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August 17, 2012

WWII Aircrew Rescue Service, Pacific Theater of Operations
By Lee Jernigan
In early 1945 World War II was beginning to wind down in the European Theater, however still a deadly enterprise in the Pacific area of operations. Air crew was bombing targets in the Japanese held regions of China, Formosa, and the mainland of Japan. Often bomber crews had to ditch in the ocean due to damage aircraft, and rescuing the downed air-crewmen was almost impossible. Many bombers carried small inflatable boats, for crashing into the sea made for dicey procedures for getting into them. Amphibian aircraft, called flying boats were often prevented from landing at crash sites in the China Sea because the very large ocean waves that threatened to tear the wings off of those rescue aircraft. Submarines were of help, but spotting small life rafts from them could be impossible.

This prompted the war department to develop a very igneous method of rescuing more of the ocean ditched aircrews. The 6th Emergency Rescue Squadron was developed and put into operation. The reliable B-17 bomber, with newly developed radar, was especially fitted to carry life boats to be dropped to downed aircrews. The life boats developed by the Higgins Boat Company were 27 feet long and weighed 3,500 pounds. The boats were attached by cables secured onto the bomb shackles, and thus positioned on the belly of the B-17. Built out of laminated plywood and honeycombed with compartments those boats were almost indestructible. They were propelled by two gasoline engines, and a sail, and carried rations for many men for several days. They were ingeniously fitted with rocket propelled lines so airmen could pull themselves to the boat and get on board.

When the B-17 crews received signals, or orders, regarding ditching, or about to ditch aircraft into the ocean, a search ensued, the aircraft, and/or crewmen were located. The rescue plane descended to about 500 feet, and dropped the boat. Three 48 foot parachutes lowered the boat to the ocean and as close as possible to the air-crewmen. Instructions from the B-17 navigator were put into the boat before release, and they gave the downed men steering vectors. Submarines were then dispatched to intercept the boats, transfer the air-crewmen into the sub, and take them to a convenient port.

These emergency aircraft were based at several Pacific area locations, and continually moved to more northerly bases as territory was taken back from the Japanese. There were several bases in the Philippine Islands, and lastly le Shima near Okinawa. Several units were later deployed in the Korean conflict. Many airmen were saved by way of this very special 6th Emergency Rescue Squad. Yours truly, the writer of this article served as an engineer and aerial gunner on one of those aircraft, and flew 23 missions before the war ended.

Stu’s Notes: I’ve been trying to get some of Lee’s story for quite a while. He is a busy man and a Hero of America, but don’t tell him I said that because I hope to get more stories. As we talked I learned how involved he was in the Oroville School system. He started teaching in 1950 at Bird Street School. Some of my readers will remember that school down on Bird Street. It stood on the site of the lawn that is next to the new school. Lee put up with kids for 38 years, that deserves some kind of medal. He was Principal at Bird Street quite a while. He was there in 1967 when they had the 100 year centennial, if my math is right. Bird Street school will be 150 years old in about 5 years. Lee was at Central school and was Principal at Stanford School for 14 years and after he retired he became a substitute principal there. He still is very involved in the Retired Teacher Association. Lee was there when we had our 1975 big earthquake. I guess that spelled the end of the Old School, Oroville lost a lot after that quake that I think could have been saved. Like our Oroville High School, I heard it was built so well it was hard to knock down. I asked Lee if he new Mr. Finley, Principal at Thermalito School in the 50’s and he said yes. Well, Mr. Finley would sing the Strawberry Roan at Assemblies, well Lee sang the whole song to me, how about that Rex. Lee said their B-17 was named The One Meat Ball after a popular WWII Song of that name. Seems that when you ordered spaghetti back then you only got one meat ball.

Many events coming up in September. Saturday, September 1, 2012, from 12:00-9:00pm will be a big fund raiser for our Veterans Memorial Park, that is being headed by Kris-Tina Kelley. There will be Live Music at Centennial Plaza, located at Huntoon & Arlin Rhine Memorial Drive, Food and Beer Garden, Raffle, Vintage Military Car Show, Classic Car Show, Motorcycle Scavenger Hunt, Free entries to all Veterans and Service members with ID. Must be 21 to Enter. A $10 donation.

On Friday September 21st will be the POW/MIA ceremony on the step’s of the Veterans Memorial Hall on Montgomery St. at 7PM. On Saturday, September 22nd there will be a Motorcycle Poker Run sponsored by the Feather Falls Casino & Lodge. For more information contact James Townsend at www.pjtownsend @att.net or call (530)589-5748