|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. 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.
Based in Okinawa, the crew of the Neptune had been photographing a communist anti-aircraft artillery emplacement on China's southeastern coast. As the plane turned back toward Okinawa, ground fire from shore struck the Neptune behind the cockpit on the port beam.
The port engine and the port wing were on fire and the vertical and horizontal stabilizers had sustained further damage. The crew now sought any friendly field on Formosa. The port engine quit and emergency procedures failed to arrest the fires, which by this time had been sucked into the after station. At 1230 hours the crew issued an SOS and broadcast its intention to ditch the P2V. The radio transmitter key was tied down.
The second engine now began smoking and the port wing was nearing structural failure. LT Clement R. Prouhet prepared to ditch the P2V in a perilous sea state with 15-foot swells, 30-knot winds with crests running every 200 feet and a water temperature estimated at 62F. The aircraft slammed into the water fifteen minutes after it was hit by ground fire. All 13 crewmembers managed to get out of the sinking patrol plane.
Only one burned and partially inflatable, eight-foot, seven-man life raft was launched. AT3 Byars, wounded by the AAA and ENS Angell, the navigator, were placed in the raft. PHI McClure and AD2 Smith were last seen being washed toward shore. The remaining crewmembers clung to the raft, trying to keep afloat. Another VP-22 P2V, patrolling a different sector, diverted to the reported ditching position. Eventually sighting the survivors, the aircraft radioed for help and dropped a raft that could not be retrieved due to the rough seas.
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. Within minutes of receiving the distress signal, a USCG Martin PBM-5G Mariner, piloted by Lt. John Vukic was in the air. Lt. Vukic was considered one of the most experienced "open sea" seaplane pilots having many PBM flight hours and had participated on the PBM open sea landing tests off San Diego.
By the time the rescue team spotted the Neptune's crew, it was 1630. The survivors had been in the water for nearly five hours. With night falling and the waves rising, officials at Sangley Point left the decision of going ahead with the rescue mission to Lt. Vukic. Lt. Vukic made the only decision he could - he landed his plane. Lt. Vukic guided the big Mariner close enough for his crew to fish out the sailors. Survivors of Crew Seven were hauled aboard the Mariner and wrapped in blankets. Many of the Coast Guard crewmen removed their Mae Wests to provide medical and other assistance more effectively to the injured Navy personnel. The PBM taxied in the worsening sea state for 30 minutes but failed to locate the missing Smith and McClure. The swells began to increase as night descended upon them. It was time to leave.
The PBM lifted off and the pilot actuated the JATO bottles to enhance climb-out. But the starboard engine suddenly quit. The dipping right wing was caught by a swell, which swept into the hull, heaved the plane upwards and caused it to cart wheel. The PBM cartwheeled to the right, crashed and broke up. Four of the rescued sailors and five of their Coast Guard rescuers died in the crash. The survivors of this second crash piled onto two life rafts. Now the Navy had two plane crews in "enemy" waters to be rescued.
Two more P2Vs arrived and dropped a raft each to the survivors. An Air Force Albatross from Clark Field and a British Short Sunderland from Hong Kong joined the vigil. Throughout the ordeal, rescue aircraft were fired upon by the Chinese shore batteries. LT Vukic retrieved one raft and was able to pick up AD1 Ballenger and A03 Brown. J. Miller and AM3 Hewitt retrieved the second raft that accommodated Prouhet, Varney, Ludena, McDonald and French. Ships were dispatched to assist. Among them, the destroyer, USS Halsey Powell, arrived on the scene after the downed flyers had been in the water for seven and a half hours.
A second Coast Guard PBM arrived after dark and dropped 34, one million candlepower parachute flares to assist the destroyer in navigating through the Chinese coastal waters. Squalls increased in intensity and visibility was now less than 700 feet. The seven survivors in the second raft had used all but one of its signal flares. The last flare successfully signaled their position for the destroyer. Eventually, as the ship approached, two swimmers from USS Powell proceeded to the raft and secured a line. As the raft was being towed to the destroyer, it broke. Finally a third attempt at securing a line succeeded. The survivors were pulled aboard and were provided with blankets, hot coffee, food, sedatives and medicinal brandy.
Meanwhile, the first raft containing Lt. Vukic had drifted to within 200 yards of Narnoy Island. USS Powell found itself in less than six fathoms of water, navigating over uncharted barrier reefs. The skipper, demonstrating outstanding seamanship, maneuvered the destroyer around the reef so that the ship sailed parallel to the coastline with less than 200 yards margin for error. Vukic, Ballenger and Brown were finally rescued just before midnight. Of the 21 men of both aircrews, only 10 survived, seven VP-22 crew and three USCG crew.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the events that transpired in the Formosa Straits. This page is respectfully dedicated to the memory of the courageous men of VP-22 and the USCG who perished and the families and comrades that they left behind. You are not forgotten.
|A small number of prints depicting the opening 50th Anniversary Neptune/Mariner Graphic are being made available for sale. The print measures 11" x 17" and sells for $35 plus shipping. Please contact Jeftek Productions for ordering information.|