Pensacola - The Center of Naval Training
During World War II, Pensacola Naval Air Station saw thousands of U.S. Navy pilots and aircrew trained. Along with them were also British, Canadian, New Zealanders, Aussies, a few French and oh yes, U.S. Coast Guardsman.
Just as U.S. Naval aviation had exploded in size at the start of the war, so had Coast Guard aviation. Training all the Coast Guard’s men needed to fly coastal patrols and rescue missions was an important mission, as much as any other mission of the war.
|Coast Guard Motor Machinist’s Mate Chief (MoMMC) Dana W. Heckart, had been assigned to NAS Pensacola to become a pilot and to learn how to handle the PBYs which the Coast Guard had just started to receive in mass. Although the first PBY was received in March 1941, it wasn’t until late in 1942 that the service started to receive large numbers of PBY-5As. Eventually the Coast Guard would have 120 PBY-5A/6A’s to call its own.|
With so many men in training, the air around Pensacola, Florida was a buzz with aircraft night and day, rain or shine. So it wasn’t an unusual sight to see a PBY-5 being loaded with aircrew on Thursday morning, July 1, 1943, even through the skies were overcast and threatening, it was just another patrol with another group of trainees onboard.
Robert H. Ovink was a AMM2c at the time and one of the regular crewman responsible for keeping the PBY-5 #04447 maintained for flights. "It had just come out of overhaul and was in great shape," Ovink said.
Ovink and fellow crewman AM3c William E. Mutch had gotten the PBY ready for that day’s flight and would also be going along as part of the crew. "Just about all the people on board that day were trainees learning to handle the PBY," Ovink said. "My job was to be in the back of the plane when it landed to throw out the sea anchor."
As the PBY took off from NAS Pensacola that morning, onboard was an almost all Navy crew of pilot Ltjg John W. Nichols, Lt. Norman Bennett, Ens. Francis R. Young, AMM3c Van C. Hardin, AM3c William E. Muten, AMM2c Robert H. Ovink, ASM3c Albert W. Smith, and ARM3c Ralph E. Stuckey. The only non-Navy crewmen aboard was MoMMC Dana W. Heckart of the Coast Guard.
|Ovink didn’t know most of the people on board the flight that day, in fact he had thought all these years that Heckart was Canadian. "It seemed odd to me that on a hot day with everyone else in T-shirts, here’s Heckart in full uniform wearing a leather flight jacket," Ovink said. |
The flight that day was an anti-submarine patrol out into the Gulf of Mexico. "That was why we were carrying depth charges," says Ovink.
Pilot Makes a Bad Choice
By the time the PBY returned from the patrol, a weather front was passing through the area. "Heckart was sitting up in the co-pilots seat as the plane was attempting to land," Ovink remembers. "The tower had told the pilot to circle and wait but he said he could land it."
"As we were getting ready to land, I went to the rear of the PBY to get ready to throw out the sea anchor," said Ovink. "All of a sudden we hit the water and bounced about 50-feet back into the air. Then we came back down only to bounce again, but this time only about 30-feet into the air. All this time I'm dodging a machine gun, fire extinguishers and a bunch of other stuff that was flying through the air in the back of the plane. The third time we hit the water, the plane nosed in and broke in two right at the wing tower."
Ovink said that the rest of the plane remained upside down but afloat, however the nose sank immediately. He and AM3c Mutch only received minor injuries and helped the others get into a life raft. "I walked through the aircraft a couple of times to make sure everyone had gotten out. I knew that there was one person missing, but he wasn’t in the section that was still afloat."
Nichols, Bennett, Young and Stuckey had all been seriously injured. Receiving only minors injuries besides Ovink and Mutch were Hardin and Smith. However, Heckart was no where to be found.
A patrol boat came over to help them out. "We wanted to get away from the plane in case it sank or dropped one of its depth charges," said Ovink "The depth charges were set to go off at 32-feet and the bay was 36-foot deep." In fact , Ovink said that the next morning the depth charges did go off. "The whole base heard them," he said.
|The next day the Mary Ann boat (actually a floating crane) brought what remained of the PBY back into the air station. "By that time the plane had drifted out of the bay into the ocean and was quite a ways out to sea," Ovink said. He added, "As far as I know they never did find the front end of the plane." |
After the war, Heckart was listed as 'Missing in Action or Buried at Sea' on the 'Tablets of the Missing' at East Coast World War II Memorial in New York City.
Cause of the Crash
The accident investigation board found the pilot, LTJG Nichols, was at fault for the accident. Their report stated, "The accident might have been averted had the pilot waited for the storm to pass or flown along the shore to a clear area. A downwind landing in a 25 knot wind in a rainstorm with poor visibility is at the least very hazardous."