Close Air —Part I

Cunningham Alfred 001Marine Corps Aviation began with a few good men that really did want to fly air machines. One of the first of these was a first lieutenant whose name was Alfred A. Cunningham. He was not only the first Marine Corps naval aviator, he was also a visionary able to develop the concept of an expeditionary air force. He had a keen interest in the way Italian aviators used their machines against the Ottoman Turks in 1911, and it was he that urged Major General Commandant William Biddle to establish a flying program for Marines. The timing was right, for General Biddle was under a great deal of pressure to expedite the Marine Corps’ transition to an advanced naval base defense mission. Biddle regarded Cunningham’s proposal as an opportunity to move this mission forward and recommended the creation of a Marine aviation capability. The Navy accepted this as a commitment to modernization and the Marine Corps has been flying tactical aircraft ever since.

When President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to declare war against Imperial Germany in April 1917, the Marines were ready with fifty pilots and mechanics of the Aviation Detachment of the Marine Advanced Base Force. The War Department was happy to accept Marine ground troops—eventually increasing to 10,000 in strength, but it was somewhat less enthusiastic about accepting Marine Corps land-based air squadrons to provide reconnaissance and artillery spotting. The Navy, however, did accept the Marine’s advanced based seaplane squadron for antisubmarine patrols in the Azores. Captain Cunningham commanded four bomber squadrons in 1918 —the 1st Marine Aviation Force— supporting the Allied naval bombing group in Northern France. At this time, the Marines were flying De Havilland DH-4 and DH-9 biplanes over German installations behind the lines.

DH-4Still, the General Board of the Navy had questions about Marine Corps aviation and it was up to Cunningham to flesh it all out. He testified in 1919, “The only excuse for aviation in any service is its usefulness in assisting the troops on the ground.” He envisioned an air arm capable of providing direct support to battlefield infantry operations. He saw expeditionary air squadrons that could deploy by ship and fly from primitive fields in support of ground units, or in support of advanced naval bases. Remember, however, the Marines were not a very large organization; if they were to develop air support doctrine, they would have to do this on the move. They did this during the so-called Banana Wars in the Caribbean and in Central America. It was a challenging period for the Marines —the only military service engaged in combat during the interwar years (1919-1941). The lessons learned by the Marines during this period would prove invaluable during World War II.

Marine Brigades returned to the United States from Nicaragua and Haiti in 1933, just as the Marine Corps underwent a significant change in its primary mission —from static defense of advanced naval bases to one more suitable for a “likely war” with Japan. (See also: Advanced Base Operations in Micronesia, Major Earl Hancock “Pete” Ellis, USMC, 23 July 1921.) The Navy and Marines had been developing their Amphibious Warfare doctrine since the 1920s, which conceptually involved the forcible seizure of strategic islands in a naval campaign across the Pacific. One cannot help but wonder how it was that Marine officers could see the threat developing in Japan, while no one else in our nation’s government could. Nevertheless, encouraged by the development and tactical performance of Marine Corps aviation in Nicaragua, the Marine Corps incorporated the air-ground team concept in a series of landmark doctrinal initiatives. The new Fleet Marine Force (FMF) brigades formed in 1933 at Quantico, Virginia and at San Diego, California, contained an air group and an infantry regiment. Essentially, this same organizational structure would rescue South Korea and the Eighth US Army from complete destruction in June 1950.

In 1933, however, reliable air-ground radios were almost nonexistent. In 1933, the Marines still had not determined which air frame best suited a Marine Corps mission. Should they adopt dive-bombers, fighters, or some new ground-attack variant? The question would be answered in time, once aviation planners developed a proper construct for the mission, which ultimately was what it had always been: close air support.

To be continued

The First Epistle of the Carrier Pilot

Naval Aviation 001

1. Verily I say unto all ye who wouldst fain operate the great bent wing bird from the tilting airdrome: for it doth require great technique, which cometh to no man naturally. Yea verily, it is acquired only by great diligence and perseverance, and great faith in the Father Almighty.

