Veterans Day 2015: The Rescue Pilot

A framed photo of Emerson while training as a pilot aboard a U.S. Navy carrier during World War II.

A framed photo of Emerson while training as a pilot aboard a U.S. Navy carrier during World War II.

This is the second half of a two-part story. Read the first half here.

When we left off, Coast Guard Lt. Robert “Rip” Emerson was asking Adm. Chester W. Nimitz for appointment to fighter pilot school.

“Admiral Nimitz objected, because there weren’t any fighter pilots in the Coast Guard,” said Emerson’s son, Joe Emerson. “But my dad was kind of a fearless individual, and he just basically told the admiral that he had made him a promise and expected him to come through with his promise.”

So off fearless Emerson went, to pilot training at Naval Air Station Pensacola. He even landed an airplane on an aircraft carrier, a claim few Coast Guard pilots can make.


Coast Guard Aviator #491

The war, thankfully, was then winding down. The Coast Guard transferred back to the Treasury Department from the U.S. Navy, and Emerson found himself once again at sea; this time as commanding officer of the Coast Guard Cutter Sundew, on the Great Lakes.

It would seem, though, that he hadn’t had his fill of time in the cockpit. Only a year later and Emerson was headed back to Pensacola and Corpus Christi for Coast Guard aviation training. The next bit is a blur. He flew the myriad fixed-wing Navy hand-me-downs that the Coast Guard was modifying for search and rescue.

Coast Guard aviation school

Emerson stands next to a training aircraft during Coast Guard aviation school in Corpus Christi, Texas.

“I think one of the first planes that he flew as a rescue pilot was a B-17 bomber which had been converted for search and rescue,” said Joe. “Instead of dropping bombs, they would drop boats and liferafts. I remember him telling me that the B-17 was one of his favorite planes to fly.”

On Feb. 22, 1947, he became Coast Guard Aviator #491, and four months later he married the woman who’d be at his side for the rest of this adventure, a nurse who worked in Pensacola named Marcelle Champagne. Their first assignment as a Coast Guard aviation family was California, where Emerson would safeguard mariners along the sprawling Pacific coast. One of his first recorded rescue flights earned him the Coast Guard Commandant’s Letter of Commendation.

In November of 1948, Emerson was the co-pilot on a seaplane launched to search for survivors of a capsized fishing vessel. The aircrew flew approximately 500 miles before they arrived on scene. The weather wasn’t cooperating. The crew searched almost blindly for the imperiled mariners. After some time, they spotted an oil slick; a sure sign of a recent sinking. With a surgeon’s precision they dropped liferafts and emergency lighting to the men in the water, and a nearby good Samaritan came in for the rescue.

“He did a lot of deep sea rescues,” Joe said. “He was a really good navigator, he loved to navigate throughout his whole life, even after he got out of the Coast Guard when he was a fisherman.”

We’ll get to the fisherman bit later.

With no landmarks, no modern luxuries, like GPS, and a storm determined to take the fishing vessel’s crew down with their ship, it was navigation that made seconds count. The rescue may have been heroic enough to gain the attention of Emerson’s superior officers, but the act seems rather tame next to some of the tricks he had up his sleeve.


For Meritorious Achievement While Participating in Aerial Flight

At this point, he began adding a new type of aircraft to his repertoire: Igor Sikorsky’s helicopter (Sikorsky didn’t invent the machine, but certainly made it practical).

It’s hard to call a man with a Silver Star Medal a rookie, but Emerson technically was in this case (as was every search and rescue helicopter pilot at the time). A fishing boat was capsizing and the new guy was on duty, as it goes. He took off in one of Air Station San Francisco’s HO3S-1 Dragonfly helicopters, headed for the crashing surf of a nearby beach. The scene was desperate, and the front page of the Feb. 23, 1953 San Francisco Examiner tells it best:

“Two men were drowned off Ocean Beach yesterday when they were thrown into a raging sea from a wave-splintered boat, but five of their companions were pulled from the hungry waters by the crew of a Coast Guard helicopter, who narrowly missed death themselves.”

