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Air Station Salem Armed Forces Day Crash
May 18, 1957
By Ken Freeze, PACS, USCG (ret)

U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Salem, circa 1938.  The station was originally commissioned in February, 1935 and remained in service until the fall of 1970.

President Harry S. Truman led the effort to create a single day for citizens to come together and thank military members for their patriotic service in support of the country. In the time before the establishment of Armed Forces Day, separate Army, Navy, Marines Corp and Air Force Days were celebrated around the country. The concept of a single-day celebration stemmed from the unification of the Armed Forces under one department after World War II -- the Department of Defense.

On February 27, 1950 President Truman signed a Presidential Proclamation proclaiming that the third Saturday of May each year would be Armed Forces Day.

Seven years later, the people of Salem, Mass gathered for what had by then become an annual event, however on this day, tragedy would strike, taking the lives of two Coast Guard airmen.

Coast Guard Air Station Salem, Mass., had been originally commissioned in February 1935. Then on October 21, 1944 it was designated as the first U.S. Air-Sea Rescue service on the eastern seaboard. The lack of a runway at Coast Guard Air Station Salem necessitated the establishment in 1950 of Coast Guard Air Detachment Quonset Point, Rhode Island as a sub unit of Air Station Salem.

It was a beautiful sunny spring day in Salem and over a 1,000 people had gathered around Salem Harbor to see the Armed Forces Day activities. One of the featured events of the day was to be the Jet Assisted Takeoff (JATO) for one of Air Station Salem's UF-1Gs.

JATO bottles, still in use today by the military, are small solid propellant rocket motors, mounted on the side of an aircraft in multiples. On the UF-1G, JATOs were mounted near the rear, two on each side. A JATO launch allows an aircraft to take off on a short runway with a heavy load, or in the case of an amphibious aircraft, allows them to get in the air faster in rough seas.

Don Decker, a Seaman First Class at the time, was there that Saturday and remembers, "I had Liberty that day but I stayed aboard the Air Station to see all the pretty girls that might have come to the open house."

Among the activities planned that day was a helicopter hoist demonstrated with one of the stationís new Sikorsky HO4S helicopter.

As was usual, prior to one of the stations UF-1G doing a water take-off, the stationís 30 Foot "crash boat" swept the channel to make sure nothing was in the way, clearing any obstacles for the aircraft to get airborne.

The UF-1G (No. 1278) water taxied into position and began its take off run. Each JATO bottle provided 1,000 pounds of thrust for 14 seconds. As the pilot applies full engine power and the aircraft begins its take off run, the JATO is electrically fired and 4000 extra pounds of thrust help lift the aircraft out of the water and into the air. Itís magnificent to see and itís a method that has helped many military aircraft get safely into the air when then might not have been able to otherwise. But on this day something went wrong.

"When the crash occurred I was in the barracks Recreation Room. I did not see the crash," says Decker, "But, from what I understand, hardly anyone actually saw the plane hit the water because it was behind the old Fort Pickering Lighthouse mostly out of view from the base."

One person who had a front row seat to the accident was then LT Robert Carlston, who was the co-pilot aboard the UF-1G. Also on board for that day were the pilot LCDR Albert P. Hartt, Jr., Aviation Radioman Henry Hagermiester, Aviation Ordnanceman William J. Tarker, Jr., Aviation Ordnanceman Robert W. Allen and Aviation Ordnanceman John J. MaCala

"We had been practicing the JATO take off for the Armed Forcesí Day demonstration the week before, but we had been using only two JATO bottles instead of the usual four."

"On the day of the event, we talked it over and planned how were would coordinate our actions during the take off," said Carlston. "Part of that was that after LCDR Hartt fired the first two JATO bottles, Iíd reach up and flip the switch to arm the second set for firing. Apparently LCDR Hartt was still pressing the JATO button on the yoke, for when I flipped the switch to armed the second set,  they immediately fired."

According to Carlston, at that point LCDR Hartt pulled back hard on the yoke. "We didnít have enough speed when Hartt pulled back and as a result the plane went up about 100-feet, started to shutter, then stalled. The plane did about two thirds of a spin before it hit the water. The left wing hit first and there was enough rotational force on the plane to cause the nose to rip off."

As the nose ripped from the aircraft, Carlston and Hagermiester were thrown from the aircraft into the water, still strapped to their seats. "We sank to the bottom of the bay, a depth of about 30 feet. We both had to release our safety belts and try to swim to the surface," said Carlston.

The UF-1G had hit the water hard, ripping it almost in half and killing two. When it came to rest, the tail section was sticking out of the water. Dead were Hartt and Tarker, while Carlston and Hagermiester were seriously injured. Two other crewman, Allen and MaCala received only minor injuries.

In a matter of seconds, what was a day of celebration, had turned to tragedy, and had become perhaps the darkest day in the history of Air Station Salem.

When the accident began its deadly evolution, most were unaware that the take-off was not going as planned. "I understand that some of the crowd (visitors) actually cheered when the plane made the left bank turn, not knowing it was not part of the show," said Decker.

"Our small lifeboat was on the dock and several of the guys on the base tried to get it in the water for rescue," said Decker. "However, the battery was dead and wouldn't start. I took the battery out of my car and took it to the boat and just after we got the boat started one officer told us to belay that and told us there were too many boats in the area already. He told us to just assist taking injured or dead plane crew from the boats bringing them to the boat dock." Decker and his crewmates waited at the dock.

Decker said, "I also remember some of the hangar crew rebuilt Tarker's old Chevy to give to his widow who lived out of town (Michigan if I remember correctly). They spent their off duty hours putting new interior and painted the exterior. Really did an excellent job fixing it up. A really nice gesture I think."

With the development of the HH-52A, an amphibious helicopter, the need for a fixed-wing amphibian was passing. Air stations having only water landing capabilities, such as Salem, were becoming obsolete. In 1970, Air Station Salem, without any runways, was finally decommissioned and operations were moved to the new Coast Guard Air Station at Cape Cod.

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