Adrift at Sea: A Chance Encounter

On March 11, 1945, B-25 crews from the 501st Squadron, 345th Bomb Group took off from San Marcelino in search of shipping around Tourane Bay, located on the coast of French Indochina (now Vietnam). The previous day, the 500th Squadron was in that area and attacked a couple of Japanese ships that they spotted, sinking the 5239-ton tanker Seishin Maru. This time, there was an oil tanker strategically anchored near the shoreline, and guarded by antiaircraft batteries.

The crews lined up to attack the ship, flying overhead one by one. Gunners at the batteries, as well as on the nearby airbase, fired at the B-25s. Second Lieutenant Arthur J. McGrane was last over the ship in B-25 #190. Below him, the antiaircraft gunners were still firing away, one of whom managed to hit McGrane’s B-25 in the left wing root. The flak severed the fuel line and holed the wing tank, causing fuel to pour into the fuselage. Up in the cockpit, the pilot watched as the fuel gauge dropped rapidly. He let the flight leader know about the damage and began the 700-mile journey home.

Meanwhile, the rest of the crews made another run over the tanker and also strafed three luggers in the area. Then, they set out for home, with the flight leader hot on the trail of McGrane’s damaged B-25. He did not think McGrane would make it all the way back to San Marcelino, so he radioed the nearby Catalina that was waiting to rescue any downed airmen.

Tanker at Tourane

The 501st Squadron of the 345th Bomb Group sank this unidentified tanker in the harbor at Tourane, French Indochina, on March 11, 1945. The photo was taken from B-25 #199. Second Lieutenant Arthur J. McGrane and his crew were shot down on this mission. After four days at sea in a life raft, they were rescued by a U.S. submarine. (Maurice J. Eppstein Collection)

Ahead of the rest of his squadron, McGrane’s crew was busy lightening the aircraft by discarding everything they possibly could while McGrane was closely monitoring the state of his B-25. Judging by the fuel gauges and the overpowering smell of fuel wafting throughout the plane, it wouldn’t be long before it would head for the ocean, so the pilot ordered his crew to prepare for a ditching. To make the situation more precarious, there was approximately an inch of fuel in the fuselage and any spark would blow the aircraft to bits. As they settled into their ditching positions, all T/Sgt. William F. Burhans, the turret gunner, could think about was what he heard back at San Marcelino: no one survived a ditching in the South China Sea.

For several minutes, they waited. Then the engines began to cut out and quit altogether shortly thereafter. Gliding down from 125 feet, the B-25 bounced off the sea once, then splashed to a stop into the water. Upon impact, McGrane’s left hand was crushed between the control column and the instrument panel. His co-pilot, F/O Alfred R. Palace and navigator, 2/Lt. Joe A. Groves quickly got out through the overhead escape hatch, followed by McGrane.

While the life raft had been properly ejected and inflated, it was floating near patches of burning fuel and no one wanted to retrieve it. Near the back of the plane, Burhans was panicking after he had been knocked unconscious in the crash and revived underwater. He thought that their plane had blown up, throwing him and Sgt. Arthur T. Neer into the water. After he inflated his life vest and rose to the surface, he found himself in the middle of a patch of burning fuel and promptly dove down to try and swim away from it. This process was repeated two more times before he got out of the fire. Fortunately, a one-man life raft package was floating next to him, so he opened it and inflated the raft. McGrane, Groves and Neer swam over to him. Palace had disappeared and S/Sgt. Marshall L. Dougherty, Jr., their radio operator, never made it out.

About five minutes after landing, the B-25 sank. Above them, their flight leader watched the downed airmen bobbing in the rough seas. The Catalina arrived on the scene within 10 minutes and tried to land in the water close to the men. A loud boom emanated from the Catalina and the pilot quickly took off. Later, it was discovered that the source of the sound was the hull cracking. Instead of a rescue, a six-man raft and a “Gibson Girl” radio were dropped, then both planes flew off. In the raft, burns, cuts and a broken hand were treated as best as they could be and the four men settled in to wait for a rescue.

Over the course of two days, they drifted more than 100 miles from the crash location, the result of a strong southerly current along the coast of the Indochina Peninsula. Their new location was far away from the B-25 search area, and, while they had been using the radio to signal anyone in the area, they never used it long enough for anyone to get a firm reading on their position. Five days after the crash, someone smelled diesel in the air. He woke the rest of the crew and they all listened for a humming that stood out from the ocean’s typical sounds.

Willing to risk getting captured by the Japanese instead of dying in the open water, they quickly grabbed the radio, switched on the light and cranked out an S.O.S. in hopes of getting the attention of whatever happened to be nearby. As the silhouette of a submarine materialized about a quarter of a mile in front of them, someone onboard saw their signal and the sub began heading right for them. About 50 yards away, a member of the crew yelled over a megaphone, “Put that god damn light out!” The aircrew was saved.

It turned out that the U.S.S. Bergall was on the surface to recharge the batteries and was going to go back underwater only a few minutes later. While the skipper knew about the downed “zoomies” in the area, he wasn’t counting on finding them. They were now 250 miles south of the crash site. Everyone was given food, water and fruit juice, wounds were treated. None of the men flew combat missions for the rest of the war.

 

Read more about the 345th Bomb Group in Warpath Across the Pacific.

22 thoughts on “Adrift at Sea: A Chance Encounter

  1. When I read these stories of rescued flyers who had to put down at sea, I wonder how many drifted aimlessly with no hope of rescue. Are there any statistics on how many made water landings and were never rescued?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: IHRA’s Top 7 Posts of 2020 | IHRA

  3. It seems to me that ditching was a dangerous solution – from my limited research it often resulted in loss of an average of at least half a crew – for a B-24 that was half of 10 crew. I never understood why the crew didn’t bail out (taking rafts with them). Maybe there’s a good reason?
    Here’s a USAAF instructional video on ditching a B-17.

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