MCKINLEYVILLE, Calif. — The Coast Guard will hold a memorial service this Tuesday, Dec. 22, at Coast Guard Sector Humboldt Bay in McKinleyville in remembrance of the crew and passengers of the CG 1363 helicopter that crashed after rescuing 10 people 51 years ago during the North Coast’s “Storm of the Century.”
The ceremony honors the sacrifice and heroism of two pilots, one crewmember, and a citizen volunteer who lost their lives aboard a Coast Guard HH-52 aircraft in an effort to save Humboldt County flood victims.
On Dec. 22, 1964, Lt. Cmdr. Donald Prince, from New Jersey, Royal Canadian Navy Sub-Lt. Allen Leonard Alltree, and Petty Officer 2nd Class James A. Nininger Jr., from Virginia, a Coast Guard Air Station San Francisco-based helicopter crew, were alerted that their efforts were needed in the north to assist in rescue efforts near Humboldt Bay where extensive flood damage had rendered roads useless. At 2:48, p.m. the helicopter arrived in the Humboldt Bay area where local resident Bud Hansen volunteered to join the crew to help spot flood survivors and to help orient the crew to local landmarks. Along with Hansen, the helicopter crew began evacuating people from roof tops and flood areas, ultimately saving 10 lives.
At 6:03 p.m. weather conditions worsened and the Arcata Airport Flight Service Station received a radio call from the helicopter trying to land with three rescued people onboard in very low visibly and high winds. The helicopter crew reported that they were inbound for landing, “At 1500 feet in the soup”, indicating that they were in clouds or fog with little to no visible terrain to orient themselves. Approximately eight minutes before the radio call, power had been lost at the airport rendering the radio navigation beacon, which was necessary to navigate to the airport, useless. The airport did not have radar guidance to help guide the craft and only a rudimentary radio direction finding system was available to estimate the helicopters direction from the airport.
FSS instruments indicated that the helicopter was northwest of the airport and the controller continued to radio the pilot steering directions in hopes of guiding him to a safe landing.
The pilot reported that he was at 1,000 feet and asked if that altitude would clear all obstructions along his path to the airport. The FSS replied that the 1,000 feet might be inadequate because of high terrain just east of his bearing. A citizen living a dozen miles north of the airport along the coast reported seeing a helicopter about one mile off shore heading south. FSS attempted to relay the report to the pilot but could not regain communications. Repeated calls to the helicopter were met with silence.
The following morning a search team comprised of two Coast Guard aircraft and Humboldt County Sheriff’s deputies began searching for the lost craft and crew. Over the next days, a robust ground party, now 200 strong with the addition of members of the California military reserves, U.S. Navy personnel and Georgia-Pacific employees searched the forests but had to be retreat each day due to dangerous weather conditions. Three days after losing contact with the crew of CG 1363, a U.S. Navy helicopter from the USS Bennington located the crash and directed ground parties to the site. The helicopter had crashed on a slope at 1,130 of feet elevation nine miles north of the Arcata Airport near a landmark today known as Strawberry Rock. Located with the wreckage were seven deceased; three crewman, Hansen, two women and an infant girl.
In 1998 members of the Sector Humboldt Bay Chief Petty Officer’s Association organized an effort to erect a memorial on the grounds of Sector Humboldt Bay. Currently, the Humboldt Bay Memorial honors three crews of brave Coast Guardsmen who lost their lives in the line of duty.
The crew of the CG 6549 in 1997, the crew of the CG 6541 in 1994, and the crew of the CG 1363 and its accompanying local residents they were trying to save in 1964 are all honored here. Located in a quiet, contemplative area near a grove of trees, the memorial is a lasting tribute reminding us of the Coast Guard’s unofficial motto, “So Others May Live.”