NO. 1 SNAFU

by Dee Harper

June 28, 1953. It started as did almost every other day during the closing months of the Korean War at K-55--BUSY! At the 18th Fighter Bomber Group (FBG) Combat Operations Center, we were in the final stages of planning a strike against a railroad bridge located on the Haeju peninsula. Suddenly, the scream of an F-86 riding the Mach broke the quiet of the office. Someone had made a low altitude pass over the base. We walked outside to see what was happening. I soon determined it was Howard "Ebe" Ebersole returning from his 100th mission. In his exuberance, he put on a great flying exhibition, but one highly frowned upon by the Powers That Be. Colonel "Marty" Martin, the 18th FBG Commander, jumped into his jeep and headed for the flightline. He returned shortly to continue the flight planning. Little did I realize that a chain of events had started that would have a major impact upon my life for the next several months. A chain of events for which Ebe will eternally be indebted to me.

Meanwhile, the mission we were planning was a skip bomb strike by four aircraft as part of a special project assigned to the 18th Fighter Bomber Wing. Because we were the first USAF wing to be assigned F-86F-35 aircraft equipped with hardpoints for ordnance loads (a new mission for the Sabre), we were tasked to conduct "The USAF Suitability Test of the F-86 Aircraft as a Fighter Bomber". This was to be done under combat conditions, which was very unusual. The logical choice of project officer for these tests was the 18th FBG Operations Officer, so that job fell into my lap. Missions scheduled to meet project requirements required obtaining both pre-strike and post-strike photography. Fifth Air Force then determined the impact points of all ordnance delivered in order to compute the accuracy. These data, along with "type of delivery", "ordnance used", etc., were then forwarded to Wright Patterson AFB by Fifth.

Bob Hoover, the North American Aviation company test pilot, had been on base for several days to brief our pilots on the flight characteristics of F-86F-35 equipped with the 6x3 solid leading edge wing and to give a flight demonstration. Everyone figured it would be good for Bob to see a little more combat action and Bob was eager to go. The previous day he had flown a dive bomb mission. Living up to his reputation, he had scored a direct hit on a bridge. The skip bomb mission scheduled today was going into a relatively safe area. Hoover was scheduled again to fly number two position on the mission leader, Colonel Marty Martin. Lt. Col. Harry Evans, 12th Squadron Commander, and the operations officer, Ebe Ebersole, filled out the flight as numbers 3 and 4, respectively. How much power could you put into one mission involving four aircraft, particularly a milk run into the Haeju Peninsula? Little did anyone realize that this mission would end as a perfect example of the term SNAFU.

As Ebe walked into the Combat Ops Center where Colonel Martin, Lt. Col. Evans and Bob Hoover were already discussing the forthcoming mission, Ebe said, "Colonel Martin, I'm scheduled to fly this mission with you." Colonel Martin then informed him in no uncertain terms that he was grounded, and ended the discussion by stating, "Dee is flying in your position". I was in full agreement. I had had a tough day at the office - a day that had started early when I met the Fifth Air Force courier flight to pick up our frag order. I looked forward to getting out of the ops center and flying. This was to be a milk run, but a very interesting mission. It was one that I had planned and now I was to be in on its execution. The river banks were quite prominent so it appeared we could plant the bombs in the river bank at both ends of the bridge and drop the whole span. I was looking forward to this show.

Even a raw recruit knows it is bad policy to volunteer for anything in the military. I had also learned during WWII that flying on a mission as a spare or being substituted on a mission was bad news. On my last combat mission in a P-38 during World War II, acting as the squadron spare, I joined up with 1/Lt Robin Olds' flight as number three man. While strafing an ammo dump, I flew through a major explosion that demolished my aircraft in mid-air. Even the bullet-proof windscreen had been scraped off the fuselage and my leather helmet ripped away as I flew through the debris. I made a crash landing in south central France without any visual reference to the ground. My vision was impaired by (1) the slipstream, (2) smoke coming through the heating system from the burning right engine, and (3) blood flowing from scalp wounds. I just rode it out until I hit something and stopped. No talent was involved in that landing! It took me 22 days to return to my outfit. Now, here I was in Korea, and even with this background, no warning bells went off. I had no idea that the on-the-job-training (OJT) gained from my MIA experience in Europe would be fully tested before this day was over. It was to be a long, long day!

As we arrived over the target we went into trail formation. Each aircraft made individual attacks, from around the clock, with sufficient time between attacks for the delayed fuses to detonate before the next aircraft came in. This tactic seemed safe enough since there were no known enemy defenses within the area. I was the last aircraft to make an attack. All of our bombs (which should have skipped, remember) plowed into the soft silt of the river bank (not apparent from the photography) and exploded several thousand feet from the target. As I came off the target I stayed low until a short distance from the target area and then started a shallow, climbing left turn at well over 400 knots. I passed over a small marshaling yard with a few box cars in it, and noticed some tracers from a quad 23mm gun curling up towards me. The troops on that gun had received a good checkout. Every round that missed was out in front of me.

