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Archive for Monday, June 14, 2010

WWII B-24 pilot finally gets to thank his rescuer

Harold Strub, right, talks with Loren Corliss at his home in Wichita in this photo taken June 3. Strub flew an Air Force rescue plane that picked up B-24 pilot Corliss and seven other men from a Philippine island on Dec. 22, 1944.

Harold Strub, right, talks with Loren Corliss at his home in Wichita in this photo taken June 3. Strub flew an Air Force rescue plane that picked up B-24 pilot Corliss and seven other men from a Philippine island on Dec. 22, 1944.

June 14, 2010

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Editor’s note: This is the second of two stories centering on Loren Corliss, a World War II veteran who is the father of David Corliss, Lawrence’s city manager. The first story appeared on Sunday.

In a desk drawer at home in east Wichita, Harold Strub keeps a seaplane log book. A retired Boeing worker, Strub has lived in Wichita the past 59 years. He saw the date Loren Corliss mentioned regarding his rescue: Dec. 22, 1944.

Strub walked downstairs, frail and slow, to a desk, which happens to be a walnut desk he made in shop class in 1936 in high school.

He opened a drawer, pulled out an aging brown seaplane pilot’s logbook, and turned the pages.

Within moments he put his finger on a log entry, neatly handwritten by him 66 years ago, about a harrowing seaplane rescue flight. The date on his logbook entry: Dec. 22, 1944.

Strub opened his Wichita phone book and found the name Loren Corliss, a stranger that Strub had never heard of. He dialed the number.

Dec. 22, 1944

Mindanao, the Philippines

Off the beach on the east coast of the island, the wind was up, the waves looked appallingly high, and PBY Catalina seaplane pilot Harold Strub took a deep breath.

Off the beaches near Pensacola, Fla., during rescue flight training, the trainers had taught him how to land in a surf like that.

Strub was a tough, skinny Oklahoman, 26 years old, a veteran of many dangerous flights. But the instructions on how to land in a surf like this scared him:

  1. Head your nose perpendicular to the waves.

  2. Skim just above the waves at 80 mph.

  3. Surf usually makes one big wave followed by five smaller waves; aim for the smaller waves.

  4. Stall the engines just before you hit water.

  5. Brace for impact.

Down below on the beach, though Strub could not see them, eight desperate and starving B-24 crew members waited for him.

They’d survived 45 days in the jungle. Filipino natives had brought them to this beach, to the base camp of an American guerrilla fighter named Wilson, a survivor of the battle for Corrigedor. Wilson had used his short-wave radio to call in the seaplane.

The Japanese patrolled this section of beach fairly often, shooting at anyone they regarded as a foe.

Strub had taken plenty of chances already in the war. He had one of the craziest jobs imaginable: fly a slow-moving seaplane right through the Japanese air forces, cruise above the islands of the Pacific, and rescue shot-down pilots and bomber crews after they parachuted into the sea during bombing missions.

It was harrowing work. At most, he could coax his seaplane up to 100 knots. A Japanese Zero could fly more than twice that speed.

During the course of the war, Strub had seen Zeros fly right past him. One Zero, during one rescue mission, buzzed right past his Catalina one day, just to show Strub that he was a dead man if the Japanese pilot chose to shoot.

But the Japanese let him be; they knew his seaplane was helpless, and that his job was to save lives, even the lives of Japanese pilots bobbing in the sea.

During 600 hours of combat rescue missions, Strub rescued 14 downed airmen from the sea.

Strub turned into the wind now, skimmed his Catalina into big swells.

At the last moment, Strub cut the engines, and felt a jolt as the plane hit the water. Another jolt as it hit a big wave.

Strub and his crew bobbed into the air, and then slammed down as wave after wave rolled under them.

He looked toward the beach and saw half-naked Filipino native boatmen trying to wrestle outrigger canoes into the surf toward him.

