by Bill Demint
One week in late June 1953 was a very tragic time. First the R&R courier aircraft crashed departing Tachikawa on its return to K-13 (Suwon AB) on the l8th. I was supposed to be on that ill-fated C-124. Then, on the 19th, the 8th Fighter Bomber Group lost four F86s and I flew a very eventful ResCAP. The crash of the C-124 was very traumatic for the personnel at K-13. All of the men lost in the crash were from the 8th FBG, 51st FTW, 319th FIS, or Army support people stationed at Suwon.
But I digress. My wife was supposed to have our first born in early June. So I hopped the K-13 courier flight to go to Japan so I could call home to find out how she was doing. (I found out that she'd given birth on 10 June to our son.) I then went to Kisarazu for a possible flight back to K-13 but there were no birds ready to be returned. I then hopped a ride to Itazuke, then to Tsuiki AB, home of the Sabre REMCO facility. Still no birds available. So I jumped on a C- 119 bound for K- 13, arriving late afternoon on the 19th.
We had an alert called "Able Able", which was normally called off at dark. And it had never been scrambled in anyone's memory. I was still in khakis, low quarters, scarf, etc.. I had volunteered to act as flight commander so the appointed commander could take the evening off. I was fully expecting to do little more than sit in Ops for a few hours and that would be it. just like a hundred other alerts.
About dusk as were playing ping-pong, the alert sergeant came out and said "We're a Go!" We couldn't believe it and thought he was kidding. But he wasn't, and we rapidly went to the flightline and took off. (We later heard that the 35th Squadron also was scrambled.) A friend of mine, Bill Coe, was the appointed flight commander for that night, but he had gone to the club and left Jim McDivitt in charge. However, Jim wasn't checked out as a flight leader. Bill later told me that he was near panic when he heard that we'd been scrambled. Unbeknownst to us, Colonel Walter Benz, our Group Commander, had already nixed any ResCAP because of the approaching night and deteriorating weather.
But we didn't know that, and we proceeded under radar control to a crash site just north of the "Holy Land" (the MLR). I had no idea who was down at that time, but it turned out to be a buddy of mine, Vic Hodges. It was dark by the time we reached the crash site and when I made a low pass I could see that the wreckage was still burning. There was no sign of life, nor were there any calls on Dog Channel. So I rejoined the flight and asked to return home. The Able Able Flight from the 35th had already returned.
The radar directors took charge, guided us south and gave us a let down. Upon reaching about 1000 feet, just under the overcast, radar said something to the effect "Here you are". I said "Here we are where!" As a junior birdman, naive and green as grass even though I had 95 missions in the log, I hadn't thought to ask where the radar guy was taking us. In fact, we were at point Xray Zebra, near the west coast of Korea. The radar troops were accustomed to working with F-94 Starfire all-weather interceptors, and Xray Zebra was where they usually ended up for a GCA pickup and approach.
So here we were, not very much fuel left, at 1000 feet, dark as a coal miners butt, in hilly terrain, 30 miles from home, and not sure what to do. We didn't have enough fuel to climb up and make a let-down, nor did I think that we could get a GCA in time - at least not for all four of us. So I asked radar to direct us to K-55 (Osan AB), and I would find my way home from there. He did and we did. Fortunately K-55 was lit up and easly recognized in the black night. From there, with a "band switch" procedure, it was a piece of cake to get lined up with the runway at K- 13. The radar controller was reluctant to turn us loose, but he finally did when we were almost on initial for the north runway. We switched to tower frequency and what do you know, they were landing to the south . Now we're in right echelon, at 1000 feet, in night weather, minimum fuel - and going down the runway the wrong direction!
