Pearl Harbor: A catalyst that forever changed Coast Guard search and rescue

Today America remembers, mourns and honors the 2,403 Americans who were lost 75 years ago during the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor. While we mourn the loss of American soldiers and sailors in observance of the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, it is important to remember the resolve of the American spirit that perseveres and preserves their memory and sacrifices. In the heat of war, Coast Guard lieutenant and aviator, Frank A. Erickson theorized history’s greatest advance in rescue technology that forever changed how we conduct search and rescue.

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Written by pilot Lt. Matt Chase, Coast Guard Air Station Barbers Point, Hawaii

Japanese aerial photo of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941.
Japanese aerial photo of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941.

Today America remembers, mourns and honors the 2,403 Americans who were lost 75 years ago during the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared December 7th, “a date which will live in infamy,” and he was assuredly correct as this date is regarded as the catalyst that initiated our involvement in World War II and shaped our national pride and character.

Because the attack is primarily regarded as an attack on American naval forces, most people do not realize that the Coast Guard played a vital role in ensuring the security of the Hawaiian Islands before, during and after the attack. That day also forever shaped the way in which the Coast Guard rescues those in peril. As the Coast Guard commemorates 100 years of aviation, it is important to reflect on the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor and understand how the attacks that day initiated the events that revolutionized the way Coast Guard aviators save those in distress; enter the mysterious vertical flying machine, the helicopter.

Cmdr. Frank Erickson, Coast Guard helicopter pilot No. 1, in the cockpit of a Sikorsky HNS-1 Hoverfly in the early 1940s. Erickson used his experience in Hawaii and as a pilot to develop a hoist capable helicopter with Sikorsky to effect better rescues. U.S. Coast Guard archive photo.
Cmdr. Frank Erickson, Coast Guard helicopter pilot No. 1, in the cockpit of a Sikorsky HNS-1 Hoverfly in the early 1940s. Erickson used his experience in Hawaii and as a pilot to develop a hoist capable helicopter with Sikorsky to effect better rescues. U.S. Coast Guard archive photo.

A young Coast Guard lieutenant and aviator, Frank A. Erickson, was relieving his watch as the naval air station duty officer just before 8 a.m., when in the distance he could hear the sounds of the first bombs ravaging the Navy Yard. As general quarters sounded over public address systems throughout the base, Erickson rushed back to the control tower to man his general quarter’s station.

As the battle unfolded, Erickson witnessed numerous ships bombed and torpedoed and “the crews of the sinking ships streamed over the side.” His eyewitness account also describes the view of the harbor: “Within a radius of a mile and a half 2,000 men were killed and many thousands others were wounded, most of whom were burned by the thick fuel oil covering the harbor.”

Erickson, an Oregon native, was fortunate to survive the attack, but his lifesaving spirit held on to the image of helpless soldiers and sailors who could not be reached.

He went on to fly numerous patrols off of the Hawaiian Islands in the weeks after the attack in an effort to locate Japanese battle groups. During these patrols the images of the attack played in his mind and he brainstormed methods to execute rescues in unique scenarios such as the Pearl Harbor attack.

Cmdr. Frank Erickson hoists Igor Sikorsky during the development of the hoist capable helicopter in the early 1940s in Bridgeport, Conn. Erickson went on to fly many missions, save many lives, train many pilots and redefine Coast Guard aviation. U.S. Coast Guard archive photo.
Cmdr. Frank Erickson hoists Igor Sikorsky during the development of the hoist capable helicopter in the early 1940s in Bridgeport, Conn. Erickson went on to fly many missions, save many lives, train many pilots and redefine Coast Guard aviation. U.S. Coast Guard archive photo.

One article from Aero Digest mentioned a small helicopter designed by Dr. Igor Sikorsky. The capabilities of the helicopter resonated with enough force to motivate him to reach out to the Sikorsky Company.

Erickson wrote “in most battles the wounded must be transported long distances usually from inaccessible places. You at Sikorsky’s can be of great help in the saving of many lives. These helicopters you are building are especially suited for just this. Every one of these machines can be adapted for battle area rescue and ambulance work. It is perfectly feasible to equip these machines with a stretcher which can be lowered 25 or 30 feet in hovering flight to remove men from jungles, very high ground or the open seas where even the helicopter cannot land. Not only is it necessary to you to bend every effort to turn out these machines but your help and that of the entire nation is needed to finance such work as is necessary to help win this war.”

