#13 in a series
Harris Henwood Reed, WWII Navy Blimp crewman
By Paul A. Roales
On July 30, 2011 at the Fairgrounds Flea Market in Tulsa, OK I found an aviation flight log book being offered for sale by one of the dealers. When I opened it I noticed two thing immediately. First, it was from World War II; and second, some pages were rubber stamped “Blimp Squadron Twenty-One c/o Fleet Post Office New York, N.Y.“ The dealer was only asking $10 for the book, so I acquired the original U.S. Navy Aviation Flight Log Book of Harris H. Reed AMM 2/c (Aviation Machinist’s Mate Second Class), serial number 6629944.
Most people are unaware of the role played by the U.S. Navy blimps in World War II. Their primary jobs were escorting convoys, patrolling for enemy submarines along both U. S. coasts, and search and rescue missions. It is said that not a single convoy ship was ever lost to an enemy submarine when a Blimp was assigned as an escort.
Harris Henwood Reed, the owner of this log book, was born Jan. 24, 1917 in Santa Clara Co, CA. His Father’s name was Richard and his mother’s name was Philippa. He enlisted in the Navy on April 18, 1942 and was sent to USNAS Moffett Field CA for training on June 4, 1942 and to NAS Richmond in Florida on July 8, 1943 for duty. He was transferred to NAS Lakehurst, NJ on April 30, 1945 and discharged on September 10, 1945. He lived almost his entire life in San Jose, CA. He married his wife Eleanor in the early 1950’s and worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad most of his life. He died May 27, 1996 in San Jose, CA. Eleanor died Feb. 20, 2000. I have no idea how his Navy flight log book ended up at a flea market in Tulsa, OK.
The log book has entries from November, 1942 until April, 1945. Reed took his blimp flight training at Moffett Field in California and the log book lists training flights from Nov. 10, 1942 until May 13, 1943. After he was transferred to NAS Richmond, FL his log book picks up with a patrol flight on July 24, 1943. He flew mostly patrol missions, but also flew test, training, special, and ferry missions. He had a total of 919.1 hours of flight time in blimps. The longest flight recorded in the log book is 20.1 hours on August 26, 1943. His patrol flights on September 7, 1943 and November 22, 1943 report “Contact made”, apparently meaning they had radar contact with a possible German submarine on those patrols.
What caught my eye was the last entry in his log book. On April 20th he had flown in a PBY seaplane from his home base at NAS Richmond, FL, to Opa Locka, FL, then on to NAF San Julian in Cuba, where Blimp Squadron 21 had an auxiliary base. He crewed patrol flights out of San Julian in Blimp K-54 on the 21st and 24th. For the final entry in his log book, on April 25, 1945, he was crewing Blimp K-54 piloted by Lt. Campbell as they were returning from San Julian, Cuba to their home base in Richmond, FL. His log entry for that date reads: "Sighted B-29 survivors - Directed transport & assisted in rescue". Here was an incident worth investigating!
I contacted the University of Texas at Dallas where the Vice Admiral Charles E. Rosendahl Lighter-than-Air Collection is housed. They provided me with the incident report from the Blimp Squadron 21 chronology. Page 15 of that chronology states: “25 April 1945 The K-54, while enroute from NAF San Julian to NAS Richmond, was ordered to proceed to position 23-29N 83-01W and search for survivors of a crashed B-29. The airship arrived at this position at 1520Q [2:20 PM EST], when at 23-28N 83-02W, sighted a survivor in a yellow Mae West life jacket. The position was marked with fluorescens slicks and a nearby DUMBO (PBM) notified on voice radio. The PBM advised a nearby cargo vessel of the survivor and the vessel put over a whale boat which rescued the man. Much debris, including an aerial kit for life raft, oxygen tank, emergency ration kit, a 4 x 2 foot green box with yellow printing believed to be a navigator's box, and 2 empty inflated life jackets, were located and marked by the airship.”
