Col LaVerne H. Griffin
My part in the tactical reconnaissance missions involving overflight of denied territory began in June 1953. 1 was assigned to the 15th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron operating out of K-14 (Kimpo) Air Base near Seoul, Korea. One thing I remember that occured just before the cease-fire was the day Vice President Richard Nixon visited our unit. I am sure that he was sent over by President Eisenhower to see what was going on, became Ike had pledged during the presidential campaign that, if elected, he would go to Korea with the intention of ending the war. It was my job to brief the Vice President on the capabilities of the RF-86. One of his questions was, "Son, what do you need this airplane for?" This was a fair question since the rest of the squadron consisted of straight-wing RF-80A's. I replied, "Well, if we get caught up there, we can get away from anything they have became the 86 is faster."
It is difficult for anyone today to understand the tension existing in the world at that time, the polarization developing into two armed camps; democracy vs. communism. Tensions were not only high in the Far East, but throughout Western Europe as well. The Soviets had the Hydrogen bomb and they were building more modem bombers capable of delivering nuclear weapons. Their action was an omen of aggression and NATO was only just developing as a viable counter force to huge Soviet armies in Europe. We did not know whether communist efforts to expand would break out anew in the Far East or in Europe. It was with this understanding of communist expansionism threatening us and our allies and perhaps our very survival that strategic planners decided that we most know much more about the Soviet and Chinese capabilities. If all out war became a reality our bomber forces in Strategic Air Command needed to know not only the enemy order of battle, but also their radar capabilities, in range, altitude, as well as operational frequencies. SAC needed to know how to jam those frequencies and be knowledgeable of the best avenues of penetration.
It was then decided at the highest level - I later learned it was from the President himself - that we would be launched on Top Secret overflight missions; first over the Vladivostok area, later to places like Pon Arthur, Darien, Shanghai, Mukden, Koborosk and Soviet submarine pens. As the Squadron Operations Officer and the most experienced RF-86 pilot in the unit, I was designated to select pilots and plan for a maximum-range Top Secret mission, but for the time being, given only the distance that the mission would require. Before we could fly the mission, we had to fly practice missions locally, using the same distances we would be required to cover on the actual flight. This would allow us to check our cruise-control procedures, power settings, and included dropping all external ranks at the appropriate times to determine how long we could remain airborne and still have minimum fuel for landing. We practiced this profile over the Sea of Japan a few times, recording data and determining that we could indeed complete the mission in this newer, but somewhat restricted model RF-86 aircraft. About the only charge required for optimum performance had the North American Tech Reps installing 'rats' and mice' in the engine to increase the tailpipe temperature so as to maintain 640º above 40,000 feet.
My last prfile mission; 14 Match 54, was for two hours and fifty minutes. Our actual mission was planned for two hours and forty minutes. I told the Intelligence planners that we could make it with fuel to space.
On the first mission we were briefed by a couple of field-grade planners that we would stage out of Korea over the Sea of Japan, into the Vladivostok area of the Soviet Union. We would obtain photos of select air bases, and recover into Misawa Air Base in Northern Japan. The briefing included the targets, the route to be flown, the altitudes to fly, and of course the cover stories we had to have if we were forced to come down in Russian territory. Being much younger then, and eager, I wanted to believe these stories. In reflection the stories seem pretty weak. I doubt if the enemy would have believed that we were lost while flying a local mission out of Nagoya, Japan, some 300 miles to the south; especially since we were wearing 'people suits', those rubber exposure suits almost guaranteed to keep you alive thirty minutes longer in ice cold water in case of a ditching at sea.
Some smart electronic guys had calculated that the Russian radar would not be able to see us above 38,000 feet, so that before crossing the 40th parallel, we had to clim above 38,000, above which we were assured we would be invisible to Soviet radar. Our flight would stage out of Osan, Korea (K-55), where there was a long runway. We would top off all four external tanks of fuel; two 200-gallon ran and two 120-gallon tanks, head out over the Sea of Japan and drop the 200-galIon tanks, which still contained some fuel, so that we could climb above 38,000 feet before reaching forty degrees North Latitude and eventually reaching 42,000 feet before entering Soviet airspace. We would carry the 120gallon tanks until we exited the Russian main land and at least 12 miles out to sea. No sense in leaving a couple of fuel tanks in Vladivostok that said, "Made in USA."
On the 21st of March 1954, six RF-86F Sabres departed Komaki Aerodrome, Japan, for Osan, Korea, about an hour and a half flight. The pilots with me were Lt Bill Birsett, Major George Saylor, Lt Larry Garrison, Lt Sam Dickens, and Lt Pete Garrison. Dickens and Garrison would be spares who would return to base if the first four aircraft dropped tanks and got to 38,000 feet without any problems. Upon landing at K-55, our aircraft were met and whisked inside a huge hangar so as not to be detected by my outsiders, such as members of the United Nations Inspection Team, who might wonder if these '86s with the bulges on the nose were legitimately in Korea.
