Saving the Sabre Pilots


The Undertold Story of Rescues in Korea

In looking back on almost ten years of stories in Sabrejet Classics, one finds all-too-frequent mention of an F-86 pilot heading out to sea, ejecting, and being picked up either by helicopter or the SA-16 during the Korean War. Others couldn't make it back to home base, but were rescued from deep in North Korea. Time and again, the rescue crews did their job, flying into incredibly dangerous situations to save pilots from an uncertain future in the hands of the enemy. In a sense, and using present day vernacular, the rescue forces were a "force multiplier" because the pilots they saved were returned to duty and flew many more combat missions. Well known pilots such as Boots Blesse, Cliff Jolley, Joe McConnell Lonnie Moore, Dee Harper, and many more were beneficiaries of the heroics performed by the crews of SA-16s and helicopters of the 3rd Air Rescue Squadron/Group and other helicopter equipped units.

Sabrejet Classics is happy to report that an authoritative and detailed account of rescue operations in Korea is now available. Dr. Forrest L Marion, a former USAF helicopter pilot, who is assigned both as a civilian historian and reservist with the Air Force Historical Research Agency at Maxwell AFB, Alabama, has written "Sabre Pilot Pickup: Unconventional Contributions to Air Superiority in Korea." The article is carried in the Spring 2002 issue of Air Power History, published by the Air Force Historical Foundation (AFHF). The Foundation has an excellent web site at AF Historical Foundation , and copies of the Spring 2002 issue of Air Power History can be ordered for $6.00 per copy (s&h included), by using their web site or contacting Col. Joseph A. Marston at (301)7361959, or e-mail him at Although space limitations prevent us from printing Dr. Marion's article in its entirety, we are pleased that the AFHF has granted us permission to reprint an excerpt from Dr. Marion's work, and we have chosen his account of a rescue attempt, although unsuccessful, which illustrates the bravery of the rescue aircrews and a particularly heroic act by a Sabre pilot. Dr Marion writes:

But despite many successes, would-be rescuers also knew the pain of being unable to retrieve downed fliers known to have been alive on the ground after going down in enemy territory. On February 3, 1952, Lt. Charles R. Spath, 334th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron, was forced to abandon his jet over North Korea. Later, a flight mate observed Lieutenant Spath on the ground. Using his survival radio, the lieutenant reported that he was unable to walk due to a broken leg. A friendly guerilla team located nearby, monitoring the same radio frequency that Spath was using, decided to intervene. Four of the guerillas reached Spath ahead of enemy soldiers also in the vicinity and moved him to a secure location. Some time later, the guerilla team made contact with Fifth Air Force intelligence personnel who began coordinating a rescue attempt. Capt. Gail W. Poulton, an H-19 pilot in the 3rd Air Rescue Squadron, was offered the mission, which would be particularly hazardous due to the high elevation of the area. After several weeks of meticulous planning, the mission was a "go". Because of certain pieces of information that had been coming from Spath and the guerillas that somehow didn't seem to fit, Poulton was concerned that the rescue attempt might already have been compromised. Unfortunately, his hunch was correct. Approaching the intended pickup area, Poulton contacted Spath by radio and asked him how many people were at the landing site with him. Spath replied, "I don't know." Suspicious. Poulton said, "We are here to pick you up, if everything down there is OK. You are giving me uncooperative and unclear answers.... I have leveled off and we'll abort this rescue attempt if you don't answer my questions fully ... in the next 15 seconds."- Spath responded quietly, "You can chalk me off for saying this, but get the of hell out of here, its a trap." Tragically, Spath died in captivity some weeks later.
On a happier note, Dr. Marion has included the above chart, which lists each rescued Sabre pilot and a few details about the circumstances of his pickup.
Sabrejet Classics is indebted to the Air Force Historical Foundation for allowing us to reprint a portion of their "Sabre Pilot Pickup" story. We alsow ish to thank Dr. Forrest L. Marion for his excellent work.

No portion of this article may be used or reprinted without permission from the President of the F-86 Sabre Pilots Association or the editor of Sabre Jet Classics magazine.

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