Very few people these days haven’t heard of Captain Chesley B. “Sulley” Sullenberger III and co=pilot Jeff Skiles who made their now famous landing on the Hudson River in New York City after a bird strike left them powerless. We all know that everyone “miraculously” survived that crash landing. It was an undeniable miracle, but it was not the first time such a thing had happened. On October 16, 1956, Pan Am Flight 6, a Boeing 377 Stratocruiser on a nighttime flight from Honolulu to San Francisco, developed engine trouble in one and then two of its four engines. Pan Am Flight 6 was about halfway across the Pacific Ocean at the time and the malfunctioning engine propeller sent the airplane into a descent. I can only imagine the thoughts racing through the minds of the pilots, given the fact that they were not going to find a highway or a field on which to land safely. There was only ocean. This was not the first time a plane had to ditch in the ocean, but I doubt that was any comfort to the men who were flying the plane, since the other ditching events had fatalities.
Pan Am World Airways first started flying in 1927, delivering mail between Florida and Cuba. The carrier was based out of New York City for nearly 30 years, until it went out of business in 1991. The airline left a legacy of firsts. “It was first across the Atlantic, first with flights across the Pacific and the first to offer around-the-world service,” said Kelly Cusack, the curator of the Pan Am Museum Foundation. Most airlines celebrate a lot of their firsts, but there is one first that no airline wants to celebrate, or have on their list of firsts at all…a crash. Nevertheless, on October 16, 1956, a crash was exactly what was going to happen. This crash took place 53 years before “Sulley’s” famous water landing into the Hudson River. “This is a particularly memorable and a proud part of our legacy because of two words: happy ending,” said Jeff Kriendler, who was Pan Am’s vice president for corporate communications in the 1980s and has written several anthologies about the airline. Airlines have ditched in the ocean before, but this was the first to do so with no fatalities. Like “Sulley’s” famous flight, ditching in the ocean without fatalities…was unheard of. Unlike “Sulley’s” landing, which was caught on camera, a nighttime flight in the middle of the ocean in 1956 was not likely to be caught on camera.
The flight started out smoothly, but then developed engine trouble in one, and then two of its four engines. Pan Am Flight 6 was about halfway across the Pacific Ocean at the time and the malfunctioning engine propeller sent the airplane into a descent. The decision to land the plane in the sea with 24 passengers and seven crew members aboard was not made until all other options had been considered. Captain Richard Ogg, the pilot, wrote an account of the episode a year later, saying that he had to weigh many factors. Should he jettison fuel and try to land on the water immediately or fly until daylight provided better visibility? One thing was clear, the bad propeller was causing the plane to burn fuel too fast. He would not make it to San Francisco or Honolulu. Apparently, it was no coincidence that the ship was nearby. In the early days of long flights over water, Coast Guard ships were positioned in the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans, offering weather information to flight crews and relaying radio messages, according to Doak Walker, a Coast Guard historian who participated in the rescue of Flight 6. In preparation, the cutters were placed near what was expected to be the point of no return. That is the area where a plane would have burned too much fuel to turn back in case of an emergency.
Ogg opted to fly an eight-mile circuit above the Pontchartrain until morning while planning for the water landing. Remembering that during another Pan Am Stratocruiser ditching, the tail had broken off, Ogg had the passengers in the back of the plane move forward and asked those seated by the engine to move as well. “We will try to stay aloft until daylight,” Ogg radioed to the Pontchartrain. When the passengers learned the flight would circle and not attempt to land in the dark, “it gave them a lot of confidence,” said Frank Garcia, 91, the flight engineer and a guest of honor at the Pan Am event. Passengers were also comforted knowing “someone was out there waiting to give them as much aid as they can,” Garcia said. Standing watch on the cutter just after 8 a.m., Walker, 83, recalled that “the seas were extremely calm and the weather was good and we were hoping there wouldn’t be much of a problem.”
Just as Ogg had expected, the tail broke off as soon as the plane hit the sea. Then the nose of the airliner went under the water. “I felt as if somebody had grabbed the seat of my pants and was pulling,” Garcia said. “I saw the water. I was more frightened if the windows broke, then the water would come in.” From the cockpit, all Garcia saw was water. “I can’t tell you how many seconds, it was less than a minute, and I saw the water receding,” Garcia said, as the front of plane surfaced. On the Pontchartrain many thought they had just witnessed a disaster, Walker said. “It was so sad,” he said. “We knew nobody could survive that.” Rescue boats sped toward the plane, while other Coast Guardsmen filmed the event. Captured moments included life rafts bobbing by the aircraft’s fuselage, transferring survivors to rescue boats, the sinking plane, and the lifting of twin toddlers, Maureen and Elizabeth Gordon, from a lifeboat into waiting seamen’s arms. And, everyone was saved. It was a miracle at sea.
