At the start of World War II, the Army Air Forces created a number of liaison squadrons, equipped with Piper L-4s and Stinson L-5s flown by enlisted pilots who maintained their own planes. Originally the squadrons were intended to conduct “limited observation, transport, and miscellaneous air tasks.” Their operations soon extended far beyond that, limited only by the ingenuity and daring of the pilots and the capabilities of their light planes.
One of the most renowned units was the 25th Liaison Squadron in the southwest Pacific. Its pilots soon were acting as forward air controllers, attacking Japanese outposts with tommy guns, hand grenades, and gasoline-filled drop tanks and resupplying isolated friendly forces, but the 25th was most celebrated for its many search-and-rescue missions in jungle areas far behind enemy lines.
In early 1944, the 25th’s A Flight, dubbed “Guinea Short Lines,” was based at Gusap, New Guinea–a strip in the Ramu Valley encircled by jungle with mountain ranges to the north and south rising to 13,000 feet. On Feb. 15, a P-40 went down about 100 miles northwest of Gusap. Three A Flight L-5s took off immediately to locate the crash. One of them was flown by TSgt. Eugene Salternik, who was to land if possible and pick up the pilot.
The burning P-40 was sighted but not the pilot. Sergeant Salternik found an open field covered with Kunai grass about a mile away. Too late to pull up, he discovered that the tough grass was six to eight feet tall. It flipped his aircraft on its back, breaking the propeller. Uninjured and undaunted, Salternik started out on foot to find the pilot but was overtaken by darkness.
In the morning, L-5s from Gusap dropped supplies and equipment, along with a message to stay where he was. An Australian commando would be parachuted in to help with the rescue. The next day Lt. Hector Henstridge made a perfect jump from an L-5, his first ever. The day after that, Henstridge and Salternik found Lt. Nelson Flack, the P-40 pilot, hungry and lost but in good condition. The three men spent the next two days trying to prepare a strip for other L-5s that would fly them out. On Feb. 22, SSgt. James Nichols landed on the rough strip, but his L-5 was damaged beyond repair.
The 71st Reconnaissance Group at Nadzab decided no more planes and pilots could be risked. The four men, led by the jungle-trained Australian lieutenant, would walk out to meet an Australian patrol at a point some 35 miles distant. Henstridge estimated that, traveling through dense jungle, swamps, and over steep ridges, it would take eight days. Their rations for two days could be stretched to last for 10, Henstridge thought. Since Japanese patrols were known to be in the area, they should start at once.
For several days, supply planes from Gusap searched for the four men, whose signals were hidden by the rain forest canopy. The men, believed captured or killed, finally were declared missing in action, and the search was abandoned.
Hacking their way through jungle growth was exhausting work for undernourished men whose nights were spent fighting swarms of mosquitoes, other tropical insects, and leeches. Whenever possible, they followed streams, wading in water sometimes chest-deep. Then a stream would turn in the wrong direction, and they had to climb ridges so steep and narrow it was necessary to crawl, clinging to roots and vines. This sequence was repeated over and over as the men fought their way painfully through the dank, sunless rain forest.
On March 3, 10 days after leaving the crash site, their food ran out. From then on, they ate fish caught in the muddy streams, and nuts. Nightly rains often made it impossible to build a fire to dry their clothing. On those nights the fish were eaten raw. About that time their shoes, constantly wet, began to disintegrate. Raw, bleeding feet demanded frequent stops for rest. In their weakened condition, even gathering wood for a fire became a monumental task, but the men staggered on, a few hundred yards at a time.
Flack, Henstridge, Nichols, and Salternik were overtaken on March 10 by an Australian patrol that had been following Japanese troops who were searching for the four men. They were taken to an Australian patrol shelter and, two days later, flown to the hospital at Gusap. All had lost between 25 and 30 pounds and had contracted malaria, but all recovered.
Sergeants Salternik and Nichols were awarded the Silver Star for their part in saving the P-40 pilot. Such daring exploits had not been envisioned for the AAF’s liaison squadrons, but the airmen who flew those small planes were a tough, determined lot. No challenge was too great for them.
Thanks to retired California ANG MSgt. William Bennett for relating this story and to Eugene Salternik for providing photographs and copies of official rescue reports written by the three Americans.
Published May 1992. For presentation on this web site, some Valor articles have been amended for accuracy.