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Captain’s pride in the discipline of “green soldiers” helps mask
his own terrible, painful tragedy.
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News Story By John Krueger
Stars and Stripes London Bureau (September 26, 1962)
CORK, Ireland (S&S) – A retired Army captain embraced a private that he called “one of the green troops” aboard an ill-fated Flying Tiger Airliner that ditched in the Atlantic and said:
“He made me, an old soldier for 20 years, feel proud.”
“Robert C. Eldred, 47, retired Army captain from East Dennis, Mississippi, was one of the 17 survivors brought here by Royal Air Force helicopter airlift from the Swiss freighter Celerina.
He had nothing but praise for the way passengers and crew of the Flying Tiger plane conducted themselves after the plane came down in 10-foot waves.
“One touch of panic in that time and we all might have been lost,“ Eldred said.
“Throughout all of my Army career, I have never seen such discipline,” Eldred went on. “The crew was absolutely magnificent.”
Eldred quoted the plane’s captain John Murray as saying:
“God had his hand on the controls to help make such a magnificent landing in rough water.”
Eldred, adding to his praise of the passengers and crew, had good things to say about the crew of the Celerina.
“They (the Celerina crew) gave us food and clothes and I am still wearing the long johns which a young Dutchman gave to me. They gave us all the schnapps we could drink and then beer. They gave up their beds for the worst cases.”
Eldred said the burns from which those taken ashore were suffering came not from fire, but from the woolen uniforms rubbing against high test gasoline and salt water with which they were soaked.
Eldred told his story of the crash beginning with the engine failure.
“We were sitting about three quarters of the way back in the plane. One engine caught fire and it was put out but we had to feather it. Almost immediately another engine went out of commission.
“The pilot told us the circumstances.
“Navigator Samuel Nicholson did a magnificent job in giving the fix after the third engine went and we had to ditch. The navigator became a hero.
“Then there was just one crashing smash. Everybody catapulted forward 15 to 20 feet. Water poured into the plane. It was pitch dark.
“I never saw my wife again,” he added, breaking down in tears.
Quickly recovering himself, Eldred went on:
“I thought I was going to die. I was certain I was. Even now I can’t believe I’m alive. I saw a raft. It was low in the water and waves spilled over it.
“Everybody bailed like crazy. One man even bailed with his wallet.
[Editor’s note: The green Army private Captain Eldred
was embracing while relating the story was Private
Willie Smith, 18, of Atlanta, Georgia. A separate story
on Private Smith will be posted at a later date]
And there is more to the story:
The following was reported in an article carried by Men’s Magazine, published March 1963 and as written by Paul Sargent Hines:
It was reported in that story that Captain Eldridge and his wife, Edna, were on a long-planned European vacation. They had saved to buy a Jaguar automobile and this was his present to a wife who had loved him so many years and had given him two wonderful children.
He heard Edna saying, “Bob, are we going down?”
There was no fear in her voice as her hand rested on his arm.
“Looks that way,” he said, quietly, unafraid.
“Bob—“ the woman’s voice was urgent, compulsive.”What about the children? Don’t you think that if we separated, if I went up front and you stayed here, there’d be a better chance that one of us might live?”
Captain Eldred hesitated. He did not want to separate from his wife. He looked up the aisle where Major Dick Elander and Lois were sitting tensely, Dick’s arm around his wife’s shoulders.
“Id like to say with you,” Eldred said.
His wife said quietly and with conviction,“If the nose hits first, those in the stern will have a chance to live; if the stern hits first, those up front may live. I think for the sake of our children, we must give ourselves a chance of at least one surviving . . . I’ll go up front and you stay here . . .”
Eldred nodded and grabbed his wife’s arm. She rose and kissed him on the forehead. “I love you, Bob . . . I will always love you. Even if life ends here, I believe there is a life after this . . . I believe that whatever happens, we will meet again. God bless you.”
Then she was gone, moving against the tilt of the plane to the nose, where hostess Jacqueline Brotman seated her and helped her fasten her safety belt.
[Editor’s Note: Captain Eldred did not see Edna again after impact.
She did not make it to the raft. She died in the raging seas.]