The Coast Guard Compass was proud to unveil the first 25 heroes the service’s new fast response cutters would be named for and we are even prouder to share the next 10 names with you in a continuation of our Coast Guard Heroes series. Over the next two weeks we’ll be sharing profiles of the namesakes of the Coast Guard’s fast response cutters, from legends of the U.S. Life Saving Service to courageous men who served during the Vietnam War. Today, we share with you the story of Benjamin A. Bottoms.
Written by Christopher Havern
Benjamin Autrell Bottoms was born Nov. 1, 1913 in Cumming, Georgia. He grew up in farm country near Marietta, Georgia where he graduated from Marietta High School in 1931.
He enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard Oct. 13, 1932, and was trained at Receiving Unit, New London, Connecticut. During 1933 he served with the destroyer force that the Coast Guard operated in the Rum War of the Prohibition era. The destroyers he was assigned to were Herndon, which operated out of Boston and Conyngham, homeported in Philadelphia.
In December 1933 Bottoms transferred to the communications division at the Coast Guard Yard, Curtis Bay, Maryland, where he became interested in radio operating. From June 1934 to October 1935, he was assigned alternately to the Cutters Ossipee and Guthrie, both homeported in Portland, Maine. Following further training at Fort Trumbull training station in New London, he served as radioman 3rd class with the Cutters Thetis, Harriet Lane and Ossipee again out of homeports along the Massachusetts coast.
From June 1937 to October 1938, he was attached to Carrabasset at Curtis Bay, following this he returned to Harriet Lane in Gloucester, Massachusetts. While assigned to Gloucester, Bottoms married Olga Bernice Rogers on Oct. 10, 1937. After a brief period of training with the Boston division, he was assigned to Coast Guard Air Station Salem, Massachusetts, in October 1939. During the period from June to November of 1941 he was stationed temporarily aboard the Cutter Northland as preparations were being made for the cutter to take on an aircraft. He then returned to Salem air station for a brief time.
Early in 1942 he rejoined Northland to serve as radioman 1st class assigned to the J2F-4 Grumman amphibious plane that the cutter carried on the Greenland patrol.
On Nov. 28, 1942 as Northland drifted in Comanche Bay, a radio message notified the commanding officer that the position of the U.S. U.S. Army B-17 “Flying Fortress” that had crashed into the ice cap near the west coast of Greenland had been ascertained.
As the radioman, Bottoms would accompany the pilot, Lt. John A. Pritchard, of the cutter’s plane on the hazardous rescue flight. Though no one ever before had successfully landed a plane on the ice cap, the two men were confident that the rescue could be accomplished.
At approximately 10:20 a.m., Nov. 28, 1942 the Grumman J2F-4 (Tail Number 1640) was lowered over the side of Northland into the water and took off to rescue the U.S. Army air crew. Bottoms’ was at the radio while Lt. Pritchard piloted the plane. Picking up weak radio signals from the bomber, Bottoms was able to give the pilot accurate bearings on the wrecked B-17. After flying for about 30 minutes over the desolate wasteland, the pilot sighted the wreck, circled over the U.S. Army airmen, dropped a package of medicine, and signaled he was going to land. Regardless of the warning signals not to try to land with wheels down, the pilot set the plane down on the 2,000-ft. high ice cap. The wheels of the plane sank into the snow up to the pontoons.
Unable to get any closer than 4 miles of the crash site, both Pritchard and Bottoms walked to the B-17 crash site. After reaching the wrecked bomber, Pritchard informed the U.S. Army airmen that his plane could only carry two of them at a time. Two injured men, who could walk with some assistance, were selected. With the aid of a third U.S. Army airman, the uninjured B-17 co-pilot, Pritchard and Bottoms brought the injured airmen back to his plane. The two injured men had to make rest stops during the return to the J2F-4. As such, Bottoms remained with the men and assisted them while Lt. Pritchard and the B-17’s co-pilot continued on to the aircraft to prepare it for takeoff. Remembering the difficulty of landing with wheels down, Pritchard decided to take off from the ice using the plane’s pontoons. They cleared away the snow and raised the J2F-4’s wheels, and turned the aircraft around to take-off downslope on its incoming tracks. After careening, sliding, and bumping over the ice hummocks, the plane soared safely into the air and back to Northland.
The following day, Nov. 29, Lt. Pritchard and Bottoms resumed rescue operations for the remaining U.S. Army airmen. As on the previous day they reached the stranded fliers, took one on board and after a successful take-off started for the cutter. Soon after the plane encountered a heavy snow storm and crashed on the ice cap. Bottoms’ last radio message to the ship was that they had a successful takeoff and that he needed weather reports. After the storm subsided, search parties from a nearby U.S. Army base and from the ship were organized to search for the lost aircraft. Though reporting an incorrect location, a bomber sighted and identified the plane. The report noted that the wings were off, but the fuselage was intact. Unfortunately, there was no sign of life. One rescue party pushed over the ice cap to within 6 miles of the wrecked plane but was unable to reach it. The bodies of Bottoms, Pritchard, and the injured airman who survived the earlier crashed B-17 have not been recovered.
Benjamin Bottoms who was 29 years old, was declared missing in action Nov. 29, 1942. He was subsequently declared deceased one year later on Nov. 30, 1943. Bottoms was survived by his wife, Olga and her son Ed Richardson, Ben’s father, Andrew Jackson Bottoms and his mother, Nassie (Nassau) America Bottoms, his twin sister Nancy Janell Bottoms, and younger sister, Eleanor Bottoms. For his part in the daring rescues, Bottoms was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.