Did you know the 581st had a helicopter flight in Korea during the unpleasantness? Betcha didn't! Not many of you know that. In fact, when Larry Barrett attended the 1994 Reunion, many people told him they had no idea that the 581st actually had helicopters in theater for about seven months, in combat for about six months before the SA-16's came to K-16. Maybe it is time to tell that story.
We had a strange mission or perhaps I should say, all sorts of strange missions. Our primary mission of course was PsyWar, although to be honest I do not think any of us at the time thought of what we were doing as waging psychological warfare. We certainly were aware we were dealing with some pretty strange people, but I don't think I personally ever equated putting spooks ashore with PsyWar as such. But then, what would one expect from the only Second Lieutenant in the outfit, a brand new helicopter pilot at that!
Secondly, we supported 3rd Air Rescue. When they needed help, either helicopters or crews, 5th Air Force tasked us. We spent a lot of time in that capacity. After that, we did a lot of cat and dog, ash and trash mission for the 5th Air Force, and even for the 7th Fleet.
Some of the SA-16 people met us when they moved up to K-16 in around April or May 1953, but by and large, the unit was still a mystery. My name is Bob Sullivan, and I was the token Second Lieutenant in the original group of six pilots. Four helicopters, six pilots, one NCO and twelve enlisted men directly out of Tech School at Sheppard. That was the total organization, and that combination should scare the hell out of almost any thinking person! 5 Oct 52 was the date we pilots arrived in Korea. We asked where the 581st was, and people looked at us and said, "581st what? There's no such outfit in Korea!" Now, that's the 5th Air Force talking! Our new bosses. I think everyone was underwhelmed by that answer!
The airmen arrived a few weeks before we did. No one knew what to do with them, so Air Rescue put them to work. It is a good thing someone remembered where those guys went for we had to go recapture them! Finally someone at 5th Air Force said we were the guys with the four helicopters. That was news to us. We had no helicopters, no tools, no people, no housing, no supplies, no weapons and without 3rd Air Rescue's generosity, no place to even sleep or eat. A b-4 bag each and the clothes on our backs were our only possessions at that point. To the 3rd Air Rescue Group, we looked, acted, and smelled like replacements, but they could not understand how we got there without coming through the Air Rescue Service's pipeline.
Frank Westerman, our senior man, a Captain, got on the phone, and things started coming together. How that man did that amazed me, but then, when you are a Second Lieutenant, lots of things amaze you! Pretty soon, a very few days after our arrival, Koreans started putting up additional tenting next to Air Rescue; it looked like "Rescue City" just grew suburbs. Then they went out in the field behind the tents and put in four PSP pads, which got us sort of excited thinking that we might eventually get helicopters to fill them. We spent the next thirty days or so, living with the 3rd, as regards our basic needs, like food and such, and counting and storing all the goodies that seemed to appear like magic. When we found out that we were, in fact, the 581st's helicopter flight, all of it, and that we were not going to get any more people, Frank decided it was organization time.
There were jobs that had to be done, and people had to fill the spaces that would make them happen. Since Frank Westerman was our senior rank, he obviously was the Commander. Joe E. Barrett, another Captain, and a long time helicopter pilot would be the Operations Officer, since he had more experience than the rest of us put together. Frank M. Fabijan had some supply experience, voila! a Supply Officer. I had an A&P Mechanics certificate, and had been the Assistant Maintenance Officer in a C-82 outfit from which I escaped by going to helicopter school. With a stroke of Frank's pen we had a maintenance type. Lawrence A. Barrett suddenly became the Adjutant. I am not sure what Rut Garnett drew, but we were in business. Sergeant Jackabowski had been a ground school instructor on H-13's in the Army program at Gary AFB, San Marcos, Texas and he suddenly became the Line Chief, which is pretty damn heady progression when you stop and think about it. Now that we knew who we were, the next thing was to find out what we were.
No one knew where the helicopters were. Someone at 5th Air
Force remembered something about helicopters in crates over at
Kissararzu, and got on the phone. There they were, four brand
new H-19A's right out of the factory, and we think shipped via
Mountain Home AFB to Japan. We were reasonably sure that we were
due for some Air Rescue cast-offs, and that news surely brightened
our future. As quickly as Frank could get some orders, we were
off to "Kiss", and ferried the birds to K-16. Since
we were destined to spend a lot of time over water, that little
jaunt was a nice warm-up.
