Lt. Carter Harmon, standing at left in front of his YR-4 helicopter with other team members, made the first U.S. Army Air Force helicopter rescue, in Burma, behind Japanese lines on 25-26 April 1944. More details of this daring rescue and evacuation mission are below in the body of the text.
Coast Guards test of the capability of Navy’s first helicopter, HNS-1 (Army R-4 Sikorsky), for air-sea rescue at NAS New York during World War II.
While evacuation by helicopter is established practice since the Korean War, during World War II the use of helicopters was practically unknown. The helicopters concept had obvious military advantages and designs were developed and experimented with in the early 1940s with a few practical models produced during World War II. On April 20, 1942, Igor Sikorsky staged a successful flight demonstration of his helicopter. By March 1943 the Army had ordered thirty-four Sikorsky helicopters. These aircraft could be quickly converted to air ambulance use by attaching litters to the sides of the aircraft.
First Helicopter Medical Evacuation in 1944
The China-Burma-India "Hump" airlift operation was the theater for what was probably the first use of a helicopter in a combat rescue. In April 1944, TSgt Ed "Murphy" Hladovcak of the 1st Air Commandos, piloting a Stinson L-1 Vigilant with three wounded British soldiers on board, was forced down over 100 miles (160 km) behind Japanese lines, 15 miles (25 km) west of Mawlu, Burma. Deep in the jungle where an airplane could not land, unable to hike out because of the injured passengers, and with ground-rescue forces days away, the downed men hid from nearby Japanese soldiers. A newly-delivered Army Sikorsky YR-4B helicopter, piloted by Lt. Carter Harmon, with a 175-horsepower engine, was dispatched to try a rescue. In the heat and humidity of Burma, the YR-4B could carry only one passenger at a time, straining its engine past the redline just to lift off. Despite these difficulties, over the two day period 25-26 April 1944, four trips were made in and out to a secure location where the men could safely transfer to a Stinson L-5 Sentinel. The final hasty liftoff was accomplished just as shouting soldiers burst from the jungle. As Lt. Harmon learned later, the soldiers were not Japanese, but an Allied land rescue party that had finally reached the crash site. The great success of the mission encouraged the advocates of helicopters, but few other missions actually took place during WW II.
In China during the final months of the war, Sikorsky R-6As provided search and rescue services. Right after the end of the war, in November 1945, an Army Sikorsky R-5 helicopter was used to rescue two men from a stranded oil barge in a storm. In spite of their limitations, military leaders realized the potential of helicopters for evacuation, search and rescue, although bigger helicopters with greater internal capacity and more powerful engines were needed.
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