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Charles Emery Crashes in Pacific

Charles R. Emery in the cockpit of a C-47 Cargo Plane.
Charles R. Emery in the cockpit of a C-47 Cargo Plane. [1, 173]
To fight the Japanese during World War II, the United States. needed logistical support to for its offensive in the Pacific.  The Army Air Force assigned pilots like Charles R. Emery to help ferry cargo.  These crucial operations for the Pacific contributed greatly to America’s victory.

With Japan joining the Axis powers and causing the US to enter the war in the pacific, the US had almost no logistical support in the Pacific beyond what was already available on a few Island bases in the Pacific.  However, most of these had been captured by the Japanese during the initial stages of the Pacific Theater.  In fact, one of the reasons for the “island hopping” strategy was logistics.  The Director of the Service, Supply, and Procurement Division War Department General Staff wrote that, “The objective of the 1942 campaign in New Guinea was to shorten supply lines by establishing major bases along the New Guinea coast for the support of future operations.” (4, 49) This, coupled with the subpar runways and airfields the Army Air Force had to use during the first half of the Pacific Front, encouraged the “island hopping” strategy.

When Japan became an active and terrifying threat in the Pacific, the US needed time to train troops, build logistics, and reinforce bases.  The hard fought loss of the Philippines allowed this to happen, but even then, the US failed to keep logistically and strategically important locations.  The US had to not only prevent the Japanese from capturing the Allied positions remaining, but also had to get enough supplies and manpower to attack Japan directly –  all while supporting the Eastern Front in Europe.  Because of the European Theater, nearly all US transports and logistical equipment were on the opposite side of the continent ferrying equipment, supplies, men, and food back and forth to Europe.  So, in order to supply everyone in the Pacific with enough equipment to actually attack, the military had to build a completely new logistical system.  In total, it took almost 2 years before the US could turn the war around for them.  The military expanded logistical shipping in the Pacific; however, naval shipping alone was not enough, so the Army Air Force got involved.  To help ease the logistical nightmare that was the Pacific theater, the US prototyped the Douglas DC series, and in the end came to the C-47 Skytrain.  This plane could carry over 6,000 lbs. of cargo, and, with over 10,000 built, the C-47 greatly alleviated logistical problems in the Pacific Theater.

This huge influx of planes and logistical operations created the need for a large number of crew.  This is where men such as Charles R. Emery came into play.  As one of the thousands who joined the Army’s Air Force division, he piloted ships to and from the Pacific Front trying to help forces.  During one of his tours, he helped supply Operation Forager.  Unfortunately, due to unforeseeable mechanical issues, he was forced to ditch the plane in the Pacific.  Miraculously, he and all the crew survived.

The Ditching incident

During Emery’s tour in the US Army Air Force he was forced to crash a C-47 Skytrain in the Pacific.  It all started at Hickam Field, Hawaii.  The flight plan took them to Christmas Island in the Pacific (approximately 7 hours).  That leg of the journey was uneventful. However, the following flight which was rerouted from Canton to American Samoa was not so uneventful.

During takeoff, Emery asked the tower if they would like him to dust the runway, they agreed so he did.  Emery did this because the C-47 he was flying was big enough the presence of it flying over the runway very close would cause dust to be kicked up and help clean the runway, making the field crews jobs easier.  After that he was informed by the radio operator to turn the plane’s radio on and tune in; there was real time reporting about the Normandy landing on.

The C-47 Cargo Airplane (3)

Four hours into the flight and still listening to the news, Charles noticed that the fuel pressure in the right engine was starting to flutter.  After another 10 minutes, it began losing pressure.  To diagnose the problem, he first asked Ernie, the flight engineer, to check the fuel tanks, but there was no problem.  So, Charles instead turned on the “Cross Feed,” which supplied fuel from the left engine to the right.  This fixed the issue, for about 5 minutes.  At that point, both fuel gauges began fluttering.  For safety, he had Sid, the radio operator, contact one of the other C-47 that took flight at the same time.  That plane had taken a more southern route so they were out of sight.  After explaining the difficulty, the other plane suggested that they intersect and proceed to American Samoa together. The fuel gauges were still showing worrying signs.

Soon after Emery contacted the other plane the gauges started to lose pressure to the point that both engines started cutting out.  To temporarily fix this, Emery turned the “Cross Feed” off and feathered the prop to the right engine.  After a few more minutes, the other plane contacted them again and said that Charles’s plane was in sight.  Sill, though, the problems worsened.  Now, the fuel pressure for the left engine started to cut out so Charles cut the left engine and started the right engine again despite the fact that both engines now had unsatisfactory amounts of fuel pressure.  One would turn on for a spurt of power then die and then the other would come on and do the same.  The plane was losing altitude rapidly and Bert, the co-pilot, and Charles both told the rest of the crew that they were going down.  Charles and Bert stayed in the cockpit because they decided that they were going to stick together for the maneuver. With everyone in crash positions, Charles and Bert lowered the windshield frame to protect their heads during impact.

The crash itself was very eventful, Charles described it as “Wham, bam, thank you ma’am.” (1, 91)  Charles leveled the plane when he got close to the water and then lifted the nose a bit to drag the tail.  The problem was that the plane kicked up a lot of water as it flew close so it was difficult to tell when the plane was going to hit.  This resulted in a quick, harsh drop as the plane stalled.

