Task Force 77: Korea I

Six small, silver jet fighters bearing red stars on their stubby fuselages and swept-back wings took off from the safety of their air base at Antung in Manchuria, climbed rapidly to 30,000 feet and crossed the Yalu River into North Korea. It was 1 November 1950. The formation of F-51 Mustangs and F-80 Shooting Stars flying on the North Korean side of the river was surprised at the devastating closing speed of the Communist jets, whose pilots only failed to destroy the American aircraft through their own inexperience. It was one of a series of setbacks UN forces had suffered since the Land of the Morning Calm had erupted in war on 25 June 1950 when the North Korean Army, using the false pretext that the South had invaded the North, crossed the 38th Parallel, completely wrong-footing the Republic of Korea (ROK) Army and its American advisers. From the outset, the North Koreans enjoyed total air superiority, although on paper the NKAF had no chance against the UN forces, but the USAF aircraft available for war in Korea were ill suited to operate in a close air support and interdiction campaign. They needed paved runways 6,000 feet long and these only existed in Japan, which meant that air operations over Korea were restricted to no more than a few minutes. Up until that fateful November day, US commanders had no reason to fear the Communist air threat because only piston-engined aircraft had confronted them, but intervention by China and the appearance of the Soviet-built jets in North Korean airspace dramatically changed the balance of air power at a stroke.

Fortunately, the North Koreans lacked the capability to strike back at the UN fleet off its coasts. The USN was in a state of transition, with the first jet fighters joining the more numerous piston-engined aircraft aboard its carriers. While navy jets were about 100 mph faster than the Corsair fighter-bomber or Skyraider attack aircraft, the early jets could not haul as great a war load over a long distance. And they were also slow to respond from the point when the throttle was advanced, to when the engine ‘spooled up’ sufficiently to accelerate the aircraft. This delay could prove fatal if a jet had to be waved off a landing at the last moment. Corsairs with their huge variable-pitch propellers and Double Wasps permitted fast acceleration and they could also carry a more formidable war load than the Grumman F8F Bearcat besides. American air superiority during 1950 meant that Korea was, for both the slower Corsair and the Skyraider, an ideal hunting ground in which to operate in the ground attack and interdiction roles. Flying from flat-tops, navy and marine units could operate in the Sea of Japan and be sent off at a point about 70 miles from the coast of Korea (the shallow seabed off the east coast of Korea prevented them from getting any nearer).

But of the fifteen US Navy carriers in service around the world on the day of the invasion, only Valley Forge (CV-45), which had sailed from Subic Bay in the Philippines with CVG-5 (Air Group Five), was deployed to the Far East. Valley Forge and the Royal Navy’s light fleet carrier HMS Triumph, which with other vessels constituted Task Force (TF) 77 arrived on station in the Yellow Sea off Korea on 3 July.85 At 0545 hours, the first strike by TF 77 went ahead when sixteen of VF-53 and VF-54’s F4U-4s and twelve AD Skyraiders of VA-55 took off to hit North Korean lines of communication, railway bridges, rail yards, airfields and roads near the North Korean capital, Pyongyang. Thirty F9F-3 Panthers of VF-51 Screaming Eagles provided top cover for the Corsairs and Skyraiders and thus became the first jet fighters in the US Navy to go into action. Two F9F-3 pilots, Lieutenant (jg) L. H. Plog and Ensign E. W. Brown, each destroyed a NKAF Yak-9 fighter in addition to destroying two more on the ground. The carriers mounted further air strikes that day, and on 4 July, three hangars and some NKAF aircraft were destroyed on the ground at Pyongyang while rolling stock, buildings and various installations were bombed and strafed. Four Skyraiders were slightly damaged by flak and one, unable to lower its flaps, bounced over Valley Forge’s crash barriers and landed among the aircraft ranged forward on deck. A Skyraider and two Corsairs were destroyed and three more Skyraiders, two Panthers and a Corsair were badly damaged. The carriers withdrew from the combat area for replenishment at sea on 5 July.

