Lt. Cowgill (center, second row) and friends with R-4 on floating aircraft repair unit (ARU) off the Philippines in 1945.
They were known as the "Ivory
Soap" pilots and they were among the pioneers of helicopter
medevac. And now the last of that group has passed away. Bob Cowgill,
the last of five Army Air Force pilots who flew 70 soldiers to safety
during the WW II Ivory Soap rescues in the Philippines, died in Port
Townsend, Washington, June 13, 2003 at the age of 79.
Ivory Soap was the code name for a project during World War II that took Liberty Ships and outfitted them to conduct aviation repair in the Pacific theater. Among the things they carried were Sikorsky helicopters.
During June of 1945, the five aviators flew Sikorsky R-4 and R-6 helicopters into a combat zone in the Philippines to bring injured soldiers out for medical treatment, often under fire. Many were the first cases flown with external litters welded in-theater to the side of the R-6 airframe. Details of the missions remained classified for decades.
Cowgill graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in aeronautical engineering and became an Army Aviator. After the war, he went with Hiller Helicopters, where he became he chief flight test engineer. In 1968 he left aerospace engineering and became an authority on Pacific Northwest coastal Native American art and history. He developed a large collection of art, artifacts and books and devoted the last 35 years of his life to carving pieces inspired by that culture. His art was the subject of a major retrospective exhibit this year.
He was modest about his unit's World War II achievements that helped validate Igor Sikorsky's dream of how the helicopter would be used.
In April of 2003 Cowgill finally received recognition for his role in medical evacuations in the Philippines, receiving an Air Medal. He was awarded the Sikorsky Winged-S Rescue Award in 2001 after his unit's exploits came to light. "I know what we did and I've always been proud of it. That's good enough for me," he told the Port Townsend Leader newspaper last year.
Lt. Cowgill in the cockpit of an R-4 on Okinawa in 1945.