2. Hearken ye unto the Centurion: for he speaketh from vast wisdom and great knowledge. He hath experienced a vast number of cat shots and traps, and hence is a sadder and wiser man than thee.

3. Heed ye not those who speaketh of the romance and glamour of the high seas, be ye not swayed and when they extol the sting of the salt spray upon thy lips and the roll of a stout deck beneath thy feet and the exotic peoples of foreign lands.

4. Verily, it shall come to pass: that the salt spray windeth up in thy joe, and the roll of the stout deck wilt send thee to the fantail with a retching of thy belly.

5. He wouldst remove thee far from thy loved ones, and cast thee amonst the riff-raff of all nations: who shall then approach thee with an extended hand and open palm.

6. Turn thee a deaf ear unto all these things, for he speaketh as a man with a head full of missing buttons and his mouth quoteth from recruiting pamphlets.

7. Beware of the sadistic inhabitant in the land of Fly One, and regard him with exceeding wariness. For while he bringeth thee up to the spot, and his visage smileth confidently at thee, he concealeth a serpent in his breast, and plotteth all manner of evil against thee.

8. He smileth not for thee, but smirketh at thy youth and helplessness. He dines lustily upon the nugget and gloateth greatly at his power over thee. The manner of torment, which he inflicteth on thee, is great.

9. Heed ye his signals promptly, else he windeth thee up mightily and sendeth thee off whilst thou art still checking thy gauges or whilst the bow goeth down into the depths of a wave. For he is a man of great imagination and enjoyeth a jest mightily. His cunning knoweth no bounds.

10. Know ye well the officer called “landing signal,” and trust him not; for he is a doltish oaf and is poorly coordinated. Verily, whilst he also doth wear the wings of gold, he is a prodigal, and his judgments are untrue.

11. He has eyes with which to see, but they are weak; he distinguisheth day from night with exceeding difficulty.

12. Yea, he waveth off Angel Donald, saying, “Land ye not on a pass which is so long in the groove.

13. Make him thy friend. When ye doth engage in a game of chance, calleth not his two little pair with thy full house, for he prizes a winning hand above all things, and he will love thee.

14. Incite him not to anger, else he bringeth thee in low and slow, and spinneth thee into the spud locker.

15. Cursed be he who dost tarry long in the wires after his trap; he causeth his wingman to be waved off on a roger pass, and the next man to become long in the groove.

16. He fouleth up the pattern mightily, and given the Air Boss all manners of gastric disorders.

17. He is thrice damned, and all people, even unto the Yellow Shirts, shall revile him and use strong language in his behalf, for he is indeed a plumber and plague upon the Air Group.

18. Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s. As the two-finger turn-up is the signal to fly, so to is the cut the signal to land.

19. Therefore, I say unto you, holdeth yet not after the cut; for whosoever floateth into the barriers soweth great anguish in the breast of the Maintenance Officer and causeth a blue cloud to form at the bridge.

20. The wise pilot engageth a three wire smartly, but the fool shall dwell in the pattern forever.

21. Hell hath no fury like a Catapult Officer scorned. Therefore treat him with great kindness and speak ye unto him soft and tender tones.

22. Verily I say unto thee: whosoever shall arouseth the wrath of the Catapult Officer wilt soon receive a cold shot, and his next of kin shall know great anguish and sorrow

23. Hearken unto his teachings, and heed his signals with great diligence; for he is a man of great and unnatural cunning.

24. He windeth thee up mightily, and faileth to fire when thou art ready. He then shooteth thee off when thou art not, and into the mouth of the deep.

25. Beware ye of the Old Man, and regard him highly, for unto thee he is not unlike the Almighty. When he approacheth, linger ye not in Flight Deck Control, for he falleth like a whirlwind upon the idle and laucheth upon JO’s without compassion.

26. He regardeth the newly made major with raised eyebrow.

27. Ye shall remain out of his sight, and let him not know thee by name: for whosoever shall arouse the ire of the Old Man shall go many times to the Chaplain.