Aircraft from Valley Forge continued their strikes on North Korean targets on 18 July with strikes on Pyongyang and Onjong-ni. On the 19th, they attacked Yonpo airfield. These two strikes resulted in the loss of thirty-two NKAF aircraft destroyed on the ground and another thirteen damaged. Valley Forge left Korean waters at the end of July and sailed to Okinawa, Japan, for rest and replenishment. Its place in TF 77 was taken on 31 July by the fast-attack Essex-class carrier Philippine Sea (CV-47) with Air Group 11 (CVG-11) embarked. Philippine Sea arrived in Buckner Bay, Okinawa, on 1 August to begin work-ups for combat with Valley Forge in attacks on Korea from both the Yellow Sea and the Sea of Japan. On 2 August, the carrier Sicily (CVE-118) arrived off Korea and began operations with ASW squadrons. CVG-11 launched its first attacks on 3 August when Lieutenant-Commander William T. Amen led VF-111 in attacks on airfields at Mokpo, Kwangju and Kusan. Eight F9F Panthers of VF-112 and twelve Corsairs of VF-114 hit rail and road bridges in the Mokpo-Kwangju area. The F4Us destroyed a bridge and damaged two dams south of Iri before strafing warehouses, sampans and junks on the way home. The F4U-4s of VMF-214 flying off the Sicily bombed Chinju and Sinhan-ni; VMF-323 from the Badoeng Strait (CVE-116) flew close air support (CAS) missions for 8th Army units, attacking vehicles, supply dumps, bridges and railway lines. VMF-214 and VMF-323 flew on average forty-five ground-attack sorties a day during the fierce UN counter-offensive around Pusan.

Between 7 and 13 August, Philippine Sea supported the UN counter-offensive in the Masan Sector as the North Koreans attempted to break through the Pusan Perimeter. VF-113 lost two F4Us, which collided during a strafing nun while providing close air support and interdiction of enemy supply lines. Ensign J. F. Krail was killed, while Ensign G. T. Farnsworth nursed his damaged Corsair out to sea where he ditched. Farnsworth was picked up that same afternoon.

On 16 August, after replenishing in Japan, Philippine Sea sent its aircraft over Korea again. On the 19th, escorted by Panthers, thirty-seven F4Us and Skyraiders from Philippine Sea and Valley Forge scored eight direct hits on a large, steel railway bridge west of Seoul.91 Commander ‘Sully’ Vogel (CAG 11) leading VF-114 was shot down by AA fire on his second pass. The Pacific combat veteran bailed out but his parachute failed to open properly.

On 1 September, the North Koreans made an all-out attempt to pierce the Pusan perimeter and the USN fighters and the Far East Air Force fighters and bombers were used to repel the attacks. At night, the F4U-SNs of VMF(N)-513 and USAF B-26s flew numerous night interdiction missions, while at sea, squadrons from Task Force 77 added their striking power to the counter-offensive operation. All this activity attracted the attention of the Soviets, who had a naval air base at Port Arthur on the tip of the Liaotung Peninsula. On 4 September 1950, a VP-53 Corsair from Valley Forge on CAP shot down a twin-engined Soviet aircraft that approached the task force. Next day, the North Korean People’s Army (NKPA) offensive had petered out, and on 11 September, the breakout from Pusan began. Two days later, the pre-invasion sea bombardment began, and then, on 15 September, General Douglas MacArthur launched Operation Chromite using amphibious landings behind the enemy lines at Inchon with the majority of the air cover provided by F4Us and Skyraiders from Valley Forge, Philippine Sea and Boxer (recently arrived from the USA) and Seafires and Fireflies from HMS Triumph. During 12-14 September, F4Us and Skyraiders provided the majority of the ‘deep support’ from Valley Forge, Philippine Sea and Boxer, which had recently arrived on station with CVG-2. US Navy and USMC fighter-bombers strafed and bombed positions along the Inchon waterfront prior to the main landing. The UN forces enjoyed total air superiority, and by midnight on the 15th, the 1st Marine Division had secured the port of Inchon and, with the army’s 7th Infantry Division, moved on Seoul and Kimpo airfield, severing Communist supply routes to the south. The North Koreans fell back in the face of the offensive and the navy pilots went in search of interdiction targets behind the ‘main line of resistance’ (MLR) and over North Korea. CVG-5 from the Valley Forge discovered a North Korean convoy of trucks in open terrain at Taejong, 6 miles east of Inchon, and destroyed no fewer than eighty-seven of these. During this period, Lieutenant Carl C. Dace made the first combat ejection from a jet fighter when he banged out after his Panther was hit by AA fire during a ground-attack run over North Korea. On 27 September, Seoul was recaptured. When the American amphibious landing went ahead at Wonsan on the east coast of Korea on 10 October, the marines were supported by aircraft from Boxer, the fast carrier Leyte (CV-32), Philippine Sea and Valley Forge. By 28 September, the Communists were in full retreat. But the North Koreans rejected a surrender ultimatum and MacArthur had no choice but to continue the war north of the 38th Parallel and march on the North Korean capital, Pyongyang. By the end of October, the North Korean capital of Pyongyang had fallen and the war seemed to be won. The carriers of TF 77 were relieved and retired to Sasebo, Japan, while the USMC squadrons moved up to Yonpo airfield to carry on CAS missions for the ground troops pursuing the remnants of the NKPA to the Yalu River that bordered Communist China.

