Imphal, The Hump and Beyond
U.S.A.A.F. Combat Cargo Groups of the Second World War
2nd Combat Cargo Group, 6th Combat Cargo Squadron
A Delayed Christmas Present
2nd Lt. Robbie D. Langston,
Compiled by Mrs. Robbie D. Langston
"A DELAYED CHRISTMAS PRESENT"December 26, 1944
The 6th Combat Cargo Squadron arrived at Biak, Schouten Islands, (off the coast of New Guinea) around Thanksgiving 1944.
C-46's of the 6th Combat Cargo Squadron
Since this was the first permanent station the squadron began setting up own tents, building latrines, setting up a Mess Hall, and becoming fully operational. For several weeks the squadron had been building an Officers Club out of a big tent and were planning the first big party on Christmas Eve night!
On the night of December 23rd orders were issued on the Duty Roster for a plane (C-46 Serial # 42-101139 X652)to go down to Finschhafen, New Guinea to pick up a load of radar equipment. Pilot 1st Lt. Thomas G. Hollis, Co-Pilot 2nd Lt. Robbie D. Langston, S/Sgt Warren S Quinn, AAF Radio Operator, and S/Sgt William J. Eichelberger, AAF Aerial Engineer took off on the morning of December 23rd for Finschhafen. Upon arrival that morning at Finschhafen the plane was loaded by personnel at the Supply Depot. The crew was eager to take off to get back to Biak in time for the Christmas Eve party that night! Take off time was around 1500 (3:00 O'clock.)
After take-off and flying for a few hours we encountered severe weather that necessitated several directional corrections to avoid severe thunderstorms! After dodging the storms, tuned in Biak homing beacon 23K.C. and for quite some time were unable to pick up radio signals from Biak (Flying by radio compass.) After trying fruitlessly it became apparent that we did not know our location! At some point we realized we were in trouble. At that time Hollis told the Crew Chief and Radio Operator to start unloading all the cargo that they could move to lighten the load Hollis joined them.
While Hollis was out of the cockpit the middle gas tank was emptied resulting in engine failure in the excitement of the moment Langston changed the control to another empty tank! The plane was falling rapidly before he finally got the control to the third tank which had some gas left... By the time Hollis rushed back to the cockpit the engines had caught and Langston was able to pull up from the dive. After his heart started beating again he leveled off to have time for additional unloading...
Finally it was evident it was impossible to reach the radio station and the only option was to try for a controlled landing in the ocean. By this time all moveable cargo had been dumped and Hollis was at the controls again! It was discussed whether to head for the nearest land or just stay on the same course. It was decided to try the latter...
At any rate they started a shallow descent. The crew was thankful that the night was not pitch black even though gauging altitude above the water was difficult. As Hollis got closer to the water he instructed the Crew Chief and Radio Operator to sit with their backs to the bulkhead.. and he and co-pilot to put their feet against the instrument panel to brace themselves. As the plane got lower Hollis cut the throttles and eased back on the controls slowing the speed and rate of decent. As the plane touched water tail first, the nose then surged downward with the ocean coming up over the windshield. It then settled back and gently stopped amid deathly silence....
The two men in the back lost no time in launching the two yellow life rafts along with the water tank from the cabin brackets. Hollis helped with this and both rafts were inflated with no trouble. Langston (Co-pilot) exited the emergency door behind the pilot's station and helped push the rafts away from the plane. It was noticed that the signal pistol was still in the plane and Langston returned to the plane to pick it up. When he got back to the raft, Hollis indicated it would be a good idea to get into the raft, as there might be sharks. It took little persuasion after this for everyone to get comfortable in the rafts. The two rafts were tied together with Hollis and Eichelberger in one raft and Quinn and Langston in the other. The Gibson Girl radio was in the raft with Quinn and Langston. Ditched at 2025 (8:25 PM) Sunday, Dec 24, 1944.
It was observed the plane floated for some 23 minutes, before gently slipping under the water. The silence in this vast openness was over-whelming, but after resting a little the crew discussed strategy and the equipment available. Accessible was the Gibson Girl Emergency Transmitter operated by a hand crank, flare gun, kite, balloon and some hard candy.
