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Col. William D. Mol (USAF Retired)
Austin, Texas -
"The tank leaders were talking on the radio about their next move. Their decision was to go back the way we had come in. There really wasn't much choice with that tank stuck up by the road, so a pullout was begun. Then another tank bogged down in the mud. As the crew started climbing out, the Chinese came at us. It was startling. One minute, relative quiet, then instantly a mass of screaming men running toward us. Some had rifles and some had grenades, but their biggest weapon was mass. The panorama exploding before my eyes was incredible. Poorly armed men attacking tanks!"
- William Mol
Contents - Closing the Loop:
Someone once said, "Everyone has at least one book in them." I believe this, but getting a book out takes more than an individual effort. Someone must type and retype verbiage that would not pass a fourth grade writing or spelling test. Someone has to muddle through the first draft chapters and render unto the author words of advice and encouragement. Those bestowed with these honors must carefully and tactfully suggest "minor" changes so as not t wound a kind-sized fighter pilot ego.
The author, of course, takes full credit for anything you may like in this book. However, there are some people who must be "mentioned in the dispatches". Therefore:
A hearty heartfelt - Thank You!
This book contains stories about flying airplanes and fighting in the Korean and Vietnam Wars. It is a collage of incidents that occurred over a span of years beginning when the author was a sixteen year old student pilot in 1945, through a military career as a fighter pilot, and out the other end.
The book is basically an autobiography, although it was not intended to be one. The author had it in mind to document flying stories that could be compared and enjoyed by fellow pilots--and maybe by his grandchildren. While flying stories abound within these pages, adventures that occurred on the ground emerge as well.
As men differ, so do airplane pilots. Some use an airplane as a piece of mechanical equipment, like an automobile or a wheelbarrow. Others believe that God designated them to fly, one of a chosen few with special senses that only they possess. Most share the exhilaration of flight. All share the risks.
Fighter pilots believe, for the most part, that they were singled out to perform great deeds in their swift machines, not unlike the knights of King Arthur's round table. This image is fostered by the aces of World Wars One and Two, who have been glorified in song and story since the days when "Clear eyed and unafraid, we rose at dawn to meet the wily Hun".
Fighter pilots are trained to fight in the air against enemy aircraft and to deliver ordnance against targets on the ground. When a fighter pilot goes to a war, he flies one type of aircraft or another, and missions vary. So every pilot that fights in combat has a different version of how it was.
The combat stories told herein are the author's version of how wars were fought, embellished to the degree found necessary. The emotions are those of the author, although other pilots will associate with them in one form or another. The basic challenges of flight produce similar thrills.
It would be impossible to write about flying without the use of colloquialisms and well worn phrases. No apology for this. If the author could depict a waving of hands and arms for clarity of description, he would have. No glossary is provided. It would only lead to argument from the pilot readers.
The rules of flight described herein apply to all, regardless of the size, age, speed, or capability of the aircraft. Old pilots will agree. Younger pilots may questions the rules. That's okay, as long as they don't bream them before they decide to agree.
Rule Number One: "There are old pilots and bold pilots, but there are no old bold pilots."
I spotted the airport from 3500 feet as I approached from the south and felt relieved, even though I knew it would be there. The airport guide still had it listed. Easing the Stearman east, I started a wide circle above the traffic pattern altitude to find the wind sock. Wind from the southeast meant landing over the big oak at the nth end. I thought about making a low pass but doubted anyone would be there to see it. I also was stick weary, so I just entered onto the down wind leg. How automatic it felt.
I remembered the check points I used those many years ago. The sandy spot on the Jones farm, the tree line short of the road, the pasture where Julie bought it, and almost without knowing it, I was on a short final approach. High over the old oak, into a nose low left slip, then straighten her out and we were down.
Recalling the bump where the diagonals crossed, I braked a little, brought the White Bird around just a little faster than walking speed and taxied to the old hangar. Tail to the road, switches off, throttle open, and the Continental unwound into silence. I had come home.
Hanging my helmet on the stick, I leaned back into the cushions, waiting for my ears to tune into the earth sounds. No one came to meet me. No one knew I was coming, but still I waited, letting my eyes drink in the familiar geometry of the place. The fence line, the old parking ramp, the distant tree line, all as I had remembered it. Forty years, yet nothing had changed. I wouldn't hurry. I had come a long way to sit on this spot and let the nostalgia seep in. Someone said you can never go back--that nothing is ever the same. But I think it depends on what you go back for.
The first flying hours--the first thousand--started here. As a young man, to fly was my overriding desire. The Air Force offered the opportunity and I had seized it. The early excitement and sense of duty was heady and glamorous. Patriotism was part of the equation. Then nearly as fast as it began it was over. The day came when it was time to hang up the blue uniform and call it a career. At age sixty a man is far from finished, but I had spent the major part of my adult life flying military planes and making staff decisions that may or may not have changed the course of anything. Thus my return to Northside Airport. I wanted to review what I had accomplished from where it started. Then maybe what was left would mean something more.
A car pulled into the driveway, stopped, then backed up to the fence. It was Ernie, and he had seen the white Stearman. I pulled myself out of the cockpit and stepped back off the wing in time to see Ernie striding toward me. I knew what he would say before he said it. Some things never change. He pulled up eyeball to eyeball and I could see the dawning of recognition. "Billy? Is that you Billy?" Was my name ever Billy? "Yeah, Ernie, it's me." He pumped my hand with a smile and we started for the house.
"You're in the Air Force--I've got your press clippings from that big mission in the War." (I knew he meant the Korean War.) "Been saving them for you. You've put on some weight. Are you on a leave or something? Come on in--those clippings are right here in my desk." (We had gained the house by then.) "You know, I still talk about you flying here. I told those guys you always had it made. I want to hear all about it." I knew he really wanted to tell me all about it.
Ernie bought Northside Airport sometime after I left, tore down the old Ops shack and built a nice house with a small swimming pool and a couple of duplexes next door. There were about six planes in the T-hangers that probably got flown a couple of times a month, and Ernie had built an excellent workshop--something we never had in the old days.
Rattling around the kitchen, Ernie produced some iced tea and we started talking. Ernie was good for about an hour and then he would look at his watch and says something about an appointment downtown. He was compulsive about always having to be somewhere in an hour, and that's the way it happened. Ernie offered to hangar my bird, but I told him I would tie it down on my old spot, that I wanted to check it over, and for him to go ahead on. After a final barrage of pleasantries Ernie climbed into his car and was gone as fast as he had come.
Walking toward the White Stearman I easily imagined that it was red, with silver wings and two silver stripes down the side--my first Stearman. Not mine, really, but mine anyway. Gazing at the overgrown parking ramp and the concrete slab of the old Ops shack, I pictured the Cubs as they were, lined up and ready for flight. I knew every inch of those planes, the smell of the cockpits and the feel of the polishing cloth in my hand as it glided over the surfaces of those flying machines. I would picture Jim Henry in the Ops shack, feet propped up on his scarred desk, chain smoking and telling flying stories--and my buddy, Joe Smith, nudging me in the ribs, jostling me to cut it short because we had two "hot" ones lined up tonight. It was coming back to me.
I tied the white Stearman down and covered the cockpit. The late afternoon sun felt pleasantly warm as I lowered myself to the grass and leaned back against the left wheel. As my eyes slowly swept the familiar surroundings again, my thoughts continued on a leisurely journey into the past.
Northside Airport was a lot of things to a lot of people. To me growing up it was where the world started and stopped. I liked to be at Northside at dawn, close to the airplanes to drink in the solitude and let my senses take over my body and mind for a while. It was an experience that I was to enjoy many times since at many different airfields. It really wasn't much as far as airports go. There were three runways in the form of an X with one down the middle. The longest was listed at thirty six hundred feet but there were trees on both ends, so usable surface was a lot less. The runways were listed as sod, but the south end of the southwest/northwest runway was pure Michigan sand. There was a bump at the intersection that Joe and I dragged many times with his dad's tractor and a length of railroad track, but we never would get rid of that bump. There was a tarvy road at the north end and our buildings were aligned more or less along that road. A fence was stretched between the Ops shack and the hangar, to keep the cars off the flight-line. The gas pump was located next to the Ops shack.
The Ops shack was about fourteen by twenty feet with one end of it partitioned off for Jim's desk. The rest was filled with a space heater and some folding chairs. A local map was posted on the wall with a string centered on Northside with miles ticked off in grease pencil to about one hundred, and some notices taped up alongside. There were also about three dozen shirt tails clipped from the men who had soloed. There was no plumbing. The toilet facilities at Northside consisted of a small shack out behind the hangar with a half moon on the door. Only the floor in the Ops shack was paved. Even the hangar floor was dirt. It would hold four planes but we never kept our planes in it unless we expected bad weather. Mostly it was a place to work.
When I first started working at Northside, the hangar was a mess. One greasy work bench, boxes of nuts and bolts, paint and oil cans along the walls. Jim wasn't neat but he knew where everything was. One day I took it upon myself to straighten things up. Jim gave me hell for that in a nice way. He claimed a good mechanic couldn't work in a neat hangar.
It was the summer of 46 when I started working there full time. I had a job after school and Saturdays at the local Kroger Store, making $21 dollars a week. Every cent I was paid or could scrounge went into the gas tanks of airplanes at Northside Airport. I started asking Jim for odd jobs to do in trade for flying time, 'til one day Jim offered me a full time job. He could only afford to pay me twenty dollars a week, but there would be plenty of free flying. That was the best deal I was ever offered until I joined the Air Force and they paid me to fly. Thus, I officially became part of Northside Airport. I lived about fifteen miles away in a small community by the lake and had no car. Every morning I walked two miles to the highway intersection, hitch-hiked to the airport turnoff, and usually walked the last mile to the airport. I did that seven days a week and never had a second thought about the inconvenience. I got plenty of exercise.
Jim used to chew me out for coming in when the weather was bad. Nobody came out to fly in the winter and all I did, according to Jim, was burn kerosene in the space heater, but I went anyway. I would arrive and fire up the stove, then go out and check the tie-downs on the planes. If a different type transient plane was there I would sit in it and get some cockpit time. If the weather was good I arrived early and made sure everything was gassed up. Then I would take one of the Cubs and climb up in the calm morning air, and do a couple of loops and maybe a spin, then shoot some landings. I became good at spot landings, but if I got too heady about it Jim would take me up and demonstrate a few to cut me down a peg. Nobody could fly a Cub like Jim.
Jim Henry looked like "Smiling Jack", a comic strip hero who disappeared before the jet age. He had a small trimmed mustache and a full head of jet black hair that was always neatly plastered down (probably with engine oil). Jim had magic hands around an engine and could handle anything mechanical.
Jim was Northside Airport. He was the only man that could possibly make a buck out of that place and he spent it faster than it came in the door. Jim didn't waste money frivolously on things like new equipment, tools or airport improvements. He spent money on the most important thing in his life, dirt track racecars. If an airplane engine started acting up we would pull it into the hangar and Jim would get it perking again. Occasionally I would chide Jim about buying some new planes. His answer was always--be patient, the new Cessnas and Luscombes would be coming off the line soon and we would get our share.
One of our students called in from Big Rapids one day and reported that his Cub had sprung a leak, and gas was dripping on his knees. Jim told him to fly it home the way it was, but the student declined, so Jim told me to take another Cub over there and see what needed to be done. I arrived and traded airplanes with the student. Checking over the Cub I found a pinhole leak under the metal band that held the tank in place. The local mechanic said we should pull the tank and flush it so it could be welded. I called Jim and told him the story and he said like hell he was going to pay some mechanic to fix that Cub. Fly it home! I didn't cotton to gas dripping on my knees either. So I bought a five pack of Wrigley's spearmint gum and after I chewed the flavor out of it I put it over the hole in the tank and tightened up the band.
Flying home, the Cub leaked nary a drop and Jim was pleased, but when I asked him if I should pull the tank so he could weld it he said, "Hell, Billy. It ain't leaking anymore. Gas it up and put it on the line." So I did. As long as I was there we never did weld that tank. It never leaked again either.
One day we were sitting in the Ops shack when the wind started in Kansas, blew across the lake from Milwaukee and was just short of gale force when it hit Michigan. Joe and I were listening to the windows rattle and looking out every few minutes to see that the double tie-downs were holding the birds on the flight line. I made the offhand comment that I was sure glad I was sitting here and not trying to land out there. Jim looked at me and casually said, "You can shoot 90 degree crosswind landings out there if you know how." "Come on, Jim," I said, "You don't really mean that!" He butted out his smoke, looked me in the eye with a challenge and said, "Come on, Billy boy, let's go fly."
I had about 75 hours at the time and knew just about enough to be scared when I was supposed to, but I followed him out anyway. I really thought he was kidding. We went out to his favorite Cub and between Jim and Joe and I, managed to get the wing untied and turned into the blustery wind. We held the wings while Jim flipped on the mags and propped the Dub from behind. Then he got in the front seat, motioned me into the back, and with Joe hanging onto the wing until the last minute, shut the doors and we took off. We didn't taxi to any runway, just took off from the parking ramp. That Cub fairly jumped into the air. We climbed to 400 feet and were still within the field boundary.
There isn't much to hang onto in the back seat of a Cub if you aren't flying it, but I found something, and for the next 20 minutes was treated to some exciting flying. Jim whipped the Cub around to the north/south runway, planted the right wing into that wind, and we shot three of the damnedest 90 degree crosswind landings ever. He had the wing tip an inch from the grass and we landed on one wheel and the tail wheel. Of course we didn't full stop, but even so! Then I experienced my first backward flight across the field. I don't know what the wind velocity was.
Just about the time I was wondering how we were going to get down, Jim flew over the ramp and landed not more than 20 feet from the tie down. Joe came running out and grabbed a wing, I got out and grabbed the other and Jim shut the Cub off while we wrestled the bird back to its moorings. By the time Joe and I had the tail tied down again, Jim was in the office with his feet on the desk, halfway through a cigarette. I don't know how many times I have thought and wondered about how a man could have that kind of confidence or skill. I never doubted him again. If he said he could do something I believed him, and when he told me I could do something I knew I could. He taught me to fly.
I never was as good in anything as Jim was in a J-3 Cub. A couple of times over the years I came close to really having a plane in my hand. I got pretty good in the T-6 and the F-80, and I came close in the Hun, but I never really had that last inch of ability that Jim possessed. However, I am convinced that I'm still around today because of those early lessons Jim taught me in light airplanes.
I lost a case of beer to Joe Smith because he soloed four hours before I did. It really wasn't fair, because he broke my wrist to do it. Well, it didn't happen the way it sounds. The wrist was broken during a noon hour basketball game at school. Joe and I went for the ball and I went down. snap! That was it. I had been flying the Taylorcraft at Northside and Jim said I was ready the first calm day we had, but with that cast on my left wrist, I was out of it.
Joe started flying after I did, and I think mostly because I took it up. He liked flying, and was a natural pilot, but I was the one that dragged u s out to the airport every chance that came up. We didn't have the kind of pocket change to pay for more than an hour a week. Dual flight instruction cost eleven dollars an hour! We did odd jobs for Jim and he paid us in flying time, but there were only so many odd jobs. Anyway, when I broke the wrist Joe started to catch up.
About a week after the break, I taped a welding rod to the cast, which held y hand straight out from elbow to finger tips. The rod, with a small hook on the end, allowed me to push the T-Craft throttle with my finger tips and pull it with the hook. The rig required I fly from the right seat, and Jim agreed to giving me a try. After a few circuits of the pattern I was doing okay flying with my right hand on the wheel.
Joe and I were at Northside the following Saturday when Joe asked to shoot some landings. He and Jim climbed into a Cub and left me in a cloud of dust on the ramp. I watched Joe shoot three good landings, then the Cub stopped, Jim got out, and Joe was off--solo--first. I was happy for Joe, but to say I was crest-fallen would be an understatement. I didn't mind losing the case of beer, it was a matter of pride. Hell, I had started this flying business anyway. Joe taxied in all smiles and we gathered around and slapped him on the back. Jim came out with some scissors, cut Joe's shirttail off and hung it on the Ops shack wall with a thumb tack, then wrote Joe's name on it. I moped around the rest of the afternoon and stayed out of everybody's way. Jim sensed how I was feeling, so just before sundown he offered to shoot some landings with me.
The wind had dropped to a light breeze and the air was as smooth as glass. The T-Craft never felt better. I flew a good traffic pattern and held the plane off on roundout 'til she just kissed the earth. I had the feel. It had all come together. When I taxied back after my second landing Jim told me to pull over a minute and before I knew it he was out and tying up the belt. He looked me in the eye with a big smile and said, "It's all yours, Billy Boy. Remember she'll be a lot lighter with me out of it. Just get on speed on final and hold it off like you've been doing. Have fun," and he closed the door and was gone.
I can still remember that moment's elation. I was already lined up on the runway, so I just poured on the coal. The tail came up and the plane leaped into the air. I've done a lot of memorable things in my life since then, but there is only one first solo. You can't equate it to anything else. Not even your first time with a woman. The bird climbed out to traffic altitude before I knew it, and I sort of floated around the pattern. I kept looking over at that empty left seat and laughed out loud in pure joy.
Then I was on base leg, then on final. I anchored the airspeed at sixty, remembering what Jim said, let her down, then held her off. When the wheel was full in my chest I was down, smooth as silk. Lord, how good it felt! I taxied back to Jim and since it was almost dark he jumped back in and said we better call it quits. I couldn't stop smiling until my mouth hurt. Joe and Al, our instructor pilot, were still there and they gave me the business. Joe said I better not renege on our bet because he had still beat me. Hell, I could care less. I had flown an airplane solo!
I didn't know it that day--but those few moments in the sky shaped the happenings of the rest of my life.