Emerson and just one other crewmember – Petty Officer 1st Class Jack Halsey – first pulled four of the drowning men from the water, then returned for the fifth, and then returned once more to search for the other two.

In an aircraft still in its infancy, Emerson pushed the machine to its limits with weight and minimal height above a thrashing sea. There aren’t quite words for the feat, but the crowd it drew speaks volumes.

“The rescue effort brought what police call the greatest traffic jam in the history of the Great Highway,” reported the Examiner. “While thousands watched from the beach in the late afternoon, the helicopter lifted Rose, Nichols, Bastian and Follett from the wind-whipped waves, and fluttered in to deposit them on the shore.”

Air Medal Rescue

Emerson’s heroic rescue made the front page of the San Francisco Examiner.

If you’re keeping track, that wasn’t the first time Emerson’s actions were referred to in a nationally recognized news outlet, and it wouldn’t be the last, either.

For a rescue that constitutes the rare, literal use of the word awesome, Emerson earned the Coast Guard Air Medal, “for meritorious achievement while participating in aerial flight.” The citation was signed by Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Merlin O’Neil, formerly Emerson’s commanding officer aboard the USS Leonard Wood when he was waving landing craft onto some of the war’s most infamous beaches.

Before leaving California a few years later, Emerson found the time to, indirectly, assist in one more war. The crew of the USS Manchester, recently returned from combat operations in the Korean War across the Pacific Ocean, was keeping busy with exercises in nearby Monterey Bay. In an unforeseeable turn of events, the Manchester took a set of waves large enough to cause grave injury to some of the crew. The Coast Guard was called in to bring one of the wounded to shore. In seas large enough to cause such a ruckus aboard a 610-foot U.S. Navy cruiser, Emerson hovered in to save a life.

“There wasn’t any place to really to do a hoist, and he had to maneuver the helicopter right down within some of the rigging of this cruiser. When he got back and the details of this rescue came out, he was reprimanded by his commanding officer. The captain of the cruiser found out about this and contacted my dad’s commanding officer and said, ‘Hey buddy, this guy came in here and saved my crewmember’s life, he ain’t getting no reprimand for that.”


The Boss

It was only a matter of time before Emerson, now promoted to lieutenant commander, began to make his way into a leadership position. As the executive officer and part-time acting commander of near-tropical Coast Guard Air Detachment Bermuda, he had his chance to influence up-and-coming rescue aviators.

Helicopter tows fishing vessel

Emerson is featured in the Traverse City Record Eagle for using a helicopter to tow a fishing vessel out of the ice.

It was here in Bermuda that Joe, our helpful reference for his father’s life, was born. For Emerson it was a time to not only continue conducting the search and rescue missions he loved, but also to apply his love for navigation toward the budding world of SCUBA.

“He became an avid SCUBA diver,” said Joe. “He became pretty good at locating different wrecks because he was a helicopter pilot and could hover over these different wrecks and triangulate their position. On his time off, he had a small boat, and he would go out to these shipwrecks and dive on them.”

It wasn’t all fun in the sun, though. After a short stint in lovely Bermuda, the Coast Guard promoted Emerson to commander. He soon left for Air Station Traverse City, Mich., to become commanding officer in the summer of 1948.

In Michigan Emerson really lived the commanding officer life. In particular, he played a major role in the community. The Emerson family’s collection of news clippings has no shortage of good will stories: from the local Sea Scouts visiting, to community leaders recognizing Emerson’s crew for making a positive impact around town. However, if you think this meant he wasn’t finding time to push the limits from the cockpit, then you haven’t been paying attention.

In a 1961 issue of the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings magazine there’s a blurry photograph of a Sikorsky H04S-3G Chickasaw helicopter towing a fishing vessel out of suffocating Lake Michigan ice. The article doesn’t mention the name of the pilot, but if you cross-reference it to the news article they pulled the photo from, wouldn’t you know it’s Air Station Traverse City’s commanding officer, Cmdr. Robert Emerson, himself.

He used an early-model helicopter to tow a fishing tug “through fields of thick pancake ice.”


