LCDR Stanley R. Holm, USN
“MiGs approaching task force!” That was the blare from the loudspeaker of the USS Oriskany.
I leaped out of my airline-type seat in pilot’s Ready Room [One] as the full import of these words struck home.
I thought in roughly this order: (1) No North Korean-manned jets had ever tackled a task force. (2) These babies were Russian. (3) This might mean the beginning of World War III.
All night long our Task Force 77 had steamed at top speed from off the central coast of Korea on a heading of due north. The date was November , 1952, and we were moving up to spend all day on the 18th in a maximum air effort against Chongjin, the important industrial city in northeast Korea. That meant putting the force within easy range of Vladivostok.
As I reached for my helmet, pistol, and Mae West, I glanced at the clock above the door. Thirteen forty-five. Evidently morning strikes had stirred up a hornet’s nest. Before dawn our night attack and night fighter planes had swooped down to plaster the Chongjin area. At sunrise our Corsairs and Skyraiders from the carriers Oriskany, Essex, and Kearsarge continued to level warehouses, railroad terminals and communication centers. A division of Skyraiders with 2000-pound bombs could shatter half a city block.
As wave after wave of propeller-type planes hit the targets, our jets—F9F Panthers and F2H Banshees—flew high above, providing protective cover against any aerial opposition.
As commanding officer of jet squadron VF-781, the “Pacemakers” [redesignated VF-121 on February 4, 1953], I had led the first TARCAP (target combat air patrol) of the day and had watched with satisfaction as the divebombers hit pinpoint targets.
The hop had been routine. No signs of enemy jets. Our slower and more vulnerable props carried out their mission with methodical precision. As I landed back aboard, I climbed out of the cockpit with the feeling that Lt. Bob MacPhail, our Air Intelligence Officer, was just too cautious. His briefing of the night before had been filled with admonitions to be alert.
“Chongjin is only 45 miles from the Russian border,” he said. “We don’t expect any North Korean MiGs up this way since their airfields are in western Manchuria, but Vladivostok is another thing!”
The events of the afternoon were to prove that he was so right.
Before I could slip into my Mae West, the clanging of the general alarm came over all circuits. Then the hear-stopping words I had heard so often in the Pacific during World War II: “General Quarters! General Quarters! All hands man your battle stations.”
I snapped on my oxygen mask and yelled to the pilots of my division, “Good Living One, let’s go!”
GOOD LIVING was our quadroon radio call, and the One represented the first division of four pilots. We had trained hard together. Back at Naval Air Station Miramar near San Diego practicing tactics, and over at El Centro in the desert for intensive gunnery practice, flying from early morning to dusk to prepare us for this.
My wingman, Ensign Jack Bybee, got his Navy wings with one of the best records to come out of the Training Command. My section leader, Lt. (jg) Jerry McCabe, a flier’s flier, was a veteran jet pilot with nearly 100 missions from a previous tour in Korea.
And my fourth man, Ensign Robbie Roberts, was a Mississippi youngster just turned 21, who lived to fly.
We charged out of the ready room onto the escalator that carried us from the bowels of the ship to the flight deck. Seconds later we scrambled into the first four F9F-5 Panther jets.
The flight deck was a beehive of activity—but all orderly. With trained precision, gunners manned the anti-aircraft guns; the catapult officer directed his men in preparation to launch, and the plane captains loosened tie-down reels and stood by each plane to help the pilots in the cockpit.
THE TASK force was already turning into the wind as I slipped on my parachute, tightened my safety belt and shoulder straps, and reached up behind my head to check my ejection-seat actuating mechanism. I might need that ejection seat today.
Over the bull horn came the Air Officer’s familiar, “Stand by to start jets.” And then, “Start jets.”
I signaled my plane captain to cut in the external power and watched the rpm build up as I flipped the engine start switch. At ten per cent I turned on the igniters and high pressure cock and heard the engine light off with a rumbling roar that always reminded me of Niagara Falls.
I was on the port catapult. Two sailors from the flight deck crew were quickly attaching the bridle of the catapult to the underside of my plane. In a moment I would be slung into the air like a missile from a giant sling shot. Over on the starboard cat my wingman, Bybee, nodded and gave me a thumbs up. Between us on the flight deck stood Lt. Herbert, the catapult officer, waving two fingers in a circle above his head. It was the full power turn up signal just prior to launch.
