I flew the F -86A for ten training missions at Nellis Air Force Base prior to my assignment in Korea. I arrived at K-13. Suwon, on May 30, 1952 and was assigned to "D" Flight with the 16th Fighter Interceptor Squadron of the 5lst Fighter Interceptor Wing. Colonel Francis Gabreski was our wing commander. He was succeeded by Colonel John Mitchell during my tour in Korea. After flying as a wingman for 35 missions. I was checked out as an element leader in early September 1952.
My Mission On September 7, 1952
On September 1, I was enjoying a rare day off.. Dressed in my blue uniform. I grabbed my camera and headed for our flight line to photo our Sabres as they returned from a "maximum effort" mission. I wanted to watch for planes with "black noses" from the gunsmoke they emitted when their .50 caliber guns were fired fn combat. I Natural curiosity drew much interest from those who were not flying.
I arrived early at the flight line. As no aircraft had returned. I entered our operations building and saw Lieutenant Sands, our "A" Flight commander, briefing three newly assigned pilots on combat theater procedures. Captain C. T. Weaver, our operations officer, was behind the counter when the field telephone from Headquarters jangled. I overheard him confirm we had four in Commission Sabres available. Our squadron was on "strip alert" duty that day, but the alert flight had already scrambled. Captain Weaver said, "Stand by one." He asked Lieutenant Sands if he could provide manning far the four planes on alert. Lieutenant Sands agreed, but he did not have a qualified element leader available. I stepped forward and volunteered, but Weaver felt that because this was my flight's day off, he would ask someone else. He was then directed by Headquarters to man the alert flight as quickly as possible, so he agreed I could fill in until another element leader was found.
Lieutenant Sands, Captain Hunt and Lieutenant Les Erickson started for their Sabres as I ran to our personal equipment building to change into flight gear. At this instant, Captain Weaver yelled "Scramble!", and activity exploded! I rapidly donned my flying suit and boots, grabbed my helmet and parachute, and I was given an airplane number as I ran for the revetments. Another new pilot followed me up the side of my Sabre and straddled the nose backwarads. He then reached into the cockpit and started my engine as I was strapping in while aided by a crew chief. Two other pilots performed my exterior preflight check for me, gave the OK signal, and off I went!
I was the second aircraft onto the runway. I took off behind Sands who immediately aborted because his gear would not retract. (The F-86's emergency gear lowering system, which was often used by maintenance personnel, required resetting prior to departure to permit normal gear retraction.) This left me airborn leading two new pilots whom I had never met to accomplish an entirely unplanned mission. When we formed up, I was told we were to cover the withdrawal of the main force. They were low on fuel and many MiGs were airborne forming up. We test-fired our six .50 caliber machine guns as we passed the Bomb Line on our way to the Yalu River. As we passed Chodo Island, I directed Captain Hunt to orbit the island until I was certain Lieutenant Erickson's plane was okay. I then released Captain Hunt to return to K-13.
As we approached the Yalu at 38,000 feet, I spotted eight MiGs flying two abreast with elements in trail. We jettisoned our drop tanks and bounced them from their 7 o'clock position. As I closed to 2,000 feet, Les called a second flight of eight MiGs attacking at our 6 o'cock! The first MiG flight began a left climbing turn to evade. I fired a quick burst at one and then broke left. This caused the second MiG flight to overshoot. I reversed and rolled back into the stern position on the second flight. As I was positioning on their number seven man, they also climbed rapidly and continued a left turn. Les then called out another flight of eight MiGs lining up on our stern to fire at us! Meanwhile, I fired a long burst into the seventh MiG-15 of flight number two. We broke hard left and again were able to reverse and roll into the stern position of the third flight. By now, we had three flights of MiGs, totaling 24, as well as our two F-86s. In a high-altude Lufberry! We felt, however, that we had the advantage because we could shoot at anybody, but they had to select the right plane before they fired!
