In 1921 two guys watched a fabric covered WW I vintage jenny bi-plane flying over the Chesapeake Bay near Langley Field when suddenly the engine started popping and sputtering and then quit altogether. The pilot desperately tried to glide to shore, but just didn’t have the altitude to make it and crashed in the water a short distance from shore. One of the men turned to the other and they decided to row over and pull him out of the water. The pilot was saved by the first ever air-sea rescue (crash) boat.
It turns out that the above may not be true. The March, 1916 issue of Pacific Motor Boat has a story about the "U.S. Aviation Corps Fast Hydroplane Pronto". According to the story, "Pronto" was owned by the U.S. Army and used as a tender and ambulance for the aviation school on North Island in San Diego Bay. This 20ft. hydroplane had a top speed of from 35 to 47 mph, according to various sources. To read the one page article, click here.
Early in the twentieth century, fast motorboats were being produced in the U.S.. and Europe. An inverted -V design called the "sea sled" seemed very promising and the U.S.. Navy bought between forty and fifty for use as rescue boats before WW I. Variations of the "sea sled" design continued in development or testing through the early 1950s. Development of high speed launches by the navy continued through the 1930s as well as by civilians such as Gar Wood and various rumrunners. The experience with hull shapes and construction techniques would later prove useful for both PT boats and rescue boats in WW II. In the early 1930s the navy discontinued using the term "crash boat" in favor of "aircraft rescue boat" and the army appears to have gone to "air-sea rescue boat". However, by the time of the Korean War the USAF had resumed using the shorter term "crash boat'.
The word Crash Boat refers to an armed rescue boat deployed to save air crews who crashed or had to ditch their plane. During WW II the boats were commonly referred to as Air Sea Rescue Boats or Emergency Rescue Boats in as much as those manned by US Army Air Force personnel were organized into Emergency Rescue Boat Squadrons (ERBS). They were officially designated Air Rescue Boats (ARB). However, that abbreviation was known to many as a Battle Damage Repair Ship. By the time of the Korean War the boats were manned by USAF personnel and the terminology for the squadrons had by then changed to Crash Rescue Boat Squadron (CRBS).
Emergency Rescue Boat Squadrons
1st ERBS Was based in the Mediterranean
2nd ERS No boats, OA-10A Catalinas assigned to the 5th Air Force in 7/44
3rd ERS No boats, 12 OA-10A Catalinas assigned to the 5th Air Force
4th ERS No boats, OA-10A Catalinas assigned to the 20th Air Force
5th ERBS Saw duty in European waters, then sent to the Pacific 7/45
6th ERBS Was assigned to the 5th Air Force in the Pacific, Okinawa
7th ERBS Was transferred from India to Okinawa 8/45
8th ERBS Was based in the Mediterranean., apparently overlapping the 1st ERBS
9th ERBS Don’t know anything about them.
10th ERBS Was based in Alaska and all the Aleutian Chain, to the Kurilr Islands
11th ERBS Was based in to Eastern Caribbean.
12th ERBS Was based in The Caribbean, covering all of Panama and surrounding waters of the Pacific, and part of S. America.
13th ERBS Was based in Hawaii
14th ERBS Was assigned to the 5th Air Force, along with the 2nd ERBS in the Pacific
15th ERBS Was assigned to the 13th Air Force in the Pacific.
6th CRBS Was assigned to Bermuda during the 1950s.
22nd CRBS Was assigned to Korea, Japan, and the Pacific during the Korean War.
The “modern” day crash boat was developed during the battle of Britain in 1939. The American crash boats were a vital part of US military aviation for about twenty-five years but were always the “redheaded stepchild” of both the Army and later the USAF. The helicopter finally rendered them obsolete when it developed the lifting capacity and the reliability required for the job. Crash boat service was not the place to be if you were looking for promotion opportunities during either WW II or Korea. Since they were not part of the core mission of the bases to which they were assigned, they were not of much concern to most base commanders and operated somewhat out of the chain of command. In both the Army Air Force and later the USAF, the way to get promoted was to fly, plain and simple. To a large extent crash boaters were an unsupervised operation and thus unrewarded. One crash boater, to give an example, was stuck as a T/SGT for fourteen years. When he switched to SAC he made Chief Master Sargent very quickly. The skipper of one Korean War crash boat, Bob Frankovich, when asked about the availability of promotions responded, “Nil”. His Korean experience pretty well matches that of my father during WW II.
