I found myself in two planes of existence. One was floating way high above me and could see everything: the sinking plane, the raft, people swimming, and me underwater. The other plane was at my level and I was under water. . The me-above was giving instructions to me below in the form of a low voice in my head.
Here is my story of Flying Tiger 923
by Art Gilbreth, survivor
This was to be the seventh time I had ever been in an airplane. I jumped out of the first 5 flights. Then I had a flight that landed once. On this flight, my seventh, I ditched in the North Atlantic.Not the best of records. In all, the trip from the states to Germany took me a bus> a Super Constellation> a rubber raft> a Swiss Merchant ship> a helicopter> a Canadian Aircraft carrier> and another bus to Germany.
Aboard Flight 923: I had a window seat right behind the right wing. I seem to remember that behind me was a lady with 2 kids. Quite a few of us on the plane had just graduated from jump school and this trip was to our first posting. Everyone seemed to be having a pretty good time, joking with the flight attendants, playing cards, smoking and talking.
The first time I knew we were in trouble was when someone said the engine on the right side was on fire. I looked out and saw the engine out my window had flames and melting globs coming out of it. It looked like fireworks, and would have been spectacular if it had not been a plane I was flying in!
After that, everything seemed to speed up to fast motion and to be running in slow motion at the same time. The flight attendants started coming by telling us what to do and what to expect if we started to ditch. They give certain jobs to people next to exits and next to the areas where the rafts were kept. The made sure everyone had their seat belts fastened, a pillow for your head, and that your shoes were off. A lot of us striped down to our t-shirts and pants.
We were told that when we ditched once we were out of the plane to get into a raft as soon as possible because the water was going to be really cold. I seem to remember someone saying we would only survive 30 minutes in the water.
I don’t know for sure, but I believe it was 30 to 45 minutes from the time the first engine caught on fire until the 3rd one went bad and we were told to prepare to ditch. That meant we were to place the pillow in our lap, cross our arms on top of the pillow and put our head on our arms. I kept looking out the window to see how close we were to the water.
The lady on my left . . .
After looking out the window, before putting my head on my pillow, I happen to look to my left and noticed a lady across the aisle looking at me and silently crying. I gave her the OK sign with my fingers. She smiled at me and shook her head “yes”. So every time I looked out I would look at her and shake my head, “yes”.
The last time I looked out of the window, I could see the waves and the wind blowing the tops off the white caps. That was not an encouraging view.
Just before putting my head down, I looked at her again and shut my eyes. When I opened them again and looked to the left, I saw her close her eyes and put her head down. She was prepared for impact.
This cannot be happening!
I wasn’t afraid at that moment, because I actually believed this could not be happening!!! When we hit, all hell broke loose! My seat broke loose and jammed my head into the seat in front of me. (I cracked my back in three places and crushed several vertebrates). The seat belt felt like it was cutting me in half. Everything happen so fast or I passed out because the next thing I remember I was on the opposite side of the aircraft and several rows down with seats on top of me and I felt like all my ribs were broken.
I was in my seat leaning forward and I couldn’t breathe, it was very dark and the water was getting higher. I tried to get up but couldn’t. I tried several more times, but could not move. I yelled for help several times, and then I just gave up. I couldn’t see anything it was so dark and I couldn’t hear anything. It was very quiet.
A couple of times I thought I saw shadows and something kept bumping into me. When the water reached my neck I decided that I couldn’t give up. I discovered that the seat belt was still round my waist. I grabbed it and pulled as hard as I could and it came loose. I was able to stand. I was hurting terribly, but then, all of a sudden, I stopped hurting. It is strange how your body takes care of you when you are in danger. From that point until I was on the Swiss ship I didn’t feel pain.
I could only remember the door through which I had entered the airplane and started towards it. I still couldn’t see anything, and it was still very quiet. I saw ahead of me a line of white and made my way toward it. It was the top of the door and the white was the water coming into the plane. I started out and something hit me in the face. It was cold ocean water and the shock of being hit, and the enormous pressure of the water sent me back into the plane.
