Robert Eldred: “The hand of God was at the controls of the plane.”

Retired Army Captain Robert C. Eldred was one of the 17 survivors evacuated from the Swiss rescue ship Celerina by RAF Helicopter. He was interviewed on the tarmac of the new Cork Airport as rescue teams transported the injured to Mercy Hospital in downtown Cork. Captain Eldred is mentioned in a number of short news clips and in almost every case he devoted his words to giving praise to others (see story of Pvt. Willy Smith). The following is quoted from the Cork Examiner news of September 27, 1962, and is focused on him. It is probably the most detailed and accurate view of the Captain’s story:
*     *     *     *     *     *

‘The hand of God was at the controls of the plane.’ With those dramatic words retired US Army Captain Robert Eldred (49) of East Dennis, Mass., gave his reason why the 48 people were saved from the cold waters of the Atlantic when the airliner ditched in the sea after three engines failed, 500 miles off the west coast of Ireland.

‘The reason why the Celerina arranged the helicopter airlift to Cork was because the captain of the Swiss vessel knew that some of the injured passengers needed hospital treatment and medical attention.

‘Captain Eldred said that they had feared that when the Constellation hit the turbulent sea it would break apart. But it came down in one ‘crashing smash.’

‘The Captain, who has a son and daughter in college in the U.S. said that he and his wife, Edna (55), had been sitting in the back of the plane.

Catapulted Forward

‘When the plane hit the water we were all catapulted forward. I did not see my wife after that. When I hit the water I swam around and saw people in the water. Some of the people had been saved by their kit bags [life preservers].

‘Then I saw the raft. It seemed to be a half mile away. But of course it was not. I would never have the strength to reach it. When I got there, Nicholson, the navigating officer, as senior officer, was in charge. ‘Bail, for God’s sake, bail,’ he shouted again and again. And . . . every one obeyed him. The raft was designed to hold 25. It had 51 on it then.

‘I saw one kid bailing with this pocket wallet and another with a plastic bag which held his cigarettes.

‘ ‘I recon we were in the water for 5 hours. One torch was all we had. It pierced into the darkness. Then an Italian and a Swiss fellow from the Celerina jumped into the raft. We were saved. We did not know until then that three had died in the raft.’

Did Not See Wife Again

‘The Captain said he asked others about his wife, Edna. But there was no one who could tell him anything. He had not seen his wife again after impact.

‘Captain Eldred said that the ships crew had given the survivors their own cabins and had warmed them with schnapps and tea. ‘We will never forget their kindness,’ he said. In all his years in the army he had never seen such discipline as in the passengers and crew.”*     *     *     *     *    *

The Harrisburg Patriot news carried a similar report issued by the Associated Press:

‘Captain Eldred, describing the engine trouble cause of which is unexplained, said: We were sitting about three quarters of the way back in the plane. One engine caught on 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. Throughout all of my Army career, I have never seen such discipline. The crew was absolutely magnificent. We all put on our May West jackets.

‘Navigator Samuel Nicholson did a magnificent job in giving the fix. After the third engine went, we had to ditch. The navigator became a hero.

‘Then there was just one crashing smash. Everybody was catapulted 15 or 20 feet forward. Water poured into the plane. It was pitch black.

‘ ‘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 am alive. I saw the raft. It was low in the water and waves spilled over it.

‘The navigator took command of the raft, as the captain was only half conscious after being hit on the head.

‘Everybody bailed like crazy. One man even bailed with his wallet.”
*     *     *     *     *

Captain Eldred was a Second World War veteran who received severe leg wounds during the June 6, 1944, invasion of Normandy. He spent several years in military hospitals before retiring in 1948. At the time of the crash, his son, Robert Jr., 20, was attending Middlebury, Vermont, and his daughter, Karen, 17, was at a private school in Northfield Mass.


About Fred Caruso

Survivor of the crash of Flying Tiger 923. at night, at sea, 500 miles off the west coast of Ireland, with 28 deaths and 48 survivors, September 23, 1962.
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4 Responses to Robert Eldred: “The hand of God was at the controls of the plane.”

  1. Carol Hansen says:

    Thanks again Fred I remember Robert Elred and he is absolutely correct about Sam Nickolson. If fit was not for Sam and God I would not be here today. Carol Hansen

    Sent from my iPad

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  4. Hugh Williams says:

    Hello, my name is Hugh Williams. I was an Air Traffic Controller on duty at Gander Oceanic Control Centre, at the time of the crash. I remembered hearing on our local news that Canada’s Aircraft Carrier, HMCS Bonaventure, was enroute to Europe for Military Exercises. We called Maritime Command, the Unit in charge of the Bonaventure, and advised them of the situation regarding FT923. We gave them the coordinates for the imminent ditching, and asked if they might reroute the ship to aid in recovery. As history testifies, the Bonaventure was rerouted and aided in the recovery. Also involved in the activities was another aircraft, West-bound from Europe. This aircraft, Airlift International, Riddle N8217H, circled overhead of FT923, relaying messages from FT923 to Aeradio Operators, who then relayed the messages to Oceanic Control.

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