Royal Canadian Navy, the Mariner Miracle, 1953

Mariner Miracle, 1953.

(Gerald Sullivan Photo)

A U.S. Navy Douglas AD-4B Skyraider from Attack Squadron VA-75 Sunday Punchers, Carrier Air Group 7 (CVG-7) from the USS Bennington (CVA-20), piloted by LTJG Jim Elster, ready for launch from the Canadian aircraft carrier HMCS Magnificent (CVL 21), after the so-called "Mariner Miracle" in 1953.

In September 1953 the carriers USS Wasp (CVA-18), USS Bennington (CV-20) and HMCS Magnificent were taking part in naval exercise "Mariner" in the North Atlantic.  On the afternoon of 23 September 1953, with 42 planes aloft, the carriers were completely socked in by fog.  The aircraft were unable to find and return to their carriers in the fog and as they ran low on fuel, Vice Admiral T.S. Combs and Rear Admiral H.H. Goodwin ordered all aircraft to ditch near the submarine USS Redfin (SSR-272) at 1620 hrs.  Just as the aircraft were about to do so, however, the fog lifted slightly and all planes were ordered to land on the first carrier platform they could find.  All 42 aircraft were recovered safely with only minimum fuel remaining.  USN LTJG Elster's Skyraider landed on HMCS Magnificent and while onboard Canadian sailors painted a red mapleleaf on the American stars.  It is reported that in spite of many refits and repairs, the maple leaf was still intact on the aircraft many years later.

(Gerald Sullivan Photo)

USN LTJG Elster's Skyraider with maple leaf painted, HMCS Magnificent.

(Gerald Sullivan Photo)

USN LTJG Elster's Skyraider with maple leaf painted, HMCS Magnificent.

(Gerald Sullivan Photo)

HMCS Magnificent entering Saint John, NB, June 1953.

Magnificent Miracle.

On 23 Sep 1953, a series of events unfolded around the three-carrier task force which swiftly deteriorated into an extremely dangerous situation.  It was feared that a catastrophe was about to take place and of such  proportions that it would result in the worst peace time disaster in history.

In a newspaper article in the Calgary Herald 11 years after the event, Vice Admiral H.S Rayne, Chief of the Naval Staff, told a reporter that the 23 September incident, when Canadian and American carrier-borne planes were almost lost en masse, sticks out in his mind as vividly as his battle actions as a destroyer commander in the Second World War.   At the time, Rayner was commanding the aircraft carrier HMCS Magnificent, which was in company with US carriers USS Bennington and USS Wasp, the US battleship USS Iowa and a host of other Canadian, American and NATO ships on Exercise Mariner in the mid-Atlantic. The nearest landing field was an unmanned strip on the southern tip of Greenland, 450 miles from the fleet.  Admiral Rayner stated,

“Weather information on that particular afternoon was unusually meagre.  At 1330, 52 aircraft were launched in good weather to carry out an exercise some distance from the fleet.  Without warning a blanket of fog rolled in.  The aircraft were recalled at 1440 but only 10 managed to land.  Repeated attempts were made to talk down more planes using radar and radio but the pilots couldn’t get low enough to see the decks.  We could hear the unseen approaches through the solid wall of fog.  The USS Iowa and cruisers were ordered well astern of the carriers to eliminate the hazards of masts and high structures for the aviators."

"The three carriers were formed in line abreast.  We were entirely dependent on radar because the ships had lost sight of one another in the fog.  The planes formed up high above and were orbiting the position of the unseen fleet below.  At 1620 it was estimated the planes had enough fuel for another 2 hours.  Plans for a mass ditching of aircraft were made.  Boats were manned with picked crews, ropes were rigged to hang down over the side, life rafts were readied for slipping, the sick bay was prepared and our two Padres were pacing up and down the flight deck praying for divine intervention."

USS Redfin (SS-272).  (USN Photo)

"Then came a call from the US submarine, USS Redfin (SS-272), 10 miles to the west.  Redfin said the ceiling near her was 100 feet with 2 miles visibility.  The carriers could not reach the area by dark but the aircraft could so we decided to head for Redfin where the pilots could ditch in a group near the submarine.  Just as darkness approached, there was a miracle!  That is the only word for it.  The fog ahead began to thin and lift a bit.  We began to make out other ships.  The planes were recalled and came down one by one on which ever carrier was most convenient.  At 1820 it was dark and 10 planes were still in the air even though their estimated fuel time had passed.  But they all got down.  Within minutes after the last plane landed the fog shut down again. An isolated patch of warm water on the way to Redfin had opened up the fog at exactly the critical moment.”

(USN Photo)

General Motors (Grumman) TBM-3E Avenger AS 3, RCN (Serial No. 53241), on the flight deck of HMCS Magnificent (CVL 21), circa 1953.

