3rd  Emergency  Rescue  Squadron

 

A  Brief  History

 

1944 - 1946

 

 

 

The 3rd Emergency Rescue Squadron was one of seven rescue squadrons formed by the USAAF during World War II to provide autonomous rescue capability for its combat Air Forces in various theaters of operation. It was activated on 15 Feb. 1944 at Gulfport Field, Mississippi, with an initial cadre of 56 officers and 179 enlisted men. It was organized to operate 12 OA-10A aircraft, the Army's version of the famous US Navy Catalina amphibious flying boat. 

 

By 1944, the Catalina was already obsolescent in its design role of a long-range patrol-bomber, but it was the best aircraft available to the Army Air Force for making rescues of airmen forced down at sea. Although it was slow, lightly armed, and vulnerable, it had qualities well-suited to air-sea rescue work. It had long range and endurance, excellent visibility from large observation blisters, amphibious capability permitting land-basing and water landings for pickups, heavy lifting capability in water take-offs, and high reliability.

 

A large number of the initial cadre, both officers and enlisted men, had received flying and maintenance training on the PBY Catalina at the Pensacola Naval Air Station. Several months were spent at Gulfport Field and neighboring Keesler Field at Biloxi, training in ground school, radio, code work, maintenance procedures on the Catalinas, plus actual operations in simulated rescues in the Gulf of Mexico, life raft procedures, and aircrew team discipline.

 

Beginning in May 1944, the 3rd ERS began staging to the Southwest Pacific where it was to become part of Gen. MacArthur's 5th Air Force. A 169-man ground echelon departed the US on May 28 and experienced a 22-day ocean voyage on the SS Boschfontein, a Dutch cargo vessel serving as a troop transport. Milne Bay, New Guinea, was reached on June 18 and, on July 14, the troops began the preparation of an operating camp site at a forward air base on Biak Island, Dutch New Guinea. The flying echelon, 37 officers and 36 enlisted men, commanded by Major Hugh O'Daniel, departed the US on various dates between 23 Aug. and 12 Sept. The 12 Catalinas arrived at Biak between 10 Sept. and 15 Oct.

 

The 3rd ERS became an instant success in the rescue business on 21 Sept., 1944, when a crew picked up two Navy flyers on its first assigned mission, thereby repaying in small measure the debt owed the Navy for training provided at Pensacola. This initial flush of success was soon tempered by the reality of tragic loss a few weeks later when one of the 3rd's own Catalinas and its crew of nine men disappeared without a trace while on a rescue mission out of Biak. It became clear that the price of saving the lives of others would sometimes be heavy. Including this loss, the 3rd ERS would lose 23 men in five separate incidents in the next two years.

 

Rescue missions flown by the 3rd ERS covered a wide spectrum from the routine to the extremely hazardous. The routine missions involved long and boring flights to the reported position of downed airmen, immediate spotting, landing on smooth water, easy boarding of the Catalina from a life raft by rescuees, easy take-off from tranquil waters, and finally, an uneventful return to safety at the 3rd ERS home base, all accomplished without intervention by enemy forces. Routine missions such as this were in the minority. Rescue missions were often complicated by one or more of the following: need for fighter escort, extreme difficulty in locating and keeping in sight the specks of men bobbing on the ocean below, agonizing decisions to land in heavy seas forced by deteriorating or helpless condition of distressed personnel on the water, extreme difficulty in taking the rescuee aboard the Catalina because of pitching of the aircraft and the frequent inability of the downed flyer to help himself, the extreme dangers of accelerating the aircraft to take-off speed across large waves, which raised the possibility of major structural damage to the Catalina, and finally, attacks by Japanese aircraft or surface forces during any stage of the rescue.

