18th Fighter-Bomber Wing in KoreaPart 23: Korean Tales Unsung Heroes of the Korean Air War by
Duane E. 'Bud' Biteman, Lt Col, USAF, Ret
INCHON ELATION - "...Home by Christmas..."
The tide of battle turned suddenly in our favor,
but the rate of our battle losses increased.
Korea, October, 1950
On l5 September, 1950, our Army, Navy and Marines conducted an audacious but highly successful seaborne invasion through the 18 foot tides at the Port of Inchon ...far, far behind the enemy's then-current 'Pusan Perimeter' front lines. We were cheered to hear that Kimpo airfield was recaptured on the first day of the offensive and the troops were moving to retake the city of Seoul. On the following morning, I was elated as I took off from our newly-reactivated Pusan air base ('K-9') with a flight of four Mustangs, into the low morning scud which remained from the recent passage of Typhoon 'Kezia', searching for likely targets along the perimeter area west and north of our beleaguered former base at Taegu.
But with the continuing pressure by the Red troops in the south, taking more and more South Korean territory as they continued to outflank us around the southwest coast, we couldn't help but wonder if the results of the Inchon landings might be anticlimactic ...just a few days too late... and that we would be forced to evacuate our newly-opened base at Pusan before the results of the Inchon counter-pressure could be realized.
Our flight ranged northwesterly, following the Naktong River to Sonsan, just west of Taegu, where, as we topped the crest of the near bank, I absolutely could not believe what I found ..a panic-stricken Red Army was running headlong, trying to wade across the summer shallow river... out in the open, in broad daylight. And, for the time being at least, few slowed to shoot at us.
I maneuvered our four Mustangs northward a short distance, to a flat, level area where we could swing around while remaining at low level, to position ourselves to release the eight napalm bombs onto the river upstream of the massesd North Korean troops, allowing the flaming, floating jellied-gasoline to spread and engulf the full width of the shallow river.
We separated into pairs for subsequent attacks, which we flew repeatedly back and forth along the river banks, strafing as we went, taking turns to keep from interfering with each others' gunnery patterns. The Naktong River was soon "flowing red", literally, with the blood of a thousand routed enemy troops.
Working my way still further north, into a narrow canyon between two steep hills, I found a group of Red soldiers trying to pull a truck across the river on a small raft attached to a long cable stretched to the west shore. I was able to take a bead on the truck by simply turning a few degrees, then launched all six of my big 5" rockets at one time.
With but a short "Whooooosh", the rockets hit the water several yards short of the raft, the exploding water tipping the truck into the water on its side rather than destroying it, while sending up a massive wall of muddy water to about 100 feet in the air.
The narrow canyon walls, rising sharply from the river, prevented my making any kind of evasive turn that would enable me to miss the sudden watery barrier which was directly in my path of flight.
I had never before flown into a watery barricade, of any size, and had absolutely no idea what the impact force of my 325 mph speed would have upon the structure of my airplane... even had I been allowed more than just that short instant of time to think about it before running head-on into my self-induced hazard.
My instantaneous reaction to the problem was an immediate exclamation of "Oooooooh Sheeee-it ...I've done it now!!" while I pulled back on the control stick as I ran head-on into the massive muddy-green wall of water.
With a great "Splat", the windscreen was covered, and for a brief micro-second I was reminded of taking a car through an automatic car wash, then, just as quickly, I was through it and into the clear air on the other side ...none the worse for the experience, except for a few more grey hairs than I'd had just a few moments before.
The slaughter of the retreating North Koreans continued all along the former battle lines; small pockets of temporary resistance in the vicinity of Chinju and Kumchon, were quickly eliminated by the focus of our air attacks, after which they, too, broke out into the open, trying to escape to the north, making themselves all the more vulnerable to our strafing runs.
The Red Army was suddenly being decimated ...leaving all of their artillery, trucks, tanks and supplies in their wake as they tried to save themselves by running into the hills.
Our troops tried to chase them, capturing many thousands in the process, but many were able to simply remove their uniforms and blend into the masses of South Korean refugees struggling toward the south.
The complexion of the war had completely reversed itself in just a few short days. There was not much question about which side would "win", it was becoming just a matter of "how long will it take to wipe up the stragglers?"
We began to have flights coming back with their bombs and rockets because they could not find any worthwhile targets. Instead, they would have to carry their loads out over the Sea of Japan and jettison the bombs in the "safe" mode, returning to base with their rockets and machine gun ammunition.
Captain Joe Lane "captured" twenty-five enemy troops trying to escape from our advancing Army north of Taejon. He simply flew low over them, fired a burst from his machine guns, and they immediately whipped out a white cloth, then turned and started marching south toward our advancing troops with their hands in the air. Joe continued to circle the troops until they came to one of our tanks, who stopped long enough to accept their surrender.
Strange, unexpected happenings..! But all was not over, by any means.