I heard two dull clanks in the front of the aircraft and pulled up to about 7,000 feet to check out my bird. Everything appeared completely normal. About that time, Harry Evans had picked up the box cars in the marshaling yards. It was decided to hit them before we departed. I had a lot of respect for the gunners on that quad gun, and I knew it had to be neutralized. I knew right where it was, and I was in a perfect position to make an immediate attack. I pressed in and knocked out the gun while the rest of the flight shot up the box cars with no observable results. With that we started a climb to cruise altitude enroute to K-55.

At about 16,000 feet I noticed a high frequency vibration in the front end of the aircraft. I advised the leader of my problem, reduced power and leveled off. The others in the flight began to close in on me. About this time the engine compressor exploded. The throttle was ripped out of my hand to the idle position, and the flaps went to the full down position. Fortunately, the flaps retracted when I hit the switch. I moved the throttle to the shut off position , turned the fuel tanks off, and set up a glide to the west hoping to make the coastline before bailing out. Harry Evans slid in on my wing and said, "Dee, check that your fuel is off. You have about 200 feet of flame following you." I rechecked the fuel switches and insured that the throttle had been stop-cocked. Everything was off! The necessary "Mayday" calls were made and an SA-16 air-sea rescue aircraft was moving into position to meet me at the coastline. About 10 miles from the coast, Harry called and said, "Dee, you had better get out. You look like a roman candle." There was no smoke or heat in the cockpit and I could not see the flames. I decided to ride it out until I made the water, where the chance of rescue would greatly improve. With about 5 miles to go, a second explosion occurred. This one really shook me around in the cockpit. No one had to tell me about the fire now. Sheets of fire were coming from both the wing trailing edges and the cockpit was filling with smoke. I decided it was time to go. I could walk the remaining few of miles.

I positioned myself in the ejection seat and blew the canopy. The bang from the canopy charge startled me so much, I froze! Then I realized the noise came from the canopy's explosive charge. I squeezed the seat trigger, ejected, and made a free fall from about eight thousand feet to avoid being spotted by anyone on the ground. I tended to fall head first and on my back at about a 135 degree angle. When I'd look around to see the ground, I'd start to tumble. I'd clamp my feet and arms together and again end up on my back. The last time I looked around, I could see the leaves in the trees. I pulled the rip cord in sheer panic! My chute just blossomed and then collapsed as I made contact with the side of a rocky cliff and plunged into boulders at the foot of the cliff. It was in the evening so I had a land breeze pushing me directly backwards. I ended up catching a large oval shaped boulder right in the middle of my back. The impact completely paralyzed me. All I could think of was, "What a hell of a way to die - draped over a boulder in a North Korean canyon".

The decision to bailout before making the Yellow Sea was the right one. A third explosion occurred before my aircraft crashed on the other side of a high ridge just north of me. A sad ending for Sabre #52-4312. Harry Evans lost track of me after the bail out and asked if anyone had seen my chute. Colonel Martin told Harry that my chute had opened momentarily and then collapsed. He pointed out the canyon where I was located. By this time, everyone in the flight was low on fuel. In spite of this, Harry made a low pass down the canyon to determine my exact position. I could see him coming, but I was completely paralyzed. The only things I could move as he flew past were my eyeballs.

At this point, low fuel forced everyone to leave. Colonel Martin and Bob Hoover headed home. Harry Evans headed for the Korean Island of P-Y-DO (Paen Gu Ong Do in Korean) located north of the 38th parallel in the Yellow Sea. (For those of you who picked up Robert F. Dorr's book, "F-86 Sabre" at our '94 Reunion, there is a great picture of the beach at P-Y-DO on the inside of the front fly sheet.) Harry flamed out enroute and had to deadstick his aircraft onto the beach beside a cliff. He accomplished the landing without putting a mark on the aircraft, once again exhibiting his outstanding abilities as a pilot.

(If you didn't know Harry Evans, he was later the leader of the Sky Blazers, a USAFE F-84G acrobatic team that performed in Europe for several years prior to USAF designating the Thunderbirds as its official acrobatic team. Once, when overcome by some young pilot's story in a bull session, Harry remarked, "Son, I have more time in the top of a loop than you have total flying time." He was probably right.)

Colonel Martin's low fuel state forced him to land at K-14. Bob Hoover realized the seriousness of the situation (he was north of the bomb line against orders), and had been more conscientious about conserving fuel. He was the only member of the flight to return to K-55.

Only those airmen who have been downed in enemy territory truly understand the full meaning of the word "LONELY"! The feeling is so intense that it often immobilizes an individual. While evading in Europe, I remember every time I came to a bend in the road, I was sure there was a whole division of enemy troops lined up with every gun aimed at me. At the very least, this frame of mind is very intimidating.