28. Give ye heed unto all these things for they are the bitter fruits of those who hath proceeded thee, so shall your words be as blessings unto those who shalt follow thee, and the Carrier Pilot shall live forever and ever.

Note: The foregoing was written by Captain Milton V. Seaman, USMC while serving aboard the USS Leyte (CV-32) while deployed to the Mediterranean Sea in 1949 with Marine Fighter Squadron (VMF) —223. It was dedicated to the squadron commander, Major Darrell D. (Slim) Irwin, USMC.

Source:

Major Paul Webb Chapman, USMC (Retired)

“Playboy 37”

Where Marines Go

I think it is absolutely true that most Marines “go home” after their service in the Corps, whether that is at the end of their first enlistment, or at some future intermediary period, or upon retirement.  By “home,” I mean the environment that is most familiar and comfortable to them.  This could mean back home with Mom and Dad, or it could be the hometown of the girl or guy they married.  For some Marines, home becomes the area nearest their last duty station before retirement.

Not all Marines go back home, though.  Some Marines never really had a home.  Rather than loving parents, they had a working mother who did the best she could for them; a woman who was relieved when their child finally found a place where they could excel.  For many Marines, the Corps became their family —their home became a spotlessly clean barrack at any number of Marine Corps posts or stations.

This has been true for a very long time —perhaps even for as long as we’ve had a United States Marine Corps.  Colonel John Thomason wrote about some of these people in his book, Fix Bayonets (after which I named this blog).  Thomason was born in Huntsville, Texas in 1893, joined the Marine Corps on 6 April 1917, and served until his death in March 1944 achieving the rank of lieutenant colonel.

China Marine MountedDuring World War I, Thomason served as the Executive Officer (second in command) of the 49th Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Marines.  He was awarded the Navy Cross for his sustained courage and leadership throughout America’s participation in the war.  Following the war, Thomason served in Cuba, Haiti, and Nicaragua, China and in California.  He commanded the Horse Marines at the American Legation in Peiping and later commanded the 38th Company, 4th Marines, the Marine Detachment aboard USS Rochester (CA-2), and the 2nd Battalion, 6th Marines.  Before the outbreak of war with Japan, Thomason was assigned to the Office of Naval Intelligence.  In 1942, he was assigned to Admiral Nimitz’ staff in Hawaii.

Thomason tells of one Marine, who he refers to as Sergeant Bridoon of the Horse Marines at the American legation in Peiping.  The sergeant was a fine leader of men who had become romantically attached to an American missionary woman.  As he was nearing retirement, the Marine Corps decided to return Sergeant Bridoon to the United States where he would be processed for separation.  The problem was that his fiancé, “Miss Jones” would not return to the States; she had important work to do in China.  Bridoon would not leave her, and so on the eve of his retirement, Sergeant Bridoon deserted.

Years later, while conducting a “survey” of the Far East —by which I mean spying on the Japanese during their unofficial Sino-Japanese War, Lieutenant Colonel Thomason made his way to Mongolia via Kalgan and Mukden where he joined an assortment of international journalists, which included a few Japanese reporters.  Finally the unseemly group arrived near the Khingan Mountains.  Thomason wrote of approaching a Japanese brigade:

“As we came down the last slope toward them, we saw cavalry and armored cars moving to the left of the main column —about two squadrons of mounted men and fifteen to twenty vehicles. …  They were tired.  I’d say they had marched all night, and possibly the day before, with not much rest or food.  Now they drew off the road, stacked arms, and lay down … but I noticed that each unit disposed itself in such cover as there was, taking full advantage of ditches and gullies and the thin mountain scrub; a very disciplined, orderly command.  At intervals there were machine guns laid for antiaircraft fire, and their crews were alert.  The equipment was good, and the whole look of them soldierly. “

Colonel Thomason then described how the Japanese brigadier prepared to serve lunch and tea to the unexpected journalists as the mixed brigade moved off to confront their enemy within the Mongolian valley.  It was now time for the Japanese troops to do their work, but Colonel Thomason and the journalists never had their lunch …

