Flight to Korea, June 25, 1950.
My most memorable experience began on Sunday morning, June 25, 1950, as our nine-man crew, of Flight A, 3d Air Rescue Squadron, Military Air Transport Service, routinely relieved the previous alert crew on the flight line of Johnson Air Base, near Tokyo. Our plane, an SB-17G (for Search Bomber, serial number 44-83885), wore distinctive yellow paint markings in wide bands around the fuselage, wings, and tail. It was the last B-17 produced at Long Beach, California. A Higgins, droppable A-1 lifeboat, painted yellow and called the "Flying Dutchman," was bound by cables to her belly, which were secured to the bomb rack shackles in the bomb bay.
The flight engineer, MSgt. William J. Brewster, had inspected the plane, checked the engineering forms, performed the pre-flight, and run up the engines. Other crew members had assured me that the communication, navigation, and rescue and survival equipments were in good order. Brewster, 1st Lt. Ronald G. Carver, the co-pilot, and I reviewed the records and declared that -885 was "fit for duty." The odds were, however, that we would have no reason to fly her during our Sunday tour. The summer monsoon had started, but the weather was fair over most of Japan. A cold front, moving southward over Korea, was predicted to bring rain and low clouds to Japan by Tuesday, June 27th. (1)
Also parked on the ramp were Douglas B-26s of the 3d Bomb Group's, 13th Light Bomb Squadron, displaying their World War II nose art. The 8th Light Bomb Squadron had left on the previous day to participate in an air defense readiness test at Ashiya Air Base, in southern Japan. With them went the RF-80As of the 8th Photo Reconnaissance Squadron, their pitot cover streamers swaying like reins on speeding horses. (2)
The morning's quiet stopped suddenly at 1102 hours, Korean time, when 1st Lt. Thomas L. Wright, our navigator, answered the alert phone. It was Air Defense Control Center (ADCC) in Tokyo, relaying orders from Far East Air Forces (FEAF) headquarters. They directed the 3d Air Rescue to prepare a fully-armed SB-17, pick up a passenger at Tokyo's Haneda Airport, and transport him to Kimpo airfield, at Seoul, Republic of South Korea. ADCC had already filed a flight plan for our mission. (3)
Our crew could not have imagined the portent of that message. The concise wording gave us neither explanatory nor implementing instructions, and we reacted reflexively. The stand-by alert crew was instructed to report for duty and notify Capt. Edmund F. O'Connor, the Flight A commander. As our support personnel arrived, they received a short briefing. Aware of participating on yet another "real-life mission," they moved enthusiastically to their shops, the hangar, and the ramp, eager to get -885 combat-ready and airborne.
The early arrival of engineering officer 1st Lt. Henry L. Laird and armament officer 1st Lt. Kenneth F. Bailey, hastened the removal of the lifeboat. Machineguns and ammunition were installed, the plane's fuel tanks topped off, and all tasks completed to ensure we were fully combat ready for the mission. Operations officer Capt. Bror C. Seaburg and 1st Lt. Vincent H. McGovern tried to anticipate and resolve potential problems that might impede our efforts. Crew chief TSgt. Thomas B. England and his maintenance crew inspired us with their confidence in the airplane's health.
During preparations, we learned that the North Korean People's Army, in force, had penetrated the border of the Republic of South Korea at 0400 hours. At 1227, one hour and 25 minutes after receiving the phone call from ADCC, and eight hours and 27 minutes after the invasion began, we flew -885 the short distance to Haneda Airport. In the, terminal, I met and briefed our passenger, Col. William H. S. Wright, USA, chief of staff, Korean Military Advisory Group (KMAG). (4) At 1310 we were airborne again, climbing westward over the Japanese Alps toward our destination.
The tension eased as we settled into our routine. We were in weather for most of the flight. Our crew assumed that we would deliver our passenger, refuel, and return to Johnson AB that evening. I remember leaving the flight deck to Lt. Carver and making my way through the bomb bay to the waist compartment, where gunner/scanners Cpls. George E. Seymour, Hugh H. Fowler, Daniel W. Guyton, and Robert P. Gauss were stationed. Colonel Wright stood at the right waist window and had unwittingly positioned himself in a pose reminiscent of the familiar photograph of General Douglas MacArthur in his personal B-17. I told Colonel Wright that I would contact Kimpo AB to arrange for his debarkation. We discussed the event of the day and I returned to the flight deck.
