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Mercy Flight Ends in Death
July 15, 1939
By Ken Freeze


By the late Thirties, rescues at sea using amphibious aircraft had almost become routine. To meet the need for a flying boat with the range and capacity needed by the Coast Guard, the service ordered seven Hall PH-2s in 1936. Its bi-plane wings spanned just over 72-feet and, at an overall length of nearly 52 feet, it was the largest flying boat ever built for the Coast Guard up to that time. Capable of carrying 20 passengers and a five member crew, its range of 2,000 miles and a very slow landing speed of 60 mph made it ideal for long patrols and landings at sea.

The Hall PH-2 (and later on, the PH-3) was fitted with all the latest technology of its day. From redundant two-way radios, radio direction finder, directional gyros, exhaust gas analyzers and even an internal intercom system. The plane also carried a loud speaker system capable of being heard by those below for up to a mile. It was used to pass instructions to those boats in distress or to others needing assistance.

Call for Assistance

On the morning of July 15, 1939, the Marine Hospital on Staten Island, New York, received a distress call. The captain of the research ketch Atlantis, belonging to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, was reporting that a crewmember was ill with pneumonia. At the time the Atlantis was 150 miles southeast or New York City off the New Jersey coast. Doctors at the hospital determined that is was necessary to get the crewman to shore as quickly as possible in order to save his life.

Two hours after the initial distress call, around 10 a.m., Coast Guard aircraft V164, a Hall PH-2 flying boat, took to the air from the Coast Guard Air Station at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn. On board the craft was Lt. William L. Clemmer, AP1 John Radan, Jr, as the navigator pilot, Russell D. Hayes, a yeoman, Frank L. Evers, the radio operator, Carl Simon, mechanic, Charles R. Whelan, mechanic and Walter B. Salter, mechanic.

Around noon, the aircraft arrived on scene. However, the weather was very severe with thunderstorm squalls and a cross swell on the sea, a dangerous combination for either landing or taking off. In spite of the bad conditions, the aircraft was able to make a safe landing. A small boat from the Atlantis brought the ailing seaman, George T. Priest, 36, of Boston, out to the seaplane where he was quickly transferred aboard.

Priest has been in real estate in Boston, and signed up as a crewman aboard the Atlantis to recuperate from ill health. He had never been to sea before.

As the seaplane was making its take-off run, disaster struck and the plane crashed back into the sea.

Captain Frederick S. McMurray of the ketch Atlantis reported that a terrific explosion had ripped through plane just before it crashed.

A whale boat from the Atlantis rushed to the site of where the wrecked plane was still floating. Crewman from the Atlantis were able to free five people from the wreckage, however, it sank before Clemmer, Radan and Priest could be freed from the debris. Their bodies were never recovered.

In the meantime two other Coast Guard aircraft arrived to assist, however Captain McMurray warned them not to attempt to land and they didn’t.

The survivors were later transferred to the Coast Guard Cutter Campbell and they were rushed back to New York and taken to Marine Hospital at Stapleton Staten Island. Evers received fractured ribs and pelvis while Hayes suffered a fractured back.

Two days later, on the 17th, a board of inquiry convened to determine the cause of the crash. In spite of the eyewitness accounts of an explosion just seconds before the crash, the board concluded that the crash had been caused when the V164 had struck a long swell moments after lifting off the water causing it to plunge back into the sea.

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