“The advance companies disappeared as if they had never been, and half a mile ahead of us, in the low road and in the dry stream bed, the closed battalions and the horse batteries were floundering and writhing in a confusion of tormented yellow dust.  One minute, they went in progression as orderly symbols on a map; the next, they were disintegrating.  The gun teams reared and plunged, and the rifle battalions tried to shake themselves out into combat groups, and the agitation around the guns was stilled, and the troop formations shredded away into shapeless crawling masses, from which detached units milled hopelessly —and you heard the frantic human cries, and the animal sounds men make in despair— all strained out fine by distance…”

“Peering over a shoulder of our ridge, I saw an armored car burning, and saw some running horses.  And there were revolver shots around me.  I suspect what they were for, but I do not know —the headquarters group was not there any more.  I remember an orderly carefully stowing teacups in a wicker basket, and I remember the brigadier drawing his samurai sword and plunging down the hill, two or three officers with him.  I never saw the Japanese journalists again, or the Chinese.  My Danish colleague was beside me, stretching his neck and sputtering, when something hit him; he sat down, folding his hands in front of his stomach, then stretched himself out on his back, dug at the ground with his heels, and died.

“I got myself behind the most substantial tree I could find and lay myself down…”

Colonel Thomason described how on the slope where once stood the field headquarters of a Japanese brigade there suddenly appeared strange looking men, some of them standing, others mounted on shaggy ponies —huge, inhuman looking people dressed in the round cloth caps of the Chinese armies, assorted patterns of steel helmets, fur caps, and a variety of uniform items.  But they all had weapons and they seemed to know how to use them, and as a Mongolian soldier took Thomason captive and began to search his person, he wondered if his bones would ever see the burial ground at Arlington.

In China - Thomason 002“…  A man on a woolly buckskin stallion reined in beside me and shouted at my captors and they stood away from me.  The mounted man and I stared at each other.  He was obviously an officer of some consequence.  He wore an American steel helmet, a Russian blouse, whipcord breeches, and soft black boots which must have belonged to a Japanese once.  Belted on him was one of our service automatics, and he carried in his right hand a very elegant Mongol riding-whip, the handle fashioned from an antelope’s foot, and the loop of braided silk.  He stared at me for some seconds, straightened himself in the saddle and saluted me with precision … I knew that leathery face under its larding of dust.  It was Bridoon, late sergeant of the Mounted Detachment of the Peiping Guard.”

Not every deserter becomes a general in the Chinese army, not every sergeant a tactical or a strategic genius.  I cannot even say that every sergeant is an outstanding leader of men.  What I can say, however, is that some extremely interesting personalities have worn the uniform of the United States Marine.  They may have been misfits “back home,” and they may not even have amounted to very much beyond our Corps … but we remember them fondly, and we pray for them dearly.  They were we …

Today, we continue to find our former comrades living in far off lands: Japan, on Okinawa, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, and in Vietnam.  Where do Marines go?  They go to places where they can discover their own niche in a complex, often unforgiving world.  Ultimately —and I have this on good authority— they will one day guard the streets of Heaven.

Three-mile fall

A true story, told by Cliff Judkins

Jud, you’re on fire, get out of there!

F-8 Crusader 001Needless to say that startling command got my attention. As you will read in this report, this was just the beginning of my problems! It had all started in the brilliant sunlight 20,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean as I nudged my F-8 Crusader jet into position behind the lumbering, deep-bellied refueling plane. After a moment of jockeying for position, I made the connection and matched my speed to that of the slowpoke tanker. I made the graceful task of plugging into the trailing fuel conduit so they could pump fuel into my tanks.

This in-flight refueling process was necessary, and routine, because the F-8 could not hold enough fuel to fly from California to Hawaii. This routine mission was labeled Trans-Pac, meaning Flying Airplanes across the Pacific. This had been going on for years. Soon, after plugging-in to the tanker, my fuel gauges stirred, showing that all was well. In my cockpit, I was relaxed and confident. As I was looking around, I was struck for an instant by the eeriness of the scene: here I was, attached, like an unwanted child, by an umbilicus to a gargantuan mother who was fleeing across the sky at 200 knots as though from some unnamed danger. Far below us was a broken layer of clouds that filtered the sun glare bouncing off the Pacific.

