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The First Helicopter Rescue

Where the special operations combat rescue mission began

Survival Struggle in the Jungle

“Murphy” and the three Brits crawled, thrashed, and climbed until they were deep inside jungle foliage half a mile from the wrecked plane. For hours, it seemed there was no one friendly in the area. Murphy and the Brits hunkered down, watching as Japanese soldiers scoured the wreckage of the L-1, secured the crash site, and fanned out. As the day progressed and the heat became insufferable, the voices of patrolling Japanese came closer. Their uniform leggings were visible through the undergrowth.

In mid-afternoon, one of the 1st Air Commando Group’s smaller L-5 Sentinel liaison planes flew overhead and dropped a note. The message referred to the sharp slope behind Murphy. It read: “MOVE UP MOUNTAIN. JAPANESE NEARBY.”

“I figured I could see my mother and do some writing,” he remembered. “Someone said, ‘You want to volunteer?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ I went to the Sikorsky plant at Stratford to learn about the R-4 helicopter.

In the crashed L-1’s cargo pit were three Japanese ceremonial swords Murphy had picked up from a battlefield in a souvenir hunt. If the Japanese found those swords first and then captured Hladovcak, there was going to be hell to pay.

Every bit as unlikely as the Air Commandos around him, Harman must have seemed an improbable person to salvage the situation. “I was a journalist before the war,” Harman said. “I reported on music for The New York Times. When the war started I had already done some flying in a Piper Cub and a Waco biplane. Not eager to be in the infantry, I joined the Army Air Corps and went to Texas. I was in flying class 43-C, and after getting those silver wings I became an instructor in biplane trainers.”

Harman’s undoing was an opportunity to be assigned to Stratford, Conn., close to home. “I figured I could see my mother and do some writing,” he remembered. “Someone said, ‘You want to volunteer?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ I went to the Sikorsky plant at Stratford to learn about the R-4 helicopter.

2nd Lt. Carter Harman

2nd Lt. Carter Harman accepted an assignment to the Sikorsky plant in Connecticut because it was close to his home and to his prewar job as a music critic for The New York Times. But as soon as he learned to fly the R-4, Harman was on his way to a destination halfway around the world – Burma. Robert F. Dorr Collection photo

Harman’s hope to be close to home was short-lived. The Air Commandos asked for and got three YR-4B helicopters, transported halfway around the world on C-46 Commando transports, with Harman and Phelan part of the team that traveled from Stratford to the China-Burma-India theater.

“The YR-4B helicopter came with a canvas-covered stretcher that you could slide inside the aircraft to carry a litter patient,” said Harman. “To prepare the helicopter for what was going to be a marathon journey, I threw four jerry cans of extra fuel in the unused co-pilot’s seat. (There was no one in India or Burma who could serve as a co-pilot, and the weight of another crew member wasn’t going to help, anyway.) I put the litter stretcher behind the seats.”

Recalled Harman: “Our mechanics assembled the helicopter out-of-doors in the heat and grit at Lalaghat, India, with few tools and no equipment. Tragically, on the first flight of a helicopter in India on March 21, 1944, the YR-4B crashed, killing one of our small group of pilots, the – first man to die in a U.S. helicopter in a combat zone.” Another of the scarce helicopter pilots was wounded in action while flying a conventional aircraft. As of April 1944, Harman was the only qualified helicopter pilot in the China-Burma-India theater.

“The YR-4B helicopter came with a canvas-covered stretcher that you could slide inside the aircraft to carry a litter patient,” said

On April 21, 1944, Air Commando boss Cochran sent radio instructions for Harman to proceed with a helicopter to Taro in northern Burma. It was a tall order.  Taro was 600 miles from Lalaghat, way beyond the YR-4B’s usual range of 100 miles.

“The YR-4B helicopter came with a canvas-covered stretcher that you could slide inside the aircraft to carry a litter patient,” said

Harman. “To prepare the helicopter for what was going to be a marathon journey, I threw four jerry cans of extra fuel in the unused co-pilot’s seat. (There was no one in India or Burma who could serve as a co-pilot, and the weight of another crew member wasn’t going to help, anyway.) I put the litter stretcher behind the seats.”

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Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...

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    Pat Goodson

    Edward Francis Hladovcak is my father, I put together the article for his induction in the Nebraska Aviation Hall of Fame

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    roy forsberg

    most interesting looking for info on canadians in the pacific for the military musuems here in calgary, alberta

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-12370">

    My father Thomas H. Denlea was one of the sergeant-pilots in Burma. He passed away in the 1970s without sharing much about his experiences. I have some photos of him in Burma. I would love to learn more about him.