Submitted by: Brian T. Murphy
The stunning 2011 operation against Osama bin Laden put the Navy SEALs in the forefront of American lore. I’m sure that members of Seal Team Six would be the first to agree that they could not have done it without the tenacity and grit of the unheralded folks whose names we’ll never know. What is not so obvious is the sacrifice and ingenuity of previous generations that laid the foundation; embodying service to country and the warrior spirit that is the trademark of the SEALs. And so, the SEALs are intertwined on a grander scale with the innovations of patriots that went before them; the ones that developed techniques for carrying out combat operations on the sea, air and land under the harshest of conditions, out of necessity and often on the spur of the moment. This is the story of one of those gutsy innovators that served before members of Seal Team Six were born.
During World War II, Destroyers, “tin cans” as they are called, were the primary rescue vessels for saving downed aircraft carrier pilots. Deployed 2000 yards behind a carrier during flight operations, they steamed at full speed when an aircraft crashed into the sea then came to a full stop and launched a whaleboat. More often than not the pilot and crew, trapped in the doomed plane, would sink beneath the waves before they could be saved.
The USS Franks, a Fletcher class destroyer, was part of the 5th Fleet. During the Tarawa campaign, an atoll in the central Pacific, they were ordered to attempt a rescue of three Navy pilots that had been downed by enemy gun fire in their Grumman Avenger, the same type of torpedo bomber that George H.W. Bush was shot down in while attacking the Japanese Island of Chichi Jima. Winds howling, the sea was particularly heavy, rouge waves tossing the Franks every which way. The Navy plane began to slip below the surface, its aviators trapped inside. Rather than standby during a painfully slow launch of the whaleboat, Mel Collins, a 19-year old radar man aboard the Franks from Ottumwa, Iowa, implored the captain to allow him to attempt a swimming rescue all the while stripping down as the skipper ruminated over the notion. The captain went along with the bold move but warned Mel that if they came under enemy attack they would have to cut his life line and take evasive action in an attempt to save the 300 men aboard the Franks; adding that he’d try to come back for him if he could. “Fat chance,” Mel thought but tied a line around his waist anyway, took the knife that one of his shipmates offered to fight of sharks and dove overboard into the frigid waters.
That night below decks Mel made the following entry in his diary, redefining forever the way downed pilots were rescued in the open sea:
“. . . Avenger goes down after bombing. Waves plenty big - ship is really rolling. Too rough to go after them in a boat so officer let me rescue them. Tied a rope around my waist and dove off forecastle and swam to the plane – exhausted - saw to one who was going down. I towed him in and put him in a stretcher that was over the side of the ship then went and got other two who were ‘OK’. All three pilots saved. Officer congratulated me afterwards – I was the big boy for a couple of days. The boys I saved thanked me and said I got there just in time.”
Mel received the Bronze Star Award for his heroism and the USS Franks became the first destroyer to use a swimmer to rescue downed pilots. News traveled fast and it wasn’t long before all the carriers were requesting the Franks to watch over their pilots. January found the Franks in the Kwajalein Islands where Mel’s diary describes the 800 ships that were assembled; then Guadalcanal in March; Bougainville; June and July in Guam and finally Leyte Gulf during October of 1944 – MacArthur’s return to the Philippines.
Unbeknownst to each other, Roy Boehm, a hard hat diver aboard another destroyer participated in many of the same campaigns that Mel fought in. Almost twenty years later, in 1960, Roy would develop, design, and implement what would become the US Navy commando organization that we know today as the SEALs. He was the first officer in charge of Seal Team Two. A hero and patriotic innovator in his own right, the exploits of Roy Boehm are chronicled in a book by Charles W. Sasser entitled First SEAL.
The Franks had earned nine battle stars before the War’s end and Mel had performed his heroic swimming rescue over and over; an extraordinary feat.
With the success of Mel’s first rescue, the crew of the USS Franks worked feverishly to refine the technique. Rigged for a mid-ship rescue, Mel was eventually outfitted with a leather belt that had a “D” ring sewn into the back of it so that a life-line could easily be attached. There was a sheath for a knife to fight off sharks while sharp shooters stood watch at the rail whenever Mel dove in, looking for tell-tail fins of swarming sharks drawn by blood from bleeding pilots and cuts from razor-sharp barnacles on the ship’s hull.
In addition to occasional strafing by enemy pilots while exposed in the open sea, Mel dealt with other hazards as he continued to break new ground. On one occasion a Corsair returning from a strike crashed nearby and Mel was sent in after the pilot. The Franks still had headway as it approached the plane so the captain put the engines full speed astern (reverse) with Mel in the water.
“. . . I was drawn under the water by the screws . . . the guys holding my line said it tangled in the guard rail and that saved me from the screws – they thought the line was going to break but it didn’t. I finally came to the surface after taking a lot of water then . . . it took me under again, rolling me like a top. I thought sure I was a goner. Air all gone, I had strength for one more stroke and thank God I broke to the surface. I got some air and tried to wave but they didn’t see me and under I went again. Nothing I could do. Finally the guys hollered to the captain to stop. I was weak and ready to drown . . . never got to the pilot. . .”