This action was repeated for about 45 minutes. Whenever I rolled out to shoot, Les would cut inside, and then I covered him while he shot. We took turns covering and shooting whenever we could. We alternated between being the hunter and the target!
Suddenly, Les called a single MiG-15 approaching from our right. This one was not a member of the 24 earlier MiGs. It was joining up with us! Only heaven knows what this MiG was trying to accomplish, and I did not waste any time figuring it out! I made a quick pull up and roll to the right, ending a thousand feet dead astern of the MiG. I fired my remaining ammunition in several bursts. Les and I both saw sparkles on the MiG as my bullets struck. Its wings remained level, but the MiG entered a slow descent, heading to sea. Les then called that one MiG flight was in our 6 o'clock position firing at me! We were at our hingo fuel and I was out of ammo, so it was time to exit. We did a modified split-s and turned home at max speed. It was a relief that none of the MiGs followed!
We returned without incident. During our intelligence debriefing. Les and I both claimed one damaged MiG because that was all we could visually confirm for one another. We were too busy to watch each other shoot every time.
On September 26, 1912, I was informed that the Claims Board had upgraded my damage claim from September 7 to my first kill.
My Mission On September 26, 1952
Ttwo weeks after my first successful engagement with the MiGs, I was appointed the flight commander of "D" Flight with the 16gh F.I.S. Captain Bartholomew had been designated as assistant operations officer for our squadron.
Communist tactics changed periodically, from enormously large formations to varying numbers of aircraft in flights. Six and eight aircraft formations were probably the most common. Sometimes they used a "live bait" tactic where two MiGs flew at one altitude while six more few three to five thousand feet higher and about one mile in trail. Their ground controllers would vector the two MiG element in front of an F-86 flight hoping for an engagement which allowed the six other MiGI5s to have an attack advantage.
On September 26, my flight had been "fragged" to fly a combat air patrol (CAP) mission as part of our squadron's combat assignment. Captain Bartholomew was designated as our flight leader. The Wing preflight briefing, flight briefing and pre-flight activities were normal. I was fying as our element leader with Second Lieutenant Al Crenz as my wingman. This was his first combat mission. Our take off, join up, go, checks and combat spread formation followed the usual sequence. Throughout our entire tour we were short on droptanks, so we retained them until combat engagement was imminent.
We flew to the mouth of the Yalu where we turned east northeast, just south of the river. We were flying at 40.000 feet with the sun at our 6 o'clock. with my element line abreast on the right but slightly high so that could "clear" for our flight leader. There were no contrails at our altitude, although we observed many to the north.
Captain Bartholomew suddenly spotted two MiGs at our 12.30 to 1.00 o'clock position, crossing from left to right but slightly low. He called for our flight to "Clean 'em up!" We began a descending hard right turn toward the MiGs' stern position. This would have resulted in my element being out of position to cover Captain Bartholomew, so I began a climbing left turn to be followed by a rapid reversal to a covering position for our flight leader. About a half second into this, I was startled to see six pairs of white puffs, and as usually happens when one engages his mouth before his brain, I goofeh I called, "Flak!", immediately followed by, "No! they're MiGs!" I crossed through the MiG formation with Al hanging with me. The white puffs were caused by fuel spills when the MiGs dropped their tanks.
I made a reversal to the right. I saw the MIGs flying with elements in trail with each wigman close. The MiG flight leader was in a hard left turn so we entered a sessors maneuver. The MiG leader fired much too early. My first reaction was, "you dip! You can't possibly hit us!" I rolled level as I called my flight leader that I was in a scissors with six MiGs, and could use a little help. As I called, I estimated my lead on the first MiG. I fired a one second burst with my six .50 caliber guns. I watched my tracers fly toward the MiG in what seemed like slow motion while Captain Bartholomew acknowledged my call for assistance. My tracers passed just aft of the lead MiG's tail, and the bullets subsequently stitched a row of hits along the fuselage of its wingman. At that same instant the lead MiG exploded in a very large black and orange fireball, the likes of which I did not observe again until I was in combat over Vletnam 16 years later. Needless to say, I blurted out. "The MiG exploded!!. followed immediately by, "And number two is burning" The unfortunate wlngman's aircraft was emitting brown and black smoke as I pulled up sharply to miss the remaining MiGs.