The United States Army Air Force (USAAF or AAF) used boats for rescue work for several years prior to WWII, but these were local efforts by commanders at bases located near water, such as Mitchell, Langley, Hickham, etc. They saw the need to have some kind of vessel available to recover downed aircrew. After the Battle of Britain, well in advance of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the US Army sent a team to Britain to study the experiences of the British rescue boat program and report on Royal Air Force (RAF) methods etc. The team was impressed by the RAF use of high speed launches, manned by RAF crews, to rescue airmen in the water. When the report was sent back to Washington, General Henry H. Arnold, then Chief of the Army Air Corps, immediately requested that the US War Department provide the AAC with a similar water rescue capability at Air Corps bases with over water traffic patterns. Under his personal guidance the air-sea rescue program was initiated, crews trained, equipment procured, and units established. Most senior military and civilian leaders knew that the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans would no longer protect us from international events. Once Japan and Germany conquered their immediate objectives, the U.S.. would be the next target.
In order to protect the vital shipping lanes along our east coast and the Caribbean, including the Gulf of Mexico, the U. S. government exchanged mostly obsolete surplus warships for leases to establish military bases at the British territories of Newfoundland, Bermuda, and its Caribbean territories of the Bahamas, St. Lucia, Jamaica, Trinidad, Antigua, and British Guiana. Many of these bases became bases for AAF air sea rescue boats during World War II.
In 1941 the AAF was poorly prepared in terms of either experience or equipment to meet its need for rescue operations at sea. Within the limits of its own resources the US Navy readily assumed responsibility in areas of its primary jurisdiction for the rescue of Army as well as Navy fliers, not wanting the AAF to further develop its own rescue capability. In the UK and European Theater in late 1942 there was a formal agreement between the RAF and the US 8th AAF not to duplicate air-sea rescue resources. This agreement for a time also encompassed areas in North Africa, India and Burma.
After several high level meetings and conferences with the US Navy and Coast Guard, the Army was authorized to undertake the mission outlined by General Arnold. The Navy did not want the AAF to operate its own crash boats but wanted them to depend on the Navy to rescue crashed AAF pilots. At another time during negotiations the Navy wanted to pass responsibility in U.S.. coastal waters to the Coast Guard. They simply were unable to furnish the coverage, equipment, personnel, and quick response required for air sea rescue over such a large area.
As a side note, there have always been inter-service rivalries, but the rivalry between the US Navy and the US Army Air Force was particularly intense, at least among senior officers in Washington, DC. This dates back, at least, to the demonstration (Feb., 1921) arranged by Gen. Billy Mitchell to prove that even battleships could be sunk by aircraft, an idea that the Navy had denied until that time. The Japanese verified it again at Pearl Harbor, although with torpedoes in addition to bombs. Fortunately, the rivalry did not extend to the personnel in the field; the troops on the front lines were more interested in saving each other than their commanders in Washington seemed to be.
The AAF wanted the responsibility and assets for recovery of its own pilots. They wanted the shortest line of communication to the boat skipper and did not want to be in the position of having to contact another service, especially the Navy, to rescue AAF pilots at the Navy's “earliest convenience”.
The Army Air Corps wanted the service at any air base from which they would be operating, from the arctic to the tropics and in foreign countries if necessary. The US Navy had argued that they were already mobilizing their units for war and the USCG advised that they were willing to assist, but only in areas that they were then operating and supporting. Rescue operations were assigned to the Water Transport Division (ATC) of the Army Quartermaster Corps. Documenting crash boat contributions to the war efforts in both wars is complicated by the fact that boat commanders were to turn over their log books to the base commander where they were assigned and the commander only needed to retain them for a year. So, other than the memories of those who served on them, records of their accomplishments, hardships, and especially the “special ops”, are very limited. In contrast, the navy kept the log books of PT boats, which are of similar size, and today we still have good records of which boats, under who's command, were where and when, in addition to detailed descriptions of their missions.
It should be pointed out that the boats were only a part of air-sea rescue operations. Aircraft played an equal, if not greater role. The amphibious PBY, Catalina, or OA-10 as the army referred to them, were the most common. Although dated, some would say obsolete even at the beginning of the war, it remained in production throughout the war. Unfortunately, Vickers of Canada, the producer of the army version, made unauthorized changes that significantly weakened the aft section of the aircraft. When combined with insufficient training of army pilots in water operation, poor maintenance, and a lack of spare parts, the performance of the aircraft was significantly degraded.
