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Newsletter VP-91 Alumni Association Newsletter

"Up Floats"
Contributed by George B. Winter pbycat@bellsouth.net

Letters and Memories!

George B. Winter pbycat@bellsouth.net

Dumbo and the rescue of C. R. Munsey ARM2c and Ens Mike Harbushka

By John Bishop and John Henry of Ins.

PicturePhoto taken on August 1977 of Charles Munsey and George Winter


Its flight is lumbering. Its wing are wide and graceless. On occasion, after landing on heavy seas, it has been kept afloat by plugging rivet holes with wood golf tees. And its two engines thunder in noisy disproportion to the speed they generate. Yet there are men in the Pacific who have seen in that clumsy silhouette against the clouds a magnificence far more imperious than the swift beauty of any P-38 or B-17. They are fliers, all of them-survivors of fighters and bombers forced down by battle damage. They have looked skyward, all of them, in desperate hope where death approached, on enemy waters. And the magnificence which they have recognized in the silhouette against the clouds has been the promise that they were to be brought from the shadow of death back to life on its slow sure wings, the wings of a Navy PBY, A Dumbo.

From the beginning of the war, Navy PBY 's, the slow, obsolescent, ruggedly reliable flying boats sometimes called Catalinas, but more often P boats by the men who fly them, have been the instrument of the policy decreed by our aerial high command , that every possible effort shall be made to rescue fliers who have survived forced landings. In the air warfare of the Pacific, fought from island bases over archipelagoes and open seas, the fate of a land-based plane damaged in the fighting often is a forced landing in the ocean, often without injury to the crew, often far within enemy areas. Death by thirst and starvation on their emergency rafts, death or capture by enemy patrols if they make their way to an island shore, threaten the survivors unless they can be rescued. PBY's have saved hundreds in the South Pacific, where air warfare over the main islands and the snail island mazes of the Solomons has reached its fiercest heat, there is a squadron of PBY's whose primary duty is rescue flying. Like Walt Disney's elephant with the helicopter ears, its name is DUMBO.

Late April, John Henry, of INS, and I traveled north by transport plane from Henderson Field to visit Dumbo at its headquarters in the Treasurys. Our introduction began at Munda airfield. There, beside the airstrip, a P-38 lay on its belly, its bright metal twin "booms" and pilot's nacelle dusty and dented, its two big propellers curled back over the engine cowlings. At the air-transport office, its pilot bearded our plane, carrying his parachute and wearing, in addition to his yellow Mae West, an air of weary disgust.

Yesterday, he explained, his hydraulic gear had been so thoroughly shot out that he couldn't lower his wheels, and he had belly-landed here at Munda. He had been hit while strafing Jap A.A. batteries at low level over Ballale in the Shortlands. As one of the fighter escort of a Dumbo plane, he had been trying to demoralize the Jap gunners who were shelling the Dumbo, under heavy fire, had rescued the crew of a PV Ventura.

I will come back to this PV rescue later, and will continue with DUMBO and how it began. Actually, the recorded history of Dumbo began on January 1, 1943. Through all the air fighting of 1942, the rescues of downed fliers had been carried on by PBY 's temporarily ordered away from their regular patrols as the need arose, and the name , DUMBO, first applied to P boats on rescue missions by some wit of the air waves with a gift for apt word, had been simply a radio voice call. In the last months of 1942, however, as our growing air strength in the South Pacific loosed a rising storm of attacks on Jap airfields, supply dumps and ship concentrations in the islands to the north of our Guadalcanal and Florida islands footholds, the number of appeals for rescue had increased so steadily that rescue missions no longer could be considered a merely incidental duty for patrol squadrons. Accordingly, Vice Adm. Aubrey W. Fitch Commander of Air, South Pacific, detached two PBY's and three crews of Fleet Air Wing One from their routine patrol duties to take over rescue flying as a full-time job. Thus Dumbo was born as a lifesaving entity at Florida Island in the southern Solomons. It celebrated its birth by rescuing a fighter pilot on January 1, 1943,(Editor, I would like to know what was the first squadron assigned Dumbo. VP-91 relieved that group on January 15,1943. One plane with two crews Lt. Hoffman and Lt. Teich crews, and were relieved on Feb 5, 1943.) Now to finish John Bishop's story about Munsey and Harbrushka.

