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News > Portland Reservists welcome rescue pioneers:Crash boat veterans paved way for today’s combat rescue
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Rollin' on the river
A WWII era P-520 crash/rescue boat arrives along the Willamette River in downtown Portland, Ore., escorted by members of the Air Force Reserve's 304th Rescue Squadron. The P-520 was part of the Army Air Force's early rescue system that gave birth to the modern day combat search and rescue. (Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Chance C. Babin)
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Portland Reservists welcome rescue pioneers:Crash boat veterans paved way for today’s combat rescue

Posted 9/28/2007   Updated 9/28/2007 Email story   Print story


by Master Sgt. Chance C. Babin
920th Rescue Wing Public Affairs

9/28/2007 - PORTLAND, Ore -- Air Force Reservists from the 304th Rescue Squadron here got a firsthand look at a long-lost piece of combat-rescue heritage Sept. 17 as they escorted a U.S. Army Air Force relic, a P-520 crash boat, to the Portland waterfront to dock at the Riverside Marina, Sept. 17.

As the Air Force celebrates its 60th anniversary, the sight of an Air Force crash boat truly put in to context how far the Air Force has come in the field of combat rescue and served as a valuable lesson in history to group of pararescuemen and rescue squadron members that led the vessel up the Willamettte River in downtown Portland along with a flotilla of six other boats from different agencies.

"They are the great grandfathers of rescue," said Staff Sgt. Josh Johnston, a 304th RQS PJ. "These guys are so proud. It's really special to see how passionate they are about the missions they did 50 years ago. I hope to be that way about my saves when I'm older."

The P-520 is a fully restored wooden hulled 85-foot fast air/sea rescue boat. The crash boats were used during WWII and the Korean War for combat rescue and recovery of downed aviators before being decommissioned in 1957.

For members of the 304th RQS, this is a glimpse into the early years of combat rescue and a piece of history seldom talked about these days.

"Until recently we were unaware of this direct link to our Air Force combat rescue beginnings. These guys were the founding fathers of organized combat rescue and recovery that today uses helicopters and airplanes," said Capt. Chris Bernard, a combat rescue officer with the 304th RQS. "This is like finding a long lost ancestor. Their mission was the same as ours is now, they would be on alert and if they got a radio call, they would rush out into the ocean and try to pick up a lost pilot before the sharks or the bad guys got him."

The boat was originally donated to the AAF-USAF Crash Rescue Boat Association in 1997 and it was Bud Tretter, a Korean War crash boat veteran, who stepped up to the table to refurbish the boat.

"The two most expensive words in the dictionary are 'nostalgia' and 'restoration,'" Mr. Tretter said.

But Mr. Tretter was the only member of the association that owned a shipyard and as he said he didn't stand a chance as all eyes went to him.

"What do you do?" Mr. Tretter said. "The association was talking about restoring it and I reluctantly raised my hand."
So ten years and $1 million later, Mr. Tretter, along with his sons and some old war buddies completed the arduous task. What they had was the only one of 140 rescue boats to survive in its original military form.

For Joe Placente, another Korean War crash boat veteran, his current tour of duty of the P-520 has been an uplifting experience.

"It's opened all our eyes to what it meant to the WWII and Korean War veterans," he said. "Those that served, once they stepped back on board its like they were home again, back being a 20-year old."

Mr. Placente said when he was serving as a radio operator on the B-29 bomber he had never heard of the crash boats.

"They sent me to the Far East and put me on a boat," he said. "After two years they sent me back state side back on the B-29 and I never heard of the boats again."

That was until he reunited with the association that is now taking him on tour. For the veterans the fact that the 304th RQS was there to receive them was no coincidence.

"We're sure glad those guys were here to receive us," Mr. Placente said. "They've really come a long way. They picked up the rescue ball and still have it bouncing."
"I think it's a continuation of what we started," said Don Lashua, a Korean War crash boat veteran. "I think it's great the way it is now. It was really crude when we did it."

These rescue pioneers work is not lost to the modern day combat rescue warriors, who had a chance to share war stories with these Air Force Sailors.

"It's just amazing to see and hear the stories about how crude everything was and that they were able to do that for months at a time," said Tech. Sgt. Brian Nelson, 304th RQS radio maintenance technician. "I got a better understanding and appreciation for what we have now and how we do business."

Mr. Lashua said their missions were generally scheduled for two weeks but due to the lack of boats, they were usually out for two to three months.

While their primary mission was rescue, during the Korean War the boats were more often used for "spook work" missions such as delivering North Korean prisoners, intelligence missions and transporting spies.

Mr. Tretter said the association is planning to leave the P-520 at Swan Island Harbor, Ore., next to the Navy PT-658, WWII era boat. He hopes to find a museum to permanently house the boat. He asks that if anyone knows a museum that can house the boat in a building to contact his son Jerry Tretter at mshydlb@aol.com. Their website is www.p-520crashboat.com.

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