The Three Hundred Dollar Cub
When our business started picking up, Jim began looking for another plane or two. He heard of a J-3 Cub at Traverse City in "flying condition" for three hundred dollars, called, and bought it sight unseen. Days later one of our students needed a cross country so Jim sent him to Traverse City and I went along to pick up the Cub.
Upon arrival, a mechanic told me the Cub was parked behind the hanger, and sure enough, it was. It had been parked there for a long time. The grass had grown above the struts, one tire was flat, the windshield and windows were opaque with grime, and the whole plane just looked sick. I found two bird nests under the cowl and about a pint of water drained out of the gasolator before I hit gas. I borrowed a pump, pumped up the tire and cleaned off the windshield. After arguing awhile, the fella that sold Jim the Cub agreed to fill the gas tank. I had all of 75 cents in my pocket.
By the time we coaxed the engine into life it was late in the day, and I had a good two hours of flying ahead of me. A J-3 Cub holds 12 gallons of gas and normally burns about four gallons an hour at 80 miles per hour, but there are Cubs and there are Cubs. This was a sick Cub. I found out after take off that the stab was stuck in the full nose up position and the trim crank didn't work. I must admit I didn't check it on the ground what with all I had to do. Common sense told me to land and fix it, but the sun was already headed for the bottom of Lake Michigan so I decided to press on.
I climbed to about three thousand feet, which was probably as high as that Cub could go and sat there following the highway, holding a lot of forward stick. That old Cub really wallowed around. I switched arms, tried holding it with my knees, and then decided to climb into the front seat to see if that would help. About the time I got halfway to the front that Cub nosed up and stalled. I had to scramble back, wrenching my leg to top it off, so I just sat there getting tired and mad.
After an hour I felt like I should have been a lot further down that highway than I was. The wire gas gauge was going down faster than I thought it should. I finally figured out that the wind was out of the South and that's where I was going. I started to get a puckery feeling that all was not well. I dropped the Dub down a thousand feet to get out of some of the wind but I couldn't tell if it helped.
Abeam of Whitehall the gas gauge was an inch and a half from the gas cap. I was really worried and started seriously looking for a field to land in as I flew along. I had been taught that a good pilot always has a field picked out just in case, and I usually obeyed that rule but was so busy wresting that Cub I hadn't been doing my job.
The further I went the darker it got. The gas wire was on the cap and hadn't moved for five minutes, my arms and knees were sore and I was past nervous. I was scared. Fortunately the god who takes care of pilots was up and about that day (or night) because suddenly he reached down and moved Northside Airport right under my nose. I throttled back, landing straight into the south and the ground never felt so good. The old Franklin engine quit as I was taxiing past the intersection. There was nothing to do but get out, grab the tail and pull the cub over to the tie downs. By the time I got there I was really bushed and the place was dark as hell. Everyone had gone. I tied down the bird and hoofed it to the highway. My luck continued to hold like it had all day. It took me an hour to catch a ride home.
The next morning we looked over the Cub and found the bottom oil-soaked and the oil tank less than half full. It had been full when I took off. Jim told me to wash it, then he jimmied the stab to the neutral position and told me to put it on the ready line. I told him he ought to fly it, because it was sick. He did, and when he got back he said it was just another Cub--but I had to wipe the oil off the belly again. I wiped oil off that Cub for many a day and I wouldn't be surprised if somebody, somewhere, is still wiping oil off that thing.
The Summer of the Stearman
During the summer of 1946, I had the hots for Roy Billings' Stearman. It was a magnificent airplane with less than a hundred hours on it. Everything inside was clean, and it smelled good, just like a new Buick off the showroom floor. I had flown some bi-planes and was excited about them. The Travelaire was a dandy and I liked the Meyers, with a metal fuselage, but the Stearman was a different story. It was big and it had real class. I don't believe there was ever a stronger airplane built, pound for pound, anywhere in the world.
Roy's airplane was a PT-17 (Primary Trainer) and the last of a long line of bi-planes out of Lloyd Stearman, who had been designing them as far back as the mail-plane days. When World War II broke out the Army Air Corps needed trainers in a hurry, so the Boeing factory started cranking them out under contract. I read somewhere that 16,000 of them were built. The Navy used them too. The 17 had a Continental R-670 seven cylinder radial engine of two hundred and twenty horsepower, while the Navy seemed to like Lycoming radials in theirs. Some of the Navy's went to three hundred horsepower.
If you were looking for speed, forget it. The Stearman cruised about ninety and was redlined at 186 MPH, but you had to be going straight down to even come close to that. When it came to flying and maneuvering, the big bird had a feel like no other airplane. It was underpowered with the 220 in it, and you lost altitude when you did acrobatics, but the feel and sound of it more than made up for that.
I finally pestered Roy into checking me out one Sunday morning, and him with a big hangover, but it sure didn't affect his flying. He put on a demonstration of precision acrobatics that watered my eyes, then he let me fly around for awhile and we shot some landings. Now the Stearman, or any bi-plane for that matter, doesn't take well to a cross wind. Roy made me shoot landings on all three runways to get the feel of the wind on all the wings and wires. Then, on one landing, just as I was about to touch down, he shoved the stick forward and I bounced about thirty feet into the air. I had been making smooth landings and Roy wanted to check my recovery technique. I poured on the coal and took it around, which is what I was supposed to do. Roy taxied over to the Ops shack, jumped out a minute and came back with some masking tape, which he proceeded to paste over my airspeed indicator. He said a Stearman pilot flew by sound and feel, so we went back up and tried it. I wasn't sure if I could do it but after about three more landings Roy jumped on the wing, tied the belts in the front cockpit, and took his masking tape off my airspeed. "It's all yours, Billy, my boy. Don't bust your ass." And I was alone--me and that Stearman.
That flight started a love affair for me that has grown as the years go by. I've flown many airplanes since then, but none that has ever given me that pure essence of flight. The open cockpit is part of it, but overall it is the Stearman. I was fully attuned to every sound and smell of that great bird, and while I would forsake it for others, I would never forget it. I've caressed some beautiful women in my time, but I don't believe I enjoyed it any more than painting that Stearman through the soft summer sky.
Roy recognized what I was going through, because when I wasn't flying his Stearman I was sitting in it and polishing it. One weekend Roy flew it in and left it at Northside for the rest of the summer. Officially, we were supposed to try to sell it, but I knew he really left it there for me to enjoy. The other pilots flew it too, but I took care of it and it became my special bird. I burned gas in that plane every chance I got until my boss had to restrict me or go broke. I read a book on acrobatics and started getting pretty good once I learned about top rudder and forward stick. If you had to choose your best summer ever, I'm sure you could come up with some good ones. Mine had a red and silver Stearman in it.
The Saga of Julius Sabo
Every airport has its characters. Northside had more than its share. One was a dare-devil in the early tradition. His name was Julius Sabo and he was a bat wing parachute jumper.
Julie dropped in one day after an apparent long absence and carried on with Jim, shaking hands, back slapping and smiling at each other. I was busy at the time and didn't get to meet Julie then, but later I asked Jim about him. Jim said that he and Julie went back to when he was learning to fly, and that Julie was a helluva pilot, even better than him (which I doubted). Julie was at the height of his career as a bat wing jumper back then. Jim rummaged around in his desk and produced a poster that showed Julie standing spread eagled wearing a bat suit, helmet, and goggles. It was impressive. The suit had scalloped cloth tapered from hands to waist and it did look like a bat. Jim told me Julie used to jump from quite high and fly around doing tricks in that suit. Then when he got down to five hundred feet he would pull his parachute and finish the act by unfurling a big American flag before he touched down.
Parachuting is common place today and you see pictures all the time of free fall artists diving from planes, but this was in the thirties when that sort of thing was more adventurous and I think more dangerous, because the chutes weren't as good. Julie jumped out of anything, including hot air balloons which were big at the county fairs in those days. Julie had other tricks like using multiple parachutes, slipping out of one, free falling, then opening another.
Julie almost bought it once during a multiple jump when his last chute streamed and Julie ended up coming down head first and very fast. He said that if God hadn't put a muck patch under him he surely would have broken his head. As it was he went in until only his feet were sticking up. Somebody got to him right away and pulled him out. He wasn't hurt but Jim said he was spitting mud for weeks.
Julie started coming to the airport often. He and Jim would jawbone, then jump in a Cub, take off, and play for awhile or shoot spot landings with a buck on each one. Then they would get to arguing about who owed who. I liked Julie a lot and so did everyone else. He was quiet, always polite, and he didn't mind giving a kid like me the time of day. Best of all Jim always brightened up when Julie showed up. We spent many pleasant hours because of him.
One day while on the ramp I heard a new sounding airplane headed our way. It passed over with a peculiar kind of a whine. It was a BT-13 and lo and behold it landed and taxied up to the line. Who should be flying it but Julie. I saw his fedora before I saw him and I knew instantly who it was. Julie always wore that fedora. We all gathered around admiring the big shiny silver plane, a low wing two place machine with a 450 Pratt & Whitney engine up front. It looked like a fighter plane to me, and I couldn't keep from touching it.
Julie hopped down and told us he had just bought it from Army surplus for five hundred bucks. It was brand new and burned a lot of gas, but it was fast. Julie went to Fort Worth and picked it out of a line of about two hundred of them, sat in the cockpit with the pilot's handbook and figured out how it worked, fired it up and brought it home.
During the next week or two Julie started working his way through the pecking order giving everyone rides. He let Al Allman, our instructor, fly it because Al had instructed in them in the Air Corps. When my turn came it was Al who took me up. By then I knew the B.T. pretty well. I spent a lot of time sitting in the cockpit reading that pilot's handbook and practicing flying without really doing it. I had about as much cockpit time in that B.T. as Julie did flying it. Al did a few rolls then let me fly it for a few minutes, before landing. Nobody ever flew the B.T. very long because it was such a gas eater, but it was long enough for me to know that I had to fly something like that someday.
One day Julie announced he was going to Fremont to have a mechanic check his magnetos. He got in and fired up the B.T. while we all stood around watching. It was an occasion when anyone flew that plane.
Julie taxied down to the south end of the field and after a short warm up took off right over our heads. Just as he cleared the field boundary, at about three hundred feet, the engine quit! It was the first time I was to hear that loud silence.
We watched, spellbound for what seemed like an eternity, but was only seconds. The B.T. started to turn back toward the airport--nose high. Jim started screaming, "No Julie, no!", but, of course, Julie never heard him. The B.T. fell off on a wing into a spin and crashed--straight in. We didn't see him hit because there were trees in the way, but we heart it. I can still hear it.
We ran to the field where the plane had crashed. The engine was buried and the airplane broke in tow pieces right at the front cockpit, falling back on its belly. Julie was still strapped in the front seat, and he was dead. Laying on the right wing was Julie's fedora. Jim was crying when he told me to run back and call an ambulance and the sheriff. I did what I was told, thinking all the time this couldn't really have happened. This man and his airplane were dead, all in the space of a couple of seconds. Julie's luck had run out.
The next day a C.A.A. investigator arrived to find out the why of it, but Jim already knew why Julie had been killed. He had broken a rule. You might even say Rule Number One. If your engine quits on takeoff, don't ever try to turn back to the airport. It can't be done. A lot of pilots in heaven can attest to that. An airplane can't climb and it can't turn nose high without power. Jim told me later that if Julie would have lowered the nose when the engine quit and landed straight ahead he would probably have lived.
The C.A.A. investigator found out why the engine quit. Julie was taking off on the right main tank. He should have been on the reserve tank. In a BT-13, while the right wing fuel gauge showed about 20 gallons, you couldn't get it out unless you switched to reserve. Julie also broke Rule Number Two. He didn't know his airplane's fuel system, or he forget. Finding these things out didn't make it any easier to lose a good friend. The passing of Julie left a pall over Northside Airport that stayed with us through the summer, and longer for Jim. I knew then that I could never take flying for granted.
The Mile High Club
When World War II ended, a lot of people were suddenly out of work. Many of these were military pilots who were mustered out of the service, came home and took a sabbatical for one reason or another. I suspect they were trying to find out whether they had changed or the town had. The fact was that everything had changed. These pilots had been unceremoniously jerked out of the cockpit, and it didn't take them long to find their way to Northside Airport. They had tasted the sky, and they wanted to taste it again. Most were young, some barely twenty-one. Some were older, around thirty, and some of the young ones were old. It wasn't hard to tell the men who had been in combat.
We had a certified G.I. bill flying training program going by then although I never figured out how Jim got it certified with the old equipment we had on the flight line. An ex-G.I. could come out and earn his civilian pilot's rating at government expense and a lot of those men had time on their hands, so they came out and flew with us. We collected sixteen dollars an hour dual and eleven solo for every hour they flew. Against our normal fee of twelve dollars dual and eight dollars solo, this provided a significant profit potential.
Checking those pilots out in light airplanes was an experience. Most of them had been pushing around some pretty heavy stuff in the Air Corps. Our Cubs really got a workout. We only had one certified instructor pilot working for us, so Jim would handle the overflow and once in a while I would fly with them.
It took about three or four rides to get them settled down and smoothed out. All were ham fisted at first and over-controlled everything, and few of them knew how to use the throttle. They just couldn't get used to not having all that horsepower up front to keep them out of trouble. However, they all came around eventually, and we didn't mind giving them extra dual instruction at sixteen dollars an hour.
Toward day's end, when everyone had their fill of bumps and grinds, we would congregate in the shade and start up a session of hangar flying. Some of those men had some good stories. The younger, least experienced talked the most, but once in a while an experienced pilot would get the floor, and we would her what it was really like. It was during these sessions that I first heard about the Mile High Club.
It was an unofficial thing--they didn't give out certificates or anything--but those that claimed to be members were looked upon with a certain respect, and there was a lot of laughing and back slapping when the stories were told. To join the Mile High Club you had to have made out with a female in an airplane that was a mile high. At least that's how I understood it. I guess the transport pilots had an edge on everyone else in this department, although a lot of ex-fighter pilots claimed to be members.
The best Mile-High story I heard was about two lieutenants who were flying a C-47 and carrying one nurse in the back as a passenger. The pilot gave the bird to the co-pilot so he could go back and see how his passenger was doing. She was doing okay, but after the pilot got there she started doing a lot better, and so did the pilot. The co-pilot got worried because the pilot had been gone a longtime, so he put the gooney bird on automatic pilot and went back to see what was amiss. When he stepped into the passenger compartment, the door to the cockpit slammed closed and locked, and the lock was in the cockpit.
The Air Corps, in all its wisdom, was prepared for such things and there was a fire ax in the passenger compartment. After running out of ideas trying to get the lock open, the two pilots beat the door open with the fire ax. The Base Commander was fond of his gooney birds and checked them daily. Before the two pilots could fix the door on the bird, the damage was discovered. Whatever the explanation, the Commander wasn't buying it, so the two pilots were issued a statement of charges and ended up buying a new door. The pilot allowed as how it was worth it, but the co-pilot fussed about it for a long time.
The Mile High Club came up in just about every hangar flying session, and Joe and I began to get self conscious about not being members. After all, we reasoned, if we were to consider ourselves members of the intrepid group of aviators we were rubbing elbows with, we ought to find a way to join the Mile High Club. We finally hit upon a plan.
I was checked out in the Stinson SM8-A that Jim had bought to enhance our "airplane ride" business, and Joe knew a local girl that reportedly had rather "round heels". If we could put it all together, we were in. The Stinson had a big backseat.
Jim said we could use the Stinson, although we didn't tell him exactly what we had in mind, and Joe made a date with the girl in question to go flying. I don't think she knew exactly what we had in mind either. On the appropriate day at the appointed time, we three climbed into the Stinson for our date with destiny. Joe wasn't checked out in the Stinson so he climbed into the back seat with our willing (unsuspecting) friend, and I got the airplane started. Neither of us was sure how high a mile was, but we figured six thousand feet was safe. It took about seven or eight minutes to climb to six thousand, and Joe kept asking, "Are we there yet?" Finally I said we were, and after I had made a lazy three sixty degree turn, he climbed over in the right seat with a smile on his face and motioned me to the rear seat.
So we got it done, although Joe almost spoiled it for me by acting smart and pumping the controls right when it was critical. Our mutual friend wasn't used to flying, and I surely didn't need for her to get air sick about then, but it all worked out. Joe and I got into the Mile High Club and could now tell our own story at the hangar flying sessions. We always got a laugh when he told the part about not knowing how high a mile was.
In the Soup
When I started flying at Northside Airport, we had no airplanes with instruments that could get you through the weather. If the sun wasn't shining or thereabouts, we just didn't fly. I knew what instruments were needed for weather flying and how they worked, but I'd never flown any. Sometimes when the cloud ceiling was up around two thousand feet or higher, I would try to nudge one of our Cubs through the overcast. If it wasn't too thick, I would bust out on top. If I didn't make it through, I just kicked it into a spin and came out the bottom. I even tried a pencil on a string and hung it on the ceiling to see if I could stay upright in a climb, but it didn't work. I didn't know it then, but I could have been in coordinated flight upside down and that pencil would hang straight down on the string. I tried the same thing with a glass of water on the instrument panel, but all I managed to do was get my lap wet.
Then we got our first Cessna 140, equipped with a turn and bank indicator, a rate of climb, a sensitive altimeter, and a radio. I practiced blind flying in the Cessna every chance I got with a rigged up hood, practicing level turns, climbs and descents until Joe or whoever was with me got tired of going up and down. I chased the needle, chased the ball and my throttle control was sloppy. There was more to instrument flying than reading books.
Later that summer Jim put me on a real charter job. A baseball pitcher named Eddie Turner moved away to a small town up north to take a better job, but the team needed him. I was to pick him up at a small farm strip near where he lived and take him to the game. There was a dirt strip near the ball field where I could drop him off.