The only Airways and Air Communications Service (AACS) navigation aid available at Kimpo Airfield was a low-power radio beacon that could be used for homing and instrument landings. (5) I familiarized myself with the headings, altitudes, and frequencies that we would be using for an Automatic Direction Finding (ADF) letdown and low approach. "No problem there," I thought. Suddenly, the routine changed when radio operator SSgt. Richard G. Grimm handed me a message from FEAF. It instructed us not to land at Kimpo, but to proceed instead to Itazuke AB, Kyushu, Japan. There was no explanation.
En route, we received yet another FEAF message, directing us to land at an airstrip near Pusan on the southeastern tip of the Korean peninsula. Its existence was about the extent of our knowledge of our new destination. Tom Wright searched his brown leather navigation case and found a sectional chart of the area. We radioed Itazuke Control in Japan and asked them to provide any available information concerning the airstrip at Pusan. They told us to stand-by. Some minutes later, Itazuke came back stating that Pusan was an abandoned 4,000-foot emergency landing strip with no radio or navigation facilities. They had located a pilot in the officers' club who had landed a C-47 at Pusan two years before and who opined, "It wasn't too bad." I asked Control for the most valid barometric pressure in the Pusan area for setting our altimeter. With Tom Wright on the APQ-13 radar, we began our descent to the Japan Sea, breaking through a 200-foot ceiling. (6)
As we approached the Korean coast, Tom stood between the pilots' seats with his chart and gave us headings. We adjusted the engine controls to climb and the superchargers control set for "War Emergency Power." All three of us tried to find a visual route inland. We soon flew between two coastal hills with only ground fog in front of us. Now lightly loaded, -885 responded smoothly and pulled us out of there. We climbed to altitude, made another attempt at coastal penetration, and again broke off. Even had we found the Pusan airstrip, I doubted that the low ceiling would have permitted us to maneuver for a landing. We so informed Itazuke Control and were subsequently instructed to return to Japan.
Base Operations at Itazuke AB that Sunday evening was crowded. Colonel Wright left quickly to communicate with Ambassador John J. Muccio and his KMAG staff in Seoul. My next contact with Wright occurred years later. I learned that he had been flown to Kimpo early the next morning, June 26th, by U.S. Navy pilot Curtis Allen in a Navy JRB-6 (generic C-45). Wright told me that after arriving at Seoul, he had received a stirring message and later, an inspiring visit from General MacArthur. A graduate of West Point's class of 1930, Wright retired in the grade lieutenant general. (7)
I also learned why, as we prepared for let-down at Kimpo on June 25th, we were abruptly redirected to divert to Pusan. Two North Korean Yak-7Bs (Russian fighters similar to the British Spitfire) had buzzed Kimpo at 1315. And at 1700, as we prepared to land, the Yaks strafed the control tower, a gas dump, and an Air Force C-54. (8)
Our mission, launched on the first day of the Korean War, may well have been the first combat mission launched by the United States Air Force since it was established in September 1947.
(1.) WD AAF Form 1, "Aircraft Flight Report--Operations," SB-17G, 44-83885, Jun 25, 1950.
(2.) Robert Frank Futrell, The United States Air Force in Kurea, 1950-1953. New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1961, p. 7.
(3.) 3d Air Rescue Squadron Operations Log, Jun 25, 1950, p. 104; E.B. Crevonis and H. Meeks, "Study of the Third Rescue Squadron in Relation to the Korean War, 1 May-31 Dec 1950,"
(4.) WD AAF Form 1, "Aircraft Flight Report--Operations," SB 17G, 44-83885, Jun 25, 1950. H. V. Brooks, "3d Air Rescue Squadron History, 25 Jun-31 Aug 1950," p. 5.
(5.) Futrell, p. 600.
(6.) Brooks, p. 5.
(7.) Lt. Gen. W. H. S. Wright, USA (Ret.) to J. A. Scheib, Jun 29, 1980; R. E. Appleton, South to the Naktong, North to the Yalu (June-November 1950), Washington, D.C.: Office of the Chief of Military History,1961, p. 40; Air Force Magazine, Oct 1995, p.69.
(8.) Futrell, p. 9.
Maj. James A. Scheib, USAF (Ret.), flew thirty-one missions as a B-24 pilot with the 485th Bomb Group, 831st Bomb Squadron in World War II. From 1948 to 1951, he flew SB-17s and SA-16s on air rescue missions. Subsequently, he worked as a civil service employee in aircraft acquisition, at the, Aeronautical Systems Division, Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio.
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|Author:||Scheib, James A.|
|Publication:||Air Power History|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2004|
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