A swimming rescue required that Mel dive fifteen feet from the deck of the Franks into the open sea then battle cresting waves to reach the downed aircraft – sometimes a hundred yards away – before it sank. If he was successful he was towed back carrying the dead weight of an unconscious pilot and flight gear. A stretcher was lowered to water level with 5” powder casings attached to the side that allowed it to float – a device contrived by an engineer aboard the Franks. Once the pilot was inside the stretcher he was hauled aboard. Mel was always last, winched up in a boatswain’s chair. Although it was war-time, rescues became a game for Mel and the crew of the Franks as they timed each attempt, always trying to beat their best effort. A successful rescue was occasion for rejoicing. It meant that once the carrier had received its pilot back aboard, twenty gallons of ice cream would be sent over to the crew of the Franks – the only ice cream they had when they were at sea.
Mel was from a poor family, a “really poor” family; eight kids and no father. He grew up during the Depression and there was little to eat. The local Y.M.C.A became his home away from home and buddies that were better off shared their lunches with him. It was at the Y.M.C.A. that Mel developed into a well-rounded athlete. An outstanding swimmer, they called him a squid, later nicknaming him “squib” – no one knows why the change. It was his swimming ability honed at the “Y” that empowered him to rescue pilots in all sorts of weather – even typhoons. In spite of Mel’s extraordinary athleticism, not all rescue attempts had happy endings as evidenced in his diary entry of January 10:
“Rescued pilot from an Avenger. Only one got out. Lost other two. Bad weather; swells like mountains – 50 feet.”
Still, Mel enjoyed his fair-share of success:
“Feb 8. Awarded Navy and Marine Corps Medal of Honor.”
“Feb 17. After raids on Tokyo one fighter from a Hellcat crashed . . . I rescued him in really cold water and also wind that was so bad that all hands were wearing fur lined coats and pants. Water really cold. After I got back aboard the captain told all hands, ‘hats off to Collins.’ A cruiser sent us a message and said ‘congratulations on fast rescue. If all ships used your method there would be more pilots alive today’. Quite a compliment. Sent our method of swimming rescue to Navy Department also to all ships in the fleet.”
Besides the gratitude of pilots, it is especially sweet when exploits are memorialized by one that has the attention of a grateful nation. In 1945 Ernie Pyle watched the rescue of his good friend Jimmy Van Fleet, an F6F pilot, from the decks of the aircraft carrier USS Cabot. He described what he saw in his book The Last Chapter.
. . . Jimmy had hardly hit the water when we saw (a) destroyer heel over in a swath-cutting turn. They had been watching the takeoffs through their glasses, and had seen him go over. Our own ship, of course, had to keep going straight ahead . . . The destroyer had Jimmy aboard in just seven minutes. They didn’t put over a boat for him, but instead sent a swimmer out with a line tied around his waist. He got there just in time; Jimmy passed out in his arms. . . Destroyers keep a box score . . . and try to set a new record. Their record rescue was three minutes . . . This particular destroyer had fished out so many pilots that they had a scroll already printed up, and all they had to do was fill in the name . . .
We got Jimmy aboard and then sent twenty gallons of ice cream back across in the chair . . . The swimmer(s) were Seaman First Class Franklin Calloway . . . and . . . Radarman Third Class Melvin Collins of Ottumwa, Iowa.
Melvin J. Collins was discharged from the Navy in November, 1945. Besides the Bronze Star Award he received the Navy and Marine Corps Medal of Honor. Before his discharge, Mel received a letter from his mother. She told him that she had awoken from a dream in which she was surrounded by water and was drowning. It was dated the same day as one of Mel’s most difficult rescues. Ironically, Mel’s brother, Jim, a sailor on the Lexington also received the Navy and Marine Corps Medal of Honor for rescuing a pilot, but from a burning plane. Likewise, she wrote Jim that she’d awoken from another dream where she was surrounded by fire and couldn’t get out – half a world apart - and also at the exact time that the event happened.
Mel deservedly enjoys the respect of his shipmates. Michael Bak was a quartermaster on the USS Franks from 1943 to 1945 and participated in all the engagements that earned the Franks it’s nine battle stars. He likes to describe his experiences to various civic groups and veteran’s organizations. He told me in a telephone conversation that Melvin Collins is always the highlight of his presentation, that Mel is his “hero”, his “idol”. It’s not often that you hear one man describe another in those terms. The crew from the USS Franks held a reunion in San Diego during 2005. Only eight of the original 300 shipmates were in the photo. Recently Mel was invited to sign an American flag that hangs in an Indiana Federal Courthouse, sharing space with the signatures of other war heroes like George H.W. Bush, General Paul Tibbets, John Glen, Bob Dole, and Walter Cronkite to name a few.
After the Navy, Mel entered Coe College on the G.I. bill. Along with three other varsity letters, he lettered in golf without ever owning a set of clubs or golf shoes, beating all the country club boys with borrowed equipment. After he graduated from college he worked as a high school teacher/coach and, not surprisingly, a Y.M.C.A. physical director. As of this writing, after thirty plus years as a college counselor, he can be found working at the National University of Health Science in Lombard, Illinois where he was inducted into their Hall of Fame in 2001 and received a honorary doctorate degree in 2008. With his 90th birthday coming up Mel’s chiseled frame has shrunk a bit but his disarming smile is undaunted.
His active service career ended before Roy Boehm and others mustered out the first Seal Teams in the early sixties but Mel Collins and his shipmates were none-the-less original SEALs in spirit, embracing and laying the foundation for the best of their traditions. He is one of many unheralded faces in the crowd with an unwavering sense of self and a clear vision for what is right.
About the author:
First North American serial rights