The People News, a free newspaper serving Cleveland Tennessee (TN) and Bradley County Tennessee (Tn).

Of Bradley County Tn.

DECEMBER    2006

                            The People News, a free newspaper serving Cleveland and Bradley County Tn.






The Christmas Star of Hope

Bizarre, Fascinating, and Wacky World War I & ll Secrets.

by Cecil Owen

When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of Herod the King, behold, there came wise men from the East to Jerusalem, saying, where is He that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him. Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, inquired of them diligently what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, Go and search for the young child, when ye have found Him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship Him also. When they had heard the King, they departed, and to the star, which they saw in the East, went before them till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.

It is late December 24th (Christmas Eve) 1944, and the place is Finschafen United States Army Air Force Base. It is located on the Huon New Guinea Peninsula. A large U.S. Curtiss C-46 "Commando" cargo transport plane is warming up. The two 2,000HP Pratt and Whitney radial engines are "purring" like two powerful "cougars." The plane is filled to capacity with 26,000 lbs of cargo. First Lieutenant Thomas Hollis is pilot, and second Lieutenant Robbie Langstrom is co-pilot. The flight engineer is staff sergeant William Eichelberger, and the radioman is staff sergeant Warren Quinn. As they board the plane, Lt. Hollis remarks to Lt. Langstrom, "I am sure that this will be just another "milk run" (peaceful, smooth and very boring flight). For this was supposed to be a routine cargo transport flight to Biak Island Military Base and back.

Biak Island is a 45 square mile Island covered by a thick jungle. As it is just south of the

Cecil Owen

Equator, was full of bananas and coconuts. It was important to us because the Japanese had built three airfields there (Sorido Airfield, Borokoe Airfield, and Moker Airfield.) With it in their hands they could bomb New Guinea and even Australia. General McArthur figured we could capture Biak in just a few days. But the Japanese did not want to give up their airfields, so they held out for 64 days. (Over 5,000 of them were killed before they finally surrendered on July 29, 1944). Biak Island is 875 miles from Finschhafen, and 100 miles off the Northern coast of West New Guinea.

Promptly the pre-flight check was

completed and all instruments were "a-okay" (functioning perfectly). It was a beautiful starlit night as the C-46 Commando cruised along at 265 mph. But soon they flew into a violent and blinding thunderstorm. Lt. Hollis quickly climbed above the clouds in order to find calmer weather conditions. Suddenly, both engines began to sputter and all instruments began to act very strangely. "May Day, May Day," the radioman staff sergeant Quinn yelled into his microphone. (May Day is an international distress signal). Everyone knew they had to land the plane as quickly as possible. However, as they descend out of the clouds, there is nothing below... but part of the vast Pacific Ocean. So Lt. Hollis has no other choice, he must ditch the large cargo plane into the angry waves. "Prepare for a crash landing," shouted the flight engineer, and pray a little too." A terrific storm was in full process with thunder, lightening, wind, rain, and

huge ocean waves. And remember that the cargo plane was heavily loaded, so it "pancaked" in between the ocean swells. Coming to a dead stop, it settled in and began to sink rather quickly. The four airmen walked out onto the starboard wing, as they inflated two small yellow rubber life rafts. They just managed to "abandon ship" as

their C-46 cargo plane turned tail up. Then it sank swiftly into the raging storm tossed Pacific Ocean. Although Pacific is a Spanish word which mean 'peaceful,' many times it is far from being that.. As it is the largest body of water in the world, sometimes it has the largest storms in the world.

The high winds tossed the two little life rafts up and down, round and round, so everyone became very sea-sick. And the huge ocean swells soaked everyone, so they were wet clear down to their skins. The rafts were

equipped with Gibson "SOS" transmitters, but the airmen were afraid to turn them on as they were deep within enemy waters.

Much time was spent in prayer, for there was little else that they were capable of doing. Finally, they decided to turn on one radio transmitter and send out an "SOS" for maybe even being captured by the Japanese would be better than going to a watery grave. Dawn arrived, it had been a very rough and long night.

