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The fear of war is worse than war itself.-- Seneca
RB-29 Recollections7222 Reads
In late May, 1950, the 31st Recon Sq. conducted an Operational Readiness Test, flying out of Kadena AFB Okinawa. Immediately upon completion of the ORT, most of the squadron’s RB-29s (eight, as I recall) were flown back to the States, to Tinker AFB, OK, for complete overhaul.
By late summer of 1950, after the squadron had been moved to Yakota and then Johnson AFB in Japan, we began to receive the rebuilt RB-29s from Tinker. Our crew (1Lt Earle H. Ambrose, A/C) got one of them (#727, I think). We flew several missions with it and then two more planes arrived from the states after having been overhauled at Tinker. The two RB-29s that arrived (#810 and #815) were assigned to “C” flight, sometimes called the “Cloak and Dagger Flight”, and put under guard. The other two planes in C flight were both ELINT (Electronic Intelligence) recon. #810 and #815 were “special photographic” Our crew was assigned to #810. Due to the need for top secret security clearances for the crews. The same crews always flew these two planes. Along with the aircraft, a civilian tech rep came along to train us on the “special photographic equipment” This turned out to be a K-30 aerial camera with a focal length of 100 inches, and taking a 9x18 inch picture. The camera had been designed for B-36 use and was much too large to fit in the normal camera compartment of an RB-29. Consequently, a floor had been built into the forward bomb-bay and the camera mounted there. It lay on its side and shot out the left side of the aircraft through a camera port pointing out under number two engine. The location in the bomb-bay required the photographer to ride in the unpressurized (and unheated) bomb-bay, using an oxygen mask and heated flying suit. Our lead photographer, SSgt Curtis Franks, took on the job and I, as 2nd photo, was to man the viewfinder in the rear compartment. The view-finder was a converted K-18 camera fitted with a ground glass on the focal plane (Where the film would normally be). I was to get the interval for proper overlap of the photos and also guide the pilot for proper aiming. We flew several training flights, developing methods (This had never been done before) with the tech rep assisting in training of the camera operations. Franks and I took turns riding the bomb-bay so that we were both qualified to operate the camera. We finally got everything down pretty good and were getting beautiful pictures. Then, the proverbial stuff hit the fan. In early November of 1950, one of our planes (#461813) was jumped by Mig-15s while taking pictures of Yalu River bridges. The Migs had never entered Korea until then. The tail-gunner, Sgt Harry Lavene, shot down one of the Migs, but the plane had both engines on the left side shot out. They made it all the way back to Johnson AFB on two engines, but on final approach, the left wing stalled and it went in. Everyone in the forward compartment was killed, except Harry Lavene who had been up front for the expected crash landing! Our crew was immediately alerted to fly the first combat mission with 810 and the monster camera. We would go up to the Yalu and shoot pictures across the river at Antung airfield where the Migs were based. At briefing, we were told: “No sweat, you’re going to have a fighter escort when you get up there.” We met our escort just north of Seoul: Three P-51s! We were to have a major setback at this point. When we got to high altitude and started leaving contrails, the contrails totally obscured the view-finder in the rear compartment. I couldn’t see a thing. We had never left contrails on any of our practice flights so were not aware of the problem. With some good guesswork by Sgt Franks in the bomb-bay to set the interval, and some superb flying by Lt. Ambrose, we got the pictures just before being jumped by Mig-15s (The left scanner had watched them with binoculars all the way from take-off). The P-51 pilots also did a superb job of flying. They attacked the Migs head on and kept them busy while we peeled off and headed for the Yellow Sea. A high speed dive and some evasive action got us away safely. (Although later Lt. Ambrose was kidded about having the only B-29 with swept-back wings from exceeding the max airspeed red-line) We made later runs up “Mig-Alley”, but by then, we had F-86s for escorts. We overcame the problem of the contrails by designing a gun-sight sort of view finder in the aircraft commander’s left cockpit window. He could then align the wings for a proper shot by the K-30 in the