In my earphones, I heard Major Van Campen, our flight leader, chatting with Major D.K. Tooker who was on the deck of a Navy destroyer down below. The day before, Major Tooker had ejected from his aircraft, in this same area, when his Crusader mysteriously flamed out during refueling. At that time, no one knew why. We all supposed it had been some freak accident that sometimes happens with no explanation. One thing we knew for sure, it was not pilot error. This accident had to be some kind of mechanical malfunction, but what? Our squadron had a perfect safety record and we were very disturbed because of the loss of an F-8 Crusader the day before.

“Eleven minutes to mandatory disconnect point,” the tanker commander said. I checked my fuel gauges again, everything appeared normal. My thoughts were, in a few hours we’d all be having dinner at the Kaneohe Officers Club on Oahu, Hawaii. Then after a short rest, we’d continue our 6,000-mile trek to Atsugi, Japan, via Midway and Wake Island. Marine All Weather Fighter Squadron (VMF)(AW) 323 was being transferred to the Far East for a one-year period of operations.

“Nine minutes to a mandatory refueling disconnect.”

My fuel gauges indicated that the tanks were almost full. I noticed that my throttle lever was sticking a little. That was unusual, because the friction lock was holding it in place and was loose enough. But now grew tighter as I tried to manipulate it gently.

Then – thud! I heard the crack of an explosion. I could see the RPM gauge unwinding and the tailpipe temperature dropping. The aircraft had lost power; the F-8’s engine had quit. I punched the mike button: ” This is Jud. I’ve got a flameout!”

Unfortunately, my radio was already dead; I was neither sending nor receiving anything via my radio. I quickly disconnected from the tanker and nosed the Crusader over, into a shallow dive, to pick up some flying speed to help re-start the engine. That gave me a few seconds to think. I yanked the handle to extend the air-driven emergency generator, called the Ram Air Turbine (RAT), into the slipstream, hoping to get a spark of ignition for an air start. The spark igniters clicked gamely, and the RPM indicator started to climb slowly, as did the tailpipe temperature. This was a positive indication that a re-start was beginning.

For one tantalizing moment I thought everything would be all right. But the RPM indicator hung uncertainly at 30 percent of capacity and refused to go any faster. This is not nearly enough power to maintain flight. The fire warning light (pilots call it the panic light) blinked RED. Raw jet fuel poured over the canopy like water from a bucket. At the same instant, my dead radio came back on, powered by the emergency RAM generator. A great babble of voices burst into my earphones. 

” Jud, you’re on fire, get out of there!”

Fuel was pouring out of my aircraft from its tailpipe; its intake duct, from under the wings, and then the whole mess of fuel ignited behind the Crusader in an eye-popping trail of fire and smoke. The suddenness of the disaster nearly overwhelmed me. This can’t be happening to me! And various voices in my ears kept urging me to fire the ejection seat and abandon the aircraft.

I pressed my mike button and told the flight leader: “I’m getting out!”

I took my hands off the flight controls and reached above my head for the canvas curtain that would start the ejection sequence. I pulled it down hard over my face and waited for the tremendous kick in the pants to send me rocketing upward, free of the aircraft.

Nothing happened! The canopy, which was designed to jettison in the first part of the ejection sequence, did not move at all. It was still in place.

My surprise lasted only a second. Then, I reached down between my knees for the alternate ejection-firing handle, and gave it a vigorous pull. Again, nothing happened. Both, the primary, and the secondary ejection procedures had failed. Now I was trapped in the cockpit of the burning aircraft.

The plane was now in a steep 60-degree dive. For the first time, I felt panic softening the edges of my determination. I knew that I had to do something or I was going to die in this bad airplane. There was no way out of it. With great effort, I pulled my thoughts together and tried to focus on some solution.

