A Combat Pilot's Story
by John W. Harris
For many years after my combat tour in Korea, it concerned me that something so momentous, exciting, historical, and important to me personally, was fast disappearing in time. I felt a need to at least let my sons and grandchildren know what happened to me, that I was there. I had no records to refer to except a few old military orders and my Air Force form 5 (individual flight record). Many times I regretted not carefully logging each flight. Only memory was available to bring back and record what happened. I am aware of the dangers involved in trying to resurrect time and events that happened so long ago. Accuracy must suffer to time and ego in something such as this. However, I have tried my best to filter out what I wished had happened as opposed to what really did. Still it must be biased, but I have diligently made effort to be factual.
In the process of writing these stories, I have been amazed at my memory. There seems to be no end to recalling events. What was long since forgotten has returned in hundreds of instances. One returning item prompts many more. Sometimes nothing comes for a time, then in a rush a series comes flooding back. The word processor and its ability to change, replace, and edit, have been a necessary part. About two years ago, when a friend from Korea days called about a reunion, I immediately recognized his voice. I hadn't heard from him since we separated in Korea. This was the beginning.
I have deliberately tried to leave out anything that might seriously embarrass anyone else. There was very little of that. I started writing with the intent of leaving out names entirely, but it didn't seem right. Names kept returning with other facts, so all those that I came upon are here.
Putting this on paper has done me much good. Other than to give copies to my sons and some of my family, there are no plans for its use. Writing a novel based on this would seem to ruin its purpose. I hope you find it interesting.
In the Beginning
I was a member of the 323rd Bomb Wing (L) at Tinker AFB, Oklahoma. They were equipped with Douglas B-26s (re-designated from A-26 to B-26 after the B-26 Marauder had been retired from service). The Korean "police action" was in full swing. I couldn't get a job, mainly because no one wanted to hire a reservist who might be called to active duty any day. I made a trip to Air Force Reserve Headquarters at Warner Robbins AFB, Georgia with some others to try to get recalled to active duty. I found the right place and was assured that orders would follow in a couple weeks. They did, but when I tried to clear the Reserve outfit, the 323rd Wing canceled my orders. They told me that since I was "a trained member of the Wing" I couldn't be released. It would degrade their combat effectiveness. That was very frustrating because I had never been able to get the squadron to check me out in the B-26. I had managed to get the active duty instructors as far as the airplane a few times, but they always managed to find a reason not to go. I was checked out in the twin Beech. I lived off the in-laws a little longer and the Wing was recalled to active duty 10 March 1951.
The entire 323rd Bomb Wing was sent to Roswell AFB, New Mexico to the 6th Bomb Wing (H). The 6th Bomb Wing had just been reactivated and had no airplanes. They were to start getting B-29s. One day at an Officer's Call, a requirement for B-26 pilots was announced. B-26 pilots were needed in Japan as replacements for the units in combat.
There were only a few volunteers. I thought the whole outfit would volunteer. The requirements were read off, and I didn't meet any of the requirements except that I had the total amount of flying time required. I had no current instrument check and was not qualified in the airplane. I had 22 hours first pilot in the Douglas A-26 back in 1945, but no formal checkout. I volunteered anyway. The prospect of remaining in Strategic Air Command looked dim to me. My name was submitted along with Roland Aikin, a fellow Reservist from Shawnee, Oklahoma and a few others. I had been at Roswell about three months. It sounds like a foolish move on my part, but to this day, I believe it was the best thing to do. Career wise, SAC appeared to be a dead end. I wanted to fly and SAC just didn't look like the way to go.
We were sent to Camp Stoneman, California for processing and to wait for transportation overseas. Again the call came for volunteers. They needed pilots to ferry B-26s to Japan. Again I volunteered. Still I wasn't qualified, but hoped they wouldn't find out. I knew that I could fly the airplane well enough to ferry it. They got enough volunteers and gave me the job of co-pilot in a single control airplane. It was disappointing, but better than sitting in Camp Stoneman waiting for a ship. That would probably be another month.
We moved over to McClellan AFB, Sacramento, California to get the airplanes and wait for coordination of the trip across the Pacific. The plan was to follow a B-29, which would do the navigating for the flight of B-26s. To keep the flight together, the B-29 was supposed to have a low frequency non-directional beacon aboard. If we became separated, we could follow the beacon back to the B-29. Good idea. Of course, the beacon didn't work.
There were five "pilot, co-pilot" teams. Captain Griffis DeNeen was paired with Major Ray Herdzina and I with Captain Eugene Cook. I was a First Lieutenant.
Back Row: Aitkin, Corbin, Eugene Cook, Nevling, Ray Herdzina, John Harris
Front Row: Roland Aikin, Thomassen, Clark, Griffis Deneen
There was at least one airborne abort when the B-29 that was to depart from Travis AFB didn't show. There were several days of waiting at the airplanes out near the runway, for the final decision of some unknown person as to whether the winds aloft would allow the trip. Winds were critical. There was fuel for only a small head wind component. When we finally made the longest leg to Hickam AFB, Hawaii, it took eleven hours, thirty-five minutes. The trip was ordinarily not possible because of the distance. An 800-gallon tank was installed in the bomb bay, and low cruise power settings stretched the range to where it was possible. I recall engine RPM settings as low as 1600.
From Hickam AFB, we went to Johnson Island, Kwajalein, Guam, then to Iwakuni, Japan. The last leg took us over Iwo Jima. The trip took just over thirty-six hours. Weather was typical Pacific VFR all the way. Every time I lost sight of the B-29 as we passed the big cumulus, I worried. Every engine in the flight of B-26s worked fine. One problem was attributed to rebuilt sparkplugs with one of the airplanes, but it was okay once power was reduced after takeoff. After several hours of the low cruise power settings, they would occasionally burp and rumble, then settle down for another few hours. It kept me from getting too sleepy.
Captain Cook "split" the flying time with me for record purposes, but I was an interested passenger all the way. He couldn't afford to let me fly any. He wasn't proficient himself. This turned out to be a large share of my training.
We were sent immediately to Yokota AB, near Tokyo, for personnel processing, then back to Iwakuni. The only thing worth mentioning here is I almost took a turn down a different track when I admitted to having some T-6 time. We were questioned about our flying experience as a group, in the base theater. When they asked if anyone present had any T-6 time, I held up my hand.
Friends behind me whispered "no-no" and I pulled my hand down. They were looking for "mosquito" pilots. Now days they call them "FAC"s. They flew low over the front lines and directed air strikes.
Roland Akin flew a RB-26 over in the same flight, but landed at a base other than Iwakuni. He showed up at Iwakuni a little later. We were assigned to the 3rd Bomb Wing. I to the 13th Squadron and he went to the 8th.