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Lethal Rescue Mission
December 5, 1936
By Ken Freeze, PACS, USCG (ret)

The SS Charles G. Black, a combined oil/ore carrier was plying the waters off the East Coast when one of its crew, Seaman John Barrina, took ill with appendicitis. With no other options available, the captain had little choice but to put in a radio call for help to the Coast Guard.

 

As the ship headed for the sheltered waters at the southern end of Assateague Island, a boat crew from the Assateague Beach Coast Guard Station got underway to meet the tanker. The crew would remove the seamen to their surfbaot for transfer to a Coast Guard amphibious plane which was being dispatched.

Soon, the Spica (V-125), a Douglas RD-4 Dolphin from the Coast Guard Air Station at Floyd Bennett Field, outside New York, was overhead. Piloted by Lieutenant Loren H. Seeger the craft circled before making its landing for a rendezvous with the small boat, which was now carrying Barrina. As the Spica touched the water, one of its pontoons was damaged. Although disaster was averted and the crew was unhurt, the Spica was damaged severely enough to prevent it from taking off again.

Unable to now transport the seaman to needed care; Lt. Seeger radioed for another plane to be sent. Soon, the Adhara (V-111), Douglas RD-2 Dolphin was airborne from Cape May enroute to pickup the seaman. Onboard the craft were its pilot Lieutenant Luke Christopher, Chief Radioman Gay A. York, and Aviation Machinist's Mate Ralph A. Green.

 

Lt. Christopher was well know in the aviation community and had been stationed at Cape May since 1931. His aviation career had begun in 1915 as an U.S. Army pilot. In 1930 he joined the Coast Guard and quickly because familiar with flying search and rescue up and down the east coast.

It was just after 6 pm and night was falling when the Adhara reached the area. Since the Spicaís landing, it had become almost dark yet, Christopher was able to put the Adhara down without incident.

After landing on the harborís waters, the surfboat went along side of the Adhara and the transfer of Barrina was made. As Christopher powered up the engines for take off, the surfboat headed back to the ship. With engines roaring, the Adhara started its take off run.

A Crash in the Dark

In the darkness, the surfboat crew hadnít seen the Adhara fly away, but as far as they knew, everything had been alright with the plane and its takeoff. However, unseen to them, the plane had crash during take-off

 

Now onboard the Adhara, the crew was in a life or death struggle to survive. The aircraft had not only been badly damaged in the crash, but it had overturned and was beginning to sink. York had been seriously injured and besides fighting through the darkness, he was further impaired by blood running into his eyes from a cut. A large hole had been made in the hull of the craft by radio equipment being thrown about in the crash. York entered the hole and found Barrina who had sustained only minor injuries in the crash. He got Barrina to the relative safety of a wing that was extending out of the water, then turned and reentered the Adhara..


Click on map for close-up of area

Just then York encountered one of the other crew members trying to get out, yet still strapped into his seat. He released the safety harness and guided the crewman out through the hole. It wasnít until he had helped the man to the wing that he realized it was Greene.

York headed back though the hole one more time, this time in search of Christopher. Feeling around in the water and the darkness, he was able to find Christopher partially submerged in the wrecked pilotís seat. He was able to release his harness and pull his out of the hull of the Adhara. Then, with the assistance of Green, York pushed Christopher up on to the wing. Then he crawled up on the wing himself.

In the darkness of night, York and Green called out for help, but they heard no answer to their calls.

York decided that if help was not forthcoming, heíd try to make it to shore to get help. York dropped off the wing and into the water to see if he could touch bottom. If he could, his plan then would be to wade to shore. However, the waters were too deep. He could not touch bottom and his plan was forted.

 

Help Arrives

As the surfboat neared the ship they heard shouts coming from the waters behind them. The surfboat turned around and began searching in the darkness for the source of the calls for help. In an interview with retired Captain Loren Seeger, what the crew of the surfboat didnít realize at this time was that in the darkness the Adhara had crashed. "One of the floats of the Adhara had caught on a fishing net in the harbor," said Seeger.  "The net pulled the wing down into the water and causing the plane to flip over."

As York was headed back to his place on the wing, a light from the Assateague Coast Guard Stationís surfboat shone on the wreckage and the boat proceeded alongside.

The surfboat took the four aboard and hurried them to the station. According to newspaper accounts of the time, once at the station the four were given first aid and then placed into an awaiting auto to be rushed the Ocean City Coast Guard station and then on to the Peninsula General Hospital in Salisbury. On the way to Ocean City, Christopher succumbed to his injuries.

According to Seeger, he was pretty sure that Christorpher died either in the crash or shortly after reaching the Coast Guard Station.

Once at the hospital York and Green were treated for shock, concussions, cuts and bruises. Barrina, uninjured from the crash, was operated on for appendicitis and eventually recovered completely.

The Adhara was a total loss and sank to the bottom of Assateague Harbor. The Spica, which had been pulled up on the beach at the Coast Guard Station, had temporary repairs made to its pontoon, and it was then flown back to the Cape May Air Station where permanent repairs were made.

 


Paying Their Last Respects

On Tuesday, four days after the crash, funeral services were held for Christopher at his home in Cape May.

After the service, his body was taken to Washington D.C. for burial at Arlington National Cemetery the next day.

The list of pallbearers at Christopherís buriel read like a Whoís Who of Coast Guard aviation. Captain J.H Chalker, chief of the Coast Guardís aviation bureau, Commander Norman Hall, Commander C.C. vonPaulson, who at the time was commanding officer of Coast Guard Air Station Miami, and Lieutenant R. L. Burke, commanding officer of Air Station Cape May. Also attending as pallbearers were Quartermaster General of the Marine Corps General H.C. Reisinger and Chief Justice of the U.S. Court of Claims, Judge Fenton W. Booth.


Epilog 

Near the scene of the crash, most of Assateague Island is preserved today as a national seashore. The Coast Guard Station, after many years of service, was decommissioned in January 1967. 

The SS Charles G. Black was sold by Standard Oil Co. of New Jersey in 1940 and renamed the Venore. It was torpedoed and lost on January 24, 1942 off of Cape Hatteras at Diamond Shoals.

Lieutenant Loren H. Seeger went on to command VP-6 in Greenland during during WWII and later, as a Captain, was Commanding Officer of Air Station San Diego. He retired after 26 years of service in 1961 and now lives in San Diego.

History didnít record what happened to John Barrina after he left the hospital. He isnít listed in any death records and no one by that name is currently listed anywhere in the U.S.

Gold Lifesaving medals were awarded to Lieutenant Luke Christopher (posthumously) and to Chief Radioman Gay York in recognition of their services performed while attempting to save a life.

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