Task Force 77: Korea II

Throughout the winter of 1951/52, the war in Korea reached stalemate on the ground. In the air, the navy and USMC squadrons continued their interdiction and close air support strikes against North Korean targets. At sea, eight carriers took their turn in the Sea of Japan and normally four US carriers were on station at any one time. In March 1952, Operation Saturate, a sustained offensive aimed at short sections of railway line to deny their use to the enemy, was launched and TF 77 and its aircraft groups were part of this offensive. By April, Task Force 77 comprised Valley Forge with Air Task Group 1 (ATG-1) embarked; Philippine Sea with Air Group 11; Boxer, with Air Group 2 and Princeton, with Air Group 19.104 (At the end of the war, Lake Champlain was on station in place of Valley Forge.)

25 April 1952 was a grey, windy, rainy and violent day in the North Pacific. The Princeton was moving at about 20 knots with a wind of about 30, so it was fairly calm air, to those on board, but to Ensign Owen W. Dykema, a twenty-three-year-old F4U-4 Corsair pilot in VF-192 ‘Golden Dragons’ from Villa Park, Illinois, the sea “was being all tore up”. The waves were twenty to thirty feet high and breaking into white caps that were picked up by the wind and whipped across the surface like drifting snow. The young pilot thought, ‘Very impressive – especially when we could stand there in the warmth and calm and watch the forces of nature at work. Merle Wicker said that they were in a storm so big the waves, not just spray, came over the flight-deck, which was 60 feet up! A guy said one wave came up higher than the door and that was 40 feet. It sure was an impressive sight to watch. They just secured the deck just forward of their door because they took a couple of waves over the bow. The poor old destroyer out front was rolling all over the place. I tried to get a picture of the waves and the destroyer but it was pretty foggy and grey out.’

On 2 May, Owen W. Dykema flew his first combat mission of the war, in the third division of the ‘Golden Dragons’. He wrote a letterhome to his young wife Enid describing the day’s mission.

‘Speak to me softly, gal and watch what you say, I’m a ruff, tuff Korean veteran now. I had my first hop over war-torn Korea today. What a farce. There wasn’t a thing moving, anywhere. Not a soul in sight, even in the villages. We peacefully went in, dropped our bombs around a railroad – probably didn’t hit it – flew all over looking for targets, shot up some ox carts and small boats and left. In all that time we didn’t see a single return shot and only one person.

‘Some guy was running with his ox cart down a street of a town. So, Dineen made a run at him, to warn him away from his cart. But he kept going, so we all strafed him, except Strucel and I. Nobody hit him and the last we saw he was still going. A couple other ox carts that were sitting along a road we did hit, though. I got a long burst right into one of them. I probably used a hundred dollars worth of ammo to destroy a ten-dollar cart. Well, that’s this war. We also sank a sampan that was floating in a little bay. I put about fifty rounds right through the bottom.

‘If this hop is any indication of how this war is going to be, it’ll be long, dull and hard work. My bombing is lousy, now. I only saw one of my drops hit and it made a big blast in the middle of an empty field, about a hundred yards from the railroad! My butt was so sore when I got back I could hardly walk and my head feels like it is overloaded, or something. There’s no relaxing on these flights, you’re constantly in a deceptive weave.’

‘Nobody was in sight, of course, because they saw us coming and sounded the air raid warnings. Almost everybody, except the one crazy ox cart driver, was in some kind of underground bomb shelter. The ‘deceptive weave’ was based on the observation that it would take an AA round about 8 seconds to rise from the ground to our normal cruising altitude of about 8,000 feet. No matter how accurate their fire control system, in tracking us and anticipating where we would be in the next 8 seconds, if we kept up a random weaving motion (right and left and up and down), they could never really know where we would be when the round arrived at our altitude. If we held a steady course and altitude for 8 seconds, though, they could put a first round right into our cockpit. So, our division leader kept constantly banking, turning, climbing, diving and we poor followers were constantly working to stay with him. It was not too violent a weave, just enough to put us about 100 feet away from where we would have been had we flow straight and level for those 8 seconds. We couldn’t complain though; the alternative was less than attractive.

