Letter from Thomas Kline dated April 9, 1958, Honolulu, T.H.
Iím Tom Kline, who was rescued by Bob in the air crash on December 23. First I would like to offer my sincere apology for not writing sooner. I was released from the hospital three weeks ago and am now just getting back to work. I donít have full use of one of my arms yet so writing is still somewhat of a chore. Also, I wanted to check over all the facts with the other survivors plus reviewing our statements which were recorded the day after the accident before writing you.
I knew Bob quite well as his duties concerned radar and I was the officer in charge of radar on the plane. He was the best and most reliable man on the radar crew, so as a result he was called on to do more than his share of work. Whenever we had a real important exercise, I used him for the most critical work. He was more or less the leader of the other enlisted men on the crew. He was one of the finest men I have ever known and also, as I found out in December, the bravest.
At the time of the crash, Bob and I were the only ones working at the radar scopes. Our regular training hop had been finished and we were on our way into Barbers Point. We were running a simulated search pattern as practice for the pilot and Bob and myself were furnishing course and speed information from the radar for the pilot. The pilot called me by intercom and said he was descending to get below some clouds. He also said we were having a practice fire drill and to check the baggage hold for smoke. I sent Bob back to check the rear hold and a couple minutes later without warning, we crashed. He must have been standing by the baggage hold when we hit. Nobody had any warning even though there is a warning bell that is supposed to be rung by the pilot in case of an emergency.
The initial shock was terrific. The seat I was strapped in broke and landed on its side in the aisle with me still strapped in it. The radar console tipped over pinning me by one leg. The whole interior of this part of the plane was aflame due to the short circuiting of the radar gear. I could feel my leg burning and called for help. Suddenly out of all the smoke and flame came Bob. He immediately sensed what was wrong and pushed the console off me. (it weighs about 200 lbs.) Then he reached down and unstrapped my seat belt, which I was unable to reach. He handed me a life jacket he had in his hand and, seeing that I was able to help myself now, he disappeared. I believe he got out in the back end where the plane had broken in two and left an exit. I tried to go forward but was blocked by flame and so went out the same way.
About a half hour later in the water, I came across Bob again. He and three others (Price, Rush and Henry) were hanging on a water soaked mattress which soon disintegrated. Bob was very badly burned about the face and complained that he could not see out of his left eye. The waves were so high that the only way we could stay together was by hanging on the mattress. Rush slid off the mattress and although he was only about 20 feet away, neither Henry nor myself could get to him. He died a few minutes later.
When the mattress sunk, I grabbed hold of Bob, who was by this time very weak and held him up for about five hours. (He was wearing a life jacket.) Two hours after the crash, I sighted a plane in the distance and both Henry and I lit a flare provided in our life jackets. The plane saw it, came over, and from that time on, we had aircraft over us at all times. They dropped two rafts, but it was dark and we didnít see them. After five hours, Bob wouldnít let me hold him anymore. He said he could do better alone and started fighting to get loose from me. I could do nothing but let him go as I was badly burned myself with one arm useless and couldnít struggle with him as weak as I was. Henry and I held on to each other and Bob and Price were soon separated from us by the waves. Henry and I were picked up three hours later by the ship. The only way they found us was by hearing us blow our police whistles, also provided on the life jacket.
This part is told to me by Dick Rentschler, also one of the survivors: Rentschler was in the water by himself and the only one without a lifejacket. About an hour before he was picked up, he saw the lights of the oncoming ship. At this same time, Bob and Price drifted up to him. Price had on two jackets (I had given him one I picked up in the water at the mattress and given him as he was a poor swimmer.) Rentschler grabbed both of them (Clark and Price) and told them he could see the ship coming. He then realized Price was dead but Bob was still alive. Bob was coughing badly due I think to all the sea water he had swallowed. He fought Rentschler just as he fought me saying that he wanted to be alone. I believe at this time Bob was delirious and didnít realize what Rentschler was telling him. He broke away from Rentschler and was never seen again. Rentschler was picked up a half hour later still holding the dead body of Price.
That is the whole story of Bob in the accident. He died a real heroís death and all his relatives and friends have good reason to be extremely proud of him.
In your previous letter you asked some specific questions which I shall try to answer.
Bob was wearing an inflated life jacket. The survivors did not see Bob actually die and he was conscious when last seen. I believe Bob died of drowning. The bodies of Price and Rush were examined and drowning was found as the cause of death. They were also both burned. The shark bites on their bodies were found to have occurred after death.
As for Bob not being picked up, I believe it was due to the fact that it was so dark that nothing could be seen and we were all spread over a wide area. We four survivors used our police whistles to guide the ship to us Rentschler had Priceís body so that is how they recovered him. As far as Rush, I think it was just an accident they found his body. The ship just happened to come up to the exact spot where he was. By the time morning came when they could see, the sharks had done their work and no bodies were left.
Due to shock none of us were in any pain and Bob never complained of any. The sharks only attacked the people already dead. We were in the water 8 hours before rescue. It was two hours after the crash before they knew where we were and due to such rough seas, it took six hours for the ship to get there.
I have been saving the good news 'til last. Bob
is being awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for saving my life.
It is one of the highest awarded in peacetime. A witness report from
Henry, who is now out of the service in Kankakee, Ill., is needed for it
so I donít know when it will be awarded. The legal officer tells
me it will be presented to next of kin by the Naval Officer in Charge of
ROTC at Purdue University. He certainly earned it at the expense
of his life.
Thomas J. Kline