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Rescue off China
Crash of CG PBM-5G 84738
January 18, 1953
By Ken Freeze, PACS, USCG (ret)

Martin PBM-5 Mariner

Forty-one Martin PBM-5 Mariner seaplanes were used by the Coast Guard during the 1940s and 1950s for long range Search and Rescue missions in the U.S. and overseas.  These aircraft each had a gross weight of 51,330 pounds with 2,670 gallons of fuel.  Range was 2,240 miles at at cruise speed of 127 mph.  The PBM was powered by two R-2800-34 18-cylinder Pratt and Whitney Double Wasp engines which produced 2100 horsepower each at take-off.

During the Second World War, the Navy tasked the Coast Guard to develop off-shore rough sea landing techniques for use in rescuing downed naval aviators and to pull survivors from the sea. The Martin patrol bomber became the aircraft of choice for this job. It was a big lumbering seaplane that could tolerate a lot of landing and take-off abuse in high seas. It also became the experimental aircraft for JATO (Jet Assist Take Off), a help for getting airborne in difficult conditions.

An officer, a former enlisted pilot, worked the problem throughout the experimental program and became one of the most experienced rough sea handlers in aviation history. His name was John Vukic and this experience was to pay off some years later. 

From 1945 to 1969, U.S. Naval aircraft were involved in a number of aerial incidents with forces of the Soviet Union, People’s Republic of China, North Korea, and Czechoslovakia. These incidents resulted in the loss of eight Navy aircraft and one Coast Guard aircraft, eighty-one Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard aviators and crewman, and several aircraft damaged and crewmen wounded and injured.

Navy P2V-5 Shot Down

U.S. Navy Patrol Squadron VP-22 began its third tour of operations in the Korean theater conducting shipping surveillance of the China Sea on November 29, 1952.  Less than two months later, on January 18, 1953, a Lockheed P2V-5 Neptune (BuNo 127744) attached to the squadron was shot down by Chinese anti-aircraft fire near Swatow, China and ditched in the Formosa Strait. 

Lockheed P2V-5 Neptune

The Coast Guard Air Detachment at U.S. Naval Station Sangley Point, Republic of the Philippines, received word that a Navy aircraft had gone down and were scrambled for the rescue mission. Aboard the PBM were: Lt. John Vukic, Pilot; Lt.j.g. Gerald W. Stuart, copilot; and crew members ADC Joseph M. Miller, Jr., ALC Winfield J. Hammond, AL1 Carl R. Tornell, AO1 Joseph R. Bridge, AD3 Tracy W. Miller, and AM3 Robert F. Hewitt.  

A line up of  PBM's at the seaplane ramp at U.S. Naval Station Sangley Point, Republic of the Philippines

While enroute,  Lt. Vukic intercepted a radio message stating that survivors had been sighted in the water, but that they were unable to pick up the rafts or any of the survival equipment which had been dropped to them from planes circling overhead. 

The crash site was located, however upon a surface survey,  Lt. Vukic found that the winds were running at 25 to 30 knots, seas were 8 to 15 feet high and steep with crests approximately every 150 to 200 feet moving with a speed estimated at 15 knots.

Several passes were made over the survivors who by this time were on a life raft which was only partially inflated. Four of the survivors were hanging on over the side of the raft. Noting the condition of the survivors and their perilous position, and not having any information on the arrival time of surface vessels in the area, it was determined that, in order to save the survivors, a landing was necessary despite the hazardous conditions of the sea and the fast approaching darkness.

Lt. "Big John" Vukic

According to the pilot, Lt. "Big John" Vukic, after arriving on scene, he noted that the seas were running 15-feet.  Even though the survivors managed to climb into a raft he thought they must have been suffering from hypothermia.  He decided to attempt an open water landing. With darkness setting in, he landed near the survivors.  His crewman managed to pull these men on board while other crewman prepared a jet-assisted packs for each side of the aircraft to use for a short take-off.  While the Coast Guard crew rescued all eleven in the raft, two other Navy crew, in a separate raft, were swept ashore and captured by the communist Chinese.  

"There was a 15-foot sea and a 25-mile wind,"  Vukic remembered about the take-off. "Everything was rolling very well and I thought it was in the bag.  And so I fired my JATO bottles to help my plane get airborne.  Suddenly the plane lurched to the left."  He saw the left wing float rise above the sea but the port engine seemed to be losing power.  He quickly decided to ditch and made for the crest of a wave with the plane's hull.  "My seat suddenly broke and that was the last thing I knew."  

The PBM slammed back into the sea and broke up. Once again the Navy survivors were back in the water, at least, the seven that survived this crash.  Vukic managed to escape as well and inflated a raft.  He pulled two surviving Navy crew in with him.  He said "We were so cold we didn't care who got us, just so they had a fire to keep us warm."  Two others of his Coast Guard crew, Aviation Machinists Mate Joseph Miller and Aviation Mechanic Robert Hewitt, also managed to escape before the PBM sank.  

These men were eventually rescued by the Navy destroyer U.S.S. Halsey Powell (DD 686) later that night. In all, 10 survivors out of 19 total (including five from the P2V) were rescued by Halsey Powell

U.S.S Gregory (DD 802) and U.S.S. Halsey Powell (DD 686)

During the search effort a PBM-5 from VP-40 received fire from a small-caliber machine gun, and U.S.S Gregory (DD 802) received fire from shore batteries. But the other five Coast Guard and four Navy crewmen perished.  Apparently some of these nine men escaped the sinking PBM but were captured by Communist Chinese forces and executed as spies. 

The entire crew of the PBM-5G 84738 earned the Gold Lifesaving Medal. The five that died in the line of duty, earned the medal posthumously.

The Gold Lifesaving Medal

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