I heard a voice in my earphones screaming: “Ditch the plane! Ditch it in the ocean!”

But that’s probable suicide. That lousy suggestion must have come from the tanker skipper or one of the destroyer commanders down below because every jet pilot knows you can’t ditch a jet aircraft and survive. The plane would hit the water at a very high a speed, flip over and sink like a stone. More typically it would explode on impact with an ocean swell.

I grabbed the control stick and leveled the aircraft. Then, I yanked the alternate ejection handle again in an attempt to fire the canopy to begin the ejection sequence. Nothing happened. That left me with only one imaginable way out, which was to jettison the canopy manually and try to jump from the aircraft without using the ejection seat. But was such a thing even survivable in a sophisticated fast-moving jet fighter?

I was not aware of any Crusader pilot who had ever used this World War II tactic to get out of a fast flying jet. I had been told that this procedure, of bailing out of a jet, was almost impossible. Yes, the pilot may get out of the airplane … but the massive 20-foot high tail section is almost certain to strike the pilot’s body and kill him before he falls free. My desperation was growing, and any scheme that offered a shred of success seemed better than riding that aircraft into the sea, which would surely be fatal.

With my hands, I disconnected the canopy and with a great whoosh it disappeared from over my head never to be seen again. Before trying to get out of my confined quarters, I trimmed the aircraft to fly in a kind of sidelong skid: nose high and with the tail swung around slightly to the right. Then I stood up in my seat and crossed both arms in front of my face.

I was sucked out harshly from the airplane. I cringed as I tumbled outside the bird, expecting the tail to cut me in half, but thank goodness that never happened! In an instant, I knew I was out of there and uninjured.

I waited —and waited— until my body, hurtling through space, with the 225 knots of momentum started to decelerate. I manually pulled the D-ring on my parachute and braced myself for the shock. I heard a loud pop above me, and I looked up to see the small pilot chute had deployed (to keep the pilot from flailing around until the main chute opens).

But, I also noticed a sight that made me shiver with disbelief and horror because the 24-foot main parachute was just flapping around in the breeze . . . tangled among its own shroud lines. I could see the white folds neatly arranged, feebly fluttering around in the free-fall’s relative wind. I shook the risers in an attempt to possibly balloon chute open the fouled parachute. It didn’t work.

With my hands and arms, I pulled the bundle down toward me then wrestled with the unsymmetrically twisted shrouds. It was an unforgiving mess … but I worked on it while trying not to think about free falling toward the ocean. I looked down hurriedly. There was still plenty of altitude remaining. I quickly developed a frustrating and sickening feeling. I wanted everything to halt while I collected my thoughts, but my fall appeared to accelerate.

I noticed a ring of turbulence in the ocean. It looked like a big stone had been thrown in the water. It had white froth at its center; I finally realized this is where my airplane had crashed into the Pacific. Would I be next to smack into the water now … coming up … Fast?

Again, I shook the parachute risers and shroud lines, but the relative wind was holding my chute embraced in a bundle. I had done all I could reasonably do to open the chute and it was not going to open. I was just along for a brutal ride that may kill or severely injure me.

I descended rapidly through the low clouds. Now there was only clear sky between the ocean and me. This may be my last view of the living. I have no recollection of positioning myself properly or even bracing for the impact. In fact, I don’t remember hitting the water at all. At one instant I was falling very fast toward the ocean, then, the next thing I remember is hearing a shrill, high-pitched whistle that hurt my ears.

Suddenly, I was very cold. In that eerie half-world of consciousness, I thought, am I alive? I finally decided [but not all at once] “Yes, I THINK I am . . . I’M ALIVE!”

The water helped clear my senses. But as I struggled around in the water I began coughing and retching. The Mae West around my waist had inflated. I concluded that the shrill whistling sound that I had heard was the gas leaving the CO2 cylinders and filling the life vest.

