Written and submitted by Gordon Thornsberry, Russellville, Arkansas
My mother had a scrapbook on the crash which I inherited when she passed away. The scrapbook included telegrams, newspaper clippings, photos and a letter I wrote to my family detailing my experience. The letter had been passed around and read by family members. The numerous tears eventually caused wording to smear making the letter barely legible. I say this knowing that there were forty-seven other letters meeting the same fate. We, the survivors, know what happened to us but our families went through periods of time not knowing our fate. Our families were lucky.
Following is my account written less than a month after the crash in a letter to my family: October 14, 1962
Hope this finds everyone okay. Sorry I have waited so long about writing but since I have been here I have really been busy.
Germany is really a beautiful country. Every plot of ground is growing something or is being plowed. Everybody has flowers around their house or sticking out their windows. Over here you have to worry more about getting hit by a bicycle than you do by a car. You see people regardless of age riding bicycles.
As to the plane crash, I will try to tell you the way it happened. We flew from McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey to Grande, Newfoundland. When we left Grande, I went to sleep for about two hours. When I woke up, I started reading a book. At this time the plane was in a steep climb in an effort to get above a storm looming ahead. I was not immediately aware of any problem, but some passengers indicated they had observed fire emanating from one of the plane’s engines.
Shortly thereafter, some members of the flight crew came into the passenger area and were looking through the portals at the engines on the right side of the plane. Having my own curiosity spiked by then, I looked and noticed smoke coming out of one of the engines and the propeller not turning.
At once, the stewardesses began informing us what to do in preparation to ditch the plane. There seemed to be a lot of confusion, so I pulled a small pamphlet from the pocket of the seat in front of me, describing how to prepare in a situation requiring the ditching of the aircraft.
Asked to move to last row on the right
I was sitting close to the front of the plane on the right side (there were two seats per row on the left and three seats per row on the right). I was asked by a stewardess to move to the rear of the aircraft where there were several empty seats. This served to redistribute some of the weight on the plane toward the back. I was placed in the middle seat on the last row on the right. A stewardess was seated to my left and a soldier from Newport, Arkansas, was seated to my right. Both of those individuals were killed in the subsequent crash.
The rear door for entering & exiting the plane was even with my row. A life raft was attached by a rope to the front of the door. I was given a pocket knife and instructed to cut the rope to release the raft after it became inflated. In addition, we were told to remove our boots and jackets (winter greens); and to remove all items from our shirt pockets. The women were instructed to remove their hosiery. We were anxiously and quickly preparing for the worst.
I turned to ask the stewardess a question, then suddenly WHAM – the plane crashed into the surface of the North Atlantic! The next memory I have is awakening on my hands and knees with water lapping up over my face. At impact, my seat had been ripped from the floor and thrown forward to the mid-section of the aircraft. The first thought I remember having was, “I am still alive.” I tried to stand up but could not because I was still strapped to my seat. I released my seatbelt and stood up. As I made my way to the life raft at the rear of the plane, I checked the rows of seats on the left of the aisle as they were still intact. It was pitched black and I couldn’t see anything, so I had to feel the seats to see if passengers were in them. No one was there.
I managed to get to the exit door but the life raft was gone, so I turned around thinking it may have been thrown forward also. The sea water rushing into the aircraft was now waist deep. All the seats were in a pile about head high. I was the only person still on the plane behind the stack of seats. I could hear voices coming from the front of the plane ahead of the pile of seats. I am sure most of them got out through the emergency doors.
Where are the life rafts?
As I searched for the life raft, all I could find were duffle bags. This was strange to me because all the duffle bags had been stored in the bottom compartment of the aircraft. This would be indicative of how the aircraft broke up upon impact with the ocean surface. I realized the water was now chest high. I moved to the exit door and stepped out into the ocean. I tried swimming a few strokes but it was difficult in my military-issued wool pants, so I took them off. In spite of the cold water, this decision proved to be a smart one. Several survivors who kept their wool trousers on had the skin rubbed from their legs as the vigorous ocean movement against the raft caused severe friction between the course wool material and their limbs.