European, Mediterranean, and CBI Theaters
The British had primary responsibility for rescue operations in European, Mediterranean, and CBI (China, Burma, and India) Theaters of Operations although the AAF did have some relatively minor role. By 1943 an American presence in the Mediterranean was built around a few OA-10s but operated under the control of the RAF and supported the invasion of Sicily and operations out of northern Africa. The 1st ERBS, commanded by Lt. Col. Littlejohn Perdue was a composite Group (boats and planes) and was in theater in late 1943 or early 1944. It remained in theater and active throughout the Mediterranean until the end of the war. The 8th ERBS was based in the Mediterranean Sea and conducted operations from North Africa to Italy. Missions included clandestine operations across the Adriatic Sea in the area of German occupied Yugoslavia. Further operations included laying smoke on invasion beaches in support of allied operations.
In the CBI theater I have information on only two 63 ft. boats, the P-563 and P-564 which were used by the OSS to run several "special operations" for the OSS Maritime Unit. They inserted OSS combat divers who sank Japanes cargo ships, among other things.
Early on, the Pacific Theater of Operations was primarily a Navy operation, although the Army had primary responsibility for the Southwest Pacific, operationg out of Australia with Navy support. The Navy and Marines were responsible for most combat operations and turned the captured islands over to the Army after they were more or less secured. Often an entire island was not secured, but just enough of it to provide space for an airfield. Initially most aircraft flights were off carriers or Marine air fields on the islands. However, the AAF did play a significant role in the Pacific as the war progressed, but because of the large expanses of water and the long distances between crash boat bases, it was not always practical to use crash boats.
Delivering the large boats to overseas units proved a difficult problem. To save the wear and tear of a long, rough voyage under their own power, they were shipped as deck cargo on larger vessels. Such passage was not always easy to arrange, for there was a constant shortage of deck space, and some overseas ports lacked the cranes necessary for handling such heavy loads. One of the challenges of organization in the Pacific was that the bases were continually moving as we advanced toward Japan. In Europe the bases pretty much stayed put, which made organization not easy, but easier. In the end, there were more rescues in the Pacific than in Europe since most flights were over water for extended periods.
The 5th and 13th Army Air Forces were active in the Southwest Pacific, from Guadalcanal, New Guinea, the Celebes, Borneo, and up to The Philippines and operated crash boats throughout the area, saving many air crews. During the first year of the war there were no AAF rescue operations in the Southwest and Central Pacific, although the Navy was rescuing flyers during that time. In early 1943 the Fifth Air Force Emergency Rescue Service was established on New Guinea in the Southwest Pacific. When Major John Small, Jr., arrived in theater in late 1942, there was no rescue organization but widespread interest in its benefits. With one assistant he began to direct search and rescue operations with whatever resources he could borrow from the RAF for about six months until he received either two or four (sources conflict) OA-10s. By April of 1944 his cobbled together group had completed 455 rescues. In July of 1944 the 2nd ERBS & 14th ERBS arrived in theater, assigned to the Fifth Air Force and within six months had rescued 300 airmen. Shortly after that the Thirteenth Air Force received its own 15th ERBS. When these units were combined with air crews to form composite groups they became much more effective. Their role increased significantly after the arrival of the B29s in theater with their very long flights to bomb Japan combined with their engine overheating issues.
In spite of the competitive nature of inter-service meetings in Washington early in the war, at an operational level it was realized that inter-service cooperation was essential to success of rescue operations in the Pacific Theater. Rescue operations often involved using PBY amphibious aircraft, which had their own shortcomings, in combination with the rescue boats, and “Dumbo” and “Super Dumbo” bombers to search large areas and to drop life rafts or small motor boats to the survivors until they could be picked up by subs or surface ships. Often, crash boats were based near airfields or would be assigned a more distant area to patrol when large numbers of planes would be passing through an area. It was not long after they arrived in theater that commanders also put them to use as fast supply boats for critical parts or equipment, and added special intelligence gathering operations. The care and supplying of the many coast watchers spread throughout the islands was a substantial portion of both crash boat and PT boat duties. Special operations remained a significant part of their role as long as they remained in the Pacific Theater, including the Korean War. Some Korean War vets maintain that over half of their missions were special ops. The AAF exchanged some of its relatively slow (18 knots) 104-foot rescue boats for 63-foot high-speed Navy craft, which Gen. Hap Arnold obtained from Admiral King. The 104s were valuable to the Navy as minesweepers. In late 1944 and 1945 the AAF received more of their own standard 85-foot air sea rescue boats.
