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A Combat Pilot's Story
by John W. Harris
Chapter 2 - Some Words on Armament
The runway at Kunsan was just completed to 4200 feet with plans to extend it much more for eventual jet use. The west end of the runway was right at the shoreline at high tide. The airplanes were always loaded to maximum. It seems that we looked better to the Commanders the more tonnage we dropped. These heavy loads made the B-26 very awkward when four wing stations were loaded with some weapons such as the large incendiary cluster. They weighed about 500 lbs. - which was bad enough - but it was also flat on front, which made it an aerodynamic turd.
The rocket rails were usually loaded with 100 lb bombs or flares. Up to seven each side, if my memory is correct. Internally, there were usually six 500 lb. bombs. Sometimes some 260 lb. fragmentation bombs were "double hung" (two bombs on the same shackle) to increase tonnage dropped. Their effectiveness was questionable since the ballistics of the various bombs was different. Other loads called for all 260 lb. frags. It was a mean weapon. It had a different explosive that made it as powerful as the 500 lb. general-purpose bomb. I never knew what the gross weight and CG was at take off. I didn't want to know.
We had a god-awful mix of armament on the airplanes. We had 6-gun and 8-gun hard noses. Some had 3 internal guns in the leading edge of each wing and others were a slick-wing. We had airplanes with upper and lower rear turrets and some with only upper turrets and some with none.
I recall one glass nose aircraft that had no wing guns internally mounted. Instead, it had two package guns attached in a pod under each wing. To further confuse and mystify, one gun on each side was of a different model with a much higher rate of fire. In the glass nose, mounted on the right side floor were two more guns that were fired by the pilot. The charge system was manual. The pilot simply pulled a cable to each gun to eject and load a new round after each pass, to make sure the bolt had not fallen on a dead round.
I flew the airplane several times. When the trigger was pulled, bullets went a lot of places. The faster firing guns had a decidedly different muzzle blast. A globe of fire jumped about five feet out front of the gun and it was startling if you were not expecting it. The pattern on the ground was pretty wild. It wasn't tight enough to be effective. I believe that was the airplane with the "S" (Sugar) on the tail.
Our squadron commander, Lt. Col. Joseph Belser (shown at left), made a continuing effort to acquire hard nose airplanes because he felt they were the most effective. According to The Air Force History of Korea, it was an uphill fight because the Air Force felt the opposite was true. Col. Belser was probably right if they were used according to his philosophy. The hard nose was an awesome weapon in the hands of a particularly aggressive pilot. Unfortunately, it was difficult to tell who was particularly aggressive.
Capt. George Esser was the 13th Sq. Armament officer. He managed to "bargain" with a Marine outfit for some twenty-millimeter guns. He altered the six-gun nose of two of our airplanes by removing four of the fifty calibers and installing the two twenty millimeters. I got to fly the airplanes a couple of times. The guns were great while they worked, but there was no way of charging them in flight. When the bolt fell on a dead round, that was all until you got back on the ground. Also, the number of rounds available was more limited.
The fifties had a gun charging system that worked quite well. A compressor furnished pressure air to open the bolts of each gun, allowing them to spring shut with a new round. SOP was to actuate this system two times after each firing pass to eject any possible dead rounds. One night when Ray Olcott returned from a mission, he sat in the de-arming area, going through the routine of de-arming to make the airplane safe for the maintenance area. The armament crew would clear the guns and place the ammunition so that the guns had to be charged two times before they would fire. Then the armament guy would call up to the pilot to hit the trigger. He was supposed to turn on the battery switch and pull the trigger.
The firing pins were supposed to fall on empty chambers. Ray (pictured at right with a lady friend) was nearly asleep when he got the call. He automatically went through the gun clear-charge routine that he always did in the air, then hit the trigger. Fourteen fifties came to life with a roar that woke the whole base. Fortunately, part of the routine was to park the airplanes in the de-arm area so that they pointed out to sea. Ray's ego was badly shot up.
Missions were flown single aircraft at night except for rare occasions. Pilots could have easily thought they were or were not aggressive, and the only other reference would be his crew. One friend of mine, Capt. Gene Cook, the pilot I rode across the pacific with, continually told stories about what a "pussy cat" he was. One night he came back from a mission with multiple bomb fragment holes in his airplane. He had pressed the attack so low that his own bomb fragments had hit his airplane. "Pussycats" don't do that.
Navigators and gunners will forever have my respect for being able to hang on while us pilots experimented with their welfare. I try to think myself into their place and it's frightening. It was interesting to me how different other crew members, the ones who didn't fly the airplane, reacted to the excitement of the missions. Some acted totally "cool", almost disinterested. A few were real "tigers", and some showed definite signs of wishing they were somewhere else. Now that I think about it, that covered a lot of us.
Those occasions where I went several nights without a mission made me edgy and uncomfortable. I was definitely not loving it, but I wanted to go continuously until I completed the required number of missions. I was certainly afraid, but not to the extent that I couldn't climb into the airplane and go. I would worry about whether I would make it through the tour. Once in the airplane, those thoughts didn't bother me until I got back and I was able to do my job without their interference. I couldn't bear the thought that the other crew members might think I wasn't aggressive enough. I didn't want to be the subject of stories that I wasn't privy to listen to. Another of those things that I found out later, made everybody go.
Target damage assessment was difficult because of darkness. Strike photos were sometimes possible, but for routine operations, they were seldom done. A request had to be made, and forwarded (we could call it in by radio). If the priority was good enough, you got strike photos, if he could find your target. More often than not, the reccy airplane was late getting there if he made it at all. The system was just too cumbersome to work well. You really couldn't tell, in most cases, how much damage was done. I made many passes and observed what appeared to be good hits with guns and bombs and there was nothing to show for it.
One specific occasion, on a beautiful moonlight night while working with a flare ship, I spotted six pairs of lights on a straight stretch of road. They were close together as usual. I asked the flare ship to hold the flares until I got in a pass, hoping to hit before they knew we were there. I observed APIs swarm all over them with no indications of hits other than watching the APIs flash. Then the flare ship dropped his flares and the vehicles could not be found. I can't help but feel that damage was done and for some reason we couldn't find the trucks. Some said that they could be thrown from the road by the force of the rounds hitting. Others said they sometimes drove through the sides of huts and hid inside. It was as if they had disappeared. I know they were hit hard. It was difficult to see from the light of the flares.
API, or Armor Piercing Incendiary, was the standard fifty-caliber ammunition we used. It was a copper jacketed steel slug with thermite (magnesium) powder between. The heat generated at impact caused a high temperature flash that looked like a flash bulb. An occasional tracer round would find its way into our guns, maybe from an armament guy with a sense of humor. It would certainly get your attention. Sometimes I tried to imagine what it was like to have those APIs going off around me at night if I were trying to drive. I didn't envy those guys.
The armament guys used to drive the bombs out to the airplanes on a 6X6 truck. To unload, they'd roll the bombs off the back end and the thump would make the ground shake. I never really felt comfortable about that, but they never had any trouble.
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