Each month, an interesting aspect of the world’s oldest continuous maritime service will be highlighted. The men and women of the United States Coast Guard follow in the fine tradition of the brave mariners who have served before them. As sentinels and saviors of the seas, the United States Coast Guard proudly continues its commitment to honor, respect & devotion to duty to maintain their vigil – Semper Paratus.
The White Knuckle Flight of the Whitecap Rescue
The trawler Whitecap bobbed amidst the storm tossed seas. Captain Augustus Dunsky and the mates were huddled on the bridge and attending to Chief Engineer Edward R. Johnson. His arm had been viciously severed above the elbow while he had been attempting to repair the ice-making machine. Despite their triage, the wound was grievous and clearly life-threatening. Roughly one hundred miles out at sea, the wounded crewman would die if they didn’t get him to a medical facility ashore. Captain Dunsky reached for the radio and transmitted a distress call. “Man’s Arm completely cut off – bleeding to death.” With details received at the United States Coast Guard Air Station, Lieutenant Commander Frank Ashton Leamy and two of his fellow Coastguardsmen boarded their flying lifeboat. Lumbering into the stormy sky at twelve-fifty in the afternoon on May 20, 1937 the Coastguardsmen were flying directly into the maelstrom.
Aboard the Douglas Dolphin V-134 “Canopus” Radioman First Class August Dannenberg tracked the location of the trawler utilizing the radio direction finder.1 Lieutenant Commander Leamy fought with the controls as the winds buffeted the twin engine aircraft. His co-pilot Lieutenant Perry S. Lyons maintained the flight path and scanned the horizon. Time was of the essence. Two days earlier Lieutenant Commander Leamy had flown another mission of mercy when he and his flight crew were contacted by the United States Coast Guard Cutter Harriet Lane. They had transferred Merle Davis, a fisherman from the trawler Cambridge, who was suffering from appendicitis. As Leamy scanned the frothy foam below him he knew that this rescue would be much more difficult. Suddenly, the trawler appeared on the horizon. Leamy banked the Dolphin to take a closer look.
The rough west southwest seas were tossing the Whitecap wildly in the waves. Leamy circled the trawler and had to render a decision on whether or not he could land safely and be able to alight between the wind-swept waves. Captain Dunsky scanned the shifting swells and white tipped combers. While he knew that his chief engineer needed assistance he also was fully aware of the dangerous conditions. He radioed the circling aircraft. In his opinion, it was too rough to land. Leamy thanked the trawler skipper for the information but he and his men knew that without action Chief Engineer Johnson would most likely die from the extreme loss of blood. Leamy nosed the aircraft lower toward the stormy surface of the Atlantic Ocean.
Banking once again Leamy informed his crew that he was going in for a landing. Based on their training the Coastguardsmen braced themselves for a rough go. The aircraft skimmed across the tops of the green walls of water. Leamy lowered the aircraft looking for a trough to set land. Leamy eased the controls forward and the hull of the aircraft touched down with a thud. One of the wings dug into the sea but quickly righted. Leamy ordered his crew to inspect the aircraft for any damage. Despite the conditions, the aircraft was perfect. Now it was time for the Coastguardsmen to get to work.
Leamy and his men passed instructions to Captain Dunsky and the crew of the Whitecap. A few moments later a small boat was lowered into the stormy seas. The crewmen had strapped Johnson to a chair and he was wrapped in a blanket. Unconscious and in shock from the tremendous amount of lost blood the men had to get him to the seaplane quickly. The rough seas though hindered the operation. Working with the Coastguardsmen the injured engineer was carefully pulled aboard. Leamy looked over the wounded engineer and viewed the tourniquet on his upper arm. Leamy returned to the cockpit and conferred with his co-pilot. The take-off was not going to be easy. Leamy turned to his co-pilot, radioman, and semi-conscious passenger and ordered them to prepare for take-off. The last radio transmission to the Whitecap was to keep their small boat in the water in case anything went wrong.
The waves beat against the aircraft as Leamy increased power to the twin engines. The nose plowed through a huge comber sending a shudder throughout the craft. Leamy increased the power to break free from the surface. The Dolphin’s twin Pratt & Whitney engines roared loudly as the aircraft’s hull and wing floats skipped across the white capped waves. Finally, the V-134 alighted into the afternoon sky. The flying lifeboat gained altitude and banked toward the air station. At five minutes after three o’clock Chief Engineer Johnson was transferred to an awaiting ambulance for transport to the Chelsea Marine Hospital. The doctors who treated the injured engineer agreed unanimously. Had Johnson not be flown to shore he would have died from his injuries.
Lieutenant Commander Leamy and his fellow Coastguardsmen at the Salem Air Station continued to fly on their missions of mercy when calls of distress were issued. On May 31, 1937, Dr. John H. McCarthy was flown ashore from his yacht Liria. Fisherman Roger Amero suffering from poisoning in his arm was transported from the trawler Winchester in a flight that was over three hundred thirty six miles round trip on July 12, 1937. On July 27, cook Gordon Crowell was airlifted from the yacht Chauve Souris in the waters off Provincetown. Michael Bryne, a fisherman suffering from acute tonsillitis, was transferred from the trawler Dorchester to the United States Coast Guard Cutter Chelan and then to the flying lifeboat flown by Leamy on November 11, 1937. All of the rescues went smooth and without incident. On the stormy night of December 21, 1937, Lieutenant Commander Leamy and his crew went aloft on another mission of mercy. This mission however would put him and his crews’ training to the test.
