Peter Foley tells the world of the demise of Flying Tiger 923

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.

Peter Foley

Peter Foley only days after the ditching and rescue.

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.

*   *   *   *   *

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.

Peter Foley waving to onlookers at Antwerp, Belgium.

Peter Foley, 2nd from the left, waving to the gathering crowd as the rescue settles into port at Antwerp, Belgium. To his right is a fellow ditching survivor, air hostess Carol Ann Gould. To both edges of the photo are unidentified Celerina crew members who took part in the rescue of the lone life raft.

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.

*     *     *     *     *

This story was first published on July 5, 2013, as written by his daughter, Teresa. She discovered this web site and soon thereafter discovered her father’s military career keepsake box. That gave her the material and incentive to submit this story. 

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

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Trooper survivor memorializes Flying Tiger 923 in leather

leather-coasterPaul Stewart of Fisco, Texas surprised three of his fellow survivors with beautiful mementos of Flying Tiger 923. They were in the form of round table coasters etched in leather.

The lucky recipients were former paratrooper Gordon Thornsberry of Russellville, Arkansas, former paratrooper Fred Caruso of Eagle, Colorado, and former Stewardess Carol Ann Gould Hansen, of Pequannock, New Jersey. Ms. Hansen was on the flight as a last minute replacement for a colleague who was not able to work as stewardess that day due to illness. The two paratroopers, Thornsberry and Caruso, were in the same Army parachute unit as Stewart, all stationed at Lee Barracks in Mainz, Germany.

The parachute wings are to specifically memorialize the airborne combat troops on board. Those troops comprised nearly half of all passengers on board.

When asked how he came up with the idea for the memento, Stewart said:

“Leather is a hobby, that I started years ago, and something that I really enjoy. Have only made things for family and friends. Started with belts, and when people saw them they wanted to buy, but as was working, and not having the time, I stopped doing leather craft for a while.

“I like to make things that are sort of one of a kind – even made some western gun holsters for friends.  Have never sold any of the items, and really never put any thought into any of that.

Stewart hand stamps everything, including the image of the parachute wings. Each parachute wing has been hand cut. No embossing dyes used, except for lettering.

When pressed about how much a set of coasters might cost, he reluctantly offered, “With parachute wings and lettering of “Flying Tiger 923”, $75 for a set of six, or $15 each for 1 to 5 coasters.”

[Editor’s note: I was one of the three recipients of the memento. I am getting a photo of my coaster (as seen above) printed on a porcelain coffee cup so I see it often. Has anyone else created a personalized memorial of Flying Tiger 923?]



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Life raft story stirs reader responses

Super Constellation #N6923C - Photo by Ragnor Domstad, June 1961, on the tarmac of Gothenburg (Sweden) Torslanda airport.

Super Constellation #N6923C – Photo by Ragnor Domstad, June 1961, on the tarmac of Gothenburg (Sweden) Torslanda airport.

We were told repeatedly during the preparation drills, “The life rafts stored in both wings will eject and inflate automatically on impact..” If that were so, what happened to them?  

*     *     *     *     *     *

A seasoned airman, Stef Ballis, wrote, “I flew and worked on Super Constellation N6922C, which was a sister ship of the ditched aircraft, N6923C. The answer to the question above is simple. The statements by the crew members were incorrect!

“I have a complete L-1049H Operations Manual issued in 1966 by Flying Tiger Air Services (a subsidiary of the Flying Tiger Line), which was basically a copy of the Flying Tiger Line manual. The manual reads:

‘There are four wing rafts, two in the left wing and two in the right. The wing rafts are released by pulling a ‘T’ handle, which is in the aft side of the window frame of the aft emergency exit over the wing. The ‘T’ handle is connected to both the inboard and outboard rafts on that side of the aircraft and when it is pulled out approximately 12 inches, it releases the locking pins on both the bin doors and opens the CO2 valve on the rafts.’

“I remember the T-handle that released the rafts.

“The exact reference is: Emergency Procedures/Ditching on Water/Launching Life Rafts, found on page 1.11.5.”

[The deployment of rafts was dependent upon human intervention.]

