MY FAVORITE SABRE STORY

by John Henderson

As the pilots of the C-54 transport I was flying in prepared to land at Kimpo Air Base, northwest of Seoul, South Korea, I vacated the jump seat behind them to allow their flight engineer to take his accustomed place during landing. It was snowing heavily on a dark night with limited visibility. With nothing to do but enjoy the ride, I reflected on the events of a day that brought me to a place in the Far East that I had not known about thirty days earlier.

The date was December 15, 1950. I was based in Japan for only five days when I received my orders to go on temporary duty to Korea to provide technical suport to the 4th Fighter Group detachment's maintenance personnel. The first seven F-86A-5 Sabres had deployed to Kimpo on the 13th to initiate jet-to-jet combat operations against the Russian-built MiG-15s that flew from bases across the Yalu River in Manchuria.

I was not the first North American Aviation field service representative in Korea that year. Several of our tech reps were there earlier supporting F-51s and F-82s when the North Korean Peoples Army trespassed across the 38th Parallel and invaded on June 25, 1950. I later learned that one of our F-51 reps barely escaped capture when an alert C47 crew snatched him into their cargo bay while on their takeoff roll.

It was by the flip of a coin that I became the first F-86A tech rep to go to Korea with the 4th Fighter Group. We had departed San Diego, California a day or two after Thanksgiving 1950. The 49 F-86A-5 Sabres that Emar (Chris) Christopherson and I accompanied on the "jeep" carrier Cape Esperance were 17 days at sea before docking in Tokyo Bay. The aircraft were off-loaded and barged to Kisarazu Air Base on the other side of the bay where they were cleaned, inspected and cleared for flight to Johnson Air Base, which became our rear echelon maintenance base.

The F-86As loaded earlier on the flight deck of the Cape Esperance had been coated with an anti-corrosive grease on their exposed surfaces, and tape was used to close all the openings between metal surfaces to protect them against salt water intrusion. When off-loaded at Kisarazu, it was clear, however, that salt water corrosion had occurred. The severity of the corrosion depended upon how far forward each airplane had been on the carrier's deck. Most of the damage was due to electrolytic action between the magnesium filler strips attached to the ailerons' trailing edge aluminum. The damage that occurred enroute slowed the inspection of the Sabres and decreased their availability for ferrying to Johnson Air Base, north of Tokyo.

On the morning of the 15th, Chris and I were on the flight line at Johnson assisting with aircraft preflighting when a message was received from the group maintenance office that Chris or I would be asked to go on temporary duty to Korea to work with the first of the 32 Sabres that were being deployed.

When Chris was assigned to the 4th Fighter Group, he was designated the senior rep. It would be his decision as to who went to Korea and who stayed in Japan. I was therefore mildly suiprised when Chris said, "I'll flip you to see who goes... winner's choice!"

I won the toss and chose to go with the detachment to Korea. To me, it was veiy rewarding to be a part of the cadre with the 4th Fighter Group that started what was to become the epitome in fighter pilot accomplishment, the JET ACE!

From the outset of flying at Kimpo Air Base, I saw first hand the F-86A weapon system operate in the worst weather, under the most primitive and restrictive of maintenance conditions, and with proably the strongest demand for a l00 per-cent incommission rate from the higher commands.

In retrospect, I personally believe that those first 21 days of combat operations with the F-86A were the most demanding on personnel and equipment the 4th encountered during its first year of operation with Fifth Air Force. Yet, for all the limitations, the 4th Fighter Group did outstandingly well.

The F-86's power plant and airframe components performed to specifications, given the circumstances: the engine tailpipe temperature was trimmed up to exceed the rated thrust (which decreased the engine hot section components' life expectancy), the airframe was flown past its red line speed restriction, and g forces often exceeded the 7.33 limit for which the structure was designed. These conditions took their toll, but nothing catastrophic resulted. We had the usual maintenance problems which were to be expected, but they were intensified during airplane turnarounds in some cases by the intense cold and lack of shelter.

So, as I stood on the flight deck of the C-54 watching the two First Lieutenants trying to line up with the Kimpo runway, I wondered what I was flying into and how everything would turn out. Perhaps I would have stayed aboard had I known I would go 18 days without a real bath; that the temperature and wind chill factor would drop the thermometer below freezing to the extent that a water bucket froze if left too far from a stove; that Christmas dinner was bully beef and boiled potatoes because the cook could not thaw our turkeys; that I would have chow that day with the Turkish Army Brigade soldiers who unhesitatingly used their rifle bayonets to spear bread from our table; or that I would have to talk my way onboard the last air-vac transport in the middle of the night that was taking "walking wounded only" to avoid the possibility of being captured when our base was about to be overrun. ... But, then, if I had stayed in Japan, I might not have learned what my boss, John Casey, meant when he shipped me off to the Far East, when he said, "Remember, I didn't hire any heroes!" I kept that in mind all the way back to Johnson Air Base that night.


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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