During the Korean War, hundreds of U.S. air strikes were launched from nearly 900-foot-long Essex-class aircraft carriers plying the Sea of Japan off the east coast of Korea. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Korean Peninsula, a much different sea war was being waged. There, in the Yellow Sea and with China to the west, a single escort carrier—barely half the size of those off the east coast—along with one destroyer fought a lonely war. Every 10 days, the little American flattop would head to Japan for resupply, swapping places with a small British carrier and her escort.
In late 1952, I was a pilot in Marine Corps Attack Squadron (VMA) 312 flying combat missions from the USS Badoeng Strait (CVE-116). While most were flown during daylight, a number were launched in the darkness before dawn—the Early-Early missions.
Our little task unit of a single aircraft carrier and lone destroyer was appropriate for the size of the Yellow Sea. Only 507-feet long, the Badoeng Strait operated in the sea's constricted waters about halfway up the west coast of Korea. Shortly after taking off, pilots could see the darkened landmass of the great Shandong Peninsula of mainland China to the west and the Haeju Peninsula of North Korea to the east, each less than a half-hour's flight away.
On the day of this November l952 Early-Early launch in the bitter cold off North Korea, the Badoeng Strait and her destroyer push through the sea's dark waters. The ships are blacked out. The icy sea is frosted with white caps whipped up by a brisk wind. All night the carrier has been maneuvering to place herself as near the target area as possible for the early morning launch.
On the hangar deck, one level below the flight deck, planes are serviced and repaired. In the frigid predawn, crew members wearing heavy jackets are busy moving the F4U-4B Corsair fighter-bombers onto giant elevators up to the flight deck. Marine crewmen check the planes for readiness. Sailors, meanwhile, man their stations on a lonely watch.
There is a clear division of labor on the carrier. The Badoeng Strait—nicknamed the Bing-Ding—has a Navy crew, which operates the ship and launches and recovers aircraft. Combat missions and aircraft maintenance are conducted by the men of VMA-312 the Checkerboard Squadron.
The crisp black outlines of the Corsair fighter-bombers, their wings folded up, stand out against the cloudy, moonless night. Snow flurries blow across the deck. The sky and the sea seem to merge as one.
Just below, under bright overhead lights on the warmer hangar deck, there is a whirl of activity as mechanics, electronics specialists, ordnance crews, and other technicians give the Corsairs additional final checks. An implicit spirit of trust flows through all of this. The aviators know the crewmen will do every repair to keep the planes in superb flying condition. Some have been at work throughout the night. The Marine technicians take pride in their squadron and the pilots who fly their Checkerboard planes. Their job is not easy. They must make sure these World War II-era piston-engine fighters are safe.
It is now 0400 and the squadron duty officer and duty non-commissioned officer begin the other half of the predawn mission. They must awaken the aviators who will fly before the sun comes up. The duo move forward and aft to awaken pilots on the list.
The squadron comprises 32 Marine Corps aviators. On this morning, their number includes 2 first lieutenants, 20 captains, 9 majors, and 1 lieutenant colonel. All learned to fly before or during World War II. Their average age is 32, and all but eight are fathers.
Their number is about evenly split between regular Marine Corps officers and reservists. The typical VMA-312 pilot could be a reservist recalled for war service, like Captain Alexander Watson, who was a furniture merchant in San Diego less than a year ago. Or he might be a regular Marine Corps officer like Major Bryce Howerton of Hurdland, Missouri, who trained cadets at Corpus Christi, Texas, a few months ago. He likes pictures of his growing family and writes letters at night in the ship's wardroom. He goes to bed early.
However varied their backgrounds, they have one thing in common: At one time or another, they fly the Early-Early.
Our typical pilot dresses before 0500. After donning long underwear, a wool shirt, and two pair of socks, he climbs into a thick blue quilted liner, which makes up his inner cold-weather survival apparel. Next, he laces up his high-top leather boots. Around his neck hangs his dog-tags. After checking to make sure he is carrying his Geneva Convention identification card, he washes, shaves, and heads for breakfast in the wardroom.
Duty messmen and cooks have been up since 0430, making hot coffee, opening canned fruit juices, cooking oatmeal, and scrambling eggs. While aviators eat breakfast beginning at 0530, they read news of the world from the ship's mimeographed newspaper. At the same time, on the pitching flight deck above, ordnance crews are hard at work loading the Corsairs' guns and hanging bombs and fitting rockets under their wings.
Below, as additional readied planes are rolled from the hangar deck onto lowered elevators, blasts of icy air chill the work space. Once on the flight deck, the planes are carefully inched to their precisely assigned deck spot, preserving valuable real estate.