*     *     *     *     *     *

From Pierre-Andre Reymond, a crew member of the rescue ship Celerina and a lifelong seaman and ship appraiser, we have a report on the subject of life rafts on FT923:

“Yesterday evening I had another look at the CAB Accident Report FT 923, File no. 1-0028, published by the Civil Aeronautics Board and released September the 13, 1963. Here are quotes as the report says it:

On page 10: Sometime before ditching, two soldiers-passengers, at the direction of the crew, removed the emergency life raft stowed in the crew compartment and placed it in front of the left rear main exit door where it was tied down.

Page 11: Just prior to ditching, the navigator went into the cabin and removed the tie down strap from the life raft.

Page 12: Immediately after opening the main cabin door, the navigator pushed out the life raft. Since the lanyard provided for the life raft’s retention was not tied to the aircraft nor was it held by the navigator when he launched the raft, it drifted away requiring him to jump into the water to retrieve and inflate it.

Page 13: In addition to the 25-man life raft stowed in the crew compartment, the aircraft carried four 25-man life rafts which were stowed in four compartments, two in each wing aft of the rear spar. A cable control, actuated by a handle located inside the jamb of of the aft over-the-wing exits, sequentially unlatches the wing compartments cover doors and opens the valves to the CO2 cylinder of each raft on that of the aircraft. As each raft inflates, it ejects itself automatically from the compartment. The stowed rafts in the in the left wing can also be released by actuating a lever in the cockpit. In addition to these releases there is a release mechanism on each wing life raft compartment. 

Page 14: The captain was asked the location in the cockpit of the release handle which actuates the life rafts stowed in the left wing compartments. He was not aware that there was such a handle in the cockpit. 

Page 14: None of the life rafts stowed in the wings was seen by the survivors during the evacuation; however all rafts were later recovered. There was no evidence that these rafts were used by any of the non-survivors.

Page 31: Failure of the left wing deprived the survivors of the life rafts stowed therein. Rafts on the right side were never seen by the survivors even though many exited through the right-over-the-wing exits. However these were later recovered and found inflated. The reason for loss of the right wing stowed rafts is not clear from the testimony. The difficulty in opening the right rear over-the-wing exit may have contributed to the problem. Extended operation of this airplane at low temperatures could have increased the inflation time for these rafts materially, resulting in the rafts not inflating in time to be useful.

Page 32, recommendations: The unavailability of the wing life rafts leads the Board to question the advisability of their being externally stowed. Their unavailability can be attributed to the loss of the left wing and/or in the increase in inflation time resulting from the decrease in the temperature of the CO2 after prolonged flight at high altitude.

“So here we are Fred… Where is the mistake? Where have been found the two rafts? Have they been examined? If so, by who? None of the survivors could see the rafts, but do they exist? And what about the raft found with the body of a stewardess?

In a second email on the same subject sent that same day, Reymond said, “I must say that if a raft is not attached with a line to the airplane or ship, the wind will blow it very quick and far away (my personal experience as ship officer). Also, a raft is not built to keep inflated until the eternity. It can be flat within 24 hours (my knowledge as a certified life raft operator).

To be clear, it seems that the airplane was not fitted with all the safety equipment. I also see that it was very embarrassing for the government. I have been reading the accident report and also question if there was more to the story.

*     *     *     *    *     *

Comment by survivor Fred Caruso:

As a survivor and one involved with the right wing exit, I take issue with the statement on page 31 of the report, which says in part:

. . . The difficulty in opening the right rear over-the-wing exit may have contributed to the problem. . . .

I used the right rear over-the-wing exit for my escape. My eyes were fixated on that window. I was intent on being the first one out. Immediately after impact, I released my seat belt, jumped out of my seat, jumped over the broken seats in front of me, and tore that window out of the wall. I was out and I am pretty sure I was the first one. I don’t recall any problems in opening that window. There were no life rafts.

*     *     *     *    *     *

Comment by survivor Paul Stewart:

Seeing this post [about the life rafts] brought back some memories of the crash. The stewardess’, after all of the ditching drills and instructions, moved some of the troopers to different seats. They moved me to an aisle seat over the right wing ( the 3 seat side) next to the rear exit, and gave instructions to the trooper next to the exit how to remove the exit window, and how to operate the manual pull handle that would automatically activate the rafts. These instructions were covered by the stewardess shortly before impact, and she took the middle seat.  She did not survive. Once in the water, as you know, this was an impossible task.

