Naval Aircrewman (AW) is the normal source rating from which candidates are chosen to become Aviation Operations Technicians, and in three of the AW service ratings—Helicopter, Tactical Helicopter, and Operator—are responsible for Search and Rescue (SAR) and Combat Search and Rescue Operations. Today, it’s not only taken for granted that the Navy and other branches of the U.S. Armed Forces will actively search for downed aviators and aircrews, but also assumed that such efforts will likely be successful—and for good reason. But these justified expectations were born out of lessons learned in the heat of combat, particularly in the Pacific Theater of Operations.

The practice of rescuing downed Naval aviators actually began in 1942 during the Guadalcanal campaign when the crews of PBY Catalinas utilized the aircraft’s ability to land on water in order to conduct ad hoc rescue missions as they returned from their primary missions of anti-submarine warfare or maritime patrols. Realizing the importance of ensuring the safe return of veteran aircrewmen, at the start of 1943 the Navy created specially equipped PBYs that were informally dubbed “Dumbos” after the flying elephant in the Walt Disney movie of the same name.

In addition to the aircrew, Dumbos carried a physician and a pharmacist’s mate in order to delivery much-needed medical attention to aviators and sailors who may have been without food and water for days and quite likely were suffering injuries or wounds. Some Dumbos were escorted by Navy fighters, but even so the slow-moving plane was a tempting target for Japanese combat patrols. Nevertheless, the Dumbo missions continued, and in the first seven-and-a-half months the planes saved 161 aircrewmen who otherwise would have been lost.

For the Japanese, the notion of expending such time, effort, and materiel to rescue a single pilot, flight crewman, or sailor seemed ridiculous, but such a perspective was a case of being “penny wise, pound foolish.” Besides the obvious costs of time and money in training new aircrewmen and pilots, the Navy realized that the combat experience of the downed personnel was an intangible asset that could not be measured in dollars and cents.

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