On the appointed day the weather wasn't good. We didn't have a weather reporting service. We just looked out the window and made our decision. Jim said give it a try and if I didn't like it, come back home. I cranked up the 140 and took off. The ceiling was a ragged 1000 feet. I got to Ed's all right and told him it was marginal but he said, "You're the pilot", so off we went. As we flew on, the ceiling kept dropping and we flew lower to stay under it until I was starting to go around silos and windmills. I had to climb. Up we went, into the soup. I set up a five hundred foot per minute climb and concentrated on the needle, ball, airspeed, and compass. I was starting to believe there wasn't any top, but we finally broke out at four thousand feet in the clear.
Ed was relaxed and enjoying himself, commenting on how pretty it was up there. I couldn't really enjoy it because I was just a little bit lost, and I didn't know how we were going to get down. I kept climbing to about six thousand looking for a hole. For a long time all I could see was a bright white sea of clouds under me. I hadn't learned to fly by clock yet, but I knew we were past our destination. I told Ed I was sorry, but it didn't look like we could make it to the game. By then he had figured there was something out of line anyway. I headed west, toward Lake Michigan. It was a local weather phenomenon that if there was a deck of clouds over the land, it was usually clear over the lake. I figured I could duck under the clouds over the lake and find my way back to Northside, or at least a friendly cow pasture. Twenty minutes later I found a hole.
Down we went in a fairly tight spiral and broke out about nine hundred feet. Again the god who looks after pilots was on my side, because he moved an airport right under me. It didn't take long to check the wind sock and put the Cessna on the runway. While the operator was gassing up the bird, I got on the phone to Jim. He told me the clouds at Northside had broken. I told Ed I could get him home okay, but I didn't think we ought to try for the ballgame. He agreed and paid for the gas (I was always broke) and after studying my map rather closely, we took off again. We arrived home safely and Ed was nice about it, but I know he was glad to be on the ground.
I talked to Jim about what happened, and we both agreed I was lucky. He knew he shouldn't have let me go and he told me so. After a slight case of nerves, I started feeling better about my instrument flying, but I never pushed it again. It came as no surprise that we lost our charter. Eddie figured the couple of hours more it took to drive to the ballgame was worth it. You can't argue with that kind of logic.
Women with Wings and Things
When our veterans' flight training program was in full swing at Northside, we often tried to figure out how to get more veterans out to fly. While we were discussing various forms of advertising, Art Doud came up with an idea. "How about women?"" We gave him the typical responses, "Yeah, how about them" and "I'm in favor of them" and "Okay--get one for me." Art was serious, however. "No, I mean, how about all the women that served in the Army? They're veterans, aren't they? Why not teach them to fly?"
Jim brightened up immediately! "Art, for once I think you're on to something. We can take their money as fast as anyone else's and besides, they might brighten up the place a little." So we launched a full-page newspaper ad enjoining the ladies who had served their country in the WACS and WAVES to come to Northside Airport and learn to fly.
Within the first week, twenty ladies showed up, intrigued by our ad. Many came because they knew there were men there, and some came because they actually wanted to learn to fly. We signed them up as fast as possible. Jim was right. They added a new dimension to our male-dominated airport. Teaching them to fly was another matter. Allow me to say I am not prejudiced toward women. Au contraire! But most women are not mechanically inclined, and they didn't take too well to our direct method of instruction. Most had been secretaries or clerks, and they didn't know a magneto from a powder puff. We had to invent a whole new language, and we had to clean up our act considerably. Our planes weren't designed with women in mind. J-3 Cubs were a far cry from today's plus, light machines. They didn't have brakes, and you had to prop them to get them started. This made for some occasional excitement.
I was preparing to take one of our lady students on her fifth flight. She was in the rear seat of a Cub which was parked on the ready line in front of the office. I had briefed her on the starting procedures and showed her how to crack the throttle slightly when I pulled it through. When the engine started, she was to retard the throttle to idle. Maybe my briefing was unclear, because when I propped the bird and the engine started, she went forward with the throttle. The Cub jumped forward and I jumped sideways, managing to grab the wing struts on the right side. Around in a circle we went, me hanging on to the Cub and hollering for her to retard the throttle, and her staring straight ahead watching the world go around. Fortunately our other planes were parked somewhere else, or we would have wiped out the fleet.
Finally, God pulled the throttle to idle. I'm sure she didn't do it. I ran up and cut the ignition switches, and after regaining my breath and composure, decided to delay the flight and brief a little more. She was unperturbed and stated that she couldn't always remember which way to move the throttle. I was beginning to believe I had chosen the wrong occupation.
In retrospect, the program was a success, depending on how you measure success. Of the thirty plus ladies who enrolled that summer, eight soloed and two went on to get their private pilot's license. The others flew enough to decide that flying was not their thing, but they did add a graceful atmosphere to our dusty old airport. Jim made a good profit from the whole experience. Actually, we all profited, in one way or another. Joe and Art and I were able to enhance our social schedule (to the saturation point) that summer. Those ladies got a little more than flying lessons out of that deal. At no extra charge.
Jim used to say, "There's a lot of money in aviation. I know, I put it there." He was right. At least the way we went about it, but once in a while we beat the system. One way was flying at the county fairs in our part of the state. You could call it barnstorming if you stretched the point a little. We would contract with the fair committee and for ten percent of our gate they would let us operate. The County would seal off about a half mile of rode to fly from, or we would rent a farmer's field nearby and we were in business.
Usually four of us went. We took a Stearman or my PT-23 for stunt rides and the Stinson for family rides. The Stinson, an SMSA, was licensed to carry five people, but you could put a couple of kids in between the seats and haul seven without any trouble. That old Stinson never knew the difference. I remember it had what were called dep controls--two big columns in the front seat with full wooden wheels and a bicycle chain that went down into the floor from both controls. The altimeter in the one we had only went to three thousand feet. It was black with yellow wings and stripes and looked like a transport plane left over from the trimotor days. One of the guys drove Al's old Model A pickup truck with a drum of Blue Sunoco gasoline on the back. Blue Sunoco was nineteen cents a gallon and AV gas was twenty five and our engines seemed to thrive on either one, so we burned a lot of the blue. We would put up our sign, "Airplane rides! See the Fair from the Air. Three dollars per. Stunt rides--five dollars." Then we would fly formation over and around the fair and the town to drum up customers. One of us would take up a few rolls of toilet paper and throw them over the side. When they streamed, we would cut them with our wings and do a couple of wifferdills in the process to stir up some excitement.
We had the stunt rides down to a science. It took five minutes of gentle climbing to get to three thousand feet. Then a loop with a barrel roll at the bottom and about a turn of a spin or tight spiral down to base leg--and land. Always get your passenger out on the side away from the crowd (just in case!). Eight minutes--and the customer was happy because he tipped over in front of his girlfriend.
We did pretty good in the cash box. A busy Saturday and Sunday would bring nearly three hundred bucks. Of course it was slower during the week. Lambert Zagmann usually went along to sell tickets. He was a talky gent, somewhat rotund and always smiling. Lambert hung around Northside almost every weekend. He would go for a ride once in a while, knew a lot about planes. He wasn't a pilot. But one thing Lambert could do was tell stories. My favorite was one about a pilot he knew during the days of prohibition who owned a Travelair and discovered that it was profitable to fly over the border into Canada and bring back a plane load of booze. But this pilot used the same field in Michigan once too many times, and the Feds got on to him. Just as he landed one day, they ran out and grabbed his bird before he knew what was happening. The pilot climbed out of that bird rather sheepishly and surrendered. They had him with the goods.
The Feds had their trucks parked on the other side of the field behind a fence, so they started carrying the booze over to their trucks. Being a nice guy, the pilot hated to see them go to all that work, so he said he would be glad to taxi that old Travelair over to their trucks. That seemed like a practical idea, and the Feds thanked him for his consideration and told him to go ahead. The pilot cranked the Travelair and started toward the trucks, but suddenly he turned around and took off. Lambert said he allowed as how that was the last time those Feds would ever trust that pilot. Oh, for the days of wooden planes and iron men!
Flying light airplanes in the winter time in Michigan is an experience. At Northside airport in the mid-1940s few of our planes had heaters, and those that did were of the old manifold variety that put out little heat and lots of fumes. If you wanted to fly in the winter, you had to dress commensurate with the weather. The more clothes you put on, the smaller the cockpit became. If you wore heavy boots, you not only lost the feel of the rudders, but you risked getting your feet stuck. Overcast skies and high blustery winds always seemed to plague us, especially on the weekends.
When the snow came we went from wheels to skis, which required different techniques. Just starting the engine was a chore. The oil was cold, and it made propping hard work, dangerous on the snow, because it was slippery. The skis often froze to the snow which required engine run up at high throttle settings and bouncing the tail to get moving, or getting someone to push you off. There were no brakes on the skis, so you had to taxi carefully. Once you got moving, you wouldn't stop before you took off, or the skis would stick again, so you usually checked your magnetos while taxiing around in a circle prior to take off.
There were some pluses to winter flying. Picture a clear, crisp winter's day with the snow crackling underfoot. No wind! The thick, heavy, cold air sustains the wings of a light airplane to the point where performance is considerably enhanced, and once up, you can see forever. When the ice formed on the lakes, you could land on them. In a state like Michigan with lakes every few miles, this becomes great sport. Occasionally, on slow days, Jim and I flew out, landed on a frozen lake and ice fished sitting in the cockpit of a Cub.
The lakes could be challenging, even hazardous. When the wind blew the ice free of snow and you landed on it, you were at the mercy of the winds. When you tried to taxi crosswind, you become an object for the wind to blow and turn in virtually uncontrollable fashion. You could try to nose into the wind and regain control, but this was difficult.
Winter flying teaches you about ice. Ice in flight comes in different forms. Your carburetor heat control becomes most important, and woe to the pilot who forgets it in the traffic pattern. One day Jim called me from Grand Rapids to come and pick him up. The weather was blustery but unusually warm, with a low overcast. Grand Rapids was easy to find so the low ceiling was no problem. Just follow the highway. I took off in a Cub with skis and headed southwest for what was normally a fifty minute flight.
At one thousand feet I had good cloud clearance and visibility was clear underneath. It was cold in the cockpit, and the thick overcast threw a grey shadow over the small towns and farms. I pressed on, with the comforting beat of the engine for company, flying from the front seat, in deference to the placard which read, "Solo from rear seat only."
As I flew along scanning the fields and highway below, I noticed a slight film on the windshield which seemed to be increasing. Was it oil? I opened the side window and reached out a gloved hand to check. Ice--it was ice! Then I noticed the light, freezing rain. The leading edges of the wings had started to gather it, too. This was bad news. I needed to land as soon as possible. Someone told me once to keep the controls moving continuously in freezing rain. Glaze ice would freeze everything. Moving the rudders slightly and rolling the stick in a small circle, I started looking for a field. I spotted what I needed not far from a farmhouse. Undulating my way onto a base leg, I put the Cub down in the wet snow. The bird, heavy with ice, plunked down rather firmly, but I was down.
The farmhouse kitchen was warm and cozy and the coffee hot. The people were surprised at my impromptu visit and method of arrival but were most cordial. I called Jim, and he told me to sit tight until the weather broke, which it did by early afternoon. The sun came out, and the ice melted off my bird. With thanks and the promise of an airplane ride under more favorable circumstances, I bid farewell to my hosts and flew back to Northside. My zest for winter flying had not diminished, but my respect for the weather increased.
The End of the Beginning
My stint at Northside Airport was drawing to a close. I had worked and flown there over three years. Actually, it was more a labor of love than work, but it was time to move on. The new "Air Force" had reduced their pilot cadre to a low ebb after World War II. Now there were ominous signs of trouble in the world, particularly in the Far East, so the Air Force opened up their Aviation Cadet Program again and started to train new pilots. I had only a high school education, but if I could pass a "two year college equivalent" examination, I could wear the Air Force Blue. With great trepidation, I arrived at the recruiter's office. The test was difficult. I needed 70 to pass it. I passed it with 70. I don't know if it was my brilliance that got me through or some help from the recruiting sergeant who administered the tests. I do know that they needed pilots in a bad way. It really didn't matter. I had passed.
It was hard to say goodbye to the world that I knew and the people that made up that world, but I couldn't have stayed much longer. I had outgrown the "airport boy" image, and I had learned about as much as I could from my present group of "teachers", besides, the flying business had started downhill at Northside. Our G.I. Bill program had run its course, and the country was in a slight depression. Business had dropped off continually for some time, and Jim was having difficulty making ends meet. I didn't always get paid on time, although Jim would slip me a couple of bucks if I had a hot date. That couldn't quite cut it, however. It was time to move on.
Jim, Joe, Art, and a few of the other guys bought some beer the day before I left, and they chipped in for a nice cigar lighter so I would remember them. We stood around that last afternoon retelling some of the old stories and with everybody giving me advice on how to make it in the Air Force. Then it was time to go. Reluctantly I looked over the familiar sights of Northside Airport with a distinct lumpy feeling in the throat. I had spent a lot of time and effort there, but I was taking away more than I ever gave. Over a thousand hours of flying time for one thing, and the friendship and knowledge of a lot of fine people. The hardest thing I had to do was say goodbye to Jim. We were different types of people, but he had taken care of me and taught me to fly. Jim offered a last piece of advice when we shook hands. "Bill, I'm damn proud of you, and I know you've got the right kind of stuff to be a good fighter pilot. Maybe the best, if that's what you want. Keep your mouth shut and your ears open and for Christ sake don't go around telling everyone how much flying time you have. They'll find out how good you are soon enough. And don't shine your ass in those hot military airplanes. You barely survived doing it here at Northside. That's all I have to say, except good luck and happy landings." I thanked him and said I would write, and that was it.
One chapter of my life closed and another opened. I didn't write, but I kept tabs on Jim for a while through Joe. I was in Korea when I heard that Jim was gone from Northside. It saddened me because we all like to think of things as they were, although nothing stays the same. It was a lot of years before I saw Jim again. I was a Major and home on leave with a few days to burn so I decided to try to find him. I heard Jim had bought a corner grocery store near the abandoned race track at Whiskey Ridge, and I drove out there. I had no trouble finding the place. The store was at a crossroads in the middle of nowhere with a yellow J-3 Cub parked out back.
I had worn my blue uniform to impress Jim, but I think I scared him because first he thought I was a policeman. I told him I was an Air Force pilot, and I had come to see him. Finally I had to tell him who I was. He didn't recognize me. I had put on a pound or two and I was a long way from the kid he last saw, nevertheless, I felt let down, like I'd lost something important. Jim had aged, lost his spark, the charisma that he used to generate was gone. We talked about the old days, and I told him a little about being a fighter pilot, but I could see his heart wasn't in it so I didn't stay long. I felt like I was putting him on the spot, embarrassing him for reasons I couldn't fathom, and so we parted again, for the last time. I would have understood if I had looked closely at that J-3 Cub on the way in. I would have seen it hadn't flown in years and was sitting there gathering dust, falling apart, a lonely monument to another time.
Pilot training started slow, but picked up steam. The brand new cadets of class 50-F reported to Goodfellow Air Field in Texas and entered pre-flight training. Six weeks of marching, learning to salute, tests, and being restricted to the Base. We started as strangers with no idea of the close and lasting friendships that were being formed, all with a common purpose--to fly! Marching down the flightline that first morning past the rows of T-6's to our operations area was a singular thrill. Finally, we would get to fly.
I was assigned to an elderly instructor, Captain Ralph Filburn, who had done his stint in World War II and appeared quite pleased with the relative stability of his present job. There were three of us in his flight, and he asked us if we had flown before. I gave him that, "I had a few hours in a Cub" routine, but when we landed from our first flight together, my instructor looked at me and said, "I have the feeling you've had more than a few hours." Cornered, I told him truthfully what I had flown. This pleased him, and he explained that now we could concentrate less on basics and more on the finer points of the Air Force way of flying. From then on we got along famously.
While my flying went smoothly, there were other bumps in the road. Academics! We flew half a day and went to school half a day. They were long tough days that started at dawn and ended at sundown. It seemed like we were always changing uniforms with two minutes less than we needed to do it. Whenever we had a minute, I had my face in a book wishing real hard that I had majored in something other than football in high school. It was almost my downfall.
We were studying a sort, ten-hour course called Aerophysics that I just couldn't seem to get the hang of. I went to nearly everyone in the barracks for help. Some of my fellow cadets with a higher education did their best for me, but I just couldn't seem to grasp it. Fortunately, the text book was short, because in desperation I memorized it. When the test results were published, I got a 94, which was second highest in our group. I was ecstatic, but my joy was short lived.
I was summoned before a review board to answer to an honor violation. Everyone in our barracks knew I was having trouble with that course, and when I got that high grade, somebody formally accused me of cheating. I saluted smartly before the Board and was told about the cheating accusation. What could I offer in my own defense? I asked if they had a copy of the textbook. They did. I asked them to open it to any page and read me the first sentence of any paragraph. The Officer-in-Charge did--and sat spellbound while I picked up the next sentence, then rattled off the rest of the paragraph and chapter from memory. I was cleared of the charge of cheating, but I can't honestly say I knew what that book was all about.
There were many wrinkles in the road toward graduation. One was called a "check ride." There were different reasons for a cadet to be put up for a check ride. One was a progress check, usually conducted by a senior instructor pilot at the end of a particular phase of training. While part of the routine, progress checks always raised a cadet's heartbeat and got his adrenalin flowing. Then there was the special check ride, brought about by a student's having problems in a particular phase of training, or showing dangerous tendencies, or because he screwed up in one fashion or another. It happened that I earned one of these.
My regular instructor took leave, and I was assigned a newly graduated second lieutenant as a substitute. It became obvious halfway through our first ride together that the lieutenant was somewhat ham fisted. The maneuvers he demonstrated lacked the smoothness and finesse that I was accustomed to flying with Captain Filburn. As our training flight neared an end, the lieutenant announced that he would demonstrate a wheel landing for me. I had already made a number of wheel landings, but a cadet never questions an instructor. I sat back to watch.
