The Korean War almost didn't happen, so far as U.S. involvement was concerned, according to one much experienced observer who was in our Nation's capitol at the time. Veteran journalist, Constantine Brown, on the staff of the Washington, DC Evening Star newspaper, predicted in an article published June 6, 1950, that the communists would attack South Korea during the last two weeks of that month. On the day of the attack, June 25, Brown was at lunch with President Truman's Naval Aide, an admiral. When asked what we were going to do about it (as Brown described to me several years later) the admiral replied: "We're not going to do anything, Connie. The boys at the State Department have it all set to let the Soviets have South Korea."
Although it tuned out to be historically incorrect, there was substantial basis for the admiral's prediction. Only a few weeks earlier, Secretary of State Dean Acheson had publicly defined U.S. interests in the Far East in a manner which explicitly excluded South Korea. Many observers then, and since, were of the opinion that the Soviets interpreted Secretary Acheson's statement to mean that they could order their puppet regime in North Korea to attack the South with impunity, so far as any effective counteraction by the United States was concerned.
But President Truman was in Independence, Missouri, on the day of the attack, visiting his mother. Before returning to Washington, he ordered General MacArthur in Tokyo to send such forces as he had available to South Korea at once, with assurance that additional forces would be sent as quickly as was possible to arrange.
So U.S. involvement in the Korean war did happen. And this writer was among those additional forces quickly sent to the war zone. Along with six new shipmates from the Navy's fledgling Helicopter Utility Squadron One, I boarded the aircraft carrier, Philippine Sea on July 4, 1950, in San Diego harbor.
With hundreds of men boarding the "Phil Sea" that day, our arrival would probably have been little noticed but for the fact that we came aboard with a helicopter. That somewhat unorthodox flying machine was then yet so new that it was an attention-getter wherever it appeared. Some even of the "old salts" on the flight deck when we arrived had never before seen a helicopter.
There was hectic activity aboard the "Phil Sea" during the five days it took to reach Hawaii. The hastily embarked Air Group had in that time to adjust to shipboard living and organize for flight operations to begin as soon as we reached Hawaiian waters. Even Admiral Ewen, designated now as commander of Carrier Task Force 77 when it would form up at Okinawa, had boarded on just two days' notice. And all alone; the one officer assigned to him as "flag secretary" remained in San Diego with the task of finding other, available officers who were qualified for the various staff duties, and sending them out to join their new boss at sea.
Lt. Harry Sundberg (office-in-charge of our helicopter unit) and myself spent some time meanwhile, describing to the Air Group pilots the procedures for picking them up if they should happen to crash into the sea. "Get clear of the wreckage if you can," was one admonition; "and get rid of your parachute!" That wondrous new flying machine of ours could do some amazing things. But her power and equipment limitations made it uncertain that we could hoist a man out of the water with additional weight of a water-soaked parachute. So marginal was our capability in that regard that we normally filled out fuel tanks no more than half when it was likely we might be called upon for a pickup near at hand. During launch and recovery operations, we would be airborne close by the ship at "plane guard" station. If a plane should "ditch" into the sea just after takeoff or on approach for landing, we could usually be over the crash site in a minute or so, or even less.
The radio call for our helicopter was "angel." And as a "guardian angel" we were regarded by the other pilots; hoping they would have no need for our services but grateful for our ready presence in case they did.
Sundberg and I also used those five days enroute to Hawaii to get some acquainted with each other and with our crew. Those five men would be our flight crewmen and deck-handlers during the day, and doing the necessary maintenance work and inspections of our one helicopter at night to keep it almost constantly available for flying during daylight hours. Probably most "manpower experts" would have said we were short-handed; and in a sense perhaps we were. But those five never fell short of getting the job done, nor did any ever complain of being overworked. This was due in large part to the manner of men they were to begin with. But it also exemplified the fact that it is usually better to have too few of men for a job, than too many. For in the first situation, a good man is concerned that he might not be doing his full share of the work. In the other situation, one or more may soon be concerned that he might be doing more than his "share".
