THE TRIANGLE PATROL
The 45th Bomb Squadron was stationed on a very small airfield on a rocky strip of land called Baltra Island during the spring of 1943. Baltra Island is located 28 miles from the equator in the Galapagos Archipelago. We called the remote field The Rock. Our mission was to fly eight daily flights in B-24 type aircraft over the approaches to the Panama Canal.
The route of one mission formed a huge triangle southwest of the Galapagos Islands. We dreaded that particular mission for many reasons. It was more than twelve hours long. Since the route did not follow or cross regular sea lanes, we seldom saw a ship of any kind. Therefore, air-sea rescue from the extremely cold water coming from the Antarctic region in the Humboldt Current would be unlikely. The cold water cooled the warm, equatorial air above it to form a dense stratus cloud with a base of about 1,500 feet above sea level. This low ceiling forced us to fly at very low altitudes while searching for enemy warships. There were strong southeasterly trade winds near the surface that created moderate to severe turbulence throughout the flight. Flying this triangle mission required an extreme physical effort by the two pilots, and a very tiring effort by other crew members.
Captain H.F. Hohn and his crew were assigned to fly a triangle mission in April 1943. Their flight progressed normally until noon on the outbound leg of the triangle. Suddenly, our radio ground station received a MAYDAY message that stated Captain Hohn's plane was on fire. No additional information was received. All other flyable aircraft at Baltra were on patrol in areas too far from the emergency site to be of help.
The Baltra Island Airfield did not have lighting for night operations, so the squadron operations staff began planning a search mission for an early morning take off the next day. As patrol aircraft returned from their missions, they were serviced with a maximum fuel load, and preflighted for an early morning take off. The search mission would cover as much of the triangle as possible.
Ten planes were dispatched early the next morning. Five hours later, while flying in a line abreast, they arrived at the position estimated to be the point where Captain Hohn's plane had been when he transmitted his distress message. Still line abreast, the formation turned and traced the route the stricken aircraft should have flown. Within an hour, a crew sighted an aircraft oxygen tank and some flotsam from the downed plane. There was no evidence of the aircrew, life rafts, or life preservers. The Squadron Commander directed all planes to leave the triangle route, and to search downwind from the wreckage. Searching continued for several hours without success.
When aircraft fuel reserves reached a certain amount, the Commander called the planes into a formation, and turned toward Baltra. Navigation on the homeward flight was very difficult. Low stratus clouds shrouded all mountains in the Galapagos Islands, and the only direction finding homer in the area had a weak 50 watt transmitter. Search aircraft's low fuel supply would not allow much time for searching for Baltra Island if the formation did not fly straight to it. The Squadron Navigator led the formation directly to our airfield, and arrived very close to his ETA (estimated time of arrival). This grueling mission of more than 2,500 miles over open water, flown at low altitude in constant turbulence, was a remarkable demonstration of accurate dead reckoning navigation, and aircrew dedication.
For the next few days, many Bombardiers and Navigators bore physical evidence that they had been on a search mission flown in turbulent air. Their black eyes and facial bruises came from bumping against their bombsight and drift meter eye pieces while obtaining wind drift readings. The readings were radioed to their lead Navigator. These minor injuries were a small price to pay for the opportunity to search for their comrades who disappeared in the Pacific Ocean.
No sign of Captain H.F. Hohn and his crew was ever found. For 17 months, the 45th Bomb Squadron flew patrol missions on both the Caribbean and Pacific approaches to the Panama Canal. This disaster caused the only loss of personnel during a patrol mission in all the hundreds of sorties and thousands of hours flown in the Caribbean and Pacific Theaters. The loss of Captain H.F. Hohn and his crew left an empty space on the squadron crew roster, and an empty feeling in the hearts of their comrades.
* From Ira V. Matthews' Eighty-one War Stories. *