Operation Ivory Soap

Submitted by Fred M. Duncan

Once in a while, the news will carry a 50-plus-year-old untold story of our forgotten heroes of World War II, a forgotten medal not awarded, an army regiment based at a remote outpost in the Pacific, outnumbered and fighting like hell just after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and many others. One such story represents the foundation of the DUSTOFF mission. This story begins aboard a Liberty ship on June 16, 1945, in the Philippine Islands. It is one of the great untold stories of World War II. This is one of those officially never-told declassified stories from the vaults of historical files discovered fifty-five years after World War II. This particular story was uncovered by one of the shipıs crew, Fred Duncan, while seeking information for a reunion. Another Navy fleet fighting like hell? No, this fleet was not Navy, but a fleet of twenty-four Army Transportation Service aircraft repair ships made up of highly skilled Army Air Corps technicians, Navy armed guards, and civilian Merchant Marines, all identified only by the nickname Project Ivory Soap.

The largest vessels were six Liberty ships modified with machine shops, repair shops and a 40-by-72-foot landing pad for two Sikorsky helicopters, a model R-4B and R-6A. Few people ever knew that the United States used helicopters in World War II. These early helicopters were actually experimental models and had marginal performance in terms of range, power and lifting capacity. A March 1943 classified Navy report states: '. . . the U.S. Navy has tested the R-4 and does not consider this machine operational for shipboard use.'

This story began when LTC Clyde Grant, Commander, 112th Cavalry Regimental Combat Team, saw the insect-like helicopters flying from their ships in Manila Bay as a way to transport his wounded soldiers out of the mountains and deep Philippine jungles. His original request was refused because of the uncertain capability of the helicopters. He persisted and pressured his commanding general, who subsequently approved the mission and the evacuations. From June 16 through 29, 1945, five pilots flew rescue missions. Those pilots were 2LT Louis A. Carle, 1LT John R. Noll, 1LT Robert W. Cowgill, 2LT Harold Green and 1LT James H. Brown. None had medical training nor training in combat tactics. Officially, the helicopters had been limited to only one passenger and pilot.

Second LT Carle flew the first missions. He flew under enemy fire to rescue wounded infantry soldiers. The five helicopter pilots evacuated a total of seventy soldiers to Army hospitals in Manila. These were located over thirty-five miles from front-line battle areas. Four pilots rescued seventeen wounded soldiers each, while 2LT Green evacuated two casualties. These brave pilots were literally flying on a rotor blade and a prayer, as they tried to dodge enemy ground fire in areas near the front battle lines.

Although it is known that Carter Harmon had performed helicopter rescues before, these mark the initial concentrated effort on a larger scale. They reflect the spirit of DUSTOFF. The aviation history books often list the beginning of Mobile Army Surgical Hospitals supported by the use of OH-13 helicopters in the Korean War in 1950. The seventy documented helicopter rescues in June 1945 from the Liberty Ships predate that effort by five years and heralded the dawn of DUSTOFF.

PerryMcCargo.jpg (215906 bytes)
Perry McCargo

Time has taken its toll on these heroes, and only a few remain to tell the story: one pilot, 1LT Cowgill; two of the rescued soldiers, Army Sergeants Bill Garbo and Perry McCargo; and the officer who initiated it all, COL Clyde Grant. Historical documents are currently being compiled for belated air medals for 2LT Cowgill and a posthumous award for 2LT Carle, who passed away in December 2000 while making plans to attend the 2001 DUSTOFF Reunion. The contributions of these brave pilots are finally being recognized fifty-six years after their heroic flights that forever changed the lives of those seventy rescued soldiers. DUSTOFF has also witnessed another piece of its history.

For more information, please contract Fred M. Duncan, 6630 Greenlee Court, Huber Heights, OH 45424; phone: (937) 236-5229; e-mail: duncanfredm@email.msn.com.