Once in the ocean, the water started pouring in from all sides.  Thanks to other crew members, though, all escape craft were successfully launched and inflated and, most importantly, right side up.  In total there were 2 five-man rafts and a one-man raft.  Charles and Bert left though the top hatch and slid down the left wing to meet the other crew members as they finished loading the rafts with all the emergency provisions. They all got on.  Now came the scary part, while everyone was trying to untie the emergency rafts from the plane they watched it pitch up and down, several times they thought that it would not come back up with the waves and that it would take the emergency rafts down with it.  To their amazement, the plane stayed afloat for about 2 and a half hours.  After the other plane buzzed them a few times to make sure they were all okay it continued on the American Samoa to inform the navy.


After about an hour, everyone was sea sick except for Bert and Charles.  Don tried to use the Mae West manual radio.  This little radio is called that because of the way you put it in between your legs and then turn the lever to send Morse code messages.  However, to do this they needed an antenna, and they had two options.  One was a balloon that used a hydrogen generator to inflate, but this was for only when the wind was not strong.  Since the wind was strong, however, they were forced to use a box kite kit and attach the antenna to that.  Despite trying multiple times, they were never able to get it airborne.  At this point, Charles got sea sick.  After about 4 hours, the temperature started to drop and storm clouds appeared on the horizon.  Thankfully, they stayed there and only buffeted the rafts with wind.  That night, no one ate anything, and they all huddled together during the night to stay warm.

The next morning, Lee Headly, the navigator, wanted to know “Where the hell are the yacht club boys,” (1, 93) also known as the navy.  During this time as well, Lee got very pessimistic about the chances of being rescued and started making promises like, “If we get out of this, I’m never going out with a married women again.” (1, 93)  This is where almost everyone in the boat thought that a married woman would never pick Lee up.  At about 1000 hours, they had some canned bacon and eggs, thankfully because of Sid though they had a lot of water since he had picked up about 24 extra cans of it during their stay in Hawaii.   After a while, they all spotted a ship on the horizon, but because it is extremely difficult to keep ones barring on the sea and determine the heading of a ship they pulled out a compass and waited.  After a while they determined that the ship would pass reasonably close the rafts.  During this, Charles decided to launch the aerial flares that were packed in with the rest of the emergency gear.  After launching most of the 25 they had the ship changed course and started heading for them.  When the ship was in speaking range, the captain of the ship called out that he was not slowing down, they all had one chance to grab the rope ladder that the bosun threw over the deck to the water line.

They all missed.

To their amazement though the ship stopped and picked them up still.  Charles went up first and was very excited that the ship stopped.  After everyone was aboard, the captain had a crane swung over the side and grabbed the rafts.  William Henderson was the captain of the ship the SS Howell Lykes which was originally from New Orleans.  After the rafts were on deck, he told Charles and the rest of the crew that since they all left the rafts he said that was equal to abandoning and the Laws of the High Seas said he could salvage it.  However, he did let each member keep an item from the craft as none of them had any argument with salvaging the rafts or its equipment (that remained).  During this time the captain, who Charles wrote had a sense of humor, was profoundly surprised that the aircraft crew was worried about being rescued, after all “we were only five-miles from land… “straight down.” (1, 94)

After settling in, Charles and the others discovered that the ship was a merchant ship converted into a troop transport and most of the those on board were wounded soldiers heading back to San Francisco.

About an hour and a half after the ship picked them up, a Navy PBY Catalina Seaplane buzzed the ship, and the ship communicated that they had rescued the crew.  Two hours later, a carrier appeared on the horizon heading toward them, thinking that they were going to be transferred onto the carrier Charles spoke to the captain about transport to the carrier, but the captain said they would not need it.  The carrier would not risk slowing down to pick them up.  This news delighted Charles and everyone else because now, instead of staying in the Pacific, they knew they would return to San Francisco with the Howell Lykes.

For the rest of the very mild journey, Charles played a lot of cards, and, while the Lt Colonel aboard the ship was initially against allowing Captain Henderson from salvaging the rafts, about half way though the journey he allowed the items to be salvaged.  Charles took one of the compasses included with the emergency supplies.  Another small bit of excitement Charles and the other members of the plane had on the boat was crossing the equator, apparently during this time they were inducted into what other sailors on the ship called, “King Neptune’s Court” which after showing up on deck in only pants and underwear and being scribbled on with silver nitrate with a few other rituals they were all inducted.

Awards that Charles Emery received while in the Army Air Force (1)
Awards that Charles Emery received while in the Army Air Force (1)

After returning to San Francisco there was a review board to attend, the only thing Charles asked everyone not to mention was that the “dusting off” at Christmas Island.  Fortunately, the subject never came up during the review.  After this, they determined that the crash was due to either sabotage or poor workmanship.  The crew was not implicated in any way, and Charles took this time to take some leave.  As he put it “I felt I had done enough hard duty.” (98)

Charles R. Emery passed away on January 4th, 2013 at 90 years old.


Primary Source:

  1. Emery, C. World War II Memoirs : Charles R. Emery, Private Collection

Secondary Sources:

  1. Stockfisch, J (1991). Linking Logistics and Operations: A Case Study of World War II Air Power.
  2. Boeing (unknown). C-47 Skytrain Military Transport.
  3.  the Director of the Service, Supply, and Procurement Division War Department General Staff (1993). Logistics in World War II – Final Report of the Army Service Forces.  
  4. Tate, Mark (1995). Operation Forager: Air Power in the Campaign for Saipan.

For Further Reading

  1. Logistical Quotations
  2. Major Battles in the Pacific.
  3. Douglas C-47 information.