bomb-bay. The idea was that most of our missions would be flying along coastlines and the pilot could keep the coast in proper alignment with the jury-rigged sight. Our crew went on to fly many successful missions in 810. The contrail problem occurred infrequently, so everything worked well. We photographed practically every mile of coastline from Hong Kong to Port Arthur. And from Vladivostok up to Kamchatka and back. We were frequently intercepted by fighters, Mig-15s, along the Chinese coast (We once got a good K-30 shot of one flying about a mile off our wing) and Soviet prop-driven Yak-9s and LA-5s up north of Japan. We managed to get away in every case. Our crew returned to the States in late April, 1951 as the first to be rotated. We were scheduled to be assigned to the 5th Recon wing at Travis AFB CA. That was fine with me, my home-town was forty miles to the west, in Petaluma. When we got back from a thirty day leave in May we learned our orders had been changed to the 111th Recon Wing at Spokane, Washington. When we got to Spokane, we learned several interesting things: 1) The Wing Commander, Col. Edward D. Edwards, had (as a LtCol) been the Squadron Commander of the 31st and 91st Recon. 2) The 111th had absolutely no airplanes. 3) The 111th was a Pennsylvania Air National Guard unit recently activated, and previously a Light Bomb Group equipped with B-26s. Their B-26s had been taken away and sent to Korea. 4) Col Edwards had learned that some of his old 91st crews were back and had them sent to Spokane. We were soon joined by another 91st crew, (of the famous “Tiger Lil” #4000) and two returning crews from the 19th Bomb Group of Guam and Okinawa. The four experienced crews would train the 111th as a recon wing. Each of the other three crews were assigned to different squadrons as lead/standboard crews and our crew was made Wing Standardization Board crew. During the rest of 1951 we scrounged RB-29s from units that had converted to B-36s and trained the 111th National Guard crews in B-29s. We also got a few crews from the Randolph AFB Crew Training Center. Finally, in late 1951 we declared the first crew “Combat Ready” and they were alerted for shipment to the 91st Recon in Japan. This was the crew that ultimately was shot down in 1952. I knew all of them personally, we had trained them and flown with them. Maj. Busch, the A/C, was (I believe) from the PennANG. In fact I think he may have been the Operations Officer. Others, such as Msgt Homer had flown with us. Homer was our flight engineer for several months. I had known Danny Pillsbury, the photographer, on Okinawa. Pillsbury was in the 31st Recon when I got there in 1949 and he went back to the States for discharge shortly after. When the war started he re-enlisted and ended up at the 111th. As I recall, Danny volunteered to replace another photographer because he wanted to go back to the Far East. I have a feeling that Lt. Jim Scully had been in the 91st also, but my memory is a little hazy there. I believe that the majority of the crew had been with the PennANG. I got discharged at Fairchild AFB (it had been named that while I was there) in Spokane in Feb. 1952. I went home to California, but after a month re-enlisted at Hamilton AFB. In late June of 1952, I got a letter from a friend in the 111th telling me about the crew that had been shot down. The friend mentioned that they had been flying 810, so I knew it was probably the Soviets that had done it. According to my friend, a search had been made and some empty life rafts spotted, but that was all. Although I never went back on flying status, (Col Edwards tried to recruit me as a refueling boom operator at March AFB in 1957 (I passed on that). I was remotely involved in many “Ferret” flights in the years after. I spent twelve years in AF Security Service, ten years of it in Europe - England, Scotland, Germany, and Crete. I had access to classified reports concerning “incidents” and shoot-downs and was aware of some of the actions of the 91st Recon. That’s what I remember about those times. Although my memory may be a little hazy on some things, like people’s names, the events are extremely clear. As I sat here writing this, it suddenly occurred to me that it was fifty years ago - almost to the day - that I stood on the flight line at Johnson AFB and watched one of our planes circle the field at a low altitude. The two left engines had feathered props, and a huge V shaped chunk was torn out of the trailing edge of the left wing. “They’re going to bail the crew out,” I thought. “A B-29 won’t fly with two engines out on one side. How the hell did they get it