I glanced up over my right shoulder. On the bridge on the forepart of the island structure stood the skipper of the Oriskany, Captain Courtney Shands. I felt better when I saw him grin and give me a thumbs up. Maybe we’d have a day like he did in 1942 when he shot down four enemy fighters and two bombers at Guadalcanal.
I pushed the throttle full forward to the stop and watched the needle climb to 100 per cent. The plane trembled and strained, rearing like a trapped grizzly.
I braced my head against the catapult head rest and flashed a right-hand salute to Herbert to indicate I was ready. A second later I felt the rush of wind and I was in the air. From a sitting start to 150 miles per hour in less than 200 feet and in a second’s time!
It had been less than five minutes since we had first heard the words, “MiGs approaching the task force.”
As I raised my wheels, I glanced to my right. Jack Bybee was already in position on my wing. We had been launched in formation. Jerry and Robbie would be off in another 30 seconds. By now my radio was warmed up and I could hear garbled communications. I was receiving on both the combat air patrol frequency, channel four, and on the emergency channel. Suddenly loud and clear came the words over the emergency frequency, “. . . am circling downed pilot. Have turned on emergency IFF. Take fix on my position.”
There was no doubt as to whose voice that was. The slightly southern drawl was easily recognized as that of one of my pilots, Lt. (jg) John Middleton of Birmingham, Alabama. Lanky, Gary Cooperish John was expecting word any day from his wife Ann of the birth of their first child.
Since I had been debriefing from my morning hop and then had eaten lunch, I had not had the time to check the CAP schedule. But if John was in the air, that meant my sixth division, Good Living Six, was on combat air patrol. That would be Lt. Charlie Ray, Lt. Royce Williams, Lt. (jg) Dave Rowlands and Middleton. But Charlie Ray couldn’t be in the air. He had been in the ready room when I had left it. Then I remembered that Lt. Claire Elwood had replaced Charlie when the latter’s plane had trouble in starting. And Charlie had always hoped to be the first in the Air Group [CVG-102] to get a crack at a MiG.
Well, maybe he was the lucky one after all. . . . Who was the downed pilot? I felt sick as I thought about it. Evidently my boys had made contact with the MiGs.
I turned slightly to the right and held my altitude at 1000 feet to pick up speed and to remain below the overcast. The fleet was cruising under an overcast of 9/10ths coverage with a base at 1200 feet and tops at 11,000. The weather was perfect for the task force. The overcast hung about 30 miles offshore while the coastal area was clear. It enabled our ships to hide from prying enemy eyes and yet allow our planes to hit targets under ideal visibility conditions. We couldn’t afford to let enemy planes, even fighters without bombs, get through to our carriers. Strafing of the planes on our decks wouldn’t do us a bit of good.
AS I approached our screening destroyers, I heard simultaneous transmissions. “This is Good Living 6-3 approaching from the north. Plane badly damaged. Request emergency landing.” At the same time, over the emergency channel came, “Condition red! We’re under attack!” I realized the first voice was that of LT. Royce Williams. The second must be from the destroyers.
At that moment I saw Williams approaching about a mile outside the destroyer screen and at my altitude. I was about to pass over the destroyers when the sky between Williams and myself erupted with black anti-aircraft puffs. The destroyers were laying up a barrage. A fine way to start a hop with your own ships shooting at you.
I screamed over the emergency channel, “Hold fire. Planes are friendlies!”
At the same time I took the best evasive action available. Pulled straight up into the overcast. As I went on instruments, I heard Royce calling for permission to switch to land-launch channel. Evidently the barrage had ceased and he had sustained no further damage.
I crossed my fingers and hoped he’d get aboard safely. He was one of the best pilots in the squadron and an excellent aerial gunner. I had known Royce years before at the University of Minnesota. Back in La Jolla, California, his lovely wife, Cam, and two sons were praying for his safe return.
Bybee was still glued to my wing. The kid could really fly formation. I held the indicated air speed at 400 knots and climbed rapidly through the soup.
Then I heard Lt. Claire Elwood calling, “Over the task force with two. No battle damage. Low state fuel. Request land-launch.”
With two! That accounted for all of my boys. Dave Rowlands must be with Claire and Middleton was circling the downed pilot. Then the downed pilot must be enemy!
As if in answer to my thoughts, I heard John come up on the air again. “Am still circling downed enemy pilot. Do you have a fix on me?”
From the Oriskany air controller came a negative.
Then John’s reply. “Am returning to the ship. Low on fuel.”