Kodiak’s Cold War

After Traverse City, Emerson and his family moved to Washington, D.C., where the Coast Guard took advantage of his aviation experience.

“I remember him always bringing home different models and different specifications for all kinds of helicopters,” said Joe. “That was the kind of thing that was laying around on the dining room table.”

That and helping out with the democratic system.

“When there were votes in Congress, he would be sent to extract senators and congressmen from various locations throughout the country to return them to D.C. for a special vote,” Joe added. “All in a Grumman Goose.”

After his short stint in the nation’s capital, Emerson was promoted to captain and sent to the Coast Guard’s most remote air station: Kodiak, Alaska. The family bought an Airstream trailer and drove the whole way; from the Beltway to the Last Frontier. After arriving in Seward, Emerson made history once again, though this time inadvertently.

“We got aboard an Alaskan ferry, the Tustumena, and it was its maiden voyage to Kodiak,” said Joe, remarking on the first ever Alaska Marine Highway System transit to Kodiak. “I don’t think we knew that. We were the people that had to drive off the ferry first, and there was a band and the whole city of Kodiak there.”

There’s no doubt that Emerson’s time in Kodiak was fraught with rescues of the nature that still occur at the air station to this day. However, it was probably his enforcement and national security role that stood out most from the tour.

The Cold War was a sensitive time for international politics, but the effect of encroaching Russian fishing vessels on the Alaska fishing fleet couldn’t be ignored. Emerson was in a position to do something about it. For this particular tale, we’ll turn to the front page of the Chicago Tribune, March 23, 1967:

“The Coast Guard reported today that cutter Storis had under tow a 178-foot Russian fishing vessel for violating the United States’ 12-mile exclusive fisheries zone off the Alaska peninsula,” the Associated Press story begins. “Capt. Robert Emerson, commander of the Coast Guard station at Kodiak, said the Russian skipper refused to follow the Storis to port so the vessel was taken under tow.”

Chicago Tribune

The front page of the Chicago Tribune boasts of Emerson’s aerial efforts to stop illegal fishing in the Kodiak area.

For historical context, this happened five years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, and a year before the USS Pueblo was captured by North Korea: the height of the Cold War. Specifically, Emerson’s air crews dropped messages written in Russian onto the deck of the vessel ordering them to halt, as they sped toward international water. Once captured, it was Emerson’s job to testify at length during the ensuing litigation.

“He didn’t really hold any grudges against the crew members,” said Joe. “He entertained them at our house and gave us a chance to find out what life in Russia was like.”

With international incidents behind him, Emerson next served at the 13th District in Seattle in the response department. Following that, he returned to Alaska and served as the 17th District chief of staff, or second-in-command, before retiring and “settling down” in Southeast Alaska.


A New Adventure

If it was there to be done, he did it. If there was an adventure to be had serving his country, he had it. From the bloody beaches of World War II, to harrowing at-sea rescues in every corner of the United States, Emerson was there for the people who needed him.

It would be hard to count the lives he directed safely to a beach under whizzing enemy bullets; the sailors he pulled from frigid, angry seas. It would be impossible to count the people who have him to thank for family that came home.

But he didn’t do it so we could thank him. At that pivotal moment of the Coast Guard’s transition back to the the Treasury Department from the U.S. Navy 25 years before Emerson retired, he faced a decision.

“After the war he had the option of staying in the Navy if he wanted to, and I asked him, ‘Why did you stay in the Coast Guard?’” Joe said, with a laugh. “And he said, ‘Well I wanted to do something useful. I didn’t want to sit around waiting for a war.”

He didn’t stop doing something useful after he left the Coast Guard. He found a fishing boat and got back to work, earning a living from some of the most treacherous fishing grounds in the world. That’s the reason his son is still in Juneau, able to talk to us. Joe followed his late father’s footsteps and now patrols Southeast Alaska’s waters for salmon; another member of the family attached to the sea.

Whether we’re blessed that Emerson’s passion happened to involve saving people or he’s blessed that his career of saving people happened to be his passion, it’s certain this Coast Guard veteran, who passed away in 2001, deserves our appreciation. That’s why we have Veteran’s Day.

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