The Long Blue Line blog series has been publishing Coast Guard history essays for over 15 years. To access hundreds of these service stories, visit the Coast Guard Historian’s Office’s Long Blue Line online archives, located here: THE LONG BLUE LINE (uscg.mil)
Editor’s note: This eyewitness account was written 40 years ago by the captain of the search vessel which located the wreckage of retired Pittsburgh Pirate Roberto Clemente’s ill-fated mercy flight to Managua, Nicaragua. It includes corrections of mis-remembered events found in articles from The San Juan Star and El Nuevo Dia.
Sunday, December 31, 1972
On New Year’s Eve, 1972, about a dozen and a half of us were gathered at the quarters of Coast Guard Lt. Robert Connelly, his wife, Karen, and their young daughter, at “Stop 7 ½” for the 1973 New Year’s celebration. Stop 7 ½ was a small Coast Guard housing unit of two single family homes and five or six duplexes, located in Puerta de Tierra.
Robert “Bob” Connelly, a highly decorated Vietnam war veteran, was serving as the senior Rescue Coordination Center (RCC) controller for the Greater Antilles Section of the Seventh Coast Guard District, which covered approximately 1.3 million square miles of the Caribbean Sea and adjacent Atlantic Ocean.
Those in attendance were mostly junior officers, one warrant officer assigned to Coast Guard Base San Juan, RCC and their spouses.
CGC Sagebrush (WLB-399), was launched in 1943 as a single-screw diesel-electric multi-purpose auxiliary vessel. At 1,000 tons and 180-feet in length, she had since been reclassified as an offshore buoy tender. Not only was she the largest Coast Guard vessel permanently assigned in the Caribbean, but she was also the largest permanently assigned U.S. Government vessel within the Navy’s COMCARIBSEAFRONTIER.
A short time before 11 p.m. the Connelly’s telephone rang. Upon hanging up, Bob rang his glass with a spoon to get our attention. He announced, “Sagebrush has been recalled. Roberto Clemente’s mercy flight to Managua just crashed right after take-off. This party is over. The ladies are welcome to stay.”
It took no more than two seconds to realize that Bob was not joking. We piled into my 1964 Corvette for the short trip (over a mile) to the Coast Guard Base at La Puntilla.
Upon arrival, I was greeted by my boss, Section Commander, Capt. Vincent A. Bogucki, who was standing on the pier in his dress whites. The latest information he had received was that the plane took off and started losing altitude as it reached the ocean, started a left turn to try to return to Isla Grande Airport, but went down about one mile off the beach. I was to get underway as soon as I had enough crew to do so. For those who miss our sailing, he planned to transport them to me in the 30-footer after sunrise. As a stopgap, he closed the canteen at the base and ordered six to eight of his young seamen (SN) and seaman apprentices (SA) to sail with us. They were accompanied by an experienced QM2 from RCC and were already aboard.
Given it was a New Years’ Eve, most of the crew were off post on liberty. Many could not be reached at that time.
The SA’s were fresh out of boot camp and had never been to sea. The SN’s were but little better experienced. Most of my married crewmembers lived in family quarters at Fort Buchanan just a few miles away. My executive officer, Lt. Theodore T. Musselman, was the first of these to receive a ‘recall’ phone call giving him the earliest start to return to the ship, which he managed to do in spite of the traffic.
Ted took stock of the crew. We had a skeleton crew of 20 or so, including “Onyx,” the ship’s dog.
Monday, January 1, 1973
We normally traveled three miles offshore along the north coast of Puerto Rico due to the northeast trade winds and swells, and reefs off the Condado shoreline. Our search datum, however, was only one mile off the coast, less than ten miles away, a trip that would take us close to an hour. We set a course one mile out, although I had never sailed that close in, even during the day.
In 1973, there were no cell phones or computers, no GPS, no Loran-C in the Caribbean, one useless Loran-A signal near the baseline extension, and charts based on surveys dating to the nineteenth century. Navigation was primarily visual and supplemented by radar and depth soundings; and for those offshore, celestial.
Upon approaching the Condado, about a half hour after midnight, we set as many lookouts as possible and turned on the signal lights and floodlights, aimed forward and outward. It seemed like only a matter of minutes until we steamed into a debris field consisting mostly of large tin cans, which were part of the cargo of the mercy flight. We slowed and continued on, retrieving some personal effects, clothes, and an attaché case, if I remember right. It was about then that we accepted that this was probably going to be a search but not a rescue mission. Our prayers went out to all those aboard the downed DC-7. We spent the rest of the night and almost the rest of the day retrieving whatever we found. All this time, the wind and seas set us and the debris field to the west and toward shore.
Tuesday, January 2nd
The next day we lowered our grapnel anchor at datum and dragged it in an expanding square pattern, hoping to, by chance, locate the wreckage. The masses of humanity on the beach grew as the day went on, and continued to grow as the days went on. Our dragging the grapnel, at one or two miles per hour, turned up nothing. We returned to the base around sunset for another debriefing meeting.
Wednesday, January 3rd
We again sailed around sunrise, this time accompanied by several members of the press.
I slowed down some distance before reaching datum and again lowered the grapnel. After all, it’s a big ocean and our datum was still imprecise. Why not? It couldn’t hurt. We continued heading towards datum and then began a new dragging pattern.
About 3:30 p.m., we snagged something. One of the wheels still attached to some of the landing gear floated to the surface along with some smaller pieces of the plane, and so did the body of the pilot. We launched one of our small boats to recover the body and hoisted the landing gear aboard.
During this commotion, my senior quartermaster, QM1 Whitener, quietly shot and recorded a round of horizontal sextant angles to mark the spot on our chart, and more importantly to allow us to return to that spot.
We lowered the jackstaff on the fo’c’s’le and carried the litter with the pilot’s body to the fo’c’s’le to have it transported ashore by a Coast Guard helicopter. Using the smallest chain we had onboard, we were able to set a “nun” buoy in 129-feet of water using Whitener’s sextant angles, to mark the new datum.
Thursday, January 4th
We again sailed around sunrise, this time carrying eight Navy scuba divers. Our role now was simply to provide a diving platform for these divers, who located and mapped a field of wreckage in the vicinity of our new datum.
Friday, January 5th
We again sailed around sunrise, with the addition of three Navy civilian oceanographers and their side scan sonar. The senior oceanographer told me how happy he was that we had already found the wreckage with our (low-tech) grapnel so he would know where to look with (hi-tech) side-scan sonar to precisely locate and map the wreckage. After doing so, the Navy divers retrieved some debris from the bottom.
Saturday, January 6th
Another day with the Navy divers.
Sunday, January 7th
Our last day was another day with the Navy divers. We also had a diver from the faculty of the University of Puerto Rico.
During the afternoon, the UPR diver located one of the wings. We very slowly and very carefully hoisted the wing from a depth of over 120-feet. The line was taking a good strain, and clearly would not hold the weight of the wing out of the water. The line broke under the strain of the weight of the wing and sank. I told my watch officer: It’s time to go home.
The U.S. Navy submarine rescue vessel USS Petrel would arrive the next day with her hard-hat divers to continue the salvage operation.
Editor’s note: Ten years ago, on Oct. 22, 2012, a private (closed to the public) commemorative ceremony was held at Base San Juan at the request of Sra. Vera Clemente, in recognition of the upcoming 40th anniversary of her husband Roberto’s untimely death. In addition to the Clemente family, six members of the Sagebrush crew were in attendance.