Shortly thereafter I heard the ship give him a steer of 210 degrees, 39 miles. As he climbed to a higher altitude, CIC was able to pick him up on the radar scopes and vector him in.
Now I could concentrate on my job. All the boys on the previous CAP were accounted for. Later I was to find out that two MiGs had been definitely shot down and two more probably.
Here is what happened:
Good Living Six had been airborne and patrolling on station about an hour when the division leader, Lt. Elwood, experienced a fuel boost pump failure. The division returned to the task force and let down to 13,000 feet, just above the overcast. It was shortly after the flight reached 13,000 feet that the pilots had their first indication that their CAP hop might be other than routine. From the Oriskany’s air controller, Lt. Bill Franklin, came the terse statement, “Bogies approaching bearing 345 degrees, 83 miles. Vector 010 to intercept. Take angels 30.”
In response, Lt. Williams and Lt. (jg) Rowlands detached themselves from the flight, took up a heading of 010 degrees, and commenced climbing to 30,000 feet.
At 15,000 feet they spotted seven condensation trails high above and identified seven MiGs flying in a loose line abreast at an estimated 30,000 feet.
“There was no doubt about them being MiGs,” Rowlands told me later. “With their swept wings and silver cigar-shaped fuselage they looked just like the models hanging in our ready room.”
Williams immediately reported contact to the Oriskany and was ordered to investigate but not to fire unless attacked.
Later, back aboard ship, Royce gave me the following account of the resulting action:
“I continued climbing turning slightly to keep the MiGs in sight. They passed over us, split into two groups and then I lost them as they dropped below contrail level. The next time I saw them, four of them were making a flatside attack from the ten o’clock position. I yelled, ‘Break left,’ to Dave, just as we had practiced so many times in training. We whipped around in a tight turn to meet the MiGs head-on. I saw flashes and tracers coming toward us, and knew that this was the real thing.
“They completed their run rolling to the right in a slight descent. I continued my hard turn and saw the MiGs were strung out in a loose tail chase. I was able to roll out of my turn close on the tail of their tail-end Charlie. I got him in my sight and squeezed the trigger. After a short burst of about ten rounds per gun he burst into smoke. His left wing dropped and he went down in an uncontrolled spiral. There was no attempt to recover. I believe the pilot must have been hit.
Dave broke away to follow the burning plane. At about 8000 feet he saw the plane was going in so he dropped him to rejoin me.
“In the meantime I found myself alone with MiGs all over the place. For the next twelve minutes I felt like a towed gunnery sleeve with planes making firing runs from both sides of me. Apparently the six remaining planes were attempting to coordinate attacks from both sides. I could not keep all the planes in sight. I did not try to dive or climb for I knew they could master me at both. So I used our squadron defensive tactics of a wrapped-up turn into the attacking planes to spoil their run. I got in several good bursts in this manner. I never straightened out unless it was to exchange head-on shots or if by luck I found myself on a MiG’s tail.
“On two occasions I did get on a MiG’s tail. One time in particular I got a long burst off at close range. The MiG was apparently hit for it smoked and seemed to stop in mid-air. I had to turn sharply to the right to avoid a collision.
“About this time I saw Dave back in the fight and pursuing a MiG. Shortly after, a MiG got on my tail and I felt my plane get hit as I wrapped it up in a steep turn. I lost rudder control, aileron boost and had to fight a heavy port wing down tendency. As I tried to turn, the plane wanted to snaproll.
“WITH my plane damaged, I decided not to be proud and called the Oriskany stating I could use some help. They said they were launching a special CAP.
“Unable to maneuver properly, I decided to head for cloud cover. The dogfight had been going on about ten miles north of an overcast which covered our surface forces. I dove toward it from 25,000 feet with a MiG on my tail and Dave close behind him. Unfortunately Dave was out of ammunition and could only try to scare the MiG off my tail. In my rear-view mirror I could see the MiG firing continuously. All I could do was use elevators to zoom up and down to spoil his aim. As I watched the tracers (garbled) and below me it reminded me of my football experience. You want to get into the game . . . you know you might get hurt . . . but you still want to get in there. Then things get really rough and you think, ‘Oh, coach, put me on the bench!’
“My zooms proved effective, however, and I took no more hits. I roared into the clouds at 11,000 feet and lost the MiG.
“I remained in the cloud cover for several minutes flying on instruments. I wanted to be sure the MiG was gone. Then I started toward the task force. For awhile I thought I would have to eject and use my parachute, but decided to attempt a landing.