On the canoes, Strub could see the slumped forms of half-naked American airmen trying to float on the canoes out to Strub’s plane.

Behind him, Strub heard his own crew begin to yell.

The big wave had torn a seam in the Catalina’s aluminum skin.

Water was pouring into the seaplane. The crew turned on the plane’s sump pump to pump out the water.

It was a race now, as the canoes approached.

Which would be faster: The water pouring out? Or the water pouring in?

Harold Strub’s journal entry  from Dec. 22, 1944 is shown at his home in Wichita in this June 3 photo.

Harold Strub’s journal entry from Dec. 22, 1944 is shown at his home in Wichita in this June 3 photo.

June 3, 2010

A neighborhood in east Wichita.

The afternoon sun beat down hard in one 2010’s first really hot days.

Loren Corliss, still in good shape after 88 summers, walked briskly up to a house, only 14 miles from his own, that he’d never visited before, home to a man he’d never seen face to face.

He felt a twinge of guilt; in the seaplane, after the seaplane pilot rescued them, Corliss had not even thanked the pilot. He’d been so jazzed about getting off Mindanao alive that he never even glanced into the seaplane’s flight deck.

He’d just sat there shivering. In the steaming rain forest he’d stripped himself down to his GI shorts, but he was shivering now on the seaplane, wrapped in a GI blanket, thanking God that he’d made it away from the Japanese.

He remembered now, 66 years later, that he had never thanked the seaplane pilot, who had lifted them off the surf with guts and skill. When the pilot had landed them back at an island base halfway between Mindanao and New Guinea, the ground crew had taken Corliss off the plane and directly to the hospital. He’d never even seen the pilot.

At the screen door now, Corliss rang the doorbell.

Mindanao, 1944

In the outrigger canoe, while the native boatmen wrestled them into the surf, Corliss hugged the wooden canoe, weak from starvation; in the previous 45 days, he’d lost 30 pounds.

He and his fellow B-24 survivors, stripping naked in the jungle, had picked hundreds of blood-sucking leeches off each other.

They were all terrified. They had fallen 10,000 feet through the air after their B-24 began to disintegrate. Their parachutes had landed them in a rainforest so thick they had to cut through vines with nearly every step.

In the canoe now, rolling up and down over the waves, Corliss saw the seaplane bobbing, and the seaplane crew members gesturing frantically at the native boatmen to hurry up. The seaplane boys looked frantic; their gestures said hurry-hurry-hurry-hurry.

They looked either angry or scared, Corliss wasn’t sure which. Corliss thought it was because the Japanese were known to patrol this beach.

The natives rowed them beside the plane.

The Catalina crew members reached down and dragged them into the plane one by one. The pilot called out to the rescued men, asking one of them to climb into the nose: He yelled at the airmen that he wanted the plane’s weight distributed more evenly, to help the plane lift off.

The pilot gunned the twin engines, turned directly into the waves and revved his engines every time a wave hurled them upward.

Corliss thought, as they hit wave after wave, that they’d never get off the ocean. He thought he was going to die. Corliss hoped and prayed that the pilot knew what he was doing.

He did not remember, 66 years later, any water sloshing around inside the plane. He would not hear, until 66 years later, about that hole in the seaplane’s skin, and how the water poured in, or how the sump pump kept up with it.

All he would remember later was that they hurtled up over the rushing waves, and then hurtled downward on the far side of each wave, with the seaplane pilot gamely gunning the engines each time they went up.

At last, at the top of a wave, they lifted off.

They were free.

East Wichita, 2010

After Corliss rang the bell, the slim form of an elderly man appeared: pale, thin, balding, and frail, with a voice made faint by 92 years.

“Hello,” the thin man said. The voice, barely audible, conveyed a warm and alert courtesy.

“Are you Harold?” Corliss asked.

“I am,” said Strub. “Please come in.”

“Well,” Corliss said, grasping the pilot’s hand. “It is a small world after all, isn’t it?”

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