Monday, December 24, 2012

The Flight Before Christmas: December 24th, 1954

Photo Courtesy  US AIR FORCE.

December 24th 1954.   It was going to be another mission that no one would know about.   Ok if there was a name for the middle of nowhere it was U. S. Air Force Base Shemya.  It’s 10,000-foot runway the dominating feature of this two-mile by four-mile rock at the end of the Aleutian Islands.   The place was going to launch B-29s to bomb Japan.  The Wooden buildings we slept in were COLD.  The Mess Hall was cold.  Ops was cold. This place would have made a polar bear get a chill.   

My Name is Captain Mel  Ch’Or .   My second was Major Casper “Ghost” Smith and down in the “hole” was Major “Baltic” Sayzar.  Tonight was the night we were getting off the rock.  We were going to ferry our RB-47H back to Japan.  53-4291 was a good ship. She never let us down. Normally down in the bay we would have had three other “Operators” but since this was a long-range ferry, we didn’t want the burden.  However, we had one passenger.

The Wing Commander asked if Senior Airman Jose Garcis could fly with us to Japan. Garcis’ wife was with child in Japan and was due soon.  So we would carry him to Japan.

I flew B-24s in the War over Europe.  If you had ever told me that I would be flying a ship twice as fast, I would have said  “Yeah Right!”  Our Mission, like I said, was the fly our aircraft to Japan.  We wouldn’t be going anyplace near where we would be shot at for once:  just vast ocean, and a mid-air refueling.  That still takes my breath away.  Then cocktails!  REAL scotch!  Eight weeks on that rock and I could finally get that golden beverage.  Christmas had already started in Japan but I didn’t care.  This Bachelor wanted warmth.

Our flight plan was filed for a 1225 take off.  OPS thought that was funny. Three hours later we were to hook up with a KC-135A get our tanks filled then on to EGG NOG and real food.  Warmth!   Oh, and to make sure our Airman got to the Hospital on time.

As the time came it became increasingly clear that our visibility wasn’t getting any better.  Weather said we had a small window around 1400 that we might make it out.   I said, “I’ll take it.”  Preplanning, re-filing.  I hate the paperwork.  I just want to fly.

It became clear that our window to the tanker track would be getting tighter. Nothing beyond normal, just tighter.

So in the jet at 1300 preflight and the weather ain’t getting any better.  Finally after sitting in that cockpit with heater doing its best to prevent me from getting frostbite. Ghost called up and said it’s time to go. 
 It’s now 1420. DAMN!  Ok fast taxi on to 10/28 and away we go.   “Tower this Prancer 4” How do you read.”  Did I mention OPS had a sense of humor?  I personally wasn’t amused.   “Prancer4 this is Tower”   “You are clear for take off!’   Safe Flight and Merry Chirstmas!’”

“Prancer 4 Copy.  Cleared for take off” 

So I slowly pushed the throttles forward.  ¾ Time made her usual grunts groans and then started to make her music.   Oh I forgot that didn’t I?   4291 was named ¾ time.  My commander back in the war had two names for our plane. Originally it was Camel.  Eventually we found out that the Old Man was a great swing drummer!   Suddenly the Plane had the name  ‘Lil Drummer boy in ¾ time.  We always were lucky.  So I kept the ¾ Time.   So we had five engines humming however Number 3 was just not right.   I called back to Ghost  “So whattya think?”

“I think we are good Cap’n.”  “I’ll keep an eye on it”  

“Baltic?”  “We good to go?”  

“Check Boss” came through the radio system. 

So even though Number 3 worried me, I pushed the throttles forward and we started to roll down bumpy runway 10.  The bumps always seemed worse taking off into this direction.   I knew I would need lots of runway but as I crossed the 8,000 foot mark; I started worrying.  9000 Ft. Come on baby let’s get the Waltz started.  ¾ heard me and off we went. 

“Merry Christmas Tower!  Prancer4  Out”

As we climbed to altitude the weather wasn’t getting better.  Climb was a bit uneven.

“Casper remind me to throttle that Crew”  “I told them about that #3 last week!” 

“Mel its Christmas cut them a break!”  responded Ghost.

I then remembered down where there were supposed to be bombs was a cold, nervous wreck of an airman.   I keyed the mic.  “Jose how you doing down there?”

After a moment a voice came from below  “Fiinne  Sir!’  “It’s really dark down here        SIR .”

“No Problem Airman, I’ll send the flight attendant back with a blanket and hot chocolate!”  “Baltic you heard the man!”  “Get that soon to be Father a blanket!”

I could tell Baltic was concentrating too hard.   The intercom replied, “ Will do Sir”

I switched over just to Baltic.  “Ok what’s up?”

“Sir weather ahead is getting ugly.”  “I just did some recalculations, we will be cutting it close for that Tanker”

I started to get a little worried  “No Worries Bal!’  We’ll get there.

We were an  2 ½ hours late.  Caspar called  Yakota about our 135.  Well we had lost our first track  but we could catch another 135 that was supporting  SAC.. They were diverting to meet us half way.  “I might get that Scotch yet.  The smell of incense suddenly waffed into my nose.  Scotch and what was that bar’s name?

It was another 30 minutes later that all hell broke.


“What the HELL Was that!”  “I am pretty sure that isn’t what I said but you get the point.

Casper  said “Sir we lost three and it took out number two” 

Well  I suddenly found myself flying with a lot of Rudder.  One engine on one side three on the other.  I began emergency procedures and started to shut down two and three.  We were luck the failure caused the pod to break free. So we were not on fire but leaking fuel badly.  I knew the answer but I radioed down to “Baltic” “So we had a little Christmas Cracker surprise up here.” “Baltic got us a place to go quick?”

