“Blind and Alone over North Korea” *
--“Or, Beam Me Down, Howie”—
I was blind, stunned, in pain, bleeding profusely and very much alone. At the controls of my Navy Skyraider attack plane over Wongsang-ni, North Korea, I was climbing, inexorably, toward a solid overcast at 10,000 feet--from which there could be no return.
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. It 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 marshaling 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. Sometime later when I came to, 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 later 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 more 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 un-muffled 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." He told me to get rid of the rest of my bombs; I did.
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 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."
"Negative! Negative! Not going to bail out. Get me down." (On my second mission, Tom Pugh was my wingman, his 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 would 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. Thirty 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. Hold on. Can you hear me, Ken? We'll 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 a pilot'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 would not make 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.’ We'll 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 thatl" was my instantaneous reply. I had seen this field on earlier missions and could picture it in my minds 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. One 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. Thayer, excitedly, "You're on the ground, Ken!" A perfect landing. No fire. No pain, no strain. The best landing I ever made!
(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 Naval Aviator was over. My life was not. I am still living on borrowed time and am grateful for each and every day.
Afterward … and college
I became a Navy Pilot under the Holloway Program where the Navy sent me to college (UCLA) for two years, then to flight training as an Aviation Midshipman. (Two of my better known classmates at UCLA were Neil Armstrong and Joe Akagi, the first Japanese-American naval aviator.)
* Flying Midshipmen LOG, summer 2001; © 2001.
“More on The Bridges at Toko-Ri”
Early in 1952, during the Korean War, James A. Michener spent time aboard the USS Valley Forge and other ships of Task Force 77 in the Sea of Japan during air operations against North Korea. I am proud to have flown from the Valley Forge then as a member of Fighter Squadron 194, the Yellow Devils. With 9/11 fresh in our minds [now 2002] and our ongoing war against terrorism, I thought this news release of 50 years ago would be of special interest. I recently found it on the VF-194 website. This experience helped inspire Michener to write The Bridges of Toko-ri. It is included in that book. Some members of our squadron, including ENS Marvin Broomhead, became characters in that book.
WITH TASK FORCE 77 IN KOREAN WATERS by James A. Michener
Have Americans lost their moral courage? I was in Korea when I received a paper from home reviewing the civic corruption and public scandal of our times. The story ended, "American moral fiber has been turned to mush.”
On that very morning young ENS Marvin Broomhead of 225 E. 5th St., Salt Lake City, Utah, took off from his aircraft carrier, the Valley Forge and roared over communist Korea to blast a bridge. This was not to be his day and his plane was destroyed by enemy fire.
In a miraculous crash landing among mountains Broomhead was severely injured and pinned in the plane. His mates aloft concluded that he had been killed, but ten minutes later they saw him crawl painfully onto the crashed wing. His legs had been broken and he collapsed as enemy gunners began to draw a bead on him.
What followed became an epic in failure. A squadron of antiquated Corsairs established a canopy of fire over the unconscious Broomhead and held back the ap· proaching enemy.
The others moved out to sea to escort in a slow helicopter from the cruiser Manchester, but either because of enemy fire or incredible bad luck of an evil day, this he· licopter crashed.
The crew, LT Ed Moore, USN, of 1615 North Topeka Ave., Wichita, Kansas, and 1st LT Kenneth W. Henry, USMC, of 16065 Nevada St., Oceanside, Calif., got out safely and went about their business calmly as if nothing had happened. The reached Broomhead, improvised a sling and hauled him to a safe position. Enemy gunners, now faced by three targets, moved in.
Word of the situation flashed through the fleet and a squadron from the Philippine Sea moved in to take over. One of these planes was lost.
A stolid fury settled down upon North Korea and with it an agonizing despair. On one rescue flight every American plane was shot up, but throughout the fleet pilots insisted upon going in to get their man.
It was an Army helicopter that pulled the trick. It landed on the only flat land, some 200 yards from Broomhead, Moore and Henry. There was space in the copter for only two men and Broomhead was unconscious. To try to carry him, the 200 yards under enemy fire would be fatal. Moore and Henry might make it in a quick dash, but they would not leave Broomhead. They waved the copter off.
The pilot left and came back for an even more dangerous landing close up to the men. He begged Moore and Henry to climb aboard.
They never considered the invitation. If they could not save their comrade, they would not save themselves. The hovering copter took a heavy volley of fire through the cabin and withdrew empty.
“Blind and Alone over North Korea” *
I got a phone call out of the blue from John Bowie, who lives on Long Island. He had seen my story in the book, "Chicken Soup for the Veterans' Soul.” and tracked down my phone number.
His memories returned to March 22, 1952. John was a Corporal in the Army, 7th Infantry, 31st Field Artillery, along the front lines on the eastern coast of Korea. When I made my blind landing at "Jersey Bounce" (he called it Jersey Strip) he was there and took pictures of my Skyraider on the ground. He is sending prints to me. According to Bowie, the tiny airstrip was only 2 miles behind the front lines.
I was thrilled to get the phone call and thought I'd share this wonderful news with you. If I had been diligently looking for someone who was at that little airstrip on March 22, 1952, I can't believe I would have found him to this day.
A buddy of his, one Darrel Stevenson, of Oregon, was the driver of the jeep that took me to the shed on the edge of the field. John is trying to find his address and phone number but hasn't been in contact with him for some time.
The Marines picked me up with a helicopter and took me to the Marine Airfield, K-18, down the coast thence by Marine airplane to Pusan, and the hospital ship, USS Consolation.
Again, what an amazing, wonderful experience!
* Flying Midshipmen LOG, summer 2003; © 2003.
“Blind and Alone over North Korea” 1
"The article I wrote for the book, Chicken Soup for the Veterans Soul,” 2 was reprinted in Naval Aviation News 3. Here, it has the advantages of being in color and in adding some pertinent pictures. The URL for the article is: http://www.history.navy.mil/nan/backissues/2000s/2004so/blind.pdf.”
(NOTE: If you haven't already read Ken’s article, do so! It's a great story of skill, perseverance, comradeship and uncommon luck!)
"Regarding some of the pictures in Chicken Soup:
“The picture of the USS Valley Forge, with the white water over the bow, in the midst of a typhoon, was taken the day before my fateful flight.
"The picture of me and my fellow pilots was taken in the Junior Officer's Bunkroom (aka "Boys Town") in March of 1952. Though I didn't deliberately pose that way, the editor of Naval Aviation News described the picture to me as ‘the epitome of a Navy fighter jock--self confident to the max, if not more than a bit arrogant.’ “ It was the way one had to feel to do our job. For a caption, either ‘Go ahead, make my day,’ or ‘Bring 'em on.’
"The picture of bloody old me on the stretcher was taken by a Marine pilot at K-18 as I awaited an airplane to take me to Pusan and the navy hospital ship, USS Consolation. I didn't know the photo existed until last year."
1 Flying Midshipmen LOG winter 2006, © 2006.