I checked on the www for a B-29 crash in the Gulf of Mexico on April 25, 1945 and found nothing. So I checked for April 24 and found information on the crash of B-29 #42-93922. I was able to find a partial crew list on the www and began a Google search using the crew members names. I eventually discovered some information on the Pilot Instructor aboard the B-29 (1st Lt. Cecil C. McKinney) which had been posted by his nephew George McKinney. Cecil had recently returned from a tour in Europe where he flew 50 B-17 combat missions over Germany in the 369th Bomb Squadron of the 306th Bombardment Group (H). He had been selected for Boeing B-29 aircraft transition training at MacDill Field, Florida. A picture of Lt. McKinney’s crew in England is posted above. After an exchange of emails George provided copies of letters which Lt. William L. Jiler (one of the 2 survivors of the crash) and Mrs. Martha J. Phillips (wife of one of the men lost), who had interviewed Jiler and Lt. John H. Mathews (the other survivor from the crash), sent his family shortly after the crash. I also obtained the Official U. S. Army Air Forces Accident Report for that B-29 crash from the Air Force Historical Research Agency.
Here is the story of the B-29 crash mentioned in Harris H Reed’s Log Book on April 25, 1945 where Blimp K-54 assisted in the rescue operations.
In the waning months of World War II B-29 #42-93922 was scheduled for a routine cross country navigational training flight from MacDill Field, Florida west to a point over the Gulf of Mexico, then east to Borinquen Field, Puerto Rico. Aboard was the normal crew of eleven plus a Pilot Instructor (1st Lt. Cecil C. McKinney) and a Radio Instructor (T/Sgt. Quincy L. Zickafoose). The clouds enroute were forecast to be 5/10 cumulus. They departed MacDill at 0753 EST heading west. At 0845 at 10,000’ a slight oil leak was observed in the #3 engine. By 0906 the prop on that engine ran away, the oil leak became more noticeable, and smoke was reported from the engine. Attempts to feather the prop failed and at 0908 the engine erupted in flames. With 4000 gallons of aviation fuel in the wing tank the fire was very serious. Both fire extinguishers were used without any effect. A minute later the “Prepare to bail out”, then “Bail out” signals were given by the copilot (2nd Lt. Anthony Laskow) over the interphone. But no one acknowledged from the rear of the plane. They were about 100 miles west of Key West, FL over the Gulf of Mexico so the Navigator (2nd Lt William L. Jiler) provide position information to the Radio Operator (Cpl. William L. Phillips) who attempted to send a SOS. But they were having radio problems and were not sure it was heard. The pilot (2nd Lt. Daniel R. Ahern) brought the plane down to 7300 feet and the crew began to bail out. After everyone else in the forward compartment (including the Engineer S/Sgt. Erwin W. Beck) had bailed out the pilot circled the parachutes then bailed out himself. The Bombardier ( 2nd Lt. John H. Mathews) reported seeing five parachutes besides his own in the air although there were 8 men in the forward compartment, so two of their parachutes must not have opened. Apparently the five men in the rear compartment of the plane never heard the “Bail out” order or could not escape and remained aboard the plane when it crashed into the Gulf. The wreckage of the plane was never located. Those in the rear compartment were: Radar Operator 2nd Lt. James V. Reams; Central Ring Control (turret gunner) Sgt. Thomas P. Pruffitt; Armorer/Gunner Cpl. Bob L. Smith; Electrical mechanic-gunner Sgt. Louis T. Kapusta; and Tail Gunner Cpl. James C. Spears.
Navigator 2nd Lt. William L. Jiler said in his statement in the Accident Report: “I bailed out and saw the Engineer follow. I pulled my rip cord and only the flap popped off. I then pulled my chute out and threw it into the wind. It jerked open and floated down very nicely. Before I hit the water, I tried unbuckling my straps, but I could only get my chest buckle off. In the water, I struggled around and some time later, I got my chute off only to find my right leg tangled in my shroud lines. I tried unsuccessfully to free my leg. I also noticed my sea marked dye leaking out slowly but steadily. While in the water, I was surrounded by schools of fish, and observed what I thought was a shark. He was brownish and very large. He circled me for several hours and passed close by several times, but went away after several hours. The swells were fairly high all the time. On Wednesday morning, I luckily freed myself of the parachute, and began swimming due south to Cuba.”
