Written by Bill Collins as told to him


The Catalina and Our Crusader of the Lake

The Catalina story as told by Ed Fitzgerald

Ed Fitzgerald flew F-4U Corsairs for the Marines in the south Pacific during WWII. Here’s a story he told me.

All the squadron pilots were loaded onto a Navy R4D (a.k.a. DC-3 and C-47) at Honolulu for transportation to their new base. They landed at Johnson Island for refueling. Shortly after leaving Johnson Island the airplane started having problems with both engines. Eventually the engines failed and the airplane was expertly ditched in the Pacific. Everyone got off the airplane and into life rafts without injury, where they waited for rescue.

According to Ed, he was the first one to exit the airplane since he was sitting closest to the door. In accordance with Marine training for such situations, he jumped into the water alongside the raft and then climbed aboard. This procedure was designed to prevent damage to the bottom of the raft which could occur if people jumped directly into the raft. But everyone else ignored procedure and jumped aboard, leaving him the only one to get wet. This was especially annoying, since he was carrying a personally owned Colt .45 pistol which never completely recovered from it’s salt water dunking.

In a short time a search and rescue PBY Catalina aircraft appeared in response to the May Day call the R4D pilots had gotten off before they ditched. There was an ocean swell running that day, but the Catalina pilot made a perfect water landing and taxied to the survivors. All the people were taken aboard the Catalina, which then taxied to a takeoff position.

Ed had never been aboard a Catalina, which he called a P-boat (for it’s Patrol squadron designation), so he made his way forward into the PBY cockpit to watch the takeoff procedure. Everything seemed fine at first, but then the running swell rose under the port wing. The swell came up so rapidly it overwhelmed the wing tip float and contacted the port propeller blades.

In an instant, the port propeller came off the hub and sliced through the cockpit. Standing behind and between the two Catalina pilots, Ed was at first not aware that the pilot in the left seat was dead. Before he recovered his wits, the copilot had shut down the engines, popped open the hatch in the cockpit overhead, walked out on the wing, and was fighting a fire in the port engine with a portable extinguisher.

Except for the unfortunate Catalina pilot, everyone else was unhurt. A May Day from the first PBY soon brought a second one, which then took all of them aboard. Machine guns were used to sink the original Catalina, and they were all soon back on duty.

! * !

Our Crusader of the Lake as told by Tom Williams

My first boss at Vought was Tom Williams. He flew B-25 Mitchells for the Marines in WWII, and was a scuba diver on the Vought search-rescue team that assisted the Navy with emergencies at NAS Dallas. Here is a story he told me of one event.

An F-8U Crusader ran off the end of the runway and into Mountain Creek Lake. Tom was one of several divers who went into the lake to find the aircraft for salvage. The pilot had escaped safely, and the location of the airplane was known with certainty. Although the Crusader sank out of sight soon after entering the water, no one expected any problems finding it or pulling it out of the lake.

So Tom and the other divers were perplexed to discover no trace of the aircraft. It had mysteriously disappeared into the dark obscurity of the silt-laden lake waters like a ghost.

Mountain Creek Lake, like most Texas lakes, is artificial, and was formed by throwing a dam across a small creek. Also in common with most Texas lakes, it is muddy to the point of invisibility. It is often impossible to find a definite bottom, since the lake waters simply become denser and denser as you go deeper and the burden of silt, mud, and dirt become greater and greater.

Even with powerful underwater lights, the divers searched in vain for the elusive Crusader. Unable to see more than a few inches in front of their eyes, the divers prowled the known area where the aircraft surely had to rest. But their searches were fruitless.

How can you lose something as big as a jet fighter? Especially when you know exactly where it is? Had the airplane somehow become a piece of mystical magical hardware, destined to be forever known as Our Crusader of the Lake? What strange powers did it possess that allowed it to disappear so completely?

But it was physics and not magic that provided the answer.

Purely by chance, one of the divers exploring the murky almost-bottom happened to raise his hand above his head for some reason. And touched the aircraft, hovering in the silt over his head.

The airplane had sunk until it’s weight was balanced by the weight of the displaced lake water. And there it stopped sinking and came to rest, several feet above the gloom that the divers considered to be the bottom.

The startled diver soon came to the surface with news of the discovery, and salvage of the Crusader began in earnest.

Somehow I always wished the story had another ending. One where the airplane remained undiscovered and free, sort of an aviation Flying Dutchman, forever roaming Mountain Creek lake as a kind of talisman for Vought airplanes and those who built them and those who flew them.

But that wouldn’t be believable, would it?