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The squadron pilots pose on Valley Forge in July 1952, with 13 flight helmets for their fallen colleagues. Among the survivors are Cleland (back row, middle), Edinger (to his immediate left), and Balser (to Cleland’s right). (US Navy)

The Ordeal of VF-653

From a Navy Reserve pilot’s letters home, a picture of the darkest days of the Korean War

To its advantage, the squadron was skippered by a hotshot Navy aviator named Cook Cleland, who, during the Pacific war, had flown Douglas Dauntless SBD dive bombers from the decks of the carriers Wasp and Lexington. After the war, Cleland, based in Akron, took up pylon air racing, initially flying production models of the Corsair but switching to a better-performing version of a Goodyear-manufactured Corsair purchased as surplus. Flying three of these muscular Super Corsairs, each sporting a 3,000-horsepower Pratt & Whitney R-4360, Cleland’s team snatched a record-setting 396-mph victory in the 1947 Thompson Trophy Race. Beaten by Army aircraft the following year, Cleland’s team bounced back to sweep first, second, and third places in the 1949 race.

“He’s a born pusher,” Sanko described his skipper in a January 1952 letter. As second section leader in Cleland’s division, Sanko flew with him on most missions.

Len DeFranco, today the retired owner of a utility construction company in Naples, Florida, was then a 22-year-old squadron mechanic who had been part of Cleland’s racing team. He recalls one mission, when Cleland’s aircraft, Fighting 301, sustained damage. “It was a low-level hop, and Cook’s plane hit a high-tension wire that chewed up the nose cone, prop, and starboard wing,” says DeFranco, 83. “We had to replace just that one wing, but the only spares available were wings from newer Corsairs equipped with 20-mm cannons, not .50-caliber machine guns. So a half-dozen of us worked all night to replace both wings, and Cook was right there with us lending a hand.”

Under Cleland’s leadership, VF-653 pilots formed a tight, high-spirited team. Taking a cue from the artwork on a bag of candy sent to one of the men from home, the pilots had their flight helmets painted red with white polka dots. Bob Balser, who after Korea went on to a 31-year career as a TWA pilot and is now 87 and retired in Scottsdale, Arizona, remembers the project: “I was an illustrator, so I had the job of sketching out a template for a grinning clown. The template was then hand-painted on the side of each pilot’s helmet. Because Ray Edinger was XO [executive officer] and was in charge of squadron discipline, his helmet got painted differently. His was a frowning clown.” Cleland was determined that the “clowns” in his squadron would more than hold their own with the younger Navy regulars and their advanced aircraft. “We aren’t riding tail end to any of them,” Sanko boasted to his brother.

***

VF-653 lost its first aviators on December 9, 1951, even before entering combat. “We lost two pilots the other day,” Sanko wrote to his brother on December 14. One was Don London, Sanko’s roommate and a close friend; the other was Jim Porterfield. Both were family men: London was a new father and Porterfield’s wife was expecting their first child in March. “What really hurts,” Sanko wrote, was that “they weren’t shot down. They were up practicing some tactics, had a mid-air collision, and hit the water without a chance of getting out.”

During deployment, a Task Force 77 carrier and its air group usually operated (along with one or two sister carriers, plus a screen of cruisers and destroyers) for 30 days at a time. After that came a 10-day rest break in Japan. While on duty, each carrier rotated through four-day cycles—three days of air strikes followed by a day of rest. By Sanko’s reckoning, he and the other aviators could anticipate flying roughly 60 combat missions over the course of four operational periods.

Soon enough, the combat began taking its toll in pilots and airplanes. After completing his 14th mission, Sanko wrote in early January: “We came here with 28 pilots and in one month have lost four…so our wives are just about ready to give up by now.” He also betrayed a combat pilot’s fatalism: “If you have faith in that engine, you feel safe and secure (until the black puffs start rocking you around.)… If you get hit badly, it’s usually a sudden death. If you don’t get it [hit], it’s just another flight over enemy territory.”

Valley Forge’s first tour ended on January 19, 1952. Despite challenging winter conditions, ATG-1’s 129 airmen and 79 aircraft, which included Douglas A-1 Skyraiders and swift but short-legged jet-powered Grumman F9F Panthers, as well as Corsairs, had racked up more than 1,000 combat sorties. Ten airmen had been killed or were missing.

ATG-1 returned to duty on February 1, but this second tour was shorter—just 20 days—and on two of them, foul weather shut down flight operations. There were fewer than 500 combat sorties, but the 70 flown on February 8 were especially grueling. Many were Rescue Combat Air Patrol (RESCAP) flights in support of efforts to extract two VF-194 pilots, downed behind enemy lines. That squadron flew Skyraiders, single-seat, propeller-driven attack aircraft that first flew in 1945.

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