The instructor leveled off slightly fast, which was normal, but about five feet high, which was questionable. Instead of easing the T-6 down, he pushed forward on the stick. This action produced a bounce. Instead of leveling off and easing down, he pushed the stick forward again. This time the bounce was most pronounced. The lieutenant was determined to salvage a wheel landing, and shoved the T-6 into the ground again. I had become increasingly concerned during these gyrations, so on the top of the third bounce I hollered, "I got it", took the controls, pushed the throttle forward and initiated a go-around. The bird responded. On the climb out the instructor took back control and landed uneventfully from a closed pattern.
As soon as we deplaned I got the harshest ass-chewing of my life. The lieutenant was furious, and after venting his spleen, he marched into the Ops shack and reported me to the stage commander. Moments later I was at stiff attention in the front office.
Captain Walter C. Turnier was seldom seen but greatly feared by the Cadets in our section. His reputation for being a tough officer had been passed on to us by the upper classmen, with strong advice to steer clear of him. He had the final say on who stayed and who didn't, and this put him on a level with God-Almighty.
Captain Turnier circled slowly around, eyeing me from top to bottom as I stood in a brace, gazing straight ahead and trying not to quiver. After a long moment he started in. "So! We have here a cadet who knows more than our instructors. A cadet who takes airplanes away from instructors. You have roused my curiosity. I can hardly wait to hear--why did you take control of the airplane?" What could I say? "Sir, may I speak?" "Yes, please do." "Sir, he was about to crash us." I tensed, waiting for the barrage that was sure to follow. Instead, Captain Turnier walked to the far side of the room and faced the wall, mumbling to himself loud enough for me to hear. "He was about to crash us. He was about to crash us." Then slowly, with cool deliberation he turned and pronounced those dreadful words. "Mister--get your parachute. You and I are going on a check ride."
Proceeding with all deliberate haste I gathered my flying gear and walked out to Captain Turnier's airplane, aptly nicknamed, "The Washing Machine." He joined me shortly, then watched critically as I conducted a most thorough preflight. I was instructed to climb into the front seat, take off and proceed to the acrobatic area. Nary another word was spoken as we climbed out to five thousand feet en route to my fateful destination.
As we proceeded, my emotions ran the gamut from fear to concern to determination, laced lightly with some mad. When we arrived in the acrobatic area my task was transmitted curtly through the intercom. "All right mister, let's see what you can do. It's your airplane. Let's see how hot you really are." Hell, I thought, this is my last flight in an Air Force airplane. I might as well shoot the works." After carefully clearing the area I launched into a series of acrobatics that included everything I knew. First a slow roll, then a four point roll, followed by an eight point roll, terminating with a snap roll. Then I dove down, picked up some speed, and up into a cuban eight.
It was in the second half of this maneuver on top of the loop, that Captain Turnier cut the throttle to idle and casually announced, "Forced landing." This was a training exercise that taught you to think fast. We were taught to always have a landing field in sight in case of engine failure. Some instructors kept us off balance by pulling off the power and requiring a simulated forced landing at the most inoperative time. I had never had one on the top of a loop before.
It turned out to be a piece of cake. I still had lots of altitude and west Texas is full of flat pastures. There was plenty of time to pick the largest field in the area, gauge the wind and position the aircraft accordingly. Captain Turnier let me take the bird down to fifty feet before he pushed the throttle forward and told me to take it around. He let me climb to five hundred feet, then pulled the throttle again. I hit the second field perfectly, and the third. My adrenalin was pumping at max rate and I was never more in control of an airplane than I was that day.
He had seen enough. My instructions were to return to the field and land. I entered the traffic pattern and turned onto the final approach. I couldn't resist a last shot, regardless of the consequences. I lined up and touched down to a perfect wheel landing. We taxied in without a word, shut down, and I was told to stow my gear and report to the front office.
Captain Turnier was puffing on an ever present cigarette when I reported in my best military manner. He kept me standing at attention while he transmitted, "Okay, Mister. You can fly an airplane, but you've got a lot to learn about dealing with people and knowing when and where to shine your ass. If you had screwed up that wheel landing your ass would be mud. You lucked out--for now. I'm going to go with you--for awhile. But since you are such a hot pilot and way ahead of everyone else, here's what I want you to do. When your flight reports here to fly tomorrow, I want you to put on your parachute and march around the Ops shack, and I want you to do this until I tell you different. While you are marching, I want you to contemplate your sins. I am going to assign you a new instructor. One who has the experience to cope with your talents. And if he wants to crash the airplane, you let him. Do you understand?" My answer was loud and clear. "Yes, Sir!"
For the next three afternoons I marched around the Ops shack with a seat pack parachute banging the back of my legs. It was no picnic, but I was still in the program. When we reported on Monday I was met by my new instructor, who told me to leave my parachute on the rack and report for briefing. He turned out to be a big, red-headed crusty old Captain whose instruction technique included banging his student's knees with the control stick whenever they made a mistake or displeased him in any way. So I paid for my sins, but I stayed in the program. I believe Captain Turnier told him to bang my knees regardless of my flying progress. It was all part of the learning curve, which included some induced pressure.
Ironically, Walt Turnier and I served together in later years and became good friends. However, when I tried to resurrect this incident from cadet days, he sluffed it off by saying he couldn't remember--that this type of thing was routine in the training cycle. He did add that he would have done the Air Force a service if he had flunked me. Everybody is a comedian.
Thanks to my "patient and understanding" instructor pilot, I was recommended for fighters. We left Texas and headed for Williams Field, Arizona with great anticipation. The old "A" and "B" Model F-80s at Williams had been flown hard and nearly worn out, but they were just beautiful to cadets. I had seen my first F-80 at the National Air Races at Cleveland, Ohio, in 1947, and the sight of the Air Force's Jet Acrobatic Team, "The Acro-Jets", flying F-80's had given me the incentive to become a fighter pilot.
Advanced training was a lot easier than Basic, with more emphasis on flying and less on soldiering. It was great to be alive. I roomed with a buddy from Basic, Calvin Hodel, and we had the best of times. Fly hard all week and meet the lovely young ladies from Phoenix on the weekends. True, some of them were "cadet widows" who bounced from class to class and cadet to cadet looking for a steady boyfriend or a husband. Most of us managed to avoid that tender trap, but we sure enjoyed partaking of the bait.
I remember a beautiful, dark-haired girl that I wanted in the worst way. She wanted a commitment, but I only wanted her. So I made up my mind to pursue at full throttle. I tried flowers--no dice. Candy--no better. Romantic dinners didn't do it either. So it had to be the hard way. I would get her drunk.
She put me under the table in about two hours and if Cal hadn't rescued me, I'd be there still. She really had her act together. I finally gave up on her. I hated to admit failure, but I saved face by being the one to break off our romance, if you could call it that. I guess it really wasn't fair, but like a lot of other guys I had a girl back home that said she would wait, so there wasn't much else I could do. There were still a few things I needed to learn.
Before we knew it, we were through. I remember the anticipation on graduation morning, knowing that in just a few hours I would wear the coveted silver wings of an Air Force pilot. A fighter pilot at that. Well, almost. Did I really make it through thirteen months of hurry up and wait, study and sweat? I thought of those that didn't make it. Fifty-two out of one hundred and thirty-four men that started with our class had been washed out.
I thought of a lot of things that morning. Of Northside Airport, Jim, and all my friends in Michigan. I felt so good I wanted to go out on the fire escape and holler at the top of my lungs, but of course a soon-to-be officer and gentleman would not do that. Cal and I dressed and checked each other over to see that our brass was on straight, then walked out into the Arizona sunlight towards the biggest day of our lives. It was also the last time I would see Cal. In less than a year he would crash on a sand bar in a river bed in Korea trying to belly in his cripple bird, but that was to come. Today was ours. We had earned it, and we went out and got it!
Gunnery training at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada was next. Flying fighters, shooting guns, living in Las Vegas and getting paid for it. Not only that, but we were on our way to Korea. The war had started a few months ago, and we were afraid we would miss it. Upon graduation from flying school, we were asked to list three choices of assignments. I put down Korea, Korea, and Korea. The Personnel people said I couldn't do that. They weren't sending recent pilot graduates to Korea. I was adamant. If they wanted to change it--go ahead, but I wouldn't. Obviously, the need for pilots changed their minds because all of us that volunteered were accepted. Pappy, Mack, Bill, and I were put in the small flight. We knew each other from Arizona and were pleased to be together again. Things were looking good.
Nellis was a great base from a fighter pilot's viewpoint. There were P-51's, F-80's, F-84's and even a squadron of the new F-86's. The ramp looked like a sea of planes. The base was out from town at the foot of what we called Sunrise Mountain. Being on that ramp at dawn had to be the most beautiful experience in the world, with the ramp in the shadow of the most beautiful experience in the world, with the ramp in the shadow of Sunrise Mountain and the sun peeking around its edges. These quiet, reflective mornings were special.
We all finished gunnery training, but not without a few mishaps. Like me putting 9 G's on an F-80 and rumpling the wings a little, and Mack almost shooting himself down with ricochets from pressing the strafe target. With our graduate fighter pilot certificates in our hands were soon boarded a train headed for San Francisco and Camp Stoneman. It didn't take us long to find a wonderful invention they had on that train called a club car.
After processing in at Camp Stoneman, we were given a few days to settle our personal affairs. Since we didn't have any personal affairs, we headed for San Francisco to see if we could get a few started. We found the Barbury Coast, which seemed to be tailor-made for lieutenants out on the town. We had a grand "Farewell, America" party there with singing and some semi-serious beer drinking. The natives were friendly and by the time we bought a couple of drinks, we were nearly swamped with new acquaintances and well wishers. It was a fitting send off for four of America's finest, and I can't remember a higher time. W were on the threshold of something big--honed and trained to a fine edge, motivated by our youth and exuberance, God's gift to the United States Air Force. We were convinced there weren't four other finer fighter pilots anywhere in the world. We didn't know just how green we really were, but hell, you couldn't have told us that. We were ready to take our place on the list of great fighter pilots who had gone before us. We were on our way.
The Forty Yard Dash
People survive from infancy with the help of other people. Pilots survive if they never stop learning. Sometimes the most innocuous piece of advice sticks in your mind, filed away until needed. If you pay attention, you might remember that "one thing" that saves your as. I joined my first fighter squadron at Itazuke, Japan, fresh out of Willie Field with a cram course in gunnery at Nellis, and green as grass. I had a couple hundred hours in an F-80 and my squadron, the 36th "Flying Friends" had just converted from Mustangs a month before my arrival, so I had more "80" time than anyone in the squadron. I flew the bird all right but wasn't much help with the important problems of the day--one of which was cruise control.
We didn't own much real estate in Korea in those days. The Army was fighting its way out of the Pusan Perimeter and the only jet field we could operate from was Taegu. Pusan was available but had short runways with many mountains close by. We were flying out of Itazuke. The first leg of our mission usually was in close support of the Army. Then we would land, rearm, and refuel at Taegu, then fly an interdiction mission farther up North. If we had enough gas when we finished, we would head back for Itazuke, if not, we'd land again at Taegu, gas up, then go back to Japan. It was a long day anyway you cut it. If we got a good target, a train or some trucks, there was a tendency to stay past minimum fuel. Throw a little weather in with our inexperience in cruise control, and it got to be a little puckery. I couldn't help much with cruise control, but because I had all that time in the F-80, they made me a test pilot. When major maintenance was accomplished on a bird, such as an engine change or battle damage repair, you had to test fly the airplane to make sure all systems worked. It was usually routine.
Our engineering officer, a captain with a few years and some good miles on him, checked me out as a test pilot. Before he signed me off, he stated, "Bill, this test hop business is no big deal, but we've got a lot of young people working on those birds so let me give you some advice. After takeoff, I always circle the field once as I'm climbing out. If anything bad is going to happen on a test hop, it usually happens in the first few minutes. I followed his advice. It made sense. On a given day I was scheduled to fly an engine change bird, and climbing through about twelve thousand feet as I circled the field, the engine let go. Ka Womp! Fire warning lights lit on the instrument panel and the cockpit filled with smoke.
The way that plane was shaking left me with no doubt about my next move. I straightened up in the seat, raised the arm rest and squeezed the ejection seat handles. Nothing happened! I tried to open the canopy electrically, then manually. I couldn't get it open! All this in seconds that I swear were hours. After pulling and pushing on ejection seat handles and canopy handles, it became apparent I was stuck in the bird. The cockpit filled with smoke which burned my eyes. I went to 100 percent oxygen and pulled the mask high on my face so that pure oxygen could blow into my eyes. It worked. I could see!
"Itazuke Tower, this is Red Test One. I have a serious emergency. My engine exploded and I am dead stick. I also think I am on fire. I am on a high downwind. Please have the crash crew pull my canopy off from outside if I get it down on the runway. I can't get it open--over." All this very clearly, distinctly, and calm. The tower came back the same way. "Roger, Red Test One. Cleared to land runway 18. Crash crew has been advised, standing by."
As I nervously turned final, Mobile Control chimed in with, "Red Test One from Mobile. If you are able, replace your seat pins--out." Good work Mobile! I would hate to get down and then have the seat blow. I managed to get the pins in, my gear down, turn final, and hold the mask to my eyes so I could see all at about the same time. I was doing about 200 when I touched down. I forgot speed brakes somewhere. Damn!
I think I had the brakes on when I touched down because both tires blew almost at once, but the bird stayed on its gear and I got it stopped. After what seemed like a long time, the red trucks arrived and started hosing the aft section. Then some brave guy jumped up n the wing and pulled the canopy off. I was wearing a parachute with a dingy strapped on it--total weight about 60 pounds, but I leaped out of the cockpit, chute and all, onto the wing and started running. When I ran off the wing tip (about four feet high), I sprained both ankles, fell on my knees, and kept running. I think it was the guy that pulled off my canopy that finally stopped me about forty yards away with a flying tackle. When I turned around and saw they had the fire out, I also noticed my knees were red. I had worn my flying suit bald on both knees. I wasn't really hurt, but I got doctored up some and conned the flight surgeon out of a shot or two of his old Tennis Shoe combat whiskey. Later I took that flying suit into supply and turned it in for one with both knees still in it.
The next morning what should greet me hanging on the wall in the Ops shack but my flying suit with no knees. Some wise acre had put up a sign, "Local pilot sets new record for 40 yard dash." Everybody had a good laugh at my expense, but it didn't bother me a bit. I just smiled--happy to be there. Later I went over to the engineering shack and found the good Captain who had given me that "One Last Thing" piece of advice that saved my ass and told him I would like to buy him a drink. And I did!!!
Itazuke Air Base and Other Important Events
Itazuke Air Base, Japan was an Air Force mainstay base for many years. A lot of fighter pilots can tell you about it. It was located in southern Japan on the island of Kyushu. When the Korean War started, it was a bee hive of activity. At times it supported two fighter wings and a big rear echelon maintenance activity. It was actually two bases--The Strip and Base One.
The Strip, surrounded by rice paddies set in a sleepy soft Japanese valley, was where everybody worked. It was a typical Japanese base. Everything was too small--the rooms in the BOQ, the offices, the hangars, the shops, everything. The fact that we had about three times as many people there as any place else didn't help either. The Strip also had a small Officer's Club called, of all things, the Strip Club.
The Strip was really our home, and it was the best one I ever had in all the wars I went to. The early Korean War was a commuter's war. We lived in Japan, not lavishly, but well, with clean shirts every night and a house girl to do your wash and pick up after you. We could hit town in the evenings, or just have a few at the Strip Club and swap war stories. We ate breakfast and lunch at the Strip Club. We got to know all the waitresses and kidded around with them a lot. They became almost like family. In a world where everything changed everyday, they were the closest thing to stability we had. It was a nice place to be, if you had to be there.
Base One had family housing, support people, and a big Officers Club which fighter pilots avoided because flight sits were not allowed. There were other places a combat wary pilot could go in downtown Fukuoka if he were going to shower and dress. The best place was the Allied Officer's Club, the house of a rich merchant commandeered after World War II and turned into a warm, informal club. Mixed drinks were a quarter, and the best steak in the house was two-fifty. They always had lobster, oysters in season, and a good bottle of the grape. There was soft music there, with efficient little Japanese ladies to serve. It was an absolute heaven after flying a couple of combat missions. Later in the evening there was the Central Cabaret, or the Kokusai Hotel, and the greatest little bathhouse in Japan--The Ichi Rocu (House of Mirrors).
If all else failed, there was the river bridge. Some of the most beautiful amateur ladies of the evening plied their trade on this bridge. They would wear a light coat, with nothing underneath, and hover on the bridge. If you had the courage or the inclination to walk across, you were purview to a little flash of the coat followed by an offer that was hard to refuse.
One of the favorite games of the old heads was to take a replacement pilot on this first trip to town. After a good dinner and some wine at the Allied Club, they would take him to the bridge and bet him ten dollars he couldn't make it across without getting propositioned. What usually happened was that the guy not only lost his ten dollar bet, but also another ten as well. There was one of each and every kind on that bridge, and mortal man just couldn't cope. Like choosing from a fresh box of Whitman's sampler chocolates.
The Central Cabaret was a big favorite. It had a fair band with a hostess set up where you picked a young lovely and paid double for your drinks while she drank tea from a whiskey glass. Sound familiar? It was a good place to go when you were doing the town en mass. You could get a big table, drink Nippon beer, surround yourself with people, and joke around with the girls. Their vocabulary was restricted to quaint phrases like, "Where you go, G.I.?" or, "Buy me a drink, G.I.?" or, "You wanna take me home, G.I.?" Very stimulating!
The House of Mirrors was a classic. Lost in a quiet back street neighborhood, it was a traditional Japanese three story building surrounded by lovely gardens and a huge fountain. The house mother met your at the door, where you took your shoes off. She offered you some tea and looked you over to make sure you weren't drunk or rowdy, then introduced you to a lady of the evening. Of course, there was a commercial transaction first.
