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We Were Not Ready

by Alan Beck A21389 No.77 (Fighter) Squadron

All Packed Up

The final week of June 1950 saw the departure of RAAF No. 77 Squadron in its final stages. All P51D Mustang fighters and squadron personnel were ready for loading or embarking on the naval vessel designated to take the squadron home. The 24th was the last day in Japan, and that night, party time at each mess at RAAF Base Iwakuni. It was a special occasion for another reason as well, being the first return to Australia for the squadron since its formation in 1942.

The squadron's duty officer, probably bleary-eyed and hung-over, took an early morning phone call on the 25th from the US Fifth Air Force HQ in Tokyo. The message was simple: stand by and wait for further orders. The reason sobered everyone: the surprise attack by North Korean forces on the unprepared South. Even though departure hour was near and closing fast, the USAF still officially controlled squadron flying operations, and packed for departure or not, that meant 77 Squadron.

The United Nations acted immediately after the invasion by issuing Resolution No. 82 on June 25. It condemned North Korean aggression and insisted that their troops immediately withdraw behind the 38th Parallel.

North Korea ignored the Resolution. The UN followed it two days later with Resolution 83 which, in part, called on member nations to furnish such assistance to the Republic of Korea as may be necessary to repel the armed attack and restore internal peace and security. The Australian Government quickly responded and committed two Royal Australian naval ships and the RAAF's No. 77 Fighter squadron to the conflict.

For No. 77 Squadron, the prospect of going home ended in disappointment. It didn't linger. The squadron was about to go to war, and that meant inevitable uncertainty, loss, grief and sorrow. The first operational flight took place just seven days later, on 2 July.

The First 100 Days

To return all squadron aircraft to flying condition as quickly as possible, pilots worked with maintenance personnel on the tarmac preparing their planes for war. Quickly readied, eight Mustangs stood on the tarmac ready to engage any North Korean aircraft approaching Iwakuni Air Base.

On July 2, under operational control of the US 5th Air Force, the squadron flew its first mission from Iwakuni. Our Mustangs were given the task of escorting a flight of US C-47 Dakota med-evac aircraft over South Korea. It ended in frustration when the Dakotas and Mustangs failed to rendezvous, forcing the Mustangs to return. Matters improved when, later the same day, the squadron flew cover for USAF B26 Invader light bombers and high cover for USAF B29s on their bombing missions. Next day, the role of No. 77 Squadron changed to air/ground support. It was in this role that the squadron won the reputation and respect for high performance and reliability.

Leaving Iwakuni early in the morning our Mustangs flew over the strait separating Japan and South Korea on their first sortie against communist ground forces. Landing at K2 airbase at Taegu (100km NW of Pusan) for re-fuelling and re-arming, they commenced their second attack, returning to K2 as necessary for the remainder of the day. This arrangement required that the Squadron's C-47 Dakota also fly daily to Taegu carrying the maintenance personnel required to carry out the servicing of the aircraft between attacks. Late each afternoon, the Mustangs returned to Iwakuni accompanied by the C-47 and the maintenance team.

Early next morning, the cycle restarted. This arrangement continued until 20 October 1950, a period of just over a hundred days.

81 Wing

The presence of the RAAF in Japan began immediately following the cessation of WWII in the Pacific. It existed as 81 Wing which comprised a number of squadrons, its duties more guarding the peace than fighting a war. When the conflict in Korea started, No. 77 Squadron was the last remaining flying unit of 81 Wing left in Japan, and it required an immediate move to a war footing.

Despite the generally excellent results, this unexpected re-activation was not without initial mistakes and inefficiencies. In the drive to make the Wing more effective, No. 77 Squadron was permanently relocated to Korea with the C-47s removed from the Squadron and formed into a new force: No. 30 Communications Unit. This required the adding of additional C-47 Dakotas. These came from No. 38 Transport Squadron (Malaysia) and No. 86 Transport Wing (Australia), taking the number of Dakotas to eight.

These changes meant acquiring additional ground staff. The maintenance personnel of No. 491 Maintenance Squadron and No. 30 Communications Unit now served with No. 77 Squadron in Korea as replacements when the squadron's regular ground crews returned to Japan for R&R. Nearly all RAAF personnel in the various units at Iwakuni spent at least 30 days posted into No.77 Squadron in Korea under this arrangement.

The term 'Communication Unit' was not well chosen. The unit's commanding officer told me in 1952 that the term did not clearly convey that it was an aerial transport unit, so the name changed to 30 Transport Unit. In 1953 this altered again, becoming No. 36 Transport Squadron. The squadron is still operational and provides essential aerial transport for our serving personnel engaged in conflicts and policing actions overseas.

Though the senior officers tried to introduce this new operational platform as quickly as possible, the Wing remained operating as 81 Wing until 20 October 1950, when it became 91 Wing with the purpose of supporting No. 77 Squadron and Commonwealth land forces in Korea.

The new 91 Wing comprised the following units: Wing Headquarters, No. 391 Base Squadron, No. 491 Maintenance Squadron, No. 77 Fighter Squadron (primarily P51 Mustang), and No. 30 Communications Unit (Dakota transport).