On 14 October, MacArthur’s intelligence staff had reported thirty-eight Chinese divisions in Manchuria but it was believed that none had entered North Korea. In fact, six Chinese armies began storming across the border at night, and by the end of October, almost 300,000 Communist ‘Chinese People’s Volunteers’ were deployed for battle with the UN forces. Only small groups of Chinese troops were identified and the majority remained virtually undetected. On 17 October, aircraft from Philippine Sea and Leyte dropped both bridges across the Yalu and Hyosanjin, but by using pontoons, the Chinese were able to cross the river. On 1 November, American aircraft were confronted by Red Chinese MiG-15s for the first time. An area 100 miles deep between Sinuiju on the Yalu and Sinanju on the Chongchon River soon became known as ‘MiG Alley’.

For three consecutive days beginning on 9 November, F4Us and AD-4s from Valley Forge, Leyte and Philippine Sea protected by F9Fs flying top cover hit bridges on the Yalu and supply concentrations in Hungnam, Songjin and Chongjin. Because of political considerations, the navy pilots were only permitted to bomb the southern end of the bridges. Skyraiders flying in formations of eight, supported by eight to sixteen Corsairs on flak suppression duty, destroyed a road bridge at Sinuiju and two more 200 miles upstream at Hvesanjin. Up above, as many as sixteen Panther jets kept an eye on proceedings, flying top cover for the bombers. The MiG outclassed the Grumman Panther, but the superior experience of the navy pilots gave them the edge. On 10 November, a Panther from Philippine Sea was the first US Navy jet to down another jet aircraft when Lieutenant Commander W. T. Amen, CO of VF-111 flying a VF-112 Panther, destroyed a MiG-15 near Sinuiju. For the next nine days, the Corsairs and Skyraiders continued their attacks on the bridges across the Yalu. When in late November the Yalu froze over, the Chinese were able to cross almost at will. This build-up of its forces led to the first real confrontation on 28 November when heavy fighting broke out between the Chinese forces in the Hagaru-nian and Yudam-ni areas and the 1st Marine Division. The 5th and 7th Marines became cut off from the rest of the division and they were forced to withdraw to the rugged terrain around the Chosin Reservoir. All available land-based and carrier-borne aircraft were thrown into the battle and also the evacuation from Hungnam. Valley Forge had departed the area for a much-needed overhaul92 and the light carriers were involved in ferrying replacement aircraft to the USMC squadrons in the battle zone. Leading the way were USN and USMC close air support Corsairs and Skyraiders protected by USAF F-86 Sabres flying top cover. On 1 December, the USMC breakout of Chosin began, but by this time, Leyte and Philippine Sea were on station and they were soon supported by the light carrier Bataan (CVL-29) and Badoeng Strait. The successful completion of the Chosin breakout was achieved mainly due to the total navy and marine air support.

On the morning of 4 December, Lieutenant (jg) Thomas J. Hudner and his wingman Ensign Jesse L. Brown, the first commissioned black American Navy pilot, and two other F4U pilots of VF-32 from the Leyte were on an armed reconnaissance mission north of the Chosin Reservoir. Hudner’s flight group was covering the marines’ escape, looking for more Communist forces advancing from the north. Hudner, a graduate of Annapolis in 1946, had been with VF-32 since receiving his wings. He and Jesse Brown, of Hattiesbung, Mississippi, were good friends and Hudner considered Brown to be an inspiration to all black people. Flying above the snow-covered mountains, they saw no sign of enemy troops, but Jesse Brown’s F4U-4 was struck by anti-aircraft fire and he reported that he was losing oil pressure and would have to crash-land. Brown put his Corsair down in a clearing on a heavily wooded mountainside, but such was the force of the impact that the engine broke off and the fuselage twisted at a 45-degree angle near the cockpit. The three other Corsairs circled overhead and on the second pass they saw Brown open his canopy and wave – but he did not get out. Hudner then saw smoke coming from the nose and spreading back toward the cockpit and he realised immediately that the F4U would catch fire at any moment and the trapped pilot would be burned alive. The flight leader called for a rescue helicopter, but Hudner knew that by the time it arrived, they might well be too late. He radioed the others that he was going down to help Brown.