A sense of urgency gripped me, as though there were some task I ought to be performing. Then it dawned on me what it was. The parachute was tugging at me from under the water. Finally, it had billowed out (much too late) like some Portuguese man-of-war. I tried reaching down for my hunting knife located in the knee pocket of my flight suit. I had to cut the shroud lines of the chute before it might have pulled head under water for good. This is when I first discovered that I was injured severely.

The pain was excruciating. Was my back broken? I tried to arch it slightly and felt the pain again. I tried moving my feet, but that too was impossible. My feet were immobile and I could feel my feet’s bones … grating against each other.

There was no chance of getting that hunting knife. But I had another, smaller one in the upper torso of my flight suit. With difficulty, I extracted it and began slashing feebly at the spaghetti-like shroud line mess surrounding me. Once free of the parachute, I began a tentative search for the survival pack. It contained a one-man life raft, some canned water, food, fishing gear, and dye markers. The dye markers colored the water around the pilot to aid the rescue team in finding a down airman. All of this survival equipment should have been strapped to my hips. It was not there. On contact with the water, the equipment had been mightily physically ripped off my body.

“How long will this Mae West preserver hold me up? ” I wondered.

In any case, I knew I needed a hand: fast. The salt water that I had swallowed felt like an enormous rock in the pit of my gut. But worst of all, I was completely on my own, 600 miles from shore, lolling in the deep troughs and crests of the Pacific Ocean, and my Crusader aircraft, upon which I’d lavished such affectionate attention, was sinking thousands of feet to the bottom of the ocean.

At that moment, I was struck by the incredible series of coincidences that had just befallen me. I knew that my misfortune and survival had been a one-in-a-million occurrence. In review, I noted that the explosion aloft should not have happened. The ejection mechanism should have worked. The parachute should have opened. None of these incidents should have happened. I had just experienced three major catastrophes in one flight. My squadron had a perfect safety record. Why was all of this happening?

In about ten minutes I heard the drone of a propeller-driven plane. The pot-bellied, four-engine tanker came into view, flying very low. They dropped several green dye markers near me, and some smoke flares a short distance from my position. They circled over-head and dropped an inflated life raft about 50 yards from me. I was so pleased and tried to swim toward the raft. When I took two strokes, I all most blacked out due to the intense pain in my body.

The tanker circled again and dropped another raft closer to me, but there was no way for me to get to it, or in it, in my condition. The water seemed to be getting colder, and a chill gripped me.

I looked at my watch —but the so-called unbreakable crystal was shattered and the hands torn away. I tried to relax and surrender to the Pacific Ocean swells. I could almost have enjoyed being buoyed up to the crest of one swell and gently sliding into the trough of the next, but I was in excruciating pain. I remembered the words W.C. Fields had chosen for his epitaph: ” On the whole, I’d rather be in Philadelphia.”

In about an hour, a Coast Guard amphibian plane flew over and circled me as though deciding whether or not to land. But the seas were high and I knew he couldn’t make it. He came in very low and dropped another raft; this one had a 200-foot lanyard attached to it. The end of the lanyard landed barely ten feet from me. I paddled gently backward using only my arms. I caught hold of it and pulled the raft to me. Even before trying, I knew I couldn’t crawl into the raft due to my physical condition. I was able to get a good grip on its side and hold on, and this gave me a little security.

The Coast Guard amphibian gained altitude and flew off. (I learned later that he headed for a squadron of mine- sweepers that was returning to the United States from a tour of the Western Pacific. He was unable to tune to their radio frequency for communications, but this ingenious pilot lowered a wire from his aircraft and dragged it across the bow of the minesweeper, the USS Embattle. The minesweeper captain understood the plea, and veered off at top speed in my direction).

I was fully conscious during the two and a half hours it took the ship to reach me. I spotted the minesweeper while teetering at the crest of a wave. Soon, its great bow was pushing in toward me and I could see sailors in orange life jackets crowding its lifelines.

A bearded man in a black rubber suit jumped into the water and swam to me. “Are you hurt?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said, “my legs and back.”