This correspondence with the Sikorsky Company was only the beginning of Erickson’s involvement in the development of the helicopter. He not only helped create a rescue aircraft, but he also shaped the development process that makes the helicopter the indispensable and adaptable airborne tool it is today.

A year after the Pearl Harbor attack, Erickson was transferred to Coast Guard Air Station Brooklyn and then on to the Sikorsky Aircraft plant in Connecticut. While serving as the Coast Guard’s liaison with the Sikorsky Company, he helped mold the development of the then experimental helicopter. Erickson would complete his training while working with Sikorsky and be designated as the Coast Guard’s first helicopter pilot. Over the next 15 years Erickson defined, instituted and oversaw the induction of the helicopter into the Coast Guard aviation inventory, completely redefining the way the Coast Guard performs search and rescue.

Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Scott D. Rady, 34, of Tampa, Fla., pulls a pregnant woman from her flooded New Orleans home. Rady is a rescue swimmer sent from Clearwater, Fla., to help aid in search and rescue efforts in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. U.S. Coast Guard photograph by Petty Officer 2nd Class NyxoLyno Cangemi.
Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Scott D. Rady, 34, of Tampa, Fla., pulls a pregnant woman from her flooded New Orleans home. Rady is a rescue swimmer sent from Clearwater, Fla., to help aid in search and rescue efforts in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. U.S. Coast Guard photograph by Petty Officer 2nd Class NyxoLyno Cangemi.

Since its induction, the Coast Guard has flown more than 10 types of helicopters in peace and wartime operations, including conflicts in the Middle East as well as scientific research in both the Arctic and Antarctic. Erickson’s prophecy for the helicopter manifested itself many times over during the last 75 years. The Coast Guard now uses the helicopter for multiple roles such as lifesaving, living marine resources, law enforcement and even aids to navigation missions. While there have been countless heroic rescues in effected with Coast Guard helicopters, and more occurring every day, few events have manifested Erickson’s vision more than one of the worst natural disasters in the history of the United States: Hurricane Katrina.

In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall in southern Louisiana and proceeded to pummel its way through the state into New Orleans. The storm breached and damaged multiple levees in the vicinity of the city while damaging almost every route into and out of the city. This combination of destruction left thousands upon thousands stranded in the New Orleans area among devastating flooding with no ability to evacuate or obtain supplies. Responding instantly, Coast Guard leaders ordered every possible helicopter at their disposable into the response zone.

With an incredible tool at their hands, Coast Guard pilots and aircrew bravely rescued over 2,800 survivors from rooftops throughout the area in just four days. The versatility of the helicopter allowed individual crews to rescue upwards of 50 people in one day of flying. Crews from different parts of the country operating in Coast Guard helicopters were able to maneuver in tight spaces confined by power lines, downed trees, and countless other obstacles. With a massive number of residents confined to rooftops or whatever high ground they could find, Coast Guard helicopters worked endlessly to evacuate survivors from the destruction.

Cmdr. Frank Erickson pictured at his desk at Air Station Brooklyn, which became a helicopter training base. This followed Erickson's completion of training and designation as the first Coast Guard helicopter pilot. U.S. Coast Guard archive photo.
Cmdr. Frank Erickson pictured at his desk at Air Station Brooklyn, which became a helicopter training base. This followed Erickson’s completion of training and designation as the first Coast Guard helicopter pilot. U.S. Coast Guard archive photo.

This is exactly the type of scenario Erickson imagined almost 70 years prior. His intuition and ingenuity changed the character and capabilities of the Coast Guard. Although unable to help those in distress during the attacks on Pearl Harbor, his vision and perseverance allowed what may be the greatest single rescue operation in the history of the Coast Guard and arguably the nation to successfully take place.

While we mourn the loss of American soldiers and sailors in observance of the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, it is important to remember the resolve of the American spirit that perseveres and preserves their memory and sacrifices. In the heat of war, Erickson theorized history’s greatest advance in rescue technology.

Motivated by an endless desire to enhance his service’s ability to save those in peril, Erickson and countless other selfless Coast Guard men and women have advanced, evolved, and transformed the helicopter into an indispensable tool that saves the lives of thousands.

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