There wasn’t supposed to be a big bang. The plane was
expected to glide across the water surface, coming to a controlled halt, allowing passengers to step out onto the wing and load into
the life rafts. But that didn’t happen.
The Tiger hit the water with one gigantic big bang.
Two paratroopers from the Phoenix, Arizona metropolitan area were reported missing that first dreadful evening of the ditching of the Flying Tiger, Sunday, September 23, 1962. Both combat paratroopers were Army engineers headed for assignment in Germany. They were Pvt. Sam Vasquez and Pvt. Carrol “Mac” Johnson.
Both of the troopers’ families waited, prayed and hoped
for good news. All that the families knew at the time was that 76 men, women and children were down and missing in the raging North Atlantic Ocean some 500 miles off the coast of Ireland. Their sons were among those 76, lost to the ditching of an airplane owned by an airline neither family had ever heard of, the Flying Tiger Line.
They learned of the storm with its frigid, wind-blown waves and howling gale-force wind. Regardless, both families clung to the hope that their son would be among the rescued in the event anyone at all lived to tell about it.
Finally, late the following day, after many hours of dread and fear, wire services in London reported the rescue of Pvt. Samuel C. Vasquez, 18, the son of Paul Vasquez and Mrs. Della C. Clements, both of Phoenix.
Vasquez’s father, who served in the Merchant Marines during World War II and the Korean War, comment to the news media reports of his son’s rescue:
“I know what a storm at sea is like. You can see a raft just10 feet away from you, but you can’t do a thing because of the raging water. I think the rescuers did a wonderful job.”
Born and raised in Phoenix, Sammy Vasquez went in the Army at the age of 17, looking for new adventures and different way of life. He took basic training at Fort Ord, California, and then went to combat engineer school at Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri for advanced training.
It was at Fort Leonard Wood that he met, trained with, and advanced on to parachute school with more than a half a dozen fellow soldiers who also found themselves aboard Flying Tiger 923. Among those Vasquez readily remembers and talks about 50 years later are: Frederick C. Gazzelle, Pasadena, CA; Arthur L. Gilbreth, Bear Lake, CA; Charles P. Keck, Gibonsville, NC; Michael A. Murray, Youngstown, OH; Frank A. Ruffolo, Chicago, IL; Reynolds Mendez, Chula Vista, CA, and Carrol Mac Johnson from his home town of Phoenix.
A Choice Window Seat
Aboard Flying Tiger 923, on the last long leg of the long flight from Gander, Newfoundland to Frankfort, Vasquez had a choice window seat on the right hand side of Constellation, where he could look out on the ocean below and into engine number 3. Despite the view, he says today that he was too tired to do much looking. He kept nodding off to sleepwith his head against the window. In the middle seat to his right was Fred Gazelle.
Vasquez said that Gazelle woke him up from his nap to tell him that the engine outside his window was on fire. As alarming as that news was, the fire soon went out and appeared to be under control. The drowsey Vasquez went back to sleep. But it wasn’t long before Gazelle woke him up again to tell him more bad news. An engine on the other side of the plane went dead. They were flying on two engines. He stayed awake from that point on. The bad news seems to have been piling up while he had his eyes closed.
Vasquez was wide-eyed and awake when the stewardesses began a series of ditching drills just in case, however, everyone wa reassured that the “just in case” scenario was very unlikely to happen. He remembers putting his watch in a plastic bag and tucking his cap in the belt of his pants. Those details are pretty hazy fifty years later, but he remembers clearly the captain announcing that the lights would soon go dim to allow the passengers’ eyes to adjust to the darkness.
One Gigantic Bang!
Vasquez waited in the dim silence in a ditching position, prepared for the “big bang.” There wasn’t supposed to be a big bang. The plane was intended to glide across the water surface, coming to a controlled halt, allowing passengers to step out onto the wing and load into the life rafts. But that didn’t happen. The Flying Tiger hit the water with one gigantic bang!
“I was knocked out on impact,” he said. When I woke, the water was over my ankles. I was told to go out on the right side exit above the wing during the drills, but that exit was blocked by people and sinking underwater fast. Seeing that mess, I headed to the left side, following Stewardess Carol Gould.” [editor’s note: the wing on the left side broke off on impact, causing a shift of weight to the right side. That caused the right side exits to sink a little faster.]
He says he had difficulty inflating his “may west,” but after frantic second he got it. The pull strings had been pushed by the icy water from his waist where he expected them to be, as demonstrated by the stewardesses, to being up around his neck. His right shoulder was screaming in agony from being wrenched out its socket on impact. But Sammy had survival as the only thing on his mind. He could handle the pain.
Get Away From the Plane!
Someone shouted to him to get away from the plane. It was sinking and it might suck him under. He pushed away from the sinking Tiger and was able to see a black form straight . ahead. It was the raft that had been thrown out of the back door and inflated by Navigator Sam Nicholson.
From inside the raft, Pvt. Mike Murray, who was certainly one of the first in the raft, pulled him up and over the slippery rubber edge into safety. He got himself immediately oriented and started pulling others in, even though by that point in time he had only one arm. First came Major Richard Carl Erlander and his wife, Lois, who was seriously injured. Very soon others piled in to safety, including Fred Gazelle and Art Gilbreth.
Then, someone who was pulled in from the other side, fell on top of Vasquez. Both he and Gazelle then in turn fell on top of young German woman, Helga Groves, wife of Spec. 4 John Groves, Pitsburg, PA. It was nearly impossible for a person to break away to gain breathing space. Vasquez was pinned on his back as the raft began filling with water.