Once I got my balance and found the door (it was now under water) I shot out of the plane like a torpedo, nothing was going to stop me that time. Once outside of the plane I could hear a lot of people yelling things like ‘where is the raft”, “Help” and screaming. I thought to myself, “stop yelling and look!!” It was then I realized I was yelling as loud as or louder than anyone else.
A woman’s voice asking for help.
Then I heard someone in a low voice say “Help me I can’t swim”, I turned around and there was a woman behind me. She was trying to grab me. I turned her round until I was behind her, I reached in front of her and pulled the cord on her may west and it inflated. She said “Thank You”. I started to tell her that we needed to find the raft when a wave hit us. I looked around and she was gone. I tried to find her but she was not there. To this day I’m ashamed of myself because I didn’t look hard enough for her. I tell myself at least I was able to inflate her life preserver.
Then I saw the raft. I started swimming for it. I have swum all my live and was a strong swimmer. I noticed something huge to my right. At first I thought it was sharks and quicker than I can write it I realized it wasn’t a shark because it was too cold. It was the tail fins of the airplane. I was swimming over the top of the plane! I swam as fast as I could, but one of the fins caught my right leg and the next thing I knew I was underwater and it was very dark, except for something shinning below me.
An out-of-body experience.
The next thing that happen to me (and I get a lot of different reactions from people when I tell this), I had an out of body experience and found myself in two planes of existence. One was floating way high above me and could see everything: the sinking plane, the raft, people swimming, and me underwater. The other plane was at my level and I was under water. The me-above knew that the me-below existed, but the me-below did not know the me-above existed. The me-above was giving instructions to me below in the form of a low voice in my head. The voice kept telling me to kick the silver thing below me. It kept saying harder, harder!!
All of a sudden the silver thing slipped further below me. Then I realized I was underwater and did not know which way was up. The voice told me to relax and I did. I could feel the water passing down my cheek and realized the surface was above me. I started swimming as hard as I could. During all this time I had not felt like I was running out of breath nor did I feel pain, but as soon as I broke surface I took the biggest loudest breath I have ever taken.
I looked around until I saw a light from the raft. (I guess someone had brought a flashlight, because I later found out the raft was upside down and the emergency lights were underwater. I had also heard the flash light had Eveready batteries in it. Would have made a great commercial. Also the only watch working was a Bolovia. “Takes a beating and keeps on ticking”.)
I swam for the raft. I reached the raft and tried to climb in. I was too exhausted to pull myself up and over the side. I waited for someone to help me in. The next thing I remember I was laying on my back with my shoulders on some one’s legs and someone was sitting on my chest. When the moon was not covered by clouds, I could see that the person sitting on my chest was as white as a sheet. Whenever the raft went into the trough of a wave the water in the raft would go over my head. I would hold my breath until we came out the other side then I would start hitting the person on my chest. I couldn’t get him off. Then I saw one of the guys I had gone through jump school with (I think it was Fred Gazelle) in the moonlight. I called out to him and heard him yell “where are you.” I started back underwater but was waving my arm in the air above me. Then next thing I know the pressure on my chest was gone.
Going in and out of consciousness.
The next several hours I was going in and out of consciousness from blood loss from the chunk I had torn out of my leg by the tail fin. I don’t remember a whole lot. I do remember the flight attendant putting a cloth round Capt. Murray’s head and being told that although we were in the raft we were not safe yet and to bail with anything we could find. Cigarette packs, hats, anything.
I passed out again and when I came to I remembering there a light in the distance. Then out again. The next time I came to there was a very bright light shining in my eyes and someone shouting to grab a hold of the ropes. I remember seeing a shadow and grabbing it and holding on. It was a rope, and as we went up on a swell I would work my way up hand over hand and when we went down I would work myself down. I was sitting in the bottom of the raft. I could feel being stepped on and see shadows moving over me. It was people climbing up the rope.
