Michigan's DFC: Daring Beaver Island Rescue

  • Published
  • By TSgt. Dan Heaton
  • 127th Wing Public Affairs
(Part of a series of stories on heroic flights that took place in the state of Michigan)

The Distinguished Flying Cross is typically awarded to military pilots for achievements in direct combat with enemy air forces in times of war. A lumbering accident in 1923 that left a Beaver Island teen near death prompted a daring rescue flight that caused the Army to make an exception to the typical policy. It is believed to be one of only two times the DFC was ever awarded for a flight that took place - in any part - in the state of Michigan.

Even though Capt. Russell Luff Meredith would be awarded the medal for his courageous flight through the snows of a Michigan winter to help save the young man, it would turn out later that the non-combat related DFC was not the most unusual award of his military career. Years later, Col. Meredith would be awarded a medal from the Soviet Union just as the Cold War was turning as frigid as the weather conditions of that 1923 flight.

Jesse Cole, second youngest child and youngest son in a family of nine children, moved with his family in 1911 to Beaver Island. His father, Garrett Cole, had operated a lumber mill in Bellaire in northeast Michigan, put had lost everything in a fire. So, when Jesse was four or five years old, Garrett moved the family to Beaver Island in Lake Michigan, some 25 miles off the coast from the city of Charlevoix on the mainland. Schooling options were limited on the island in those days so, when he got a little older, Jesse was sent off to live with a grandmother on the mainland to be able to attend high school. When he was 15, he came home for an extended Christmas break and, as he did whenever he was home, worked jobs in and around his father's mill. That's when the accident happened.

"Jesse went into the woods to help with the jammer, a kind of block-and-tackle made from logs and used to load logs on a wagon," his sister, Marguerite Cole Mulligan, wrote sometime in a memoir of her family. The undated memoir was written sometime after 1947 and is part of the Beaver Island Historical Society's collection of holdings. "It had big hooks to grab a log, and when it was stood up the log would be raised. He was kind of horsing around, and the jammer teetered over backwards, and the block-and-tackle part hit him in the head. His head seemed to split in two, and gushed blood."

In those days, there was no doctor or hospital on the island and, in the dead of winter, a boat could not make the 25-mile one-way trip from the mainland. For several days, Jesse just hung on, not getting any worse, but not seemingly getting any better either. After six days, he still had not fully regained consciousness and did not appear to recognize any of his family members caring for him. The family sent word to a one of Jesse's older sisters who lived in Chicago. She decided to ask at a local airfield if anyone there could fly a doctor to care for her brother. The pilots in Chicago contacted the governor's office in Michigan, who in turn requested a military flight from Selfridge Field, near Detroit - some 300 miles or so from Beaver Island - for help.

Major Carl Spaatz, who would become a four-star general during World War II and the first chief of staff of the new U.S. Air Force after the war, was in command of the First Pursuit Group at Selfridge at the time. He agreed to send a plane to the north to assist with the emergency. On the morning of Feb. 7, an aircraft from Selfridge departed for Charlevoix to collect a doctor and to continue on to Beaver Island. Old Man Winter had other plans, however. Engine troubles forced the initial aircraft to land at Gaylord, some 45 miles from Charlevoix. The airfield in Gaylord was covered in snow at the time, leaving the first aircraft unable to take off. The call went out to Selfridge to send another plane to Charlevoix

Meredith and a mechanic from the base, O.R. Schnabel, took off in a De Havilland DH-4 called the Osprey II and made the roughly 275 mile flight to Charlevoix in two hours and 40 minutes. They landed on the frozen Lake Charlevoix and there met with local doctor Robert B. Armstrong. The three men decided that Schnabel should remain behind on the mainland, to make room for young Jesse Cole in the aircraft for the trip back to Charlevoix.

Though the flight from Charlevoix to Beaver Island is typically only a 15-minute hop, Meredith's 1923 flight was a harrowing one. First, no plane had ever yet visited Beaver Island. Second, Jesse was at his family's home in the tiny hamlet of Nomad. Third, the snow had begun to fall again, cutting visibility to bare minimal levels.