I was now very cold and worried about the growing numbness in my legs. Perhaps the imminence of rescue made me light-headed, for I only vaguely remember being hoisted aboard the ship. I was laid out on the ship’s deck as they cut away my flight suit.

“Don’t touch my legs! DON’T TOUCH MY LEGS!” I screamed.

I don’t remember it. Somebody gave me a shot of morphine and this erased part of my extreme pain. An hour or so later a man was bending over me and asking questions. It was a doctor who had been high-lined over from the USS Los Angeles, a cruiser that had been operating in the area).

He said, “You have a long scar on your abdomen. How did it get there?”

I told him about a serious auto accident I’d had four years earlier in Texas, and that my spleen had been removed at that time. He grunted, and asked more questions while he continued examining me. Then he said, “You and I are going to take a little trip over to the USS Los Angeles; its steaming alongside.”

Somehow they got me into a wire stretcher, and hauled me, dangling and dipping, across the watery interval between the Embattle and the cruiser. In the Los Angeles’s sickbay, they gave me another shot of morphine, thank God, and started thrusting all sorts of hoses into my body. I could tell from all the activity, and from the intense, hushed voices, that they were very worried about my condition. My body temperature was down to 94 degrees; my intestines and kidneys were in shock.

The doctors never left my side during the night. They took my blood pressure every 15 minutes. I was unable to sleep. Finally, I threw-up about a quart or more of seawater. After this my nausea was relieved a bit.

By listening to the medical team, who was working on me, I was able to piece together the nature of my injuries. This is what I heard them saying. My left ankle was broken in five places. My right ankle was broken in three places. A tendon in my left foot was cut. My right pelvis was fractured. My number 7 vertebra was fractured. My left lung had partially collapsed. There were many cuts and bruises all over my face and body, and, my intestines and kidneys had been shaken into complete inactivity.

The next morning Dr. Valentine Rhodes told me that the Los Angeles was steaming at flank speed to a rendezvous with a helicopter 100 miles from Long Beach, California. At 3:30 that afternoon, I was hoisted into the belly of a Marine helicopter from the USS Los Angeles’s fantail, and we whirred off to a hospital ship, the USS Haven, docked in Long Beach, CA.

Once aboard the Haven, doctors came at me from all sides with more needles, tubes, and X-ray machines. Their reaction to my condition was so much more optimistic than I had expected. I finally broke down and let go a few tears of relief, exhaustion, and thanks to all hands, and to God.

Within a few months I was “all systems go” again. My ankles were put back in place with the help of steel pins. The partially collapsed left lung re-inflated and my kidneys and intestines were working again without the need for prodding.

VMFA 323 001The Marine Corps discovered that the cause of my flameout [and that of Major Tooker, the previous day] was the failure of an automatic cut-off switch in the refueling system. The aircraft’s main fuel tank was made of heavy reinforced rubber. When the cut-off switch failed, this allowed the tank to overfill and it burst like a balloon. This then caused the fire and flameout.

We will never know why the ejection seat failed to work since it is in the bottom of the ocean. The parachute failure is a mystery also. Like they say, “Some days you are the dog and others you are the fire-plug.”

Do I feel lucky? That word doesn’t even begin to describe my feelings. To survive a 15,000-foot fall with an unopened chute is a fair enough feat. My mind keeps running back to something Dr. Rhodes told me in the sickbay of the Los Angeles during those grim and desperate hours. He said that if I had had a spleen, it almost certainly would have ruptured when I hit the water, and I would have bled to death. Of the 25 pilots in our fighter squadron, I am the only one without a spleen.

It gives me something to think about. Maybe it does you as well.

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Mustang’s note: I originally encountered this story in a Reader’s Digest about 30 years ago. I shuttered to think of falling three miles into the Pacific Ocean. I thought then, and I think now … Cliff Judkins’ survival is nothing short of a miracle. Now one might argue that his survival was just pure luck. But for me, Judkins didn’t simply survive a mind-boggling fall —he survived other calamities, each of which should have killed him. Do I believe in God? I most assuredly do.