By Teresa Foley
At the time of the Flying Tiger ditching in the North Atlantic, Peter Foley was in the Air Force and had reached the rank of Senior Master Sergeant. He was assigned to the Stars and Stripes and was returning to his family in Germany after having completed a special reporting assignment in the United States.
He managed to survive the disaster and was able tell the world about it. It was a shocking, violent, and grueling experience that lasted for days for everyone involved. As a news reporter, he bounced back nearly immediately to fulfill his mission.
As Peter Foley’s daughter, I got to know him as a man with a long and colorful career and a loving dedicated family man. I am using this web site as a means of telling his story.
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Pete Foley was a cheerful and vibrant man who loved life and had strong survival instincts. Those instincts were severely tested a number of times.
As a very young man with a love of excitement, he joined the Merchant Marines soon after getting out of school in the late 1930s. After a brief stint of service, Peter returned to his hometown of Butte, Montana went to work in the copper mines that dominated city and its surroundings.
He was a “motorman” and it was his responsibility to drive the ore cars in and out of the vast maize of dangerous tunnels being mined. He tells us that one day, a tunnel caved in, trapping many men inside. It was the “worst and the hottest” of tunnels in the mine. He escaped the disaster. Luckily, the trapped miners found an airway to crawl through until they reached a spot where rescuers could drop metal cages and pulled them out.
Pete later enlisted in the US Army Air Forces. During World War II, he worked as an airplane mechanic. He wasn’t in combat but again escaped death in 1945.
At the age of 28, he was on a cargo plane that got lost and ran low on fuel. According to Pete, “I was on leave, going to visit somewhere. I happened to pick the wrong plane.”
Everyone on board was able to parachute out of the plane before it crashed. Pete described his free-fall through clouds and with birds, as a thrill – not a fright, and an experience that ended too soon. His parachute landing was smooth and something he “thoroughly enjoyed”.
He served in Korea from May 1950 through June 1953. His decorations included the Bronze Star, the Republic of Korea Presidential Unit Citation, the Korean Service Medal, the United Nations Service Medal and the Air Force Commendation Medal.
After Korea, Pete attended and was graduate of the Armed Forces Information School and the Strategic Air Command NCO Academy.
In 1951, Pete married Mary Wallace of Helena, Montana in Yakahoma, Japan. Like many military families, the Foley’s had duty stations throughout the United States and the world.
In 1962, after completing an assignment in Nevada for Stars and Stripes, the military newspaper in Europe, he boarded Flying Tiger Flight 923 to return home to his pregnant wife and five children in Darmstadt, Germany.
As problems began to unfold, another passenger asked him if one of the four engines quit running, how the plane would fare. Pete’s response was to “stop worrying, this plane could fly forever”.
Then the second engine failed. After the third engine failed he, and everyone else, knew the plane was in trouble, but there was no time to panic. Following is how Pete described his experience:
“Another soldier and I yanked out the escape hatch next to us and dropped into the water. I tried to get my life vest inflated, but I couldn’t. I was carried by waves toward the rear of the plane. It had sunk so deep that my head was level with the top of the fuselage. I decided not to waste any more time on the life jacket and began to swim. The waves buried me a couple of times. People were all around me. There were cries of ‘Where are the boats?’ But no rafts were in sight. It was dark and windy, and giant waves were pitching us around.”
“I thought I felt a wing under my feet. It was the tail. Then a wave slammed me against the antenna. It’s strung from the top of the forward cabin to the top of the tail. I threw my left arm over it. I scraped the arm and it hurt. I thought it was a good time to rest for a moment. I kept telling myself not to panic. Once you panic, you’ve had it. ”
“After a few moments I realized it was calm. I kept waiting for a wave to break over me. Then I realized the plane was sinking and I was under water, I let go and swam slowly to the surface.”
“I was tired, dead tired. How easy it would be to quit fighting the sea and get it all over with. It would be so easy to die. Just stop fighting for half a minute. I shook my head, realizing this was a hell of a way to go.” I also knew how mad Mary would be if I didn’t return home.
“Then I spotted a raft. It was just a shadow and it seemed a long way off. I managed to swim over to it and held on to a rope. I got my head up far enough to see inside, but I couldn’t get in. I asked for help. Someone said he didn’t have the strength. Then he grabbed my arms and somebody else pulled me in by the seat of my pants.”
The Celerina arrived when “it was early morning, but still dark. . . A sailor pulled me onto the deck. I said I was all right, then fell on my face. Somebody caught me and helped me into the crew’s mess, where I was given warm clothes and a jolt of whiskey. I couldn’t pick it up. A sailor poured it down my throat. It felt wonderful.”
While on the Celerina, Pete did what he could to help, all-the-while thinking, “How do I get this story back?” to his boss at the Stars and Stripes. He found a way to radio stories each day. “I don’t think I even thought about dying. Time passed so quickly, it seemed like the next thing I knew I was waving at Mary. All I knew was I was back where I belonged.”
Whenever Pete talked about this plane crash, he would sadly mention the children; he never saw the girls after the plane hit the water. His family had to fly from Germany to New York, when he was transferred to Travis AFB in 1963. After his family boarded the plane, Pete went to airmen in the plane and made them promise to help his kids in case anything happen. He then introduced each airman to the child he was responsible for. Mary said she was sure most of the people thought he was a crazy old sergeant.
Pete retired from the Air Force in 1965 and moved his family to Citrus Heights, California (a suburb of Sacramento).
He was a smart person, loyal to family and friends, an enthusiastic supporter of his family activities, an adventurer, a teacher, a hard worker and a wonderful example of how to get a job done. He and his family were very active in community and school activities. They loved to travel, camp, boat, water and snow ski, ocean dive and always enjoyed a good party.
In 1981, Pete and Mary bought a struggling business that supplies beneficial insects for pest control and turned it into one of the large supplier of ladybugs in the US. In 2001, Pete and Mary celebrated their 50th anniversary. Later that year, Pete lost his battle with melanoma and died in November.
People often say they would die for someone they love. Pete’s character, however, was to focus his strength and energy on living for the people he loved and helping them to have a good life. Pete Foley lived a very good life.
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Site Editor’s Note: I became a news reporter while in the Army and while serving at Mainz, Germany as a paratrooper-infantryman. As a fledgling reporter (and still a paratrooper-infantryman, but on special assignment), I had come to see Peter Foley as a role model, even though he was no longer at The Stripes. He had been reassigned to other duty.
In 1964, much by virtue of very good fortune, I was assigned to the Stars and Stripes news desk in Darmstadt. I was one of only four military staffers. The rest of the newspaper staff was civilian. At that point, Foley rose from “role model” to “hero” in my mind and remained that way though out my working career. I never had any personal contact with him or his family. I only had news clippings of his work. I had no way of ever knowing him as compete person. His daughter, Teresa, has given me that opportunity. I am honored to be the person to pass that story to you. — Fred Caruso