The Air Force knows it’s tough to be the littlest brother in the service. The Marines, Army and Navy all get to trace their roots back 238 years and some-odd days, and regularly lord it over their youngest sibling, 66 year and one month-old Air Force. To put things in perspective, if the Marines, Army, and Navy were 18-year-olds, the Air Force would be 5. Anyway, the point is that 238 years is a hell of a lot of history, and tradition is born of history. 66 years is…well, it’s enough to change uniforms a couple of times and come up with a forgettable creed that only reinforces the idea that the Air Force is intent on mandating tradition as opposed to finding it.
All the more important, then, it becomes to embrace proud history where it exists. Allow me to introduce you to Don Flickinger, Richard Passey, and Howard MacKenzie.
It is 1943, and the China-Burma-India (CBI) Theater is in full swing. Under the command of General “Vinegar” Joe Stillwell, one of the CBI missions is the aerial resupply of China from air bases in India. Known as “The Hump,” this early feat of airpower involved an endless train of C-46s and C-54s, over- and inexpertly-loaded, crewed by occasionally instrument-unqualified pilots, and flown over that little hump of hills between India and China known as The Himalayas. Despite the high rate of loss, there is no officially-established rescue posture. Instead, a young Army Air Forces Captain, John L. “Blackie” Porter, borrows two C-47s and crews them with barnstormers and meat-eaters. Blackie’s Gang will go on to account for every save in 1943.
On the morning of Aug 2, a C-46 crashed after engine problems and its crew of twenty bailed out. Among the passengers was Eric Sevareid, famed war correspondent. There are several accounts of what happened next, to include Sevareid’s piece in the St Petersburg times, but this much is clear: Lt Col Don Flickinger, Wing Flight Surgeon, parachuted alongside Sgt Richard Passey and Corporal William MacKenzie to the survivors. Following this, he triaged and treated the survivors.
There are a couple of things to keep in mind regarding this act, which is widely held as the birth of Pararescue. One is that at the time, parachuting was not an approved method of rescue. Another is the fact that Flickinger, Passey, and MacKenzie jumped without orders or authorization. In fact, of the three, Flickinger was the only one who’d parachuted before. I’ve unearthed some anecdotal evidence that indicates Flickinger had jumped on previous rescue operations, and did so after the mission in question as well; Flickinger was said to have considered this a routine mission, which is a little mind-blowing, all things considered. These days, it’s a big effing deal when PJs jump on a mission. Finally, the insertion phase of the op was just the beginning; Flickinger and his team would go on to spend a couple of weeks with the survivors, in enemy territory, while enjoying the hospitality of an indigenous native populace that allegedly consisted of cannibals, headhunters, or both.
This mission has numerous implications for modern Personnel Recovery, and was full-spectrum in every aspect but the reintegration piece, which wouldn’t fully develop for another two-three decades. If there is an after action report from this op anywhere, I’d love to get my hands on it. This thing had it all – a jump insertion deep behind enemy lines, extended patient care, and a very basic form of nonconventional assisted recovery. It’s a textbook case that illustrates the roots of modern Rescue, and a reminder that even in a conventional war, the rescue operation can execute in a very unconventional mannner. Finally, it’s worth noting that this event involved both officer and enlisted; PJs would exist for decades as an elisted-only force until the creation of the Combat Rescue Officer (CRO) career field in 2001.
Flickinger would go on to a successful career as a Flight Surgeon, working on manned space flight with NASA and eventually rising to the rank of Brigadier General before his retirement in 1961. His bio lists the Distinguished Flying Cross and Bronze Star among his decorations, but I could not determine whether he was ever decorated for the mission in question. Passey’s obituary in 1999 states that Passey received the Soldier’s Medal. That being said, in his book, Not So Wild A Dream, Sevareid had this to say about his rescuers:
“Gallant is a precious word; they deserved it.”