It is 0550 and still dark. Below, the pilots are arriving in the ready room forward, which is illuminated by red lights to acclimate their night vision. Their dressing continues. They pull heavy rubberized immersion suits resembling deep-sea diving gear from hangers. Pilots sprinkle cornstarch on their hands, wrists, and necks. This enables them to slide into the tight-fitting openings of their suits without tearing them. (The suit is useless unless perfectly watertight.) This is followed by snapping shut all openings and zipping up the rubber overshoes which are attached to the bottom of the suit.
By now the entire crew on board ship is engaged in a thousand details that must be attended to before the launch. In the ready room, pilots strap on their web belts, which carry a bayonet, a compass, and two survival packets. Over his immersion suit, our aviator dons a cloth summer flying suit, which helps prevent tears in the rubber suit in the event of a bail out.
Next, he adds a fur-trimmed parka draped over his shoulders with the hood hanging behind his neck. Around his neck and under his left arm, he slings a leather holster holding a .38-caliber revolver and strap with extra bullets.
Finally, he fits on his Mae West flotation vest, which is well-stocked with survival devices. Among them are two dye markers to stain the water around him if he goes down at sea, a flashlight, knife, shark chaser, first-aid kit, signal mirror, and whistle.
Now all the pilots are briefed on their targets, water ditching, and defensive tactics against possible enemy MiG jet interceptors capable of 600-mph flight. The Navy air officer announces: "Pilots, ten minutes standby." This is enough time for the aviators to put on nylon liner gloves, rubber gloves, and then leather outer gloves. They don their hard-hat plastic helmets, which cover a surprising number of receding hairlines, and chinstraps are fastened. Their trademark checkerboard-painted helmets match the engine cowlings of their aircraft.
"Pilots, man your planes!" blares from the ship's intercom. "Ready room aye," comes the answer from the Marine operations duty officer. The pilots carry with them an oxygen mask, map case, and a kneepad with target information, codes, and radio frequencies. It is 0635 as they lumber up the ladder to the flight deck in their heavy gear.
The warmed-up and checked-out Corsair engines have been shut down. These are the most powerful models of the World War II-era Pratt and Whitney Double-Wasp. They have two radial banks of nine cylinders each, producing an awesome 2,100 horsepower at 2,600 rpm. The Corsairs' fuel tanks have been topped off.
Using his flashlight, our pilot inspects his bombs' fuses. (Dropping an instant-fused bomb instead of a delayed-action bomb on a low pass over the target could damage or destroy his plane.) He also inspects the external fuel tank.
The plane captain, a Marine sergeant, gets behind the pilot and gives him a boost up into the cockpit. No small part of the flight is the preparation and strapping in of the pilot, aided by the crewman. He stands on the wing outside the cockpit helping adjust the seat and rudder pedals to the pilot's stature. The oxygen mask is stored for ready use, and maps are placed in the case to the pilot's left. The kneepad is strapped to his thigh and the parachute harness is fitted and then tightened.
"Everything okay, sir?" asks the sergeant.
The pilot nods.
"Good luck," the crewman shouts and then drops down off the wing.
He stands by with a fire extinguisher, awaiting the command to start engines. From the bridge comes a familiar, loud public-address command: "Check all tie-downs, chocks, and loose gear about the deck." After a few more seconds comes the order: "Stand by to start engines."
The pilot scans his red-illuminated instrument panel. He turns on the fuel pump, magneto switches, battery switch, and sets the fuel mixture to idle cut-off. Then, "Start engines!" booms down from the bridge. At 0645 the big four-bladed Hamilton-Standard propellers begin to turn, the engines are starting, and light snow swirls across the deck.
Black, noxious clouds of smoke and fumes meanwhile belch from the carrier's four smokestacks as she picks up flank speed and heads straight into the wind. The pilots hold handkerchiefs to their faces to avoid breathing the choking fumes before their takeoff.
At a flashlight signal from the deck handler, the aviators spread and lock their Corsairs' wings. Each pilot then slides out the aircraft check-off list from a shelf to the right of the cockpit panel. Even though he has done this exercise scores of times, he methodically goes down the list. Mistakes are not an option.
Another signal comes from the carrier's PA system, this one ordering the launch of the Bing-Ding's helicopter, known as "Angel" and flown by a Navy pilot. Equipped with a sling, the copter hovers just off the ship's bow to pick up a pilot if he winds up in the sea after a failed takeoff.
As the aircraft engines warm, the bridge makes a radio call to each aircraft to check transmitters and receivers. The four-plane flight leader's call sign is "Scotchman 1." The other planes are in numerical sequence. Our pilot now has a few minutes to try the transfer switch, which pumps gas from his external auxiliary tank to the plane's internal fuel tank. A warning light flickers on the instrument panel and then goes off. That means it works.
