In the summer of 1950, I had just completed electronics school in Memphis, TN. I was ordered to Geiger counter school in San Diego, CA. Upon arrival in San Diego, we noticed a high degree of alert and activity at the base. I soon learned of the Korean War and how it would change my life.
In a few short months, the USS Princeton CV-37 was taken out of mothballs, filled with ship's company reserves and headed for the Pacific. The 19th Air Group (the only regular Navy air group on the West Coast) was assigned to that ship as part of Task Force 77. Because of the success of the South Koreans and their allies, we looked forward to a leisurely training cruise to Hawaii. Our plans were to spend ten days at Pearl Harbor. Wrong!
Two days later, we were on the high seas, planes groomed for action, flight deck crews readied, and magazines loaded with bombs. We stopped at Sasebo for fuel only - then on to Korea. On December 1, 1950, in Sasebo Harbor I spent my 21st birthday with the unique pungent smell of Japan.
Our first assignment was to give the Marines at Chosin Reservoir all the close air support that they needed. Slowly they made the march from the Reservoir trap through Hagaru-ri, Koto-ri, Hamhung and finally down to the transports at Hungnam. I found out later that this was one of the greatest moments in Marine history as they fought their way through enormous odds, out numbered 10 to 1. Most of the Marines had frozen feet or frozen fingers. The Navy had destroyers, cruisers, and battleships supplying full armament support . Then after evacuation they blew up the Hungnam Harbor. The survivors of that battle are known as "The Chosen Few". At a barbecue, years later in North Texas, I met survivors and they remembered the numbers and markings of my squadron¹s Corsairs. It was a thrill for me to meet with these heroes. Air Group 19 lost 51 planes and 15 pilots in close to 6,000 sorties but we had warm bunks and no one shooting at us. The Army and the Marines took the brunt of blows from the Communist North. Soon after, we were given 10 days of rest and relaxation in Sasebo. We stopped for a beer on the base at the service center. As we left the base, we met a guy we called "Tokyo Joe" as he was always just outside the base hawking his products in broken English. We were soon to find out that you could have a huge liberty for under $2.00 - anything you needed - for the prices in post-war Japan were great. After walking a few blocks to downtown Sasebo, I was to get my first insight into how different the Japanese were from Americans - a rickshaw with two very loud and very drunk Marine were yelling "hubba hubba". They quickly told the rickshaw driver (in Japanese) to turn left at an intersection and the rickshaw smashed into a small elderly black-robed woman with a cane and San Pan hat, knocking her about three feet in the air. There were at least 150 civilians at that intersection and no one helped that little old lady. She got up, shook herself off and proceeded about her business. Human life at that time had no value to the Japanese. What a change from the protected life I had known near Philadelphia.
Our first strike catapulted our squadron commander into the water. LCDR Clem Craig, later recalled seeing the propellers of the mighty Sweet Pea from under the ship. We knew they were there, but this was our first time a witness verified that they worked. Commander Craig was given a pint of whiskey to bring his temperature up after being rescued from the bitter cold water. We were never told who supplied the whiskey. Those destroyers were able to do many things that the larger ships did not allow.
Our group rapidly got the reputation for destroying bridges. We were known as the "bridge busters". Cutting the supply lines, destroying tunnels and close air support were out main functions. The crew of the mighty Sweet Pea won many honors for replenishment and refueling records.
· First Jet Photo unit.
· First Group to start organized Bridge-busting campaign.
· First Carrier Jet squadron to drop bombs in combat.
· First AD Squadron to drop torpedoes.
· First Group to attempt tunnel- busting.
· First Team from Organized VA[N] Squadron.
On December 24, 1950, I lost a friend - Ensign H. V. Scarsheim. He had broken a wire in his helmet on an air strike the day before. I was soldering his helmet when my Chief Petty Officer informed me that we had lost "Scar" in that day¹s sortie. When you lose a friend, it really makes you understand how important the things you have been trained to do are and how they fit into the overall plan.
My job was to check with the pilot as soon as he landed to find out if all his electronic equipment was working well. I watched many planes crash into gun mounts and was witness to many things that can happen on the dangerous deck of a carrier. With as many as 70 planes with spinning props, deck heaving in severe weather, I still am in awe that we had as few accidents as we did. One day we had all but one plane down safely. The one plane had a 265-pound frag bomb that couldn't be released at sea. When making the approach, the pilot took a wave-off and gunned his engine at the last moment. That jarred the bomb lose. I was standing at mid-ship and it looked like the bomb was coming down my throat. I dived for a ladder and luckily for me, I was third to reach it or I would have broken both arms. The bomb's propeller did not have enough rotations to alarm it and two brave ordinance men removed it from its nose-first position in the wooden deck and dropped it overboard.
Our first liberty in Yokosuka, Bob Klaus (a friend from my hometown in Norristown, PA) decided to walk from downtown and see some of the country. We came upon a small school with hundreds of children all dressed in black uniforms coming out of the school. They evidently had an English lesson that day and when I said "hello" every one of those kids said "hello". The hills rang with broken-English "hellos". That evening we found a dance hall and in short order we were jitterbugging with new friends to country music. They really loved the country and western music and it was hilarious to hear them try to sing the words.
Because of the years of sacrifice and war, very few homes were painted in Japan. Blankets were used to create walls. One room had a hole in the floor, as there was no indoor plumbing. Normally they had a huge pot for cooking and the women could not eat until the men finished. In Tokyo, I saw the famous police with pure white gloves directing traffic - mostly bicycles and steam engine taxis and rickshaws. The only modern advancement were their high speed trains.
In the spring of 1951, my air group was asked to burst the Hwachon Dam to help the Eighth Army. High level bombing had no effect, 2000-bombs were unsuccessful, so the next day we were able to burst the dam with AD dive bombers dropping torpedoes bursting the dam and providing a barrier between the advancing Red Army and our Eighth Army. This story got a lot of press back home.
I remember being in a teahouse in Yokahama when President Truman fired General MacArthur and replaced him with General Ridgeway. There was mixed emotions among the Japanese about this change, about 50 % were for it and about 50% against it. It took me about 30 minutes to find someone who spoke enough English that I could understand what had taken place. Sometime later in early summer, our relief squadron arrived and we were able to return home to the USA.
Note: by Ed Buckman, VF-193, USS Princeton Task Force 77
This Day in History
Joan of Arc leads French forces to victory over English at Orleans.
The Chinese Ming dynasty occupies Taiwan.
Austrian troops invade Piedmont.
Union troops officially take possession of New Orleans, completing the occupation that had begun four days earlier.
Americas WWI Ace of Aces, Eddie Rickenbacker, scores his first victory with the help of Captain James Norman Hall.
The German Army in Italy surrenders unconditionally to the Allies.
U.S. and South Vietnamese forces launch a limited "incursion" into Cambodia. The campaign included 13 major ground operations to clear North Vietnamese sanctuaries 20 miles inside the Cambodian border.
Operation Frequent Wind, the largest helicopter evacuation on record, begins removing the last Americans from Saigon.