The First Helicopter Rescue
Harman continued: “Once I was set to go, I took off to cover the first leg of the flight to Taro. That meant climbing above mountain peaks that loomed to 5,000 feet – in theory, the ceiling of the YR-4B – and visually navigating to Dimapur. I landed safely at Dimapur and filled the gas tanks from my own jerry cans before beginning the second leg of the trip, aiming for Jorhat. That was a bomber base where our boys were flying B-24 Liberators.”
Harman said he was comfortable operating alone. It took about 24 hours to reach Taro. “‘It’s time for a break,’ I told one of the soldiers there. I went for a dip in a mountain stream and washed my clothes as best I could. I was still wearing the summer khakis I’d brought halfway around the world.”
“It took me until April 25 to reach Aberdeen,” said Harman. “Previously, I had been stopping to refuel from jerry cans I was carrying. At Taro, mechanics installed an extra fuel tank borrowed from an L-5 inside the fuselage of my helicopter, but still I would have to set down whenever I wanted to transfer fuel, so this last leg might be an overnight trek. I didn’t know it yet, but Aberdeen-based L-5s were pinpointing Hladovcak’s location on the ground. The Commandos were planning to use the YR-4B and me for the pick-up.”
A radio message arrived from the 1st Air Commando Group base in Burma known as Aberdeen, a temporary airstrip deep inside Japanese territory. The base was home to L-1 Vigilant and L-5 Sentinel liaison airplanes piloted by sergeant-pilots like Ed “Murphy” Hladovcak and used for air rescues. Survivors who were brought to Aberdeen via L-1 or L-5 were transferred to larger aircraft for evacuation to India. It was all being done under the noses of the Japanese.
The message consisted of four words: “SEND THE EGGBEATER IMMEDIATELY.” That meant proceeding from Taro to Aberdeen, 125 miles to the south – beyond the limited range of the YR-4B.
“How difficult could it be for the Japanese to find one exhausted, hungry American sergeant-pilot and three injured British soldiers? But the sounds came and went. The Japanese did not appear.”
On the ground, Murphy’s mind was racing with thoughts of being captured by the Japanese. “On April 24, a strange series of sounds cracked in the air,” said Hladovcak. “It was gunfire, or was it? How difficult could it be for the Japanese to find one exhausted, hungry American sergeant-pilot and three injured British soldiers? But the sounds came and went. The Japanese did not appear.”
The next day, the three British soldiers were much worse. Their wounds were becoming infected. The heat refused to subside. There were insects everywhere, especially mosquitoes, known to carry a virulent strain of malaria.
Harman landed the YR-4B at the Air Commando base at Aberdeen on the morning of April 25, 1944. He was told that the four downed men led by Hladovcak were holding out and had not been found by Japanese troops. L-5 Sentinels were dropping supplies and messages to Hladovcak, aiming at a white parachute he’d draped across the rice paddy. That brilliant white cloak, however, was probably going to make him visible to the Japanese.
It was an ad hoc solution, the kind of improvisation for which Air Commandos and their successors, AFSOC folk, would always excel.
An L-5 dropped a message to Murphy telling the sergeant-pilot about a spot where a liaison plane could pick up Hladovcak and the three British soldiers. It was a sandbar on a river nearby. British commandos had secured a small sector of the bank, enough space for an L-1 or L-5 to land. At Aberdeen, they knew that none of the four men could reach the riverbank on their own power. They believed, however, that Harman could bridge the gap. It was an ad hoc solution, the kind of improvisation for which Air Commandos and their successors, AFSOC folk, would always excel.