Buried at the Bottom of the World

When people die serving their country, to what lengths must a government go to recover the bodies?

James Robbins (front row, right) poses with some of his shipmates. Behind him are Lopez (to the left) and Hendersin (to the right). (Courtesy Lopez Family)
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Robbins looked around, dazed. Snow was blowing and whipping. To his right he saw the navigator, Ensign Max Lopez. In front of them was radioman Wendell Hendersin. Both men were dead. Much of the airplane was burning, the flames crackling and popping in the wind and snow. Robbins stood up—he seemed okay—and he and Warr made their way toward the burning remains of the flight deck. Kearns was crawling in the snow, his shoulder dislocated, his arm fractured.

Suddenly, a voice: “Get me out of here!” Kearns leapt up and ran into the flames, where he tried to unbuckle LeBlanc, who was hanging upside down in his seat, but couldn’t get him out. Warr and Robbins rushed in, pushed Kearns aside, and dragged the burning LeBlanc from the wreckage.

Over the next few minutes, the rest of the crew showed up. Caldwell was uninjured but disoriented. Fred Williams, another flight engineer, was lying by the fire, his back broken, blood oozing from his mouth and nose. Owen McCarty, the airplane’s photographer, crawled from the largely intact aft section with a severe gash on his head.

A lifetime later, Robbins is at a loss to explain how they coped. But they were young and strong, and they had been through a lot already. They went to work.

The airplane was mostly in three main pieces. The wings had come off almost intact. Twenty feet from the wings lay the burning flight deck. Forty feet from that lay most of the fuselage and tail section. The men weren’t sure what had happened, but in a 1950 account in Flying magazine, Kearns wrote that they “decided that the plane’s light impact on a ridge had ruptured one of the fuel cells. Fumes from the leaking gasoline must have been ignited by an electrical charge or by hot exhaust gases,” causing George One to explode in flight.

The crew slid Williams onto a piece of decking, erected a lean-to, and made him as comfortable as possible without moving him. They tucked LeBlanc into a sleeping bag in the tail section and hunkered down with him. Caldwell, Warr, and Robbins shared a single blanket; they rotated, each one getting some time in the warmth of the center position. Time passed. When the snowfall eased, Caldwell, Warr, and Robbins ventured out. Williams was dead. Who would be the next?

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?”

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