Having only one raft may have been a blessing. With only 20 to 25 people on a raft they could have been tossed from one side to the other, and the raft more than likely would have flipped over with the size of the waves.  There were numerous times I thought we were going to flip over, and as you know we were packed so tight, that there was no shifting of weight as were packed like sardines.

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Where did all of the life rafts go? There were supposed to be five. Right?

After nearly three years of research and reporting, this writer has pretty well described what happened and who was involved in the incident in addition to passengers and crew. In the process of all of this research, questions were raised about the “why” of some of these events. Specifically:

1) Where did the life rafts go? Why was there only one life raft when passengers were told repeatedly that there was to be five?

2) Why did the engines quit?

3) Why was the U.S. Army so silent about the incident? And why did passengers get so little press exposure and social treatment as might be expected from such a tragedy?

This posting is restricted only one of the questions:

Where did the life rafts go?

Only one life raft seemed to be available for survivors. Fifty one of 76 persons were rescued and all of them were in the same single 25-person life raft. Three died before the trip ended.

Everyone was told that there were five life rafts: one inside the cabin and two in storage bays on each wing. Everyone was instructed on how to board the rafts that came out of each wing.

In the end, only two rafts were recovered. The Swiss ship Celerena intercepted the one overcrowded raft with its cargo of 51, and the second raft by a voluntary search vessel that quickly turned it over to the Canadian carrier Bonaventure. This leaves three life rafts unaccounted for.

Two life rafts were assumed to be lost when the left wing was sheared off on impact. The life rafts stored in the both wings were to eject and inflate automatically on impact. We were told that repeatedly during the preparation drills. Why didn’t they inflate on impact when the wing sheared off? It was automatic.

What about the other two stored in the right wing? One was found by a now deceased Flying Tiger 923 crew member, a woman, who was able to get on board. That one life raft was retrieved by a search vessel and that lone passenger was found dead on arrival. What about the other?

The Civil Aeronautics Board accident report released on September 13, 1963 states “none of the life rafts stowed in the wings were seen by survivors during the evacuation; however, all rafts were later recovered. There was no evidence that these rafts were used by any non-survivors.”

It seems to me that they did very little research into the matter. And they glossed over the matter very quickly.

Air Force Major Harry Benson, who was a passenger and survivor, was very familiar with the aircraft. He had piloted the same model aircraft while on active duty. He told other reputable passengers that he set his eye on the life raft bay closest to the passenger cabin prior to impact. His plan was get out of the aircraft immediately after impact so he would go directly to the storage bay to release the life raft himself. He would then help others to board the raft.

Major Benson was “almost“ able to execute maneuver as planned, except for one problem. When he got out on the wing and opened the raft bay, the bay was empty. No life raft there!

The other raft assumed to be on the same wing apparently opened and blew off in the wind away from the panicked passengers. Somehow a stewardess found her way into that raft and she died before a chance for rescue.

As said in the beginning of this story, everyone aboard Flying Tiger 923 expected five life rafts to be waiting for them. Of course, in the chaos created by impact, the number of rafts was of little importance as long as there was one available for boarding.

While survivors were thrilled to be alive, there were a few serious rubs with the issue of one raft.

The team of troopers that pulled people into the over-crowded life raft at one point felt that the over crowding posed a a serious danger to everyone. They felt that the survivors not yet inside the raft should go find another raft. One of those dedicated but realistic rescuers let his thoughts slip past his lips. He said, a little too loudly, “the raft’s too crowded. Go to another raft.”

He might have whispered those words as an escaping thought, but to some of those thrashing about in the frigid sea trying to get to safety, including me, it sounded like an announcement shouted over a bullhorn. I was still outside, hanging on to the slippery rubber and I could not get in. I panicked at the very thought. All I heard was “the raft’s too crowded” and my mind completed the thoughts with “there is no more room. No room for me.” I immediately screamed my lungs out, begging to get in. Someone already inside took pity and pulled me in. (I was not the only one experiencing that situation.)

Air Force Capt. Juan Figueroa, MD, called for his wife as he desperately clung to the outside of the slippery raft. She was still inside and alive. Her shouts seemed to be coming from what seemed to be a distance. Dr Figueroa shouted back to he to assure her he was OK and told her that he was getting on “another” raft. He did not see her or hear her again, even though they were not more than a few feet apart. He was certain they were in different rafts over crowded rafts..

