HOOT'S HOKKAIDO AIR FORCE
by Lon Walter
OK, now picture this. It's Spring 1951. The war in Korea has stabilized roughly along the 38th Parallel. In the US, a fresh army division is being sent to the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido for final training before going to Korea. Troopships carrying the 45th Infantry Division (Oklahoma National Guard) are about to land at the ports of Muroran, Hakodate, and Otaru. Although there are several USAF radar sites on Hokkaido, there are no aircraft on the island. Chitose AB is in caretaker status, with limited transient capability. The Powers-That-Be (PTB) want to reassure the arriving soldiers that the US Air Force will protect them from the damn commies only 210 miles to the north on Sakhalin Island. If you're the PTB, how are you going to do that, huh?
It would probably be impossible these days, but what they did was send four first lieutenants from the 4th Fighter Interceptor Wing, each flying an F-86A Sabre, from Johnson AB (near Tokyo) to Chitose. This impressive force consisted of Ralph D. 'Hoot' Gibson (335th Squadron), the flight commander; and wingmen A.J. 'Lon' Walter (335th), E.A. 'Scotty' Hanford (336th), and H.C. 'Shack' Skackleford (336th) Their orders were to proceed to Chitose, about 450 miles, and stand by.
When a troopship approached the island, Doll Sugar Flight was notified and would launch two Sabres to intercept the ship and provide low altitude combat air patrol. It was important that the F-86s remain clearly in view of the soldiers on board. When the fighters ran low on fuel, the other two would launch from Chitose and relieve them on station. The first two would return to base for a quick turn-around, and the process was repeated until the ship docked or darkness set in. The idea was to give the American troops the impression they were being protected by large numbers of America's latest front-line fighter. The mission was of such importance that if one of the four Chitose Sabres had mechanical ills, it was flown to Johnson for an immediate replacement. Or Johnson would send a fresh airplane and maintenance help to repair and recover the broken bird.
The small caretaker detachment at Chitose, commanded by Major Molineaux, welcomed the arrival of the Sabres with open arms. They'd been bored stiff and rolled out the red carpet for us. The transient maintenance force was headed by a former F-86 crew chief, who assured Hoot the aircraft would be well cared for. They were. The pilots were escorted to their quarters, a large three bedroom house with a roaring fireplace, a maid, and a cook. The commander of the Air Police detachment introduced himself by saying that if there was anything the pilots needed, he would do his best to provide it. On-call transportation to and from the flight line (or anywhere else we wanted to go) was provided by the Air Police.
Between 21 April and 28 April 1951, Doll Sugar Flight flew about 96 hours and 84 sorties (see footnote). It was Fighter Pilot's Heaven! Four great airplanes, your own 'private' air base, a mission that required you to show off for ground troops, no additional duties - and we were 450 miles from higher headquarters!
Each day began with a hearty breakfast. Then when the troop-ship-of-the-day loomed on the horizon, two shiny Sabres would begin a series of passes over the ship, rocking their wings as the troops lined the railings, waving like mad. Some passes were at high speed, followed by a sensational pull up, and often followed by an lmmelmann or Cuban Eight. Show time! Other passes were low and slow.
Two mission stand out in my memory. One morning as we approached the ship, there was a very large, four engine aircraft circling overhead. Clearly this Navy P.B.Y Privateer (a Navy version of the B-24, with a single tail, very big wings and quite slow) was trying to upstage the Air Force. After easily flying past the P.B.y at a high rate of speed, I pulled up and began setting up on his 6 o'clock for a little fun. It was then that this lieutenant learned a big lesson - when flying a jet fighter, one does NOT try to turn with a large, slow, four engine airplane.
The Privateer pilot must have been a frustrated fighter jock, because he threw that big hulk into a 450 bank, and broke left at about 150 knots. I soon found myself forced to use the Sabre's great speed and power to impress the shipborne audience. I don't know where that PB-4Y came from, or where he went, but after a while he must have become convinced that the Air Force was capable of caring for the troopship, and he departed. Of course, there might have been submarines down there...but, naw-w-w.
Another time, our sources told us there would be no ships that day, so Hoot and I flew a training mission. In beautiful clear weather, and in contact with the radar stations at Rumoi and Wakkanai, we proceeded up the west coast of Hokkaido at 40,000 feet - well into the contrail level. Arriving at Wakkanai on the northern tip of the island, Sakhalin (USSR) was clearly visible only 26 miles across the La Perouse Strait. And while we never crossed the mid-point of the strait, we both wondered if Soviet MiGs would scramble to protect their border. They didn't. Enroute back to Chitose, Hoot took the scenic low level route down the center of Hokkaido. Fighter Pilot's heaven.
On the eighth day, Doll Sugar Flight bade farewell to its friends at Chitose and returned to Johnson. The 335th 336th Squadrons would soon be rotated back to Korea at K where the stakes would be higher. But by keeping the MiGs contained along the Yalu River, the Sabres were still protecting the 45th Division and other UN forces fighting along the Parallel.
(Footnote: The author's Form 5 shows 24 hours flying time and 21 sorties for this period of time. The flight time total is estimated to multiplying by four.)
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