A LETTER HOME
l/LT Donald L MacGregor Jr.
51st FIW 25th FIS
K-13 Suwon, Korea
Now that you all know that I had to bail out of an F-86 Sabre Jet on the last day of the war, I will fill you in on all the details. I thought it would worry Mother too much if she found out about the incident, and that's why I sent a short note to Dad at the office after being rescued and very briefly told him what had happened in case the story got in the newspaper or somehow you heard about it. In that event you would know I was aliright from the letter I wrote to Dad. But now that you have been informed, which is what I probably should have done in the first place, I will try to fill in all the details that I left out in the letter to Dad.
On July 27th, the Korean truce was signed. The truce, among other things, called for a twelve hour grace period when a physical count of all aircraft on both sides was supposed to be made by some sort of neutral commission. After that no more aircraft would be allowed into Korea by either side. This caused our side quite a problem since most of our major maintenance was done in Japan, and we had a lot of aircraft over there. Consequently, we had to get those aircraft back into Korea that night.
Our squadron was scheduled to fly missions that day to help prevent the communists from bringing in aircraft and other items that were never in Korea, and as it turned out, that's exactly what they tried to do. Every pilot in the squadron wanted to fly a mission that day because we thought, now that the war was over, the number of missions each of us had flown, would determine when we could go home. In "A" Flight, the way we decided who would fly a mission or who would go to Japan to fly one of our aircraft back to Korea, was by flipping a coin. I flipped a coin with my good friend, Julius "LW" Regeler, from Danville, Illinois, and Julius won the mission, and I got the trip to Japan.
When we landed at our maintenance base in Japan, things looked pretty hectic on the flightime because the maintenance people were racing the clock to get our aircraft ready for flight. My F-86 was finally ready, after an engine change and when my flight plan had been filed and cleared, I departed for Korea at seven p.m. which was about an hour before dark. Everything appeared normal as I climbed on course to 21,000 feet where I leveled off. Usually we climb to around 40,000 feet for better fuel consumption, but on this particular flight, I didn't have far to go and decided I would have plenty of fuel for the trip at that altitude. It's probably a lucky thing that I did decide to cruise at that lower altitude since at higher altitudes bailouts are far more dangerous due to a lack of oxygen and extremely cold temperatures.
My first indication of trouble was an engine vibration lasting only a few seconds. On checking my engine instruments, I saw I had no oil pressure. I knew I had a serious problem, and decided to land at the nearest suitable field in Korea which was located near the town of Pusan, on the southern tip of Korea. Next, I contacted the tower at Pusan, advising them of my problem and told them would keep them posted on my progress. I took up a heading to Pusan and had just tuned in the Pusan homer on my radio compass when I noticed that my tailpipe temperature was increasing and my engine rpm's were decreasing. This indicates an engine seizure, and I knew I was now in real trouble. In a few seconds, I felt an explosion in the engine compartment behind me, and at that moment, the aircraft began to vibrate as though it would shake itself to pieces. Then the fire warning light came on indicating an engine fire, and the cockpit began filling up with smoke. I quickly turned my oxygen to 100%, so I wouldn't be overcome by smoke. It was pretty obvious by now that the airplane and I would soon part company. The next step was to advise Pusan that I was planning to bail out so they could take a fix on my position and alert Air Sea Rescue. I began preparations to eject from the aircraft. First, I unfastened the navigation log from my leg, lowered the windblast shield on my helmet over my face, leaned forward to prevent the canopy from hitting me in the head, and pulled the lever that blew the canopy off the aircraft. I figure I was traveling at a true air speed of around.560 miles per hour, without a canopy, so you can probably imagine the windblast that hit me as I sat erect in the seat to eject. As soon as I felt I was sitting correctly in the seat, I squeezed the trigger on the seat which violently shot me out and over the top of the aircraft. I might add here, that both the seat and the canopy are equipped with powerful explosive charges which make high speed bailouts possible, and needless to say, it is quite a boot in the pants when the seat fires. At any rate, it may sound that this sequence of events covered a long period of time. Actually, from the time I experienced the first vibration, until I ejected, was no more than a very few minutes.
After leaving the aircraft, my helmet and oxygen mask were torn off my head, and I began to tumble over and over, backwards. Due to the altitude and very cold temperature, I decided to free fall down to a lower altitude where it wouldn't be so cold and where there would be plenty of oxygen. Here is where I made my first mistake which probably should have cost me my life -- I forgot to unfasten the seat which was still strapped to me. I guess was so intent on watching a rock out-cropping in the ocean to give me some idea how high I was and when to pull the rip cord, that getting rid of the seat never crossed my mind. When I felt I had lost sufficient altitude, I tucked in my chin, put my feet together and pulled the rip cord. The chute opened with quite a jolt since the heavy seat was still attached to me. As soon as the chute was fully opened, I noticed that many of the panels had been ripped out. I noticed for the first time that I was still sitting in the seat, and so, I unfastened my seat belt and watched the seat fall away toward the ocean. I looked at my watch in order to time my descent, but it had stopped due, I imagine, to either the opening shock of the parachute or probably the jolt of the ejection seat.
I was pretty happy to be alive after all that, but I still wasn't safely on the ground. I began to look around to see where I was going to land. I noticed that I was over the coast of an island but the wind was carrying me out quite a bit, but was probably for the best since the island was very hilly and covered with trees which might have caused some broken bones on landing. I could see several small boats below me, and I felt certain they could see my parachute and would come to my rescue when I landed in the water. However, the wind was carrying me farther and farther away from the boats.