 

After several months of operation at Biak, during which time 21 men were rescued, the 3rd ERS joined Gen. MacArthur's forces in the return to the Philippines. On 3 Nov. a ground echelon and four of the 3rd ERS Catalinas arrived at Tacloban Airstrip on Leyte Island. The fight for Leyte was still in its early stages and Tacloban Strip was under nearly continuous attack by Japanese planes, day and night. The 5th Air Force could not even provide for its heavy bombers on the airstrip, so the Catalinas were diverted to operate from the USN seaplane tenders, USS ORCA and HALF MOON, anchored offshore. This arrangement lasted for several months. The Squadron Hq. and most of the ground echelon established camp at Dulag, 20 miles south of Tacloban, where a new airstrip was under construction and the air raids were less frequent. This camp, however, experienced the terror of a Japanese suicide paratroop attack on the night of 6 Dec. The descending Japanese were rapidly dispersed by small-arms fire from the 3rd and adjoining units.

 

With the war heating up, the rescue rate increased substantially during this period; 46 men were picked up in the Nov./Dec. period. On Dec. 21-23, one flight of the 3rd with three Catalinas was moved forward to Mindoro Island, located between Leyte and Luzon and in US hands less than a week. Many hazardous missions were executed from Mindoro and from later bases on Luzon. The Squadron rescue rate increased to 101 men rescued in Feb/Mar. 1945.

 

One mission from Mindoro is a prime example of the hazards sometime overcome in retrieving downed  personnel. On 3 Jan., Capt. George Helmick led a flight to Lingayen Gulf, Luzon, to pick up a P-51 pilot shot down there. Since this was prior to the US invasion of Luzon, the area was enemy-occupied and an all-volunteer crew was assembled to attempt the rescue. Fighter escort was enjoyed during the flight to the search point, but was somehow lost during the 2 1/2 hours required to pin-point the downed man. It was necessary to land in 10-foot swells. The Catalina was taken within 100 ft. of the shore to facilitate the pickup and came under a concentration of small-arms fire from Japanese troops. Fortunately, none of the aircrew were hit, but the airplane received numerous hits, one of which punctured a fuel tank and created an accumulation of gasoline in the fuselage. One engine cut out as the Catalina taxiied away from the shore. It was restarted with difficulty, but would only produce partial power. Take-off was made in a rolling sea with water breaking over the wing floats and tail surfaces. The Catalina barely maintained flying speed on reduced power during the 200-mile return flight to Mindoro at 50-ft. altitude. It landed at Mindoro after a 9 1/2 - hour mission, radio and IFF shot out, bullet holes in the wing, hull, and gas tanks, but with the crew safe and sound and the P-51 pilot returned to safety. The crew members were awarded the Silver Star for the mission.

 

During the last four months of the war, an attempt was made to remedy the main shortcoming of the Catalina in rescue work, its vulnerability to damage in taking off from heavy seas. Three B-17H aircraft modified to carry a 27-ft. powered and provisioned life boat and crews trained in dropping the boat by parachute to downed airmen were assigned to the 3rd ERS. During the rest of the war the B-17s and Catalinas operated as teams and a number of rescues were effected under sea conditions which would have been too rough for Catalina take-offs.

 

As the war against the Japanese rolled on, the 3rd ERS continued to move forward as each new airbase was acquired and continued to pull men from death's grasp. By August 1945, under Maj. Selden X. Bailey, 3rd ERS Flights were operating from Mindoro, Floridablanca and Laoag on Luzon, and Ie Shima Island, Okinawa. During 11 months of performing rescue missions, a total of 325 men were saved from death by exposure, starvation, thirst, or enemy action. This number was greater than the number of personnel assigned to the 3rd at any given time and was a source of great satisfaction and pride to the unit. This was the prize purchased at the price of a number of lives of its own people. During its service in 1944/1945, the 3rd ERS earned five battle stars for the Asiatic-Pacific Service Ribbon: New Guinea, Western Pacific, Southern Philippines, Luzon, and the Air Offensive, Japan. Numerous Air Medals were awarded to the aircrews.

 

On 6 Aug., 1945, the day the A-Bomb was dropped on Japan, the 3rd ERS, its Catalinas and B-17s, were at a peak of efficiency and effectiveness in the profession of Air/Sea rescue. It would clearly have been in the fore-front of hot combat during the planned invasion of the Japanese homeland in Nov. 1945. After the surrender of Japan, 2 Sept., the 3rd ERS was one of the first of the US occupation forces into Japan, arriving at Atsugi Air Base, 20 miles from Tokyo, in mid-September. The rapid and deliberate demobilization of US forces in the months after September resulted in massive re-deployments of 3rd ERS personnel to the US and a corresponding, but not so rapid, influx of personnel into the 3rd from the US. Although the airplanes remained, flying skills, maintenance skills, and rescue capability were rapidly diluted. By 10 Nov. 1945 only three of the original 3rd ERS cadre remained and, by early 1946, even the replacement crews which arrived in the spring of 1945 were gone. 

