I was stationed at Kunsan AFB in South Korea with the 16th Tactical Fighter Squadron when the Mash Movie was released. We, of course, got one of the first releases (Not). We watched it on a bed sheet hung on the side of a Wonder Arch.
This was in 1970 with the US still reeling from the North Korean capture of the USS Pueblo and their shooting down of a USAF EC-121 in 1969. Tensions between North and South Korea were at an all time high with near constant provocations on both sides.
My squadron’s job was to react quickly to N. Korea provocations which at that time consisted mainly of some shelling of offshore islands and frequent dashes by N Korean jets south toward the demilitarized zone. Although Kunsan is about half-way down the Korean peninsula on the west coast, we rotated flights of four F4E’s up to Osan AFB, which is just 48 miles from North Korea. There, we pulled week-long stints on five-minute alert living in small, unprotected trailers. Our aircraft had it better, each safely tucked away in a concrete Wonder Arch designed to withstand a 1000 pound bomb hit.
Although it was called “five-minute alert,” that meant we had to get out of our hooches, run to the right arch, strap-in and start to taxi within five minutes. We then had a max of five more minutes to actually get airborne and head directly toward the N Korean aircraft which had triggered the alert. Occasionally, when things were really tense, we pulled strip alert, which meant we waited strapped in our aircraft near the runway so that we could get airborne within five minutes.
We were playing a high-tech game of chicken, each rushing at high-speed toward the DMZ and each other, armed and fully loaded with Aim 7s and Aim 9s air to air missiles as well as our 20mm Vulcan rotary cannon. I was in the back seat, working as weapon systems officer and busy trying to find the N Koreans on my radar, lock them up and get ready for missile firing if they actually penetrated the DMZ buffer zone. I knew that there was a N Korean doing the same thing in his aircraft, trying to lock on to me. Sometime we both broke off quickly; other times we came very close to firing our missiles. I tended to break out in a cold sweat after each one of these run-ins.
Between alerts, we constantly flew training missions near the DMZ. There was one, still famous, South Korean bombing range less than a mile from the southern edge of the DMZ. It was and still is called “Nightmare Range.” For weapons training, we usually took off north from Kunsan, turned south, then east to Pusan and north to Sokcho before turning west and hitting our IP for the run-in to Nightmare. We followed a low-level route (500 to 1000 feet above ground level) at 500 MPH around the peninsula, trying to prevent the North from seeing us until we popped up on their radar heading north toward the DMZ. On some missions. we dropped practice nukes; on others, we dropped live munitions.
I remember one mission from that deployment vividly.
It was a live fire, night bombing mission on a very small, uninhabited island about 10 miles off the west coast of South Korea and only a mile or so south of the disputed boundary around islands claimed by both North and South Korea. (An inhabited island near it was shelled by North Korea last year, killing several South Koreans.) Night missions are always either fun or terrifying; take your pick. I remember my first night training mission back in the states. My front-seater (Mike Francisco was not yet assigned to the 16th) was a crusty, ‘old’ veteran who had flown P-51s in WWII and F-86s during the Korean war, now getting combat ready in the F4E. During the pre-flight briefing, he casually said: “I hate night missions. Even when I open my eyes, it’s still dark.”
On this night mission with Cisco in my front seat, it really would be dark, for it was a moonless night with an overcast, clouds supposedly beginning about 15,000 feet. I don’t know if you have seen any of the recent satellite photos of nighttime North Korea. There are no lights. The country is dark. Back in 1970, it was even worse and the coast of South Korea was almost as dark. To remedy that, each of the four aircraft in our flight carried a pod of flares in addition to our bombs. We would take turns dropping a flare over the island so that the other three aircraft could see the target and make their bombing runs.
When we arrived at our IP for the 20 mile run-in to the target, Cisco and I assumed the lead of the flight as we were #2, the flight lead’s wingman, and thus the first to light up the target. The other three aircraft dropped back in trail position with about a mile separation. Each had a visual on the aircraft in front, except of course us in the lead.
But we soon hit lower clouds and haze that totally obscured the target area, so that my radar tracking of the target gave us our only way to find the right drop point for the flare. Conditions were so bad, the flight lead probably should have scrubbed the mission, but we all wanted to drop bombs so close to the North, and we pressed on. Trusting my directions, Cisco began his pull up to get to the roll-in altitude, and we were immediately in the dark clouds, no lights, no stars, no moon, no way to establish a visual horizon. Cisco quickly switched to instrument flying, as he should have. We hit 14, 000, and rolled in for a drop at 4000 feet. Neither of us could see anything outside the cockpit. Total darkness until we dropped the flare and it lit up the target. We were below the cloud deck for a few seconds as Cisco pulled up the nose and held four G left turn until our descent stopped and we began a climb back up to 14.
One thing I forgot to mention is that our drop heading was due north, and our pull-out had to include a tight left turn to avoid actually entering North Korean airspace, which could get us shot down very quickly. Pulling G’s and turning your head can play hell with your mind when you do not have visual cues to the horizon. You have to trust your instruments and not the seat of your pants. And that’s just what Cisco did on the first drop.
On our pullout from our second flare drop, things seemed smooth and normal at first. I too was looking at my instruments in the back seat after we entered the low cloud deck, especially the attitude indicator, out primary reference. Suddenly, my seat bottom felt wrong; I felt as if we were still in a hard rolling turn when we should have been wings level and pulling up. My attitude indicator agreed with my seat pants, as did a couple of other back-up instruments I quickly scanned. I bit my tongue trusting that Cisco knew what he was doing. But soon we were nearly upside down, nose down about 30 degrees and heading quickly for the ocean.
“Cisco! We’re upside down and going down fast!” I yelled into the intercom. I got back a “Shit! My ADI’s rolled!” I knew then that Cisco was severely disoriented due to the loss of his ADI and the lack of a real horizon for an extended period of time. As soon as he realized his ADI rolled, I have no doubt that he could have safely recovered the aircraft using the secondary instruments, though it might have been a close thing.
But I had a good ADI and wasn’t disoriented. Cisco knew this. “You have it!” Cisco said firmly. I took the stick and shook it to confirm I had control.
The training Cisco had given me on the many flights we had together kicked in. I pulled back the throttles, rolled the aircraft right-side up, and began a pull-out, adding throttle as soon as the nose was in the blue on my ADI. We bottomed out about 1000 feet above the water. We were headed west but I didn’t know how far north we had gone during the wild maneuver. “Why don’t you head a bit more south?” Cisco said. So I did.
“Ramada 2, Check.” That was the flight lead wondering where the hell we were.
“Ramada Lead, 2. ADI rolled. WSO has the aircraft.” And I flew it all the way home.
In reality, our job was to operate as a trip-wire. If things got out of hand and someone started shooting at us, the South Koreans and the US would have to react forcefully. We were there to perhaps take a hit and insure the US would protect South Korea, even if that meant all-out war. We were expendable, the way soldiers and airmen always are to politicians.
I needed a go-to song and I quickly adopted the MASH theme song: Suicide is painless.
Though it is far from true for those left behind, and I know that so well, there are still times when I listen to this song. It has meaning for me even today.