The Ordeal of VF-653
From a Navy Reserve pilot’s letters home, a picture of the darkest days of the Korean War
- By David Sears
- Air & Space magazine, January 2013
(Page 4 of 5)
By the time Valley Forge left for Yokosuka, Japan, on April 2, ATG-1’s pilots had logged well over 1,500 combat missions and, in the process, sacrificed four more squadron mates (one from VF-653). They were ready for a break. And their next tour, set to begin on April 14, was to be their last.
On the eve of this fourth combat stretch, Sanko’s April 13 letter to his brother expressed joy at the birth of daughter, Kathy, but also contained dispiriting news: Valley Forge’s deployment had been extended. “I’m afraid we have one more [tour] to face. We won’t get back to the States until July.”
By May, Sanko had logged his 48th combat mission. “Not many more hops left now,” he wrote Millie on May 10. “Most of the people aboard ship are telling us…to take it easy and play it safe…. Kinda hard to do…. A job is a job and I always try to do my best…. At present I have about 180 hrs over enemy territory. At most I have about 30 to go.”
May 11: “Received the letters I was looking forward to and one of them had the pictures in it. I’m so happy with them that I just had to answer right away. She sure is a little doll.”
This was Sanko’s last letter home. It arrived after a hand-delivered telegram to the home of his mother, Anna, in New Salem, Pennsylvania, telling of Sanko’s May 13 loss to anti-aircraft fire. Dan Sanko, though still a toddler, remembers the event: his mother’s and his Aunt Mary’s immediate distress, and his grandmother stoically continuing to wash dishes in the kitchen. “I was pretty small at the time, but I remember standing in the dining room, with my mom and aunt in the living room and my grandmother in the kitchen,” he says. “I think I was told later on that my grandmother had a premonition about my dad’s death. So she wasn’t surprised when the telegram arrived.”
Though Sanko was initially listed as missing in action, hopes for his safe return were dashed by a May 17 letter to Millie from his wingman, Eddie Kearns. Kearns recounted that a formation led by Cleland was in a bombing and strafing run. Sanko had dived on an anti-aircraft gun position, with Kearns following. “I was in a straight dive when I saw Joe’s plane hit by anti-aircraft fire,” Kearns wrote. The right wing of Sanko’s Corsair was nearly severed. Kearns then saw “a flaming mass of wreckage burning on the ground…. Millie, I want to be very honest with you…. [I]t would just about be impossible for him to have gotten out of his plane…. I am sure it was over very quickly.”
Sanko was one of three ATG-1 airmen lost in combat during Valley Forge’s fourth tour. During the group’s fifth and final tour, four more were lost, including two from VF-653. The squadron, having lost a total of 11, was assigned for its final missions to less hazardous coastal hops.
However, on June 10, ATG-1’s last day of combat operations, Cleland was still pushing. “He was shot up pretty good by flak,” Len DeFranco recalls. “He ditched in Wonsan Harbor [in North Korea] and was picked up by a helicopter.” The airplane Cleland lost that day was not Fighting 301, which made it through the war.
VF-653’s Korean War losses—13 pilots missing, killed, or severely injured, about 46 percent of the number first deployed—represented almost half of those sustained by ATG-1. As measured by total sorties flown, the results are equally stark: ATG-1’s airmen flew a combined 7,113; VF-653’s rate of losses per missions flown was twice as high as the air group’s overall rate.