Loma Lighthouse. In all I spent 17 months on "the Ponch" and 7 at Point Loma. I have Fond memories of both.

 

Jack's Comment -- For almost all of the years that I can remember, on weather patrols we conducted a ditch and rescue drill. This was one we could do well but the Navy people couldn't. One year on one of the cutters I was on, the Gitmo Fleet Training Group people were asked to evaluate a ditch and rescue drill for us. They started to change the procedures in the middle of the drill and it turned out to be a fiasco. All we managed to do was expend three times as much protein foam as we used in a normal evolution. As far as I know that request was never made of the FTG again.

The need for aircraft ditching at sea was reduced considerably when turbo prop and turbo jet engines replaced piston engines. The former were and are so much more reliable.

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