From my European evasion OJT, I knew that my actions in the next 24 hours might very well determine the outcome of my current predicament. Within 12 hours of my crash landing in Europe, I joined up with a detachment of the British 1st Division, Special Air Service. Many members of the detachment had been dropped into enemy territory on several occasions. They were experienced experts on escape and evasion. All stressed the importance of immediate, bold action. During the first 24 hours, there will usually be several opportunities for escape. You have to be alert to these opportunities.

Without this experience in Europe, I doubt very much that I would have had the mental toughness to take the actions necessary to recover from my Korean problems.

Back to the Haeju Peninsula. After several minutes the paralysis had worn off and I rolled from the boulder. As a minimum, I knew I had quite a few broken ribs but the adrenaline was really flowing. I was again ready for action, and apparently, no one had spotted me during the jump. I had already been given my first big break! All action by the enemy appeared to be on the other side of the hill where the aircraft had impacted. I quickly hid my parachute, but kept the dinghy and started for the coast. I wanted to get into a position where I could plot a course to the sea before dark. Events permitting, I intended to be in my dinghy paddling out to sea before sunrise.

After traveling about a half mile, a flight of F-84Gs arrived on the scene - everything was looking up! They immediately began to make passes over the wreckage of my aircraft attempting to locate me. Fortunately, the base leg for their passes was right over the top of me. I grabbed for my emergency radio and attempted to contact them. No luck! I had survived the hard landing, but the radio was dead. The only remaining signaling device was my parachute.

I headed back to the chute as fast as I could move. As I approached its location, I could hear Chinese or Korean voices. I moved in slowly. Two North Korean soldiers had located my chute. I knew the "rescap" was in place, and this meant that probably a helicopter was nearby. I decided to go for broke! I pulled my .45 pistol and started to move in slowly. I'd always had a problem qualifying with the Colt .45, so I knew that I had to get in close. The odds were two to one. This was no time to miss. When I got into position, I shot the two soldiers and gathered in my chute. Realizing that time was of the essence and my shots would attract a lot of attention, I ran to a nearby clearing and spread my chute on the ground. I then sat down in the center of it, and was spotted by the very first F-84 to pull up over me. He reversed his turn and made a pass directly above. I could now hear enemy activity all around. Shortly thereafter, a helicopter popped over the hill - certainly the most beautiful bird I had ever seen.

The F-84s did a great job of pinning down the enemy. The chopper moved over me and dropped its sling. When I was in the sling, the pilot quickly pulled up to about 3,000 feet to get out of the line of fire. Then I was reeled in. I noticed a movie camera attached to the cable boom taking pictures of my rescue. The corpsman was not in position to help bring me aboard when I was level with the door to the cabin. He was busy running the camera. Hanging there in mid-air, I decided I could get aboard myself. Even though my finger tips could barely touch the edges of the door, I yanked myself into the cabin onto my feet. Boy, adrenalin can work wonders!

The pilot inquired if I was OK, and I answered, "I have a few broken ribs, but OK." He then asked if it was all right if he returned to Chodo Island to refuel - there were still combat missions north of the Han River and this was the only chopper in position for rescue. He would drop me off at K-16 the next morning. At this point, I was agreeable to anything!!! As we headed toward the island, I stood at the cabin door watching Korea slide away beneath us. Shortly, I began to feel pretty rocky. The adrenalin had stopped flowing! I looked at the opened stretcher on the cabin floor. It looked pretty good so I lay down. It took 4 men to get that stretcher out of the cabin after we landed at the island. I could not make it back to my feet.

I was almost completely immobile, and couldn't move from a prone to a standing position or vice versa. But if I held my body stiff, two men could move me into either a standing or prone position. Twice during the night the radar site and chopper pad on the island underwent bombing attacks. The bombing was erratic but it did necessitate evacuating our bunks and retiring to a nearby hillside where tunnels had been dug. Each tunnel was just big enough for one man. Everyone selected his own tunnel and crawled in. In my physical condition, it was like trying to crawl into a gopher hole. I later was diagnosed with broken ribs and severe contusions to the spinal column. The latter injury still gives me problems.

In the morning, the helicopter delivered me to the Army MASH Unit in Seoul, and the following day Colonel Martin paid me a visit. I asked that he get me transferred to the hospital at K-55. I didn't realize that I had flown my last combat mission. The Korean War ended July 27, 1953. I was not back on flying status until August 28, 1953.

The film taken during my rescue was broadcast on all national TV networks about four days later. Not the best way for your family to be notified of your latest escapades.

I have a letter from the USAF Escape & Evasion Society which confirms that I am probably the only living airman who has successfully evaded the enemy in two different wars. Not a record that one strives to achieve! Lucky, or Unlucky? You call it. Ebe, you owe me a few drinks for this one. I'll collect at our next reunion.


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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