“If you went to Hong Kong, you went right by the Pratas Reef, where I crashed the H-2 trying to rescue some Chinese crewmen from an ore carrier, the August Moon, that had run aground in a typhoon.”
This was the unexpected reply I received from my father’s cousin Dale Barck after I sent him a postcard during a port call to Hong Kong in 1997. Dale was a great correspondent, sending me letters filled with sea stories from his days in the Navy, including the fateful events of his deployment on board the aircraft carrier USS Oriskany (CVA-34) in 1966.
Dale Barck was born in Iowa in 1928, and his family moved to Vancouver, Washington, in the early 1940s in search of work supporting the war effort. As a teenager, he earned his welding certificate and worked in a shipyard alongside his father and siblings. During that time he took flying lessons from a former Women Airforce Service Pilot (WASP). Bitten by the flying bug, as a college student he joined the Navy under the Flying Midshipman program and ended up flying PBM Mariner flying boats, later transitioning to helicopters.
In 1966, Lieutenant Commander Barck received orders to Helicopter Combat Support Squadron (HC) One, nicknamed "the Pacific Fleet Angels," to serve as officer-in-charge of the squadron’s detachment on board the Oriskany. The ship’s WestPac/Vietnam deployment had already begun when he came aboard to take charge of the detachment of 8 aviators, 29 enlisted men, and 3 UH-2A/B Seasprite helicopters.
That September, the Oriskany was conducting strike operations from Yankee Station. On the morning of 16 September 1966, the ship was en route to a port call in Hong Kong when a distress call came through on the radio. Typhoon Elsie had forced the British ore carrier SS August Moon—a 10,000-ton ship with a crew of 44 men—aground on Pratas Reef, an atoll in the South China Sea 175 miles southeast of Hong Kong. The ship was in danger of breaking up on the reef in the heavy seas. Two other ships nearby, the Royal Navy frigate HMS Loch Fada and the Japanese oil tanker Tokyo Maru, were standing by to assist but were unable to attempt the rescue using their lifeboats because of the heavy seas. The Oriskany quickly proceeded toward the stricken vessel and launched two of HC-1’s three helicopters in an attempt to rescue the August Moon’s crew. Dale and two squadronmates, copilot Ensign Daniel Kern and crew chief Petty Officer William Thoday, launched in the third helicopter about an hour later.
When they arrived on scene, they found the August Moon hard aground on the reef with waves crashing against the ship. Members of the ship’s crew were gathered at the stern awaiting rescue, and Dale put his H-2 in a hover to begin winching survivors aboard. What happened next came as a shock. As Dale wrote in a letter to me,
I could see the stern was wet from spray, so I hovered about  feet up, had the copilot keep his finger on the wiper switch, all very cautious, but a plume of spray hit the side of the ship, bounced straight up, and put the fire out in our little T-58 engine instantly! Lucky we hadn’t picked up anyone yet. We went straight down, in a terrific surf, and all got flushed out.
The event ended up as front-page news in Hong Kong and throughout the United States, with headlines including, “Crewmen Live to Tell It: 65-Foot Wave Belts Copter.”
The Associated Press quoted Dale as saying: “We drop like a rock—at that height you can’t glide or windmill down. There’s two bumps, a light one when we hit the water and two seconds later another that almost knocks our teeth out when we hit the rock bottom 20 feet below the waves.”
The same story quoted his copilot Ensign Kern: “The surf is pounding the [helicopter] to pieces. It’s rolling the [helicopter] like a plaything. I think I got out on my side on the first roll. The commander either came out right behind me or went out the other side on the next roll. Neither of us are sure just how we got out.”
Petty Officer Thoday told reporters he “bobbed out like a cork” from the helicopter’s main door, and the three crew members swam to the surface. Dale would later tell me, “It was just like the helo dunker!”, referring to the helicopter training device that all naval aviators have to practice escaping from underwater.
Dale’s letter continued:
By this time, the second and third H-2 were on the scene, [and] picked us up after we bounced into the calmer lagoon behind the reef. Then, as the storm surf was subsiding after the recently departed storm, they picked up the 44 Chinese safely. I lost my flight deck shoes, my personal .45 Colt, [and] my lovely Leica camera! I was black and blue in my armpits from the understrap of the life jacket, when the surf was trying to get it off me!
All 44 of the August Moon’s crew members, plus Dale Barck and his crew, were rescued by his squadronmates flying the Pacific Fleet Angels’ remaining two helicopters, each of which could only seat three passengers at a time. Dale and his crew were taken back to the Oriskany. Some of the August Moon survivors were brought to the Loch Fada; others were taken to Pratas Island to await further transport. The ore carrier August Moon eventually broke apart completely on Pratas Reef.
Both the Oriskany and Loch Fada proceeded to Hong Kong. In port, the Loch Fada hosted a reception where Dale and his fellow crew members were feted as heroes. Dale was given a glass-bottomed Loch Fada tankard that remained a treasured keepsake for the rest of his life. He saw the irony in being celebrated for crashing a million-dollar aircraft. “Everybody loves a loser!” he would often joke.
Back home in San Diego the next day, Dale’s wife, Marina, was out grocery shopping with her mother, who was visiting from Germany. Her mother noticed Dale’s photo on the front page of a newspaper for sale, turned to Marina, and asked, “Isn't that your husband?” The Navy had neglected to notified her of the crash.