“As I approached the screen a destroyer opened up with 40-mm. but soon identified me and ceased firing. “
Thus ended a memorable flight for Lt. Royce Williams.
WHEN Williams decided he could use some help and radioed for aid, Lt. Middleton left Lt. Elwood and immediately started climbing to join the dogfight.
Back in the ready room that evening, John described the action to me in the following words:
“My indoctrination to aerial combat occurred shortly after I began climbing. At two o’clock high I sighted a swept-wing jet commencing a run. I automatically turned into him. I don’t believe I quite realized that this was not a routine training hop until the winking of his gun startled me into action. The guy was out to get me! I realized then if I was to ever see my unborn child I’d have to fly my plane to the limit of my ability—and then some.
“I met him head-on. I returned his fire but don’t believe I hit him. He had opened up well out of range and did not hit me.
“As the MiG started his run on me, I heard Royce calling that he was heading for the clouds. As I countered the MiG’s run, I saw an F9F flash by followed by a MiG, followed by another F9F. Royce asked if the MiG was still on his tail and I replied, ‘Affirmative and he’s shooting,’ as puffs of smoke were clearly visible.
“I dove toward the procession but was prevented from aiding Royce by another MiG making a head-on run at me. On breaking away the enemy plane reversed course and apparently lost me in the sun, for he remained in perfect position for a 90 degree deflection shot. I tracked him, fired from far out and continued firing as the MiG’s speed sucked me into a ten degree tail deflection shot.
“The MiG slowed suddenly and I was forced to duck violently to avoid ramming him. I pulled up into a left wing-over to come about for another pass and saw the MiG diving straight down into the ocean. As I followed him down I noticed a flash of silver at 7000 feet. I made a run on it, thinking it was another MiG. I closed rapidly and was about to trigger off my 20-mms, when I realized it was a parachute. I passed within a few yards of the pilot and noticed he had some kind of winter survival suit on. He hit the water shortly after, and I orbited him while I called the ship to request a fix on my position. I apparently was too low for the ship to fix my position on radar. Being low on fuel, I returned to the task force a few minutes later.”
And that was the story I heard from Lt.(jg) John Middleton on the evening of the 18th of November .
But I was still unaware of all this as I streaked upward through the overcast. I knew that one enemy pilot was down and that my pilots were okay, but no other details were available.
Bybee and I broke through the overcast at 11,000 feet and heard Jerry McCabe calling, “Skipper, starting through the overcast with Robby. Will join you in five minutes.”
Two minutes later as my two plane section headed out 340 degrees, Jack came up on the air with, “Tallyho Skipper, this is Jack. Bogies 12 o’clock high.”
I glanced quickly above the nose of my plane and saw two contrails made by two swept-wing MiGs. They appeared to be at 30,000 feet and were crossing my flight path from left to right. As I watched, they turned away from us and straightened out on course 350 degrees. They seemed to have spotted us at the same time we tallyhoed them.
I strained forward against my shoulder straps in an unconscious effort to gain more speed. But my Panther was doing all she could. This was not to be Good Living One’s day. We chased the two MiGs 10 miles to no avail. They pulled away from us and we finally were vectored back toward the Force by our air controller.
Jerry’s section rendezvoused with me shortly after, and we patrolled the area with no further contacts while our returning strike planes landed safely aboard. Task Force 77 turned south, well pleased with its day’s work.
AND THUS ended a great day for the Pacemakers. It was a combination of guts and the best flight training in the world that made it a great day. It was a saga of courage of the American youth. Of Royce Williams—taking on odds of six to one. Of John Middleton—climbing up alone to join what must have seemed a lost cause. Of Dave Rowlands—out of ammunition yet flying formation on a MiG in an effort to save his squadron mate.
I was indeed proud of my squadron that day. Even prouder that night when Vice Admiral J. J. “Jocko” Clark, Commander Seventh Fleet, and Rear Admiral Robert F. Hickey, Commander Task Force 77, personally congratulated my pilots. I was indeed happy that the Navy Department had seen fit to give me command of a squadron like the Pacemakers.
As for the seven MiGs, I know there were only two around when I got up there.
And from the direction those two MiGs took, and the bearing to Vladivostok, I personally believe they were Russians. Perhaps we’ll never know officially. Moscow never said a word about the incident. But if they were Russians, I’m sure the vodka they drank that night at their base Officer’s Club tasted just a bit bitter.