SEARCH & RESCUE IN THE CBI



Ex-CBI Roundup
December 1996 Issue

By Lee Bakker

Many CBIers alive today can thank their lucky stars for the existence of the Indo-China Division of Search and Rescue. This squadron, with Headquarters in Calcutta, braved rough terrain and sweat-provoking heat to save those men who found themselves at the mercy of the Hump wilds. It also had the distinction of being the only one in the ATC devoted exclusively to the search and rescue of downed airmen.

It started its CBI service amid many hardships and poor equipment with not enough personnel to pilot the scant number of aircraft. In its early days the work didn't conform to any routine, being called on impromptu missions. If an airman crash-landed or was reported overdue, the search began. But their work was hampered by delayed reports, meager information, and unfavorable weather. But it grew. Their purposes were to search for missing aircraft and personnel in the Hump area, to supply and rescue the men surviving to identify crashed aircraft, to identify those who died and see that proper burial was arranged, and to recover all vital material that would be of aid to the enemy. In 1943, the Squadron was successful in 62% of its rescue missions. In 1944, this percentage increased to 77, a result of improved techniques and facilities. Their services included medical supplies, medic officers, whole blood and plasma, all sent down by parachute.

The fearsome Hump was the biggest drawback in the successful rescue of men down in their planes. There were the rugged terrain, the wild tribes, roving Jap patrols, and enemy fighter planes who found it great sport to shoot down unarmed transports. Thus, the Hump flyer wondered how he would be rescued under those conditions. The Search and Rescue Squadron overcame these hazards. The continual enemy, however, was the jungle itself. In some places two parachutists who landed only 150 feet apart couldn't hear each other's voices no matter how loudly they shouted, resulting in desperate hacking of their way out of the jungle alone for a number of weeks. This the rescuers were up against also. Sometimes the rescuers became the rescued.

The "mass jump" of August, 1943, was an example of the systematic search and rescue work. This involved CBS announcer Eric Sevareid and other passengers. "Dozens of officers and men put into motion an improvised system for getting supplies and information to us and for organizing the rescue party which saved the lives of every one of us," reported Sevareid in Calcutta. Twenty of the 21 aboard were rescued. The one fatality was caused by a chute fouled up in the tail assembly.

Captain John L. Porter, in October of 1943, was named the Flying Safety and Rescue Officer. He developed the technique of the mass jump. Men for this work were brought in from other ICD stations to Chabua. The first aircraft assigned the squadron were two C-47s that carried two .30 calibre guns each, for protection. A Squadron crew spotted a Zero that had crashed into a clearing. The plane dove, fighter fashion, and the men destroyed this plane, its pilot, and its equipment. This became the first C-47 to have a combat record, calling attention to that with a tiny Japanese flag painted on its nose.

The Rescue Squadron had the support of B-25s to intercept Jap planes and spot downed aircraft. For low-level and short-range search, the tiny L-5s and L-4s were utilized. These needed small or even make-shift airstrips. In one particular instance, a Polio victim, Lt. Robert Wesselhoeft, was brought out of the Hump region in an improvised "bamboo lung" to sustain his life. Due to this miraculous feat, this airman landed alive in the U.S.

Credit for the job's growth went to Maj. Roland L. Hedrick, Search and Rescue Intelligence Officer, although the pioneer was Maj. Robert L. Wright, then Division Intelligence and Security officer. The greatest source of information had stemmed from those pilots making regular flights over the Hump. They reported all data on wreckage, smoke, and signal attempts. All information gathered was sent to Division Intelligence for coordination. Sometimes the pilots guided the Rescue Squadron to the location of sighting. Major Wm. H. Spruell (a Captain then) was in charge of the medical branch. Col. Don Flickinger, his chief, had figured in the rescue of the Sevareid party, and Spruell had made several other jumps in the jungles to rescue bailed out personnel.

The Squadron lost Captain Porter in December, 1943. He was killed when attacked by a dozen Jap fighters in the Fort Hertz region. Among several who succeeded him was Maj. Donald C. Pricer, veteran Hump pilot.

For morale purposes, the downed personnel were notified quickly that help was on its way. Sometimes a plane was especially sent out to remind them that they were not forgotten, although no further aid was required.

Every lost plane was noted on a large relief map. Rescue was never abandoned until every man was accounted for. Search patterns were no different from the present day methods. The search involved a section of maximum probability. This area is determined by the lost planes estimated time of arrival, its last radio reports, and reports from inhabitants along its route. Crews were assigned to certain missions the night before rescue attempts were begun. Mission results were reported daily. This aided in the compilation of full pictures of the crash situations. A weekly bulletin on crashes and progress of rescue was issued to Allied agencies. Tribe members too had been of valuable aid in compilation of disaster information. They too had been responsible for the retention of many lives of airmen who would have otherwise perished. They were fed and comforted.

Some of the men have been away from their bases as long as 93 days. In fact, this is the longest recorded absence with a safe walk out of the jungle. Those traveling such a route could have encountered various adventures, including the constant jungle enemies such as cobras, tigers, leeches, and lice, not forgetting the weather.

The men who flew the rescue missions had numerous talents. There were medics, cartographers, photographers, ground crew mechanics, ground rescue specialists, parachutists, and specialized equipment handlers. These men saw to it that those who were lost had better than a three-to-one chance of returning to their bases alive. But their experiences, both rescued and rescuers, will remain in their memories of the CBI.


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