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Liveblogging World War II: October 29, 1944: Pacific Search and Rescue

Daniel S. Geiser: Story from the Typhoon:

The three of us jumped into the Pacific Ocean, holding on to a two-man life raft while Japanese ships followed the slowly moving OS2N Kingfisher. We hoped!

Thirteen hours earlier, 29 October 1944, the USS Iowa was on rescue duty. Carrier based planes from a Task Force of the Third Fleet were attacking the Manila Bay Area in the Philippines. The V-Division crew had prepared Iowa's two planes for catapulting which were to be flown with empty back seats minus parachutes to increase space. Ensign Ace Riggins, assigned to the Division two months before, was standing by to pilot one of the aircraft while I was checking Iowa's position relative to the Manila area and monitoring any information concerning downed aircraft. About 1500 we were informed by the carrier USS Hancock, code name Bingo Base, that two of her men were in a life-raft about ten miles East of Luzon. Their SB2C Scout Bomber had been shot down over the island and friendly fighters were now flying over head to protect them from enemy planes in the area. We were informed by Bingo Base that two of her F6F Hellcats would fly protection for the floatplanes if we would undertake the mission.

Both OS2N's were catapulted and were joined by Bingo 29 and Bingo 40. It had been estimated that downed aviators were approximately 1`50 miles away on a course of 255 degrees. Around 1700 we approached several unnamed islands and sighted the life raft with the two men aboard. As we had planned Riggins was to stand by and circle with the Bingo fighter while I attempted the rescue. I landed and taxied near the raft and by using a throw line assisted Lt.(jg) Ennis and Radioman Merridith aboard. They shared close quarters but got settled in the rear seat of the Kingfisher. I taxied to the lee side of a nearby island and, through the sea was choppy; I was able to take off without difficulty and joined Riggins and the Bingo Hellcats in the air.

On leaving the Iowa we were told that enemy aircraft were in the vicinity and therefore the Task Force would be high-speed retirement when the last planes were recovered at dusk. We were warned again that 'Rats' and 'Hawks', Japanese aircraft, had been sighted. With the F6F's flying high cover we headed east in the direction of the Task Force. When we left the Iowa Riggins and I both knew that the distance involved in the rescue would take most of the daylight hours and neither one of us looked forward to the difficulty of making a night landing.

After flying an hour or so the sky began to darken; I noticed the white caps picking up and d the weather changing. I had been in VHF contact with the others in our group and we were becoming concerned about the darkness and the rapidly forming line squall in the distance and the likelihood that our ships were in the middle of the storm. It was now raining and wing lights were turned on. In talking to Riggins we decided not to attack the storm head on but to go around, perhaps withdraw, and land on the water on a calmer location. On hearing this Bingo 29 informed me that he would try to fly over the storm to get the Hancock. Riggins stated he was low on gas and we decided to land and wait out the storm on the water. Hearing this Bingo 40 said he would land his plane near us and we could bring him aboard one of our floatplanes. I landed in a rough sea away from the storm and saw Riggins land a short distance away on my starboard beam. Bingo 40 came low overhead and crash landed not very far off the port quarter. I saw Ensign Ace Riggins for the last time as he began to taxi toward the downed Bingo 40. I was doing all I could to keep the plane afloat while searching the area without success. I'm certain Ennis and Merridith in their cramped quarters and hearing none of our communications were shaken up and wondering was going on. Their extra weight may have been instrumental in keeping the plane afloat.

The engine was used to keep the Kingfisher into the wind and afloat until the storm subsided. For the first time, since picking them up, I was able to converse with Ennis and Merridith. It was now very dark and we recalled that the Task Force was scheduled for high-speed retirement at dusk because of enemy action and there would be little concern for our small group as compared to the concern for the safety of thousands. Even if our location was known the best we could expect was to be found by a searching plane or submarine eventually. We convinced ourselves that nothing would happen before daylight. Around 0300, after our last star shell had been fired and lightened the sky for several moments, Lt. Ennis and Merridith stood on the wing beside me, as they had done earlier in the night, asking if I was aware of lights blinking in the darkness. Something different was happening and we concluded that they were lights from ships milling around and that we had been seen. They couldn't be American ships because of the darkened ship policies and the strict restrictions on showing a light at night, which we knew so well. Hours had gone by since friendly ships left the area. Our belief was that these were ships of the Japanese Fleet.

Huge shapes loomed up around us and we expected to be captured or the object of something worse. There was no difference of opinion among the three of us in looking for and doing something to receive a different fate. I started the engine, destroyed the IFF equipment, and the Kingfisher taxied slowly through the Japanese Fleet. Sure that the Japanese would follow the OS2U, we jumped into the water with the life raft and hoped to be overlooked. But, fortunately, it didn't work. A ship hull appeared beside us. Although we had heard some English word from the ship's deck, spoken by Japanese, we thought, we could not believe we were in American hands until we climbed over the rail of the USS Colohan.

Several hours later I was taken alongside the Iowa and out aboard by Breeches Buoy. An OS2N was secured to the port catapult and felt relieved that Riggins and his plane were safe. It was not to be so for it turned out to be my plane.

The storm was responsible for a number of planes being down and the entire Task Force remained to search for and pick up pilots. I was told that the Iowa had my plane on radar and was aware of our position. Around 0400 when they sighted the now empty moving Kingfisher and the ship drew alongside and I am told that the First Lieutenant, Aircraft Recovery Officer, using a megaphone, was Yelling at the moving aircraft telling the pilot to wake up. The Iowa made a 360-degree turn and again came along side the now stationary out of fuel kingfisher. The Iowa stopped dead in the water, backed down, and lowered a V-Division by the stern crane to attach the hook and hoisted the crewman and plane back to the catapult.

Captain Allan McCann ordered me to the Bridge to report. He commended me for a job well done but to this day I can't quite figure the expression that came over his face, was it a hint of a smile, when I gave the reason for leaving my Kingfisher. Did he expect ME TO KNOW that there were no enemy ships in the area?

A day later word came from the USS Hancock that Bingo 40 was found alive drifting in his lifejacket, but in no condition to start flying soon again. Bingo 29 after saying he intended to fly over the storm was not found.