Sometimes a downed crew could send out a mayday (from the French m'aidez, or "help me") radio signal with a location. The crew would either bail out of their aircraft by jumping with parachutes, or the plane would be ditched—meaning that it would crash-land on the water, and the crew would endeavor to get out before it sank. Fighters such as a P-51 Mustang sank almost immediately, but large bombers such as the Boeing B-17 could often stay on the surface for 30 minutes. After leaving their aircraft, aircrew would endeavor to stay afloat in the water using a life preserver or a rubber raft until an airplane or boat could locate them by following a radio signal, seeing a large puddle of dye in the ocean, or spotting the men in the water. Crews needed to be prepared for long waits; especially in the Pacific Theater, it could take a week or more for a downed crew to be rescued.
Germany was the first country to develop an ASR program. In 1936, Seenotdienst (air-sea rescue service) units were organized as part of the Luftwaffe. They employed floatplanes and flying boats for rescues in the North Sea. German aircraft on over-water missions were equipped with collapsible rubber dinghies with radio transmitters. During the 1940 Battle of Britain, Seenotdienst units operated in the English Channel.
The Allies were slower to develop air-sea rescue operations. During the Battle of Britain, downed pilots had only life preservers until they were rescued. Eventually, they were provided with dinghies and dye markers. In 1942, the British introduced a lightweight radio transmitter for downed crewmen, nicknamed a "Gibson Girl," which was based on a captured German model. In addition to aircraft operated by Fighter Command, rescue motor launches (RMLs) operated near the coast.
German and British rescue aircraft were painted white and marked with the large red cross of the International Red Cross. The decks of the RMLs were painted yellow, another sign of neutral craft. Both sides considered their ASR vehicles immune from enemy attack and rescued all downed pilots, regardless of their side in the conflict. But since a rescued pilot would return to duty, both sides frequently shot down ASR aircraft, leading to protests from each side in turn.
In January 1941, the British Air Ministry created the Directorate of Air-Sea Rescue to coordinate operations among the Royal Air Force, Royal Navy, and Coastal Command. In the first six months of 1941, out of 1,200 pilots who ditched, 444 were rescued. The British also assumed primary responsibility for all rescue operations in the European and Mediterranean Theaters, relieving their allies from developing their own programs.
The United States organized ASR operations based on the British system, even using British officers in training. Because the British had taken primary responsibilities for rescue operations in the European and Mediterranean Theaters, as well as for all planes departing India, the Americans were able to concentrate on the Pacific Theater. Such efforts were hampered by interservice rivalries. Each U.S. service went its own way, conducting its own operations and duplicating labor and equipment. This cumbersome arrangement was finally solved with the establishment early in 1944 of the Air-Sea Rescue Agency, which was charged with overseeing all operations. A school for training crews was established in Gulfport, Mississippi, but by the time trained crews began to graduate, the need for them was almost over. The U.S. Navy also played an important role in the rescue of B-29 crews flying from the Mariana Islands late in the war. The navy set up submarines stationed at intervals between the Marianas and Japan that acted as lifeguards for downed crewmen.
Although air-sea rescue saved many lives during World War II, its practices, operations, and equipment were constantly improvised and sometimes inefficient. Lessons learned during the war, however, led to improved air-sea rescue techniques thereafter. Pamela Feltus
Air Rescue Association. USAF Air Rescue. Paducah, KY: Turner Publishing, 1997.; Pereira, Wilfred D. Boat in the Blue: The Wartime Story of an RAF Air Sea Rescue Crew and Their Boats. Cheltenham, UK: Line One Publishers, 1985.