Can you imagine my night members thoughts? They didn't say anything then or later, but I've often wondered. They were flying night weather formation, following a leader who wasn't real sure of where he was. And we were now in right echelon and had to make a right 90-270 to make the active runway. The visibility wasn't all that good and Suwon was located in a bunch of mountains just to make things a little more exciting. I can't commend them enough. They put on a very fine display of airmanship. Being able to maneuver like that in the dead of night and in weather, being low on fuel, and making that right echelon turn without any trouble is really something. I wish I'd told them how great they were. But I didn't. I just expected it. I'm not completely sure who else was in the flight that night, but it was probably Jack Cook, Henderson, and Harmer.
As an aside, my wife knew that I'd been in Japan and was returning to Korea. Naturally, she and her brother had some very tense times when they heard about the crash of the courier aircraft until the casualty list was published in the Houston Post. I would like to thank whoever designed the 'band switch let down'. It may have saved all of us that night. And I want to thank my flight that night. They deserve recognition. The 18th and 19th of June 1953 were tragic days that will remain fresh in my memory. My Form 5 for the 18th shows that I got 1+30, with 1+00 night, 30 minutes of it in night weather. The 36th Squadron lost four airplanes and three pilots on the 19th. The following is an abstract from Vic Hodges' letter to his wife. dated 5 September 1953, the day of his repatriation:
'This is a condensed version of my two month POW 'vacation' up in North Korea. As you know, I was shot down in late afternoon on 19 June. It was about 7:15 pm when I was hit by flak just after pulling off the target. My F-86 went out of control so I ejected, pulled the rip cord, and the chute opened. I looked down and Chinese soldiers were maneuvering under me in a circle. "
"I landed in the ring and was captured immediately upon touching down. I was not injured and the Chinese treated me fairly well. I was shot down approximately 20 miles north of the 38th Parallel in the central part of North Korea. I was imprisoned there for two days. Then after several nights of travel in a truck (nothing moved during daylight hours), I arrived at a place called SinuiJu that was close to the Yalu River and Antung, a MiG base. I spent over five weeks there under continuous and intensive questioning."
"There were three other POWs close by in small rooms but I wasn't allowed to speak with them. I did manage to see them out of my darkened cell quite often. In early August we were herded onto another truck and rode to the East for about 14 hours. We arrived at a POW camp by the Yalu River. I was in the Camp Number 2 Annex. We were kept separated from the other POWs for two nights and a day. Upon joining the group, we were told by the Chinese that a cease-fire had been agreed-to and that we would leave in three weeks to be repatriated."
'We actually headed south by truck thirteen days later on the morning of 19 August. We were delayed a day due to heavy rains that flooded the area and washed out wooden bridges leading out of the valley. We arrived that night in the town of Mampo and boarded a train. The train ride to Kaesong took 42 hours. We stayed in 'Tent City' until today, 5 September, and then crossed over into Freedom Village."
"Ten 36th Fighter Bomber Squadron pilots, including L/C Ruby and my pet dog Figmo, will arrive here tomorrow afternoon. Sure was glad to hear that because we cannot leave this compound due to health reasons. It will be good to see the troops tomorrow."
After reviewing the letter, Wendy, one of Vic Hodges' daughters, had a few comments: "My father's version of his capture and prison camp experience was sanitized to protect my mother's and grandmother's feelings. His shoulder was injured as he ejected from his jet. His ankle was badly damaged when he landed on the ground, so it was difficult for him to move along with his captors. The treatment of POWs was at times brutal. Food was scarce and prison camp living conditions were poor, with bugs, dampness, and a lack of exercise. Even though he was a prisoner for only three months, Dad returned to the States many pounds lighter and with some health problems related to poor nutrition and loose teeth. However, he did mention there were some enemy captors who did what they could to be humane in their POW treatment. They themselves were not living with conditions much better than the prisoners."
Bill Demint adds: Later at one of our reunions, Vic came up to me and hugged me. He said that I had saved his life, I hadn't seen him since the time of the war. He said that when I made my low level pass, the bad guys quit beating him about the head and shoulders and took him to the rear. He felt that getting out of the hands of the front-line troops had probably saved his life.
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