During WWII, the United States Navy and Marine Corps lost nearly 53,000 personnel in uniform. Certain service assignments in the Navy were known for very high casualties. The submarine service suffered a twenty-five percent loss rate, the highest of any type of service in the military, and then losses to aircrews. In the Pacific, aircrew losses to the Navy, Marine Corps and Army were keenly felt and hard to replace. Even after pilots cleared the training pipeline they had to be transported by ship or plane across the Pacific Theater of Operations, to far-flung bases from Alaska to Australia. Often, replacement pilots for carrier squadrons would sit for weeks waiting for a carrier to return from a campaign. A carrier making strikes on targets and losing a couple aircraft and pilots per strike could find itself out of both in a matter of weeks. A significant problem with keeping the carriers in operation was not fuel, bullets, and bombs, but replacing aircrews and aircraft in a timely manner.
Meanwhile, as the number of U.S. submarines increased, the losses in shipping to the Japanese mounted to the point where submarines had a shortage of targets to launch their torpedoes at. U.S. subs were then tasked with assisting Army Air Corps bombers on their long over-water raids to distant islands, where being just half a degree off on your bearing would mean missing the target by miles. Navy subs surfaced along the route and served as radio navigation way-points for the B-17s, B-24s and later B-29s striking at targets all over the theater. It was from this mission that The Lifeguard League was born.
For many pilots, flying off carriers and striking Japanese held islands and bases seemed like a one-way suicide mission. Getting hit over the target meant bailing out, being captured — and most likely executed by the Japanese — or coming down in the water and dying from exposure and the sharks. For the pilots and aircrews on these missions, it would be a big morale booster to know there was some chance of rescue and recovery. The first two missions where Life Guard League subs were used were carrier raids on the Marcus Islands and Tawara, in September 1943. Two submarines, the Steelhead and the Snook, were on station to do search and rescue for downed pilots. In their mission briefings, the pilots were given radio frequencies, general location and bearing information from the targets to these lifeguard subs, and told to make for them if hit, and try to ditch close to them for pick up. In these raids, no aircraft were lost over the target, and they were unused. This almost scuttled the program. The primary mission of Navy subs was to hunt and sink surface vessels and this lifeguard duty was considered dangerous because the subs were surfaced during major air strikes and vulnerable to attack from the air by friendlies, as well as the enemy, and even risked being engaged by shore batteries if too close to shore.
As these missions continued new problems arose. It was hard for the subs to spot pilots in life rafts, and the new radar sets didn’t pick them up bobbing on the water. Planes hit over the target frequently lost their radios, and pilots could not communicate with the sub in the life raft. With these things in mind, the Navy began to develop radios, radar reflectors, signal devices, and other survival gear to give pilots a better chance at survival. The modern military and its survival equipment for aircrews has its genesis in these early efforts.
Some of the rescues were quite routine, others were harrowing tales of submarines driving in close to shore, grounding on reefs, under shell and machine-gun fire by the Japanese and threading their way through sea mines. Pilots were rescued with towlines swam out to them by sub crew members, and several were even rescued by submerged subs while they clung to the periscope for miles until the sub was out of the range of shore batteries and they could surface.
On the morning of September 2nd, 1944 the USS Finnback was on the surface, bobbing in the Pacific off the Bonin Islands, on lifeguard duty. The day before, she had rescued three airmen from a torpedo bomber crew that had gone down near the island of Tobiishi Bana after a strike on Iwo Jima. Today, the Navy was launching a strike on Chichijima Island, and the radar operators watched the strike head in towards the target. Not long after the strike reached the island, the Finnback was contacted by two Hellcat fighters which alerted them that another torpedo plane had been downed off the northwest tip of the island, and that they were circling the location to aid the sub in locating the crew, and driving off Japanese boats that had come out to capture him. The Finnback went to flank speed and hurried to the location, which was some two hours distant.
When the Finnback arrived on the scene, about seven miles off the island, they found only Lt(jg) George Bush in a single life raft. He had been furiously paddling away from the island since being downed. He was near exhausted, bleeding from a head wound, had vomited, and was distraught over the loss of his craft and crew. Upon being fished from his raft by Finnback sailors, Bush was said to have remarked only, “Happy to be aboard.” Bush explained that he had ordered his crew to bail out and had slowed and rolled the aircraft to one side to assist them in doing so as he fought to get his burning Grumman Avenger out over the sea. The Finnback searched in vain for the rest of his crew for about thirty minutes, but Ted White and John Delany we never found. The Finnback then broke off to rescue another downed airman, under fire and so close to shore that the sub made a submerged rescue, dragging the pilot out to sea while he clung to the periscope. With five airmen now aboard, the Finnback returned to her patrol and sank two vessels, were attacked by depth charges and finally returned to Midway on September 29th. Bush had been aboard twenty-nine days and stood watches as a junior Officer of the Deck.
By war’s end, upwards of 2,400 people owed their lives to being rescued by a submarine. Among those saved were 523 Allied pilots, aviators, and aircrews from all services and nations. Records showed that eighty-eight U.S. subs made a total of one hundred and four war patrols in which air-sea rescue played a part. For the Navy, this meant the recovery of two-hundred and forty-one pilots — more than enough to man the air groups of two aircraft carriers.
An argument could be made that the Lifeguard League was a waste of resources that could have been better used sinking enemy vessels. It could also be reasonably argued that risking a submarine and its crew of some eighty officers and men for single pilots was putting a lot at risk for a limited return. But there can be no doubt that those who owed their lives to being plucked from enemy waters by a submarine were infinitely grateful. On a cold January day in 1989, George Herbert Walker Bush was inaugurated as the 41st President of the United States. And in the fashion of Jimmy Carter, presidents now walked at least part of the way, one and a half miles from the Capitol to the White House. Marching with him that day were the remaining men and officers of the Finnback who were on that 10th patrol. They could have no doubt about the gratitude the president felt towards them.