Issaquah veteran recalls the sacrifices
May 21, 2014
By Christina Corrales-Toy
Dag Garrett knew he wanted to fly.
It’s why during the tail end of World War II, he joined the U.S. Army Air Corps as a fresh-faced 18-year-old.
Over the course of a year, Garrett transformed into a well-versed navigator, more than eager to hit the skies in support of his country.
He would have to wait though, because just as he was about to deploy, the war came to an end.
“They gave up. They heard we were coming,” he joked.
Garrett was rather disappointed he missed the bulk of the war, but the Timber Ridge at Talus resident would see his fair share of action during a 23-year military career.
He initially remained grounded, serving as an instructor in Louisiana, before he was transferred to a special photo reconnaissance unit in Japan.
Garrett was charged with providing aerial coverage of Japan and Korea for use in updating maps since the war’s ending.
“We would fly every day and take pictures. At the time, Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been bombed just a year before,” he said. “Hiroshima was really destroyed. I don’t see how anything lived there. Seeing what a bomb could do was scary.”
In 1947, he was sent to Guam, where he was on the crew of a C-54 aircraft assigned to transport troops and supplies to active military bases throughout the South Pacific.
One such trip, a trek from Australia to Guam, had a very special passenger, but Garrett didn’t know it at the time.
“My first wife, Nicky, was on one of those flights from Brisbane,” he said. “I flew her before I even knew who she was.”
Nicky was one of the Australian civil workers the United States hired to work various jobs to support military requirements, Garrett said.
The two started as friends, socializing among others while she played the piano and he and his fellow servicemen sang at the local officer’s club.
She was hospitalized for a minor illness September 1947, and Garrett, being the smitten airman he was, offered to drive her home when she was better, assuming that his assignment that day didn’t have any hiccups.
“I told her, ‘Hey, I’ll pick you up, if our plane doesn’t go down,’ and I sort of laughed it off,” he said.
It was no laughing matter that same day when his C-54, carrying supplies to Manus Island off the northeastern tip of Papua New Guinea, did crash into the ocean.
Stranded at sea
An engine fire forced the six-man crew to make a water landing.
When they saw the flames, the men burst into action, making use of their extensive emergency training, Garrett said.
While two men tried to extinguish the fire, another climbed into the co-pilot’s seat, where he initiated emergency procedures. The radio operator declared mayday, and Garrett transmitted the group’s position to someone that could help.
It was such a flurry of activity, Garrett said he never had time to fear for his life.
“To tell you the truth, when you’re 22, you think you’re infallible,” he said. “You’re so busy preparing for impact, you don’t even think about it.”
In an impressive feat of skill, the pilot safely landed in the “Pacific Ocean, 500 miles from nowhere,” and only the crew’s engineer sustained anything more than minor bumps and bruises.
The group boarded the deployed life rafts and watched from afar as the aircraft disappeared into the water.
“It somehow gave me a terrible feeling of loneliness as the tail sank out of sight,” Garrett said.
The rafts contained only an emergency transmitter and floppy hats to shield from the sun. Garrett still has his hat, guarding it as a keepsake from his memorable mission.
It was Garrett’s responsibility to identify the group’s position, while the radio operator continually transmitted it in hopes that someone would find them.
Seasickness began to overcome four of the six crew members, as day turned to night with no sign of help. Garrett was fortunately spared from the illness, but as the group remained stranded, he feared he had transmitted the wrong location.
“If nobody finds us, is there going to be room in the raft for me, because I didn’t send them the right position?” he thought.
Garrett needn’t have worried. Later that night, a C-54 from the same squadron found them. The plane was joined by a B-17 aircraft that lowered a boat for the stranded crew’s use.
But the group couldn’t find it as they attempted to navigate the waters in the pitch-black darkness. They waited for daylight, and the boat was still nowhere to be seen.
So began an altogether new waiting game, while dehydration started to set in among the crew members, Garrett said.
Another boat was dropped later that afternoon, and this time, the group managed to find and board it, but the setbacks weren’t over. The hungry men found only spoiled food on board, and try as they might, they couldn’t figure out how to start the engine.
“Spoiled water, maggots in the rations, that kills your appetite right there,” Garrett said.
The crew pitched a sail and continued along through the night before a submarine came to the rescue. Once aboard, they feasted on a meal of steak and eggs.
The six men received a hero’s welcome when they returned to Guam, including a celebration later that night. Garrett’s date was Nicky, now feeling better and out of the hospital.
“That was our first date,” Garrett said. “Four months later, we were married.”
Annie, Garrett’s second wife, remembers reading about the ordeal in the Honolulu papers, where she was living with her pilot husband, George Head.
Little did she know, less than 20 years later, she and Garrett would marry, after the deaths of both of their spouses.
Head, a military hero in his own right, died in a 1962 plane crash while transporting California Congressman Clem Miller. Around that time, Nicky lost her battle with Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Annie and Dag Garrett met at a California officer’s club in 1964. Friends prodded them to talk to each other, but the two were reluctant. Dag asked her to dance and immediately told her, “I’m not ever going to get married again.”
“That’s a heck of a thing to say when you just meet someone,” Annie recalled, even though she didn’t want to get remarried either.
The Garretts will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary June 19. Before that, they’ll pause May 26 to remember the men and women who lost their lives on the battlefield.
“It’s so easy to forget all that they’ve done,” Dag said. “I’m lucky, I’m still here. There are so many that aren’t. They go through hell and high water so that we can be here and experience freedom.”