Next morning was a beautifully clear day, and we checked our enroute weather and winds, refined the flight plan for the winds and briefed for the mission. The aircraft were towed out of the hangar and up on to some 2-by-6 boards and fuel added to the drop tanks until they overflowed. We cranked up the engines and taxied to the runway without delay; using a green light from the tower for clearance; there would be absolute radio silence on this flight, except for an emergency. We departed to the east, using a lot of take-off roll with a heavy load and headed out on course. The climb to altitude was uneventful and eight 200-gallon tank from four aircraft were jettisoned successfully over the Sea of Japan. I rocked the wings as a signal to close up the formation and we looked each other over, giving the 'thumbs up' to signify that the drops were clean and the aircraft looked okay. At this point, the disappointed spare pilots waved good-bye and returned to Komaki Air Base, Japan.
Four of us continued on in tactical formation, wingmen with their eyes on a swivel to detect possible MIG-15 interceptors. As we approached the coast near Vladivostok, the two elements split up as each element had specific targets to photograph. It was shortly after this that I heard the transmission, "Alabama!". This transmission brought a tingle down my spine; "Alabama" was the code word of our companion element for pulling contrails which would be a dead giveaway to revealing our presence over the Soviet mainland. The codeword for our element was "California." I looked at my wigman, Bissett, and since he was not pulling contrails, I continued to press on over the Vladivostok area; nervously, I might add. Forecasters had predicted little chance of cons. I did not know it at the time, but the other element aborted their mission and headed for Miisawa, Japan. We flew over the airfields at Vladivostok, proceeding as far north as Artem and exposed over 90 frams of film on several airfields. We had no airborne aircraft sightings to worry about, and we proceeded to exit the area out over the Sea of Japan, on course for Misawa.
Inbound to Japan we were to exercise the Japanese Air Defense Force to see if they could pick up aircraft incoming from the Soviet Union at high altitude. I would have to rate their effort a failure. Without the IFF on, they couldn't pick us up, and with it on they did a poor job of intercepting us. I doubt that the Soviets would have their IFF's on. At any rate we recovered at Misawa Air Base where we were met by a C-47, which took us to Tokyo where the film was processed and interpreted by SAC Photo Interpreters. They told us that the results were excellent. We were not allowed to view the film ourselves! But it must have been successful as the next morning we were summoned into the Office of the commander of the Far Eastern Air Forces (FEAF), General O.P. Weyjaud where he pinned the Distinguished Flying Cross on the four of us. His exact words were: "Boys, I'll take care of the paperwork later, but here is a little something for a job welldone." Looking back, we would have done just about anything for General Weyland because of the time he took for that impromptu ceremony. I believe he was just as glad to see us get back in one piece, as he was to get the photography.
I was the leader of the next two missions, which were in the same general area, Vladivostok, one of them on 3 April 1954, and one on 22 April 1954. On these missions we refueled at Missawa and flew the film down to Tokyo ourselves. I selected a few different pilots for thew flights, my motive being to insure that all the qualifted RF-86 pilots had a chance to get a mission and obtain a DFC for their efforts. My wingman on the 3 April mission was Lt Sam Dickens, and on the 22 April mission, Lt Frank Halstead. On the last mission we sighted an airborn MIG about 5000 feet below us as we were exiting the area. After determining that he did not see us I maneuvered over top of him and took his picture. Upon examining the film, the photo interpreter rushed out of the lab and says, "Do you know what you got on this film?" I said that I hoped I had gotten the targets, and he said, "No, I mean the airplane." I said, "You mean that MIG-15 that flew under us? He said, "That is not a MIG-15. it is a MIG-17, and we didnit know that they were deployed east of the Urals." And that is how a 'lucky strike' extra picture became a valuable intelligence find.
During my time at Komaki, I also flew a few test flights in the RT-33, which was being delivered to Nationalist Chinese pilots in the Republic of China on Taiwan. The airplane had a 172-gallon fuel tank in the rear seat that added much extra range, and the same camera configuration of the RF-80. It was a nice reconnaissance airplane, but not around MIGs.
I rotated back to Shaw AFB, South Carolina on the lst of May 1954 and thus ended my career as an overflight pilot. While at Shaw I received two more Distinguished Flying Crosses for the last two missions I had flown in April 1954. 1 know that all the pilots who were with me on the first three overflights received a Disunguished Flying Cross. I never knew if there were other missions, although I expected that more had been flown. But what was probably the highlight to a 28-year air force career was something I could not talk about for 46 years. I am glad that this forgotten episode of tactical reconnaissance is finally being documented, and will take its rightful place in our military history.
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