Much of what the world knows about the drama and details of the demise of Flying Tiger 923 is the result of the writing of US Stars and Stripes newspaper reporter Master Sergeant Peter Foley, home-town Spokane, Washington. Foley was aboard the aircraft on his way back to Germany. Foley will always be known for his enthusiasm, cheerfulness and helpfulness throughout the tragedy as well as his skill and sensitivity as a feature writer.
Relatively little is known about Peter’s personal life, except that his home town was Spokane, Washington. His wife’s name is Mary and at the time they had three children ranging in age from 15 months to 10 years. They lived in Darmstadt which is the European headquarters of the Stars and Stripes newspaper. Foley, 45 at the time, served for a period in World War II as an aircraft mechanic.
Perhaps the best way to know about Peter Foley, in the absence of information, is to read his writing. The following is one of his very first stories about the event:
From the New York Times:
Story By Master Sgt. Peter A. Foley, Stars and Stripes
On BOARD THE SS CELERINA, OFF IRELAND, Sept. 25, 1962 (UPI) – The battered survivors of the crash at sea Sunday have only praise for those responsible for their lives. Four hours after take-off from Gander, Newfoundland, at the point of no return, two engines had to be feathered [shut down]. The No. 1 had a runaway prop, and No. 3 had caught on fire.
Althought he plane still had two engines and could fly for a long time, the stewardesses began a ditching drill.
Spirits were high on the plane, and many of the young soldiers aboard – mostly headed overseas for the first time – kidded the stewardesses and said they wanted to be in the same life raft with them.
Near the rear of the plane sat a newly married couple. The bride, on one of her first flights, began to cry, and her young husband was telling her there was nothing to fear.
Real fear showed clearly in the eyes of the mother with two small children.
It was near 7 PM when No. 2 engine (one of the only two remaining) started to shower sparks. Then there was a loud thump and No. 2 was feathered.
It was the pilot’s – John Murray’s – turn to talk to the passengers and over the intercom speakers. The passengers heard, “We are going to ditch.”
One could feel the plane dropping now. Lights were turned out, so the eyes could get used to the darkness.
Then the announcement, “get ready to ditch,” and within minutes came the hard crash and struggle to get out of the sinking plane.
There was no panic, just everyone moving to the escape hatches. The seas were rough and the wind was blowing and in the black of night nothing but the struggling swimmers could be seen.
Only the cries, “Where are the rafts? Where are the boats?” could be heard.
When on the left side of the plane a raft did drift by, it soon became p-acked as exhausted swimmers were pulled on.
In no time the wet and scared survivors were packed two deep in the 25-man raft.
For nearly five hours, this mass of humans was tossed around by the seas, often sprayed with cold water, and most of the time waist deep in water.
Hours passed slowly, and search planes overhead added much to the hope that help would soon be on the way. The raft was upside-down and all emergency equipment was out of reach.
Only a flashlight salvaged by Plane Captain Murray was on the raft and this proved to be the life-saving piece of equipment.
Only a few could move in the raft. Those in the center had to keep their heads above the water. Those along the sides had to try to help bail out the rising water.
It was the plane’s navigator, Samuel T. Nicholson, with a cap and plastic bag, who kept the water level down.
At no time did the sea or wind let up on pounding the raft. At times the raft would spin like a top and at others it would rise high on the crest of a wave, only to be dropped
It was when the raft was caught between two waves and almost folded in half that hurt the most; for this movement jammed the mass of survivors even tighter together and cause the most cries of pain.
The lights of the cirling plane on guard over the area kept spirits alive. Several lights on the distant horizon would bring shouts of “a ship is coming,” but most of these lights turned out to be the last light of flares dropped by the rescue planes.
The rising moon was first thought to be a ship on its way to help.
Ship’s Light Spotted
The first sure sign of help was when the green running light of this ship was spotted. It was almost an hour later when the ship’s searchlight — guided by the lone flashlight on the raft—spotted the raft.
The ship’s captain said, “If it was not for the flashlight, it would have taken much longer to find the raft.
It took more than two hours to get the 51 people aboard the ship. Most of the survivors suffered cuts and burns. All suffered from exposure.
During the first hours in the raft the survivors sang, tried joking and prayed. At no time did the majority lose hope. Even so, death claimed three lives and surely would have taken more if help hadn’t arrived when it did.
In this photo, Foley is seen with surviving flight attendant Carol Ann Gould Hansen and unidentified crewmen on the deck of the Celerina as it pulls into the port of Antwerp, Belgium.
[If anyone knows of the whereabouts of Foley or members of his family, or anything at all about his post-military activity, please let us know via the blog comment area below.]