Only Navy deck handlers wearing yellow helmets are authorized to give taxi instructions to pilots on the flight deck. Before the Early-Early flights, the handlers can only be seen as blurred beams of swirling light as they point with battery-powered wand flashlights. In the blackness, our pilot slowly taxies his plane into position astride the catapult slot. The plane captain is just inches away from the left wheel, ready to throw a chock in place once it stops.
The catapult appears as nothing more than a two-inch-wide slit in the deck, about 90 feet long. Beneath the plane's engine, a movable lug with a steel cable, called the bridle, attached protrudes from the slot. The ends of the bridle are now fastened to hooks on the Corsair's two main landing-gear struts. A small steel ring is attached to the tail and fastened by a cable to the deck to restrain the aircraft until launch. All this is done by flashlight. The mini-hurricane blast from the whirling propeller makes the bitter cold even colder.
By this point, the carrier has turned into the wind. The catapult lug is inched forward to put tension on the bridle and restraining cable and ring. The pilot lowers the flaps to full-down position and then locks the canopy full open-to escape quickly if the plane goes into the water on takeoff. He glances at the carrier's island, looking 25-feet upward at the officers on the bridge who probably include the ship's captain. It is nearly 0700 now. The flurries are lessening and the first glimmer of dawn contrasts with the black sea.
The catapult officer gives the "number one" engine-turn-up signal. At the "number two" windup, the aviator once more momentarily checks full-throttle operation. The plane is now ready for takeoff.
The pilot makes one last check of the instrument panel. With his right hand he switches on his wing lights—the signal to fire the catapult. His head is firmly against the rear headrest, and the artificial-horizon instrument is his only reference to the plane's flight orientation. The time is 0700.
The tremendous action of the catapult starts to move the Corsair from its stationary position, and the steel ring restraining the tail breaks open, releasing the aircraft, which jumps forward. In 90 feet the plane goes from a standstill to about 98 knots and, as the bridle detaches, flies off the carrier into the blackness. It then drops a few feet as the wheels are pulled up, the flaps remaining down to provide all possible lift. In a few seconds the pilot makes a gentle turn out of the path of the carrier. He then starts a slow, steady climb to the rendezvous area, 4,000 feet ahead and to the left of the carrier. Meanwhile, he closes his canopy. The leader has left his wing lights on so the other pilots can see his plane. It is still dark, but the overcast has lifted to 5,000 feet.
In a matter of minutes, all the remaining planes are hurled into the air by the Badoeng Strait's mighty slingshot. At the rendezvous, the lead plane makes wide left-hand circles until all four planes are in formation. The first gray light of dawn emerges as they head to the North Korean mainland. In a minute or two, the flight is out of sight of the carrier.
The pilots pay attention to their instruments. They also turn on heater switches for the cockpit, the guns, and the all-important pitot tube (the device that registers air speed) as the flight drones over miles of the bleak Yellow Sea toward land. The overcast skies are only slightly brighter than the white-capped sea below. The cloud cover keeps the flight below 5,000 feet.
Soon, familiar landmarks come into sight along the North Korean coast, and visibility and overcast improve in the dim dawn light. The flight climbs to 8,000 feet as it crosses land-feet dry. It is now 0730.
Somber frozen rivers and snow-covered mountains characterize the empty land. Railroad lines, bridges, dirt roadways, and even footpaths are bare. Hundreds of rice paddies are transformed into little ice-jammed ponds. Although no antiaircraft gun emplacements are seen, the fliers well know that they are very likely down there.
The Early-Early flight continues about 90 miles inland, climbing to 12,000 feet as the dawn skies begin to clear. The newborn day is still sunless, with a high, gray overcast. The mission's task is now to find the target—a camouflaged supply area. The flight leader reviews his map for local landmarks. On first approach, the suspected area appears to be no more than a thickly wooded landscape of ridges and valleys. The leader confirms the location from map coordinates and landmarks, including the intersection of ridges and a frozen stream. Semiconcealed buildings are on the far slope of the southernmost ridge.
The flight leader orders the other pilots to orbit while he makes a reconnaissance pass over the target area. His experience flying many missions and hitting many targets pays off. He quickly finds the target, six oblong buildings half-covered with dirt and brush. Climbing to rejoin the flight, the leader identifies the target for the others, giving reference landmarks.
"This is Scotchman 1," he announces over a predesignated tactical channel. "There are the six buildings near the bottom of the ridge, two o'clock off my right wing. I will mark the target by strafing on my bomb run. We will join up ten miles due west from the target at 8,000 feet, in a left-hand orbit."