 

By Jan. 1946, only one first pilot fully qualified for water operations in the Catalina remained. In Mar. 1946, fully 17 of 19 navigators in the Squadron were returned to the US. The few experienced crew chiefs in the Squadron were forced to do double and even triple duty in performing crew chief work on the flight line, flight duty as flight engineers, and providing on-the-job training for totally untrained personnel in order to "create" MOS 747 aircraft mechanics. Recognizing this unfortunate situation, Hq. 5th AF proscribed water operations of the Catalinas for several months during the first half of 1946. For the most part, regular crew assignments became a thing of the past.

 

During this difficult period, the 3rd ERS was commanded from Nov. 1945 to Nov. 1946 by Capt. C.C. Hewlett, who must have been a truly dedicated officer. It shrank in size from four to two flights. Somewhere around the middle of 1946, the going and coming of personnel took on a new cast as wartime draftees and "for the duration" volunteers were gradually replaced with Regular Army career personnel.

 

The Squadron gradually acquired lost skills. A comprehensive training program was established and conducted by the Sqdn. Operations/Training Officer, Capt. David C. Jones, a young career officer who was to rise some 45 years later to the top of the military profession in the US - Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The training program included ground school and complex rescue maneuvers in Tokyo Bay, in which Catalinas, B-17s, and rescue crash boats participated. These exercises, held in Oct. 1946, included a full complement of water landings and take-offs and transfer of personnel from life raft to aircraft and vice-versa.

 

Although rescue missions in peacetime were few in number, the Sqdn. strength increased to 318 in Sept. 1946, after a minimum of 135 in February. Flights were increased in number to five, located at Atsugi, Chitose on Hokkaido Island, Itazuke on Kyushu, Itami near Osaka on Honshu, and, significantly for the future, at Kimpo Airbase outside Seoul, Korea. Maintenance training paid off in increased flight time, which was now utilized in courier service, cargo flights to the Philippines to obtain spare parts, passenger flights carrying General Officers to various destinations in the Pacific area, and some flights relating to rescue, such as suppling remote and stranded units with supplies. By the end of 1946, the 3rd ERS was clearly on the road back to operational readiness.

 

During 1948 and 1949, continuity of the "3rd" was maintained through successive changes in name, size, and reassignment to the Air Rescue Service, a world-wide rescue organization. The complexion of Sqdn. operating capabilities changed drastically with the addition of large helicopters. For the first time, the capability of rescue of personnel from land areas as well as ocean areas was developed. The Squadron's lineal descendants served with great distinction during the Korean War, elevated in size and status to the 3rd Rescue Group. But that is another time and another story.

 

Summary by Bill MacDermott, author of  "A Walk Through the Valley - A History of the 3rd Emergency Rescue Squadron, 1944-1946".

 

A quick summary: of the 3rd ERS operations

 

      

June 1944-Sept.1944   -  Oro Bay, New Guinea, -staging area only

July 1944-Jan.1945     -  Biak Island, Dutch East Indies,

Nov. 1944-May 1945   -  Leyte Island, Philippines,

Dec.1944-Aug.1945     -  Mindoro Island, Philippines,

Jan.1945-May 1945    -  Luzon Island, Philippines - San Marcelino,

May 1945-June 1945  -  Clark Field,

May 1945-Oct.1945    -  Floridablanca,

June 1945-Oct.19454  -  Laoag,

July, 1945-Oct.1945    -  Ie Shima Island, Okinawa,

Sept.1945-1946 and beyond   -  Atsugi Airbase, Honshu, Japan

1946  Other Japanese locations  -  Chitose, Hokkaido; Itazuke, Honshu; Itami, Honshu;

1946  -  Kimpo Airfield, Seoul, Korea,