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Founding fathers: Air Force 'Sailors' give combat rescuers a history lesson.

Air Force Reservists from the 304th Rescue Squadron at Portland International Airport, Ore., got an opportunity in September to get a first-hand look at a long lost piece of combat rescue history. But to do so they had to travel to an unusual location: a local marina.

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The object of their interest was a restored World War II-vintage U.S. Army Air Force crash boat, P-520, which was docked on the Portland waterfront at the Riverside Marina.

As the Air Force celebrates its 60th anniversary, the sight of an Air Force crash boat put into context for the Reservists just how far the Air Force has come in the field of combat rescue and served as a valuable history lesson. The group of pararescue jumpers and rescue squadron members got the opportunity to lead the vessel up the Willamettte River in downtown Portland along with a flotilla of six other boats.

As an added bonus, the Reservists got to meet three crash boat veterans.

"They are the great-grandfathers of rescue," said Staff Sgt. Josh Johnston, a 304th PJ. "These guys are so proud. It's really special to see how passionate they are about their resales 50 years ago. i hope to be that way about my saves when I'm older."

P-520 is a fully restored, wooden-hulled 85-foot fast air/sea rescue boat. Crash boats were used during World War II and the Korean War for combat rescue and recover)' of downed aviators before being decommissioned in 1957.

For members of the 304th RQS, the visit provided a glimpse into the early years of combat rescue and an opportunity to see a piece of history seldom talked about these days.

"Until recently we were unaware of this direct link to our Air Force combat rescue beginnings," said Capt. Chris Bernard, a combat rescue officer. "These guys were the founding fathers of organized combat rescue and recovery. This is like finding a long lost ancestor. Their mission was the same as ours is now, except today we use helicopters and airplanes. They would be on alert, and if they got a radio call, they would rush out into the ocean and try to pick up a lost pilot before the sharks or the bad guys got him."

The boat was originally donated to the AAF-USAF Crash Rescue Boat Association in 1997. Bud Tretter, a Korean War crash boat veteran, stepped up to the table to refurbish the historic vessel.

"The two most expensive words in the dictionary are 'nostalgia' and 'restoration,'" Mr. Tretter said.

Mr. Tretter was the only member of the association who owned a shipyard, so everyone else naturally looked to him to take on the project.

"What do you do?" Mr. Tretter said. The association was talking about restoring it, and I reluctantly raised my hand."

Ten years and $1 million later. Mr. Tretter, along with his sons and some old war buddies, completed the arduous task. What they had when the project was done was one of only 140 rescue boats to survive today in its original military form.

For Joe Placente, another Korean War crash boat veteran, his current "tour of duty" on P-520 has been an uplifting experience.

"It's opened all our eyes to what it meant to the World War II and Korean War veterans," he said. "Those who served, once they stepped back on board it's like they were home again, back being a 20-year-old."

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Mr. Placente said when he was serving as a B-29 radio operator he had never heard of the crash boats.

"They sent me to the Far East and put me on a boat," he said. "After two years, they sent me back stateside, back to the B-29. and 1 never heard of the boats again."

That was until he reunited with the association that is now taking him on tour with P-520.

Mr. Piacente said the crash boat veterans appreciated the fact that the Reservists came out to see them and their boat.

"We're sure glad those guys were here to receive us," Mr. Placente said. "They've really come a long way. They picked up the rescue ball and still have it bouncing."

"I think it's a continuation of what we started." said Don Lashua, a Korean War crash boat veteran. "I think it's great the way it is now. It was really crude when to did it."

The rescue pioneers' work is not lost on the modern-day combat rescue warriors, who had a chance to share war stories with these Air force "Sailors."

"It's just amazing to see and hear the stories about how crude everything was and that they were able to do that for months at a time." said Tech. Sgt. Brian Nelson, 304th RQS radio maintenance technician. "I got a better understanding and appreciation for what we have now and how we do business."

Mr. Lashua said their missions were generally scheduled to last for two weeks but, because of a lack of boats, they usually ended up lasting two to three months. While their primary mission was rescue, during the Korean War the boats were more often used for "spook work" or spy missions.

Mr. Tretter said the association is planning to leave P-520 at Swan Island Harbor. Ore... next to a World War II Navy PT boat.

He hopes to find a museum to permanently house the boat. Mr. Tretter asks that if anyone knows of a museum that can house the boat in a building to contact his son, Jerry, at mshydlb@aol.com. He also has a Web site at www.p-520crashboat.com.

(Sergeant Bnbin is a traditional Reservist assigned to the 920th Rescue Wing public affairs office at Patrick Air Force Base, Fla. The 304th RQS is assigned to the wing. He wrote this story while on temporary duty in Portland.)

Story and photos by Master Sgt. Chance C. Babin
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Copyright 2007 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Babin, Chance C.
Publication:Citizen Airman
Date:Dec 1, 2007
Words:986
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