Soon after the rescue by the Celerina crew, and all survivors were accounted for, his wife sent him a note by way of a ship’s crew member telling him that she was saved and nearby. Dr. Figueroa was having mixed thoughts about the lifeboat situation. He asked a question of the message bearer before he left the cabin. Dr. Figueroa asked, “how many rafts made it to the rescue”?

The answer he got was “one.” No other words.

And there he learned how close he was to his wife, but yet they were so far apart. They never saw one and other or heard each others voice during the entire six hour ordeal.

Can you imagine the shock Major Benson must have had when he discovered that the life raft bay on the wing was empty? And incidentally, there was no evidence that ever was anything in there.

In the end, survivors were all happy that they were among those “miraculously” saved. One raft was all that was they needed for their salvation. There were so many things to be happy about.

The image below was given nearly a full page in a story about the crash and rescue that appeared in The Saturday Evening Post in late 1962.

Packed like sardines.

51 people packed in a raft for 25.

Posted in flight crew, new combat troopers, passengers, rescue teams | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Those on board Flying Tiger 923 on the night of September 23, 1962

Few details were available on survivors and deceased during the first days following the crash of Flying Tiger 923. One of the first stories was from the New York Times.  That story consisted of a list of those on the plane. It separated the crew from the passengers, and these two categories were separated again as those surviving the ordeal, those who died and those who were still missing at sea. The Times did not attempt to separate by Army, Air Force, Navy and so forth.

The listing below uses the same names, however they are separated into three categories: 1-crew, 2-regular passengers and 3-combat troops. Please take note of the key to markings.

Key to markings:
(**) = story written and posted
(+) = contact made with person or family and either declined interview or provided no information, or
(no mark) = can’t locate, no story available

Aboard Flying Tiger 923 the night of September 23, 1962:

Surviving crew:

**MURRAY, Capt. John D., Oyster Bay, LI, pilot
**NICHOLSON, Samuel T., Dallas, PA, navigator
**GOULD, Carol Ann, Lyndhurst, NJ, flight attendant

Deceased crew:

BROTMAN, Jacqueline L., Chicago, IL, flight attendant.
**GARRETT, James E., Brentwood, Long Island, NY, flight engineer
MUDD, Ruth, Brown Mills, NJ, flight attendant.
PARKER, Robert W., Port Washington, Long Island, NY, co-pilot
**SIMS, Betty A., New York City, NY, flight attendant.

Surviving passengers (excluding combat troopers):

ALEPOS, Sgt. Juan J, Killeen, TX
**BENSON, Maj. Harry O., Marshfield Hills, MA
**BODUNG, Sgt. 1st Class Alfred, Indianapolis, IN
+CRAPOLICCHIO, Spec. 4 Anthony M., South Arlington, VA
**DENT, Lieut. Col. George H., Fredericksburg, VA
**ELANDER, Maj. Carl R., West Point, NY
**ELANDER, Mrs. Lois, wife of Major Elander
**ELDRED, Capt. Robert C., Jenkintown, PA
**FIGUEROA-LONGO, Capt. Juan G., Santurce, PR
**FIGUEROA-LONGO, Mrs. Carmen, wife of Captain Figueroa-Longo
**FOLEY, Sgt. Peter A., South Bend, IN
**GROVES, Mrs. Helga, wife of Specialist Groves
MacDONALD, Cpl., John E., Mexico, ME
**WILSON, Sgt. Ernest L., New Orleans, LA

Deceased passengers (excluding combat troopers): 

ALTIERI, Specialist 4 Anthony, New Haven, Conn.
ALLEN, Sgt. James, East Gadsden, AL
**BANEY, S.Sgt. Melvin H., Pelham, N.H.
BELL, Sgt. Edmond P., Colorado Springs, CO
BROADWATER, Specialist 4 Charles E., El Paso, Texas
**DEVLIN, Capt. John P., Philadelphia, PA
**DEVLIN, Mrs. Naomi, wife of Captain Devlin
**DENT, Mrs. Elizabeth, wife of Lieut. Col. George H. Dent, Fredericksburg, VA
**ELDRED, Mrs. Edna, wife of Capt. Robert C. Eldred, a survivor, Jenkinstown, PA
**MISKIMEN, S. Sgt. Richard M., New Philadelphia, OH
**GROVES, Specialist 4 John, Pittsburg, PA
**HOOPII, Mrs Rachel K, Oahu, Hawaii
**HOOPII, Luana, child of Mrs Hoopii
**HOOPII, Ullani, Child of Mrs. Hoopii

