Now that Harry 'The Horse' Evans (then a Lieutenant Colonel commanding the 12th FBS, 18th FBG) has made his last landing at that base in the sky, I (then also a LtCol and CO of the 67th FBS/l8th FBG) am left as the last commander who led his jocks on some of those Unauthorized Missions that Dee Harper wrote about in Sabre Jet Classics, vol. 2, no. 4. I feel it is TDW appropriate that I comment on some of those events.
In early 1953, 5th Air Force was finding it increasingly difficult to locate targets worthy of pre-planned air strikes. We all knew the communists were working feverishly preparing for their big spring offensive, and we were flying lots of armed reconnaissance missions. On this particular day, I led a flight of four F-86Fs on such a mission. Three F-86s carried two 500 lb bombs, and the last had two 1000 pounders. I took the heavy Sabre so it would be easier for the others to keep up.
As we reached our assigned area, about 20 miles north of Heartbreak Ridge, we let down, spread out, and began our search. Our tactics were simple - keep each other in sight, stay between 5 and 10,000 feet, and keep changing headings and altitude or 'jinking'. Flying in a straight line would have meant a on-way ticket to a POW camp.
We had been there a few minutes when Number Four called out a bridge that hadn't been there the day before. I OKd his attack, but warned him to be wary of a flak trap. It was then that I saw something that was to change the course of the war. Just ahead of the flight were a number of large, about 15x30 foot, grey-green rectangles, stretching for about the next two miles.
My. first thought was they were tanks. But they were too big for tanks. Then it came to me. TROOPS IN THE OPEN! I tried to call Four off, but he was already in his dive. I headed west, called the others to join up, and started back to the enemy troops. We were about to attack the target of targets, later it would be The Mother Of All Targets!"
I called out the troop concentrations who were still holding their positions on the road. I also noted another, smaller group about a mile south of the larger group. The big bunch had two supply trucks in the middle of the column, and the smaller group had one truck, all covered with netting. I briefed the flight to make single bomb drops on each pass, and assigned sectors to spread the bombs over the length of the column.
Then I was on my run. When my 1000 pounders hit the edge of the road, a fireball covered one entire formation. For a quarter mile in each direction, the neat enemy troops disintegrated. The rest of my flight dropped as ordered, then set up a strafing pattern. The effect was devastating. Those enemy troops who could still move, broke for cover. As we were making additional passes, my guns suddenly stopped. When we returned to Osan, the crew chief found a loose battery cable, and the generator couldn't put out enough juice to fire the guns. Five minutes later it was fixed.
As soon as our debriefing was called in, I got a call from the JOC (Joint Operations Center) at 5th AF Headquarters. The caller wanted to know why I hadn't left the troops alone, reported the sighting to the JOC, and they would have got some napalm up there. Believe me when I say it's hard to be civil when asked a question like this in the heat of battle! I tried to convince him it was a 'fleeting target' of the highest order, and we were going straight back to finish the job!
And we did go back, this time with eight 500 lb bombs, which we once again placed equally along the length of the column. Then I did something that wasn't too bright, but I had to satisfy my curiosity. I made a single pass down the road - low but fast! It hadn't rained in weeks, but that road had mud (blood?) puddles from one end to the other. What a gory mess!
Returning home, we went to debrief, and the 'Mental Midget' from JOC was back on the phone. He said he doubted our claims because between our first and second attacks, he had diverted a flight from another wing and they found nothing. What did he expect, the enemy troops to stand up and wave red flags? Of course our guys found nothing. They didn't know precisely where the troops were. And the enemy sure as hell wasn't going to give away their position again!
We estimated conservatively, that we had killed 1,000 men. We had left the enemy to bury their dead and care for the wounded. We had neutralized an army which was to attack our east flank. Now there was no attack. No one will ever know how many American GIs would have died if we hadn't creamed that column. I wonder if that JOC guy looked up our claims when the predicted date for the enemy offensive came and went - and all was quiet on the eastern front.
I think it was two evenings later that Harry Evans came in. I had never seen him so excited. Both Harry and I had been there almost a year, and excitement didn't come easy. Harry had seen an ammunition train stranded a short distance from a tunnel (and safety from our bombs) just north of the 38th Parallel. The bad guys were trying to unload it by hand, and it was going to take a long time. Harry's flight saw this returning to base with no ammo. This is where Dee's story began and I'll add to it
When my flight arrived over the train, Harry's was just leaving again. It was now almost pitch dark. It was obvious we were setting ourselves up for a mid-air collision. That would have really ripped it! I took control and assigned 'holding quadrants, then called individual aircraft in and out of the target area. When I hit Bingo fuel, Harry was back and took over. let me say, I've never seen a fireworks display that comes close to the show that night. Burning ammo flew thousands of feet into the air, and secondary explosions were everywhere. That night we denied the communists their main supplies for the planned offensive against our west flank. We destroyed hundreds of tons of ammunition, and once again, the attack just didn't happen.
The enemy leaders were seriously demoralized. Their troops were gone in the east, and their ammo was gone in the west. They couldn't move anywhere in daylight because our F-86s were covering North Korea from the Yalu to the battle line. Most importantly, it was rice planting time. If they failed to get the rice in the ground, mass starvation was a certainty in the fall and winter. They HAD to get the F-86s out of the skies. They had only one course of action - seek a truce.
If our negotiators knew what the F86 pilots knew, they could have named their own terms. The Communists were beaten. All the fighter-bomber jocks knew it So we were in no mood to celebrate when we got the order to stand down from combat ops. With total victory in sight, we were going to negotiate an armistice that would allow the enemy to rebuild and rearm. A familiar pattern which would repeat itself in Vietnam and Desert Storm. Will we ever learn?
There is something truly magnificent about flying single seat fighters. You kick the tires, light the fire, then, with that little darling strapped to your butt, you and your wingman become the modern reincarnation of the knights of old. Back on the ground, there are no secrets among flight members. Everyone knows who cut it and who didn't. Among those who could, there is respect and loyalty as in no other group.
In many headquarters there seems to be a clique convinced they can do your job better than you can. These people can be dangerous when they won't listen to the guys who know. As an example, in spite of our complaints, our napalm cans had the ballistics of a grand piano. The only way to hit anything was to 'scrape off' the cans on the target. Try that in the face of heavy ground fire! lots of luck!
We lost over 53,000 men in Korea. That's 53,000 young sons, husbands, friends and lovers. Laid head to foot, that's over 70 miles of seven foot coffins! I will never understand why these heroes seem so easy to forget. But I'll say this about that war - I could never hope to serve with a finer group of men. They were loyal and couraegeous. And could damn well hit the target with a pair of bombs!
Well Harry, How'd I do?
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.
Return to Classics Page