‘This was my first flight over enemy territory. We more or less followed a group from the Valley Forge on the rail strike, so they could show us how it was done. We circled and observed. Along-side the track there was a small hill and on that hill was a relatively heavy AA installation. One of the Valley’s divisions went after the hill, to silence the gun. They strafed and dropped what we called ‘grass cutters’. These were bombs with a radar fuse, set to explode just a few feet off the ground. The bombs were specially constructed to shatter into zillions of little, bullet-sized fragments, to sweep the surrounding area. They literally ‘mowed the grass’.

‘I was amazed at the change in appearance of the hill. When we had arrived it was a pleasant-looking, small green hill with a few small trees and this tiny, brown AA installation on top. Every now and then an unpleasant-looking stream of yellow-red fireballs would squirt out and then just drift on up toward the Valley’s planes. After they had dropped the grass cutters on the hill the whole top half was denuded and brown, with just bare stumps of trees left. I thought I had gotten disoriented, I couldn’t believe I was looking at the same hill!

‘Of course, the AA crew had reinforced tunnels to hide in. As soon as the bombs stopped going off they leaped out and fired at the planes going away. In the midst of all this one of the Valley’s pilots came on the air and matter-of-factly announced: “Red One, this is Red Four, Red Three was hit on that last run and went straight in. No chance of survival”. Despite all the destruction on the hill the AA team got him. A healthy, reasonably happy naval aviator, probably with a wife and kids, just like my own. And there he was just smashed into small pieces on the side of a little hill halfway around the world from his family. What a way to start an eight month tour of such nonsense.

‘Just a little west of that scene was a place that I located on my map as the limits of air rescue. If I was shot down to the east of that line and there was a “chance of survival”; a helicopter might make a trip in, protected by attack planes and try to pull me out. However, the helo pilots were loath to go further west than that and told us so (ergo, the stated line). I couldn’t blame them. Nevertheless, there it was – go down out there and I’d be on my own.’

‘Sunday 4 May was a cold, windy, foggy day,’ Dykema noted and he was not on the schedule at all. One ‘hop’ was launched at 0500 but the weather closed in and they were forced to land ashore, at a field behind the lines. On board the Princeton Dykema declared that the chow at noon was ‘lousy’ – ‘it was rice and some sort of yellow guck that looked like pressed scrambled eggs.’ Personally, Dykema would have gone for steak about twice a month, if they had ‘fair chow’ in between. There was nothing doing the next day either. Dykema didn’t get to fly his hop, which in a ‘funny way’ he missed. ‘It was a lot of hard work and I usually felt scared and uncomfortable when I did fly, yet I felt sad and fidgety if I didn’t. I really got a kick out of throwing the power to the plane and roaring off the deck, diving down on some ox cart and shooting it up. I guessed I’d really miss it when I got out of the navy.

‘Putting the power to it and roaring off the deck was in fact pretty exciting. We did what we called a deck launch, not using the catapults. It went something like this: I would line up at a starting point about 600 feet back from the bow. All take-off settings were ‘full’ – the cockpit would be full open, flaps full down, prop in full flat pitch, mixture full rich, cowl flaps full open and stick full back in my lap. Inside the cockpit were all the dials, gauges, levers and switches with which I had become so familiar over a few hundred hours of flying this bird. A last-minute check to be sure that the wings were filly locked in the extended position – okay. The launch director stood on the flight-deck out to the right and forward, in front of the wing. He would point at me with a closed fist (lock the brakes) and start twirling his signal flag over his head (turn up the engine to about half power). For a few seconds he would listen, to make sure it was running smoothly and sounded ready to go. He was standing in a 30 knot (about 35mph) wind coming down the deck with a Pratt and Whitney engine bellowing out about 1,000 horsepower and a 12½ foot diameter prop spinning at 1,800 rpm just 20 feet or so away. Further down the deck were a dozen or so similar whirling death traps, the props of the other planes on this strike. When he was satisfied he would sweep his flag down and forward, signalling me to “GO”.

‘I would then release the brakes, press on full power and full right rudder to counter the enormous torque of that huge engine and prop and start moving up the deck. The deep-throated roar of 2,200 horsepower just seemed to penetrate and vibrate ever fibre of my body. As soon as I could I would push the stick well forward, to raise the tail and get the nose down. Not only would this finally let me see where I was going (remember, this was the ‘hose-nose’ we were flying) but it was the “least drag configuration”, helping me accelerate faster. There ahead lay the few remaining feet of deck, with a six-storey drop to the ocean just beyond. A few people usually lined the deck edges, watching as I went by, but nobody waved good-bye.

