A tiny village in the Swiss Alps was the site of a reunion on July 18th of a North Atlantic airplane crash survivor and two of his rescuers. The village of Celerina welcomed Fred Caruso, Pierre-Andre Reymond and Walter Wunderlin who first met six hours after the September 23, 1962 crash. That was when the Swiss freighter MS Celerina, named for the Swiss village, intercepted and plucked Caruso’s life raft packed with traumatized survivors from the storm-swept seas.
At the time of the crash, Caruso was 21 years old and was one of 40 U.S. Army paratroopers flying from Maguire Air Force base in New Jersey to Frankfurt, Germany. There were a total of 76 men, women and children aboard. Twenty-eight of those perished.
Reymond, 19 at the time, was working as a ship deck hand and Wunderlin, who was 29, was the Swiss ship’s carpenter. Both were born and raised in Switzerland. All 35 members of the ship’s crew, most of whom were Italian, participated in the rescue and provided the survivors with food, clothes, beds and blankets throughout the three-day storm.
The aircraft was a Flying Tiger Line four-engine Lockheed Super Constellation chartered by the U.S. Army. Following the failure of one of its engines and hours of tense emergency preparation, the propeller-driven plane lost two more engines and had to ditch 500 miles west of Ireland in the night at the height of the storm.
All 48 of those who survived, plus three who died on the raft, occupied one single 25-person life raft that for six hours pitched, bobbed and spun in the darkness until its interception by the ship. The MS Celerina was carrying a cargo of wheat headed toward Antwerp, Belgium from Port Churchill in Hudson Bay, Northern Canada. The ship changed its course in response to the airplane captain’s SOS.
Because of the extreme political tensions concerning the Cuban Missile Crisis and the fact that all passengers were in some way related to the military, the event received virtually no publicity and was never recognized with any sort of memorial. The recent reunion follows the establishment in 2012 of a 50th anniversary web site at http://www.flyingtiger923.com. A memorial plaque has been placed at the Galley Head lighthouse near Cork, Ireland, commemorating those who perished and those who survived.
The freighter Celerina was owned by the Suisse-Atlantique shipping company headquartered in Reneus, Switzerland near the city of Lausanne. The firm named all of its ships after Swiss villages. The village of Celerina is a ski resort town adjacent to St. Moritz which is the sister city of the U.S. resort of Vail, Colorado, near where Caruso resides today.
Walter Wunderlin was the ship’s carpenter and one of the tallest and strongest of the crew. He voluntarily descended into the mass of injured humanity and began helping hoist survivors to the deck. Many were unable to climb the rope ladders but were able to hang on to him while crew members above hoisted them up. He pulled one female survivor up the rope ladder by her wrist. Walter said he jumped into the raft because he knew he was strong and capable of helping others.
Pierre-Andre Reymond was the youngest member of the crew and was ordered to stay below deck where he was to minister to the needs of survivors. He has written several articles on the role of the MS Celerina in the rescue. He was also instrumental in the memorial ceremonies in 2012 at Galley Head lighthouse in County Cork, Ireland. (see Memorial Commemoration)
Reymond took a three-minute long film of the raging seas the afternoon before the crash. That segment of film, taken with an old-fashioned Brownie 8-mm movie camera has been converted to video format and is available at (Raging Seas).
Fred Caruso wrote a book about the effect the crash had on his life, which ultimately led to his becoming Irish. It was published in 2007 with the title of “Born Again Irish.” That referred to the fact that he had been air lifted from the MS Celerina and taken to Mercy Hospital in Cork, Ireland where he began his new life-path as an Irishman. He is the administrator and editor of the Flying Tiger Memorial web site.