RECOLLECTIONS OF JIM JABARA
By Lon Walter
As a tent mate of Captain James Jabara's at K-13 (Suwon) Korea on 20 May 1951, I had a ringside seat for the events that happened that day. But first, a little background:
Our eight-man tents usually had fewer than that number of occupants, but seldom less than six. I recall only four other occupants of the "A" Flight tent. They were Capt. Milton E. "Nellie" Nelson, the flight commander, First Lieutenant Otis P. "Flash" Gordon, First Lieutenant James J. "Denny" Dennison, and Jabara. Jabby's cot was located in the northwest corner of the tent - corner locations afforded a tiny bit more privacy. Nellie had the southwest corner. Jabara was not technically a member of "A" Flight or the 335th Fighter Squadron. He was officially a member of the 334th. But because he had four victories, and the 334th had rotated to Johnson AB, Japan, he was "attached" to the 335th in hopes that he could get his fifth kill, and thereby give America its first ace of the Korean War.
I remember Captain Jabara as a pleasant and quiet tent mate. He kept a photograph of his wife, Nina, on a small table next to his cot. He was always considerate of others (very important in close quarter living), and was liked and accepted by all.
To illustrate the sort of leadership he had, I recall flying on his wing on a mission a few days before he became an ace. We had flown to the Yalu and patrolled the south bank without seeing any MiGs except the ones parked on the ramp at Antung. As we returned home, Captain Jabara and I were cruising southbound at about 30,000 feet between Pyongyang and Sinanju, when I spotted a lone swept-winged aircraft speeding in the opposite direction at a much lower altitude - heading toward Antung. I called this sighting to Jabby, and he replied, "I don't see him. You check him out. I'm on your wing." I called to drop tanks, and we did a split-S to try to overtake the bogey, but we reached minimum fuel before we could catch him. Understand here that this MIGHT have been his fifth kill, yet he selflessly allowed me to lead the pursuit.
On 20 May, I recall the excitement when Jabby taxiied his airplane to a stop, and was surrounded by well-wishers. He had just gotten his fifth and sixth kills on that mission. It was mass confusion, and Flash Gordon and I went back to the tent to await Jabby's return. When he came in, he had a mile-wide grin, and proudly accepted our handshakes. After only a few minutes of relaxation, a major wearing a starched uniform entered and identified himself as a public information officer (PIO) representing Headquarters, USAF. He told Jabby that he had flown his last mission (He was wrong, there, because Jabara came back for a second tour and more than doubled his kill total.), and that he would be going home to be hailed as history's first jet ace! He also warned him that he would be living in a fishbowl, and his life would not be his own any longer. He was now a national hero. This had a profound effect on all present, and it was with heavy hearts that we bade goodby to Captain Jabara later that day. I do not think he even got to fly an F-86 back to Japan, but was flown home on a C-54.
My own role on the 20 May mission was undistinguished, and I have thought about it many times in the past 46 years. During the mission briefing, Lt. Col. Ben Emmert, the 335th commander, had stressed that we could expect a big fight when we got near the Yalu (Man, was he right!). Because of this, he said he didn't want anyone to take a "sick" bird beyond Pyongyang, because he didn't want any pilot worrying about the condition of his aircraft while in a big fight. I had never aborted a flight, and figured I was not about to start THAT day! I think I was Awning Able 6, and was on Hoot Gibson's wing. As we climbed out, it was a beautiful day, and we could hear on the radio that festivities had already started at the Yalu. The Pintails (336th Squadron) were heavily involved.
Approaching Pyongyang, I made a check of my cockpit instruments, and noticed that the EGT (exhaust gas temperature, sometimes called TPT, or tailpipe temperature) gauge was pegged at the max. As I tapped the face of the dial, the needle dropped to zero, then began wandering all over the dial. EGT was a critical reading of engine performance, since in combat our throttles were usually "fire-walled" at 100% rpm, and an abnormally high temperature would require a throttle reduction. Without the gauge, I'd have no way of detecting an impending overheat, and either I had a bad gauge or something had happened in the tailpipe to cause the weird readings.
I was some POed, but like a good soldier, I gave Hoot the pre-arranged hand signal that I was returning to K-13. I understand that Hoot tacked onto Nellie Nelson and Denny Dennison, who were in the same flight.
All the way back to Suwon and after I landed, I listened on the radio to the big fight, and I realized that I had just missed an historic mission. I could have cried, and maybe I did. It turned out to be a bad gauge, of course. Ever since then, I've wished I had just ignored that gauge. If I had had more time in the '86, I might have done so, I think. Who knows? But I never aborted again (and never had a reason to do so).
In later years, I saw Jim Jabara many times. He was one of those rare individuals who never forgot a name or a face. Once you were his friend, you were always his friend. Although his life was cut short tragically by an automobile accident in 1966, he accomplished many other great things after becoming the first jet ace. He was the operations officer for the USAF's first B-58 "Hustler" wing. The B-58 was a true supersonic bomber, which technologically was well ahead of its time. I ran into Colonel Jabara in 1961 while he was in that outfit, and he told me of routinely flying the B-58 for 45 minutes at a speed of Mach 2. Even today, this performance can be matched only by the SR-71 and the Concorde. At the time of his death, he was commander of the 31st Fighter Wing at Homestead AFB, Florida. He was to be transferred to Bien Hoa AB, Vietnam, to be commander of the 3rd Fighter Wing.
As a sentimental end to this little account, in 1972, when I was the commander of the 31st Wing at Homestead, my family lived in the last house occupied by Colonel Jabara and his family. His name appeared on several documents, and on the drapes left in the house by the Jabaras. As the wing commander, I saw to it that a street was named in his honor, and a beautifully painted F-100 with his name on it was placed on a pedestal in front of the headquarters building. It is a high honor to have known James Jabara.
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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