March 22, 1952. I was just 22 years old. Dawn found me on the flight deck of the USS Valley Forge in the Sea of Japan, warming up my Skyraider. As a pilot in Fighter Squadron 194, the "Yellow Devils," I was the standby in case one of the 8 planes scheduled for the morning's flight became inoperative.
Such happened. Charlie Brown's plane lost its hydraulic system and I was launched in his place. This would be my 27th mission bombing North Korea. Today's targets were enemy marshalling yards, railroad tracks and other transportation infrastructure.
On the 9th of my planned 15 bomb runs, at 1200 feet, an enemy anti-aircraft shell exploded in the cockpit. Instinctively, I pulled back on the stick to gain altitude. Then I passed out. When I came to, sometime later, I couldn't see a thing. I was blind.
There was stinging agony in my face and throbbing in my head. I felt for my upper lip. It was almost severed from the rest of my face.
I called out over the radio through my lip mike (which miraculously still worked), "I'm blind! For God's sake, help me! I'm blind."
Lieutenant (jg) Howard Thayer heard the distress call. He saw my Skyraider, still climbing, heading straight towards a heavy overcast at 10,000 feet. If I entered those clouds there would be no hope whatsoever.
He called out, "Plane in trouble, rock your wings. Plane in trouble, rock your wings."
I did so.
Then came the order, "Put your nose down! Put your nose down! Push over. I'm coming up."
I did so.
He climbed and flew alongside my plane and radioed, "This is Thayer this is Thayer! Put your nose down quick! Get it over!"
I complied. Howie Thayer was my roommate on the Valley Forge. Hearing his name and his voice gave me just the psychological boost I needed.
He continued, "You're doing all right. Pull back a little. We can level off now."
According to Thayer's description, the canopy was blown away. My face was a bleeding mess. The areas around the cockpit were a crimson that turned dark and blended with the Navy Blue of the Skyraider as the blood dried in the slipstream. He wondered how I was still alive.
I began to think clearly, in my moments of consciousness and began to try to help myself. I pulled the canopy release to get some air. It didn't work. Then I realized the canopy had been blown away. The last thing I needed was more air. The 200 mile per hour slipstream and unmuffled engine noise made sending and receiving the radio transmissions difficult.
I somehow poured water from my canteen over my face. For a fleeting instant there was a sight of the instrument panel, which disappeared immediately. I was blind.
I radioed, "Get me down, Howie. Get me down"
Per his next transmission, I dropped the rest of my bombs.
Howard kept up a stream of conversation, "We're headed south, Ken. We're heading for Wonsan (a port and prime target on the Sea of Japan). Not too long."
By now my head was throbbing and the blood running down my throat made me want to vomit. I hurt. I was unable to get the morphine from my first aid kit.
"Get me down, Howie!"
"Roger. We're approaching Wonsan now. Get ready to bail out."
To which I replied, "Negative! Negative! Not going to bail out. Get me down."
On my second mission, my wingman's plane was disabled by enemy flak and he was forced to ditch it into the frigid ocean off Wonsan. By the time his plane finished skipping across the water and stopped it was a sheet of ice. He got out of the cockpit and waved. I circled him and radioed for help before returning to the Valley Forge when it looked like everything was okay. Nothing could have been further from the truth.
Due to the numbing cold we wore rubber immersion suits. His was of the first version we were issued. They were unsatisfactory. Only one of the two carbon dioxide cartridges that inflated his life vest worked. He was somehow unable to inflate and get into the rubber life raft he carried. A rescue helicopter, some 5 miles away on Yo-Do Island at the mouth of Wonsan harbor, was inoperative. The two destroyers that usually were shelling near Wonsan were 50 miles north.
Tom Pugh's remains were pulled from the Sea of Japan some 90 minutes after he landed. His immersion suit was half full of water.
I would not bail out. I knew that Howie could get me back behind the front lines into friendly territory or I would die in the attempt. He understood my decision. We turned and headed south.
30 miles behind the front lines, on the coast, was a Marine airfield designated
K-50. This was our destination. Whether I could make it that far was a moot point. I kept drifting in and out of consciousness.