The ladies, dressed in traditional kimonos, would then shyly escort you to your room where you were issued a robe and taken to the bath. The House of Mirrors had a large, hot bath on the ground floor, and everyone used it at the same time. It held about twenty people easily, but first you showered and then sat on a little wooden stool, and your lady scrubbed you, but good. I never could get used to the community fashion in which the Japanese people bathed. It was downright embarrassing. Then you got into the tub, which was really hot. The ladies in this house did not bathe with you, but they made sure you stayed in until you were well cooked. Then back to your room and a big cold bottle of good Japanese beer, and finally, to bed.
When you came in you may have had visions of amour, but by the time that hot bath cooked you, there really wasn't much left. You sure as hell got the best night's sleep you ever had, even on a bean bag pillow.
There were other "Houses" in the district as well. Sometimes we would cruise the area and look the girls over, but they all looked the same in kimonos. Besides, most of us were young and married maybe a year or less, so we didn't always spend the night. I guess we all felt a little guilty underneath, but they were giving a war, and we were going to it. Our tenure on the world wasn't too secure, so sometimes we just said to hell with it and played fighter pilot. It was part of the times we were in.
The Bald Eagle
There are commanders and there are leaders. Colonel William Bethea, the "Bald Eagle", was both, but you would never guess it if you didn't know him. Short, pot bellied, and bald, he looked like a country storekeeper, anything but a fighter pilot. Once in a while in the bar, somebody would challenge him in one way or another. The Bald Eagle would trade words until he got tired of talking (he seldom got tired of talking), then drop to the floor and do fifty one arm push-ups--on either arm.
He was a major then and had done some shooting in World War II. He loved to fly, but there were some problems there. The Bald Eagle only knew two throttle settings--off and wide open. When he led his flight or squadron, you'd better be on your toes because if you ever fell behind for any reason, you were on your own.
The Operations Officer finally talked the Maintenance Officer into down-trimming the engine on the "Eagle's" F-80 which made it about 20 knots slower than the regular fleet. The CO bitched constantly about having the slowest plane on the line. By God he was going to get a new maintenance officer! But hell, it was self defense. It was the only way the rest of us could keep up with him, and even then it wasn't easy.
One time we flew north pre-briefed to work on the railroad (blowing up track), and the whole country was socked in. There was one hole, and he found it. It was right over Pyong Yang, which happened to be the Capitol of North Korea. Every gun in the world was pointed at that hole.
We rolled in with thousand pounders after the bridges. I was number four and the last man in, and I swear by the time I got that 80 pointed at the bridge the hole in the clouds was gone--filled with flack. It was sort of dark, and you could see every flash of every gun and every burst of every shell.
I'm not even sure I aimed, just dumped those thousand pounders in the general direction of the bridge and got that 80 climbing back up with the speed of light. The Bald Eagle pressed and hit one of the bridges, then took some hits himself. When we got home, we found out it was small arms fire that hit him so you know he really pressed the target.
He was elated that we hadn't wasted a mission, especially when he found that he had hit a bridge. He was fearless--and I've got to believe lucky because he didn't know what target we hit until we told him. "Downtown Pyong Yang", he said. "No wonder there was so much flak."
The Bald Eagle was tough and demanding, and some of that got passed on to us. He had his own training techniques. For some reason, just before the army recaptured Kimpo Airfield, we received orders to posthole the runway. The brass in Tokyo were probably concerned that the Chinese were going to fly in there and give us some trouble, but hell, we had control of the sky by then. All we did was blow the hell out of a perfectly good runway and a week later our engineers were frantically filling holes so we could use it ourselves. I have some gun camera film up in the attic which shows me shooting up the same Quonset huts that we moved into two weeks later. I got to soak up some rain because I shot holes in my own roof. The ironies of war.
When the engineers finally pronounced the runway operation the Red Tails got the call to move from our cushy rooms at Itazuke back to Korea. I was personnel equipment officer at the time, and I asked Ops to leave me off the flying schedule so I could see that all our gear got properly loaded. The personnel equipment sergeant and I were going to come over in a Gooney Bird later, but somebody got sick, so I was scheduled as Red spare. In those days the spare started engines with everybody else and if somebody aborted, the spare filled in. I hadn't even gone to the briefing when the Ops officer put me in the spare bird, and I didn't even know where everyone was going. The Ops officer said, "No sweat. You won't go." Famous last words.
The Number Three in the Bald Eagle's flight aborted with a fire warning light, and the next thing I knew I was on my way to Korea to targets unknown, I found out soon enough. Downtown Pyong Yang again! The Bald Eagle was drawn there like a magnet, or it was the only target he could find. I'll spare you the details. I flung my bombs and got out unscathed but more unsettled, and recovered at Kimpo.
We were met by the squadron adjutant who had been there for a few days with the advanced party. He picked us up in our only squadron vehicle, a truck, and took us to show the C.O. our new home. It wasn't much, four tents set in the mud. One was headquarters, one operations, one maintenance, and the last one was mine, personal equipment. The Bald Eagle wasn't happy abut this. When we got to my tent he snorted, "Lieutenant, that's the lousiest personal equipment tent I have ever seen. Fix it!" "Yes Sir," I said, wondering just how and what I was going to fix that tent with. I bummed a ride to the Army engineers (who were patching bomb holes). I asked the engineers for lumber. They ran me off, so I went back to report to the commander, who was now set up in his tent.
"Sir, the engineers don't have any lumber." The Eagle glared at me for a long moment, then said, "I didn't ask you if the engineers had any damn lumber. I told you to fix that personal equipment tent. Now do it!" He was good about giving precise orders. "Yes Sir, but I'll need to borrow your truck." "Take the damn thing," he bellowed, dismissing me with a wave of his fifty push-up arm.
It was already past noon and some of our support aircraft had arrived, my sergeant along with them. I grabbed him and started scrounging. In about forty-five minutes I managed to put my hands on five bottles of Old Tennis Shoe combat whiskey. Shorty (my Sarge) and I put it in the C.O.'s truck and started for Seoul City. I heard they were re-building the bridge over the Han River and figured there would be some lumber there. There was, and before long I had talked an engineer sergeant into loaning some to me in return for the loan of some Old Tennis Shoe. Unfortunately, a captain caught us before I could get the truck loaded so we had to call off the deal. However, the captain told me where the lumber yard was.
Shorty and I hit the trail again and found the lumber yard, run by a snooty "grunt" first lieutenant who listened to my impassioned plea for lumber with a deaf ear. "We ain't got no lumber for no Air Force guys no way. Don't you know there's a war going on?" Bullshit! I was getting tired of the games by then so I asked the lieutenant who his boss was. He told me a Colonel somebody, but let me know it wouldn't do me any good because the Army wasn't giving away lumber today.
I grabbed Shorty again and we found the colonel's office. I was so damn tired of telling my story that I just saluted the colonel and blurted, "Sir, I need a truck load of lumber, and I have five bottles of whiskey to pay for it." As he looked at me, a slow smile spread across his face, and he said, "Where's your truck?"
That colonel wrote me a note that said give this lieutenant anything he wants--signed, the Colonel. I took it back to that snooty first lieutenant at the lumber yard and I asked him if he could read? Then I showed him the note. He shrugged his shoulders and just said, "Shit--help yourself." We did!
It was late afternoon when we got back to Kimpo. I didn't think we could get much more done that day, but Shorty took over and bought a dozen Korean workers for a carton of cigarettes. They swarmed on that tent like a flock of bees. By sundown it was done. A floor, helmet racks, parachute bins--the whole shebang. Shorty and I were just finishing sweeping out the tent when the Bald Eagle walked up. He looked around, snorted a few times, and said, "I guess this will do, lieutenant. You sure took your time getting it done." Then off he went to help out the Maintenance Officer or someone, but he left smiling. Shorty and I just looked at each other. We were starting to get the idea.
Yes Sir. The Bald Eagle was a helluva leader. When it came time for my performance report, he gave me a strong six rating with an endorsement that said, "This Lieutenant is green, but he will probably amount to something if he doesn't get killed." I considered this the highest praise I had ever received.
I was getting settled in as a squadron pilot in mid-March when I received orders to report to Korea as a Forward Air Controller. "What the hell is a Forward Air Controller?", I asked. A fighter pilot that goes up to the front to work with Army units controlling fighter planes in close air support, I was told. Damn, why me? I didn't know anything about the Army. It turned out that all the squadron pilots took turns because Army guys couldn't direct fighter planes. It was only for three weeks. One week of training at Taegu and two weeks with the Army. No big deal.
I packed my bag and flew on a gooney bird to Iwa Kuni to check in and draw some gear. They issued me army clothes, blankets, a sleeping bag, and a new Colt forty-five. I didn't have to sign for anything. The supply sergeant told me he didn't expect to see me or this gear again. Not very comforting. At Taegu a group of us went to school to learn all about being a Forward Air Controller. They showed us radio jeeps with three different radios on them, and they taught us the Army chain of command. One day we went along the river bed with carbines, M-1's, and our side arms to do some shooting. They had no target range. You just picked a rock or something and fired on it.
While we were passing through the city I found out how the Korean Army did their recruiting. They drove around in a truck, and if they found a man walking down the road, they stopped and put him on board. That was it. If he was big enough and over twelve years old (maybe fourteen), he was in the Army. Only the very young and the very old were spared. These were our allies. Hell, we must have been slow spreading the word on democracy over there. I thought of the American system. In fact, I had received a letter from my draft board a few weeks back, and they told me if I didn't get over there and register, they were coming after me. I wrote them a letter and told them that nothing would make me happier than to comply with their request, but my Squadron Commander wouldn't let me go because I had to fly a mission. Maybe our systems weren't that different after all.
Our training over, I was told to report to my assigned regiment, somewhere north of Seoul. I climbed on a Gooney bird and headed north, landing at K-16, a small strip near Seoul, and bummed a ride into town. I had no idea how the hell to find a regiment, even though that's a lot of troops and shouldn't be hard to find. I was standing on a street corner with all my gear wondering what to do next when an officer approached and asked if I needed help. He was a doctor with the local MASH hospital. When I explained my dilemma, he took me in tow and put me up at the MASH for the night. The next morning I was on my way in an ambulance. They delivered me right to the Regimental Command Post. Without their help, I might still be wandering around the streets of Seoul.
I asked a few directions and found out where the officer was that I was to replace. "Hi," says I. "I'm your replacement." A smile spread across his face, and he started packing before he even asked me to sit down. He pointed out where my two enlisted troops lived and where the jeeps were parked; then believe it or not, he threw his duffle on his shoulder and started hitchhiking south. There were a thousand questions I wanted to ask him, but he just smiled as he faded away and said, "You'll find out." He must have had something good waiting for him somewhere. He sure didn't let any grass grow under his feet.
I was assigned a cot in a tent where other liaison officers slept. The place was about half full of people, being day's end, so I went around and introduced myself. My welcome was less than warm. Nobody seemed to want to talk. Finally, I said to hell with it, pulled out a bottle of Old Tennis Shoe, and poured myself a drink. That whiskey hardly hit my canteen cup when I was besieged by friends and well wishers. I was beginning to find out how things worked around here. He who controls the Old Tennis Shoe controls the world!
Tanks a Lot
When you're young, you do a lot of foolish things. The "Three" asked me to volunteer for tank patrol, and I said yes. An old soldier would have known better.
The planned mission was a reconnaissance in force. A dozen Sherman tanks and a company of infantry. The Chinese were up to something, and the Brass wanted to know what it was. The Chinese had broken contact except for patrol activity on almost the entire front, and this was an ominous sign. Some thought we had kicked the hell out of the Chinese, that they were headed back for Manchuria, but most of us knew that wasn't it. Our task force was ordered north three to five miles to see and report. We were to establish contact with the enemy if possible but not stay and fight. At dawn we assembled where the tanks were bedded down near the double bend in the Imjin River. I met the tank company commander, a wizened captain, old beyond his years, and also my tank commander, a second lieutenant like me.
I was a little nervous about this mission. The tanks were big and rough, heavy looking and muddy. They sported a 76mm cannon sticking out of the turret along with a thirty caliber belt-fed machine gun. A big thumb-tripped 50 caliber machine gun was mounted on the top front of the turret. The tankers told me the 50 cal was originally mounted on the back of the turret, but they re-welded it up front. Tankers don't shoot backwards much, I found out. The big gun had a slow rate of fire, and a skilled man could shoot it like a rifle. Very formidable.
My tank had the name "Chris" stenciled on the side. I asked the crew if it was one of their wives or girlfriends, but they told me it had been there when they came aboard. It was bad luck to change the name of a tank, so they left it there. I was also briefed on how to load the cannon, because I was to replace the regular cannon loader on this mission. There weren't any guest rooms aboard this ship. They showed me where the shells were stored, in every extra nook and cranny, and how to tell the different types of rounds by the color pained on their nose. I nodded and tried to take it all in, but things were moving fast at the time. Then I was introduced to "Big George" Goodwine, the biggest black man I ever met. He was a master sergeant and commander of the tank next to mine. My tank commander told me he was the best shot in the Army. Christ! He was fifty five years old if he were a day, and his hair was stone white. After we shook hands, I told him he looked a little old to be going out on tank patrols. He laughed and said he was. He had nine grandchildren, but after going through all of World War II he had stayed in the inactive reserve. The Army in their need made him active when this war broke out. I'm sure he could have ducked it but he was the kind of man that whenever they gave a war, he went.
Big George kidded me about packing two 45 automatics on my hips and wanted to know if I planned to do some bird shooting or something. I felt a little conspicuous in the presence of this experienced man, but I said maybe I would shoot some birds if that was all we could find. It was a little John Wayne-ish, but I took great comfort from the weight of those pistols on my side. The time for small talk was over. The leader gave the command to mount up and in minutes we were clanking our way north.
We started up the main service road, but we hadn't gone a quarter of a mile when the tanks moved into the paddies, which seemed foolish to me. Those paddies were rougher than hell, and dusty. It made sense when they told me there weren't any land mines in the paddies. I had a two-channel portable radio with me, and I was holding on to it for dear life, trying to keep my hips from being beaten to death as we bounced along. It was important that I hung on to that radio, our only contact with airplanes. When you go cruising in a Sherman tank, the commander sticks out about waist high from the turret on the right side, the cannon loader the same on the left. There was a driver, a co-driver, and a gunner sandwiched n between them. Crew of five, almost like a bomber--and it felt like one, too!
Everybody had a hatch, so if you needed to button up, you crammed yourself down inside and pulled the lid shut. As we bounced along, I spent a lot of time wondering about what I would volunteer for next. Lieutenants are really dumb. When I was as used to the bouncing around as a green horn could get, I started looking around. The country had really been torn up by the war. Many of the rice paddies were ruptured by vehicles like old "Chris" here, and there were shell holes on and along the road. I thought of the thousands of hours of hard labor it had taken to build those paddies.
My reverie was shattered when the tank stopped and every machine gun we had started firing! I grabbed my radio and ducked inside, pulling the lid down after me. There was a periscope for each crew position, and I finally found out how to work mine. I hadn't seen a soul, but I was sure we were under attack. I looked through the periscope just in time to see the white behind of a small mule deer fly up in the air. I couldn't believe it. Here we were in the middle of a war and these Army guys were deer hunting! I opened the lid, being as inconspicuous as possible, and stuck my head out in time to see someone from Big George's tank jump out and recover the deer. He gutted it on the spot and threw it up on the back of the tank. It was Big George that had downed it. A deer on the run with a 50 caliber and Big George had fired a total of three rounds. My tank commander said they killed game whenever they could. It sure beat the hell out of C-rations.
My tank commander and I holler-talked as we dusted our way through the valley. I was still nervous, and I told him so. He said, "Hell, don't worry. In this war a tank is the safest place to be. Just a traveling iron foxhole." I felt better after that. The valley we were in twisted generally in a northern direction. Some of the paddies were flooded. The big tanks cruised right through them, but I noticed they had to change gears and slow down some. It reminded me of the tractor I used to drive on the celery farm in Michigan. You sure could have made a lot of nifty farm tractors out those tanks.
We put the food out and waved the people over. I felt pretty good about it. You can say what you want to about Americans, but they show compassion at times when you least expect it. Four women, all bundled up in those shapeless clothes and big coolie hats they wear, came over near us. As they stooped over the food my tank commander hollered to duck! I stood there spellbound instead and watched them reach under their clothes and start flinging hand grenades at our tanks. Lord, what next? Grenades bounced off the tanks, but none of our men were hurt. Our gunners cut them down, of course. Then we put some rounds into that cave entrance.
We started to pick up some sniper fire from the ridge lines. It happened fast, but I remember it in slow motion. I just didn't know what to expect. Ground combat was far different than sitting snug and clean in the cockpit of a fighter plane doing 400 miles per hour. The column started forward again. There was sporadic rifle fire from the hills, and our gunners were throwing some lead around, too. The serenity of the day, if there ever was any, was gone.
We hadn't traveled another five hundred yards when I looked over to see my tank commander grab his arm and disappear inside the tank. I ducked down to find him standing there watching blood spurt from his arm. He had been hit in an artery, and it was pulsing red. I grabbed his arm and started feeling around until I stopped the flow. I told him to get on the radio and call for the medics that were back in the rear of the column. He said, "I can't. I think I'm going to faint." I said, "You better or you're going to die." So he called. The medics put a tourniquet on him, lifted him out, and took him back to their half track. God I was scared, and my hands were all red.
The company commander sent up a new tank commander and told me to get into the tank right behind the one I was in. The floor had become slippery by then and it wasn't too comfortable to be there. We started forward again. I hurriedly holler-introduced myself to the new tank commander, all the time thinking, "So much for how safe tanks are." Just like being home in bed. Bullshit!