I kept my eyes on the second MiG as it seemed to stop in the air, and my nose climbed almost to the vertical. I continued with a rolling pull over and nearly entered a vertical dive following the crippled,. inverted MiG. I lined my gmsight on the MiG. I fired a shor tburst, but then I sudenly realized I was about to have a mid-air cotlision! I rotated my aircraft about a quarter turn counterclockwise as my right wing passed between the MiG's wing and fuselage (that scare aged me about ten years!) This was followed by an immediate pull up and hard turn back toward the damaged MiG. It was falling like a leaf, still invented. I then saw the MiG pilot floating with his parachute fully opened and a long, red streamer it dopping nearby. I have often wondered if that pilot had forgotten to disconnect his low altitude election lanyard? Why else would someone open his parachute at 36.000 feet?
I asked Lieutenant Gremz. "Are you still with me?" I don't know how, but he certainly was! We then flew toward the enemy pilot to take a picture with my gun camera after placing my guns in the "safe" position. I wanted my wingman's confirmation for both kills. I did not get the picture though as I was too close before I passed directly over the parachute's canopy Thee enemy pilot was frantically waviing his arms. He had no helmet and therefore no oxygen 1 seriously doubt he survived.
In contrast to my September 7 mission, this combat lasted only seconds. From the time I first spotted the MiGs dropping their tanks to when the second MiG was disabled, about six seconds elapsed. Looking at my gun camera film, I saw that when I nearly collided with the second MiG, it had already lost its horizontal stabilizer and was therefore uncontrollable.
The reader may ask why the lead MiG exploded when my tracers passed behind it?' Here is the story. Our Wing had received several new F-86s. Number 868 had passed its acceptance check the night before, but there was no time to boresight its guns. This Sabre completed our heavy schedule, and by luck, it was assigned to me. Tracers were only placed in two guns. After this mission, 868 was boresighted, and one gun without tracers was firing considerably left front where the gunsight aimed. That was the one that hit the lead MiG and caused its demise. Sometimes one just cannot improve on "dumb luck", right?!
After our mission, I asked Lieutenant Grenz how he hung on during my wild maneuvering? His reply was direct but honest, "You were not about to leave me all alone with those MiGs! I just kept looking at you and followed in trail!" It must have been one of the most exciting first combat missions that any wingman has flown!
My Mission On October 16, 1952
Fall was in the air by mid-October. I was now firmly established as our "D" Flight commander and had experience as a combat flight leader. I had an excellent assistant flight commander in First Lieutenant Herbert Leichty. Herb was a West Point graduate and a super pilot. We had been assigned aircraft to paint our names on and think of as our own. My aircraft was 738, and Herb's plane was 868, the one I flew on September 26 when I shot down two MiGs.
On the 16th of October, our flight was to fly a combat air patrol along the Yalu near the Suiho Dam. I was the flight leader with First Lieutenant Wilton B (Bing) Crosby on my wing. Herb Leichty was our element leader with First Lieutenant Edmund Hepner as our number four. The air was crisp and cool, like football weather at home, and we were expecting contrails above 33,000 feet. We went through our Wing briefings, fltght briefings,. and takeoff data. We were filled with high expectations as we had four combat experienced people, and we had flown together enough to know what each would do in combat.
We took off from K-13 on time, joined up and performed our normal post-take off and pre combat checks. We test-fired our guns after crossing the Bomb Line and assumed a combat spread formation. We heard other flights on thee radio as we flew north. As we reached the Suiho Dam. we paralleled the Yalu and flew an elongated racetrack pattern We patrolled until we saw eight MiGs flying southwest over the Yalu.
