Medevac From Luzon

A small band of helicopter pilots risked their lives to rescue wounded soldiers during World War II.

For the wounded on Luzon in 1945, the Sikorsky R-6A transport doubled as an ambulance. (38TH DIVISION PHOTOGRAPHER)
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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.”

By the standards of Korea and Vietnam, Carle’s workload seems trivial, but the R-4B was a far more demanding machine than its successors. The R-4B’s blades were constructed of wood ribs around a steel spar and covered with doped fabric. They were difficult to keep in track (rotating in the same plane) and vibrated excessively. The pilot’s cyclic stick made continuous small orbits, never staying completely stationary. There was no governor to control rotor speed, and the pilot had to correlate the throttle continuously with collective pitch inputs. In one of the only instances of public coverage given to the Ivory Soap helo pilots, a June 21, 1945 Chicago Tribune article reporting on Carle’s initial efforts noted: “Driving the ‘eggbeater’ is hard work. The control stick shakes like a jackhammer, and the pilot must hold it tightly at all times. Should he relax for even a minute the [helicopter] falls out of control. Pilots of regular planes say it’s easy to identify a helicopter pilot—he has a permanent case of the shakes.”

Besides wrestling with the helicopters, the pilots had to load and unload the wounded without assistants, which only added to the job’s stress. Not all of the pilots assigned to the aircraft repair units were suited to the medical evacuation missions. First Lieutenant Harold “Pappy” Greene walked away from helicopters after flying only two evacuations, swearing he would “never fly another helicopter—ever.”

Carle and Cowgill found their evacuations becoming more difficult. The pilots continued to discover unanticipated limitations on these first-generation production rotorcraft. Cowgill recalled that though the R-6 was intended as an improvement on the hastily designed (and perhaps overbuilt) R-4, it seemed to have numerous defects and was an even trickier machine to fly. “They had the fuel tank in front of the center of lift…so when you ran [low] on fuel, the nose began to rise and you would run out of forward stick if you [were] alone,” said Cowgill. “I had to stop once and put a stone up in the front to trim it up enough. It was just a completely stupid goof.”

Carle’s final disastrous evacuation demonstrated just how far beyond the design limits of the R-4B the pilots were going. With the heat, humidity, and altitude characteristic of central Luzon, the payload of the R-4 was essentially zero. To get off the ground, Carle had to employ a dangerous technique: the jump takeoff. In an article he wrote for the January 1947 issue of American Helicopter magazine, he recalled that he deliberately oversped his engine and rotor rpm past redline to “2,600 [engine] rpm and [pulled] 7.5 degrees pitch to start the takeoff,” causing the helicopter to leap into the air. The technique had numerous hazards, including the helicopter settling back onto the ground. Another danger was that either stress or the increasing air pressure at the blade tips would cause the blades to fail structurally. Over-revving did the engine no favors either, but Carle later instructed future helicopter pilots that “such a high rpm may shorten the life of the engine, but it will lengthen the life of the pilot.”

About Roger Connor

Roger Connor is a curator in the Aeronautics department at the National Air and Space Museum.

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