The organizational set-up seemed to leave a good bit lacking. We were attached somehow to the 3rd Air Rescue Group, in that they provided our food and we used their mail system. Our "suburb" had been built adjacent to all their facilities, so we had showers, barber shops and all the "nice" things in life readily available. We were attached to the 6167th Air Base Group for personnel/finance/administrative support, and I guess, operational control. Our goodies coming through the supply system came direct, once we managed to convince everyone that there really was such an outfit living over on the far side of the Base, alongside Air Rescue. As Colonel Mike Haas says in his new book, "if anyone noticed that four helicopters sitting over there did not have Rescue markings on them, we were fully prepared to tell people we were some rinky-dink trash hauling outfit." Indeed, we had painted out the Rescue markings, I think, at the request of the Air Rescue Commander.
Our missions were fragged through "B" Flight of the 6167th, usually. A few we got directly from 5th Air Force. As openers we went down to Chinhae (K-10) and placed a radio relay outfit atop the mountain at the North end of the runway. Seeing that no one had any prior experience with sling loads, it was sort of like the blind leading the blind for the first couple of hours, but we figured it out and all went well.
We put our first "people" ashore in North Korea on, I think, 27 Dec 52. We flew off Cho-do and put these folks in well above Chinnampo on the mud flats. We flew North angling slightly away from the beach until we were well off shore, then turned West and finally Southeast and went back to Cho-do. This route was flown right down on the water, without benefit of radar, radar altimeters or anything else, except for an altimeter setting at Cho-do and the M-1 eyeball. I personally dragged my nose gear in the water on one of the missions, causing a nose down pitching motion, which of course caused major heart palpitations, and an extremely tight grip on the seat cushion! Others bounced off the mud flats on occasion. If those missions were nothing else, they sure were interesting! One night when Frank Fabijan was out doing his bit for chaos, and said you could see the flares fired by the coast- watchers as they thought they detected something up and down the coast.
Joe Barrett and Frank Fabijan picked a Marine Major named Cleeland off the ice on the Haiju reservoir in a big daylight shootout. Frank Westerman and Larry Barrett went inland to the MSR and grabbed a chap named Cottrell, who was in deep serious trouble at the time; another shoot-out. Don Crabb (Garnett's replacement) and I pulled Joe McConnell out of the water North of Cho-do after he shot down his eighth MIG and was downed in turn. These were all in support of Air Rescue, and were all prosecuted in daylight. Frank Westerman and I went to 26 miles South of Antung at night, straight line over water, from Cho-do, and then inland in a vain attempt to locate an evadee. That was the deepest helicopter penetration of the war, according to 5th Air Force. That one happened to be our own mission. One of Air Rescue's SA-16 crews flew navigation for us on that mission at about 100 feet off the water, and then stayed up there with us until we came back out off-shore. Man, that crew was good!
All in all, we, six of us, put roughly one thousand hours on four H-19s. We did both the ARC mission, and the Air Rescue mission, having never refused a single one. We earned a bunch of decorations, took our share of battle damage, yet never, as long as combat missions were flown in that theater, had an accident, a combat loss or a fatality. Not too shabby for a bunch of beginners, Huh?
Reprint from the January 1995 issue of the ARC Light
After completing A&E school and Helicopter Maintenance school, I was assigned to Mountain Home AFB. On arrival in 1951, the line chief told me that there weren't any helicopter and I might as well forget about them. I was sent TDY to Elgin AFB in Florida to become part of the maintenance crew on a B-29 assigned to the 581st. The B-29 was being used for tests to determine the feasibility of picking up personnel during flight.
When I got back to Mt. Home, the helicopter mechanics were all working on B-29s and some had changed their AFSC to regular aircraft mechanics to get on with their careers as bomber mechanics.
Later, the squadron was informed that everyone would soon be shipping overseas. None of the nine helicopter mechanics received any travel instructions that were different from the rest of the squadron. Some of the squadron personnel flew to the Philippines with the B-29s but the rest of us took bus transportation from Mt. Home to Camp Stoneman for processing.
After processing at Stoneman we bussed to Oakland where we boarded a ferry that took us to the USS William Wiegel in San Francisco. We shared the transport with 8,000 army troops.