Close teamwork between pilot and crewman was vital to our operations; not only in cases of rescue, but also in many other of the services we were called upon to perform. Often the crewman's part was more demanding than the pilot's. All five men had some training and experience. But there were as yet only a few established procedures. We would have much to learn and much of techniques to develop together.
Because of my own enlisted status, it was easier for myself than for Lt. Sundberg to quickly establish the kind of rapport with the crewmen which engenders the best of teamwork. Chief Hill, with the overall responsibilities of "plane captain," would fly as crewman occasionally, but not on regular basis. Of the four "white-hats", all of whom were eager and dependable, the number two mechanic of the crew, Chester Todd, became the number one flight crewman. Not by designation but by his choice (with which I was very much in agreement), Todd regarded himself as my crewman, primarily. This was probably due in part to the fact that he often had ideas for improvement of equipment or techniques. It was easier for him to present those to myself, than to Sundberg, even though our "O-in-C" was as regular and considerate an officer as one could want.
In short order, Chester came up with the idea that our communications would be improved if he called me "Duey" instead of using my real first name. Chester and "Duey" were destined to share a great number of pleasurable and satisfying missions. We would also share the bitter experience of watching a man slip into a watery grave because we lacked equipment and know-how to save him. Yet from that, we would develop equipment and technique which saved another man's life later on.
Flight operations began as soon as we reached Hawaiian waters, on July 10. We would spend two weeks there, mostly at sea, requalifying pilots of the Air Group in carrier landings and developing in the deck hands that special manner of precision teamwork which is essential to flight operations from an aircraft carrier. Happily, our plane guard duties simply provided us a "bird's-eye" view of a generally smooth performance by both the Air Group pilots and the flight deck crew, with no call for our emergency pickup service. In between those duties, Sundberg and I were kept quite buy shuttling people between the ship and the island.
Those shuttle flights were the more enjoyable because for many of our passengers it was their first helicopter ride. Delivery to places other than an airfield required that we locate for ourselves a reasonably level and clear spot on which to land. (Heliports atop or alongside of office buildings had not yet even been thought of.) In delivering Adm. Boone to Pacific Fleet HQ at Aiea, the only such place was a softball diamond whereon a game was in progress. Circling the field only caused the players to gawk at us for a bit, then they started to resume play. The gold leaf on the admiral's cap visor served to wave them off the field. Given his choice of bases on which to step out, the admiral chose second instead of home plate because he felt "a home run the first time up would be overdoing things a bit."
To the cheers of the on-lookers, the admiral stood for a moment on that second base with hands clasped overhead. Then he saluted the helicopter and said in parting, "That's one mighty fine bird you have there, chief."
An overnight stay of the ship in Pearl Harbor allowed enough shore leave to revisit a couple of well-remembered spots in Honolulu. It also included an otherwise insignificant incident which would have unusual consequence while at sea some six months later. The renowned Trader Vic's Restaurant was the main objective that evening, there to visit the owner and his wife (with whom I had raided the restaurant "icebox" at 2 AM during my last previous passage through Hawaii) and make certain the superb quality of the food there was being maintained. Enroute to Trader Vic's it seemed appropriate to check the condition of the famous banyan tree at Waikiki.
There I was intercepted by another CPO whom I knew only as one of the chiefs from the Air Group. He had made acquaintance with a couple of touristing schoolteachers. He was looking for someone to make up a foursome for dinner. There was suspicion upon introduction that he may have wanted someone to entertain or distract the plainer and quieter of the two while he concentrated his attentions on the very pert and vivacious one. But since he offered up front to pay for the dinner, and was enthused at the suggestion it be at Trader Vic's, refusal would have been illogical as well as unsociable. And if his purpose was in fact as first suspected, he erred somewhat in selection of a fill-in for the foursome. When he informed that pert little "schoolmarm" that I was a helicopter pilot, she seemed to put aside any interest she may have had in other things. By her choice, the conversation thereafter was devoted almost exclusively to that amazing new flying machine.
