Medevac From Luzon
A small band of helicopter pilots risked their lives to rescue wounded soldiers during World War II.
- By Roger Connor
- Air & Space magazine, July 2010
38TH DIVISION PHOTOGRAPHER
(Page 2 of 4)
Carle and First Lieutenant Robert Cowgill were assigned to the Fifth Aircraft Repair Unit. On June 15, with Cowgill away to pick up the first Sikorsky R-6A to make it into the theater, the Fifth Air Force received a request from the 38th Infantry Division to evacuate two soldiers with head injuries from a spot 35 miles east of Manila.
Carle was immediately dispatched in one of the unit’s R-4s. Reaching what he thought was the designated spot, Carle recalled: “All hell broke loose as a hail of 100-pound bombs started dropping all around me. I got out of there but quick. When I got my breath back, I saw a squadron of P-47s dive-bombing the spot I had just been flying.” (Carle gave accounts of his rescue missions to Fred Duncan, the historian of the aircraft repair units, and me. We interviewed Carle and the other Ivory Soap pilots in 2000 and 2001 as part of an oral history project for the National Air and Space Museum. Carle died in 2000.)
As Carle landed at a forward position on Luzon, soldiers greeted him with incredulous looks and comments on his “monstrosity from the sky.”
They, like the vast majority of Americans at the time, had never seen a helicopter. The soldiers had no information on the wounded whom Carle had come to collect, but they did know of a platoon leader with a bullet-shattered hip; he was part of a patrol that had been cut off near a narrow river bank.
Arriving at the location, Carle realized just how unprepared he was for the mission. When deployed to the theater, he had a mere 25 hours of helicopter time, and no training in medical evacuation, combat flying, or landing in a jungle. While R-4s had had external stretcher mounts installed in trials, the R-4s assigned to the aircraft repair ships had no such equipment, and Carle had not given a thought as to how a two-seat trainer might evacuate somebody. “As I stepped from the ship, a grimy, bearded sergeant grabbed my hand and began pumping it, welcoming me as though I was his long-lost brother,” said Carle. “At the same time, he explained what had happened to his patrol leader, and asked for instructions for loading the stretcher. Somewhere he had read that a stretcher can be loaded onto a helicopter. His spirits seemed to drop to the earth when he heard that I had never seen a stretcher used on a helicopter and knew of no way to load a stretcher patient onto the R-4. One of his buddies spoke up, asking if a seat could be removed and the man placed on the floor. It could be done, and we did it.”
Carle also disconnected the cyclic stick, but the wounded lieutenant’s feet still had to be propped up on the rudder pedals with a seat cushion, an arrangement that, Carle noted, “served as a ‘rudder lock’ and gave me absolutely no control over the tail rotor.” After an ungainly takeoff, Carle slowly climbed away and was able to deliver his patient to the 311th General Field Hospital near Manila.
News of the successful evacuation spread quickly, and calls for Carle’s services started to pour in.
On June 17, Cowgill returned with the newly assembled R-6A; though this helicopter could perform slightly better than the R-4B, its cabin was even tighter. Carle evacuated the wounded who were unable to stand or sit, while Cowgill evacuated those who could walk. Both men quickly became exhausted. Carle remembered: “More and more units requested our services, until we were overloaded with work, as can be indicated by the fact that I flew seven hours and made six evacuations on the same day.”