The Lost Hurricane Hunters: December 15th, 1953

The third typhoon hunter mission lost occurred on December 16, 1953, during a penetration by a Navy PB4Y-2S (Bu No 59176) into Typhoon Doris. The aircraft was part of a six plane squadron, VJ-1/VW-3, COMFAIRGUAM, based at the Naval Air Station in Agana, Guam (VJ-1 was formed in 1952 at NAS Sand Point, Seattle, Washington, and the name later changed to VW-3). The PB4Y-2S aircraft made its initial penetration into Doris' eye at 200 - 300 feet. As the aircraft radioed back a report at 2245Z, the transmission suddenly ceased. The plane was never heard from again. At the time, Doris was a Category 2 typhoon with sustained winds of 95 knots (110 mph). Again, given the low penetration altitude of the aircraft, it is likely that a downdraft carried the plane into the sea. It's pretty common to get downdrafts that will cause a 300 foot loss of altitude, despite the attempts of the pilot to climb with full power to the engines.

A nine-day long search and rescue operation failed to find any trace of the missing aircraft. Tragically, two aircraft involved in the search and rescue mission crashed, killing 39 more people. The first of these planes was a R4D (DC 3) that crashed into the crater of Agrihan Island, Mariannas, killing all ten crew members. This aircraft was not from the NAS Agana, Guam group. In addition, a B-29 based at Anderson AFB had an engine fail while looking for the missing typhoon hunter aircraft, and crashed during landing into an officer's housing area on Guam. A total of 29 people died in the crash, including at least 11 of the 16 crew members on the aircraft.

The nine crewmen lost during the flight into Typhoon Doris were:

Pilot J. W. Newhall age 39
Co-pilot S. B. Marsden, age 29
Lt. Cmdr. D. Zimmerman Jr., age 35
Ltjg. F. Troescher Jr., age 26
AL1 F. R. Barnett, age 26
AD1 J. N. Clark, age 32
AD3 E. L. Myer, age 20
AL2 N. J. Stephens, age 23
AO3 A. J. Stott, age 23

I got in contact with Austen Doolittle, who was operating the radio set in Guam when the transmission inside Typhoon Doris from the plane's radio operator, Norm Stephens, suddenly stopped. Austen recalled:

Jeff, I appreciate receiving your email, Earl Beech and I were at our second reunion in 55 years the 4th to 8th of May at Pensacola FL. Had a great time. Its important to the members of the VJ1/VW3 to make people aware of what we were doing so many years ago as 19 and 20 year old young sailors. I lost three of my best navy friends in that accident, and to this day I still wonder about the happenstance of my being on base radio that day and receiving the POMAR reports from Norm Stephens. There was an ability to recognize the hand or keying of people you knew, and I know that Norm Stephens was keying that last message to me. When he cut off I knew something had happened, and it really shook me up, and I tried to raise the plane many times until I knew it was not possible. I still have many pictures of Norm, Don Stott and Jim Clark in my album. Thanks for what you are doing, I really appreciate it. I've had a long and fruitful life since then, but I'll never forget that day, and still wonder why I was so lucky.


Painting of a Navy PB4Y-2S "Privateer" aircraft flown by the VJ-1/VW3 Squadron. Image credit: USS Whitehurst DE-634 web site. Several stories by members of the VJ-1/VW3 Squadron concerning the Typhoon Doris disaster are posted on the web site. Other sources: