During WW2, the RAF perfected a very good system of Air-Sea Rescue (ASR) to pick up fighter and bomber crews from the English Channel. This operation relied on aircraft and shipping relaying the position of a crew in the drink back to control stations. Motor boats and Walrus seaplanes from various bases around the coast would then head to the reported position to pick up the men. When the US Army Air Corps came to England they had no such system and, when they started losing crews in the sea, decided to set about forming their own air-sea rescue operation.
With the coming of the invasion imminent, a conference was called on the 8th May 1944 at the Air Ministry between representatives of the RAF, the 8th Air Force, and the 65th Fighter Wing. It was decided that the 65th Fighter Wing would take responsibility for air-sea rescue.
Captain Bob Gerhart, a former wing controller, was appointed CO of an independent ASR spotter squadron. The controllers based at Saffron Walden would have direct contact with the spotter planes and rescue launches. The aircraft, ground crews, pilots and all the equipment necessary had to be borrowed from other fighter groups. Because Hub Zemke was a very respected fighter leader he was asked to provide “war weary” aircraft and a piece of ground at his Boxted base for them to use. Bob Gerhart started with 90 enlisted men from 16 different stations, 25 pilots and ground officers “loaned”, no hanger and virtually no tools. Fortunately Zemke and his executive officer, Dave Schilling, were fully behind the idea, and loaned and scrounged as much equipment as possible. So barely a week after the conference, detachment "B" of the 65th fighter wing had flown its first mission.
How the system worked
Whenever a bomber mission was launched, two P-47 "Thunderbolts" of the ASR would take off from Boxted. The aircraft would track the bombers over the channel listening for any distress calls. When a call for help came, one P-47 would keep circling over the spot where the incident occurred. The aircraft would also drop flares or a small dinghy, then return to base to refuel and be replaced by another P-47. The other original Thunderbolt would keep listening in case there were any further incidents. So, all the time bomber formations were over the channel, there were two P-47’s in the air keeping watch. When a pilot or crewman came down in the sea, motor launches would be alerted to pick them up.
Perfecting the art
Initially the additional weight of the flare racks and dinghies caused major problems for the P-47's on take-off. They found that by splitting the dinghy packs and putting one under each wing, then using a single 150 gallon belly fuel tank and mounting the flares behind it, the capabilities of the P-47’s was restored . The airplanes were identified by red, white and blue striped noses and yellow banded tails. The group’s radio call sign was “teamwork”. The pilots were given the nickname “seagulls”. Later the group were given Catalina flying boats to help with rescues and, as these aircraft needed hard standings, detachment "B" moved to Halesworth. It was here that they received their official unit code of the 5th Emergency Rescue Squadron.
The 5th ERS's acheivement
A total of 938 men were rescued by this unit. In a memo to Lt. General James Doolittle, Commanding General of the 8th Air Force, Jesse Auton said "Most recently as “Colegate” and earlier as “Morelight”, “Warmsun” and “Tackline” call signs, the 65th Fighter Wing has had a vital part in the control of every 8th Air Force mission since 4th July 1943. A constant phase of this control has been for air-sea rescue. The many loyal men who have laboured unceasingly to make rescue more swift and sure, deserve great credit for making what is certain to be a lasting legacy."