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The First Helicopter Rescue

Where the special operations combat rescue mission began

Mechanical Issues

Said Harman: “I worried about the often unreliable 200 hp Warner piston engine that powered my YR-4B. I wondered if I could get to the clearing where the men were waiting. My YR-4B would lift them to the riverbank, where liaison planes could take over. Since I could only carry one man at a time, I would make four round trips. Helicopters were still new and we were still learning that they did not like hot weather. They didn’t like Japanese soldiers, either. My YR-4B was exceedingly vulnerable to any kind of gunfire.

“I flew from Aberdeen to the sandbar riverbank, where I made the rendezvous with an L-5 Sentinel. Then, the L-5 led me to the clearing where Hladovcak and the three British were struggling to stay alive. I did not see any Japanese troops, but was told they were all around us. I wondered if the engine and helicopter would hold together trying to pull off a job that was more rigorous than anything they had been designed for.”

“I wondered if the engine and helicopter would hold together trying to pull off a job that was more rigorous than anything they had been designed for.”

“I got there first,” said Harman. “Hladovcak climbed on board. I put the aircraft into a hover. Now, the troops swarmed directly beneath us and for a moment the YR-4B threatened to seize again. The helicopter sank back toward the jungle. Then, I was able to get the YR-4B to full power and we climbed away from those men with rifles.”

Later, Harman was told that Hladovcak “went crazy” when he saw the “eggbeater” arriving. Murphy had, of course, never seen a helicopter before. Harman was pushing the YR-4B to the limit when he landed in the clearing in a swirl of flying dust and pieces of greenery. Murphy loaded the most seriously injured British soldier aboard. The YR-4B strained, vibrated – and took off. Harman was able to make it to the sand bar where a liaison plane flew the British soldier to safety.

2nd Lt. Carter Harman

2nd Lt. Carter Harman, standing at left, and ground crew pose in front of an R-4. National Archives photo

Said Harman: “I hauled out a second British soldier, still searching the jungle canopy for Japanese troops. We reached the riverbank, and that’s when everything went wrong.

“The Warner engine seized. There was a clunking sound and a lot of vapor around the engine. It had overheated on me and it wasn’t going to start. I was going to have to spend the night on the sand bar. I didn’t see how our luck could hold out much longer, and I wondered if that was the night the Japanese would overrun Hladovcak and the remaining British soldier.”

It was a long, lonely night for Harman. The liaison pilots warned him there might be weather problems on top of everything else the next day. When morning came, there was low cover, but nothing to prevent flying if only the engine would start. It did. Harman was able to pick up the third British soldier and get him to safety. Edward “Murphy” Hladovcak was now alone in the clearing in the jungle.

Murphy held out. Harman was able to go in again. As the YR-4B approached the lone Hladovcak, soldiers broke out of the treeline about 1,000 feet from him, some with their rifles held in the air. “It’s too late,” thought Harman. “After all this work, it’s too late.” Hladovcak was shouting out loud about Japanese troops bearing down on him.

“When I bounded off the ground with Murphy on board, we were escaping from our own guys,” Harman said.

“I got there first,” said Harman. “Hladovcak climbed on board. I put the aircraft into a hover. Now, the troops swarmed directly beneath us and for a moment the YR-4B threatened to seize again. The helicopter sank back toward the jungle. Then, I was able to get the YR-4B to full power and we climbed away from those men with rifles.”

Harman took Murphy all the way back to Aberdeen. There, they were told that the troops who’d swarmed beneath the helicopter were, in fact, friendly Chindit irregulars who had been intent on rescuing Murphy. There were Japanese nearby, but Harman never actually saw them. “When I bounded off the ground with Murphy on board, we were escaping from our own guys,” Harman said.

The first helicopter rescue was the beginning for rotary-wing aviation, for the Air Commandos, and for what would become Air Force Special Operations. Harman spent several more weeks with the 1st Air Commando Group and retrieved several people who needed rescuing. Then, the last R-4 helicopter was damaged beyond repair. But in early 1945, another helicopter arrived in the theater.

That helicopter performed yet another rescue, one that sometimes is erroneously cited as history’s first helicopter rescue. On Jan. 26, 1945, Capt. Frank Peterson flew an R-4 to evacuate a wounded weather observer, Pvt. Howard Ross, from a 4,700-foot mountain ridge in the Naga Hills of Burma. Peterson flew with a co-pilot, 1st Lt. (later Lt. Col.) Irvin Steiner. That was a very early helicopter success, but it came eight months after Harman flew the first such mission, paving the way for the special operations helicopter missions of today.

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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.