The crew tried to set up radio, but didn't get enough air in the balloon. The kite was put up to extend the antenna and started cranking out SOS signals. After doing this for quite some time, they quit for the rest of the night. Weather was fair and there was a moon...Monday A.M. - CHRISTMAS DAY some time before daylight the kite broke loose; therefore, the next morning the balloon was inflated to hold the antenna in the air! Off and on all day Christmas Day Langston keyed the message, "Merry Christmas, SOS" ... the crew also sang Christmas Carols during the day. Langston recalled they talked about the power of prayer and indicated prayers were evident through out the entire ordeal. The weather on Christmas Day was somewhat erratic; thunderstorms with wind at times. During the thunderstorms the men would get wet and cold, but when the sun came out it was very hot! The waves were choppy during the thunderstorms. The deep swells caused the rafts to undulate so much the crew became very seasick.... So much vomiting caused dehydration among the crewmembers. By the end of the second day most of the fellows were quite weak from exhaustion and exposure!
During the afternoon of the 25th at least 4 planes were sighted.... The crew signaled frantically with their mirrors but they were not sighted, due to overcast being so heavy! Seeing that these were C-46's, it was felt that other squadron members might be searching; this gave them encouragement! At 1830 Langston sent "Merry Christmas" and quit cranking until after midnight!
At 0100 sent another message..... at 0200 the men saw a light bobbing on the horizon and this really caused excitement! It appeared that the light was coming closer..... and then the discussion was whether it might be an American ship or Japanese! It was decided that regardless they would accept a lift should this occur.
The crew immediately shot flares and lighted their signal lamp to try to attract the attention of the approaching vessel. Within 30-45 minutes there was little doubt that the lights was coming nearly directly towards the rafts. Finally, it could be recognized that the ship was fully lighted, and it was an American Hospital ship! The ship turned on their spotlight, and picked up the rafts in its beam, gradually slowing its speed and circling the rafts slowly until it came to a stop.
The ship's crew lowered their whaleboat to help the rafts negotiate the waters up to the ship! As the fliers got next to the ship, the seamen dropped a Jacob ladder over the side. As soon as the rafts were within shouting distance the airmen yelled "Merry Christmas" to the ship! There is some question as to how the four airmen were able to climb the ladder to board the ship. It is understood that one of the men who went overboard to help with the rescue probably carried one of the airmen up the ladder. Langston remembered being so weak it was all he could do to climb the ladder onto the ship.
When all the rescued airmen were aboard, the Ships Captain suggested the rescued men take a drink of whisky and the Doctor concurred. At that point the men were separated and it is only known what happened with Langston. He was so weak from seasickness and exposure; he did not eat anything at the time of rescue and for days hence. Also, he was unable to go to sleep for several hours... finally was given a hypo! It was found that he was dehydrated, so IV's were given to remedy the situation. He remained in bed for several days before regaining strength. By the time he recovered, all the airmen wanted to explore the ship, but had to do so in their hospital pajamas as it was against regulations for the ship to carry any passengers except hospital patients!
It was learned that the ship was the USS HOPE, which had only been in operation in the Southwest Pacific Theater for some two months. They were on their way to Leyte Gulf, Philippine Islands to pick up casualties from the invasion when they started picking up the distress signals. It was necessary to make only small corrections from their original heading to home in on rafts.
The rescued airmen stayed on board for the 10-day trip to the Philippines and returned to Hollandia, New Guinea that was homeport! Langston remembers the critical condition of many of the casualties, which were loaded at Leyte Gulf. The HOPE reached Hollandia, on January 5th at 1506, airmen went ashore on January 6th at 1100. By this time the Squadron Commander, Col. T. P. (Ted) Tatum had received radio information concerning the rescue, and was there to pick up his crew to return to Biak.. caught C-47 at 0830 for Biak.
In approximately two weeks the crew was put back on flying status. A telegram was sent to Langston's parents saying Langston had returned to duty.
Special thanks to Robbie D. & Billie Langston for the Story, 'A Delayed Christmas Present' and for 'The Rest of the Story' - A Christmas Present from the USS Hope.
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