There were supposed to be two life rafts from each wing that would automatically inflate. There were none! People were screaming for life rafts. When I realized there were no life rafts, for the first time I panicked. I began swimming through people, pushing them out of my way, making my way back to the plane. By this time, the water was almost over the top of the aircraft. A wave washed me over on top of the plane and I was able to stand up for a few brief moments on the hull holding on to two antenna wires. I was then able to see to the other side of the plane, but again, no life rafts! Another wave hit me, and the antenna wire broke plunging me back into the ocean water. I lost all hope of ever finding a life raft.
At some point shortly thereafter, I became calm again and realized that perhaps I was going to die in the cold water. I decided to swim out by myself to get away from the screams. I had swum only a few yards before meeting a stewardess who said to me, “the life raft is over this way.” I felt I had looked all over that ocean for a life raft but to no avail, so I almost did not turn around. But, I did.
At the top of the next wave lay the raft. From the time I caught a glimpse of that raft to the moment I was actually in the raft, I cannot tell you even a single thought that went through my head.
The only life raft, once found, became very over-crowded
As it turned out, I was one of the first persons on the raft. I was exhausted. My intent was to rest a minute and then help other people. Wrong! I had a hard time setting up because people were climbing into the raft and sitting on top of me. I finally did manage to sit up, but that was all I could accomplish. All I could see was the night sky and the person sitting partially on top of me. He was a boy with severe cuts to his head, which was a solid mass of blood. The last report I heard about him was that he had been hospitalized in England with serious infection in his wounds.
As more and more survivors climbed aboard the raft, it became very crowded. The raft was designed to hold 20-25 passengers; we had 51 in our raft. Search planes began dropping flares to let us know we were in their sights. This gave me new hope. The storm had subsided with enough clearing by that time that we could see the stars.
The wind was blowing strong, creating high waves. At times, the ocean movements would cause the raft to spin like a top making some of us nauseated. I vomited three times. The way we were all compacted into the small raft, I could only turn my head slightly and let it roll down my chin.
Believe it or not, it felt good because at least it was warm. The water in the raft was not near as cold as the ocean water simply because of our body heat, but it was not warm by any means. It was during this time that I inflated my life jacket, as I had not needed it. I became afraid the raft would turn over. There was a rope across the bottom of the raft. I took and wrapped it around my left leg in case the raft did turn over. The rope cut a deep gash in my leg. After a while, the search planes overhead left us. We didn’t know at the time that boat rescue was on its way, so the departure of the planes left us feeling very lonely and abandoned.
After we had been on the raft for some time, people began to see ships, land, houses, birds and everything else you can imagine. The conditions of our situation were beginning to cause some of us to become delusional. I had suffered a gash on my forehead in the crash, but it was not a serious injury. Each time someone said they saw something, the boy who was pressed next against me would put his elbow on my forehead in an effort to pry himself up so he could see too. Each time, his movement would break my gash open and cause it to start bleeding again.
I cannot describe how cold it was for all of us. As time passed, I would drift off to sleep and dream. Two dreams that kept recurring were one in which I was home again; and, the other in which some nurses were placing me between two clean sheets with lots of army blankets on me. At least for a few moments, I could escape the unbearable cold with these warm dreams.
When the rescue ship was genuinely sighted, I didn’t believe it was truly a ship because of how many times someone had announced they saw a boat. In my position, I could not see the ship because the only direction I could look was skyward. I was in a sitting position with my head pushed back against the side of the raft, tilted upward. The water level in the raft was up to my chin. We were packed so tightly in the raft that it was virtually impossible to move, except for those who were on top of the others. As the ship got closer to us, I could see the bright reflection of its lights in the sky, but I couldn’t see the lights themselves. I expected the light to grow brighter as the ship neared us, but instead, they grew dimmer and dimmer. Someone said, “they are leaving us!”
It’s a Russian ship!
