Cold War Casualties
by Garry Ahern, Dublin Ireland
On a late-September Sunday afternoon, I was a member of a small crowd gathered at Galley Head Lighthouse in West Cork. We were there for the unveiling of a plaque to commemorate an air-sea rescue operation, following the ditching of an airliner 500 miles off-shore, on another September day. Fifty years earlier, four of us now present had been focused on the sombre drama, unaware of each other, in our then young, separate, lives.
It’s just a few years ago now since the landing of an airliner on the Hudson River, New York, made headlines. In a successful landing on water, a rarity in itself, rescue craft sped to the scene and all 155 aboard were brought to safety. The pilot, Captain Chesley Sullenberger, was rightly acclaimed for his exceptional skill and coolness under pressure. The subsequent vindication of the pilot has been dramatised in the film ‘Sully’, in which the lead role is played by Tom Hanks.
It was very different in 1962, when a Lockheed Super-Constellation, the premier airliner of its day, ditched at night in the Atlantic, in twenty-foot waves, far from immediate help. In a world then in the the frigid grip of Cold War, the Cuban missile crisis was only a month away. Tension was high also in Berlin, with its new and infamous wall. American troop-levels in Germany were being boosted. At McGuire Air Force Base, New Jersey, that Sunday, seventy-six boarded Flight 923 for Frankfurt.
Aboard were military personnel and some civilians, totalling seventy-six, including crew. Among the newly-trained paratroopers was twenty-year-old Private Fred Caruso.
Having re-fuelled at Gander, Newfoundland, another re-fuelling stop was due that night at Shannon Airport. In mid-flight, several mishaps conspired. A fire in one engine was followed by the loss of a second, through an error by the Flight Engineer. Fred Caruso began to write a ‘thank you and farewell’ letter to his parents back home, yet fearing it would never reach them. When a third engine failed, ditching became a certainty, sudden death a probability.
With skill which was later widely praised, the captain, in pitch darkness, brought the big Super-Constellation down on the water. For a time it floated, facilitating evacuation. However, on landing, the starboard wing had sheared off, with fatal consequences for many seated on that side
One life-raft, designed to hold twenty-five, remained. Almost fifty people clawed their way onto the raft, among them Private Caruso and the pilot, Captain Murray, who was last to leave the sinking plane.
As the rubber raft drifted in the dark, a huge multi-national rescue operation got under way, prompted by earlier distress signals. On Monday morning, those on the raft were lifted aboard a merchant ship en-route from Canada to Antwerp. This was the Swiss-registered ‘Celerina’, which had taken its name from a village in that country.
On Tuesday, the ship heaved to, off the Cork coast, awaiting two R.A.F. helicopters from Cornwall, so that fourteen of the worst-injured could be hospitalised.
On the ‘Celerina’, Caruso, wrapped in blankets, barely knew where he was- just that he was now safe.
Elsewhere on board, in addition to his normal duties, Pierre André, a nineteen-year-old Swiss deckhand, was busy coping with the shivering, traumatised, newcomers, and identifying the small number no longer alive.
Nearby was a fishing-trawler, commissioned by reporters and photographers to get as near as possible to the action. On the trawler, Paddy, part of the crew, was getting some pictures himself. I was at Cork Airport, fifty miles from Galley Head, where, on arrival, we would help transfer stretchers from incoming helicopters to waiting ambulances.
A lifetime later, the four of us met together for the first time, acquainting, recalling, reminiscing, comparing. A memorial of some kind was thought fit, action followed thought, and the site was chosen.
On the appointed day, precisely fifty years after the original event, we assembled in the shade of ancient Galley Head Lighthouse. Dignitaries were introduced, speeches were made, a poem composed for the occasion was read. With the flags of Ireland, Switzerland, the United States, and the Irish Lighthouse Service flying in the fresh Atlantic breeze, the Swiss Ambassador unveiled the plaque. Simply, it commemorated those twenty-eight lost on that September night in 1962, and also, the forty-eight who survived.
Then, we dispersed, to again occupy our separate worlds, Fred to Colorado, Pierre André to Switzerland, Paddy and I to Dublin. Flags were lowered and dusk descended. The automated lighthouse commenced its nightly flashes, sending welcome and warning to all who approach this coast.
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Garry Ahern has contributed to this site as well as participating in the actual rescue effort in 1962. All readers are encouraged to read (or re-read) his memorial poem, Ode to Big Bird. Simply click on the link. Read the poem and biographical information on this important participant in the rescue of survivors in Ireland.