back?” But then they made an approach and lowered the gear and flaps. As they neared the runway on final approach, I heard someone yell, “Damn! They’re gonna make it!” No sooner had he said it, than the airplane seemed to stagger and then fell off on the left wing. In what seemed like slow motion it rolled about ninety degrees and hit the ground just off the end of the runway. A huge cloud of smoke erupted as crash crews raced to put out the fire. The entire front of the plane was rolled up in a ball, but the aft section of the fuselage had broken off just behind the wing and ridden up over the wreckage. Below are some miscellaneous missions, projects, and experiments. In the early days of the Korean War, it was soon apparent that aeronautical charts were woefully inadequate. So, add some additional missions for the 91st. We would map the entire Korean Peninsula from the 38th parallel to the northern border with Manchuria. The area south of the 38th would be done by a detachment of the 3rd Photo Mapping Squadron, based at Clark AFB, Philippines. When the lone airplane arrived from the Philippines to help us, we couldn’t believe it. A B-17 - Complete with an upper forward gun-turret, tail guns, and waist guns all in place. I doubt if there are that many people who know that at least one B-17 flew combat missions in Korea. Normally, our squadron flew at least two sorties a day: One up the west coast of Korea and one up the east coast. We photographed rail yards, airfields, and other military targets. After a while, I think the Korean AA gunners got wise. They knew that over Pyongyang, for example, there would be an RB-29 coming over at around eleven-thirty in the morning, at 12,000 feet. Every day. The west coast run had the most AA, at Kimpo, Seoul, Pyongyang was especially bad, and on up to Sinanju. The east coast was a little easier, with really bad flak at Wonsan, but not much else. So, in addition to these two sorties every day we would now send an additional plane up for photo-mapping. As always, the 91st did a great job, and in a matter of weeks the entire country had been mapped. One of the tasks our crew was assigned, in the fall of 1950, was night photography. This was done by dropping photo-flash bombs, each containing 65 pounds of powdered magnesium. The camera used was a K-19, specifically designed for night operation. A photo-electric cell pointed out the bottom of the airplane picked up the flash when a bomb went off and tripped the camera. The bomb had to go off at a precise location in relation to the airplane: one-third the altitude of the plane, and just out of the cone of coverage of the camera. If it was too far behind, the pictures would be too dark. If it was too close, there would be a huge flare in the photo. To control the trajectory of the bomb, we placed small metal plates, called trail plates, on the rear of the fins of the bomb. By varying the width of those plates, the bomb could be slowed to the proper position. The altitude of the burst was controlled by a timer fuse in the nose of the bomb. We flew a couple of practice runs over Japan to get the procedures down. I think we probably scared the tofu out of lot of Japanese, blasting them with huge flashbulbs in the sky. We flew several night missions over Korea, and then no more. I don’t know whether the results didn’t meet their requirements, or what. I do know we got good pictures. Another interesting thing we were tasked with was radio transmission of photos while still over the target area. A captain from Wright-Patterson flew with us to test the theory. The idea was, a photo would be taken of a target using single sheets of film. The film was then developed in an on-board darkbag holding the chemicals. Then, after a very quick drying of the film it was passed to the radio operator’s position where a modified wire-photo machine had been set up. The film would be wrapped around the drum and transmitted back to wherever by radio instead of telephone line. The only trouble was, we had to use high frequency radio, VHF wouldn’t carry far enough. And HF was subject to static, which caused very funny looking pictures to be produced. The captain disappeared, presumably back to Wright-Pat. And we didn’t hear any more about it. Oh well. Seemed like a good idea at the time.
Note: by William F. (Bill) Welch, 31st and 91st SRS.
Re: RB-29 Recollections
on Jul 15, 2002
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1972: The North Vietnamese offensive continues as Fire Base Bastogne, 20 miles west of Hue, falls to the communists. Fire Base Birmingham, 4 miles to the east, was also under heavy attack.