To give you an idea of how delusional my mind had become in those harsh elements, I thought the ship was Russian and had radioed to see if they could pick us up, but permission had been denied. What really happened was, the wind was so strong and the waves so high, the captain was repositioning the ship to get between the raft and the wind. There was less chance the raft would turn over, making rescue an easier and less dangerous effort.
Once he maneuvered the ship into position, the waves would surge the raft so high up the ship’s stern that we almost reached its side rails. The crew hung a rope ladder over the side so that survivors could latch on and climb to the deck. Being one of the first on the life raft, I was one of the last four to get off. I was in such a weakened condition that I could not climb the ladder. All I could do was hold on while the crewmen pulled me up.
Once securely on board, they helped me walk to the mess hall. Actually, it was more like half walking and half being carried. I was seated at a table across from a boy who was trying to drink some hot coffee, but he was shaking so badly from the cold that he was unable to lift the cup to his mouth. I was given a towel to dry off with and some clothes in which to change into. By the time I had changed, the boy across from me was still struggling unsuccessfully to drink his cup of coffee, so I reached across the table and jerked the coffee from his hand and drank it myself. I spilled most of it on myself. You’ve seen pictures of people who were thirsty spill most of the water on themselves? That is what I did with that coffee, but it felt so good and warm! I drank 5 or 6 cups of that coffee trying to get warm. At the time, I thought it was the best coffee I had ever drank. A few days later, I tried to drink a cup, and it was horrible tasting!
I then took a hot shower. It was the longest lasting hot shower I had ever taken. Afterwards, one of the crewmen showed me where I could sleep. I fell into a deep sleep and at some point, someone woke me up to get my name, rank, serial number and my home address. I then fell back into a deep sleep and slept for several more hours. When I woke up, I went to the deck and watched the helicopter pick-up the most seriously injured and transport them to a Canadian ship, the Bonaventure. For the first couple of days, I had to be helped out of bed because my neck was so stiff and sore from hitting the seat in front of me. After the soreness worked out, I really enjoyed the rest of the trip. It was some time in this period that I went up to the communications room and sent you the telegram.
Those days immediately after the crash were quite enjoyable as we had nothing to do but eat, drink, sleep and roam the ship. The ship was of Swiss registration and had an Italian crew. They drank beer for breakfast, lunch and dinner! The ship sailed to the coast of Ireland and more survivors were airlifted to the hospital by helicopter. The ship then set sail for Antwerp, Belgium.
At dawn the next day, we were going up river to Antwerp (don’t remember the name) was beautiful. It had lots of windmills like you see in pictures, as well as lots of milk cows. Mom, you would have really appreciated those milk cows as many as you have milked. As we got closer to where we were to dock, hundreds of people lined the river and docks to welcome us to Antwerp. It was a great feeling!
We were transported to a super nice hotel. There was a little army waiting on us at the hotel with new clothes, shoes and everything we needed to get started again. They told us we could call home but not to talk more than five minutes, which I did. I am sorry about that because some of the guys talked 2-3 hours. The Army also gave us a hundred dollar bill. I took my hundred dollars and went to a liquor store and purchased several bottles of whiskey and brought them back and sold them to the other guys. I made a little extra money!
The next day we were flown to Frankfort, Germany. We were there for a few days where each of us were interviewed individually by a panel from the Civil Aeronautics Board. I spent a day and a half being interviewed by this panel. Me and a couple of guys managed to sneak out and get to see a little bit of Frankfort. It is different from anything I have seen in Arkansas.
One of the good things that happened to me that I really feel good about was we were given a three-day pass after jump school (prior to departing on Flying Tiger Flight 923 for Germany). It was too far for me to come home and return in time to catch our plane. James McGinny, a young man from Atlanta, didn’t have the money for a bus ticket. I loaned him $20.00. He was one of the passengers that were killed in the crash. I will always feel grateful that he had the opportunity to see his family before his untimely death.
There are hundreds of other details about the crash, but I am going to end for now.