The American Legion Magazine
DESPITE ITS ABSENCE from most histories of the Korean War, the Coast Guard was there - most visibly in search and rescue.
While Coast Guard units were deployed throughout the Korean Theater - from Pusan to Guam - it was the Coast Guard detachment at Sangley Point in the Philippines that made the branch's single greatest sacrifice of the war.
That happened during a rescue mission in January 1953, when a Navy P2V Neptune reconnaissance plane went down off the coast of China.
Based in Okinawa, the crew of the Neptune had been photographing a communist anti-aircraft artillery emplacement on China's southeastern coast. As the plane turned back toward Okinawa, it was crippled by ground fire and crashed into the South China Sea, somewhere between mainland China and what was then called Formosa.
Within minutes of receiving the distress signal, Coast Guard Lt. John Vukic had his PBM-5A seaplane in the air, lifting off from Sangley Point just after 12:30 p.m. Despite its ungainly 118-foot wingspan, the plane could fly at over 200 miles per hour. Vukic used every bit of that speed to arrive at the crash site some 600 miles away before the frigid waters claimed the wrecked Neptune's 11 crewmen.
From Bad to Worse. By the time the six-man rescue team spotted the Neptune, it was almost dusk. With night falling and the waves rising, officials at Sangley Point left the decision of going ahead with the rescue mission to Vukic. As he watched his Navy counterparts flail about in the cold water, Vukic made the only decision he could - he landed his plane, bringing it to a surprisingly gentle rest despite the 12-foot seas.
Vukic glided the plane close enough for his crew to fish out the sailors. Dazed and shivering after four hours clinging to a single life raft, the downed crewmen had to be lifted into the rescue plane. Racing against time as the sun rapidly set, the Coastguardsmen managed to load the injured before a blanket of darkness covered the water.
But their ordeal had just begun. During takeoff, Vukic's left engine failed, forcing the plane to slam back into the water. Four of the rescued sailors and five of their Coast Guard rescuers died in the crash. The survivors of this second crash piled onto two life rafts and endured a bone-chilling night on the high seas.
Vukic sustained a head wound during the crash but kept the survivors' spirits buoyed during the long, cold night with his wit. According to Coast Guard chronicler John Waters, when a Navy pilot asked if freezing to death was painless, Vukic replied, "Well, I'm OK then because I've never been so damn cold and miserable in my life."
The survivors were finally picked up the next morning by the destroyer USS Halsey Powell. "John was black and blue from head to toe," recalled Melvin Davidow, Vukic's roommate back at Sangley Point. "He was in sickbay quite awhile."
After completing his service in the Coast Guard, Vukic worked for an electronics firm, living in Arizona, Florida and Pennsylvania until his death a decade ago.
His nephew, who is named after him, remembers Vukic as a humble man. "Everybody else talked about what he did in rescuing those men from the South China Sea, but he never mentioned it, never brought it up," said the younger Vukic. "I'm very proud of him."
He has every reason to be. As a Philippine-based American newspaper concluded, "There would have been no survivors had not Lt. Vukic taken the calculated landing risk. The rescue attempt offered new hope and raised the morale of the survivors" - something men like John Vukic and the Coast Guard did countless times during the Korean War.