And someone you know was on board.
Douglas A-1 Skyraider (AD-4NA, 126965)
You may wonder at first why this post is included on a Western-themed blog. But bear with me. All will be made clear by the time you finish this story.
Sampson wasn’t his real name. It was a nickname affectionately given to him by the nurses at Saint Francis Memorial Hospital where he was born in 1930. Weighing over eleven pounds when he was born, the name seemed appropriate. By the time he was eighteen years old, Sampson stood an imposing six-feet, four-inches tall.
As a young boy, he was a bit of a disciplinary problem. He was held back in middle school because of his poor academic performance, and it’s not even known if he graduated from high school.
Sampson had just turned twenty, a couple of months earlier, when the Korean War started in June of 1950, and it wasn’t long before he was called up in the draft and on his way to Fort Ord east of Monterey, California for basic training. However, after basic training, rather than being shipped overseas as part of a combat unit, Sampson was assigned lifeguard duties at the base pool in Fort Ord where he remained throughout his time in the military. Sampson was a good swimmer and enjoyed his duties as a lifeguard. He would spend his days at the base pool, then he would work as a bouncer in a local bar at night to make some extra cash.
After about a year at Fort Ord, Sampson took some leave to visit his girlfriend in Seattle. Military personnel could travel on any military flight free of charge if they could find one that was headed where they were going. So, finding a plane leaving Fort Ord and heading to Seattle, Sampson secured a seat as a passenger.
After spending a few days with his girlfriend, he had to start making arrangements to get back to Fort Ord, but the only military flight that was leaving the Seattle airport for Fort Ord was a WWII model Douglas AD Skyraider. The Skyraider was a fighter-bomber that was in popular use at the time. The only problem was that it was a single-seat aircraft that was only meant to be occupied by the pilot.
Sampson begged and pleaded with the pilot, a man named Anderson, to let him stow away in the radar compartment of the plane, saying that he didn’t have enough money for a commercial flight and that if he didn’t return to Fort Ord by morning, he would be AWOL. The pilot took pity on him and agreed to let him ride in the radar compartment – if he could fit. It was a small space that wasn’t meant to be occupied by anyone, especially someone as tall as Sampson.
The only opening to the radar compartment was through a hatch on the outside of the plane, so Anderson opened the hatch to let Sampson crawl inside. The pilot closed the hatch while Sampson settled in. It was a tight fit and it would be an uncomfortable ride, especially if they ran into any turbulence along the way, but Sampson said he would be fine and thanked Anderson for the ride back to Fort Ord.
It was during take-off that things started going wrong. Just as the plane was gaining speed to lift off the runway, the hatch to the radar compartment flew open. Sampson tried to reach out of the plane to get a good enough grip on the door to pull it closed, but the wind was so strong, that it pinned the door against the fuselage. Try as he might, he was unable to get the door closed, so he retreated as far back as he could into the little compartment, away from the door. Sampson wasn’t really worried about falling out of the plane, although that was a distinct possibility. There was a much greater concern that had his attention. Because the radar compartment wasn’t meant to carry any people, there was no radio and therefore, no way to contact the pilot. Sampson knew that at their cruising altitude the oxygen would be thin and not able to support him. Normally, when they reach their cruising altitude, the pilot switches on the oxygen pumps which supply oxygen to the rest of the plane, including the radar compartment where Sampson was. But with the hatch stuck open, all of the oxygen would be sucked right out of the plane and he would suffocate.
At some point during the trip, the pilot, Anderson made a chilling discovery. An error had been made during refueling and they didn’t have enough fuel to make it to Fort Ord. Nor did they have enough fuel to return to Seattle. To make matters even worse, Anderson discovered that the oxygen supply had failed. He immediately dropped the plane to a lower altitude so there was sufficient oxygen. At least that problem was solved. He then attempted to radio any nearby airports where he could make an emergency landing. But things had gone from bad to worse because he discovered that the radio wasn’t working. As the plane’s engines started to sputter out of fuel, he knew that they were going to crash into the Pacific.
In the meantime, Sampson had passed out in the radar compartment when he ran out of oxygen, but he regained consciousness moments later when Anderson dropped the plane to a lower altitude. He woke up in time to hear the plane’s engines go silent and realized that they were going down. He braced himself for impact.
As the plane hit the water, it jerked to a sudden stop. The icy waters of the Pacific started pouring into the open hatch of the compartment where Sampson was tucked away. He tried making his way out of the hatch, but the water rushing in had too much force to fight against, so he had to wait until the compartment had filled with water before he could make his way out and then up to the surface.
As Sampson’s head pushed above the surface, he looked toward the front of the plane and saw Anderson crawling out of the cockpit. Together, the two men were able to pull two life rafts out of the plane before it sunk out of sight. Although the water was very choppy, both men were able to make it into their life raft.
