A Family Christmas After An Ordeal At Sea

Four men of 23 aboard a Navy radar plane survive crash and nine desperate hours in the Pacific

As people the world over sat down with seasonal rejoicing to their Christmas dinners, the young son of a Navy officer stood beside a hospital bed in Hawaii patiently__and
thankfully__feeding a holiday meal to his father. Two days before, his father had
narrowly survived a harrowing trial by water in the storm-whipped Pacific__an ordeal
that had begun as a routine training flight for a little heard of but vital U.S. defense
operation, the Pacific Barrier.

Pacific Barrier is the sea extension of the DEW line radar network. From Oahu a fleet of
Super-Constellations carrying tons of radar gear, fly long patrols over the Pacific as far north as Alaska, scanning the skies for hostile aircraft. In the first year and a half of "Operation Barrier", its pilots had racked up some 376,000 hours of flying time without incident.

Constellation 143197 set out on its flight two days before Christmas with a crew of 23.
Commander Guy Howard Jr., executive officer of the squadron was sitting in the copilot
seat, to give Commander Frederick Woodward a checkout that would qualify him as a
plane commander. For five and a half hours Howard put Woodward through his paces.
Then, as the Connie cruised only 1,500 feet above the ocean, Howard called for a new exercise: what would Woodward do if a fire broke out in the forward baggage compartment?
Responding correctly, Woodward "cut" (disconnected by pulling circuit breakers) some electrical Circuits.

But something went wrong. The plane began falling. "I thought it was a drill"
Navigator Richard Rentschler later told LIFE Correspondent James Goode. "The next
thing I notice was water out the starboard window." Seconds later the plane hit the water, broke in two and caught fire.

As the plane hit, Rentschler was hurled under the navigator’s table and came out
surrounded by flames. He pushed Radioman Franklin Henry Jr. through the escape
hatch, then jumped free himself Lieut. (jg) Thomas Kline, pinned under the radar
console, was freed by another crewman (Robert O. Clark). "Ijumped through the fire," says Kline, and swam under water 50 feet to avoid the flames. Commander Howard escaped from the cockpit.
 

How many others had survived the crash, these four__ Rentschler, Howard, Kline and
Henry__ could not he sure in the heavy seas. With life jackets, and clinging to pieces of floating debris, they began their long vigil.

Through efficiency and luck the rescue operation began quickly. A National Guard
radarman had been tracking the plane and had a fix on its last location. The squadron
duty officer, worried because the plane was unreported, although not yet overdue, alerted rescue units less than two hours after the crash. Two Marine crash boats sped toward the scene.

In the water three more survivors floated up: James Rush, Robert Clark and Charles
Price. The three were already in bad shape. Henry remembers. "Price kept saying,
‘Hold my feet, Henry, hold my feet.' So I held his feet so his head would lean on the Mae West around his neck,,.... We stayed that way three to five hours... then Price said, ‘Leave me go, Henry.’"

Rush floated away as the waves grew rougher. "they’d suck you under and pop you
back out" Henry says. "The water was about 70 degrees, but a wind came up and we all
felt so cold." All the men swallowed great quantities of salt water. Rentschler watched
as Clark and Price drifted near. "Price was dead by then. Clark kept coughing. I told
him to hang on...A breaker came and that’s the last I saw of him."

Then, after nine terrible hours, the Marine crash boats arrived to recover the four survivors and the bodies of Rush and Price. Back, in Hawaii, a bleak Christmas came for the bereaved, although four families could be joyful.