On September 16, 1944, occurred one of the most thrilling and spectacular air-sea rescue operations of World War II. On this day, Task Force 78’s escort carriers repeated their dawn fighter sweep over the airfields and installations on Halmahera, an island northeast of the Netherlands New Guinea “bird’s beak.” While making a strafing run on enemy barges near the east shore of Wasille Bay, a well-defended cove on the northeastern arm of Halmahera near the Lolbata airfield, Ensign Harold A. Thompson from the escort carrier Santee was hit by anti-aircraft fire. In the space of seconds the young pilot was hurtled into mid-air as his fighter plane disintegrated. Pulling his rip cord, Thompson descended in a moderate breeze, splashing the water about 300 yeards offshore. On surfacing he felt the pain of an open wound in his left hand, badly torn by shrapnel. Unfastening his parachute and sliding beneath the shroud straps, he tried to inflate his life belt; but the belt was also hit by flying steel and only half inflated, rolling him over on his side, bobbing him in the green water.
Meanwhile his flight mates made repeated passes at the Japanese gun positions, which were within easy range of him, and radioed their ship for aid.
A Catalina Dumbo rescue plane soon arrived and, after several attempts, found it could not land so close to the shore in the face of the intense anti-aircraft fire. Swooping down near Thompson the pilot dropped a life raft near the spot where he was floating on his damaged preserver. Mustering all his strength, Thompson managed to inflate the raft and climb into it, but was unable to maneuver it because of the injured hand. The current carried him to the face of a nearby pier that jutted into the bay, and which afforded him some protection from beach fire. He was now very much aware of the seriousness of his position, and the throbbing in his head syncopated with the pinging in his stomach. Employing the first aid kit in the raft Thompson managed to check the flow of blood from his flesh-torn limb.
All this time circling fighters kept up a continuous strafing of the enemy gun positions. One fighter plane was shot down only about 150 yards from where Thompson took refuge, and carried its pilot into the bay with it. Another was hit by AA fire but managed to make a forced landing clear of the immediate area, where its pilot was picked up by a Catalina.
Thompson, meanwhile, worked his way to an empty anchored Japanese barge a little offshore and tied up to the anchor chain. His injured hand was so numb that all he could do was to remain as unexposed as possible, and watch the maneuvering aircraft.
Running reports of these events were filtering through the maze of radio circuits on Admiral Daniel E. Barbey’s flagship Wasatch at Morotai. At ten o’clock four squadrons of PT boats led by flagship Oyster Bay arrived at Morotai. Captain Selman S. Bowling, Commander Motor Torpedo Boats, Seventh Fleet, had been scheduled to arrive the following day, but anxious to get his PTs into new operating waters, had arrived a day early.
Admiral Barbey, Commander Amphibious Force, Seventh Fleet, quickly summoned the PT Commander to his flagship, where during a hurried conference arrangements were made for a coordinated attempt to rescue Ensign Thompson with PT boats. Although the PT skippers had considerable experience at working with 5th Army Air Force and Australian planes in this type of work, this was the first time they had a chance to work with the Navy’s carrier planes. Special fighter cover for the PTs, a squadron of rocket-equipped dive bombers, and a flight of smoker-equipped planes were arranged with Admiral Thomas L. Sprague’s escort carrier force to cover and protect the PTs in the rescue attempt.
Commander PT Squadron 33 boarded PT-363 and accompanied by PT-489 set out from Morotai at 1350 for Wasille Bay to rescue Thompson.
As the boats were approaching the narrowest part of Kaoe Bay, enemy batteries from both sides took them under heavy fire, and they were forced to withdraw temporarily. The covering fighters then heavily strafed all the Japanese gun positions covering the bay entrance. Radio communication between the PTs and the covering planes was established, and about 1600 the boats returned to try another run through the narrows. They were again taken under heavy fire from the shore by guns of up to 4.7-inch caliber, and the PTs avoided being hit by means of radical evasive measures.
The Japanese gunners were getting another lesson on the importance of Man. This rescue now involved more than fifty aircraft, two PT boats, and the personal attention, direction, and coordination of the top commanders in the amphibious operation then in progress. Here was a magnificent example of the American spirit at work in the war.
The PTs called on the planes for a smoke screen. From about 100 feet altitude, one of the planes laid a screen about 200 feet offshore, blanking out the closest gun’s sight "of the PTs. With smoker planes successively blanketing these heavy gun positions, the PTs made their way to Thompson’s life raft which had been marked by a smoke pot. At 1730 the PTs worked in to the life raft and PT-363 recovered the injured pilot while PT-489 stood by 25 yards off to cover and support the rescue. Their retirement was made by the same process of blinding gun positions with the smoke and covering planes strafing those positions with rockets. On the way out the PTs found a target of opportunity, a camouflaged lugger near the shore, and continued on their way after setting it on fire, spraying the hull with their .50 caliber guns.
PT skippers of the Seventh Fleet were old hands at picking up downed aviators and taking on enemy shore batteries. In this case they were called upon to enter a heavily defended pocket in daylight, recover a man within point blank range of several large caliber enemy guns, and make their escape to safety. That it was done successfully is a tribute to the gallantry, boldness and courage of the PT boat skippers. It is all the more remarkable that it was done without either boat getting a scratch. It would have been impossible without the perfect coordination of the aircraft involved and the timely and accurate smoke screening. It was teamwork on a large scale.