The four pilots charge their Corsairs' 20-mm cannon. At 0815 the flight leader makes a sweeping left-hand turn and pushes into his dive. Small red bursts blossom up from the ground around the target area as antiaircraft fire erupts. Fortunately, no plane is hit. The three follow the leader at close intervals as he strafes the target during his bomb run.
Then, a big orange flash appears as bombs from the first two planes make direct hits. Number three's bombs fall short. Number four makes another direct hit, completing the destruction of the enemy supply center. As the planes retire from the scene, the target area is smothered in flames and black smoke.
The flight, in formation once again at the appointed location, begins its next task-conducting a reconnaissance patrol. They head in a southwesterly direction along an active enemy supply route. Pyongyang, North Korea's capital, is a short flight to the north, while the Haeju Peninsula is to the south. The pilots search for trucks, supply caravans, railroad cars, or other military targets. At 0815, the flight leader spies a recently repaired bridge overpass.
"Scotchman 3 and 4, orbit this site. Scotchman 2 and I will drop wing bombs on the bridge."
One bomb hits the bridge; the other is a near miss. The span is destroyed. However, as the leader is pulling out of his bomb run, a warning arrives from the carrier's radar control center: "Scotchman flight, we have bandits in the area at 20,000 feet headed south, distance 40 miles."
"This is Scotchman l, roger. Scotchman flight, join up," orders the leader. "Charge your guns."
This can only mean that enemy MiGs are on the way. The Corsairs head south, climbing all the while. Four pairs of eyes scan the sky looking for a sign of the enemy.
"Bandits returning north," comes the next report from the ship's radar center. The flight resumes its patrol. As the four approach a battered town, three enemy trucks partly covered with brush and straw are sighted.
"I am going to fire rockets at the trucks," says the leader. "Follow my run with rocket attacks."
Into another dive, the pilots carefully aim their rockets. The first is fired, and a truck erupts in flame. Another rocket misses its target. The second and third trucks are destroyed by a combination of rockets and 20-mm gunfire. Time and fuel are now both becoming short. The flight is scheduled to land at 0915. At 0845, the Corsairs head back over the Yellow Sea to find their postage-stamp-sized carrier.
The four are now 35 nautical miles north of the carrier. They move into a right echelon formation. Each pilot checks the next plane to make sure that no weapons are hung up, or failed to detach from the plane. They also signal to make certain all guns are in the safe position.
By now the carrier has picked up the aircraft on its radar. "Scotchman 1, your steer is l75 degrees, 29 miles."
"This is Scotchman 1, roger our steer. All checks clean."
The weather has cleared, with a 4,000-foot ceiling around the ship. At 0910 the carrier is in sight. The 0900 morning flight has already been launched, and the deck is cleared to receive the Early-Early back on board. The bridge bellows out a "Prep Charlie" call, meaning the ship is prepared for the landings.
The pilots, however, are not yet through with their mission. Ahead waits landings on a pitching, rolling platform that is barely 200-feet long and 100-feet wide. Fifteen miles north of the carrier, southbound on the same course as the ship, the leader bows his head and the pilots in unison drop their tail hooks and landing gear. The planes descend to 400 feet.
Still in echelon, the formation drops to 150 feet. The Corsairs fly by the carrier, which is now plowing into the wind at top speed. Observers on the bridge check to confirm that wheels, flaps, and hooks are down as the planes pass to the right of the ship's bridge.
When well in front of the carrier, the leader peels off to the left to start his landing pattern. In a few minutes, the others follow with 180-degree turns, heading in the course opposite to the ship's. As the leader makes his second, final 180-degree turn, he approaches in a broad left-hand turn. The plane is now turning onto the same course as the ship, which is pitching in the rough sea. The flight leader has in sight the LSO (landing signal officer) who is on a small square platform that juts out from the left rear corner of the flight deck. He holds brightly colored cloth paddles to give signals—height, speed, and attitude information—to the approaching pilot, and his back is to the gusty, unsteady 30 knots of wind now flowing over the flight deck.
Marine Captain Richard W. "Bunny" Benton of Honolulu, Hawaii, is "waving" (giving signals) for this recovery operation. He is one of three LSOs in the squadron who fly missions when not helping land aircraft.
Our pilot locks his shoulder harness. Two dangers are present in the final approach of the plane, now l00 feet above the sea or about 50 feet above the pitching deck. First, the Corsair, flying just a few knots above its stall speed, could slow too much and spin into the icy water. Second, it could approach too fast and land too long, missing the arresting wires. The plane would crash into a "fence" of thick steel cables erected amidships.
