Korea and Japan 1955-56

Air Force Days - Mar 24,2017

When I was promoted to captain, I was told I immediately became the most eligible captain in the Training Command to be sent to Korea.  The reason for that was that I had some Navy time at sea prior to the official end of WW2.  I was sent to Kimpo Air Base "K-14," and assigned to a very small unit that was monitoring air operations in North Korea.

Approach for landing at K-14, Korea, looking north. I think this is now Seoul International Airport. To the northeast is Seoul, and to the west is Inchon where MacArthur and the US Army invaded to turn the tide of the war. When I got there in August of 1955, the flight terminal was still showing the marks of war, with machine gun bullet holes in the walls, etc. There were practically no trees left anywhere in South Korea. It was almost total devastation; I saw one woman washing her hair in a puddle of water on a street in Seoul.

This picture was taken in our parking area. Our living quarters were temporary wooden floors with tent coverings, providing sleeping room for about 10 or 12 people, but in my tent there were only four of us. In the hobby shop I built a wardrobe for storing my clothes and personal belongings. Shower and toilet facilities were in another building, and the "toilets" were simply a large outhouse - no flush toilets. Telephone communication was so bad that it seemed one could do just as well by shouting.

 Sanitation and food were so bad that within a week of my arrival I got an emergency abscess in a front tooth, and had to drive a jeep to Inchon where an Army endodontist took care of it.

We seldom had any fresh vegetables or fruit. Our health authorities considered Korean farming practices to be unsanitary, so once a week a C-47 was sent to Japan where a supply officer would buy these things from the local market and we would haul back a load for the base. I got to make that flight once, and along with it we carried a long wooden shuffle board which I think was for the NCO Club.

Aircraft maintenance was also a problem. In my 11 months there I had four in-flight engine failures.

We grabbed every opportunity to go to Japan. I took this picture on such a flight, heading south. Most often we went to an air base near Fukuoka (I think it was called Itazuki). Although it was only ten years since the Japanese surrender, I never saw any war damage. The countryside was beautiful, food was good, and transportation was legendary. Returning to the air base by train from downtown Fukuoka at night, one could see only passing signs in Japanese, but getting off at the right stop was easy: just look at your watch. When the scheduled time approaches, just get up and start walking toward the door. The train would stop, and you get off - always at the correct place.

I usually rode in the co-pilot seat (right side) because I was often instructing junior pilots. On one return flight I had a young lady get in the pilot's seat and try her hand at the controls. The flights were otherwise sometimes dull.

What were we doing in Korea? If you looked closely at the airplane, you would see lots of radio antennas. It was an intelligence gathering mission. We flew out westward to an island called Pyong Yong-do (I forget how to spell it), and just orbited there until time to come back to our base. The island is just a little south of the demilitarized zone, and sometimes (though it never happened to me) a jet fighter from the north would make a threatening approach. There was a radar site on the island that would warn us of such an event. I think there was some anti-aircraft weaponry available. 

Sometimes we landed on the beach to offload or pick up people or materials of some sort. As you can see, a swarm of children would quickly materialize. We usually had cookies for them.

Landing on the beach was a thrill, because we had to pick our way between some big rocks on final approach and land on a short beach that was curved. One of our inexperienced pilots ground-looped there once and almost hit a rock with a wing tip. Can you visualize what would happen if some emergency prevented us from taking off before the tide came back in?

The people stationed there would take us up on their hill and give us lunch. One time I took a group of South Korean marines with their weapons out there. On the way back it was dark, we were at low altitude in the clouds, and the cockpit lights went out! What a scramble to get some lights!  

Here is a shot of the plane on the beach, with a South Korean Navy ship anchored off shore.  The visibility was not very good that day, but I think it was a small gunboat of some sort.

Other than flying, there wasn't much to do. The tents were being phased out (and falling apart), and most of the others were moving into a new barracks building, but I stayed on, alone, in my tent. Part of the reason was that I wanted to continue the employment of our houseboy. His previous employer - by now back in civilian life - was making heroic efforts to get an immigration visa for this boy, Kim, Chung Hi. I helped as best I could, and made a couple of trips into Seoul to talk to the Korean National Police. Another reason I stayed in the tent was that I had only about one more month to go.

Kim was eventually adopted by the previous employer and went to the States. He went to auto mechanic school, and I once got to visit him in California.

I spent a lot of time in the photo hobby shop at night developing these pictures.

Someone in the machine shop gave me a steel bar, and I erected a makeshift horizontal bar. I drove stakes in the ground to support the guy wires.

This is a trick I learned at Duke.

Those stakes soon began to loosen up, so the bar got wobbly.  This threw me off for what might have been a neat fly away, but you can see that I was preoccupied with how to land, rather than how to look!

Almost all aircraft accidents can be labeled pilot error. I was assigned to be the accident investigation officer for this mishap which occurred to a visiting aircraft. The pilot ran into the revetment in a fog. "Well, if you can't see where you're going, don't go!"

Notice that the parking area is paved with PSP (permanent steel planking). The revetments were to reduce damage from attacking aircraft.

One time when we took off from Japan and raised the landing gear, the hydraulic actuating handle fell off in the cockpit. We managed to reinstall it with no tools! 

Two more adventures to tell:

  1. Some time before I arrived in Korea, and while the war was still progressing, one of our C-47's had a "friendly" anti-aircraft shell go through the left wing close to the fuselage without exploding. The crew was able to get it back to base and land the plane, where it sat for months while maintenance types mused on what to do with it. It would not be easy to get a new wing to K-14, and even if they did, they didn't really have that kind of maintenance facility. It looked pretty bad. Finally it was decided to patch up the hole and tell Standish to fly it to Japan - not only to Japan, but all the way to Kisarazu which is just south and across the bay from Tokyo. We were to have minimum crew and fly only in daylight, in clear and smooth weather. 
    When the day arrived, I roared down the runway but aborted the takeoff. People wondered, why? Well, a gasoline truck had pulled out onto the runway in front of us! We went back to the end of the runway, turned around and took off. The flight was uneventful, but later I was told that we were lucky to have made it, because the rear spar was severed.
  2. .It pays to be thinking all the time when you're flying an airplane - thinking about what is likely to be ahead of you, hazardous terrain or weather, enough fuel, etc. I told about a flight I made with all the food and the shuffleboard table. The plane was heavily loaded, there was a strong headwind, it was already dark, and we were climbing in the clouds. I knew there was a mountain ahead of us, with a long sloping climb to the summit. This would mean that the headwind was moving downhill, subtracting from our rate of climb. I could see that we were taking too long to get above that mountain, so I declared an emergency and turned around (violating the air traffic control clearance). I finished climbing to our assigned altitude going away from the mountain instead of toward it. We had no way to determine our position along the course, and as the saying goes, "Some of those clouds have rocks in them." There wasn't any other traffic anyway, and I think this action saved our lives.


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