TOO FAST TO STOP AND TOO SLOW TO
CRASHING FROM THE YORKTOWN FLIGHT DECK INTO THE NORTH CHINA SEA
J.R. Ash Air Combat Crewman JR4ASH@aol.com
Van Team 'Able' of Navy Squadron VC-35 was aboard the U.S.S.
Yorktown (CVA-10), and had joined Task Force 77 two weeks after the Korean
Armistice was signed. Our story occurs exactly 30 days after the signing of the
Armistice. Three men had been formed into an aircrew team about five months
earlier and had flown many hours together. They were Lt. Richard L. (Dick)
Arnicar, AE-2(CA) James R. Ash, and AT-3(CA) Ron L. Cammans. Dick was a recalled
WW-II Navy carrier pilot, married with no children, and a graduate Engineer. Jim
had 2 years of college, volunteered when the war began but turned down NavCad
because he didn't want the reserve obligation. Ron was too young to have had the
opportunity at college, and he had volunteered when the war began also.
The Yorktown was on station in the North China Sea and, our ECM mission for the day launched around 09:30. It was a beautiful day and we were in our assigned AD-4N, designated NR-13. (No joke, just a bad omen.) Each crewman was in his usual assignment, Ash in the port seat and Cammans in the starboard. Our pre-flight and run-up was normal and we awaited the signal for deck launch, as if it was just another hop in a time of non-hostility. After the signal Dick released the brakes and that big engine began to hurl us toward the bow. We ran down the deck, aircraft straight and level, until we reached the forward portion of the ship's island. It was then that we heard the most frightening of sounds. (Whether you're driving on top, or in that small compartment in the fuselage, the sound is heard by all and means the same to each.)
The sound was instantaneous - total - SILENCE. The engine had quit. No spitting, no sputtering. It just quit. Dick immediately realized that we were going too fast to stop, and too slow to fly. His reaction was immediate, and life saving. He steered the AD to starboard, and we left the flight deck on the starboard side, just short of the bow; and the momentum kept the wheels from catching in the catwalk railings.
I can't speak for what was going through Dick's mind, but I know he was quite busy. But for me, I just looked out my 10-inch diameter porthole and watched the ship go by. I was tightly strapped, and I knew Ron was also; so there was nothing I could do but watch. I can't equate to you the feeling of the impact with the water, but I would suggest you imagine a plane with considerable forward momentum diving off the top of a 7-story building. It was a sudden stop.
After impact, each crewman has his own story; and all three are different. In my case, I was tightly strapped but I foolishly had made no effort to brace myself. My chin went violently to my chest and I was momentarily stunned, or unconscious for a brief time. When I came to my senses I was immediately aware that the ship was on my side of the aircraft, and that I would have to exit on the starboard side. When I looked to my right the starboard hatch was jettisoned, Ron was gone, and water was halfway up the hatch.
In AirCrew School we were told that a plane would sink in about 15 seconds, and that the sinking plane could drag you under if you were close to it. My survival skills told me to get out and to swim like hell, which I did. The official shipboard photographer was taking numerous pictures which, when we saw them later, revealed Ron swimming near the plane's starboard elevator and waving to the ships crew that he was O.K. They also revealed the fastest swimmer in the world taking a 90-degree angle away from the aircraft.
The pictures also revealed something else. Dick's canopy was open, of course, but he couldn't get out of the cockpit. The ship's crew (and many of our own flight crew) were trying to signal Ron and I to go back to assist Dick, but Ron thought they were asking his own condition, and I had my back to the ship. (To this day, I regret my instincts to leave the aircraft without thinking to check on whether Dick was out or not. (You make your decisions, then you live with the result.) Dick had suffered spinal chord injury, which resulted in permanent loss of the use of his legs. The pictures reveal him with his hands on each side of the cockpit, trying to push himself up and over the side.
Each time I watch the movie "The Bridges of Toko-Ri" the helicopter pilot, "Chief Forney" played by Mickey Rooney, always makes me think of the Yorktown's rescue 'copter pilot. How I wish I knew his name, for he is a real hero to me. Realizing Dick's predicament, he lowered his sling into the cockpit. Because of Dick's condition he was unable to properly place the sling, and the water was rising fast. Dick managed to physically hold onto the sling until he was safely placed back aboard ship.
Dick spent considerable time in rehab, enjoyed a rewarding engineering career with an aircraft manufacturer, and he and his wife adopted two children. He, and his two AirCrewmen, attended the 50th anniversary reunion of VC-35 in October, 2000. . Lt. Dick Arnicar has been picked up by the rescue 'copter, and is enroute back to the Yorktown. Ron has thoughtfully got his one-man life raft inflated, and is luxuriously relaxing in it. I'm at least 20 yards away treading water when I see, over the swells, that he has a raft. After swimming to him I get a good hold on the broad end, and we both rejoice that all three of us survived.
Everything appeared to be O.K. with both of us, so Ron resumes his 'relaxing' in the raft; with me hanging on behind his head. As Ron told (and retold) the story at our recent VC-35 reunion, he thought things were fine, until he kept hearing an unusual sound. Glub - Glub - Glub. He decided to check on me and found that, even though I was hanging onto the raft, my head was underwater. When he had entered the raft he had thrown out the sea anchor, and my feet were tangled in the line and it was pulling me under.
Ron pulled in the sea anchor, which helped me considerably. The carrier was no longer in sight over the swells, but we were confident that the good old U.S. Navy would soon come to our rescue. After a time, which seemed longer than it probably was, we could see a Destroyer headed our way. Rescue was at hand, or was it?
The Destroyer kept coming toward us, coming toward us, and coming toward us. In fact it looked like it was going to ram us. I hadn't felt that I felt panic when I came to my senses after the AD hit the water, but I knew I felt panic now. It kept getting closer & closer, and the Destroyer's bow never veered away from us. In fact the very front of the port side of the bow nosed right into our raft, and the raft just slid down the side of the ship until we were amidships. (Obviously the Skipper knew how to keep our raft snug to the ship, but he sure didn't communicate that message to us.) Ron and I were relieved, and knew that we would soon be out of the water and safe aboard the U.S.S. Parks. Not quite!
Since I was the swimmer, a rope ladder was lowered for me to board first. I'm about halfway up the side when the ladder either breaks, or turns loose. Again, glub, glub, glub. Ron helps me maneuver back to the ship, and another rope ladder. Finally we're aboard, greeted by the Skipper, and received our portion of brandy before a physical appraisal in sick bay. We were initially offered the opportunity to change from our flight suits into dry officer's khaki, but we thought we should 'own up' to only being enlisted men. (The red carpet was withdrawn.)
Our adventure wasn't quite over, for our transfer back to the Yorktown remained. This was accomplished, within a few hours, with a ride on a breeches buoy. This would be exciting, even with a smooth sea. (I'd estimate that the swells were 3 feet or better.) As the Destroyer rolls port then starboard, the chair drops toward the sea then dramatically shoots skyward. It's a real roller coaster ride, and one I'll remember always.
Back aboard the Yorktown Ron & I were debriefed, then allowed to visit Lt. Arnicar. The carrier's metal smiths have created a transport cage enclosing his bed. The bed was raised in the middle about 18 inches, and Dick was lying on his back. It certainly looked like an uncomfortable position, but he was paralyzed from the waist down and didn't appear to be in pain. Within a day or two he was transferred, by breeches buoy, to a tanker to begin his trip to Long Beach Naval Hospital.
Ron and I continued the cruise flying VC-35's missions in our AD-4N's, piloted by junior pilots assigned from VA-65. These pilots had never flown with Aircrewmen, but that's another story! You can imagine.
J. R. Ash