Aerial Combat - Finally

by Richard F. Merian

After about a month at Taegu, we returned to Japan. I guess there was some concern that the Chinese might attempt to bomb Japan so we deployed to Niigata with six Sabres for air defense. One of the fun things to do was J.O. Roberts and I flew formation acrobatics over the strip. We never did see any Chinese, but we sure scared a lot of Japanese fishermen.

I made friends with a local Japanese engineer who was Chief Engineer of the Niigata Engineering Works. They built diesel engines for ships. The friendship started at a bar when he slid over a paper napkin which had the inscription "1/0-?". I responded with the 'infinity' sign and our friendship blossomed. It was a maturing experience to find this fellow who was very bright and held a very responsible position, yet his greatest asset was a three-wheeled motorcycle. While we couldn't communicate verbally, I spent many delightful evenings in his home and at his factory.

During Spring 1951, after the Chinese were pushed back across the 38th Parallel, my squadron (the 335th) was sent to K-13, Suwon AB, about 30 miles south of Seoul. I flew the rest of my missions from there. We lived in tents and mud, and ate some very bad food. (Life Magazine even made some derogatory comments about the food.) I still cannot eat Spam, Vienna Sausages, powtiered eggs, powdered milk, etc. It was so bad at times that I used to barter with the GIs for their C rations.

After several missions I finally saw my first MiG. A very large battle developed into what appeared to me to be a swirling drove of bees. Everyone was trying to cue up on everyone else. The leader of my flight was a guy from 4th Wing Headquarters. A guy that I had not flown with before. He just kind of cruised through the entire fight, not doing much of anything.

One of the problems with being a 'professional wingman' (me) was that you have flown with the guys from your squadron and you knew what to expect of them. But with Wing pilots, you didn't know what to expect. Fortunately, I also was able to fly wing with some really great pilots - Col. John C. Meyer, Capt. Billy Hovde, Lt. Col. Glenn Eagleston, and Col. "Gabby" Gabreski to name just a few. I was flying wing for Capt. Sandy Hesse when he shot down his first MiG. But there were some guys who just shouldn't have been up there in the first place. They put my butt at risk as well as their own.

One of the smaller problems at Suwon was the lack of refrigeration. Our troops were cooling their beer by digging a pit and hosing down the hole with a CO2 fire extinguisher. This worked very well until there were no more fire extinguishers left for fire fighting and our commander made it a court-marshall offense to wrongly discharge an extinguisher. But we got around that. One sure way to be popular with the troops was to volunteer for an engine change test hop. First you would remove all the ammo from the ammo cans, then refill the cans with cases of beer. After flying the test hop at high altitude then doing a 'split S' back down into the pattern - Voila, cold beer for the troops!

One June night I was awakened by a very loud "whump". I recall wondering why I could see the stars through the tent above my head, before I realized that we were being bombed. A large piece of shrapnel with Russian writing on it was embedded in a broken 2x4 just over my head. And the tent was shredded.

Jim Heckman always hung his clothes very neatly on a homemade rack near his bunk. A piece of shrapnel went in one end and came out the other, completely destroying his wardrobe. Several Sabres were badly damaged and one was completely destroyed. I witnessed one crew chief perform heroically as he tried to disarm a burning F-86 before someone ordered him away from the airplane. The next day we all dug foxholes just outside the tent. Mine was right beside my tent so I could pick up the side of the tent and simply roll right into the open hole.

The enemy bomber, "Bedcheck Charlie" is what we called him, was a little open cockpit biplane similar to those that I'd flown as a youngster. The guy in the back seat carried small anti-personnel bombs and dropped them over the side. His intelligence was excellent. He knew exactly where the pilots lived. "Ol' Bedcheck" caused all sorts of frustration to the air defense guys. One night I watched as an F-94 Starfire night interceptor tried to get him. But he just couldn't slow down enough to get him in his sights. One beautiful moonlit night, a Marine allweather F4U Corsair came looking for "Charlie" shortly after he'd made his nightly visit. When he was directly over the field, and beautifully silhouetted with the gull wings, a lone anti-aircraft gun (ours!) opened up on him. Then they all opened up. The Corsair pilot was able to make a tight 360 and land on our runway. But boy, he was stare one mad Marine.

I remember one mission when I was flying on Col. Eagleston's wing. We were all alone, and had about 10 MiGs' cornered' between Suwon and us. We fought our way out but not before Col. Eagleston had relaxed me by calmly saying, "Two - if you are scared, so am I!"

The first MiG I shot at was only out of range by about a mile. I remember how surprised I was when I put the pipper on him, pulled the trigger for about four seconds, and he didn't light up with hits. Nor did he go down in flames. I figure that overall the score was pretty even between the MiGs and I. They shot at me about as much as I shot at them.

I have been close enough to see the MiG pilot's black leather helmet, and see where the Russian red star had been removed from the side of the airplane and replaced with a Chinese insignia. The MiG had a very bad tendency toward accelerated overshoot. At high speed and high Gs, the aft end of the MiG swept wing bent up causing the center of lift to move forward and tuck the plane into a turn or snap roll. On more than one occasion, I witnessed a MiG snapping into a spin. Whether it was deliberate or not, I do not know. Our Sabres had a similar trait but it wasn't as serious. In a high speed, 6 G turn, one had to hold forward pressure to keep the Sabre from snap-rolling.

Our intelligence would tell us that a new group of MiGs had been training up at Mukden, and they would be moving down to Antung to engage us over the Yalu. Sure enough, on a subsequent mission, where you had been fighting guys that had a red circle painted around the nose, a new group of MiGs would have lightning flashes painted on the side of their fuselages. It always made for an interesting day.

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