‘About the time it looked like I might fall off the bow, the plane would start to feel light. It would bounce a little and stay airborne for brief periods. About then I would ease in some gentle back pressure on the stick and, if all was right in the world, the plane would fall off the deck, some 50 feet or so before the bow. Reaching down and left, a quick flip up on a lever would start the landing gear up. In most cases one of the wheels would come up well before the other, putting an unbalanced aerodynamic force on the plane. If the right gear came up first, the left gear still hanging down would slew me further to the left. Since I already had in full right rudder I would have to endure a short uncomfortable period of flying in a small left skid. After both gears were up and things smoothed out I could raise the flaps and be off separated from the humdrum world of heaving seas and gray metal walls and into the world of sunshine and fluffy clouds.

‘I got off that day but came right back. I flew the old plane that had a hydraulic failure every time it went out. When the hydraulic pressure (on a gauge in the cockpit) started hopping around just after take-off I wheeled it right around and landed back aboard. Too bad I did, too, because without me on his wing I guess old Struce just couldn’t fly. His engine caught fire just off the beach and he had to bail out. (Of course, Struce’s engine didn’t just catch fire; he was hit by AA over the beach. Normally I would have been flying his wing, just 30 or so feet away). They told me that the smoke and oil was pouring back over the cockpit and Struce calmly said, “Well, I guess this is a real emergency.” The skipper told him to bail out and he just said, “Well … okay.” He took his good old time about getting squared away and even after he jumped he was in no hurry to open his chute. While Ferguson circled over him old Struce was having a gay time in the water, splashing and waving. (I bet Struce was sure glad he was wearing his exposure suit (herein often referred to as ‘poopy suit’).) A destroyer picked him up right quick. It’d probably be a while until he flew again – he had to reassemble all his survival gear. It was customary that the captain of the rescue ship got his pistol and the crew whatever else of his gear they wanted. It was a small price to pay for rescue. He’d been riding Red and me because between us we’d damaged seven planes; now we’d get him because he was the only one in our division to completely lose one.

‘I had sort of a time coming aboard after I left the flight. The ship told me to jettison my external fuel tank but bring my bombs back aboard. Well, I thought I did, but I didn’t, so I came aboard with 1,100lbs of bombs and about 1,000 extra pounds of gas. It took a lot of power and speed to stay in the air on approach, but I got it all aboard. New experience anyway. The F4U-4 had four wing stations, to hang bombs, rockets, etc., under the outboard wings, beyond the fold hinges and two center stations under the inboard wings near the fuselage. Normally we carried about 2,000lbs of ordnance, say eight 250lb bombs or four 500 pounders on the wing stations or two 1,000 pounders on the center stations. Another typical load might have been two 500lb bombs on the center stations and eight 5-inch HVARS. So, I could have been even more overloaded. But this was another example of how the LSOB was apparently still trying to kill me. It was his responsibility, his job to signal a pilot or call him on the radio if he was not properly configured for landing, such as gear or hook not down or unauthorized external stores (bombs) still hanging under the plane. However, my friend the LSOB gave me no inkling that I still had everything attached. How could he have ‘overlooked’ 1,100lbs of bombs under the wings? That was definitely unsafe for me to have landed aboard with all that extra stuff still hanging underneath the plane. Not knowing I still had all that extra weight, I could easily have been reluctant to put on the required power on the approach, gotten too slow and stalled and spun in. As it turned out, without really being aware of it, I just kept adding the power necessary to hold my altitude marker (that spot on the ship’s mast) right on the horizon. Part way around the approach I realized I must be carrying a lot of power and was amazed to see about 60 inches showing on the engine man fold pressure gauge (practically full power). I thought that was just due to the extra weight of the bombs, which the ship had told me to bring back. Of course, once again, he gave me no corrective signals at all; just a perfect ‘Roger’ pass all the way.