Mrs. Martha Phillips retold the story of her husband Radio Operator Cpl. William L. Phillips and Bombardier 2nd Lt. John H. Mathews in a letter to the mother of Pilot Instructor 1st Lt. Cecil C. McKinney in June, 1945. I quote from that letter. “Mathews jumped right after him [Phillips] and because he was much heavier than Willie he went down much faster and he hit Willie’s parachute going down but he glided right off of it and didn’t hurt anything. Mathews hit the water before Willie and he (Mathews) had a knife on him and he got out of his chute and all the while Willie was hollering for help and Mathews swam over to him and he said the shroud lines were all wrapped around his body and several were around his neck. He (Mathews) got him (Willie) loose of all this and he talked to him but he said Willie didn’t seem to realize he was talking to him. He said he was very dazed and was suffering from shock. He (Mathews) said he (Willie) said several times, ‘Oh Lord, I wonder what Martha is doing now?’ He said he was still saying this when the waves separated them and Willie went one way and he the other.” In the Accident Report Mathews adds: “During the later part of the afternoon and early evening I was pretty dazed and had some rather crazy dreams.”
While they were in the water both Jiler and Mathews reported sighting many search planes (Jiler said 80 in his letter to Mrs. Phillips) including a B-17 and a PBY. All three men spent the night in the water.
Mrs. Phillips thought her husband had been rescued by a PBY seaplane which then crashed on take off and her husband was killed in this second crash. She reported from information provided by Mathews and/or Jiler: “At about 9:30 A. M. Wednesday a PBY sea rescue plane landed to pick Jiler, Mathews and Willie up, but they only got to Willie. He was probably nearer to the plane than the others. Well when they picked him up he was alive and I don’t really know the straight of this but the plane (PBY) did wreck to pieces. Whether it crashed trying to take off or whether the waves were so strong they whipped it to pieces but anyway my husband died from the result of this plane wreck. They said he died of shock of having to go back into the water. Whether he was thrown into the water or what I don’t know. The man who took care of my husband’s body in Key West said he died about 10 A.M. on Wed. April 25. Willie lived all day Tuesday, Tues. night & part of Wednesday a. m. in these waves & it seems such a shame that he came so near to being saved & then had to die. If I could only get at least one name of the survivors of the PBY I‘m sure they would tell me what actually did happen, but I doubt that I ever know the straight, the Government won‘t give out any information, I‘ve found out.”
I also had considerable trouble tracking down information on this PBY seaplane. Since it is called a PBY in the letters I assumed it was a U.S. Navy PBY. But I could find no report of any PBY crash on April 25, 1945 in the Gulf of Mexico. PBY is the U.S. Navy designation for the Catalina seaplane. But I knew the U. S. Army Air Forces also used the Catalina. The AAF called it the OA-10. I finally located the record of OA-10A #44-33993 piloted by 2nd Lt. Charles B. Claeys which was lost at sea on April 25, 1945 70 miles NW of Havana, Cuba. This was the “PBY” involved in the rescue attempt.
When I received the Official U. S. Army Air Forces Accident Report for the OA-10A a different story emerged. The OA-10A piloted by 2nd Lt. Claeys with a crew of seven was guided to an apparent survivor in the water by B-17 #1OVL . They circled the scene and then landed into the wind with 6-7 foot waves at about 0925. Upon landing the radio man reported that compartment “C” was taking water. The crew pushed pencils into the popped rivet holes and started the bilge pumps. They then taxied toward the “survivor”, but discovered it was only an empty Mae West jacket. When they were attempting to take off the OA-10A hit a very large wave and dropped back to the surface. The radio man reported a large split in the hull beneath the radio equipment and that the bilge pumps were inoperative. The aircraft taxied toward the Liberty Ship SS Warren Delano and when they were about 1000 yards away Claeys ordered the crew into two life rafts and they rowed the remaining distance to the freighter where they were picked up. The Captain of the SS Warren Delano approached the sinking OA-10A to see if he could salvage the aircraft, but by then only the tail section was above water so he ordered the Navy Armed Guard on board ship to sink the seaplane by firing four 3” shells into it. The Co-pilot of the OA-10A, 2nd Lt. John F Waldron, says in the Accident Report that after their rescue by the SS Warren Delano: “…we had informed the ship‘s Captain of the search for the B-29 crew. The ship then remained in the area and in the course of the afternoon they picked up two survivors and one deceased crew-member in a life vest“.
