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The Last Flight of Charles T. Thrun
Coast Guard Aviator No. 3

January  19, 1935
By Ken Freeze, PACS, USCG (ret)

Charles T. Thrun joined the Coast Guard on May 5, 1916 at the age of 30. It’s hard to say if Thrun gave flying a thought when he joined the Coast Guard. At that time, the Coast Guard had no aircraft to call its own. 

The first class of Coast Guard pilots. Charles Thrun is the first one on the left.

However, by luck or design, Thrun ended up being in the right place at the right time. For in March of 1917 he was to be in the first class of Coast Guard aviators to graduate from the Naval Air Station Pensacola, FL. The class was a mixture of six officers and twelve enlisted men. Chief Gunner’s Mate Charles T. Thrun had become Coast Guard Aviator number 3, and the very first enlisted aviator in the Coast Guard.

By 1934 Thrun had had a full career and was beginning to make plans to retire with his family. In 17 years of flying, he had never had a serious aircraft mishap.

Coast Guard Accepts the New Grumman JF-2 Duck

In the fall of 1934, there was great excitement at Coast Guard Air Station Cape May, NJ. The new Grumman JF-2 "Duck" seaplanes had begun to arrive. Before long there would be eight of them at Cape May.

The Duck was a state-of-the-art amphibian aircraft. With a single 775 hp engine and a range of over 750 miles it seemed to be perfect for the various missions the Coast Guard would use it for. By that December, Commander Elmer F. Stone had even set a speed record of just over 191 mph in a Duck. While the Duck was a rugged aircraft, it wasn’t perfect. Landing in a crosswind could be a challenge and had to be practiced.

The Last Flight

January 19, 1935 probably started out like any other Saturday. Stone had broken the speed record a month earlier and there were still more records to be broken, plus everyone wanted to fly in the new aircraft.

That afternoon, Thrun was practicing touch and goes in the waters off Base Nine Aviation Station (in Cape May, NJ) in aircraft number No.162, one of the new Ducks. Also onboard the plane was Machinist’s Mate Kermit H. Parker.


It was 3 p.m. and Thrun had already made three perfect landings. He was starting his run for his fourth take-off, when something happened. The wing pontoon caught on the surface, pulling the wing into the bay’s waters, crumpling it and flipping the plane over. As the Duck turned over on its back, Parker was thrown clear of the plane and into the waters of Cape May Bay. Parker swam back to the surface and was almost immediately plucked from the waters by George Warner, who had witnessed the crash from his clamming boat. Parker immediately dove back into the water to try to rescue Thrun who was still in the overturned aircraft.

From a hangar on the shore nearby, the crash had also been witnessed by Lieutenant Richard Burke, the commanding officer of the base, who had been preparing to conduct some practice flights of his own in one of the other Duck’s. (A few months afterwards, Burke would have his own speed records to his credit.)

Burke and another witness, Lieutenant Edmund E. Fahey ran to the station’s crash boat. As the boat sped to the crash site, both men tore off their uniforms. Within five minutes of the crash, the boat was on scene and several men were diving into the icy waters in an effort to release Thrun from the plane. At that point, Burke ordered Parker back aboard the boat for treatment of hypothermia and shock.

Finally one of the men was able to free Thrun from the wreckage. Thrun was then brought aboard the boat where resuscitation efforts were begun.

Meanwhile onshore, another witness, J.J. Spencer, Jr, drove to the nearby city to pickup lung motor from the fire department and take it back to the base along with a doctor. For over seven hours, Dr. Frank Hughes worked to save the life of Thrun. However, at 10:52 that evening, Thrun was pronounced dead. A man many in the Coast Guard aviation community lovingly referred to as "Daddy Thrun" and the Coast Guard’s third pilot had become the service’s first aviator to be killed in a crash.

The Duck, badly twisted and damaged was towed to the base and placed in a hangar.


Burial at Arlington


It was a sunny but cold the day on January 24, 1935 when Charles T. Thrun buried at Arlington National Cemetery. A small group of family, including his wife, Mona, and 18-month-old daughter, friends and colleagues gathered to pay their last respects. Under a clear sky, and full military honors, surrounded by pure white snow, Thrun was laid to rest in the hallowed grounds of Arlington. 


If you visit Arlington National Cemetery you'll find the stone marking Thrun's burial place in section 6, lot 8665, about midway between  the Tomb of the Unknowns and the Coast Guard Memorial.   

The proceeding is just a small part of the life of Charles T. Thrun. We are currently working on putting together a full life story about him. For instance we know that he was assigned to the USS Huntington while at the Naval Aeronautic Station, Pensacola, and probably participated in a series of early experiments using catapults to launch seaplanes from the deck of that ship. Thrun along with classmate Elmer Stone and perhaps a few others, worked out some of the problems associated with catapult launches.

Also - while Thrun did not survive the crash, the aircraft No. 162 was repaired and flew again. In October 1936, it was renumbered to become V-136 and flew many more years with the Coast Guard.

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