Hudner released his rockets and auxiliary fuel tanks, selected his flaps and tried to put his Corsair down as close as he could to Brown’s wrecked Corsair: he hit the side of the mountain hard and skidded across the snow – but his Corsair was safely down. He leaped out and ran to Brown’s wrecked F4U and found that the pilot was indeed trapped. The fuselage had broken at the cockpit, pinning his leg at the knee and he was in bad shape. Brown had taken off his helmet and had removed his gloves to try to unbuckle his parachute harness, but the freezing cold (the snow was 2 feet deep and it was 25 degrees below zero) had frozen his hands solid. Hudner rushed back to his Corsair to grab a wool hat and scarf he always kept for emergencies; he put them on Brown and tried to pull his friend free, but the Corsair’s cockpit was too high off the ground for him to reach. He then tried to climb up the F4U’s inverted gull wing, but it was too slippery with snow and he just kept sliding off. Finally, he grabbed the handholds in the side of the fuselage and pulled himself up to the cockpit, from where he reached down to try and lift Brown. But it was hopeless. Finally, Hudner returned to his Corsair and radioed his flight leader, Lieutenant Commander Richard L. Cevoli, to send a rescue helicopter with fire extinguishers and an axe. As he waited, all Hudner could do was throw handfuls of snow onto the still-smoking nose, stopping now and again to talk to Brown to try and boost his spirits. Hudner suspected that Brown had internal injuries, but the trapped pilot never once said that he was hurt and he remained calm throughout the ordeal.

Finally, a USMC rescue helicopter piloted by Lieutenant Charles Ward arrived and landed on the mountainside. He brought out his axe and fire extinguisher and joined Hudner in trying to get Brown out of the wrecked Corsair; but they were unable to make any headway. The axe made no impression on the tangled metal pinning Brown’s knee and the tiny fine extinguisher had no effect on the smoke and flames. As the light began to fade, so did Brown’s spirits and his words became fewer and fainter. Ward knew that he and Hudner had to get out of the crash spot before dusk because the helicopter had no night-flying instruments and trying to fly among the mountains at night could be fatal. Realistically, Ward told Hudner, ‘You can stay here if you want, but I can’t see that either of us can do any good.’ Hudner knew Ward was right. The only way they could have got Brown out was to have chopped off his leg at the knee with the axe, but neither was prepared to do that because the shock would more than likely have killed him. All they could do was return to base for better metal-cutting equipment, though in their heart of hearts, they knew that by the time they returned Brown would he dead. Hudner told Brown they were going to have to leave him and get help. But Brown must have known that he was dying, because he mumbled a last message to Hudner for his wife, Daisy. As Hudner and Ward left, he slipped into unconsciousness. The helicopter reached the marine base at nightfall and Hudner remained snowed in there for three days. When he finally returned to his carrier, the captain, Thomas Sisson, called him to report to the bridge. Hudner recounted the events of 4 December and waited for the reprimand that he thought would surely come for acting without orders. But instead, Sisson nominated him for the Medal of Honor.

On 5 December, the task force was strengthened still further by the arrival of the Princeton (CV-37), with CVG-19 consisting of two F4U-4 Corsair squadrons, one F9F-2 squadron and one AD-4 squadron. On 7 December, the Sicily arrived on station, and on the 16th, the Bataan arrived, and next day, they covered the Hungnan evacuation. On 23 December, the Valley Forge again took up station in the Sea of Japan after its much-needed overhaul. The marines who were holed up in the Chosin Reservoir were given around-the-clock protection by fighters and fighter-bombers that often ended up flying in and around the treacherous, mountainous passes in appalling weather conditions. The weather in this region is one of extremes: the summers are hot – so hot that many pilots in fact considered these conditions to be worse than those endured in winter. Korean winters are freezing, with sub-zero temperatures being the norm. The 10-mile-long Funchilin Pass was particularly dangerous, while some of the others were around 4,000 feet and experienced temperatures that dropped to under 32 degrees below zero.