Which made for a delightful evening, so far as I was concerned, since that new flying machine was of great interest also to me. Nor did our generous host or the other schoolteacher seem at all bored by it. On parting, the expectation was expressed that I should do some great things with my helicopter. To prove my appreciation of the other chief's generous hospitality, I paid the bus fare for both of us back to the harbor. Pleasurable though it was, there was nothing to cause either of us to discuss or even mention the occasion, until six months later I would receive a reminder of it.
Yet another incident while in Hawaii would also have amusing repercussions quite much sooner. During another flight to the island with Adm. Boone aboard, he mentioned to his companion the name, "Krulak." To my query if the name he had mentioned was Marine Col. Krulak, the admiral said that it was and asked if I knew him. With brief description of how I had met the colonel, I expressed the inclination to give him a call to pay my respects.
"You should do that, chief!" the admiral said. "The colonel would love it. He's that kind of man."
So call him, I did, and the colonel's reaction confirmed the admiral's prediction. After the amenities, when he learned I was aboard the aircraft carrier, he said, "Since you're on the way out there, chief, I can tell you this: If the powers that be will go along with what we're proposing, we'll change that situation in just a few weeks."
It had become customary by then, whenever I'd flown somewhere without one of the crewmen, that they would ask upon my return "where the hell" I had been. And they had come to expect in reply some off-hand, jocular remark, usually including mention of the actual mission. It was Todd who asked on this occasion, while I was still braking the rotors to stop:
"Where the hell did you go this time, Duey?"
"They asked me to come over to CincPac to tell 'em how to win this damn' war!"
"What did you tell 'em?"
With Krulak's words still very much in mind, I replied off-handedly: "Aw, I just told 'em to have an amphibious landing. That's the way to win wars out here in the Pacific!"
From that they all knew I had flown the admiral to CincPac. The rest of it, they laughed at as pure hoakum. Except for Chief Hill who had by then realized that there was often something of substance behind things which I might say jokingly. In privacy later he recalled my remarks and asked if I thought our commanders might actually be considering an amphibious landing. It would have been a very bad thing to have such scuttlebutt (rumor) start circulating on the ship; especially because it was actually being considered. In a sense, perhaps, Col. Krulak should not have mentioned it to me. Certainly I must let it go no further from me. I feigned disinterest and said:
"How the hell would I know?"
"Well," my perceptive shipmate replied, "from the way you mentioned it up on the flight deck a while ago, I thought maybe you'd heard some talk about it from one of your passengers."
"No," I responded, grateful that it wasn't necessary really to lie about that. "In fact I've not heard any talk about that sort of stuff from any of the guys I've been hauling; only where they're going and sometimes who they'll be meeting with."
There would be no mention, then, of having spoken with Krulak, or even of his name. Hill seemed to accept my dismissal of the subject at the time. Two months later he would remember it vividly.
Carrier Task Force 77 was forming up at Okinawa. When we arrived there on the first of August, the harbor was literally overflowing with vessels awaiting arrival of their flagship; which was ours, the Philippine Sea. Our helicopter and ourselves were kept busy the next three days, shuttling people to and from other ships and the island. A few other of the ships carried helicopters, and they also were busy. But ours was the busiest because we were the flagship, from which there was naturally much more traffic. All helicopters were called "angel" in radio communications; now further identified by using their ships call along with it. Every vessel had a radio call name, of course; of which we had sometimes to carry a list in our travels. The Phil Sea's call was "onionskin," so we were "onionskin angel." And lest anyone might wonder who was in charge of this grand armada, Admiral Ewen's radio call name was "Jehovah!"
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©2002, 2003 by Lynn Waterman; used by permission of the author, Duane Thorin.