‘On landing I could have: (1) broken the back of the plane, ending in some sort of strike damage (totalled); (2) knocked off and exploded my external (belly) fuel tank; (3) knocked off and exploded one or more of my bombs; or (4) all of the above. After the cut I had barely dropped my nose when I realized I was already sinking to the deck fast enough, so I immediately hauled back on the stick and eased it on to a relatively soft landing. Fortunately none of the bombs or the belly tank tore loose in the subsequent jerk to a stop. Also fortunately, my new, patented carrier approach left me in control almost all the way, very little dependent on the LSOB [Landing Signals Officer Boss]. I just had to make sure that I flew my own approach and knew where and how I was at all times. Despite all of LT LSOB’s efforts I intended to survive the whole cruise.’

On 6 May, Ensign Owen Dykema flew on an early morning strike from Princeton. ‘The skipper went on the pre-dawn ‘heckler’ hop with VC-3 (the night fighters) and we launched just after dawn. When we reached the coast the skipper and the three VC boys had a convoy of 17 trucks cornered on a winding mountain road. We asked permission from the strike controller to direct our strike to the trucks. There we were, only 10-15 miles from the first really worthwhile targets we’ve seen since we got here, loaded down with a couple tons of high explosives and ammo apiece. We could have spent a couple hours destroying 20-30,000 dollars worth of vehicles and supplies. But the controller said nix, bomb rails and sent three miserable jets over there with 200lbs of bombs apiece. They only got one truck and a bulldozer. By the time we bombed the tracks and hustled over there to strafe, there wasn’t a truck or person in sight, except the one the jets hit. It was sitting off the road covered with green foliage for camouflage. We strafed it like mad but couldn’t set it afire. The skipper had hit near one, knocked it off the road and rolled it down into the valley. Actually (of course) the strike controller’s decision was probably correct. The best weapon against trucks on a winding road was strafing with explosive (20mm) ammo, which the jets had and we didn’t. We just had solid .50-calibre chunks of metal. As we saw, we could pour those rounds into the trucks forever, and perhaps damage them severely (we had a hard time telling), but usually we couldn’t set them afire like the exploding 20mm could. Once on fire, the whole truck would go – cargo and all.

‘Two days later, on May 8, back off a hop, I landed aboard in semi-darkness. We had our usual rail strike, again. Carl was flying behind me and he said I got two good hits on the tracks, one with a 500-pounder. I was pulling out very sharply and turning so I could see my bombs hit and I saw the 500 and a pair of 100s hit right in there. They credited me with two cuts, anyway. The rest of the hop was too fouled up to mention, though. Normally we dropped our bombs out of about a 450-degree dive. Our (safe) tactics called for us to release at about 2,500 feet above the terrain. That means we were about 2/3 of a mile away from our target when we released. How’s that for accuracy – we were supposed to hit a railroad track about five feet wide from 3,500 feet away and we did! Then we would recover by pulling through and climbing out straight ahead, using about a 4G pullout. Under those conditions your bombs would hit just about the time you were back to a 45-degree climb out, wings level and Gs off. On this flight I was pulling about 6Gs and a little beyond level flight I rolled it hard to one side and squirmed around in my seat enough to be able to look back over my shoulder and see my bombs hit. Sometimes it was a pretty dramatic scene, because you were fairly low and the explosions could be pretty large. Otherwise, it was just a lot of hard work, lots of grunting against the Gs to keep from blacking out, lots of twisting around and not a whole lot of jinking to avoid the AA fire. The two tough times for AA fire were when you were diving on the target, because you had to fly steady for a few seconds to line up on the target and just after recovering from the dive, when everyone popped out of their trenches and fired at you going away. I got aboard on my first pass again – still haven’t had a wave-off since that very first pass in Hawaii.

