“I pulled open the rear door and a wave at least 10 feet
high knocked me over. I got up and threw the un-inflated raft out
of the back door. Unfortunately the rope which was tying it
to the aircraft and intended to inflate the craft snapped,
and it began floating away.”
Navigator Samuel T. Nicholson, age 32, from Dallas, PA, is a difficult man to write about with an appropriate justice. Fifty years later, it is difficult to find more detail than that
which was reported in newspaper and magazines, and in all, that wasn’t very much. But here is what this writer was able to glean out of old sources:
Samuel Nicholson was the person who made final contact with the ultimate rescue ship just minutes before the ditching. He told Captain John Murray that the Celerina was the closest ship to where they would ditch, about 50 miles away. Captain Murray gave him is final orders in preparation for the collision.
As the wounded Super Constellation glided erratically to its ditch point of contact, Nicholson moved from the cabin to the back door, where it was his mission to open the rear door and toss out the in-board life raft. Four other life rafts stowed in the wings would be ejected and inflate automatically on impact. The back door life raft was just an extra precaution. It turned out that the life raft in Nicholson’s control was to be the only one available to survivors.
Nicholson reported after the incident, “I pulled open the rear door and a wave at least 10 feet high knocked me over. I got up and threw the un-inflated raft out of the back door. Unfortunately the rope which was tying it to the aircraft and intended to inflate the craft snapped, and it began floating away.”
It was dark, cold, turbulent and forbidding, with ocean waves driven by gale-force winds. The un-inflated raft was blowing away from the crippled aircraft very rapidly.
Nicholson said, “I swam about 20 yards after it. Two soldiers were swimming near me. We reached the raft together and I told them to try and look for the lever to inflate the raft. I, knowing what the lever looked like and felt like, was finally able to find it and inflate the raft. We climbed on quickly and started shouting to other people in the water join us and started pulling them in as fast as we could.”
Nicholson nor the soldiers knew that the raft had inflated upside down. That placed the safety lights and emergency medical kit and flares underneath, facing into the cold water. He and the first few paratroopers into the raft began pulling survivors inside. Before long, the 15-foot wide rubber raft, built for no more than 25 passengers, held a total of 51 survivors crammed in several layers of humanity, many trying to keep their heads above water in the still-floating, but mostly full of cold water craft.
According to news reports, it was he, Nicholson, who used a cap and a plastic bag to bail excess water out in order to help keep water levels down. He tried to get others to help, using empty wallets and caps, but icy-cold seawater splashed in faster than it could be bailed out. Three persons died in the raft, either from injuries, the cold, shock or from drowning. At no time did the sea or wind let up on the pounding. At times, the raft would spin like a top and at others the raft would rise to the top of a wave, only to drop 10 to 15 feet down into the trough. It was a tough struggle for everyone crammed into that craft.
Nicholson’s efforts and conversations with Capt. Murray for the 5 hours in the raft helped keep up moral and ultimately made the rescue by the Celerina possible.
According to the Civil Aeronautics Board report of the Flying Tiger Crash adopted September 10, 1963, Navigator Samuel T. Nicholson, age 32, had a total of 7,500 flying hours (approximately 3.75 working years, or 195 work-weeks of flying experience), of which 4,500 hours (2.25 working years, or 117 work-weeks of flying) were in L-1049 type aircraft. He held a valid airman certificate with navigator rating. His last FAA second-class physical was passed on June 9, 1962. He had flown 236.7 hours (nearly six full 40 hour work weeks in the 90 days prior to the crash; 74.3 hours in the last 30 days, and he had 14 days, 19 hours’ rest prior to departing from McGuire Air Force Base in the ill-fated Flying Tiger.
An amazing “aside” to the Flying Tiger 923 ditching, Navigator Nicholson, came very uncomfortably close to tragedy earlier that same year, March 16, 1962, involving another of Flying Tiger’s big planes, Flying Tiger Flight 739 headed from Guam to Saigon.
He flew into Guam, but was relieved as navigator on the Saigon bound Supper Constellation for unstated reason, perhaps because of limits on hours. For whatever reason, he was not on that Flying Tiger Flight which carried 107 persons when it disappeared over the Pacific after leaving Guan. No trace of Flight 739 or any of its passengers was ever found. Was Navigator Nicholson our “lucky charm?”