We kept going through sporadic sniper fire. I still hadn't seen an enemy soldier, unless you could count those women. I couldn't fathom why women would do that. We talked about it later, and the only thing we could figure out was that some Chinamen made them do it. Maybe they were holding their kids in that cave. Well, it didn't matter now. Not anymore.
We came to a narrow ravine, only wide enough to get our tanks through single file, and started down some wet rice paddies. My tank was abeam of the company commander's but more toward the center of the rice paddy when he called a halt. Now you can take a tank through level, wet rice paddies and down wet rice paddies, but its damn near impossible to go uphill through wet rice paddies. Before he got the whole shebang mired down, the company commander wisely decided to see if we had someplace to go when we reached the bottom of the valley. There appeared to be a road down there so he told us to go down for a look see.
Our tank proceeded down the valley another hundred yards and sure enough, there was a road. However, it was raised on a steep embankment. As we tried to climb it, the tank threw a tread. When that happens, you do the same thing you do when a farm tractor throws a tread. You get out and put it back on. We had just started wrestling with the tread when shooting from the hills and across the road started in earnest. The other tanks deployed to provide what covering fire they could. There wasn't much room for maneuver in that valley. We were in a badly exposed position. We had almost gained the road, and the nose of our tan was up in the air. Worse, we couldn't depress the cannon enough to defend ourselves from the intense fire across the road. The other tanks couldn't help much because of the embankment. We were lucky that all we were taking was small arms fire. If the Chinese had mortars they would have put them on us for sure.
We were in a bind. We couldn't stay out and fix the tread in the face of that fire. I had been in contact off and on with a T-6 Mosquito who was working our area so I put the radio up on the turret and started calling him. A couple of flights of fighters would sure ease our pain. It took about two minutes to raise him, but just as I began to explain our situation somebody put a bullet through the radio. The mosquito flew over our position and circled but all we could do was look at each other. He couldn't bring in air because he didn't know how we were deployed.
It was total frustration for me. I had been invited along for just this kind of situation, and I had failed miserably--let both the Army and the Air Force down. My tank commander said it was time to leave. We were sitting ducks, unable to protect ourselves and forced to abandon our tank. He radioed the other tanks that we were coming out and asked for covering fire, then he told us which tank to go to.
The drivers went first, carrying all the loose gear they could, then the gunner. As they ran through the rice paddies, they all fell at least once. I thought they were hit, but they came up muddy and moving. Then it was my turn. the lieutenant told me to take the thirty caliber machine gun along. I strapped on my radio, although I don't know why since it had a neat hole in it. Subconsciously I made up my mind watching those other guys thrash through the mud that if this were to be my last moment on earth there would be some dignity about it. I left the tank and stayed on the rim of the paddy, walking (rather fast) toward my assigned tank.
About halfway I realized I was cradling that 30 caliber so on some impulse, I pulled the trigger and fired off a few rounds toward the hills. The gun jumped and nearly knocked me over. I grabbed the barrel and burned my hand. If the gun had kept firing, I'm sure I would have shot myself. The tank I finally climbed into was the one commanded by Big George. God I was happy to be there! I caught my breath as I watched the lieutenant reach the next tank. We all made it!
The firing died down a little, and Big George began scanning the treeline with his field glasses. He spotted something and handed me the glasses, pointing out a soldier moving slowly through the brush toward us. As I watched, George cooked off one round from his 50 caliber. The Chinaman was hit, but he was still moving and I told Big George so. He said, "I know, keep watching." I did and very soon three more Chinamen came creeping down to where the first one was. I felt the turret slowly move, then the cannon fired. When the dust cleared, there was no more movement. I looked at George and slowly shook my head. That man could shoot!
The tank leaders were talking on the radio about their next move. Their decision was to go back the way we had come in. There really wasn't much choice with that tank stuck up by the road, so a pullout was begun. Then another tank bogged down in the mud. As the crew started climbing out, the Chinese came at us. It was startling. One minute, relative quiet, then instantly a mass of screaming men running toward us. Some had rifles and some had grenades, but their biggest weapon was mass. The panorama exploding before my eyes was incredible. Poorly armed men attacking tanks! I had heard stories that they were drugged before an attack, and I had heard that their officers came in behind and shot anyone who faltered. Whatever their motivation, they were coming fast. Big George started hollering for some shells in our cannon, so I started loading. George asked for H.E. (high explosive) but I couldn't remember what color that was. I just grabbed anything I could find and shoved it into the breech. After about five rounds Big George figured out my problem so he started calling for color! That worked a lot better.
I will never forget the pungent overpowering smell of cordite inside that tank when you were fast-firing the cannon. There was an exhaust fan built in but it wasn't half adequate. You could smell cordite when you fired six-fifties from an F-80 but it was nothing like this.
I couldn't see out when I was loading and I had no idea what was happening. Then Big George ceased firing the cannon and started in with the 50 caliber. I finally snuck a peek and I could see he was doing a lot of damage. They were too close to use the cannon anymore, but that 50 was holding them. It was majestic to see that big black white haired grandfather behind that gun, upper body fully exposed to the oncoming Chinese. I fired the thirty out the front of the turret but it was pointed where the cannon was and I don't think I did much damage. Then the fifty stopped shooting and I looked out again. The fifty had jammed, and Big George calmly climbed out on top of the tank and was fixing it. The Chinese must have seen this because they surged forward again and a couple of t hem started climbing up onto the tank. I remembered my pistols so I hauled them out and started shooting. It was like a John Wayne movie, only I was in it.
I had filled my jacket pockets with 45 ball ammo that morning and stuck in a couple of extra clips so I hollered to the gunner, handed him a handful of bullets and told him to start loading. As those Chinamen started climbing on the tank, I shot them off. Ironically, I had never been able to qualify with a 45 on a practice target. At that close range I couldn't miss. The nicest sound I ever heard was when Big George got that 50 going again. It all must have happened in thirty seconds or so, but I went through about six or seven clips of ammo in that time. After another minute or two they stopped coming. The tanks concentrated firepower was just too much.
It didn't take us long to get those tanks out of there. We made a beeline for our own lines, and by the time we got to our starting point I was in a state of exhaustion. The tankers invited me to spend the night and there wasn't any argument about that. Someone shoved a plate into my hands and it was full of beans and steak. I had forgotten about the deer Big George shot this morning. Was it really this morning? After we ate, somebody produced some whiskey and we sat around talking about the day. Big George came over, patted me on the back and said I could go out with him anytime if I would bring my peashooters along. Of course I felt pretty good about that!
I burned hell out of my hands that day. The expended shell casings come out of a gun hot, and I didn't wear gloves. One of the Army guys said that should rate a Purple Heart but I couldn't go along with it. That's one gong I never wanted to wear. Anyway, I had already received my award. I had survived the day.
You wouldn't think a night on the hard ground in a pup tent could be restful, but after that long day in the tanks, I woke refreshed with a feeling of involvement. A little heady, it was, but it didn't last long. While mugging down our coffee, we were informed that we had to go back. The general was not pleased with our leaving two tanks in the mud, so he told us to go get them. I wasn't ready for that, but I was in no position to back out now. This time I mounted my spare radio inside the tank, as one of the tank antennas was compatible with my radio. I also arranged for T-6 Mosquito coverage of the entire mission. We badly needed their eyes.
I strongly suspected we were in for another long day and so did the brass, because this time they sent along a battalion of infantry. Our trip in was uneventful--too quiet if anything, but when we got to that narrow ravine where we had to go in single file, the commander got worried. It was a perfect place for a trap.
I called Mosquito "Hazard" and asked for a flight of fighters. In short order he came up with four Navy Panthers, and I put them to work along the ridge lines on either side of the ravine. They had napalm and rockets, and it was a pretty sight to watch them paint those hills. I must admit they were accurate even if they were Navy. I told them to save some of their machine gun ammo, and when they had expended their external ordnance to give me a call. Then I asked them to make dry passes over the ravine while we moved our tanks through. They did, and it worked like a charm. We moved through without taking any fire.
The tank retrievers with us went to work as soon as we deployed in a defensive position. They extracted the stuck tanks so swiftly it was almost an ant-climax. Still no enemy fire. They were there all right, but our increased force size and that T- Mosquito buzzing around overhead made them think twice. They didn't want more Panther Jets down on them. Our job done, we began to pull out. The infantry commander offered me a ride home with him in his half track. My ribs had taken enough abuse from that tank turret so I accepted. As we headed back, the Mosquito called me and said he wanted to drop a message. I asked him if he couldn't just transmit it on the radio, but he said no. We stopped the convoy, and the troops deployed off the road while the T-6 lined up for his drop. Out came a small canister with a red streamer on it that a G.I. recovered and brought to our half track. Everyone stood around nervously waiting for me to open it. Inside was a cough syrup bottle filled with what looked like syrup and a note: "Dear Destiny 1-4 (my call sign). Here is that shot of Old Tennis Shoe I promised you last week." Signed, "Your friendly Mosquito pilot." The Infantry Commander asked, "What is it? What did he say? Are we going to be attacked?" I showed him the note, and when he read it, he just looked at me. I offered him a drink. He laughed and said, "Well, I'll be goddamned. I heard the Air Force took care of their own, but this is ridiculous. You're damn right I'll have a drink." So we did!
On the way back to Regiment that night I reviewed the past two days. It was a wonder we got anything done with the poor equipment we had. The old two channel portable radios were too heavy and very short ranged. I'm sure they were leftovers from World War II. Also, I had to admit I wasn't properly trained, although after the past few days, I figured I was now. Our radios were short ranged too--maybe ten miles at most. If a flight of fighters were pre-briefed to rendezvous with you, they had to be almost directly over your position or you could not contact them. I finally beat that problem by "borrowing" a 50-foot telescoping antenna from the Rangers. The Army got nervous when I put it up because they were afraid it would bring in enemy artillery, but I sure could get out on the radio with it. In fact, I got a call from my Air Liaison Officer (my Air Force boss) one day. He said, "Bill, I'm proud of you. You work more fighters on this front then any other five forward air controllers, but I think you're going to be court-marshaled." "How can this be when I'm doing so good?," I asked. "Because you're stealing fighters from other controllers."
It was true in a way. I would hear fighters check in looking for other controllers and after about their third call, I would call them and tell them I had work for them if they couldn't contact their pre-briefed controller. The fighter pilots just wanted work, so they would come over to me. I told my A.L.O. about my antenna and told him to get some decent equipment out to the other FACs, but you can't just wave your arms during a war and expect to get anything. Equipment has improved since then, but it needs to be better for the troops in the field. I'll never forget what General Powers once said when they were trying to reduce his comm-gear during an economy drive. "Take away my communications and all I command is my desk!" I fully agreed with him, even if General Powers was a SAC General.
The Queen's Own
The night after we retrieved the tanks from the rice paddies, the Chinese launched their Spring Offensive of 1951. They were poorly equipped but had great quantities of soldiers. Hordes of them. How many platoons in a Hoard?) They came over the hills yelling and blowing bugles.
I was trying to catch up on some sleep in the tent at Regiment when somebody shook me and said I might like to know we were being overrun. I managed to collect my two airmen and our jeeps but that was all, and I drove South through the night in only my A-2 jacket and long handles. Wasn't even time to put my pants on. We re-grouped shortly after dawn on some high ground overlooking the main service road headed south toward Seoul. After Regiment set up a jury-rig tent and got their communications going, I took my men and equipment to a high ground vantage point over the ridge from Regiment. I strung a field phone, asked the Army Ops Officer to keep in touch, and set up my antenna for the day. Things started quickly.
The valley was long and wide, with the road down the middle and paddies on the level ground to either side. About ten o'clock the Chinese started coming down that road. Mosquito Hazard was overheard and I asked him to rustle up as many fighters as he could. They came in Flights of four. As fast as I could expend one flight there would be another, but the Chinese kept coming down that road. It was a turkey shoot. They were in the open with no place to hide, and we painted that valley with rockets, bombs and napalm until you couldn't see it for the smoke. Yet they continued to come.
I had been talking to the Ops Officer off and on, but when we got busy, there wasn't time. As the Chinese approached the base of the hill mass we were on I got a little nervous so I rang the field phone--but there was no answer. I sent my corporal down there to tell them the situation. He came panting back and said they were gone. There wasn't any telephone on the other end of the wire. We packed our gear in a hurry and headed south again. We took some small arms fire when we got down to the road but didn't stop to see where it was coming from. I was mad! I vowed when I saw the Ops Officer again I was going to put a 45 ball through him, but by the time we caught up to him I was cooled down some. We kept moving back. The Regiment had been on the line for many days and everyone was tired. We were spread out and not too well organized. When the regiment reassembled we were ordered into Corps Reserve.
The next morning we woke to solid fog. I had been called to the Regimental Commander's briefing tent where other staff officers were already assembled. The Old Man got up and put some good words on us about the past few days, then proceeded to brief us on the current situation. He said that even though we were in Corps Reserve, not to get too comfortable. Things were moving fast. We were hurting the Chinese, but they were still coming with that seemingly inexhaustible supply of men. Our armies were falling back in an orderly fashion from one prepared position to another, and our massive firepower was taking its toll. It looked like we might have to kill all the Chinese in Korea before they would stop.
I was asked to stay after the briefing. It seemed that the British Brigade, directly north of us, was in hot water. One of their units, the 1st Battalion of the Gloucestershire Regiment, was surrounded and cut off near the Imjin River. Worse, they were short of ammunition. The Old Man was getting ready to visit the British Brigadier and asked me to go along.
It couldn't have been over five miles to the British C.P. but it took us forever to get there. We were nervous crawling through the fog, even though our small convoy was well armed. Arriving at the command tent we overheard a terse conversation between the Brigadier and the Gloucester's commander. They were in desperate straits. Forced into a perimeter defense and low on ammunition, the Gloucesters were actually fighting the Chinese with sticks and stones. The Brigadier asked them how long they could hold out, and the answer was maybe about four more hours without additional ammunition. Their Battalion Commander also said this would probably he his last radio transmission because his batteries were about dead. The Brigadier gave him "stiff upper lip" words and told him to hang on. He would try to get them some help. God, I swear I had seen that movie, and I half expected David Niven to arrive with reinforcements and save the day. Those British officers discussed this seemingly hopeless situation without a trace of emotion. Brave men!
When the Brigadier closed the radio he looked around and asked if anyone in the room could think of a way to get some relief to the Gloucesters. My Regimental Commander spoke up and said that his tank company could be on the move in less than an hour if it would help. The British Operations Officer said a tank company would be too unwieldy and take too long to move in. They had sent some of their Centurion tanks in earlier. One of them was knocked out on the road in a narrow spot, and he didn't think we could get past it. Then someone suggested that if just a few tanks, loaded with ammunition, could button up and run in at maximum speed they might get through. After further discussion it was decided to try it with five Shermans, and the necessary orders were issued to get the plan into motion.
I was in the back of the C.P, listening, amazed that the Brigadier and other Senior Officers had to grope for an answer. Up to that time I was of the firm belief that anyone above the rank of captain automatically knew what to do. Senior officers were just people, after all. Swept up by the drama unfolding before me, I went to my Commander and told him I ought to go along with those tanks. The fog was still laying on the ground, but it made sense to have a forward Air Controller along if the fog lifted. With the tanks and fighter support maybe we could get the Gloucesters home safe. He looked at me hard for a minute and asked me if I knew what I was getting into. I told him it was what I was being paid for. He said okay, but I didn't feel too good about it the minute I "volunteered" again and I spent a few moments hoping they would call it off.
I joined the tanks on the road as they came up and took the cannon loader's position in the lead tank. A first lieutenant was the leader. Another volunteer, I supposed. As soon as my radio was mounted inside we started the mission. Our orders were to go in as fast as possible and not to engage unless there was no other choice. Simple enough--but there were problems. First, it was still god-awful foggy and we couldn't travel over ten miles an hour. Second, we didn't know exactly where the Gloucesters were, only their approximate position. Third, its nigh on to impossible to read a one to fifty thousand scale map in the fog. I'm sure there were four or five other problems I forgot, but these were enough to worry an expert.
We crawled our way north. At first the fog was our biggest foe. Hell, if I were on an airfield on a day like this I would be sitting in a warm hootch telling war stories or catching a nap. Sleep...I wondered if I would ever enjoy that luxury again?
We had traveled about thirty minutes when we started picking up some small arms fire. There was extra ammo strapped on those tanks and it didn't feel too comfortable. We couldn't button up and run because we couldn't see through the fog. We just forged ahead, listening to bullets thud into the tank and buzz overhead. I remembered a few days prior, on my first tank mission, I was slapping around my head at that buzzing noise when Big George laughed and told me them weren't bees. Today I was wishing to hell they were!
As we rounded the next bend a giant tank came lumbering out of the fog directly in front of us. Both tanks stopped, their big guns almost touching. It was a British Centurion. Thank God!
The two tank commanders started to palaver. There were seven tanks in their column, and they had lost a tank back on the road, blocking it. Some infantry were with them and they had wounded men lying on their tanks. They asked us to cover their withdrawal so they could get the infantry and the wounded out. Small arms fire whistled around as we took up positions and started some shooting while the British crept past. My tank Commander asked his British counterpart if he thought we could get our Shermans past the stalled tank, as they were smaller. He said maybe, so when the Centurions headed south into the fog, we headed north again. The tempo of enemy fire picked up. There was a Mosquito overhead that I talked to from time to time. I told him about the fix the Glousters were in and to look for them. He said the fog was thick, but some of the hills were sticking out. I talked him over our position by sound so he would have some idea of where we were and told him to look for fighting around the coordinates where we thought they were. He said he would stick with us and keep us informed.
We pressed on, finally coming to the stalled tank in the road. It seemed to be a natural gathering place because there were a lot of Chinese there too. Firing increased. Most of the shooting was blind, but a lot of lead was flying!