2nd Lt. John H. Mathews was the first B-29 survivor to be rescued. In the Accident Report of the B-29 crash he reports: “At about an hour after sunup on Wednesday, a B-17 flew over and spotted me with the aid of my sea-marker. Approximately four hours later, I was picked up by a life boat from the freighter.”
Jiler was the last of the two survivors to be rescued (with the help of the blimp). In the Accident Report he says: “A few hours after sunup, a B-17 appeared and circled an area north of me. I took my May West off and waved it back and forth to no avail. In the next 5 or 6 hours, about 11 planes were observed circling overhead, but none saw me. Later in the afternoon, only two planes were left and a PBY the third time over my head broke his position and returned over me, and dropped a dinghy. It landed 3 or 400 yards away, and I swam to it just as a lifeboat from a merchant ship picked me up.” He adds in his letter to Mr. & Mrs. McKinney: “The bombardier and I were picked up separately later by a merchant ship along with the survivors of the seaplane crash.”
All eight survivors from the crash of the OA-10A and the two B-29 survivors plus the body of Radio Operator William L. Phillips from the B-29 were transferred from the SS Warren Delano to a destroyer and taken to Key West Naval Hospital. The other ten B-29 crew members were never found.
Lt. Jiler dismissed the possibility of sabotage as the cause of the B-29 crash in a letter to Mr. & Mrs. McKinney. He added: “The B-29 is a new and complicated ship. It requires expert care which I personally don’t think it received. During the three weeks which our accident happened, there were five other major accidents. Several crews were lost right on the field. In one my roommate was killed.” But according to the Official Accident Report: “Investigation of the maintenance forms of this aircraft indicated that these records had been kept properly and also that all pertinent technical orders had been complied with”.
Recommendations from the Official Accident Report were as follows. “Every B-29 crew member should be equipped with a signaling mirror, a knife, a seat type dinghy. Pilots should be instructed to ditch if at all possible in preference to bailing out over water. Pilots should be instructed to slow aircraft to speed where windmilling of propeller does not exceed 3100 RPM so feathering mechanism can take effect.”
What happened to 2nd Lt William L. Jiler, who was rescued with the help of Blimp K-54? He had been drafted out of Georgia Tech to become navigator on the B-29. After the crash he and his squadron were en-route to Japan for the expected invasion when the Japanese surrendered. He then commanded a German Prisoner of War camp in Savannah, Ga. After being discharged he finishing his degree at Bates College in Maine. From there, he worked as a chemist for AR Scribb and discovered how to crystallize streptomycin, a chemical used to treat tuberculosis. Crystallizing is a way to purify substances. He got his master's degree in corporate finance from the University of Southern California and then joined his older brothers, founders of the Commodity Research Bureau (CRB), in 1950. In the mid-1950s, Bill created the Futures Chart Service, then started the Trendline Chart Service, which covered the equity markets. He was the developer of the CRB Index. Today the CRB Futures Price Index remains the global benchmark for measuring commodity price movement. In 1962 he authored the classic book "How Charts Can Help You in the Stock Market" which is still in print and used as a textbook in some college courses. He worked at CRB and Standard & Poor's for a number of years. In 1976 he served on an advisory committee that set up the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. Jiler also tried his hand at international diplomacy. In the late 1950s, he hosted a Russian delegation of agricultural officials, and in the 70’s he hosted a Chinese delegation of economic officials. He semi-retired in 1985 and lives in Florida where I talked with him by phone.
E-mail feedback or questions to Paul Roales.You can return to Heroes: An Introduction HERE. All contents copyright 2013 by Paul A. Roales