They took stock of their situation. Anderson believed that they had gone down no more than two miles off the coast of Point Reyes, California. There was a thick fog that obstructed their vision so that they couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of the life rafts, and it had gotten dark out, which made it even worse. Fortunately, Anderson had a compass, so he got their bearings, pointed toward the east, and the two men began paddling their rafts toward where they hopped the shore would be.
Before long, the fog got thicker and the waves grew higher. Suddenly, a huge wave capsized the raft that Sampson was in, throwing him into the icy waters. He tried to grab for the raft, but the current quickly carried it out of his reach. When Anderson saw what happened, he tried frantically to paddle his raft to aid Sampson, but the waves easily tossed his raft around and carried him away until Sampson was lost in the fog and darkness.
When Sampson saw Anderson disappear in the fog, he felt a moment of helplessness and despair. But he wasn’t about to give up. He knew that he was a good swimmer and that the shore was somewhere between one and two miles to the east. But which direction was east? He couldn’t see more than a few feet in any direction, and Anderson was the one with the compass. Sampson was also aware that these waters were known breeding grounds for Great White Sharks. Finally, Sampson picked a direction and began to swim, knowing that he could die of hypothermia, be pulled under and drown, or be attacked by sharks before he reached shore – IF he was even headed in the right direction.
After what seemed like at least an hour of swimming, Sampson’s arms ached and his chest hurt from the exertion of swimming through such choppy waters. He had been pulled under several times and had fought to regain the surface, gagging on the saltwater he swallowed in the process.
Then the fog began to lift. Off in the distance, Sampson saw what appeared to be lights. With renewed vigor, he made his way towards the lights. His arms and legs were like rubber, and by the time he felt sand underneath him and crawled out of the ocean onto the shore, he was completely exhausted. He lay there, face down in the sand with the waves washing over him for some time. He was too weak to walk, so he crawled toward the nearest light, vomiting up seawater several times as he got closer.
It had taken Sampson forty-five minutes to crawl from the beech to the source of the light, which turned out to be coming through the window of a building that happened to be a radio station on Point Reyes. With the last of his strength, Sampson crawled up the stairs and banged on the door.
The employee of the radio station opened the door to find the body of a man dressed in a soldier’s uniform, soaking wet and passed out on the stairs. He dragged the man inside to find that he was only half-conscious. He was hypothermic and shivering uncontrollably. The man wasn’t able to talk, but it was obvious to the station employee that he had gone through something terrible and that he needed medical attention. There was a coast guard station only a couple of miles away, so the employee gave them a call and within a few minutes, the coast guard arrived to take Sampson back to their station where medical treatment was available.
At the coast guard station, Sampson was also eventually reunited with Anderson, who had made it to shore in his raft.
A lot of things went wrong on that flight for Sampson; the mistake with the fuel, the radio going out, the oxygen quitting and eventually having to ditch the plane in the Pacific, being capsized, and losing his raft with no directions and in shark-infested waters. But there were a lot of things that went in his favor as well. If the hatch had not been stuck open, he may not have been able to open it by himself once the plane had crashed into the frigid ocean. After all of the directions that he could have chosen to swim toward, he chose the one direction that brought him safely to shore. He could have drowned or been eaten by sharks before he made it to shore, or he could have made it to a deserted section of the beech where he would have died of exposure before being found.
We don’t know if Sampson ever counted his blessings when considering that night. We don’t know if he ever felt some sense of purpose or destiny that wouldn’t allow him to be taken before his work was done. But it’s for certain that he still had much to accomplish.
He completed his military service at Fort Ord, remaining the lifeguard at the base pool until the end of the war. Then, he wound up in Hollywood. Over the next sixty-five years, Sampson would have one of the most successful careers in show business, winning multiple awards as an actor, director, and producer. He contributed, in those capacities, to over fifty films, including over twenty Westerns. His films have won a total of thirteen Academy Awards and eight Golden Globes.
Because he still had work to do; because he wasn’t destined to sink to the bottom of the Pacific back in 1951, we all have been able to enjoy the brilliant talents of Clint “Sampson” Eastwood.
Mike is an award-winning Western author currently living in a 600-square-foot cabin in the mountains of Western Montana. He has been married to his redheaded sweetheart, Tami, since 1989. He is a Western Fictioneers Peacemaker Award Finalist three years in a row and his short stories have been published in numerous anthologies and are available through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other online retailers as well as brick and mortar bookstores. His first Western novel, The Sons of Philo Gaines, was released in November of 2020. It was a Peacemaker Award Finalist in two categories and won the Will Rogers Gold Medallion for Western Fiction. It is available everywhere books are sold. Mike is a member of Western Writers of America and Western Fictioneers. You can find him on Facebook at MichaelRRittAuthor, or on his website at MichaelRRitt.com.