The islanders had set out evergreen boughs in a cross on Lake Geneserath, a small lake on the island, as a beacon of sorts to guide in Meredith's plane.

"By then it had started to snow, and everyone was scared to death," recalled Jesse's sister Marguerite in her memoir.

Meredith's DFC citation continues the story: "Extremely dangerous flying conditions were encountered, blinding snow and mist destroying the visibility, thus making it necessary to land along the shore in order to determine the location of the Island. In doing so it was discovered that the compass had an error and the supply of gasoline was limited."

The prudent thing to do, perhaps, would have been to return to the mainland. Given the dire nature of Jesse Cole, Meredith and Armstrong decided to try searching once again for the green cross to mark the location of Nomad. On the second attempt, they saw the cross, but harsh winds caused them to land a bit further away.

Finally, safely on the ground, Armstrong and Meredith were taken by sleigh to the Cole home, about a mile away.

"...The plane landed safely, and the doctor was brought to our house," Marguerite wrote. "(Dr. Armstrong) looked at Jesse and said he didn't think he'd ever regain consciousness, and if he did his mind would no doubt be gone and he'd probably be blind."

Armstrong and Meredith determined that a frigid flight back to Charlevoix would be too dangerous for the patient. They stayed on the island for three days. Cole continued to make little progress, but was no longer in immediate danger. Armstrong left some medicine behind and he and Meredith returned to Charlevoix. Meredith and Schnabel then flew on to Selfridge without incident.

According to Cole's sister's account, it took "an awfully long time" for him to recover and he never did regain any memory of anything that happened to him in his 15 years of life before the accident. While his recovery was slow, Cole went on to success, becoming a successful businessman in Chicago in his adult years - even becoming a millionaire, according to an anecdotal source.

The visit by Meredith and Armstrong to Beaver Island not only aided Jesse Cole, but got people to thinking that air service between the island and the mainland was a good thing. It wasn't long before planes were landing regularly at St. James, the largest town on the island.

The 1923 flight was a highlight of Meredith's career. While he was one of 139 cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point who were graduated several months early upon U.S. entry into World War I in 1917, he was never sent overseas. Initially assigned to the artillery, Meredith became a pilot in the fall of 1918. In 1920, he was sent by the Army to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston for advanced training in aeronautical engineering. In 1927, while assigned as a pilot at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii, then-Capt. Meredith was injured in an automobile accident while on duty and was given a disability retirement.

The Distinguished Flying Cross was not created until a 1926 act of Congress. Over the next several years, the Army reviewed the service records of military pilots from previous years for consideration for the award. Meredith was awarded his medal in 1934 - 11 years after the flight and seven years after he had left the Army.

After he was mustered out, Meredith worked for several defense contractors and owned a ranch. Throughout his life, he practiced the sport of falconry and, in a major profile on Meredith in the April 1938 edition of The New Yorker Magazine, the early pilot was called the "father of American falconry" for his efforts in sharing the pastime in this country.

When America again entered a world war, Meredith was recalled to active duty and promoted to the rank of colonel. During World War II he served as the commander of Great Falls Army Air Force Base in Montana, which is now known as Malmstrom Air Force Base. While Meredith was the commander of Great Falls, the base served as a key hub for the U.S.-Soviet Union Lend-Lease program, under which countless tons of war equipment, including aircraft and weapons, were sent from the U.S. to the Soviets to support their war-fighting capabilities. For his oversight role in that operation, Meredith was awarded the Soviet Order of the Patriotic War, 1st Class, a rare honor for a U.S. officer, coming just as the Cold War was beginning.

Meredith retired to Brownsville, Texas, and continued his active involvement in falconry until the time of his death, June 25, 1965, at the age of 72. He was buried in the cemetery at West Point.

One of the oldest military air fields in continuous service, the military first took possession of Selfridge Air National Guard Base on July 1, 1917. The first flight took place on July 8 and formal flight operations began on July 16, 1917. Today the 127th Wing of the Michigan Air National Guard is the host unit at the base, which also houses units of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, Border Patrol and Customs and Border Protection.