All in a day's work

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Above is footage of the ditching and rescue of a crew of a B-29. The plane had been on a bombing raid over Tokyo and radioed for help when it couldn't make it back to base.

By chance the camera man who filmed it ran across the pilot, Barney McCaskill Jr., at a State-side hospital while he was recuperating from a broken back suffered in the ditching. The camera man gave Barney two copies of the 16mm film, which sat in the back of McCaskill's closet for some 50 years.

From the video's notes:
On March 9, 1945 over 300 B-29 bombers took off from airfields on the islands of Tinian, Saipan, and Guam and headed for Japan. Their mission was to bomb the port and urban areas of Tokyo. To complete the mission, the crews had to fly 1,500 miles to get to Japan, make their bombing runs, and then fly the 1,500 miles back to their home base--fifteen stressful hours of flying over water. In order to increase bomb capacity, fuel loads were kept to a minimum.

Consequently, planes damaged in combat, suffering from mechanical malfunctions, or thrown off course often could not make it back to base. Many were lost without leaving a trace; some were seen to crash after crewmen had bailed out, and others were deliberately put down at sea, in a procedure known to airmen as "ditching."

The B-29 seen ditching here is the "Hopefull-Devil" under the command of Captain Bernard "Barney" McCaskill Jr. Aircrew 84-02, 484th Squadron, 505th Bombardment Group, 313th Bombardment Wing.

Realizing they did not have enough fuel to reach the home base on Tinian Island, the "Hopefull-Devil" radioed a call for help.

The distress call was picked up by the seaplane tender USS Bering Strait (AVP-34) on lifeguard duty approximately 20 miles north of Pagan Island. The ship vectored the "Hopefull-Devil" to its position and Captain McCaskill ditched alongside at 12:38PM on March 10, 1945.

Ocean swells at the time were about 6 feet (2 meters) making a smooth ditching impossible. Per their training, all crew members, except for the pilots, were at ditching stations with their backs against a bulkhead of some kind. As you can see, the force of the impact was tremendous. The plane went from 100mph to zero in less than a plane length.

In a newspaper article reporting on the incident Capt. McCaskill explains what happened while the USS Bering Strait launched its whaleboat to pick up the crewmen in the water: "I was pushing down on the rudder pedals for the landing, and that and handling the wheel made my body pretty stiff for the impact. That's why my back got broken. I couldn't stand up afterwards and I looked up and the co-pilot [Col. Macomber who was along for a guest ride]) was already getting out. The water started rushing in about then. It washed me back to my seat."

But Capt. McCaskill managed to grab hold of the window and pull himself outside. "I had a canteen on my belt. It was knocked off. I was jerking so hard to get myself out."

Outside Capt. McCaskill said he counted heads and saw all were there. But he found that the two gunners back at the tail were having a 'rough time'. They couldn't swim. Capt. McCaskill inflated the Mae West of one of the boys so he was all right. The other [Corporal Rivas] was holding on to the plane and was being slapped back into the water each time the plane was caught by a wave.

"I told him to turn loose the airplane. He didn't want to but did. It was at the wrong moment, though. For just then a big wave caught him and he went down."

So Capt. McCaskill slid out of his own Mae West and dove down after the young gunner. Under the water he inflated the gunner's Mae West and that was what brought them up.

The rescue vessel had a life raft near them and Capt. McCaskill got the boy on it. [Col. Macomber] had to swim in front of the raft to pull it and Capt. McCaskill was behind it, pushing to keep it clear of the plane which was still being tossed about in the choppy sea.

The crewmen on board the "Hopefull-Devil" were saved, with only two significant injuries. Capt. McCaskill suffered a broken back from the impact of the ditching, and Corporal Binger had a severely gashed jaw. Both received the Purple Heart.

The USS Bering Strait was part of a well coordinated Air-Sea Rescue operation deployed each time the B-29s attacked Japan. It was a prime concern of the Bomber Command to rescue as many of these downed crewmen as possible. For American aircrews, this was a huge morale booster.

--Mike McCaskill (the pilot's son)