“I’m already on it Sir “ I could tell Baltic was none too happy. 

“Casper get Yakota on the phone.” “Find out if there are any Navy, down there?”

He was already on it.  “Prancer 4 to Yakota!”  “Prancer4 to Yakota” “Come in Yakota” “Mayday!”

Yakota Control to Prancer 4” “State your Emergency”

Casper continued on and I for some reason drifted off for a second.

 I then realized down in the hold there was some Scared kid.  I Keyed the Mic. “Airman you ok down there?”

“I am fine Sir  ..  . Everything  Ok?  A very terrified voice.

A pause “Sir”

I retorted “ Up here we’re none too formal.”  “Call me Mel?” “Ok Jose”
“Yessss Sir, I mean Mel.” “Sir”

I smiled  “Well Jose we hit a little bump in the road.  But I promise you will get to see your wife.”  Why the heck did I say that. There is no way we were ever getting to Japan.  Will be lucky to get picked up at sea. 

Casper called down to Bal and asked our location.

Bal replied “All my gauges are doing nutty things.”  “with this cloud cover I can even take a Star Sight!” 

“ Ok keep us posted.”  The next 40 minutes flew by.  We weren’t going to make a tanker.  We didn’t really know where we were.  I had made a stupid promise to some kid below.  If we ditched there was a good chance he wouldn’t make it.  And parachuting out of a Bomb bay was not recommended.

I radioed back to CASPER.  “Any news?”

“No Sir” The voice was very somber. “


“Twenty Minutes of flight time and I have no idea where the Hell we are Sir.”

Well that’s that.  I started my decent. We were going to have to Ditch or Jump. Neither option seemed at all pleasant.   For Some reason I keyed the Mic  and started singing   “Silent Night.” “Holy Night” “All is Calm all is Bright”

“Sir” a quiet voice came from below.

“Yes Jose?”

“Have we begun our decent?”

“Yes”  Damn I made that boy a promise, I never break a promise.

“Sir ?”  “You will tell me when to bail out?

He knew!!  What was I thinking of course he knew?  I was a fool.

“Jose I will tell you I promise!” “God Let me keep that one, Please!”

Baltic suddenly shouted  “I see a  Star” “I see the NORTH STAR” “Coordinates coming  MEL. 

I looked up and there was a break in the clouds and yes there was a star.  Funny though as I look back that star was a heck of a light brighter than the North Star. I never could shoot stars cause I could never find that faint  SOB.

Baltic sent up and Casper radioed to Yakota.

Well if we were going to Ditch now at least someone would know where to send the boat.  

Then the radio crackled

“Prancer4  Come in!” “Prancer 4 Come in” “Cookie 2 to Prancer4 ”  “Understand you have a little problem that you ain’t got enough Milk. ”

Strange Accent!  I keyed.

“Cookie 2 so got any of that Milk?”” we got a bad hole in our cup.”” Don’t want Santa to miss out.”  So what brings you out This time of night?”

“Well we heard the call to Yakota and we diverted to you. Rudy our boomer has you in sight.  Turn right 15 degrees and head towards the red lights.”

“Copy” “ Right 15 degrees.  I eased off the Rudder and  the girl made the gentle turn.
I caressed the yoke.  “This is going to be fun”  Air to Air  during the day is hard. Air to Air at night is a bear, Air to Air missing two engines well  . . 

I eased up to the boom.
Rudy guided us in and contact.

“I radioed “Evening!”  “Fill it and can you wash the windows?”

Rudy radios back “ Yes sir and I’ll put air in your tires. Also.  One hell of an open sleigh there sir.


“Prancer 4 looks like you need a little help finding your way home. “

I radio “Indeed.  I have a package that needs to be delivered to Japan.  Santa seemed to have left it in Alaska by accident.”

“Rodger that!’

Suddenly we were going to make it.  That KC-135 was towing us home.  We unplugged.

Rudy “ Sir I have eyes on you.  Keep in formation and follow us. “


An hour later we were over Yakota,  I was exhausted.  Caspar and Baltic were also. Bobtail  called to me.

Prancer 4 you’re on final  Yakota we’re breaking off and will circle and come in after you.

We landed, the worst one I have ever done.  Rolled out.

I threw back the canopy and finally took a deep break.  The fire trucks looked very festive with their RED gumdrops.

I met Casper and Bal on the ground.   Out of the hold came Jose looking quite peaked.

He ran up to me and gave me the Crispest of Salutes.  I didn’t return it.  Just wrapped my arms around him. “Merry Christmas!’ “ Now get your ass in gear and see your wife!”


“Airman what’s your wife’s name?”

“Maria.  Sir!”

“Call me MEL! Now get going!’

Off he ran.  He did get to the hospital in time.  They had a baby boy.  His name?  Melvin! Poor KID.

Funny, the strangest thing that KC-135A never did land.  I thought it diverted to another field.  Could never find the crew either.  Nor a Boomer named Rudy?

So I guess it was just not my time.  Though Following a Star and then Rudy. Every Christmas Eve I say a prayer to this day,  “Thank you for letting me keep my promise and to all those Men and Women who are watching over us. Keep them safe this Christmas and bring them Home next year.”

Now where’s my Scotch.

May you and yours have a Merry Christmas and a Peaceful New Year!



  1. Awesome! Thank you very much and have a Merry Christmas!

  2. GREAT read! Thanks

  3. Happy New Year Mr. Vanderhoof of (What the hell, just flew by)..I mean no disrespect..!!!

  4. B-47 is such a pretty plane. What a view it must have been to set up in the cockpit and look over and see those big wings.