Bryan Hayden was in one of those aircraft, and he wrote,

"As I was flying one of the last 10 aircraft my perspective was much different.  After our 1330 launch we formed up in two flights of four with the Guppy Avenger leading and were vectored by the ship in the direction of the "enemy" submarine Redfin, that had been shadowing the fleet.  Our mission was to engage.  Not long after turning on course we were instructed to begin an orbit until further notice.  After another 20 minutes we were told to fly in loose formation and to lean out our fuel/air mixture to conserve fuel.  What was happening?"

"When the minutes grew into hours, a real sense of alarm crept over us.  As the afternoon waned we noticed the sea began to cloud over and before long was gone from sight.  It was then that we were informed that the fleet was fog bound.  Where in the world were we going to go?  I thought, with night coming on and the prospects of having to go down through the fog in formation our chances of landing on were going to be slim.  At this point, our Guppy aircraft was ordered to attempt a landing aboard the ship using its great radar to track in.

They didn’t make it.  They couldn’t get close enough to see the ship and overshot and returned to altitude.  Before long they were called in again and again to no avail.  There was utter silence in our cockpit.  It slowly began to dawn on us that we might have to ditch our aircraft and by the look of our dwindling fuel supply and the gathering darkness it would be sooner rather that later.  It was hard to believe but I started to go over the ditching procedures.  My thoughts were suddenly interrupted by the ship calling the Guppy in again.  We held our breath!  Minutes later, a triumphant cry broke the silence.  “We have made it on board!” We had a chance!"

"With that initial success the ship began to clear us in two-by-two and when it came to our turn, I closed up on my formation leader tucking in as close as I dared.  He signaled a descent and before long we entered the dense fog.  Visibility deteriorated drastically.  When my radio altimeter registered 150 feet above the water and I could barely make it out I felt a flash of despair.  Suddenly a light swept by us.  What was that?  Then another and another went by.  We found out later that the lights were flares thrown into the sea by the ships crew.  Our leader followed them until we saw the wake and then the stern of our carrier and we came up along her starboard side and into the upwind leg of the landing circuit."

"When the leader turned down wind I counted to 10 and did the same.  Darkness had fallen and as we came abreast of the ship downwind we could barely make out her silhouette.  When we turned onto the approach I settled down to watch the Batsman's signals like never before for we did not know if we had have enough fuel to go around again.  As we approached the ship's round-down with a Roger signal meaning “you are in the groove” the tension eased.  He gave a cut signal and we landed on with a welcome thud."

"As I was clearing the deck, I noticed an American Skyraider aircraft ahead of me.  Any old port in storm I guess!  When I climbed out of the cockpit, my legs gave way and I slid off the wing into the arms of a group of cheering deck hands.  One thoughtful deckhand thrust a tot of Navy rum into my trembling hands and as I slowly drank it down I felt the tension of all those hours in the air begin to ebb.  The remaining aircraft came aboard safely.  We had all made it.  HALLELUJAH!  And then the fog closed down again."
"There was great rejoicing and thanksgiving in the ship and, indeed, in the entire fleet that night.  Aboard HMCS Magnificent, we attended chapel and gave thanks for the safe return of all of the aircraft and for the blessed miracle that made it happen.  We welcomed our fellow pilot from USS Bennington and he was overjoyed to share in the libations that our wardroom bar served.  The USN does not serve alcohol aboard their ships but in this case an exception was made.  According to test pilot Don Mallick in his book The Smell of Kerosene - A Test Pilot's Odyssey, “The flight surgeons [aboard USS Wasp] broke out the medicinal alcohol (brandy) to celebrate and help relieve the stress.  The fog lifted sometime the next day but it was several days before the “whiskey front” cleared”.

"The following morning I made my way to the flight deck to clear my head from the celebration of the night before and to look at the visiting aircraft.  It was covered in graffiti.  As I began to chuckle at the scene the Captain appeared. He was not chuckling. He ordered the crew to erase the graffiti but did acquiesce to leaving a small red maple leaf on the fuselage as a memento of the terrifying night a young American pilot found safe haven aboard a Canadian carrier."

(USN Photo)

General Motors (Grumman) TBM-3E Avenger AS 3, RCN (Serial No. 86233), coded ABB, flying over HMCS Magnificent (CVL 21), circa 1953.

(USN Photo)

USS Wasp (CVA-18) at sea in the Far East on 5 Jan 1955.

(USN Photo)

USS Bennington (CVA-20), Jan 1953.

(Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3223880)

Hawker 'Sea Fury' FB. 11 aircraft of the RCN and a Douglas AD-4B Skyraider aircraft of the USN on the flightdeck of HMCS Magnificent (CVL 21) during Exercise Mariner, 1953.

(RCN Photo)

Douglas AD-4B Skyraider on HMCS Magnificent (CVL 21), 1953.

If you found this valuable, consider supporting the author.