‘On 10 May, I had the watch till four in the morning and then I ‘hit the pad’ and woke up at noon. Usually we got dressed two hours before launch so we could get into all our gear and get briefed on our strike, reconnaissance and other important information. Well two hours before launch time we were casually getting undressed to get into our poopy suits, when the squawk box blared, “Prop pilots man your planes.” We thought it was a joke. The skipper was there and he got on the intercom and told them we couldn’t possibly man planes right then because the pilots weren’t dressed, briefed or anything. The guy comes back, “This is a direct order from Captain Stroop,” the Captain of the ship. What else but to leap into what survival gear we could, man the planes and launch. There we were in the air a half-hour later, barely knowing where we were going and no idea of the reconnaissance routes, weather at the target or anything. So we just hit the beach, split up into divisions, bombed any rails we wanted, looked over the beach for ‘recco’ and came back. They say the order came directly from the Admiral on the Valley Forge, who was running our show. As it turned out, though, it was a pretty good hop, for me, all around. I got three and possibly four direct hits on the rails out of five drops, shot up a railroad car and some boats pretty well and got back aboard on a Roger pass! I enjoyed the hop a lot, until we got back around the ship. My butt was so sore I almost got sick in the cockpit. Had to open the canopy and get a blast of fresh air in my face. At the same time I got a crick in my neck from staring at the plane ahead of me. Oh woes! That’s what took all the joy out of this flying. I could hardly walk away from the plane when I shut down.

‘The hop on 12 May was ‘Special’. It seemed that our intelligence guys had a direct observer of some sort involved in a big meeting of all the North Korean and Chinese intelligence community. It was being held in a small town well up the coast from the bomb line (the front), in a big building like a resort hotel in this small town. They even professed to know the exact rooms where the intelligence big wigs were billeted and the exact schedule for breakfast. Our job was to surprise them just after first light and before they got up to go to breakfast, probably just when they were in the head for their morning ‘ablutions’ and blast them all. In the briefing for the strike, we were shown good pictures of the building, a large two-storey job and each of us was assigned a window. We were supposed to throw our napalm right in our assigned window. We didn’t think it would make much difference if we hit the window or not because at 250-300 knots that napalm was going to go through the wall no matter where it hit.

‘We took just two divisions (8) and we launched in the darkness just before dawn. We flew in to the beach right on the water, at 50 feet altitude or so, to avoid radar detection. Navigation was tricky because we were supposed to aim right at the beach, pull up at the coast, pop over the mountain range and find ourselves boring right down on the building. Any mistakes and we would give them time to get out of the building and into the bomb shelters.

‘In the event, our navigation was flawless. We did the pull up and pop over thing and there was the building! The sun was just up and shining from behind us on the side of the building. I could easily identify my personal window and it looked exactly as briefed. We strung out a little bit to avoid conflicting with one another and went straight on in. I was number six in and I could see the leader’s napalm going right into and directly around those windows. By the time I got up close, I had just about lost sight of my window in the smoke and flames from the earlier hits. Nevertheless, I think I got mine right in there. I cleared the roof of the building by only about 20 feet and got a clear, close-up view of the whole thing.

‘Our surprise was apparently complete. Nothing was stirring in the town and no AA responded. On circling back, we could see that the building was totally engulfed in flames. If all of our info was as correct as it seemed to be, the North Korean and Chinese intelligence community probably suffered its largest single loss in history. From the time we cleared the mountaintops and headed in until the first napalm hit was probably less than one minute. One pass, surprise was gone, so back home we went. On May 13, we unloaded about twelve tons of bombs on a long train sitting on a siding, left it burning and saw no return fire.’

Next day, Princeton headed for Yokosuka in heavy seas for Rest and Recreation ashore for a few days. On the first clear day, the huge, snow-covered Mount Fuji could be seen rising through layers of clouds just over the Naval Station. At sea again on May 22 and 23, Princeton had two launches each day before heading back into Yokosuka for a few more days. It was back to the war on June 2, and three days later, Owen Dykema flew the early hop that morning. In fact, they woke him at 0400 for a 0730 launch. ‘The skipper’s division and ours went down near Wonsan and hit the rails again. We sent the division of 193 and the one from 195 further South so our two divisions worked alone. We got twelve cuts for the eight of us. I only saw my first one and it landed about 50 feet to the right. I corrected after that, for the wind, but didn’t see if I hit. After we dropped our bombs, we went on recco and Struce and I left the others and cruised way inland to where there were just gravel roads and small villages and the heavily wooded mountains rise 6,000-7,000 feet in the air. It was a beautiful sunshiny morning, with little fleecy clouds hanging on the peaks – the war seemed far, far away. When we got back, Struce and I were #1 and 2 aboard. I even got an “OK” pass. Not bad after 23 days of no combat flying. I had seven combat missions now.’