Philippine Sea and Leyte completed their operations in the Chosin Reservoir area on Christmas Day 1950, having been on the line for fifty-two consecutive days, and they departed for rest and replenishment in Japan, arriving at Sasebo and Yokosuka on 26 and 28 December respectively. But their departure was followed by a Chinese New Year offensive on 31 December. On 5 January 1951, the Chinese recaptured Seoul and the UN forces were soon in headlong retreat. On 8 January, the Philippine Sea and Leyte and the Valley Forge were on station again, helping to repel the Chinese New Year offensive. After days of concerted and unremitting attacks, the Chinese advance was finally stopped on 15 January. An incident of the most remarkable character also occurred on this date: Ensign Edward J. Hofstra Jr, of VF-64 aboard Valley Forge was strafing coastal roads when his F4U-4 struck the ground flat on its belly, shearing off its belly tank, napalm bomb and wing bombs. The engine was also stopped when the propeller made contact with the ground. But following impact, the Corsair bounced back into the air and the remaining inertia carried it about 1,000 yards further forwards and 500 yards out to sea where Hofstra was able to ditch it and get into his life-raft. He was rescued by a Sunderland flying boat about three hours later.

Aircraft from the Philippine Sea attacked enemy positions until 1 February, when the carrier replenished again in Japan, and from 12 February to 13 March. Four days later, Philippine Sea and Valley Forge returned to Yokosaka and an exchange of air groups began. CVG-11 disembarked and three Corsair squadrons and VA-65, equipped with the Skyraider and the usual Composite Squadron detachments, were embarked from Air Group Two aboard Valley Forge. On 15 March, Seoul was back in UN hands but the continued presence of Chinese troops in South Korea meant that reinforcements were needed and the wholesale reactivation of naval reservists began. By 27 March, Air Group 101 embarked on Boxer was composed entirely of recalled reserve squadrons. On 2 April, Panthers relinquished their escort role and carried out their first ground-attack mission in Korea when two F9F-2Bs of VF-191 from Princeton, each carrying four 250-lb and two 100-lb GP bombs, bombed a rail bridge near Songjin. Philippine Sea rejoined TF 77 on 4 April and her Corsairs and Skyraiders resumed operations in the Sea of Japan until the 8th, when CV-47 and her screen sailed for Formosa to counter Red Chinese threats against the island. After a show of force off the Chinese coast and over the northern part of Formosa between 11 and 13 April, CV-47 returned north, giving support to UN ground forces between 16 April and 3 May and returning to Yokosuka on 6 May. The North Korean spring offensive, however, soon pulled the Philippine Sea back to the line, and during the period 17-30 May 1951, she furnished close air support for the hard-pressed UN forces. Attack and counter-attack continued for weeks until, on 31 May, Operation Strangle, an air interdiction campaign using Far East Air Forces, notably the 5th Air Force, 1st Marine Air Wing and TF 77, was mounted against road and rail routes and bridges in north-east Korea. Strangle, which was named for the Sicilian operation of 1943, was meant to achieve the same success claimed in Husky, but success was not forthcoming in Korea because no attacks were permitted on the Chinese Communist bases in Manchuria or the relatively simple enemy supply system.

On 18 August, aircraft from TF 77 attacked twenty-seven bridges and rail lines running to the east coast. Samdong-ni to Kowon was soon christened ‘Death Valley’ by navy aviators, who grew to respect the enemy AA fire in the area. Essex arrived on station joining TF 77, and on 23 August, its McDonnell F2H-2 Banshees made their combat debut for VF-172 with an escort for the B-29s. During 1951, the aircraft aboard TF 77 flew 29,000 interdiction missions over Korea: their contribution to the war effort was immense. Captain Paul N. Gray, CO of VF-54, the Skyraider squadron, recalls the 12 December raid on the bridges at Majonne, of which James Michener wrote a fictionalised account and which was later made into a movie, The Bridges At Toko-ri.