Even though our troops were approaching the 38th parallel all along the front, there was still a strong resistance along the east coast, near Wonsan, and around the North Korean capital city of Pyongyang.
While the Army's General Walker was being quoted in the newspapers, saying "The War is Over", our Captain Don Flentke was knocked down over the hills southwest of Wonsan, and died in the crash of his Mustang on September 29th, 1950. Mike David had to ditch in the sea off Wonsan about the same time; he never came up.
We didn't dare let our optimism make us complacent about the enemy's remaining battle capabilities. It was becoming quite obvious that they were trying to regroup for a last-ditch stand in the mountains ... on a line stretching from Pyongyang, in the west, to Hamhung on the east coast. Their desperation made the survivors all the more dangerous to us.
The remaining Reds became more wily and, if I must say, more brave. Instead of ducking for cover the instant we came into sight, they began to remain at their guns... trading round-for-round as we pressed our strafing attacks.
The chilly fall weather and our primitive, unheated tents at Pusan contributed to a near-epidemic of head colds amongst our pilots and ground crews. Fortunately, our ground support and attack missions allowed us to remain at comparatively low altitudes ...usually under 5000 feet, so the head-colds did not seriously impede our combat capability; they just made each mission more uncomfortable, and increased the risk of punctured ear drums.
On 2 October, 1950, I flew a long haul of four hours and forty-five minutes from Pusan to the coastal area north of Hungnam, my 52nd mission... with a cold the likes of which the Flight Surgeon would have grounded me in peacetime. It was a long, tiring mission, where I really had to search before I finally found an operational switch engine to knock out. I was sorely tempted to start a few forest fires in the beautiful, dry crimson colors of the fall's foliage, but thought better of it; after all "the war's over" and our troops will be taking that countryside in just a few days...
When I landed I was told that Don Bolt had been knocked down near Pyongyang, and that they were trying to get a helicopter up from Seoul to pick him out. My heart became suddenly very, very heavy, for Don had become a close and special friend in the past few weeks that we had been working together. I consciously prayed that the good Lord would give him just a little special consideration ...he really needed it!
Then, on the same day, October 2, 1950, we lost Ramon Davis in the Wonsan area, then another, a Major Murritt Davis ...a new arrival in the Group, went down, and we received word that Alex Padilla had been captured while serving with the Army as a Forward Air Controller in the central sector. Within the next couple of days, Ed Hodges had his controls shot out and Owen Brewer had his engine shot up; both were forced to bail out ...which they did successfully, and both were picked up by our forces and returned to duty.
Intelligence reports indicated that the Chinese had eighteen Army divisions in Manchuria ...450,000 troops, up from just 116,000 in July. And they had 300 planes. General MacArthur said their entry into the war was "possible, but not probable"!
On Sunday, 8 October 1950, First Lieutenant Ray Carter took an afternoon flight of two up the east coast to the very northeast corner of North Korea ...where Korea, Manchuria and Russia join borders. Finding a multitude of targets on the roads near Kyongwon, on the Korean side, he wasn't aware when he crossed the border with Russia, heading northeast ...into forbidden territory. Soviet territory!
Continuing through the sparse valleys of the coastal range, he led his flight onto an open plain and discovered a "secret airfield" with dozens of airplanes on the parking apron. However, because he was getting low on fuel, and the anti-aircraft fire was heavier than what Ray had been used to, he led just one wild strafing pass down the long line of 'enemy' aircraft, then turned out to sea and followed the winding coastline back to Pusan, arriving long after dark.
Two hours before Ray's flight reached Pusan's K-9 base, we had been alerted to a problem by a Top Secret message from Far East Air Force Headquarters. The steaming message came straight from General MacArthur, with emphasis added by Gen. Stratemeyer the Far East Air Force Commander:
"Who in the bloody hell's been shooting up the Russian airplanes on the very outskirts of Vladivostock?!"
That "secret airfield" they'd strafed was at Sukhaya Rechka ...sixty miles inside Soviet Siberia, and the Hotlines from Moscow to Washington were buzzing with indignation.
Washington was very apologetic, assuring the Soviets that it was a simple and understandable navigation error on the part of our pilots, and that they would be severely disciplined. Our government even offered to pay the Russians monetary damages for the loss of their equipment destroyed in the raid. They finally allowed the matter to drop, and a possible provocation of World War Three was allowed to pass almost unnoticed.
Ray Carter felt terrible about attracting so much adverse high-level attention to the Squadron. I consoled him by telling him that he was getting his wrist slapped for his error in navigation ...he was grounded for a week, ' sent to Tokyo for high echelon interrogation, then placed on R & R Leave until things cooled down ...but, as I told him before he left for Tokyo...
...he'd probably be awarded the Air Force Cross for having carried out the very first American air raid against Russian territory!
Duane E. 'Bud' Biteman,
Lt. Col, USAF, Ret
‘...One of those Old, Bold Fighter Pilots’
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