When I started thinking right I decided I had better get out of there. The next time we went up on a wave I grabbed up as high as I could and the raft dropped out from under me. I looked next to me and saw a rope ladder with wood runs and the last thing I remember was grabbing one of the runs. I came to lying on a table with someone cutting off my pants leg on my right side and with a cup of hot milk and rum in my hand on my chest. Someone was telling me I was safe and was going to be OK. Then someone came by and said, “hold this” and put a bottle in my hand. My leg and back was really hurting and I was very, very thirsty. I started drinking out of the bottle. It was scotch! I drank quite a bit of it and my back and leg didn’t hurt any more. I was placed in a small room with a couple of bunks in it. I found out later one of the crew members give me his bunk. He came in a couple of times when I was awake and the only words I heard him say that I could understand were “Hello Baby” and “Good Bye Baby”.
I don’t know how long I was there but I woke up when a lot of people were wrapping me up in blankets and placing me in a stretcher, then they carried me outside on deck. It was daytime and everyone was dressed in foul weather gear. For the first time I could really see the high seas. It looked like something out of the movies. Everyone was bent over me talking in a language I couldn’t understand, doing something, until I heard “Good bye Baby” and I shot up into the air. I was swinging over the ocean from what look like a hundred foot of rope under a helicopter. I was being sent to the HMS Bonaventure a Canadian Aircraft Carrier. I was pretty sick running a 104 temp.
In danger of gangrene.
When I got to the hospitable in England I had to sign a paper that gave the doctors permission to amputate my leg if necessary because I had gangrene caused by the open wound, gasoline, rubber, and salt burns. I had three operations over the next month and the doctors saved my leg.
I was sent back to the states and spent three months at a hospital at the Persido in San Francisco, California, in rehab.
The Army took me off jump status, but sent me to the 82nd Airborne Division anyway. I have been pretty lucky over the years that my injuries have not bothered me too much until lately. For 45 years I had been receiving 10 % disability from the VA.
Art Gilbreth 2012
I was seeing one of the VA doctors about 5 years ago because, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve been having more and more problems with my leg and back. He asked me when was the last time I had been evaluated? I told him 45 years ago. He said he thought it would be a good idea because of the problems I was experiencing to get checked out. I did and they found quite a bit of damage in my back and leg and which upped the percentage of my disability quite a bit. I only mention this in case anyone is having problems because of the crash. You should go to the VA and get checked out. None of us are getting any younger.
(Art Gilbreth is still working actively as a realtor. You can see his profile at: www.sunriverrealty.com . He lives in Sunriver, Oregon)
Added information from Art, submitted as a comment on “About this Site” the day before this posting:
Fred Caruso contacted me about a week ago and told me about his web page Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the ditching of flight 923.
Several years ago I met a lady (much younger then myself) that was a flight attendant for Flying Tiger lines, she told me that during her training the company used the ditching of flight 923 as part of that training. Through her connections I was able to communicate with Carol Gould by email. I also have talked to Peter Foley, I think Peter did the piece in the Saturday Evening Post.
I have tried for years to find Fred Gazelle, I want to thank him for saving my life. When I made it to the raft I found myself on my back with someone sitting on my chest. Every time we would get to the bottom of a wave the water in the raft would go over my head and I had to hold my breath until we started up another wave. I tried to get the guy to move, but he was in shock and just sat there. One of the times we were at the top of a wave I saw Gazelle in the moonlight and started to yell at him. The last thing I heard before going under was him saying where are you? I could only raise my arm and start waving. I felt the weight leave my chest and I was able to sit up with my head out of the water. I was also one of the four sent to the Canadian Aircraft Carrier Bonaventure, so I never got the chance to see Fred and thank him. Thanks Fred!
I’m sure everyone noticed, but just incase you didn’t, Flight # 923 went took off on Sept (9) 23! I don’t even get close to a plane that has the same flight number as the date.
I am living in Sunriver Oregon. I just turned 71 years old and feel very lucky and blessed to say that. My life could have ended at 21.
And thanks Fred (Caruso) for putting this page together. Art