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William Lowrey

John McCants

U.S. Navy

Distinguished Flying Cross

San Diego, California

May 15, 1941

What the Navy would call “one of the most brilliant and daring rescues” in the history of the service occurred not in war but seven months before the attack on Pearl Harbor—and in the skies over San Diego.

On May 15, 1941, Marine 2nd Lt. Walter S. Osipoff was finishing up a practice parachute drop over Kearny Mesa. As jumpmaster he had sent 11 enlisted men and a cargo pack through the hatch of the Douglas R2D-1 transport and was preparing to dump another cargo pack of rifles and ammunition and step out himself.

That’s when things went wrong.

As Osipoff pushed the 150-pound container out of the aircraft, his parachute rip cord entangled with the rip cord of the cargo pack. His parachute opened and yanked him from the airplane, the chute’s canopy and suspension lines tangling in earlier jumpers’ lines streaming beside the transport. For a moment the cargo pack, Osipoff and his fouled parachute all hung from the cable that held the static lines. Then one end of the cable tore free, the cargo pack fell away, and Osipoff remained dangling 100 feet behind the transport and 800 feet off the ground, held only by the leg straps of his harness.

Head down, trapped in a web of lines, cable and silk, Osipoff twirled helplessly in the slipstream. He folded his arms and closed his eyes against the wind. A cargo hatch handle had ripped open his left arm and shoulder, and the shroud lines lacerated his exposed skin.

The crew tried to haul in Osipoff but couldn’t overcome the drag of the Marine’s body. Captain Harold Johnson, the pilot of the R2D-1, fought to keep the plane’s nose up. Unable to get Osipoff on board or land with him hanging out the back, Johnson circled, flying as slowly as he dared as his fuel rapidly dwindled. He couldn’t call for help, as the transport had no radio.

As the R2D-1 passed over the naval air station on North Island, Lieutenant William Lowrey realized what was happening and ordered Aviation Chief Machinist’s Mate John McCants to fuel up a Curtiss SOC-1 Seagull biplane. He then phoned the control tower (the SOC also lacked a radio) and, racing to his aircraft, took off with McCants in the rear cockpit. Pacing the R2D-1, Lowrey maneuvered the Seagull up beneath Osipoff, but twice the wind dragged the Marine across the biplane’s wing.

Pulling up, Lowrey flew alongside the transport and signaled Johnson to try climbing to calmer air. With a nervous eye on his fuel indicator, Johnson let the nose come up again.

“We could see that he [Osipoff] was in pretty bad shape,” recalled McCants, “because there was blood dripping off the helmet.”

At 3,000 feet Lowrey tried another pass as McCants stood in the rear cockpit. Working the biplane up, Lowrey got close enough for McCants to grab the Marine. But Osipoff remained enmeshed in the lines, and McCants was unable get him into the small rear cockpit. So Osipoff lay on top of the fuselage with a death grip on McCants.

As McCants worked desperately to cut the lines before the planes drifted apart, a wind gust bucked the Seagull, its propeller chopping nearly a foot off the transport’s tail cone fairing. It turned out to be a piece of luck. When the biplane’s nose came up, Osipoff’s tangled lines drooped across its upper wing, and the propeller neatly severed them.

Though his plane was encumbered with shroud lines, a fouled rudder and the weight of an extra passenger, Lowrey was nonetheless able to bring in the Seagull for a safe landing at North Island.

Osipoff had endured 33 minutes of twirling helplessly in a 110 mph wind and had suffered severe cuts and bruises and a fractured vertebra. He spent three months in a body cast but eventually recovered and returned to jump status. By war’s end he had served in the Pacific, been awarded a Bronze Star and reached the rank of lieutenant colonel.

Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox presented both Lowrey and McCants with the Distinguished Flying Cross in recognition of their high-flying rescue.


Originally published in the January 2013 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.