Hazard called and said he had the Gloucesters spotted, or believed he did. There was a helluva fight going on down there anyway. There was no way the mosquito could make radio contact so I told him to drop them a note and tell them help was close by. We were, at best estimate, about a half mile away. Maybe we could pull this off yet. But it wasn't to be.
The firing around us increased and we started to see enemy movement in the fog. We were firing with everything we had and in a matter of minutes had our own small war going on. When the enemy started dropping mortars on us we knew it was decision time. They were shooting wild through the fog, but it wouldn't be long before a lucky shot hit one of our tanks. We hadn't even been able to determine whether we could get our Shermans past that Centurion. The tank commander looked at me and asked, "What do you think?" I answered quickly, "Let's get the hell out of here." So we did. It was over.
The story of the Gloucesters in in the history books. They were captured virtually intact after they had run out of ammunition. I have since discovered that their behavior while in the prison camp was exemplary, that they carried on in the true British tradition, with discipline and dignity. We felt low because we had failed these brave men. It was a close thing and we played the "what if" game for days afterwards. What if it hadn't been foggy? What if we had compatible radios? What if we could have moved past that suck tank? It boiled down to another example of the fortunes of war, but it was a consensus that it was important we had tried.
The Engine Sounded Rough
With the Regiment in Corps Reserve, we settled into a holding area just east of Seoul. We knew that the objective of the Chinese was to capture Seoul by May first--the big Communist holiday. However, they weren't going to make it that time, or ever. The Army's massive firepower was extracting its toll. Our forces continued to drop back, but at a tremendous cost to the enemy. Young men of sixteen and seventeen were thrown into the line with less than thirty days training, and only about one in four had a weapon. They were told the Americans would run and leave their weapons behind, but they were wrong--this time. So they died by the thousands and their Spring offensive was doomed to failure.
Life in Corps Reserve reached the casual stage. After we caught up on our sleep there were some lengthy poker games, laundry and even showers with hot water. I almost forgot what it was to be clean. There were letters, plus the luxury of a few moments of time to call your own. After three or four days we were bored, so I drove over to the airstrip in the riverbed at K-16 near Seoul. I stopped to visit the South Africans who were flying Mustangs out of there to get an intelligence briefing on what was happening in the air war. When they found out I was a fighter pilot they asked me to fly some missions with them. It seems that half of their squadron was down with the flu and they were having trouble making their schedule. I told them I had never flown a Mustang but they said they would check me out. Their idea of a checkout was flying a combat mission. I was tempted, but respectfully declined.
I wandered over to where the Army was flying liaison and artillery spotters. They were in the same boat, their pilots were sick. They asked me to fly and I said I would, being an old light plane pilot. They had just been equipped with the then new Cessna L-19, a dandy little bird that later would turn into the civilian 170 Series, and they had one last L-5. The old Stinson was sort of their mascot and they maintained it in mint condition. I wanted to fly the L-19, but since I had some Stinson time they gave me a turn around the traffic pattern in the L-5, put an observer in the back seat and I was off to shoot some artillery. Usually the artillery forward observer worked from a high ground vantage point where they could command the field of fire, but even the Army was finally getting wise to the use of airplanes for this purpose. It was more effective and usually safer. This was my first time on a fire mission of this sort, and I was enthused. I was back in the air again and that L-5 felt wonderful in the crisp Spring sky.
We climbed out of the river bed and headed north and east. The terrain was hilly and overgrown. I was unfamiliar with it and spent quite a bit of time map reading. There was no sign of movement in our assigned target area but that was understandable. The Chinese knew to keep their heads down when spotter planes were about. After we determine d the artillery line of fire, we moved to a safe orbit and began the firing mission. The F.O. in the back seat was good, and he walked those shells in and around the target with precision. He let me fire the last forty rounds or so as part of my checkout, and it was more than exciting to command the heavy firepower.
Our firing mission completed, we headed for base. On the way back, the observer noticed a huge statue of Buddha nestled in the hills and asked me to drop down so he could get a picture of it. Everybody carried cameras. No problem, said I, and down we went.
As we flew by the statue I heard some popping and immediately checked my engine instruments. Oil gauge steady, cylinder head temp okay. I wheeled around and made another pass. That popping sound again. This was a helluva time for a rough engine. As I started to climb out the F.O. tapped me on the shoulder and hollered, "They're shooting at us." Great--now he tells me! I clawed for altitude weaving from side to side, afraid to look back. The F.O. tapped me again and asked, "What's that running out of our wings?" Reluctantly I looked. It was gasoline. They had put holes in both tanks.
I continued to climb, with the fuel gages dropping at an alarming rate. What a stupid ass mess! I should have known better. I felt like a fool, but there wasn't time to dwell on it. I gained some valuable altitude when the engine quit. That's got to be the loudest silence there is. Again, God or Buddha had his hand on my shoulder because I could see K-16 and I knew I had it made if I didn't screw it up. I had just enough altitude to make a ninety degree turn onto final approach, and we plunked down safely at midfield. It's amazing how good it feels to cast the surly bonds of earth, then feel even better when you get down again. I noticed my shirt was soaked with perspiration, although it was a cool day.
The F.O. and I pushed the L-5 to the parking line to be greeted by the questioning stares of the line personnel as they gathered around and fingered the holes in the wings. I merely shrugged and walked into the Ops Shack. The Army Ops Officer wasn't too happy when we told our story. That L-5 was their favorite--their mascot--and I wasn't sure for a while if they might ask me to pay for it, but it all worked out. I got a checkout in the L-19 and flew about five or six more fire missions before I had to quit. If they hadn't been short of pilots, however, I'm sure I would have received the proverbial bums rush. I never did find out if that Forward Observer's pictures of the Buddha statue came out!
The Black Irishman
Along the way you meet some men that you never forget. Most of them would laugh if you said they were anything special, but they fit nearly everyone's definition of "Hero".
Burt Corrigan was a Black Irishman about five foot five, who wore thick glasses that he was always taking off and wiping. He was the Communications Officer for the Regiment and I got to know Burt because we shared the tent that Regiment provided for staff. He was always the first one out and the last one in. A very busy fellow. I asked one of the other staff officers about Burt and found out he had been a platoon leader when he first arrived. He had fought hard through so many heavy engagements that the Old Man pulled him off the line and made him Communications Officer. Burt was unhappy about this because he felt like he was cheating on his troops, being up at Regiment where it was "safe", but he did his job because he was a soldier.
Burt's job wasn't that easy. He and his people had to string wires between the Regimental Command Post, the battalions and forward observers. We had radio in that war but there were still a lot of rank telephones around like you used to see in the old World War II movies.
One day Burt laid about two miles of wire, but when he went to test them they wouldn't work. He laid them again, and again they were cut in about the same place. Burt was starting to lose his Irish temper so he loaded up his Thompson sub-machine gun and told his men to lay the wire one more time. Burt eased over the terrain Indian style and positioned himself in the area from where the wire was disappearing. Ten minutes after Burt's crew laid that wire for the third time, a couple of Chinamen crawled out from under some brush and started cutting it. Burt announced his presence with a burst of 45 slugs and those Chinamen started grabbing for sky. Burt shoved the muzzle of that chopper in their backs and marched them smartly to headquarters. When I heard about it I was impressed, but Burt was just mad about all that extra work we had to do and wasn't even concerned about the fact that he had captured two Chinese soldiers single handed. That was the way he was.
A week later the Regiment was pulled back a few miles into reserve. We had been sitting on the Imjin River for about three days waiting for our flanks to pull up. Burt didn't like that because he thought we should have crossed the river, but I told him I had to believe our brass knew what they were doing. Anyway, we got a couple of days off. I had planned to just sleep but somehow a truck load of rum found its way to the headquarters. By sundown we were talking loud and waving our arms a lot.
The more rum we put away, the more vocal Burt got about not crossing that river. It was around midnight when he grabbed me and said, "Come on." "Were are we going?", I asked. "You and I are going to swim across that god damn river and put dry socks on on the other side." To be real honest I couldn't get the significance of the dry socks bit and I told Burt so. He just pulled off his glasses and wiped them like he was always doing and mumbled something about how the Air Force had no balls and I probably couldn't swim anyway. I couldn't let that go by. Especially with all that rum in me. So I said, "What the hell" and we were off. We did stop and pick up some dry socks, but neither one of us took a weapon. I need to add that it was April and still pretty damn cold in that country.
The U.S. Army has a thing about wandering around a war zone in the dark. Every day they issued a password of the day. If someone asked you what the password was, you would say, "Joe DiMaggio" or some such, and they would answer, "New York Yankees". Then you were allowed to go about your business. During our hasty departure neither Burt nor I bothered to get the password, which changed at midnight.
We managed to get Burt's jeep almost up to the river until he said we ought to walk the rest of the way, so we struck out toward our objective. From somewhere in the night came that famous and fortunate word, "Halt!" We did. A big black soldier eased up to us and said, "What's the password?" Burt looked at me and I looked at him and finally blurted out yesterday's password. "That ain't right," we were told. Then the soldier said to walk up in front of him and not make any sudden moves. Burt argues a little, but that soldier did his duty and the next thing we were standing in front of the duty officer trying to explain why we were wandering around at that time of night without the password.
Eventually the story came out. We got locked up in an empty Korean mud house while the Officer of the Day checked us out. Regiment told them to hold us til morning and someone would pick us up. Fortunately I had thought to bring what was left in one bottle of Puerto Rico's best, so we had a final drink and went to sleep.
Early the next morning the exec drove up and bailed us out. We were escorted directly to the mess tent where the Regimental Commander was having breakfast. He looked at us for a long minute over his cup of coffee, which both of us needed very badly, then said, "Burt, I'm surprised at you pulling a trick like that, and taking this young Air Force lad along with you." Of course, I was in full agreement with the Colonel. "I'm going to tell you this once," he said. "Burt, you stick to stringing wires and Bill, you worry about your aeroplanes. Leave the river crossing to the fighting troops. Now get the hell out of here!" We saluted as smartly as we could and beat a hasty withdrawal. That was that, but I always wondered what would have happened if that soldier hadn't stopped us. Burt rotated to the states a few weeks later, and I drove him down to K-16 in my jeep so he could catch his gooney bird. Before he climbed aboard he shook my hand, looked me in the eye and said, "Bill, you're not too bad for an Air Force guy. I'll cross the river with you anytime."
Return to Paradise
A few days later I was sitting in the tent contemplating my sins when an Air Force lieutenant walked in and said, "Hi, I'm your replacement." Those had to be the greatest words I ever heard. I started packing even before he found a place to sit down. I had been with the army for two and a half months on what was supposed to have been a two-week tour. I learned a lot of things. Mainly that if you go to a war, flying fighters was the only way to go, and that anyone who volunteers for anything ought to go see a shrink.
I did take a few minutes to introduce my replacement to the Staff, show him my (his) radio jeeps, and to say goodbye. I couldn't wait to leave that place, yet I felt some reluctance in leaving these men who had gained my total respect. They fought a different kind of war than the one I knew. It was dirty, frightening, very personal, and you were always tired. I suppose I sound like I just re-invented the wheel when all I have really said is what every combat infantryman since Attila the Hun already knows. But unless you experience it you just can't imagine the personal fortitude it takes to do your part.
When I said goodbye to the tankers they paid me the highest compliment. They put me in for the Combat Infantryman's Badge. It was turned down, of course, because unless you are assigned the infantry, you are ineligible. That they thought enough of me to make the attempt was, as they say in the dispatches, "a singular distinctive honor."
I left with mixed feelings, but I left in a hurry. My replacement drove me down to K-16 to catch a gooney bird back to Japan. He had a thousand questions on the way but mostly I gave him that combat veteran's smile and told him he would find out. How could I possibly tell him what to expect?
My arrival back at Itazuke was anticlimactic. Word had drifted back to the Squadron that I was missing on the front, so in true fighter pilot fashion my buddies had divided up my gear. It took about two days to get it back. They acted almost as if they were sorry to see me, but I knew it was just the way of things.
The first night I was back I took three hot showers, then Pappy and I went to the Allied Club, ate a steak and drank some grape. Later we went to the Central Cabaret and still later we got laid. The war gods were still smiling on me, and soon I would be flying the "80" again.
The Bridges at Sin Anju
The air war for F-80 pilots was comprised of a myriad of diverse missions. Officially it was air superiority, interdiction, and close air support (not necessarily in that order). What it boiled down to was if the ground troops were in trouble, we pulled out all the stops to support them.
Our toughest missions were interdiction. These included everything from cutting railroad tracks and blowing tunnels and bridges to attacking suspected enemy staging areas. We also went after mines, as in iron or coal, power producing plants, industrial areas, and enemy trucks which transported everything from troops and bullets to rice.
When I first started flying combat there was snow on the ground. This made for good hunting. It was hard to hide tanks and trucks. For example, if you saw vehicle tracks leading into a hay mound, you got suspicious. When you bounced some fifty caliber into that hay stack, and got ricochets out of it, you knew that ain't hay. Another trick the enemy tried was storing ammunition in burned out trains. We always gave a burst or two as we passed by, often producing fires or secondary explosions.
A major named Smiley Burnett was a noted train buster, and I had the honor of flying with him on some missions. He liked to work with just two airplanes, taking off while it was still night. As soon as the sun came over the horizon the Chinese would find the first convenient tunnel to hole up in for the day. The time to get them was first light.
Flying into the dawn is a beautiful thing. You seem to own a bigger share of the world at that time, because most people aren't awake to claim theirs yet. Working in a flight of two was a treat. You had more time to look around and there was always a lot to see, and it was hazardous. The valleys were still quite dark and those hills and mountains were very hard. I don't know anyone who has flown through one yet.
We usually carried rockets and napalm on these missions. The rockets, five inchers, weren't always accurate but if you hit something with them they did a lot of damage. I got my first train engine one early morning flying with Smiley. He spotted the train as we were snaking through a valley, and put a can of napalm just about dead center of the cars. The train stopped and Smiley casually transmitted, "Two, the engine is yours." I was already lined up on it so I let fly with two rockets. They both missed short. Damn!
Smiley told me to get steeper for my next delivery and I plunked one of those rockets right into the boiler. The engine sort of jumped and steam came out just like those old World War Two fighter movies I had seen. Then we took turns picking at the cars with our fifties. That train was headed south, boxcars loaded with ammunition. Before we left, the whole thing was popping like the Fourth of July.
Trains were fun, but bridges were another thing. The bridges at Sin Anju and Anju cost us dearly. We tried everything we knew to knock them down and keep them down, but the task was seemingly impossible. The F-80 was a good all-around fighter plane, but it wasn't built to be a dive bomber, or maybe our experience level just wasn't up to the task. Whatever the reason, we couldn't keep those bridges down.
There were times when the whole group would fly two missions a day against those bridges. It got real terse when we would go down to briefing and Ops would tell us we were going back to the bridges. They were heavily defended with layers of guns. The 88's would start poking at you when you were coming in, then it seemed like every soldier in the Chinese Army would pot at you when you pulled out.
We flew our missions at the same time each day, morning and afternoon. Hell, those gunners could set their watches by the time we were overhead. We all fussed about this, but there just wasn't an easy way. We all had to sleep and we all had to eat, so I guess we all had to get to the war about the same time every day.
Those bridges were hard to hit. They even had one that was underwater at high tide. Pretty smart, those Chinese. We tried skip bombing the abutments. That didn't work either. My bombs would bounce off the concrete half the time. A least one of our pilots was downed flying through his own bomb blast. During one bad week our squadron lost five pilots and planes, and four of them bought it at those bridges.
The flak was ferocious. The high heavy stuff wasn't that accurate, but the mid-altitude fire was plain murder. You could see those fiery bullets coming up at you almost like slow motion. It took a lot of concentration to aim your plane on a bomb run in the face of that stuff. There was a strong tendency to drop and pull out high. I suspect that's another reason we couldn't keep those bridges down.
The enemy must have had a million bridge fixers around there. One day we did knock down a span, and damned if it wasn't back up the next day. These were the main supply lines south from China, and they had to keep them open. As far as I know, they are still open. After a week or so spending tons of bombs the wheels would call off the bridge strikes for a while, but we always knew we would be going back soon, and this thought haunted us.
Tachikawa and Other Points of Interest
I had ninety-six missions on the books when I was ordered to take a trip to Japan. Here's how that came about.
The squadron was cutting railroad track that week, skip bombing with thousand pounders, trying to hit the embankments. Worn out fifty caliber machine gun barrels were welded on the nose of bombs to try to get them to stick in like a dart, with delay fuses, of course, so we could get the hell out of there before the explosion. It was risky work. You had to come in on the deck fairly slow or the bombs would overfly. If the enemy had any defenses in the area you were vulnerable as hell at that low altitude and speed.
We tried to drop by elements of two aircraft, fling virtually line abreast. We went in from an element in trail formation, spread slightly, and each element picked their own section of track. If we had received pictures at the briefing we were assigned specific sections. One pass only. We had learned that lesson. If your bombs hung you punched them off on the pull out and kept going.
"Pappy" Gregg and I were the last two in. Considerable smoke had been raised by the preceding flights but we located our section of track and attacked. We had a good run, Pappy's bombs came off, but mine hung. I checked my switches as I pulled off. Damn! I had not set the drop sequence switches. Mad at myself, I whipped into a steep wingover and started back in. We hadn't seen any flak or automatic weapons fire so I thought I could get away with it. I told Pappy to cover me and made my second run from the other direction. It was a good run, and as I pulled off I looked back to see what looked like two cuts. Pappy pulled up on my wing and we climbed out and rejoined the squadron. I checked Pappy over on the climb out and he looked me over. Everything appeared okay. We proceeded back to Kimpo and landed uneventfully. Pappy chewed on me for making that second pass. He didn't mind if I wanted to bust my ass, but he had to come back and cover me and he didn't like it. I just shrugged and reminded him we were getting paid for this.