As the end of the war approached, plans for the invasion of Japan called for new efforts to increase rescue forces and to co-ordinate even more effectively the rescue activities of both the AAF and the Navy. The 5th ERBS was scheduled for re-deployment from ETO to the Pacific. The 6th ERBS was assigned to the Fifth Air Force, which stationed part of the squadron on Okinawa in July. In August two flights of the 7th ERBS were transferred to Okinawa from India, where they had assisted the RAF emergency service for the past few months. On 5 August representatives of AAF Headquarters and of the Fifth, Seventh, Thirteenth, and Twentieth Air Forces conferred at Manila. Agreement was reached for publication, after co-ordination with Admiral Nimitz, of instructions that would standardize all procedures in rescue operations during the coming invasion. My father’s temporary duty in the Pacific was extended specifically so that he could attend as part of the AAF Headquarters delegation. But the next day the first A-bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.
The situation had been expected to change dramatically with the invasion of Japan as there would have been AAF planes operating out of bases close to Japan. Japan has many miles of coastline and it was anticipated that many damaged planes would ditch not far off the coastline where crash boats could be most effective. Japan was expected to be heavily defended and losses in personnel and aircraft were expected to be extremely high.
Radio communication seems to have been a major issue, especially in the Pacific Theater, with some boats having no radios, and both aircraft and boats operating on multiple, but different frequencies. This resulted in messages having to be relayed through multiple commands when time was of the essence.
At the end of WWII, Lt. Gen. Hoyt Vandenberg, Asst. Chief of Air Staff for Operations, declared all boats over 45’ to be “excess” and that the USCG was to take over all open ocean rescues. The USGC got much of the army fleet but the navy acquired fifteen of the AAF 85' crash boats as well as eighty-seven of the 104s. Yet five years later, the USAF was scrambling to get their hands on all the 63 and 85 footers they could get for use in Korea. In late 1945 the air sea rescue operations were renamed to the Air Rescue Service (ARS). Their Headquarters was moved three times in the first seven months of 1946. This was a period of turmoil for the service as the military shrank and the role of the service was questioned. In December of 1946 Col Richard T. Knight took over command of ARS and was tasked with either building it up or shutting it down. Fortunately he became a strong supporter and pushed for expansion of the service and its budget. In spite of the declaration that boats over 45 ft. were excess, the boats remained in the ARS until the fall 1956, although the focus was definitely on helicopters. The last crash boats, 46 footers, built for the USAF were built by Simms Brothers of Dorchester, MA in August of 1956. The Navy continued to use crash boats in a variety of roles before decommissioning the last of them in the late 1960s or early 1970s.
USAF Era Starts
Upon the formation of the US Air Force in 1947 most Army Air Force assets were transferred into the new service, which included the AAF Marine Rescue Craft along with many others. Once all the assets had been transferred, they were cataloged by the USAF. Technical Order No. 19-85-16 was issued entitled “Re-designation & Identification Survey of all Air Force Marine Equipment”. This T.O. allocated new hull numbers to all USAF craft which identified them by role and type.
The purpose was re-designating all Air Force marine equipment in an orderly manner in order to provide for better identification and standardization. Basically, the re-designation system established an alphabetical designator: “A” for airborne rescue equipment, “R” for waterborne rescue equipment, and “U” for utility boat equipment. This was followed by a numerical designator which was assigned to each specific design. The numerical designator was followed by an assigned serial number - the number was in effect the new USAF hull number and had no relation to the original hull number.
As an example: R-2-699, the “R” is for water Rescue equipment, “2” for the type designator for 63 ft. boats and “699” the new serial or hull number. The USAF placed some importance to rescue equipment as they were the first types listed in the plan. Thus all airborne lifeboats (typically dropped by B24s or B29s) were listed under the group A-1 with following serial numbers from 1 through to 650.
A1 type Airborne Lifeboats laid up at Clark Field, Philippines in 1946
Referring to the above photo, the airborne lifeboat at Clark Field with number 419 became USAF A-1-419. In the plan the old AAF serial number was simply appended after the role and type designators – and went from A-1-3 up to A-1-449. The block A-1-501 through A-1-650 was not used.