As our pilot nears the carrier, he closes the cowl flaps (small panels on the fuselage behind the engine for cooling). This allows maximum visibility to see the LSO and his crucial signals. Out of the corner of his eye, the pilot sees one paddle drawn across the LSO's chest beneath his throat—the signal for the "cut." The pilot pulls the throttle back, pushes the stick forward to dip the nose, and then pulls it back so that the tail of the plane hits the deck first.
In seconds, the extended tailhook catches one of six elevated arresting wires. The plane decelerates from 90 knots to zero in less than 25 feet.
Immediately, a yellow-helmeted deck handler is off the wing, giving signals to the pilot. Timing is of the essence; the deck area must be cleared in seconds to allow the other planes to land. The handler signals the pilot to release his brakes. The plane rolls back, and the hook is released and restored to its proper position. The cowl flaps are opened. The landing flaps are raised. The tail wheel is unlocked. It is now 0915.
The pilot opens the throttle with a short blast, and picks up taxi signals from another handler. The crash fence is lowered, he taxis forward to the ship's bow, and responding to another signal, folds the plane's wings. The barrier, now behind him, is quickly raised for the next plane, now in its final approach for landing. Only 43 seconds elapsed between the time the Corsair landed and when the carrier is ready for the next plane.
As our pilot's plane is taxied to its parking space, 18 inches from the forward edge of the flight deck, the next plane has already landed and is going through the same routine. The last two planes are close behind.
After landing, the leader shuts off the engine, deplanes, and goes below to be debriefed. Six supply buildings and one road bridge were destroyed. One truck destroyed and two more damaged, he reports. Bandits were reported in the area, but no contacts were made.
Our typical pilot sits down at 0925 with a cup of coffee. His survival suit and most of his clothing will remain on for four more hours. He is scheduled for another launch just after lunch.
Today's "Early Early" is completed. Just a minor part of the history of the Korean War, these missions are flown several times during each carrier's 10-day stint on the line in the Yellow Sea. This kind of flying-from a lone, small, remote carrier-will most likely never be seen again.
Lieutenant Colonel Cooper flew combat missions in World War II and the Korean War. Later, as a newsman in print, radio, and television, he won numerous journalism awards, including two Emmys for news programs. He ended his flight duties as VMA-312's executive officer.
Rescue on the BeachThe call heard through the radio headphones was crystal clear: "I need help. I'm trapped."
At the other end of the broadcast was Marine Captain Timothy Ireland. Restrained by his shoulder harness and lap belt, he was hanging upside down in the cockpit of his F4U-4 Corsair. Unable to see anything but sand, he smelled raw aviation fuel all around him.
High above, Major James L. Cooper, a fellow pilot with Ireland in VMA-312 off the USS Badoeng Strait (CVE-116), heard the plea and reacted immediately.
"I'm going down to get him out," he told his flight as he headed for a tiny mile long by half-mile wide uninhabited island called Chodo, less than a mile from the North Korean coast.
The island, codenamed Bloodstone, was a designated emergency landing area for United Nations aircraft. It had a short arcing beach with bookend high rock outcroppings. Ireland had set down there because he had a hung rocket that could neither be fired nor jettisoned. The carriers had strict rules about aircraft landing with live ordnance—they weren't allowed.
Ireland had to tread a thin line when landing. Close to the water, the sand was hard and compact. Farther away, it was loose, providing little support. His Corsair had made a decent landing but as it slowed it ran into loose sand, which bogged its wheels, causing it to flip onto its back. Ireland was unhurt but completely trapped, his prospects for survival slim. If the leaking gas didn't catch fire and burn him, the rising tide could drown him. He needed help.
Within five minutes of hearing the first call, Cooper, with Ireland's precarious situation visible through his windscreen, landed on the island a bit closer to the water. "I burrowed into the sand to get him out," said Cooper. "I—we—were both wary of the dripping gas." It took about 15 minutes to dig a ditch about two-feet deep and two-feet wide to reach the inverted pilot.
But then Cooper discovered that "We had another problem. He couldn't release his harness. I got out my knife, but it was too dull to cut through the thick webbing. He gave me his and I cut him out." Both crawled out from under the overturned aircraft. Ireland always carried his camera with him when he flew. He recovered it, and the unlikely tourists took snapshots of each other next to the overturned fighter.
After returning to the United States in 1953, Cooper was awarded the Navy-Marine Corps Medal for his rescue. "One thing I've always wondered," Cooper mused, "is what happened to Ireland. We lost contact shortly after we transferred to the Bataan (CVL-29). I often wonder how his life turned out."
-J. M. Caiella