No. 77 Squadron ended its Mustang days on 6 April 1951when the squadron returned to Iwkuni for conversion to the new British Gloster Meteor jet fighter. It was back in action over Korea in July.

The Forgotten Dakotas

In June 1950, No. 77 Squadron comprised a large number of P51 Mustangs, two C-47 Dakotas, a few Wirrraways and a couple of Austers left behind by the RAF when it returned to England sometime earlier. One Dakota was a freighter, used for general transport duties; the other being fitted out for VIP transport at the disposal of Lt. Gen. H. Robertson, C-in-C of BCOF. The crew who flew the Dakotas included Flt. Lt. Dave Hitchins, pilot; Flt. Lt. Chas Taplin, co-pilot; Flt. Lt. Ivan Pretty, navigator, and Flt. Lt. Joe McDonald, signaller.

In the early days of the conflict, No. 77 Squadron contained no personnel with both knowledge and experience in operation room procedure who was also freely available. Flt. Lt. Chas Taplin had the first two qualities, presumably gained during WWII, so he was removed from the Dakota crew and placed in the operation room. This left the Dakota crew short one co-pilot.

Dave Hitchins recruited a replacement from a most unusual source. He persuaded his fiancée, a RAAF nursing sister from the base hospital, to fill the vacant seat. This she willingly did when off-duty. Not quite the RAAF thing to do, but it worked. She became the first female RAAF co-pilot - unofficially - in the Korean War (and perhaps in the history of the RAAF to that date).

The RAAF senior officers were quick to understand that air transportation was to play a major role in the conduct of the war. In order to better support the British Commonwealth 27th and 29th Brigades, as well as No. 77 Squadron, the Dakota unit was gradually enlarged. Additional Dakotas arrived with their crews and went into No. 77 Squadron, only to be removed after the promulgating of the new RAAF order on 20 October and officially posted into the newly designated and autonomous 30 Communications Unit. Within days, more C-47s arrived, raising the unit to its full strength of eight aircraft.

Flt. Lt. Dave Hitchins acted unofficially as 30 Comm. Unit's Officer-in-Command until the official commanding officer arrived at Iwakuni late in January 1951. As an experienced pilot and WWII veteran with advanced training in transport operations, Dave Hitchins prepared the newly arriving C-47 pilots for flying in the unfriendly and dangerous Korean environment.

Two essential skills were flying in zero visibility and landing using GCA (Ground Control Approach). Landings were often made despite the pilot not spotting the strip. One pilot remarked that he saw the ground twice during a mission: once when he boarded the aircraft, and the next when he left it after landing.

Flying in Korea was extremely dangerous. Mountainous terrain and extreme weather conditions often made flights very hazardous. Not having pressurised cabins meant that C-47s had to travel at a relatively low altitude when carrying passengers. This meant flying through bad weather and not above it as is done today. Snow storms, in flight icing, zero visibility, iced-over runways, saturated air space, severe thunder and lightning storms, typhoons, strong cross winds, and overloading were the main reasons why flying in Korea was such a dangerous and unnerving occupation for the transporters. Our C-47s flew daily during the war, except for a few days being grounded in 1951 when a savage and destructive typhoon lashed the area.

From June 1950 until July 1953, about 1100 days, I estimate (very roughly) that the Dakotas flew about 4,500 individual completed missions from Japan to Korea and back.

In the three years of the war, our C-47s carried millions of kilograms of supplies and equipment, about 100,000 personnel and 12,762 wounded and sick troops on med-evac flights from Korea back to Iwakuni in all kinds of weather. Not one aircraft or single life was lost due to an in-flight mishap, although some flights came perilously close to disaster.

In-flight icing affected aerodynamics and sometimes made aircraft unflyable, forcing the crew to jettison freight. One aircraft piloted by Russell Law arriving at K14 actually collided in mid-air with a small US spotter aircraft. Fortunately, Law kept his aircraft under control and landed safely. The incident didn't do his career any harm; he eventually rose to the rank of Air Vice-Marshal. Another close-call happened within seconds after landing at Suwon. Instructed by the control tower, our C-47 Dakota remained stationery at the end of the strip while US fighters took off. With its wheels just off the ground one of the fighters hit the cockpit of the C-47 with its undercarriage. The fighter pilot managed to belly-land his plane. No one involved suffered serious injury but the Dakota was written-off, perhaps prematurely. Dave Hitchins thought it still air-worthy and offered to fly it back for repair. His offer was, perhaps fortunately, refused, [Hitchins later became an Air Commodore and commanding officer of No. 36 Transport Squadron].

Maintenance of the C-47s was kept at a very high level by the unit's ground crews; so good, in fact, that not one operational flight was cancelled because an aircraft stood unserviceable on the tarmac. Demand for aircraft was fully met every day, and more importantly, every aircraft returned safely to base each day.

The RAAF has come a long way in aerial transport since the Korean War but it was the transporters of that time who set the flying and maintenance standards of excellence carried over to this day. The unit met and overcame the challenge of the Korean weather to go anywhere, anytime, in any weather.

First Published in The Voice, August and October 2009