Surviving combat troopers:  

**ACEVEDO-CAMBERO, Pvt. Raul, Los Angeles, CA
**APANEL, Pvt. Edward J. Jr., Palisades Park, NJ
BAKER, Pvt. Mack Jr., Bastrop, LA
**BAZELL, Pvt. Frank D., Van Nuys, CA
**BROWN, Pvt. George V., Oshkosh, WI
**CARUSO, Pvt. Frederick C. Jr., Nanuet, NY
**DAVIDSON, Pvt. Larry E.., Manchester, MD
DAWKINS, Pvt. Bobby D., Cowpens, SC
**GAZELLE, Pvt. Frederick C., Pasadena, CA
**GILBRETH, Pvt. Arthur L., Big Bear Lake, CA
HAWKINS, Pvt. Robert C. Birmingham, AL
HOFER, Pvt. Joe E., Birmingham, AL
KECK, Pvt. Charles P., Gibonville, NC
**KOLTAK, Pvt. Thomas P., Morgantown, WV
McGLOTHREN, Pvt. Willard F., Cottage Hill, FL
MENDEZ, Pvt. Reynolds, Chula Vista, CA
MURRAY, Pvt. Michael A., Youngstown, OH
NEVILLE, Pvt. Larry A., Fort Walton, FL
PIERCE, Pvt. Leroy F., Modesto, CA
+RUFFOLO, Pvt. Frank A., Chicago, IL
SAYERS, Pvt. James M., Princeton, WV
**SMITH, Pvt. Willie Jr., Atlanta, GA
**STEWART, Pvt. Paul R. Ardmore, OK
+THORNSBERRY, Pvt. Gordon E., Russellville, Ark
**TOMINELLO, Pvt. Dominic, Mohnton, PA
**TOOLE, Pvt. John Jr., Montgomery, AL
+TRAWICK, Pvt. Richard M., Birmingham, AL
**VASQUEZ, Pvt. Samuel C., Phoenix, AZ
+WERNER, Pvt. Douglas N., Munci, IN
WIDMER, Pvt. Edwin, Rigewood, Queens, NY

Deceased combat troopers:

BINFORD, Pvt. Harold K., Luverne, MN
BROWN, Pvt. John E. Pittsburg, PA
BUCEK, Pvt. August Jr., Wauwatosa, WI
HANSON, Pvt. Joe W., Fernwood, Idaho
**JOHNSON, Pvt. Carroll M., Tempe, AZ
JOHNSON, Pvt. Don L., Oakland, CA
**LESANE, Pvt. Harold, Philadelphia, PA
MANNING, Pvt. James L., Belleville, IL
McGINTY, Pvt. James T., Atlanta, GA

If anyone knows anything about any of those “unmarked,” please contact this site editor, Fred Caruso, a survivor, and let him know.

Posted in flight crew, new combat troopers, passengers | Tagged , , | 16 Comments

Hawiiaan mother and two children lost in raging sea

“I saw a child being thrown out a window
by a man 
after the plane hit the Atlantic. The child was never seen again. The other child also vanished.”


Rachael Hoopii with children

Rachael K. Hoopii, 32, of Waimanolo, Hawaii was on her way with two children to join her husband in Munich, Germany. Mrs. Hoopii and her little girls, Uilani, 10, and Luana, 6, were all eager to see the family together again.

Tech. Sgt. Bernard Palinapa Hoopii, 36, of Wailuku, was energized, excited for his family’s arrival. He was a veteran of 12 years of Army service, which included action in Korea. He had been separated from Rachael, Uilani and Luana for the past two years.  Bernard and Rachael had been married for six years.

The three Hoopii women were headed to the reunion by way of the Military Air Transportation Service (MATS) on Flying Tiger 923. They never got there. They all died that night, in the frigid, gale-whipped waters of the North Atlantic, 500 miles off the coast of Ireland, on September 23, 1962.