As I left debriefing, the Ops Officer, Adrian Drew, asked me to go with him a minute. He had something to show me. We drove to my bird, where the Maintenance Officer and my Crew Chief were waiting for us. The aft section had been rolled back off the engine, and I saw that I had taken some small arms fire in the accessory section. Some units, like the main fuel pump, were loose and just hanging by the lines. The airplane must have vibrated like hell all the way home, but I never felt it. In fact, I had written the bird up okay and thanked the Crew Chief for doing such a good job.
Drew gave me a long look when I told him I never felt a thing. We drove over to his office, where he sat me down and told me I needed to take an R. & R. I had been pushing hard ever since we arrived at Kimpo. I was tired, no doubt about it, but hell, I only had to log four more missions and my combat tour would be over. I told this to Drew, but he said it wouldn't do me any good to go back to the States if I was dead.
Drew told me we needed a bird flown over to Tachikawa for some sheet metal repair, so why didn't I take it over and at least have a couple of good meals. If I decided to stay over a day or two, that was all right too. I agreed. I never turned down flying time. That afternoon I took off in a war-weary F-80 and mushed my way to Japan. The gear was wired down and it took forever to get there, but I delivered the bird to the maintenance men, then hit the showers. When I got clean I headed for the Officers Club.
I ordered a bottle of good grape and a big chef's salad, something we just didn't have in Korea. You can't imagine how you miss fresh lettuce and tomatoes. Then I followed it up with a steak and a lobster. A fella gets pretty hungry over in that part of the world.
I didn't realize how tense I was until I started to relax. Drew was right. I had a real case of the heavies on me. With about nine hundred dollars of poker winnings in my pocket I headed for Tokyo. What the hell, I might stay an extra day or so. The United Nations would just have to do without me for awhile. There was a place I knew about two blocks from the Tokyo Electric Hotel called the Baacus Club. (Baacus means "crazy".) It was a good sized place, a lot like the Central Cabaret at Itazuke, complete with a revolving glass mirrored globe like a lot of dance halls had in those days. The place also had a number of "hostesses" to help you pass the time of night in a pleasurable manner. I was thirsty from my travels so I taxied up to the bar and ordered a tall one.
I met a big redheaded fellow and struck up a conversation. It turned out he was an Australian infantry lieutenant named "Blue". All redheaded guys in Australia were nicknamed Blue. We hit it off pretty good, took a table, and started looking over the evening's crop of hostesses. I spotted a real slinky looking Japanese lady in a black dress, slit up the sides to her belt line. I poked Blue and told him she looked just like the Dragon Lady right out of "Terry and the Pirates". I walked over and asked her to dance. She slithered up to me and we were off. I said, "Lady, you are a good dancer. What's your name?" She looked up at me through those cat eyes and said, "They call me the Dragon Lady."
I about flipped! I took her to where Blue was sitting and asked her to repeat her name. We had a good laugh, then Blue went over and got a dragon lady of his own. We danced until the joint closed down.
For three more days we partied hard. On the third day Blue and I were bored with making the rounds, and decided to find a place to hole up for a couple of days. Before I left Korea, someone had slipped a note in my pocket with the name of a hotel on it, so Blue and I climbed on the train and headed back to Tachikawa to find it.
The Mon-Moon Hotel turned out to be a beautiful small hide-away, with seven rooms built around a hot bath. A mama-san welcomed us at the door, took our shoes, brought us some cold beer and made us feel right comfortable. Then she clapped her hands and about half a dozen of the pretties hand maidens you ever saw trotted out looking shy and demure. I couldn't help but smile, and I noticed Blue was all smiles too. I asked the mama-san how much to rent the place. She said, "You mean a room?" I said, "No, the whole place." The mama-san produced a Japanese computer and after a lot of head rattling, Blue and I bought the place for a few days. It cost five hundred bucks between us, probably the best money we ever spent.
We traded our uniforms for Japanese robes and just had the time of our lives. They brought us sake, beer, and good food with a lot of those noodles you could see through. We cavorted in and out of the hot bath with those sweet ladies and laughed and joked, slept and made love. I doubt if King Farouk or even Errol Flynn ever had a better time.
I really believe if we hadn't run out of money we would be there still, but all good things must come to an end. I finally asked Blue when he was due back, and he said yesterday. I had also stretched "a couple of days" about as far as you can stretch them. So reluctantly and with tears of parting (sorry on our part and probably joy on theirs), we bid fond adieu to the ladies of the Mon-Moon Hotel. I was broke, but I was the most relaxed soldier in the theatre. Blue and I went to the airstrip together and got flights out about an hour apart. We promised to write but you know how that goes. I thought of Blue afterward. I don't know where he ended up, but I sincerely hoped it was safely home from the war. He was a helluva guy.
I went right in to see Drew when I got back to Kimpo and told him I was ready for tomorrow's flying schedule, but he saw through that shit-eating grin on my face and told me to get a good night's sleep. That made sense. I'm sure that Drew saved my life by sending me on that trip. I had seen other guys get battle weary and some of them weren't around anymore.
I flew my last mission in July. Earlier I had thought to stay on and fly some extra if they needed me, but I changed my mind. I had already flown about a dozen missions that I neglected to log, and I figured it was enough. I was burned out, and the thought of living on for awhile appealed to me.
I had a choice of staying at Kimpo as third assistant Junior Wing Operations Officer, or going back to Sawiki, Japan as a Maintenance Test Pilot. It wasn't hard to make the decision. I wanted to continue to fly so I went back to the land of the cherry trees and kimonos. The living was better, and I really didn't want to be around those combat troops when I was no longer a player. It turned out to be a wise decision. I piled up a lot of flying time during the last six months of my tour. It was damn nice to live like a human being again.
I had a couple more close ones during those final days in Japan. I went out to fly a test hop one morning, but when I arrived at the bird the crew chief told me the tip tanks had been filled by mistake and needed to be defueled. The policy was to fly test hops with internal fuel only. Not wanting to wait for the de-fueling process, I told the Chief I would take the bird as is.
On take off, just at nose lift off speed, the left tip tank fell off. Luckily it bounced and I saw it, because I wasn't sure what had happened. All I knew was that all of a sudden I had the control stick full left to keep the bird from tipping over. I immediately punched off the right tip, and the sea wall at the end of the short runway as getting close (one of the reasons for not test hopping with full tips). I pressed the trim button back to lighten the nose but it got heavier instead. Using both hands I hauled the F-80 over the sea wall and gained some precious altitude. It was then I detected that the nose trim was hooked up backwards. Almost at the same moment I noted the ailerons seemed heavy. A quick glance at the instrument panel confirmed I had lost hydraulic pressure. Things were going to hell in a hurry!
I climbed, circling the field and put my mind to work. Without hydraulics I wasn't sure if the gear would come down. I was reluctant to land with that weight but I was afraid of additional failures, so I decided to try the gear, and if I could lock it down, I would land.
My luck began to change for the better. The gear locked down with a few taps of the rudders and I set up a long straight-in approach. I also alerted the Crash Crew, just in case. I brought the F-80 in as low over the telephone wires as I dared and braked gingerly to a halt, using most of the runway. The line chief arrived in his truck and as soon as he had saftied the landing gear, I shut the bird down. I didn't even want to taxi it in.
I asked the line chief to assemble the dock crews and line personnel in the hangar in one hour. It was time to make a little speech. The men who worked on the line and in the docks were capable and experienced, but they were all short timers. It was the policy at that time that after nine or ten months of tough duty in Korea, the men were transferred to Japan for the last few months of their tour of duty. The living was better and no one was shooting at you. They had certainly earned a break, but it appeared to me that they were on a vacation that could be hazardous to my health.
"Men, I'll keep this short. Most of you know me, but for those that don't, I'm one of the pilots that test fly the planes you work on. I just flew a plane that had so many malfunctions I don't even know how to write it up. I want you to know I have recently finished flying over a hundred missions, and I have a brand new wife waiting for me at home, so I want to get back there as badly as you do. If you don't glue these F-80's back together a little better I don't believe I'm going to make it. I need your help. That's all I can say."
My little speech must have worked. The quality of maintenance improved and I became a more wary pilot. No more test hops with full tip tanks either.
There is one incident that occurs to every pilot at one time or another during his flying career. Trying to land their airplanes with the landing gear retracted. It's an humbling experience.
Entering the traffic pattern to complete my sixth test flight of the day, I was tired and thirsty. Normally we never flew more than three flights a day, but the weather had been down for over a week and the birds were bunched up on the ready line. Since they were needed in Korea, we tried to get them flown as fast as possible while the sun was out. Pitching out to land, I had mentally projected myself in the bar, sipping a cool drink. Turning base I could taste the ice as it rolled over my tongue. My reverie was interrupted when I heard someone transmit, "Ship turning final, take it around, you have no gear."
God, I thought, that guy must be deaf as well as dumb, but I stifled my grin when a three star red flare broke across the nose of my F-80. I groped for clear thought. I was a ship, I was on the final, and my gear was up. There was also a horn blowing loudly in my ear.
I pushed the throttle, which was at full idle, forward, and waited forever for the J-35 engine to take the fuel. The book said 8-11 seconds from idle to full power. It took a full hour that day.
I was at round out, just feet from the ground, and all I could do was wait. I started to anticipate that scraping sound when the engine finally took. The F-80, almost empty of fuel and very light, fairly leapt forward from its position, scant inches from the ground. Relieved and now very alert I called for closed traffic, put my gear down on downwind, checked it twice and landed--very carefully.
There was a reception committee waiting for me as I taxied in. The mobile control officer and three new pilots who were completing their combat crew checkout. The sly grins on their face told me I was in for it, and I had it coming.
During the past few weeks I had given these men a hard time. While they were getting re-familiar with the F-80 and practicing their combat formation, I would bounce them from out of the sun, then lord over them in the bar. Exercising my "combat veteran" status I really leaned on them. "You guys have got to learn to look around. Check six--be alert every second or somebody is going to have your ass." Well--somebody was about to have my ass.
The Mobile Officer came forward as I deplaned and with obvious pleasure said, "Cut that one a little close, didn't you, Bill?" I answered without enthusiasm. "Aw, I was just seeing if you guys were on your toes. But just to show you what a great guy I am, I'd like to stand for the drinks." It cost me seventy eight bucks to get out of the Club that night, but I paid without a whimper. Those guys had saved me the ultimate embarrassment and I had learned another lesson in humility.
My year was finally up. It was time to return to the land of the Big BX. I had survived over a hundred combat missions and gained some valuable experience. I had received a spot promotion to 1st Lieutenant midway through the combat tour, had been designated a Flight Commander, and even led the group on two occasions. All this just fifteen months after graduation from flight school. Obviously the Air Force was the place to be. If all this happened in just over a year, there was no limit to what one could achieve if he hung around awhile. I looked forward to my next assignment with great expectations.
Forgotten in the exuberance of youth were the trials and hazards of a military aviator. Even the inconveniences of war time living were put back to the recesses of my mind (subject, of course, to recall lat a later and more opportune time). I was anxious to get home to be with my family and loved ones. The excitement and adventures of the past year were heady, however, it was time to go back to the well. The loneliness of separation grows heavy with time, no matter how exhilarating your situation may be. The trip home is a blur in my mind, but I remember an incident that happened on the last leg.
I was flying on a North Central DC-3 from Chicago to Michigan, where my loved ones were waiting for me. To say I was anxious would be an understatement. I sat next to a little old lady of sixty-five or so, and I guess I was hanging on to the seat pretty tight, because about fifteen minutes out she leaned over and said, "You don't need to worry, young man. I fly on these planes all the time and they are really quite safe." I looked over at her and smiled and thanked her for her concern. I couldn't tell her I was a battle hardened veteran combat pilot on my way home from the wars, so I just leaned back, relaxed, and enjoyed the flight. I was going home!
Combat and Other Emotions
Whenever they give a war, a lot of people go to it. I suppose Army troops have to go, but Air Force personnel are all volunteers--at least to fly. Not everyone that goes to a war fights. I read some figures about what the Army called its "Cutting Edge". They claimed that for every man who fired his rifle at the enemy, it took five behind the lines to back him up. In the Air Force that figure is more like ten to one.
That doesn't mean that five Army or ten Air Force men behind the lines are enjoying themselves. Things are austere, even behind the lines. The basic needs of man become very important when you are living (existing) in a forward area. The enemy usually do their best to make things uncomfortable and a man can get battle fatigue working sixteen to twenty hours a day, seven days a week. Men that fight run the full gamut of emotions. They don't come in the same sequence for everybody, but if you fight you rarely miss any of them.
Air Force air crew members believe they hang it out a little extra, because in war or peace, flying high performance aircraft is hazardous. Not just getting them up or down, but what you do with them when airborne, like flying at night.
I have read romantic novels like Saint Exupery's Night Flight and Flight to Arms. Because of people like him, a young man will decide to become a flyer and find himself up there in the dark. Between the stars on top and the lights of the world on the bottom it's hard to tell if you are right side up.
Try night formation in a fighter plane in marginal weather. The Leader is flying on instruments and you are hanging onto his wing tip light, your only contact with the world, wondering why he is in a constant turn. Of course he isn't, but you can't convince your mind, your eyes, or the seat of your pants. Not too romantic, Mr. St. Exupery! When it's over, you know you have just done something bold, even if it was only doing what was expected of you When you belly up to the bar, that first one tastes very special and when "Fearless Leader" asks you how it went out there, "It was a piece of cake, boss, and you sure were smooth tonight."
One of the toughest peace-time tests for a fighter pilot were the large formations or wing gaggles we used to fly. There was always a reason, like Armed Forces Day or the retirement of a senior officer. In my Wing, our Commander believed we should do it once a month. He would troop the line inspecting pilots, crew chiefs, and planes. Then we would mount our machines and blast off.
It wasn't too big a challenge to get the squadrons formed up. The Ops Officer or senior Flight Commander usually led, and he knew to make wide easy turns at a constant speed, but once the squadrons were formed into the Wing Gaggle, the test began.
Our senior officers weren't always too sharp in the cockpit. Many of them were combat aces and they had earned theirs, but the press of the peacetime military kept them at the controls o their desk most of the time. They had forgotten the intricacies of leading big formations. They were just plain rusty.
Anyone that has flown in a formation of over two ships knows that the best speed for a fly-by is relatively slow, but some of our bosses liked fast better. When the leader touched his throttle, or even thought about it, it was like an accordion. By the time that small correction got back to purple 48, he was going from full throttle to idle. Some pilots even pressed the wheel brake pedals to slow down, although to the best of my knowledge this didn't help much.
One thing that every pilot in a gaggle dreaded were the words, "Speed brakes". In those earlier days, standardization wasn't what it is today. (Is it?) Some squadrons used the call, "Speed brakes down, ready, now". Some used "Speed brakes down, now", and some others just said, "Speed brakes, down", the last word being the execution or command word. Even when everybody hit the speed break switch on the same command it was exciting because no two airplanes were alike, and when the speed brakes come out, the airplane changed trim. There is at least one bobble per plane. Multiply that by about 48 airplanes, throw in a few extra bobbles for the two guys in the formation who are just plain spastic, and you end up with--popcorn. If you are in the middle of the formation, there is no place to go, so you sit there clutching the stick and pumping rudders to keep from having an unauthorized contact with another plane.
Another thing that rivaled the speed brake call for thrills was when you were stacked down, flights in trail and the leader decided to take it down lower. You sit back there wondering if the bottom of your plane is green yet, trying to sneak a peek at the ground with your already strained peripheral vision, waiting for somebody to say, "Lead--take it up a little, we're in the weeds back here."
Then it's over, or almost. Red Leader releases the squadrons and the squadrons break up into flights for landing. You finally get some time to look around and your fuel gauge is knocking the bottom of the tank. You know everybody else is in the same boat, so you just sit there and sweat. No sense declaring minimum fuel because once it starts it spreads like a plague. Then you fly very carefully in the traffic pattern because you don't want to have to go around. Finally you're down. Sweet Mother Earth!
I don't know if I told it right. You had to have been there, or ask another fighter pilot and he will tell you his version. You probably won't even have to ask him, just put a cool one in his hands and he'll get around to it. Yes Sir, things were tough in the old days!!
Fear! It's always there, part of the basic equation of flight. It doesn't manifest itself right away. Sometimes it starts with a low pull out on the gunnery range--but you are too busy to spend much time with it. Push it aside, polish up your instrument procedures and bury it father down.
Combat brings fear to the surface. You must now deal with it. A pilot fighting his first war doesn't believe he will ever be touched by fear. You do feel something from the start, but it's more like the excitement before a football game. You get a little nervous, but it's because you want to give a good account of yourself. When you get your first really effective mission, the exuberance carries you for awhile. It takes five or ten missions to get the feel of combat, to accurately see the target, and to start seeing, with some trepidation, the bullets being fired back at you.
You may fly with an old head who has nearly finished his combat tour. He aborts a couple of times, too easily it seems. You don't say anything about it, but you decide it will never happen to you.
Soon you are a combat veteran, maybe a flight leader. You should feel good about it, but mostly you feel tired, because you put in the long hours and drink a little more than you should. There are a lot of new faces. Many of the old heads are gone, some for all time.
Then comes your turn. It usually happens before the fighting starts. You're on your way into the target. It's a clear day and you see the heavy flak and automatic weapons fire, like red gold balls floating lazily up at you. It dawns on you that you've got to go into the target--into that same sky full of scrap metal. The seconds that you have to think about it seem like hours. It hits you in the gut and you fear for your life. The war has suddenly become very personal. You feel like a coward and start looking at the instrument panel hoping something is wrong so you can abort, because you cannot go in there.
But you go. When you start your run you get busy again and concentrate on your job. You deliver, then it's up and out. Afterwards everything you do has more meaning. Your drink tastes better--and food. You get smarter. If you have to deal with the fear you become a better combat pilot because you want to stay alive, so you work at it a little bit harder.