In the wardroom of Dumbo's mother ship, where it rode at anchor in a glass-smooth inlet between low, jungle-covered hills, Lt. Frazier (VP-91) completed our introduction to Dumbo and the men who risk their lives to save the lives of their fellow fliers. On the previous day, at 0940, he related, he had taken off from the inlet in answer to the PV's call for help. After picking up his escort of P-38's he had headed away to the position in the Shortlands where the PV had come down. It was a short hop from the Treasurys. When he landed close to the PV survivors on their raft, the shores of the Shortlands were all around, with Ballale, the nearest, about four miles away.

The P-38's had flown ahead to strafe the Jap 5-inch batteries on the surrounding islands, Nusakoa, Nusave and Ballale. "When those boys go in," Frazier said, "they really go in, and don't you forget it." In spite of the strafing, however, the Jap gunners opened fire as soon as Frazier's P boat touched the water, and so accurately that even before it had plowed to a stop, the flame and spray of vicious surface bursts were straddling it. Every second on the water invited disaster to the PBY, a huge, helpless fixed target for the Jap gunners. Nevertheless, Frazier edged his plane up to the raft, and hastily the rescue began.

Three of the survivors were got aboard quickly through one of the big blisters near the tail, but the fourth was badly wounded man who could do nothing to help his rescuers, Frazier's first radioman C.R. Munsey, ARM2c, jumped overboard to push the raft close under the blister, and the first Ens. Mike Harbrushka, climbed through the blister to hold on with one hand while trying to pass a line around the wounded man with the other. Salve after salve of shells was blasting the surface into spray, none farther than fifty yards from the plane. Miraculously, it had so far escaped damage.

But now a mischance occurred which nearly forfeited two more lives. From the pilots' cockpit, where he sat at the controls, Frazier yelled through the cruel blasts of the busting shells to ask how the rescue was progressing, and somehow the answer came back to him that all were aboard, both the survivors and his own crew. At once he opened his throttles wide. Harbrushka was torn from his precarious handhold. As he joined Munsey On the raft, the P boat was lifting, growing smaller in the distance, shrinking to a speck against the clouds. The shelling stopped. But when Harrushka and Munsey looked to the wounded man, they found that he was dead, that nothing could have saved him.

Not to Frazier, but to another PBY, fell the duty of rescuing the two men who had been behind. Passing within a few miles of the Shortlands as it was homing from a patrol, the other P boat intercepted Fraziers radio conversation and volunteered to take over the second rescue. The shore based, which was directing the mission, accepted the offer and ordered Frazier to hurry the PV survivors to a hospital. In telling of it Frazier seemed almost regretful that he had not been allowed to fly into the storm of Jap shells a second time to recover his men.

The men of the substitute Dumbo knew, as Frazier had not until it was upon him, the fullness of the danger which lay in wait, when they landed four miles from the batteries of Ballale. Nevertheless, they flew in, made their landing and lay motionless beside the raft through the terrible moments of helplessness among the bursting shells while Harbrushka and Munsey were brought aboard. When at last they flew out of the shelling to safety, the tail of their P boat was ragged with shrapnel holes. In the double rescue, at least twenty-five men had taken part, Five lives-the three of the PV and the two whom Frazier had left behind-had been saved.

Frazier's story was finished. Without knowing it, perhaps, he had revealed to us the stature of DUMBO and its men, and of the magnificence which fliers have recognized as they looked skyward from disaster to see the lumbering approach of DUMBO wings.

Now to finish the story of the rescue of Harbruska and Munsey from a letter to me dated Aug. 20, 1997. But before I get to this letter, let me go back to a PBY CAT INTERNATIONAL ASSOCIATION reunion in Pensacola, FL. 1995. Al Taylor came up to me and said his crew from VP-81 rescued Harbrushka and Munsey. I saw his log book but didn't get a copy of it. But requested Munsey to send a copy of his log, which he did.

In July 1997, I received a post card requesting I send the newsletter I prepare for VP-91, to his father-in-law, Robert L. Fleming, who flew PBY"s during WWII. I sent the newsletter as requested and asked in a note to give a little information about his PBY days. In his reply he stated that he was a PPC in VP-81 and his crew rescued Harbrushka and Munsey. I made a telephone call to him and told him I was in contact with his radioman and that I was also in contact with one of the men he rescued, Munsey.