There was no news of the dead in far-off Hawaii until five days after the disaster, on September 27. The Honolulu Star-Bulletin newspaper finally carried a front-page report of sorrowful deaths of the two children and equally sorrowful story of the likely final pleas from the mother, desperately alone, seeking refuge on the raft.

Army Paratrooper, Private Raul Acevedo-Cambero of Los Angeles, said, “I saw a child being thrown out a window by a man after the plane hit the Atlantic. The child was never seen again. The other child also vanished.”

Another Paratrooper, Private Frederick G. Gazelle, of Pasadena, California, said he tried to save a woman he believed to be the children’s mother.

“I was inside the raft on the edge and a woman swam to the side,” he said. “I tried to pull her aboard but men poured over us like sardines.”

“I held on and she kept crying, ‘Please let me up.’ But they kept on coming over and around us. I found myself under a pile of men and I could not hold on. The woman disappeared.” The sea never slowed its rage.

Army Sergeant First Class Alfred Bodung, of Indianpolis, Indiana – one of the survivors flown days later to Cork, Ireland, and then to Oxford, England, for medical treatment – said he had been “detailed” to look after the children as the plane came down. According to earlier reports, he had been given the impossible assignment by Stewardess Jacqueline Brotman, 24, who perished in the crash.

“I took off my shoes and put on a lifejacket,” Bodung said. “In the row behind me were the two children. But I was knocked out in the crash and never knew what happened to them. When I came to, the plane was filling with water fast and I dived out.”

Bodung said he found the raft, which became so crowed that people were lying and sitting on top of each other. He got in, sandwiched between other survivors and prayed. He said the next five hours until rescue by the Celerina, were the most terrible hours of my life.

And that was the end of three Hoopiis, gone in the cold, wet darkness.

Roberta Hoopii


Perhaps by fate, another Hoopii daughter (by a previous marriage), Roberta Kanani Mokilehua, 13, had originally left home for the trip with her step-mother and two sisters on August 28. They made a three-week stop over in California to visit relatives on the mainland. Roberta disliked the early September California cold so much, and got so homesick for Hawaii that she returned to the islands on September 3, some 20 days prior to the doomed flight. She was staying with her grandmother, Mrs. Robert Kekauoha, in Waimanalo, at the time of the crash.

Mother Rachel was one of six children. She was born on Oahu and went to Waimanalo Schools.  She had long wanted to join her husband in Germany, but had to wait until restrictions were lifted on relocation of dependents. The trip to Germany was her first trip away from the Hawaiian islands.

Tech. Sgt. Hoopii was a native of Hana, Maui.

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This is a rerun of an article posted on February 1, 2012. It is intended to remind us that there were far more than combat troops in the aircraft. The rerun of this post is also intended to draw the attention of the Hoopii family. Additional information is requested.

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Crew members to be remembered

Most of the information contained within this posting is obtained from the Civil Aeronautics Board report of September 10, 1963.

Robert Parker, Port Washington, Long Island, New York

First Officer Robert W. Parker, age 27, had a total of 2,430 flying hours, of which 350 were in an L-1049 type aircraft. He held a valid airman certificate No. 1421814 with commercial airplane single and multiengine land and instrument privileges. His initial check in L-1049H aircraft was on May 16, 1962. His last FAA physical examination was passed on August 10, 1962. He had flown 184.3 hours in the last 90 days, 65.8 hours in the last 30 days and arrived in Gander at 0757 on September 22, 1962, the day prior to the flight. He had 33 hours of rest prior to the flight.



Jacqueline Brotman, Moline, Illinois

Stewardess Jacqueline L. Brotman, age 24, was hired on July 17,1962. She had approximately three years prior experience with other airlines. She completed ground school on July 19, 1962 , but her records indicated no wet ditching drill. She had flown 162.5 hours in the last 90 days, 43.1 hours in September; and had over three days of rest prior to departing Newark at 0900 on September 23.

In the caption to her photo to the right, her father said, “She set her heart on a flying career.”


Ruth Mudd


Stewardess Ruth Mudd, age 24, was hired on August 6, 1962. She had three and one-half years of previous experience with MATS (Military Air Transport System). She completed ground school on August 18, 1962. She completed ground school in August 18, 1962, and her last wet ditching drill was on August 1962. She had flown 134.8 hours in the last 90 days; 69.5 hours in September; and had over two days’ rest prior to departing Newark at 0900 on September 23.

