“St. Martin's” Survivor John King

by Frank Tibbo

After my book Charlie Baker George was published documenting the story of the Sabena crash, I received a letter from one of the survivors, Mr. John King.

He wrote, “Three months ago my nephew sent your book to me. I did not know that someone had written about the crash. I still have vivid memories of the crash. For many years Ruth Henderson (a survivor of the crash) and I always had dinner on that anniversary day till she passed away. Some of the early meetings we also met with Captain Martin." (King)

Mr. King, son of the Chinese Ambassador to Belgium, was returning to the U.S. to enter the University of Pennsylvania to study architecture. He was one of 44 passengers and crew aboard the Sabena Airlines DC-4 Skyliner.

Immediately after the crash Mr. King was thrown from the aircraft, he was injured, but was able to assist others. He helped two passengers from the flaming aircraft, both survived, but they weren't all so lucky. Mr. King wrote: "I went back and carried the chief mechanic to safety with the help of another young survivor. The mechanic was in bad shape with his right arm torn off, face burned, and many broken bones. He died a few minutes later because of the terrible pain."

Describing the long wait in the woods for rescue, Mr. King said that the worst part was watching helplessly as seven more of his fellow travellers died.

Mr. King's first university term was put on hold while he recovered from injuries sustained in the crash. One of his first English assignments when he finally got to University was to write a composition. Here’s what he wrote:

"All my life I have travelled to every little corner of the world. I have found them all very interesting and adventurous. But just a year ago, I had the most exciting and horrifying experience that anyone would want to go through.

"It was on September 18th when I was a passenger on the big Douglas Skymaster plane flying from Brussels to New York which crashed in the wilderness of Newfoundland. When the plane hit the ground the impact was so great that all the people in the plane were thrown through the roof which, from the force of the crash, had cracked open like an egg.

"Thrown into the air, I landed about 25 yards from the front where I was sitting only two or three seconds before. I heard a terrific explosion, and soon the dark forest turned into a bright red flame. The plane was, of course, burning severely. I was not unconscious; but the way my shoulder landed, hitting a solid tree with such force I sat there wondering if I was wounded or just dreaming. Turning my head around I could see my plane-mate in the flames a few yards away. She was unconscious, but at that time I could not tell whether she was dead or alive. I ran through the flames, unfastened her safety belt, and helped her out into the clearing.

"Before we reached a safe spot, a girl cried out in French for someone to save her life; so I asked my plane-mate to walk farther on by herself while I got the wounded stewardess. The time was short because the gasoline was flying here and there enlarging the fire. The stewardess could not walk so I carried her into the dark, swampy, spruce forest. She asked me to go back to the flames and see if any other crew members were still alive. I went back and carried the chief mechanic to safety with the help of another young survivor. The mechanic was in bad shape with his right arm torn off, face burned, and many broken bones. He died a few minutes later because of the terrible pain.

"Strangely, there were no noises from the dying people, but we could see bodies burned to ashes. Only one girl cried because her mother and sister were among those burned to death.

"We sat in the rain for the rest of the night. When morning came we took a count and only 25 out of 44 were alive, but most of the living were seriously injured. We spent two days of hope, hunger, cold, pain, and worst of all, watching seven others die. Rescue planes finally found us and dropped us food, clothing, and medicines. But unfortunately only five of us survivors had been seen by the planes, and we received supplies for only five.

"The next day the rescue party led by Captain Martin arrived. He took charge and treated us like intelligent people and held nothing from us, telling the truth of how little he had with him. But he told us that the planes would bring more of the supplies we needed the next day. He instructed soldiers to build great big fires to get us warm. Every soldier pitched in to cut wood and made us as comfortable as possible.

"The following day many planes were in the air. There must have been competition between the pilots to see who could drop his load nearer to the target. They all came in very low and dropped right on the spot. Captain Martin worked until after midnight before he had supper. After having seen our modern hospitals with their modern equipment I was amazed to discover how blood plasma was given to me, administered by using a forked stick in the wild woods.

"On the fourth day after the crash, Captain Martin announced that the helicopters were coming to the rescue. We were treated to an amazing demonstration of ingenuity and resourcefulness. Just at the time when the soldiers were weary after making us comfortable, they were faced with the task of moving us to a clearing for the helicopters. Then came a civilian search party. These old hunters and others who knew the woods took hold, moving us in litters up to a plateau. When I was carried near the helicopter I dreaded hearing a plane's motor; but after it had taken off I was not afraid and was delighted to have the reaction of flying again. The boys in the flying boat had landed on an unknown lake at the risk of cracking up themselves. They transferred us to the big sea plane which started for Gander. 

"By the time we had reached Gander Hospital all of us knew each other quite well for a situation between life and death showed up each person’s reaction and personality. We, the seventeen survivors, honour Captain Martin by naming that section of the woods where we crashed "Saint Martin in the Woods." (King)



Contributed by F. Tibbo



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