People on the sidewalks of San Diego and at several nearby military facilities stared, transfixed, into the sky as a Marine R2D-1 transport plane slowly circled the area with what one witness later called “a queer whirligig” dangling beneath its trail.
That “whirligig” was Marine 2nd Lt. Walter S. Osipoff.
It was 9:30 in the morning May 15, 1941 when Osipoff, a member of the first group to go through the new Marine parachute school in Lakehurst, New Jersey, was jumpmaster on a training flight. He successfully launched his eleven jumpers, jettisoned a cargo pack, and was attempting to jettison a second when the ripcord of his parachute became entangled with the cargo pack’s ripcord. His parachute opened and dragged him out of the plane along with the cargo pack, leaving him dangling, head-down, 100 feet beneath the transport, which was flying at 800 feet.
He was held only by the leg straps of his parachute. The plane’s pilot, Capt. Harold Johnson, could immediately feel the downward pull from the rear of the plane and was quickly notified of what was going on. He slowed down to 110 mph, the slowest he could safely go, and struggled to keep the plane’s nose down.
Crewmembers’ attempts to pull Osipoff back into the plane were unsuccessful.
Osipoff continued to twist, his eyes pressed closed and his arms and legs crossed. He suffered burns and cuts from his parachute’s shrouds and his left arm and shoulder had been injured when he was violently yanked out of the plane.
On the ground at Naval Air Station North Island, Marine lieutenant and test pilot William Lowrey had seen what was happening above. He yelled to Aviation Chief Machinist’s Mate John McCants to quickly fuel a Curtiss SOC biplane, called the control tower by telephone for clearance (the biplane, like the R2D-1 from Osipoff dangled, had no radio), and then took off with McCants in the rear cockpit.
When the two men caught up with the transport plane, Lowrey matched its speed as best he could and slowly inched up on Osipoff — but it wasn’t working. Johnson was having trouble holding the transport steady and Osipoff was twice hit by the biplane’s wing.
McCants later said he could see blood dripping off of Osipoff’s helmet and knew the jumpmaster had been badly hurt.
Johnson moved up to 3,000 feet, where he found more stable air, and the transport evened out. By this point, the larger plane had enough fuel left for only ten minutes.
Again, Lowrey approached the dangling Osipoff.
As he worked up below the jumpmaster, McCants stood up in the open, rear cockpit of the biplane and was finally able to reach Osipoff. He grabbed him by the waist and eased the man’s head into the open cockpit while Lowrey struggled to hold the biplane steady. The cockpit was too small to carry both McCants and Osipoff. McCants started to cut the parachute shrouds and ease Osipoff onto the fuselage of the biplane, just behind the rear cockpit.
Suddenly, then the biplane jumped and its propeller hit a piece off the larger plane. Miraculously, in doing so, the propeller also sliced through the remaining shrouds of Osipoff’s parachute and he settled onto the biplane’s fuselage.
Osipoff was free.
McCants continued to hold the jumpmaster in place while Lowrey took the biplane down, fighting to control its rudder which had been damaged in the collision with the transport plane, and landed safely at the air station.
Osipoff had been hanging beneath the transport for thirty-three minutes. Among his other injuries, he had suffered a fractured vertebra is his back that would keep him in a body cast for the next three months. He went on to win a Bronze Star in World War II and ended the war as a lieutenant colonel.
Both Lowrey and McCants were awarded Distinguished Flying Crosses.
The Navy information bulletin announcing Lowrey’s decoration referred to the incident as “one of the most brilliant and daring rescues within the annals of our Naval history.”