The trawler Shawmut of Boston reported that one of their fishermen had an injured hand and poisoning in his arm. Alighting aboard a larger aircraft, a Fokker F-11A Flying Lifeboat, Leamy and his crew reached the trawler at one thirty in the afternoon. The sea appeared as if it was a boiling cauldron of wind-swept wintry waves. Leamy and his co-pilot Lieutenant Robert McCaffery began their approach while Chief Aviation Machinist Mate Charles Fleenor, Aviation Machinist Mate John Pidel, and Chief Pharmacist Mate Charles Tuttle sat and awaited the opportunity to assist the injured fisherman. Leamy slid the hull of the flying ambulance down between the swells perfectly. Henry King was transferred to the aircraft and Leamy decided to dump excess fuel to lighten the craft. Once that procedure had been completed, he indicated to his men to prepare to take-off from the grey gurgling waters.
Leamy’s first two attempts failed. As he set up for his third attempt a huge wave slammed into the aircraft. After ensuring everyone was safe the Coastguardsmen identified significant damage. The left motor mount was mangled, the right wing float had been sheared off and the aileron bent. Though damaged, Leamy was confident that he could safely get the aircraft back to the air station. Once again Leamy ordered his men to prepare for take-off. Finally, the Fokker broke free from the surface of the raging sea. Leamy and McCaffery agreed that it would be best to fly to the nearest point of land, Cape Cod, and then hug the shallows. The left engine dangled precariously as the flying lifeboat skimmed above the strands of the Massachusetts coastline. At thirty minutes past three o’clock, the Coastguardsmen landed safely at the Salem Air Station. Another life had been saved by the intrepid band of brave aviators.
On September 10, 1938, District Commander Captain Thomas A. Shanley presented the Distinguished Flying Cross to Lieutenant Commander F.A. Leamy at the Salem Air Station. Radioman First Class August Dannenberg and Lieutenant Perry S. Lyons were also decorated with high honors for their efforts and bravery in the rescue of Chief Engineer Johnson from the Whitecap. Leamy Coast Guard aviator #40 marked the second Coastguardsman to receive the award. Being presented with the honor was just one aspect of the Coastguardsman’s long standing career.
Frank Ashton Leamy was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on May 13, 1900. After a brief stint in the United States Army Tank Corps from 1918 to 1919 he pursued his college education first at the University of Delaware and then at Temple University. Leamy received an appointment to the United States Coast Guard Academy and was commissioned as an ensign in 1925. After initially serving aboard the destroyer C.G-8 Beale and later the U.S.S. Wordon he then took over as the executive officer of the U.S. Coast Guard Station in Biloxi, Mississippi in 1927.4 In 1936, after completing aviation training at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida he earned his gold wings and became a U.S. Coast Guard aviator.
After his command of the U.S. Coast Guard Air Station at Salem where he earned his Distinguished Flying Cross for the Whitecap rescue he was transferred to command the Air Station in San Diego, California. His next tour of duty was in the U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington, D.C. where he served as the Chief of the Aviation Section. In 1943, after requesting service on the frontlines, he was transferred to the APA Joseph T. Dickman where he was awarded the U.S. Navy Commendation Medal for his service in the amphibious assaults and landings of Southern France. With the war effort shifting its focus to the Pacific Theatre of Operations Leamy would later participate in the assaults on Okinawa and in the eventual peacetime operations of returning U.S. service personnel to the United States via Operation Carpet Ride.
In 1957, Rear Admiral Leamy took command of the United States Coast Guard Academy and served in that role with an apparent iron fist until his retirement in 1960. The United States Congress, cognizant of his record of service awarded him the Legion of Merit for “exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services to the government of the United States” and in his service as the Superintendent of the United States Coast Guard Academy. Six years later, at the age of sixty-six, Rear Admiral Leamy passed away and was later buried at Arlington National Cemetery. He had served his nation and the United States Coast Guard for thirty years.
Rear Admiral Leamy’s years of service were marked with countless missions and operations. Whether it was a peacetime or wartime operation Leamy never wavered in answering the call to action. He was willing to push the limits of his equipment and was always clearly confident in his crew’s ability to ensure that the missions of the United States Coast Guard were met with earnest and effectiveness. A review of his service sheds light on so many instances when he and his fellow Coastguardsmen brushed within inches of near certain death but no matter the danger Leamy pushed on to effect the rescue, to meet the operational objectives , and to ensure that the lives of those imperiled were saved. It is that mettle that exists and that is entrusted to the men and women that serve as members of the United States Coast Guard of the present day that will ensure that they too, like Rear Admiral Frank Ashton Leamy will be “Semper Paratus” when the call of distress is heard as they rise to the occasion and render aid as true sentinels and saviors of the seas.
Brown, Riley. The Story of the Coast Guard – Men, Wind and Sea. Blue Ribbon Books. New York, 1939.
Riesenberg, Felix. Yankee Skippers to the Rescue. Dodd, Mead & Company. New York, 1940.
Royston, Mark W. The Faces Behind the Bases. I-Universe. New York, 2009.
The Berkshire Evening Eagle.
“Plane Brings Injured Sailor to Hospital,” May 21, 1937.
The Boston Globe.
“Stricken Fisherman Flown to Salem,” May 19, 1937.
“Plane Aids Man Who Lost Hand on Trawler,” May 21, 1937
“Ill Man is Brought to Shore by Plane,” June 1, 1937
“Stricken Seaman Flown 336 Miles in C.G. Plane,” July 12, 1937.
“Coast Guard Mercy Flight,” July 27, 1937.
“Plane Brings Fisherman from Cutter to Hospital,” November 12, 1937.
“C.G. Plane Damaged on Mercy Mission,” December 21, 1937.
“Honor Coast Guard Flyer with Medal,” September 9, 1938.
The Middletown Times Herald.
“Arm Severed, Engineer is Flown to Hospital,” May 21, 1937.
The Nebraska State Journal.
“Coast Guard Commander Honored for Bravery,” September 14, 1938.