I requested that he write his recollections of that rescue and send it to me, which he did. This is his reply---We made the landing and made one pass and our crew easily brought the two Dumbo crewmen in via the waist hatch, but we had a terrible time trying to bring in the wounded crewman from the Ventura. He had his guts spilled out all over his stomach, and blood all over him, and it was a miracle that he was conscious. the two men from the VP-91 crew had apparently climbed into the raft to try to lift him into their Dumbo, only to be left behind due to some apparent communications foul-up between the Dumbo pilot and his crew as the Dumbo took off. My guys did everything imaginable to get the wounded man into our plane, apart from climbing out to get him in direct defiance of my emphatic orders that none of our crew was to do that under any circumstances. I couldn't see just what was happening back in the waist, but I know that lines were thrown out for the wounded man to grab, that a boat hook was extended to him, and that several crew members did their best to grab him by the hands and arms on at least one, and I believe two occasions in an effort to get him into the plane, all to no avail.

The wounded man really was totally unable to help himself, so we couldn't get him into the plane, despite six passes, each one slower than the other, over a period of about twenty minutes, during which time we were steadily being shot at from Ballale, sustaining a total of about twenty hits from shrapnel of shells bursting near the plane. We were straddled any number of times, but fortunately no direct hits (or we wouldn't be here to talk about it) Just after our six pass, as I was about to make one final pass, a piece of shrapnel severed the wire cable leading to the elevator tab. That convinced me that it ~~as pretty ridiculous to tempt fate any longer and that I should try to take off or, at the very least, taxi out of range of the Ballale shore batteries. The tab had been rolled back for landing and ~~as frozen in that position due to the shrapnel hit, so Scotty and I had to lean on the yoke as hard as we possibly could to get the nose of the plane down for its take-off run, but it worked and got the old baby in the air and into Treasury for temporary repairs and then back to Munda.

Sid Alien was my crew chief, and, in my opinion, the best crew chief in the Pacific fleet. With every pass I had asked him to thin out the mixture and cut the engines in and out so that we would approach the raft as slowly as possible, and he managed this on every pass until our sixth an final pass, when the engines cut out and left us motionless on the Water. Sid with his usual cool professionalism, got the engines started again, much to my huge relief, or we would have been goners. I don't know who was doing what in the waist, but someone had the presence of mind to throw out our sea anchors to slow down our approaches to the raft, and this man, or some other man in the waist, also had presence of mind to cut loose the sea anchors as we started our take-off run. No crew in the squadron, in my opinion, was the equal of my crew, which I inherited from Norm Vogt, my prior Patrol Plane Commander, when he was transferred out to other duty in late March or early April, 1944, enabling me to inherit his plane crew. With any other crew to work with, I wouldn't expect to be here today.

As we pulled away from the raft following our sixth pass, the wounded Ventura crewman seemed to me to be in hysteria, as he had a sort of a smile on his face and seemed to try to wave good-bye to us as we taxied by. I will never forget that. It hurt. I have even cried about it several times over the years. After we left another VP-81 plane, piloted by our Lt. Samoluk, came in, landed, made a pass at the raft and, seeing that the man appeared to be dead, took off. As the plane rose from the water, a shell hit near the raft and turned it over, thus burying its contents at sea befitting burial.

I visited Charles Munsey in late August 1997 and we discussed his rescue. He said he and Mike Harbrushka were back in the waist gun station when they pulled alongside the raft and got the first three crewman aboard but the injured man had a bad stomach wound and they thought, that if they reached over and pulled him by his shoulders the would leave half of him behind. I went over on the raft with a knife and we were going to put ropes around the raft and I was going to slash the raft and pull the injured man and raft through the blister. About that time Lt . Frazier hit the throttles and knock Mike Harbrushka into the water. Their was heavy ground swells and every time the raft hit the top of the ground swells, the Japs would open fire on the raft, so when the raft came up I went over the side into the water. After about two hours in the raft, the rescue plane came in and picked us up.

"VP-91 Up-Float Stories Summary Page"