In the caption to her photo on the right, it says “She had decided to give up flying and was on her last trip.”

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Survivor says little about the harrowing experience

“It has been almost 52 years since the plane ditched in the North Atlantic
and you (the FT923 site editor) are the first one I have talked to
about that night since I left Germany and the men
that shared the same experience we did.”

That is what Charles Keck of Gibsonville, North Carolina had to say in an email follow up to a recent interview for this site in which he said he “talks very little about it.” Keck calls Sunday, September 23, 1962, the ”worse night” of his life.


Keck on the deck of the rescue ship.

Keck was knocked out on impact as Flying Tiger 923 attempted to make a soft water ditching after the loss of three of its four engines. The impact tore off the right wing and broke open the bottom cargo cabins.

The cold water rushing in to the broken aircraft awakened Keck to find that seats had broken loose and were piled on top of him. His seatbelt was still fastened as he lay under that pile.

Breaking out of his seatbelt, he pushed his way from under the pile of seats. Water was waist deep by then leaving almost no time for thinking. Almost instantly, he bolted out the left wing window.

Once out, he fought the ice-cold furious waves as they pushed him against the fuselage of the sinking Super Constellation. By that time only three to four feet of the plane were rising above the waves. Fearing being sucked under water by the sinking wreckage, he pushed himself away and started swimming into the darkness. He heard frantic voices shouting about the life raft. He swam in that direction and luckily he came upon it. By that time he was unable to climb on board, but someone already inside pulled him in.

The single 25 person life raft was ultimately crammed with 51 survivors, many overcome with shock and all fighting hypothermia. As he wedged his way into the mass, he realized he had a seriously cut leg and an injury to his head.

Keck remembers a bit of the first two hours in the raft, the twisting and bobbing and ice cold splashes of waves breaking over the tiny craft. But, he says he doesn’t remember any of the last four hours, including the approach of the rescue ship and evacuation off the raft. He says all he can remember is that an Italian seaman pulled him onto the safety of the deck.

His injuries were treated while on the Celerina by fellow survivor Dr. Juan Figueroa and he was able to go on to the port of Antwerp. After spending some recovery time at a hospital in Frankfurt he went on to his assignment as an army engineer with the 12th Engineering Battalion in Dexheim, near Openheim, Germany. His company was all airborne qualified.

The Flying Tiger ditching terrified him, but didn’t discourage him from flying or jumping out of airplanes. In all, he logged in 84 jumps in the six years after the crash. He reinlisted in 1965 for another three years of airborne service and was rotated back to the states in 1966. He managed to avoid Viet Nam, but saw 13 months of duty in the Dominican Republic.

After leaving the service 1967, he worked for the Power Company and married Carolyn. They have been married for 46 years in February. His father-in-law was in the wood cutting business. They decided to join forces and go into business together in Gibsonville and are still operating after 44 years, now with his son, Erick on board.

In response to the question, “What was your worse memory of the disastrous night?”, he responds, “It was all bad.” He says he was scared to death until he said the Lord’s Prayer, and then he wasn’t scared.

Keck recommends as a result of the crash, “Trust in God that everything will be all right.” And, “Stay close to the family.”

Charles (who goes by his nickname of Pete) and wife Carolyn have one son also named Charles. He goes by the name Erick. Erick and wife Anna have one son named Logan Thomas. They all live in the Gibsonville community.

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Note: Keck was a hard person to find. In fact, it was he who found us on the internet some time ago. He was watching us silently for some time. He finally made contact with us to ask for a digital photo of fellow survivors Frank Ruffalo, of Chicago, and Sammy Vasquez, of Phoenix. The photo appeared in the reader comments story posted on June 1, 2014.

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Epilogue to mother’s scrap book by Gordon Thornsberry


On Sunday, September 23, my mother cooked lunch for a large group of relatives. After lunch, the men were watching a football game when a news bulletin came across the television. A plane crashed in the North Atlantic ocean carrying 76 soldiers, dependents and crew. A comment jokingly was said, “Sure hope Gordon wasn’t on that plane,” and went back to watching the ball game.

At 8:00AM the following morning, my mother received the following telegram. My father had already gone to work.


Continue reading

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Gordon Thornsberry: Mother’s scrapbook provides details of North Atlantic crash

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

Dear All,

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. Continue reading

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