The next craft listed were the 85 ft. rescue boats under USAF R-1-652 through to R-1-687. The 63 ft. boats were R-2-688 through to R-2-733. Mk2 series boats were the WW II design 63 footers built in 1953-54 and were marked R-37 while the updated design Mk3 and Mk4 also built in 1953-54 wore R-37A. Later all 63 ft. boats were re-designated R-63.
The End of an Era
In the fall of 1956 when Rescue Boat Flights ( USAF term for squadrons) closed, a relatively few boats were transferred to special units and the rest surplused. Among the special units were Navy torpedo retrievers for recovery of practice and experimental torpedoes. The USAF retained a few boats as missile retrievers. By the early 1970s virtually all of these boats were out of military servic When MacDill closed its CRB Flight the boats were disbursed to other Florida bases and Panama. The Army Corps of Engineers got many R-37A boats (63 footers).
Many of the older P-boats would eventually end up in the Sea Scout Program and became their property. The Sea Scouts and their sponsoring organization became responsible for the operation and maintenance of these vessels in sea worthy condition. Eventually, due to the increased maintenance that comes with age, and the fact that a 63' boat is a lot of boat for a group of teenagers, the boats were retired, one way or another. Some were converted to yachts, fishing boats, work boats and ferries while others were simply abandoned.
Movies & TV
I get occasional questions about rescue boats in motion pictures and TV shows. To the best of my knowledge there has never been a theatrical movie or TV show made about air sea rescue boats. However, there have been a few productions where crash boats were “dressed” to represent PT boats. Most of these productions were done in the early to mid-1960s and by that time PT boats were almost impossible to find. Most PT boats were overseas during WWII and not returned to the US at the end of the war. The navy did not “mothball” any wooden boats. Most of those in the Pacific were amassed at Samar Bay in the Philippines and burned. There is more detail elsewhere on this site. A relatively few that were stateside at the end of the war were sold as surplus and did survive for a time.
They Were Expendable, filmed in 1945, was a film that received extensive support from the Navy Department, was shot on location in Key Biscayne, Florida and the Florida Keys. This region most closely approximated the South West Pacific Theater. Actual U.S. Navy 80-foot Elco PT boats were used throughout the filming, all be it remarked with hull numbers that would have been in use in late 1941 and early 1942. Because the movie was shot so close to the end of WWII there were still PT boats available and no rescue boats were used in making of the movie. Additional U.S. naval aircraft from nearby naval air stations in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Key West were temporarily remarked and were used to simulate Japanese aircraft in the film.
Certainly, the most famous movie was PT109, the film of President Kennedy’s disaster while skippering a PT boat in the Pacific. Warner Bros, the producers of the movie used 85 ft. crash boats to represent the 80 ft. Elco PT boats in the movie. This movie was heavily controlled by the Kennedy family and thus portrayed the president in a very positive manner, in spite of his boat being the only PT boat bisected by a Japanese ship during the war. I am still researching to determine how many crash boats were used in the movie but think it was less than five. The most I noticed in a single shot was three. There is very little documentation on the rescue boats used but they were probably located along the Florida and Alabama coats. Much of the movie was filmed at Little Palm Island (formerly Little Munson Island), now a resort in the Florida Keys. Power and fresh water were run out to the island for the film, allowing the resort to be built years later. When the set was being built for the film, it sparked rumors that another U.S. invasion of Cuba was in the works. Boats in the movie are painted standard AAF grey although the actual PT boats were painted a green camo. The 85 was very similar to the 80 ft Elco and was thus fairly easy to modify to closely resemble the Elcos.
McHale’s Navy was a comic TV show that ran from1962 through 1966 that was filmed in B&W and portrayed a mythical PT boat base in the Pacific during WWII. Three boats were used to represent the PT73 in the show. One actual PT boat was for underway shots at sea and two 63-ft World War II Army Air Force Sea Rescue boats were reconfigured to resemble a PT boat were used for some of the static shots. The PT-73 was actually a 71-foot type II Vosper MTB (motor torpedo boat), a British design built in the U.S. for export to the Soviet Union. The boat was sold to the studio where they did a remodel, reconfiguring the Vosper 694 and the two air sea rescue boats (numbers unknown thus far) to resemble a World War II-era PT boat.
The movies McHale’s Navy (1964) and McHale’s Navy Joins the Air Force (1967) probably used the TV boats for the first move but I have not seen the second movie and have not found any information on any boats used in its making.