The foul weather continued unabatedly. Sergeant Quinn whispered through parched and cracked lips, "Merry Christmas.. This is Christmas Day." But somehow the four men just did not feel too merry. They were very cold, very wet, very hungry and very sea-sick, a very bad combination. And to make matters worse, they were also very, very lost in the South Pacific Ocean.

One by one the four airmen began to hallucinate. Their minds began to wander as they recalled Merry Christmas tides in the past. Family, friends and other loved ones began to parade past. Then rather rudely and suddenly they were jarred back into their present situation. The sound of a motor from a search plane was heard in the distance. They were exited as a red flare was shot into the air. But alas, the plane was too far away to see the flare. They watched helplessly as it disappeared in the distance over the horizon.

This turned their joy of being rescued into a deep depression. In fact, they almost gave up all hope of being rescued. But still the four men were taking turns by hand cranking the tiny SOS radio transmitter. Their SOS distress signal was continuously beamed over the air waves. And this is what finally saved them. Someone quoted Lamentations 3:26 "It is good that a man should both hope and quietly wait for the salvation of the Lord."

Although the four men did not know, help was on the way. In the form of the USS Hope, a U.S. Navy hospital. It was built to berth 469 casualties. The crew was U.S. Navy, while the hospital staff was U.S. Army Medical Corps. The USS Hope went to the Philippine war zone on September 27, 1944. And by the end of December, it had sailed more than 50,000 miles and evacuated 8,080 patients. Most of these were battle casualties from the deadly beachheads of Luzon and Leyte Island in the Philippines. The USS Hope had crossed the Equator 22 times. It was a very beautiful ocean liner, painted the same as all other hospital ships were. The Hope was a gleaming bright white, with a bright green stripe around the middle. On both sides of the smokestack, square amidships were two bright red crosses. The hospital ship was also illuminated and encircled with bright white floodlights. All other warships had to be blacked out. All hospital ships cruised with all lights ablaze. This was according to the Geneva Convention, it showed they were transporting war wounded. (This was supposed to guarantee safe passage, but at times the Japanese did attack even hospital ships.)

The USS Hope had just unloaded a group of allied casualties from the Philippine Islands. But without a layover to obtain a short rest, it hauled up the anchor and left New Guinea. It was early Christmas morning when the USS Hope put out to sea. The skipper commander A.E. Richards, was eager to return and pick up more of the wounded. Suddenly, the ship's radioman, Joseph Takacs, begins to pick up faint SOS signals.

The USS Hope is under orders to maintain radio silence. No messages are to be dispatched, whether coded or uncoded. Their range finder was trying to pinpoint the faint SOS signals. So, Captain Richards decided to break radio silence, to locate the signals. Just then another ship breaks radio silence, so together they are able to pinpoint the location. "Full speed ahead," the Hope's skipper shouts into the speaker to the engine room. "And all lookouts, be extra cautious, because we are in enemy waters."

Meanwhile, down in the mess hall, the chaplain is  conducting services to celebrate Christmas. And many miles away, four dreary airmen are rejoicing, because the raging storm has suddenly departed. The cool night air has become crystal clear and filled with millions of stars. They are fascinated at how  bright and beautiful the stars are, shining over the ocean. Lt. Hollis exclaims, "look at that one big bright star, down low on the horizon in the East." Sarg Eichelberger said, "it gets bigger and brighter all the time, like it is moving toward us." They kept watching in amazement, for the star was indeed getting bigger and brighter. And the star was indeed coming towards them, for the star was the USS Hope hospital ship, with all lights ablaze.

What a wonderful sight for the four airmen to behold. They were so weak, they had to be carried on board the "Starship." And out on the breeze this chorus was drifting ... Star of wonder, star of night, star with royal beauty bright, westward leading, still proceeding, guide us to thy perfect light.

Dear folks, no matter how dark your night may be, don't give up hope, just look for your star, for He is the bright and morning star .... Jesus.