‘When the raid took place, Air Group 5 was attached to Essex, the flagship for Task Force 77. We were flying daily strikes against the North Koreans and Chinese. God! It was cold. The main job was to interdict the flow of supplies coming south from Russia and China. The rules of engagement imposed by political forces in Washington would not allow us to bomb the bridges across the Yalu River where the supplies could easily have been stopped. We had to wait until they were dispersed and hidden in North Korea and then try to stop them. The Air Group consisted of two jet fighter squadrons flying Banshees and Grumman Panthers plus two prop attack squadrons flying Corsairs and Skyraiders. To provide a base for the squadrons, Essex was stationed 100 miles off the East Coast of Korea during that bitter winter of 1951 and 1952. VF-54 started with 24 pilots. Seven were killed during the cruise. The reason 30 percent of our pilots were shot down and lost was due to our mission. The targets were usually heavily defended railroad bridges. In addition, we were frequently called in to make low-level runs with rockets and napalm to provide close support for the troops. Due to the nature of the targets assigned, the attack squadrons seldom flew above 2,000 or 3,000 feet; and it was a rare flight when a plane did not come back without some damage from AA or ground fire.

‘The single-engine plane we flew could carry the same bomb load that a B-17 carried in WWII; and after flying the 100 miles from the carrier, we could stay on station for 4 hours and strafe, drop napalm, fire rockets or drop bombs. The Skyraider was the right plane for this war. On a grey December morning, I was called to the Flag Bridge. Rear Admiral ‘Black Jack’ Perry, the Carrier Division Commander, told me they had a classified request from UN headquarters to bomb some critical bridges in the central area of the North Korean Peninsula. The bridges were a dispersion point for many of the supplies coming down from the North and were vital to the flow of most of the essential supplies. The Admiral asked me to take a look at the targets and see what we could do about taking them out. As I left, the staff intelligence officer handed me the pre-strike photos, the coordinates of the target and said to get on with it. He didn’t mention that the bridges were defended by 56 radar-controlled anti-aircraft guns. That same evening, the Admiral invited the four squadron commanders to his cabin for dinner. James Michener was there. After dinner, the Admiral asked each squadron commander to describe his experiences in flying over North Korea.

‘By this time, all of us were hardened veterans of the war and had some hairy stories to tell about life in the fast lane over North Korea. When it came my time, I described how we bombed the railways and strafed anything else that moved. I described how we had planned for the next day’s strike against some vital railway bridges near a village named Toko-ri [Majonne]. That the preparations had been done with extra care because the pre-strike pictures showed the bridges were surrounded by 56 anti-aircraft guns and we knew this strike was not going to be a walk in the park. All of the pilots scheduled for the raid participated in the planning. A close study of the aerial photos confirmed the 56 guns. Eleven radar sites controlled the guns. They were mainly 37mm with some five inch heavies. All were positioned to concentrate on the path we would have to fly to hit the bridges. This was a World War II air defence system but still very dangerous. How were we going to silence those batteries long enough to destroy the bridges? The bridges supported railway tracks about three feet wide.

‘To achieve the needed accuracy, we would have to use glide-bombing runs. A glide-bombing run is longer and slower than a dive-bombing run and we would be sitting ducks for the AA batteries. We had to get the guns before we bombed the bridges. There were four strategies discussed to take out the radar sites. One was to fly in on the deck and strafe the guns and radars. This was discarded because the area was too mountainous. The second was to fly in on the deck and fire rockets into the gun sites. Discarded because the rockets didn’t have enough killing power. The third was to come in at a high altitude and drop conventional bombs on the targets. This is what we would normally do, but it was discarded in favour of an insidious modification. The one we thought would work the best was to come in high and drop bombs fused to explode over the gun and radar sites. To do this, we decided to take 12 planes; 8 Skyraiders and four Corsairs. Each plane would carry a 2,000lb bomb with a proximity fuse set to detonate about 50 to 100 feet in the air. We hoped the shrapnel from these huge, ugly bombs going off in mid-air would be devastating to the exposed gunners and radar operators.