I attacked the stern MiG as the leader entered a hard left turn. We were slightly high and reached maximum speed rapidly. I began to overshoot, so I pulled up to reduce my speed and keep an altitude advantage to then return to a good shooting position. At this time, Herb Leichty called oout eight more MiGS that were trying to enter a firing position on us. This made 16 MiGs and four F-86s maneuvering into firing positions in a roller coaster engagement. I got inside the number eight MiG which decided not to maintain its position with its element leader because I had it for certain if the MiG tried that. It was like cutting a cow away from a herd! As I forced the MiG away, It became desperate and headed for the sun. I lined my radar ranging gunsight up the MiG's tailpipe and fired a long burst. When my bullets struck, a large doughnut smoke ring was emitted, followed by continuous smoke from the aircraft. I repeated this aiming and shooting, resulting in more hits as evidenced by successive smoke rings. The MiG continued flying toward the sun. My aircraft bounced around as I flew through the MiG's engine exhaust while realigning my sight on its tailpipe.
The MiG's companions stayed in their turns too long to catch my flight. After seven or eight machine gun bursts into the MiG, it was still flying,. but I was out of ammunition Our fuel was also at bingo, so I called that I had a MiG crippled, and anyone who could reach it could have it. The MiG was easy to spot as its heavy smoke looked like a contrail. A flight leader from the 39th F.I.S, saw my smoking MiG. We disengaged and returned.
In debriefing, I was informed by the 39th F.I.S., pilot that when I broke off, my burning MiG made a 90 degree left turn toward South Korea and then a flaming descent through another flight of F-86s! The MiG's crash was observed by this second F-86 flight. This brought my total to four MiG15 kills.
My Mission On November 22, 1952
November 22, 1952 was a cold, clear day at K-13. I had returned from flying an F-86 to Japan for rear echelon maintenance. While there, I called San Antonio, Texas to talk with my wife. She had just presented me with our fourth son on November 13, 1952. I told her I would change the name on I my Sabre to "Four Kings and a Queen" as a result!
When I arrived at our flight line, I learned I had been assigned as the mission leader for the Wing's combat assignment that day. As such, my duties included briefing the groupflying the mission I was overwhelmed as I was only qualified as a combat flight leader Fortunately, the details had been worked out, and I was able to stumble through the briefing! We were providing air cover for a reconnaissance aircraft photographing damage to previously struck targets near the Yalu. The "recce" aircraft took the runway whle myu flight lined up behind. Ed Hepner was my number two.
After take off, all flights assumed their assigned positions, flying an 's' pattern to maintain combat speed while retaining the ability to immediately repel any attacking enemy. When our external tanks emptied, I told the mission to drop them, but for some reason both of mine stayed! After repeated attempts, I called that I would abort with my wingman and that our alternate mission leader should assume control.
We headed south. I was so frustrated I could have screamed! I went through the procedures again, pushing and pulling circult breakers. For some reason, on the umpteenth try after resetting the breaker, the tanks separated! I turned north and I called our group that I would rejoin. I was predictably unsuccessful. As Ed and I reached the Yalu and turned toward the Yellow Sea, we spotted eight MiGs. I initiated an atatck, but I soon found we had engaged some very experienced pilots! The ensuing action was both at full throttle at maximum aircraft performance. Ed was an outstanding pilot and provided excellent support. There was shooting by both sides, but no one could get a good position, and no visible hits were scored.
We eventually reached our bingo and disengaged. We made a diving turn and rolled out at maximum speed heading for home. We saw that the MiGs, however, were not ready to quit, and they were soon m our stern position, 4.000 to 5,000 feet behind. We kept watching them gain. One MiG lined up on Ed and one on me. Ed was on my right line abreast. When they closed to 2.000 to 3.000 feet, the MiG behind Ed fired. I told Ed to break right as I also broke right to shake the MiG, but my call was blocked when Ed called me that he was breaking left. Then a cannon shell hit Ed's Sabre near his canopy. Ed lost his canopy and most of his instrument panel in the explosion, and he was unable to hear any further transmissions. I rolled up and over Ed and the attacking MiG to pull out underneath and behind. I fired a burst directly up the MiG's tail while my aircraft was buffeted in the jetwash. The MiG stopped in mid-air after losing its engine. I went to idle with my speed brakes extended. and I returned to a stern firing position behind the MiG and gave it another good burst into its engine. I was still overrunning the MiG, so pulled up and rolled inverted, but then I saw the MiG pilot eject.