Howard spotted a cruiser shelling enemy positions and knew that this was the bomb line. South of the bomb line was friendly territory.
The conversation continued, "We're at the bomb line, Ken. We'll head for K-50. Hold on, Ken. Can you hear me, Ken? Will head for K-50. Over."
"Can you make it, Ken?"
"Get me down, you miserable bastard, or you'll have to inventory my gear!"
(In case of an aviator's death, a shipmate must inventory his personal belongings before they are shipped home not a welcome chore. Howard and I had designated each other for this function.)
I continued to follow Thayer's directions but my head kept flopping down from time to time. He felt that I probably couldn't have made it to K-50. He was probably right. He decided to get me down right away.
Immediately behind the front lines was a 2000 foot deserted dirt airstrip named "Jersey Bounce" that the Army used from time to time for its light planes that did artillery spotting. Thayer decided to have me land there.
"Ken, we're going down. Push your nose over, drop your right wing. We're approaching 'Jersey Bounce.' Will make a 270 degree turn and set you down"
"Roger, Howie, let's go."
"Left wing down slowly, nose over easy. A little more. Put your landing gear down."
"To hell with that!" was my instantaneous reply. I had seen this field on earlier missions and could picture it in my mind's eye. In such an emergency situation and on such a primitive and short field, it was very much safer to land on my belly.
"Roger, gear up," Thayer concurred.
Upcoming was the most critical part of the flight. One slip would spell disaster.
From his plane, flying 25-50 feet away from mine and duplicating my maneuvers, Howard's voice was cool and confident, "We're heading straight. Flaps down. Hundred yards to the runway. You're 50 feet off the ground. Pull back a little. Easy. Easy. That's good. You're level. You're O.K. You're O.K. Thirty feet off the ground. You're O.K. You're over the runway. Twenty feet. Kill it a little. You're setting down. O.K. O.K. O.K. Cut!"
The shock wasn't nearly as bad as I expected. Some 45 minutes after the shell blew up in my cockpit, the plane hit, lurched momentarily and skidded to a stop in one piece. A perfect landing. No fire. No pain, no strain. The best landing I ever made.
Thayer, elatedly, "You're on the ground, Ken."
(I should mention that most of our transmissions were picked up and recorded on the USS Valley Forge and played back for the crew that night.)
After cutting the switches I clumsily climbed out of the cockpit. Almost immediately an Army Jeep with 2 men came, picked me up, and took me to a shack on the edge of the field. A helicopter picked me up and flew me to the Marine airfield, K-50, where doctors at their field hospital started to patch me up and give me pain killers. They felt I needed much more medical expertise, so a transport plane flew me to Pusan at the tip of South Korea where I was taken aboard the Navy Hospital Ship, USS Consolation. There was immediate surgery. The bandages on my eyes were not removed for several days. I was eventually returned to the United States, to the Navy Hospital in San Diego, from which I was retired due to medical disabilities on August 31, 1952.
Sight was restored to my left eye, but I am still blind in my right eye. My career as a Navy Carrier Pilot was over. My life was not. I am still living on borrowed time and am grateful for each and every day.
Note: by Ken Schecter
This Day in History
Puritans jail Governor Stone after a military victory over Catholic forces in the colony of Maryland.
The Secretary of the Navy approves the first formal uniform of the Marine Corps.
The frigate USS Essex
flies the first U.S. flag in battle in the Pacific.
Secretary of War Edwin Stanton presents the first Medals of Honor to six of the surviving members of Andrews Raiders. They are the first Medals of Honor ever presented.
The Battle of Paducah Kentucky takes place.
Confederate General Robert E. Lee makes Fort Stedman his last attack of the war in a desperate attempt to break out of Petersburg, Virginia. The attack failed, and within a week Lee was evacuating his positions around Petersburg.
The Battle of Bluff Spring Florida takes place.
The Battle of Mobile Alabama takes place.
Japan invades the kingdom of Liuqiu (Ryukyu) Islands, formerly a vassal of China.
Italian troops invade Abyssinia (Ethiopia).