Three Days at Sea

In early April 1944, the plans for invading Hollandia were in full swing. V Bomber Command was doling out orders to soften up the area ahead of time and the 312th Bomb Group participated in one such mission on April 12th. The unit was sent to Tami Airdrome, located 13 miles east of Hollandia, where they bombed and strafed the runway and the aircraft dispersal area.

While heading back to Gusap, an A-20 crew from the 386th Squadron spotted three Japanese luggers and the pilot, 2/Lt. James M. Horton, decided to attack them. He destroyed one and damaged the other two, then pulled up from his run. Horton’s problems began when he didn’t fly high enough to avoid hitting a tree with his left engine. He flew out over the water to put some distance in between himself and the Japanese, but felt confident that he could make it back to Gusap on one engine.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before that confidence disappeared, because the right engine started to cut out as well. There was no way to make it over the Finisterre Mountains now. It was time to bail out. Horton told his gunner, S/Sgt. Alphonse S. Rylko, to bail out, but he refused. He figured that if one of them was injured in the ditching, the other man could help out. Rylko’s foresight would prove to be correct.

The A-20 landed in the water going about 110mph and stayed afloat for about 90 seconds. Rylko escaped with nothing more than a bruised shoulder. Horton was hit in the back of the head by the five-man life raft and got a cut on his hand from broken glass. The men worked together to inflate the life raft, then climbed in. Overhead the P-38s that had been escorting the A-20 circled the downed crew a few times before flying off. Alone in the ocean, the crew was left to deal with a couple of problems: a hole in the bottom of the life raft and rough seas. Their kit had a rubber patch but no glue, so they used chewing gum to fill the hole. The gum patches were not ideal and had to be replaced several times while the crew waited to be rescued.

Before daylight completely disappeared, the men saw a PBY Catalina in the distance, but it never got close to where they were floating. They spent a rainy, unpleasant night in the raft bailing water and repatching the hole. The next day, they saw six P-38s and a Catalina and unsuccessfully attempted to signal to them. That afternoon, it rained again, and continued all night. Horton and Rylko were kept busy bailing water. Their rations consisted of candy and six cans of water, along with whatever rainwater they could catch. The next day, the men tried to get the attention of someone aboard one of the B-25s, A-20s or P-38s that passed by on the way to Tadji. Then a Catalina escorted by a P-38 passed by. It was still raining, making it much harder to see the downed crew. 

Finally, someone aboard a 345th Bomb Group B-25 noticed the men and radioed for a Catalina. It wasn’t long before the Catalina landed, but its fuel tanks exploded, igniting and sinking the rescue plane. Rylko and Horton didn’t see any survivors among the debris. A second Catalina landed in the rough seas half an hour later and everyone on board had to toss heavy objects overboard before the aircraft could take off. Three days after the ditching, the men were finally out of danger and back on land. They drifted about 80 miles away from their ditching site.

This story can be found in our book Rampage of the Roarin’ 20’s.

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