A few days after sailing from Southampton, England, the 609-foot Greek luxury liner Lakonia caught fire in the Atlantic Ocean about 180 miles north of Portugal’s Madeira Islands. Just after midnight on December 23, the crew broadcast distress signals as more than 1,000 people, including over 600 British tourists, abandoned ship. Since the ship’s lifeboats could not accommodate all of the passengers, many passengers wearing life jackets floated in the cold ocean while awaiting rescue.
On December 23 and 24, the 57th and 58th Air Rescue Squadrons flew six HC–54 airplanes to the burning ship from Lajes Field in the Azores and Wheelus AB, Libya. The planes dropped 42 life rafts and survival kits to Lakonia survivors and circled overhead to locate other victims and direct ships to the scene. They dropped 400 blankets to five ships that arrived by dusk on December 23 to pick up the 896 survivors and 91 bodies.