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Coming Aboard the Hard Way!

An SB2C gunner has to land his damaged plane aboard the carrier

by Randy Wilson

Copyright 1998 by the Confederate Air Force and Randy Wilson. All rights reserved.

Originally published in The Dispatch magazine, Volume 23, Number 2, Summer, 1998 edition. If you are interested in subscribing to The Dispatch please write to The Commemorative Air Force, ATTN: Dispatch Editor, PO Box 62000, Midland, TX 79711-2000 or call (432) 563-1000. Reproduced with permission.

In October 1995, on about my fourth mission in the Beast, our Curtiss SB2C Helldiver, I was headed to a Helldiver squadron reunion, with   Gerald W. Crisman in the back seat. Crisman was no stranger to that position, having served as a gunner in SB2Cs during World War II. While flying over the Texas plains, he told me, over the intercom, the following, amazing story:

On June 6, 1944, Crisman and his pilot Ensign James E. Miller were part of a flight of Helldivers and Grumman Avengers that took off from the escort carrier USS Guadalcanal to search for enemy ships and submarines in the Atlantic off the coast of South America. Sighting a tanker that turned out to be German, Miller began a dive bombing attack while the Avengers attacked from sea level. As the Helldiver pulled out of its dive, it was hit by heavy anti-aircraft fire, and Crisman was hit in the legs and could see that his pilot was badly injured and slumped over in the cockpit. Fortunately, the plane he was one of three in the squadron fitted with a throttle and minimal flight controls and instruments in the back cockpit, to check out new pilots. Crisman had wanted to be a pilot and Ens. Miller often allowed Crisman to fly from the back during the long patrols. Now that practice was about to be put to the test.

Returning to the carrier, Crisman reported his situation and was told to ditch the plane in the ocean. Knowing that his pilot would probably not survive, Crisman decided to try and land the Beast on the carrier. After his first missed approach, while lining up for a second try, Crisman saw the landing gear and arresting hook being lowered – Miller must have regained consciousness just enough to realize what Crisman was trying to land. Coming aboard the little escort carrier hard, the Helldiver caught a wire and stopped, but the damaged airframe split in two just forward of Crisman’s seat, and the front part of the plane rolled and slid toward the edge of the deck. As the rest of the Helldiver fell overboard, all Crisman could think of was that all his efforts were wasted – his pilot was into the drink after all!

As the medics worked to free him from the rear of the plane, he told them of his frustration at losing his pilot after all, only to hear shouts and look up to see another stretcher being carried alongside his. Jim Miller weakly raised a hand and put it on Crisman’s arm and said simply, "You flew kid! You flew!"

Crisman was awarded the Air Medal and shipped off to flight school, to learn how to land the correct, Navy way. He went on to fly Martin PBM Mariners and later served with the U.S. Air Force, retiring as a Master Sergeant. Jim Miller recovered and returned to a career in the Navy. One heck of a story to hear from your back seater!

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