Buried at the Bottom of the World
When people die serving their country, to what lengths must a government go to recover the bodies?
- By Carl Hoffman
- Air & Space magazine, July 2007
Courtesy Lopez Family
(Page 3 of 6)
In some ways, they were lucky. George One had been stocked like a pantry before a party, so food was not a concern. After three days, the weather cleared. The sky was cloudless and the sun blazed. The men were perched on the edge of a hill, with the ocean shimmering below. Looking around, they found more sleeping bags, boxes of cigarettes, a Brownie camera with film, and other supplies, including a sled and a nine-man life raft.
Days passed; the sun never set. Robbins snapped photos with the Brownie, and when he ran out of film, tucked the camera in his tent. He painted “Williams, Hendersin, Lopez DEAD” in big yellow letters on the PBM’s wings. On the seventh day, according to Kearns’ account, the survivors placed the dead men into graves near the wingtip. Caldwell conducted the burial service.
Finally, on the 13th day, a PBM appeared. Everyone shouted, waved, and set off smoke grenades, but the airplane continued on its way. Two hours later it returned; Robbins threw a bucket of avgas on the raft, piled high with flammable material, and struck a match. The thing blew so hard it singed his eyebrows. This time the airplane turned and headed toward the cheering men. There wasn’t a more beautiful sight, Robbins says, than that big Mariner, wagging its wings. The pilot dropped a weighted note, which Caldwell read aloud: “If you can make it to the lake, form a circle. If not, form a straight line.” The lake was 10 miles away.
Robbins remembers Caldwell asking “What do you think?”
“What other choice do we have?” said Robbins. The men formed a circle.
Then they bent to the task. They piled sleeping bags on the sled and laid LeBlanc on top. Robbins mounted the compass from George One on the sled’s handlebars. With three men pulling the sled and one walking behind to guide it, they struggled toward the shore. They frequently stepped through the crust and sank in snow up to their waists. Not until they hit firm ground did the going get easier. Walking the 10 miles took them 24 hours.
As they neared the shore, a bank of fog rolled in, hiding the rescue craft. The PBM pilot revved the engines, and the men headed toward the sound. Soon two crewmen from the rescue plane, who had come ashore on a raft, joined them. Everyone got into the raft and they paddled out to the PBM, boarded, and flew off to the Pine Island, where Caldwell was piped aboard with tears in his eyes. Robbins (who had forgotten the Brownie camera with its treasure of undeveloped photos) and the rest of the survivors were soon transferred to the aircraft carrier USS Philippine Sea and returned to Panama, then to Washington, D.C.
For six of the nine men who crashed on Thurston Island, life went on. Because of complications from his burns, LeBlanc had both legs amputated below the knee and lost the use of one arm. Robbins married his sweetheart and was transferred to San Diego. He retired in 1965 as a chief petty officer. Caldwell, who had been in the Navy 24 years at the time of the crash, eventually made rear admiral.