Bill Massey said he remembers it just like it happened this morning. But it was 68 years ago this week, Dec. 28, 1942, when Massey and three of his Sea Scout buddies braved the freezing Atlantic Ocean to save two aviators whose airplane crashed just off the Rehoboth Beach Boardwalk.
“We were having a slight nor’easter. We heard this airplane flying close down toward the ocean. Out of curiosity we walked down to the Boardwalk at the foot of Rehoboth Avenue.
“We were standing there watching this airplane doing circles. They were dropping flares and coming back over the flares to check them out to see if they were activated,” said Massey, now 85.
He said it was a Civil Air Patrol plane and, during World War II, they used flares to mark where they spotted offshore enemy submarines.
Massey, then 17, said he and Keith Coddington, 17, Frank Small, 15, and William Hamilton, 16, all of Rehoboth Beach, had been sitting in Snyder’s soda and candy shop on Rehoboth Avenue when they heard the airplane.
“I said to one of the boys, ‘Wouldn’t it be something, for a little bit of excitement, if that plane was to crash?’ It wasn’t 10 minutes later, and it did crash,” Massey said, retelling the story in a phone interview from his home in Okeechobee, Fla.
He said when the plane hit the water, the group ran down the beach to the area opposite the plane. “We were taking our clothes off as we were running. After we got to the spot opposite Olive Avenue, we proceeded to jump in the ocean,” Massey said.
He said he had to enter the water three times just to get his body adjusted.
“The water was so cold that it would take my breath away from me,” he said. He said when they swam up to the airplane they could see both men still inside.
“We had to get them untangled – they did have life preservers on – and get them out,” he said.
Massey said he and Hamilton pulled one aviator out and swam him ashore while the other two scouts pulled the second man out and got him to shore.
He said one aviator suffered a broken back and would not have been able to get out of the airplane.
Word about the crash spread quickly, and Massey said military ambulances were on the beach to take the injured men to Beebe Hospital.
He and the other Scouts were taken to Anne Sullivan’s boarding house on Rehoboth Avenue. “They gave us boys hot tea and various other things because we were froze to death. Then they carried us to Beebe Hospital for a check-up and observation,” Massey said.
He said after the accident, word of their heroics spread around town. “There were people congratulating us. It was a great thing, especially because it was around Christmastime. The war was going on and there were a lot of things people would liked to have done that they couldn’t do for us,” Massey said.
A cartoon-style drawing depicting the scouts’ bravery appeared in Boys’ Life magazine’s Scouts In Action.
Massey said he doesn’t know how Boys’ Life got its information for the drawings.
“I guess we were telling the story to various people and they picked it up and put it together. It had to come from someone – whether it was our scoutmaster or who it was – I don’t know.
“Truthfully, after seeing that drawing again, everything is exactly how it did happen, except for me saying “Wouldn’t it be something if that plane crashed?” he said.
Massey said the crash was caused by a wave striking the landing gear of the low-flying aircraft, causing it to nosedive into the ocean.
He said a gold medal presentation ceremony for the scouts was held at the Hotel du Pont in Wilmington. “I can’t remember how many of us actually showed up to that ceremony because it was during the war in 1943,” he said.
Massey said in his Slaughter Beach home, he has the medal in a frame along with the Boys’ Life drawings and a citation he was awarded at the Wilmington event.
The summer after the plane crash, Massey said Boy Scouts of America asked him if he would accept a job at Camp Rodney in North East, Md.
“It’s a camp for scouts to attend during the summer months,” he said.
Although it wasn’t a paid position, he took the job.
“I was honored. They didn’t hand out those jobs to just any ordinary Boy Scout. They picked out someone who had done something more extraordinary than normal,” he said. He spent three months working at the camp as a counselor.
After he turned 18 in September 1943, Massey joined the U.S. Coast Guard. Following boot camp, he shipped out to the South Pacific, landing in New Guinea and the Philippines. His father, Francis A. Massey, was a career Coast Guard officer.
“I met him twice in New Guinea and three times in the Philippines, which was quite a thing, to meet your father during the war.”