I called Ed but heard no reply. The other MiG had left me to attack Ed. It had disengaged from Ed about the time my MiG pilot elected, and we never saw that MiG again. I flew around looking for Ed or some sign of him. I feared he had been shot down. I was trying to locate him on the ground when I heard his call that he was transmitting in the blindd. He was near Chodo Island and would elect as he had no instruments and did not know how much fuel he had.
I then headed home and listened on "Guard" channel A. helicopter called that he had Ed in sight and was ready for his rescue.
I returned to K-13 without incident. Ed was rescued after only 30 seconds in the water. But when my film pack was removed from my 86, my camera had taken no pictures! There was no confirming evidence of my fifth kill!
I was immensely relieved that Ed was recovered with only a sight head wound, but I was also chagrined chat I had a kill but no proof. Our intelligence office, said he was going to Fifth Air Force Headquarters the next day and for me not to give up hope. I was never informed of what intelligence source was used, but four days later, our intelligence officer returned with news that my fifth kill had indeed been confirmed, and I was now officially the 23rd American jet ace! There was a small celebration at the Club that night, but there was much more jubilation when Ed Hepner returned!
Most people remember November 22 the day when President John Kennedy ssassinated, but I have another reason to remember that date, as does Ed Hepner
My Mission on December 7, 1952
December 7. 1952 was a cold. wintry day, and the countryside was blanketed with snow. My flight was assigned a cormbat air patrol along the Yalu. This day showed promise as the MIGs had been flying in large numbers. I assigned Ed Leaner to be our flight leader and I would be our element leader. I promised Ed he would fly as our flight leader until he avenged his being shot down on the day I scored my 5th kill'. Besides, I was training him to take over as our flight commander when I rotated home. My earlier assistant, Herb Leichty. had assumed command of another flight.
Our normal preflight requirements were accomplished and we departed as scheduled. I joined up in a combat spread formation, and scanned the northern skies for contrails. We armed our .50 caliber guns after crossing the Bomb Line, rechecked our IFF for proper mode and switch position, and soon dropped our tanks. There was much chatter on the radio as other flights spotted the enemy. There were numerous contrails, both active and inactive. When we arrived at the Yalu we set up a racetrack pattern and searched for MiGs. We finally spotted a lone MG-15 near Sumuiju, heading toward Manchuria. Ed made an excellent attack and scored hits all ever the MIG which then went into a spin. He continued his attack until near the ground when we observed the MiG's crash.
As we pulled off, I was on Ed's right and spotted two more MiGs, In trail, heading north. I set a climbing cutoff attack, taking a stern position on the second MiG. A moment later, I saw the second MiG fire a burst al the lead MiG who then entered a spiral, spinning toward the earth! I could not reach the MiG that fired, but I did latch on to the crippled MiG. I entered a spiral, shooting at the MiG every time my sight neared it, I scored several hits until my wingmam, Wilton Crosby, called to pull out before I hit the ground. I Immediately leveled my wings and pulled maximum g's to recover. I was unable to watch the MiG explode as it crashed near Namsi-dong, North Korea, but my flight members confirmed my sixth kill. Only three minutes passed between Ed's MiG crash and mine. I have always admitted that I owed half of that credit to an unknown enemy pilot! This MiG had very shiny surfaces with several fences on the top of its wings. I have never heard anyone report seeing such a modified MIG-15. Years later, a friend suggested that may have been an MiG-l7, but I honestly do not know. After that MiG crashed, we headed home Our fuel was low and I felt we had good day's work! This story is me of the weirdest I heard during the Korean War.