Those that boarded the USS Wiegel in San Francisco got to the Philippines with the exception of one army guy who was killed while we were docked in Pearl Harbor. He was shot on board by someone who was upset over a poker game.
The Wiegel arrived in the Philippines after a short stay in Pearl Harbor. When the ship anchored, all airmen were informed by loud speaker to line up on the deck and to disembark as their name was called. It was quite a gathering. We helicopter mechanics waited as all of the other Air Force personnel were called and departed.
When our names weren't called, we tried to get permission to go ashore but those in charge kept us on deck. Someone contacted the Captain of the ship for a decision, and he passed back the edict that no one could get off without orders. So, we stayed with the ship and wondered what the hell....
That left nine enlisted airmen and 8,000 army personnel on the troop ship. The only word to where we might go came from one of the deck hands. We were going to Yokohama.
Some days later, the same procedure took place in Yokohama. Per the loud speaker, we lined up on the deck with the 8,000 army men and waited for our names to be called to no avail. The ship stayed in Yokohama for several days and finally one of the ship's officers got permission for us to go ashore for one day. Then, the army loaded combat troops on the ship and the troops told us we were heading for Korea. Thirty days after boarding the Wiegel, we arrived in Inchon.
Same deal in Inchon harbor. The troops got off one name at a time and we were left standing on the deck again. This time the Captain of the Wiegel came down personally to give us an eyeballing. He questioned us all and shook his head. Then he made a profound statement, "You have to get off here because we are going back to the States." He then put the ranking A2c in charge and told us to report to the Port Commander. We climbed down the webbing on the side of the ship and made our John Wayne landing all the while asking each other what is a Port Commander? We felt very naked as all of the army personnel had gone ashore with their weapons at the ready.
Inchon was a bundle of dusty activity with troops, refugees, kids looking for any kind of handout, and troop carriers and ambulances moving about with MPs directing traffic. We found our way to the Port Commander but he had more to worry about than nine lost airmen. We waited until hunger made us think about trying again the next day. We found food and shelter with the army with no questions asked.
The next day, some naval assistant to the Port Commander gave an audience to the A2c in charge. He couldn't believe we got where we were without more official documents. The only question he asked, "What are your specialties?" He accepted that we were helicopter mechanics and told us to come back the next day.
When we reported back, he told us he had called around and found a helicopter outfit at K-16 and that he had arranged to get us a ride there by truck. It seemed to me it was about 60 miles away.
We arrived at K-16 and sure enough there was a helicopter outfit by the name of 3rd Air Rescue, Detachment 1. In other words, we were to be adopted by bigger and better organized orphans. We reported to the First Sergeant and listened to his displeasure at irregularities but he treated us right by finding us quarters and putting us to work on the helicopters.
The Third Air Rescue was supporting a MASH Organization called 8055th. Their helicopters picked up the wounded in the field and transported them to the rear or to a hospital ship off the coast. They also picked up any airmen that crashed or bailed out in North or South Korea. I really think the folks that prepared the sets for filming the MASH series on TV must have been a part of the 8055th organization because of the look alike backgrounds, props and jargon.
I believe that all nine of us were glad to be part of the 3rd Air Rescue because there was a serious need of work to be done. Once we settled in, we became for all practical purposes members of the existing organization.
Several months later, it became apparent that there was no way for us to be promoted because we really were orphans. So, being of a mind set that I didn't really want to spend the rest of my time in the USAF as an A3c, I wrote letters saying as much to the 581st in the Philippines that were addressed to my old CO, the Maintenance Officer and the First Sergeant.
Nothing changed for about a month and then one day a 2nd Lieutenant showed up from Clark AFB and said he was glad that I wrote to someone because we had been listed as AWOL. The good news he brought was that we were scheduled to receive four helicopters and six pilots in the near future. By the time they got there, I wasn't sure I really wanted to go back to being a member of such a mixed up outfit.
Once the pilots arrived, we got organized and things worked out. The original nine mechanics were replaced and rotated back to the U.S. when their year's tour was up.
Years later, during a job interview with IBM, some impertinent type, who enjoyed turning the screws, asked why I left the Air Force after four years with such a low rank. I told him that I did very well considering I was a misplaced helicopter mechanic on TDY, lost or classified as AWOL for nearly three years.
Actually, I wouldn't change anything if given a choice.
Reprint from the January 1997 issue of the ARC Light
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Revised: 9 Apr 03