At first, the descent in the parachute was rather enjoyable. I had no sensation of descending at all. In fact, I felt as though I was suspended in mid-air. But, about the time I got comfortable, the chute bgan to swing me from side to side, and I was certain the chute would collapse. It continued to oscillate periodically during the rest of the descent, and at times, I would swing almost parallel with the canopy, which would momentarily start to collapse. But, the badly torn chute managed to stay open in fine shape all the way down.
Since I have the additional duty as personal equipment officer of the squadron, I am pretty well acquainted with all the emergency equipment I had been sent to a course on the use and maintenance of emergency equipment, and I often was called on to give briefings on the subject to pilots in the squadron; so, there wasn't much doubt in my mind as to how to make a water landing, using some of my own techniques as well as standard operating procedures. While I was still descending in the chute, I slid back in the sling and unfastened all the harness straps so that I would be able to get free of the chute simply by raising my arms when my feet touched the water. Next, I partially inflated the rubber raft and mae west. As soon as my feet hit the water, I released from the parachute harness and was free of the chute. Since the dinghy was attached to me, it was floating right beside me, and it was easy to pull myself into the raft. After I was in the raft, I fully inflated the raft and mae west. The procedure worked so weli that I didn't even get my hair wet and was in the water for only a matter of seconds.
The ocean swells were fairly high, cutting down on lateral visibility and making it impossible to see any of the small boats that I had seen on the way down. I used one of my signal flares, that I carried with me, to attract their attention, but I still didn't see any boats. By this time it-was dark, and it looked as though I would have to spend the night at sea in my little rubber raft I had quite a lot of survival equipment with me and a few more flares to attract the attention of any rescue parties that I felt certain were already on the way. So, while I was a little concerned about my situation, I was confident I would survive.
About an hour later, I saw a light bobbing up and down off in the distance and fired off the rest of my flares. As the light moved closer, I fired my 45 pistol a few times to attract attention, and in a short time I was on board a small fishing boat The crew spoke no english and were dressed in striped T shirts, looking right out of "Terry and the Pirates". I sat in the bow of the boat under a light and without being conspicuous, kept mypistol ready to fire.
After about an hours ride, we landed at the little fishing village of Izuhara on Tsushima Island. The whole village was waiting on the dock when we landed, all talking excitedly in Japanese. The editor of the village newspaper was the only one that spoke even a little English, and I managed to ask him if by any chance were there any Americans on the island. He said there were and that he would contact them. While he was off looking for the Americans, I began to think of something I could give the fisherman for picking me up.I decided the only thing I had of value was the nylon canopy of the parachute which they seemed overjoyed to receive. I was becoming somewhat embarrassed with all the villagers staring at me as though I was from another planet, and I was relieved when an army jeep appeared on the dock. An army lieutenant stepped out of the jeep, introduced himself, and told me my plane had crashed next to the last house in the village, scaring the town half to death. He thought I had landed on the island and had been searching the island ever since the plane crashed. It struck me as ironic, that with all that open ocean, not only did the plane hit the only island, but also the small village on the island. I was very thankful that no one in the village was killed or injured.
Air Sea Rescue had arrived on the scene by this time and were dropping very bright flares out in the ocean hoping to spot me. I contacted the plane with an army radio and told them I was on dry land and asked them to send either a boat or chopper to pick me up the next day. The army lieutenant took me to the crash scene which was nothing more than a large hole in the ground filled with water at the bottom as if it had been a bomb instead of an airplane. What was left of the aircraft was scattered in a million small pieces in a large radius around the crash scene.
The army lieutenant is in charge of a signal corps detachment consisting of eleven soldiers and has the best duty I've ever seen. The army has taken over a beautlful fuedal estate overlooking the harbor, and he eats like a king in a private dining room. The other day I received a letter from him inviting me to spend a few days on the island during my next R&R which I may do, if we ever get any more R&R's.
The next afternoon a PT boat, converted to rescue service, arrived to take me back to Korea. I had hoped to spend a few days on the pretty little island and hated to leave but I had no choice in the matter. Also, now that the war was over, I really didn't want to spend any more time in Korea but instead would have preferred to spend the rest of my tour in Japan, possibly at our maintenance base. Anyway, hours later the PT boat dropped me off on a very dark dock at about eleven pm and told me I was on an airbase near Pusan. They backed out and left me standing there. I was awfully stiff and sore by now but managed to walk around until I found a building with some lights on which turned out to be the officers club. I was a little hesitant to go in because I didn't look so hot with a beard, ripped flight suit, and an open parachute on my back with the nylon cords hanging down where I had cut off the canopy. But, I did go in, and spotted a lieutenant colonel sitting at the bar. I told him what had happened and suggested that I was back in Korea illegally in view of the armistice and should be sent back to Japan. My request was denied, and the next day I found myself on board a C-1 19 bound for my base at Suwon.
A few days later I was sent back to Japan to meet with the accident investigation board. I felt very uncomfortable because they were not very friendly and from the line of questioning, they seemed to want to hang the cause of the accident on pilot error, meaning me. As of this writing, I haven't been told what conclusion the accident board reached, but I did hear from someone in the know, that maintenance had failed to put any oil in the engine after it was installed, but the board felt there was probably enough sludge in the system to give me at least a minimum oil pressure reading on takeoff. Well that's the whole story. Enclosed are two Japanese newspaper accounts of the crash along with translauons -- please hold on to them for me.
I hope to be home for Christmas, but will just have to wait and see what happens.
With love to all,
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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