Right On The Button: Marine Close Air Support In Korea

By Admiral John S. Thach, U. S. Navy (Retired)

By this time there really wasn't any Fifth Air Force, Korea. The Fifth Air Force was back in Japan. On one occasion, the Air Force F-8s came over from Fukuoka, Japan, and the front line was just near the end of their range. They'd call the controller and say, “Give me a target. Give me a target.” I’ve only got five minutes more. Got to go back.” When the controller asked the pilot for his ordnance load, he responded, “I’ve got two 100-pound bombs. Hurry up.”

I heard that many times, and finally I heard someone—I think it was an Air Force controller—say, “Well, take your two little firecrackers and drop them up the road somewhere because I’ve got something [a carrier plane] coming in that has a load.”

On 2 August 1950, a little more than a month after the war began, the Sicily arrived in Kobe, Japan. I’d just got the brow over when a call came up, “Captain, Tokyo wants you on the telephone.” It was the duty officer at ComNavFE (Commander Naval Forces Far East) asking, “How soon can you get under way?”

“Well,” I said, “there’s a lot of spares and stuff here to be put aboard.  I think I could get under way first thing in the morning.”

He said, “You don’t understand. I mean how soon can you get under way right now?” And he said this over the phone in plain English and added, “Because if you don’t, there won’t be any use in getting under way. It’ll be too late.”

We loaded as much as we could in half an hour, then left for Korea. On 3 August, we landed the Marine squadron aboard and flew our first flight in close air support. My orders from ComNavFE gave me complete freedom to go in where I could help anybody I wanted to. So that’s what we did. Flying some close air support strikes that day, we started up the west coast of Korea. I had an idea of going to see what was on the roads in the Inchon-Seoul area. As it turned out, they wanted me up there anyway. We found quite a few trucks on the road and one pilot: Major Kenneth L. Reusser, executive officer of VMF-214. We later gave him the name of “Rice-Paddy Reusser” because he was forever getting shot down and ending up in a rice paddy. You know how they fertilize those rice paddies out there, and we told him if he didn’t find a better-smelling place to land, we weren’t going to let him aboard the next time he had a forced landing!

He was giving it the usual very-low-altitude look that professionals in close air support always do. He was flying down below treetop level, and he was shot at by some antiaircraft fire, and he thought, “Well, now what are they trying to protect?” This was between Inchon and Seoul. He went back and saw a large barnlike structure, so he flew down and looked into the window and saw a lot of vehicles in there, a tank close against the wall, and what appeared to be other tanks in the building. It may have been a tank-repair place.

He didn't have much ammunition left—a couple of rockets—so he thought, "I won't attack it now. I'll go back and comeback with a big load." He came back aboard and said, "There's a big jackpot there, and I want to lead the very next strike back." He went back with plenty of bombs, rockets, and napalm and just destroyed the whole thing, ruined it. You could never find such a target while flying at high altitude. They were pretty good at camouflage, anyway, and this was the son of thing it took.

On board the Si ci ly , I made a practice of talking with every pilot after hecame back. I didn't have them come up to the bridge where most captains stay all the time they're under way. I went down to the ready room where their own intelligence officer interrogated them after every strike. I missed hardly any of the debriefings from mikes because they had all the charts and everything that they could refer to down there and didn't have to bring all that paraphernalia up on the bridge. Besides giving me information I needed, I think it was good for the pilots too. We got co know each other pretty well, and it got to the point where they would make little jokes, and so would I. It was a very healthy, wonderful situation. I had a tremendous admiration for those people, and it grew and grew.

These Marine pilots of VMF-214 were all quite experienced. They weren't young kids. Most of them were married and had children, and they took their work seriously. They really were the top pros in the business, I think, in the whole world. They were heavily decorated from World War II. They knew the business of close air support. Every one of those pilots had had infantry training, and so the ground-air team of the Marine was really proficient.

On 7 August, the First Provisional Marine Brigade, which had landed at Pusan and gotten into position under Brigadier General Edward A. Craig, attacked westward from Masan toward Chinju. This was the first time the whole organization of the escort carriers (the Sicily and the USS Badoeng Strait [CVE-116]) with the Corsairs and the Marine ground forces got into action with everything there for coordination.

It was a beautiful thing to listen to. I couldn't see it, but I knew what was going on. It was just like going from confusing darkness into bright daylight. The coordination was just perfect, and everything clicked just the way it should. When the pilots came back, they would give a big sigh of relief and say, "Now we're doing what we're supposed to do in the right way."

One of the times we sent some planes over to support the First Marine Brigade, the Army had a patrol that really wanted help and was willing to work for it. They were so enthused about the Sicily Corsairs that before releasing the plane after he'd expended his ammunition in helping to break up enemy concentrations, they'd beg him to come back the next day. The words were sometimes, "Please, please, come back tomorrow. We'll take that airfield back again. If you'll just come back tomorrow, we can do it together." It would almost bring tears to your eyes to realize how much these Army troops over there wanted some real good close air support. They hadn't ever had it before. One of them said. "We had close air support like I've never heard of before. This is something I didn't realize could happen."

The Marine forward air controller on the ground was often an aviator. He and the ground troops knew each other's business because they trained at it. They would sometimes be out in front of the front lines. Sometimes they'd be in a little jeep or tank or just crawling along and dragging the communications equipment in the bushes.

One time, the controller said, "I want just one plane of the four to come down and make a dummy run. Don't drop anything. I'm going to coach you onto a big gun, a piece of artillery that's giving us a lot of trouble. I'm very close to it, but I can't do anything about it. It's just over a little knoll." He described the terrain and described everything, just as it was and so forth. So the leader came down in his Corsair, and he was coached all the way down, the air controller practically flying the airplane for him. Then he said, "Now, do you see it?"

And he said, "Yes, I see it."

"OK, then, go on back up and come down and put a Sao-pound bomb on it. But be very careful."

So he came down and released his bomb, hit it, and it exploded.

The controller said, "Right on the button. That's all, don't need you any more."

The pilot answered, "Just a minute. While I was on the way down, on the right-hand side of my gun sight, I saw a big tank. I couldn't see it all. It was under a bush, but how about that target?"

And the controller said, "I told you I was close. Let it alone; that tank is me."



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