Most likely the pilot and crew didn’t see the desperate mother and three children standing on the tarmac with the Military Police. They were waving frantically, trying to get their attention. If the pilot and crew did see them, they probably thought they were a loving family wishing one last farewell and determined to see the aircraft off until it disappeared as a tiny dot in the darkening eastern sky.
Whatever the reason, Elizabeth Anna-Marie Henrich and her children, Gerald, 8, Frank, 4, and infant daughter Doris, 6 months, felt abandoned, alone and deeply grieved over missing the aircraft that would have taken them to the long awaited reunion with the head of their household, Sgt. First Class Richard Henrich, of the 54th Engineering Battalion, near Fleken, Germany. He was awaiting their arrival at Rein Main Air Base at Frankfurt, Germany.
They almost made it, just shy of less than 10 minutes, but the plane would not stop to let them board. They waved for as long as their arms and hands held out.
How could it have happened to an ever prompt and precise German-born mother? They arrived at McGuire AFB a week before the scheduled flight. They would have only three days notice and had to check the flight manifest every day.
According to the oldest son, now in his late 50s, they stayed on the second floor of a nearby motel with little to do and with even less money to do it with. He remembers his mother feeding the family on spam sandwiches and taking them to a neat little outside hotdog stand more than once somewhere on the Air Force base. He says more than 50 years later, “the reason I remember this now is because the taste of those hotdogs has never been duplicated. They were the best I have ever eaten.”
Being late for any occasion was not in Elizabeth’s character. She met her husband Richard in Germany several years earlier while he was stationed there on permanent assignment. He rotated back to the states soon after, until in September 1961. His entire unit, the 54th Engineering Battalion, was assigned to Germany due to a Berlin wall troop build up. He left the family behind in the States until they were all able to get clearance to return back to the states upon completion of his foreign assignment. Elizabeth and her son, Gerald, were both German citizens. They could leave the states, but could not return until they became naturalized citizens. They completed the process just weeks before missing Flying Tiger 923.
McGuire Air Base officials gave the family some hope. Another aircraft was leaving later that same day and for the same place, Frankfurt. They could all board the later plane. The officials would do all they could to notify Richard waiting on the other end, and provide assurances of their safety and imminent arrival.
Although devastated by their failure to make the proper departure time, they were uplifted by the prospect of seeing Richard a few hours later that day. They made it for the second flight.
Unknown to Elizabeth and her children, the original flight that left them standing on the tarmac, Flying Tiger 923, never made it to Frankfurt. It ditched in the raging north Atlantic, some 500 miles west of Shannon, Ireland. It was a horrible disaster with many left dead, lost, or injured.
It is sometimes said that, “what you don’t know won’t hurt you.” The Henrichs didn’t know what happened to Flight 923 along the way. Their enthusiasm and anticipation kept growing on that long, overseas flight, untainted by any bad news.
At the airport on the other end of the flight, Richard kept hearing bits and pieces of a very bad story that seemed to worsen as the hours passed. His family was swallowed up in a terrible disaster and was missing at sea. He had just lost everything, that is everything in this world that was important to him. He stayed at the airport to be close to the information source. The hours passed with no news. He stayed where he was, until the second flight arrived from McGuire. It was then that he learned his family was safe.
Gerald reports seeing his father weeping over the mixed feelings of total loss and completeness. To this day, he feels that he and his family was meant to be saved. Missing the departure of Flying Tiger 923 was not the horror they all felt it was. It was truly a blessing. They had been saved.
Gerald, now a musician and songwriter living in Springfield, Virginia has written a lyric (poem) about the event. It tells all that is needed to be known. Gerald, who goes by the stage name of “the Lyricspinner”, has given us his permission to print his verse:
Flying Tiger 923
A miracle from heaven
God spared my life
The Atlantic waters were frigid that night
Jesus made sure we missed that flight
So many moons ago
Three propeller engines gave out
Mayday in the clouds
My mother arrived too late for that departure
Three kids in tow
We were on the tarmac
A stone’s throw from that plane
Military police said we had to take the next flight out of McGuire
That night the Super Constellation went down
September 23, 1962
I had just turned eight
Now I’m a testimony of God’s grace
You see, the ocean was not to be my grave
I thought I saw my father crying as we entered the terminal at Rhein Main Air Force Base
Then we found out the plane we were supposed to be on, ditched in the ocean
We were presumed dead
Out of seventy-six passengers
Only forty-eight were rescued in the rough North Atlantic waters
There were plenty of seats still available
Four of us arrived 10 minutes late
Copyright © 2008 Gerald Henrich
All rights reserved, reprinting by permission only
Oh my. Another story, Fred. Lives taken, lives spared.