When someone is killed in a war, we are always in the hope that they will be found quickly, and identified by their friends, so that their remains can be returned to their family for a proper burial. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. Nevertheless, we hope that the time passing between death and identification is a very short amount. Unfortunately that was not the case with Carl David Dorr, who was one of the 429 sailors and Marines killed on board the USS Oklahoma when it was sunk in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Only 35 people on the ship were positively identified and buried in the years immediately following the December 7, 1941, military strike, according to the Defense Department. The unidentified remains were buried as unknowns at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, which fills the Punchbowl crater in Honolulu. For 77 years, Dorr’s family has been waiting and wondering what became of him. They knew he was at Pearl Harbor, and that he was on the USS Oklahoma. The bodies were there, but they could not be identified. I can’t think of anything that would be more frustrating than that. Sadly, the wait was beyond long…it was 77 years. When I think about his family, first losing their 27 year old son, and then not being able to bury their son. They died without that closure.
Carl’s family, like most American families, gathered around the radio on December 7, 1941. The news was grim. They didn’t know much yet, but they knew Carl’s ship had been attacked. With sinking hearts, they tied to hold out hope that by some miracle, he had survived. Then, they received the crushing news that he was missing in action…then, presumed dead. After the Defense Department began DNA collection in 2009, his family provided samples in hopes that one day it would help identify Carl’s body, his nephew said. His mother kept an heirloom photograph in her living room “so she could keep an eye on him,” Thomas Dorr said. She was able to see her son every day, even if he never made it home at all. And, of course, he never did, at least during their lifetime.
Recently, the DNA provided for identification purposed, finally paid off. Dorr’s body was finally identified, and he was going home at last. About 15 of Dorr’s relatives walked onto the tarmac of South Carolina’s Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport. As they watched, a flag-draped coffin was lowered from the plane into a hearse. “There was nothing but dead silence,” Carl’s 70-year-old nephew, Thomas Dorr, who lives in St. Johns, Florida, told CNN. “I knew that what I was experiencing was history.” Carl David Dorr was finally going to be laid to rest, and how fitting that his funeral would be held on the same day that he died, December 7, but 77 years after the day he died…Pearl Harbor Day.
When we think of the attack on Pearl Harbor, we mostly think of the events that took place at Pearl Harbor, but that attack was felt far and wide. I’m sure there are many stories, But this one struck me as particularly poignant. The Japanese bombing of the US naval base in Pearl Harbor 75 years ago sent a seismic shock around the world. Nicholas Best charts how stunned onlookers across the planet…from Dirk Bogarde to Adolf Hitler to Mao Zedong…reacted to the news. Their reactions might have been interesting, but I was moved by the thoughts and reactions of Joan Fawcett, who was simply a passenger on the Dutch ship Jägersfontein. Joan was just 21 years old that December 7th, and she was traveling to India from San Francisco. After several days at sea, she was looking forward to arriving in Honolulu soon after breakfast. Joan didn’t want to miss a moment as the ship approached the Hawaiian island of Oahu from the south.
Many other passengers were up early too. They were all enjoying the view of Diamond Head as they prepared to enter harbor. To add to the fun, the US navy was carrying out some sort of naval exercise ahead of them. As Joan later recalled: “I noticed a few puffs of grey smoke in the sky, just over the harbor, and as they seemed strange clouds I asked the boys what explanation they could give and we decided that they were the puffs from anti-aircraft fire. By this time there were many grey spots and soon we could hear the report of the guns. We thought it was just a practice maneuver and a welcome salute for us. By nine o’clock we had had breakfast and were all up on deck watching the planes fly over. We did see things drop into the water, and one only 50 yards away, but thought nothing more of it. Later we heard eight bombs were aimed at our ship. We made a beautiful target for we were entering the harbor, and being in the mined area could not swerve left or right in the cleared channel. We were thoroughly enjoying the display.” The ship’s agent hurried aboard as soon as they docked. He told the passengers it was no exercise. The US Navy’s Pacific fleet up the coast at Pearl Harbor was being attacked by the Japanese. Within hours, news of the outrage was racing around the world, leaving people shocked, dismayed…and, in some cases, delighted…in its wake.
Thinking about Joan Fawcett, I have wondered how she must have felt when she found out that they were sailing right into a battle. She may not have known it at all until the agent rushed onboard to try to pull people to safety. Imagining the awe of the beautiful harbor, and then having the images dissolving into horror, fear, and death. Now she finds herself running for her life alongside all the other passengers, praying that they can get to safety before one of those bombs hits them. There is no place that is safe to go. It was chaos…everywhere. She and the rest of the passengers are caught in the middle of their worst nightmare, and they can never get those pictures out of their heads. Most of the people alive then, and anyone who has ever studied the attack, could never get that picture out of their head.