Korea Today

by Harvey Brown

A few years ago, my son and I went to Korea for a visit. The trip took a week. One of the interesting things we did was to take a very wild taxi trip from Seoul to Osan and visit my old base at Osan. The whole area was hardly recognizable. Suwon looked like a rice paddy again, from all appearances. However, it wait hard to really tell as we barely slowed do", much less stopped, going through Suwon at Mach I on a two lane road. The old K-13 is a Korean Air Force base.

Osan wasn't much better. But the strip at K-55 was a real eye opener. The ONLY thing I recognized was the beautiful 11,000 foot strip to which I came home sixty-three times between March and November 1953. All else was like a scene out of some real estate development.

Building construction, crude at best in 1953, now included Pizza Huts, MacDonalds, shopping centers, permanent Air Force structures, hangars, etc. 'The squadron' diamonds' were recognizable. But there were hangars built on them now. ALL of our beloved(?) tin huts and other tin buildings were gone. It was difficult to orient myself due to the new construction.

K-55 is now an Air Force "town" of over 7000 souls - Osan Air Base. They live very much like they would on a base in the states, except that they know they're in Korea. Get this!! None of the Air Force personnel with whom we spoke, had any idea that the base was once known as K-55!!!! We spent some time with the base Public Affairs Officer, and even he didn't know about K-55.

Initially, we were denied access to the base. But after a lot of time cultivating (BSing is closer to the truth) the heavily armed gate guards, they agreed to allow us to drive around with the PAO, who finally came to the gate to get us. They even let the Korean taxi driver go onto the base with us. Needless to say, he was in Hog Heaven, or whatever the Koreans call it. I think he enjoyed the ride even more than we did. We visited the Ops of one of the fighter squadrons, and shot the bull with some of the F-16, U-2 and A-10 pilots them. I felt like Eddie Rickenbacker describing the olden days at K-55, flying combat with the 18th Fighter Bomber Group, with the 67th Squadron leading the way and the 2nd South African bunch. Now that was a real wild gang!

These guys today have no concept of the air war that we waged in the early 50s. But the base historian (a very nice gal) was intrigued and said they would launch an effort to learn more about the Korean War days, and make it available on the base as part of the Osan 'heritage'.

By the way, the lineup of aircraft at Osan was F-16s, A10s, U-2s that were based there; with C-130, KC-135, and other types in and out on the transient ramp. We were told that this was THE Air Force fighter base in South Korea now. The gate guard aircraft is a copy of Joe McConnell's F-86F, "Beautious Butch". It will probably be changed once the history of 18th is known, possibly to Jim Flagerstrom's 67th FBS F-86F, #FU-????. Jim was the 28th ace in the Korean War. OK you l8th Group guys, what was the tail number on Hagerstrom's airplane?

We got a super 'cooks tour' of K-55 from the PAO. He hauled us all over and even to places which were probably restricted. But we didn't see anything that we couldn't have seen from off-base with a good set of binocs. The far side of the runway, the north side, was a regular lineup of AA installations. And I'm sure we only saw a very small part of what's out there.

I really had strong feelings as we motored by the approach ends of that long East-West strip. It sure as hell looked familiar. And for just a fleeting moment, I was 'back them' at 100 kts. touching down, letting go a little and opening the canopy for a blast of sea level (and safe) air. I really felt that I could kick the tires, hop in, and with a very few minutes of cockpit time, fire up old FU-350 and spend forty minutes honing it around. Maximum 2 1/2 Gs of course! I suppose all of us feel that way, don't we? I'll have to admit that twenty-four years flying a Navion kind of keeps me primed.

My last recollection of Seoul in 1953, was pretty bleak. The three bridges over the Han River were bombed and down in the river. Now there are nineteen (count 'em) bridges over the Han. And that's still not enough for the twelve MILLION souls that live there. We had lunch on the 63rd floor of an insurance building on the Han one day.

One of the days that we were there was the Korean Thanksgiving. Every one in the country was in the process of either going to, or returning from their ancesural home. What a mess that was. A very good day to be walking and not driving.

Since this was a 'Veterans Return' trip, we were feted by the ROK government, and given a Korean medal and other goodies as a 'Thank You' for whatever we did. Even the US Amy PR people gave us a big welcome. It was the first time anyone at all had ever given me any kind of 'thank you' for my Korean War service. Anyway, that's what we did during a week in Korea. Like all travels, it seems to get better in restrospect.

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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