‘The flight plan was to fly in at 15,000 feet until over the target area and make a vertical dive-bombing run dropping the proximity-fused bombs on the guns and radars. Each pilot had a specific complex to hit. As we approached the target we started to pick up some flak, but it was high and behind us. At the initial point, we separated and rolled into the dive. Now the flak really became heavy. I rolled in first; and after I released my bomb, I pulled out south of the target area and waited for the rest to join up. One of the Corsairs reported that he had been hit on the way down and had to pull out before dropping his bomb. Three other planes suffered minor flak damage but nothing serious. After the join up, I detached from the group and flew over the area to see if there was anything still firing. Sure enough there was heavy 37mm fire from one site, I got out of there in a hurry and called in the reserve Skyraider still circling at 15,000 to hit the remaining gun site. His 2,000lb bomb exploded right over the target and suddenly things became very quiet. The shrapnel from those 2,000lb bombs must have been deadly for the crews serving the guns and radars. We never saw another 37mm burst from any of the 56 guns. From that moment on, it was just another day at the office. Only sporadic machine-gun and small-arms fire was encountered. We made repeated glide-bombing runs and completely destroyed all the bridges. We even brought gun camera pictures back to prove the bridges were destroyed. After a final check of the target area, we joined up, inspected our wingmen for damage and headed home. Mr Michener plus most of the ship’s crew watched from Vulture’s Row as Dog Fannin, the landing signal officer, brought us back aboard.

‘With all the pilots returning to the ship safe and on time, the Admiral was seen to be dancing with joy on the Flag Bridge. From that moment on, the Admiral had a soft spot in his heart for the attack pilots. I think his fatherly regard for us had a bearing on what happened in port after the raid on Toko-ri. The raid on Toko-ri was exciting; but in our minds, it was dwarfed by the incident that occurred at the end of this tour on the line.

‘The third tour had been particularly savage for VF-54. Five of our pilots had been shot down. Three not recovered. I had been shot down for the third time.99 The mechanics and ordnance-men had worked back-breaking hours under medieval conditions to keep the planes flying and finally we were headed for Yokosuka for ten days of desperately needed R&R. As we steamed up the coast of Japan, the Air Group Commander, Commander Marsh Beebe, called Commander Trum, the CO of the Corsair squadron, and me to his office. He told us that the prop squadrons would participate in an exercise dreamed up by the commanding officer of the ship. The Corsairs and Skyraiders were to be tied down on the port side of the flight-deck; and upon signal from the bridge, all engines were to be turned up to full power to assist the tugs in pulling the ship alongside the dock. Commander Trum and I both said to Beebe, “You realize that those engines are vital to the survival of all the attack pilots. We fly those single-engine planes 300 to 400 miles from the ship over freezing water and over very hostile land. Overstressing these engines is not going to make any of us very happy.” Marsh knew the danger; but he said, “The captain of the ship, Captain Wheelock, wants this done, so do it!” As soon as the news of this brilliant scheme hit the ready rooms, the operation was quickly named Operation Pinwheel and Captain Wheelock became known as Captain Wheelchock. On the evening before arriving in port, I talked with Commander Trum and told him, “I don’t know what you are going to do, but I am telling my pilots that our lives depend on those engines and do not give them more than half power; and if that engine temperature even begins to rise, cut back to idle.” That is what they did. About an hour after the ship had been secured to the dock, the Air Group Commander screamed over the ship’s intercom for Gray and Trum to report to his office. When we walked in and saw the pale look on Beebe’s face, it was apparent that Captain Wheelock, in conjunction with the ship’s proctologist, had cut a new aperture in poor old Marsh. The ship’s CO had gone ballistic when he didn’t get the full power from the lashed down Corsairs and Skyraiders and he informed Commander Beebe that his fitness report would reflect this miserable performance of duty. The Air Group Commander had flown his share of strikes and it was a shame that he became the focus of the wrath of Captain Wheelock for something he had not done. However, tensions were high; and in the heat of the moment, he informed Commander Trum and me that he was placing both of us and all our pilots in hack until further notice. A very severe sentence after 30 days on the line.

‘I must pay homage to the talent we had in the squadrons. Lieutenant (jg) Tom Hayward was a fighter pilot who went on to become the CNO. Lieutenant (jg) Neil Armstrong, another fighter pilot, became the astronaut who took the first step on the moon. My wingman, Ken Shugart, was an all-American basketball player and later an admiral. Al Masson, another wingman, became the owner of one of New Orleans’ most famous French restaurants. All of the squadrons were manned with the best and brightest young men the US could produce. The mechanics and ordnance crews who kept the planes armed and flying deserve as much praise as the pilots, for without the effort they expended, working day and night under cold and brutal conditions, no flight would have been flown. It was a dangerous cruise. I will always consider it an honour to have associated with those young men who served with such bravery and dignity. The officers and men of this air group once again demonstrated what makes America the most outstanding country in the world. To those whose spirits were taken from them during those grim days and didn’t come back, I will always remember you.’

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