My Final Combat Experiences in 1953
January 1953 in Korea was extremely cold with much snow. We dressed heavily in the event we ejected. All pilots were issued "poopysuits" for cold water survival. I was near the end of my tour and looking forward to returning to my wife and family, including my newborn son, Ronald. I was given additional duty as an instructor for newly assigned pilots to the 51st Fighter Group. I gave ground school and theater checkouts as well as flew their first combat mission as their leader. These missions were not likely to result in combat, so I logged there as training flights while the others were credited with combat missions. I logged 94 combat missions by January 21, 1953.
My flight was to fly a combat mission on January 22. The MiGs had another class of pilots engaging us who were operating at our altitude. I continued my philosophy of training my flight members as element and flight leaders. As an element leader this day. I was very satisfied with how we were covering one another. After flying several racetrack patterns, we saw many contrails north of the Yalu and were eagerly searching for a target. Finally, we saw a large formation at 11 o'clock crossing at a right angle. I was on the right in a better position to attack. I cannot estimate how many MiGs were in the formation because they were widely spread, but there were more than 20. I rolled out in a stern position at 4,000 feet.
I was at 100% power when we saw the MiGs. I entered a shallow dive and nearly reached compressibility before I eased my nose up and allowed my radar ranging gun sight to lock onto a MiG. When I was 3,000 feet away. I began shooting I saw several hits, but they did not slow the MiG. I fired at a second MiG, but with the same results. I dove and fired again at another MiG, with identical results! I had fired at three MiGs but they all stayed in formation! The next time I waited longer before I fired a good burst into the third MiG who then emitted smoke. The MiG formation began a sweeping right turn, but then we were attacked by six MiGs. We broke left, but as quickly as the MiGs appeared, they were gone. No one was hit. We returned to the hunt, but targets were not found.
After our mission. I claimed three damaged MiGs, but before our debriefing was over, a pilot from another flight said he saw our action and my third MiG had burned, entered a dive and crashed. This brought my score to seven kills and two damaged.
I flew combat mission number 96 on January 23, but it provided no scores. On Ianuary 24. my flight was scheduled for a morning and an afternoon mission. Captain Dolph Overton. another flight cormmander, had scored his fourth kill on they 23r. He requested we fly together as a flight which was granted. His wingman was Captain Irish and mine was Ed Hepner
Shortly after arriving over the Yalu, enemy action separated us into elements. We tangled with some mighty good MiG pilots, but the result for my element was a standoff. Later I spotted MiGs passing from left to right but high. I cut the rear MIG off, slid up from below, and then fired a time long burst at 2.000 feet. Firing my weapons while climbing dropped my speed, and I was unable to keep my firing position. This aircraft burned heavily and crashed in North Korea. Dolph Overton also scored a kill. Those gave him five MiG-15 kills and ace status. I now had eight kills and two damaged.
On my afternoon mission, I flew as our number four as I planned to checkout a young lieutenant as an element leader. As his wingman, I did not expect any shooting. Things, however, changed. We spotted a gaggle of at least 16 MiGs. Our flight leader attacked, and half the MiGs entered a hard tight torn with the other half swinging wide. I guided my element leader onto the rear two MiGs, but one swung wide to attack him, I told my element leader to shoot at something while I held the MiG off.. He hesitated while I told him to shoot. The trailing MSG was very agitated, but it would not pull in to shoot as I faked toward it. Eventually I took the initiative. I told my element leader to cover while I attacked the trailing MiG. This MiG departed nmmeditely when I maneuvered, so I turned toward the other MiGs and lined up 2,000 feet behind one. My radar ranging gunsight locked on, and I fired several bursts scoring hits. Again, I believed it would only result in a damage claim, but the MiG spun and crashed.
After we debriefed, I was told I could call it a war if I wanted. Dolphin Overton thought it would be great if we left the theater together I subsequently agreed that nine was enough! My war was over, and I went home.
The good Lord certainly assigned me a great guardian angel. I had several other brushes with death that are not described here. Someday I hope to write about them.
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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