There were supposed to be five rafts. That’s what the crew said during the ditching drills. The passengers were told that there were two rafts in each wing and one positioned at the back door. The latter (the only one) was the raft Vasquez the back door found and was able to board.
Although the raft loaded with more than twice as many bodies as it was built to hold, survivors continued to pack in, sitting one against and on top of another until there were no more on-comers and everyone grew quiet.
With 51 bodies aboard, gale-force winds pushed the tiny, 15-foot wide, packed-solid rubber raft 21 miles in six hours. Besides passengers, the raft was at all times full of ice-cold sea water that was being constantly refreshed by the 10 to 12-foot high waves splashing over top of them. Because of the over-crowding and the pushing and shoving of waves, Sammy started getting “Charlie Horses” or violent cramping in his legs and his wrenched shoulder pulled further out of its socket. The situation was grave.
Eventually someone started said the Lords Prayer and nearly everyone joined in. Then survivors started calling out their names to let others know who were in the raft. In the middle of calling out names, someone shouted out that the raft was upside down and everyone should get out and turn it right side up. Then that same person shouted that someone needed get out and swim under the raft to reach the first aid kit and emergency flares. That person didn’t volunteer, nor did anyone elese. Waves were so high and the raft was spinning wildly that Vasquez thought to himself that the idea of getting out for any reason was totally stupid, even just the mention of it.
It seemed like hours went by. He says Frank Ruffalo was immediately behind him and the Pilot, John Murray, was on his right. Helga Groves was in front of him.
Finally the passengers saw a light. Someone said it was “a ship, a ship!” It turned out to be the moon instead and it was quickly was covered again by clouds. Then Vasquez said he and others saw a sea gull. They wondered what a seagull was doing way out there at night. Maybe a sign of God?
A Russian Rescue Ship?
And after six hours of tossing and turning and spinning and bobbing in the violent sea, a ship really did come into view. Slowly it came close to the life raft, but suddenly backed away. That put panic in some of the passengers. The were being abandoned again and left out to die. Someone shouted that he thought it was a Russian ship that backed away once it discovered the raft was full of Americans.
At last the ship got into the necessary position and the crew lowered ropes and ladders. When Vasquez started up the side of the ship, he turned to look down to the raft. Just a few people remained to be hoisted up. He said that the raft, which then was brightly lit by the ship, was full of red-tinted water.
Very soon after he got aboard the rescue ship, he saw a dead soldier laid out in the walkway getting mouth to mouth resussitation by Pvt Fred Caruso, oa Nanuet, NY. He could see that the trooper was dead and wouldn’t be coming back to life. He didn’t comment and carefully passed by. He moved on into the ship’s kitchen, got a shot of wiskey, was given a bunk, and then tried to sleep, but couldn’t.
Afraid that he wouldn’t wake up, Vasquez got up and went outside to the deck. He saw a few others on deck and started to talk. They were soon approached by a crew member and asked to give their names. The Celerina crew was taking a census of survivors.
For the next few days he talked to others on the boat about the experience. Some were pretty severely injured, but he felt he was not. He didn’t think he needed to go to a hospital, even though he had a severely wrenched shoulder.
When the ship got to Antwerp, Belgium, two days after the airlift of 17 to Cork, Ireland, it was too late in the evening for anyone to be moved to land, They all slept one more night on the ship. Next day, were met by a greeting committee officers, who took them to a hotel by bus and asked a lot of questions. The Red Caross came in and gave each person 200 dollars. The soldiers were all measured for new uniforms. When he got to land, he says he “hit the pillow and slept for 9 hours.”
Of course, his family was in shock over the news, but he was soon able to assure him he was OK. He didn’t even have to go to the hospital.
He flew on to Frankfort, was met by brass and FAA officials for debriefing, and then went on to his assignment with the 12th engineers, airborne, in Dexhiem, south of the city of Mainz. It was the only airborne company outside the US at that time.
Once on base, with hardly time to put away his personal items, he and the others were immediately put to a physical strength and endurance test by a Sergeant who wanted to remind him and the others that they were in an airborne unit and an airplane crash was no excuse for getting soft. In the exercize his bad shoulder pulled out again. Still, the Sergeant insisted he go through the exercize anyway. But he couldn’t go on and had to get medical treatment. The doctor, knowing nothing of the disaster background and unwilling to listen to the story, wrote in Sammy’s medical record that he hurt his arm in physical exercize. The doctor didn’t put down a single thing about the plane crash and ultimately was unable to get any form of settlement for injuries.
After he got out of the army, his shoulder started popping out of place. He went to a VA hospital and was able to get a 20 percent service-connected payment and some free medical care. The treatment, he said, was little he more than physical therapy . Injuries from the Flying Tiger ditching at sea air crash were not even recorded.
Vasquez said he went back and forth to the Veteran’s Administration for treatment four times. He wanted to file a claim, but the VA said you can make a case but it might take years, so he never anything more about it. He is still trying to get treatment on shoulder. He says in the long term, outside of a bad shoulder, he really only suffered some minor emotional effects.
He said, “One thing that bothered me a long time is that I’m always looking for the exit, in restaurants, bars, theaters.” He wanted to know the way out in the event of an emergency.
He said that an Army doctor in Belgium advised him not to even think about the plane crash, “or it might drive you crazy.” The doctor told him not to even tell friends and family about if he can avoid it. And for many years, he tried to follow that advice.