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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

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On his way to fight in the Korean War, Navy Reserve Lieutenant Joe Sanko confessed his fear to his older brother: “To date we haven’t lost a single life,” he wrote, “[but] we are going to lose some and perhaps quite a few.” Sanko’s letter, written on November 23, 1951, anticipated the arrival of the aircraft carrier Valley Forge in the Sea of Japan to join Task Force 77, the main striking force of the U.S. Seventh Fleet.

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The pilots had been briefed; they knew what awaited them. They would be spending a lot of time over enemy targets, and to destroy them they would have to fly low. By the end of the war, the carriers of Task Force 77, lying 125 miles from the coast of North Korea, would launch more than 255,000 sorties against the communist forces.

Sanko, who had fought in the Pacific in World War II, wrote his brother that his chances of being shot down would be “much greater than in the war with Japan.” Surviving a hit would be much harder. If aviators ditched at sea, Sanko explained, they would be in waters where “temp gets so low that a pilot can survive only five to eight minutes without a submersion suit.” He added: “I’ve got a real fight on my hands this winter.”

Sanko was just days shy of turning 30. He was an F4U Corsair pilot with VF-653, a Naval Air Reserve squadron from Akron, Ohio. His letters home—to his wife Millie, who was expecting their second child, and to his sisters and brothers—were collected and shared with me by his son Dan, who was three years old when his dad left for the war. One of 10 children in a tight-knit Polish-American family, Joe Sanko wrote mainly to reassure his wife and siblings about his safety. But his letters to his older brother Peter were more candid. Peter was a Jesuit, working as a cook at the St. Andrew-on-Hudson seminary (now the Culinary Institute of America) in Hyde Park, New York, and seemed to have the most in common with Joe. Each was far from home and bound emotionally to a new family: a group of men who depended on one another, in one case, for spiritual sustenance; in the other, for their lives.

VF-653 was part of a temporary carrier air group cobbled together with reservists and active-duty squadrons. Air Task Group One was a product of the Korean emergency, formed by sidestepping the need for separate Congressional authorization to commission new air groups.

Sanko was typical of the squadron’s aviators. Many were fathers and senior lieutenants with at least some World War II flight experience. Nearly all lived in Ohio or western Pennsylvania. A few were still in school on the GI Bill, but most were white- or blue-collar workers. VF-653’s 34-year-old executive officer, Ray Edinger, for example, was a General Motors service representative. Bob Balser, 26, one of the squadron’s few bachelors, was an illustrator for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Sanko was a coal miner whose occasional weekend aloft contrasted with long weekday shifts below ground. For each of these “weekend warriors”—like so many of today’s National Guard—the call to duty brought business and family routines to an abrupt halt.

In North Korea, the reservists would become bridge, road, and rail busters. Because that country lacked an industrial base, most of its supplies were hauled overland from Manchuria and the Soviet Union. Task Force 77 aviators specialized in the arduous, dangerous mission of destroying shipments and supply lines that coursed through the North’s rugged terrain. Day after day, they attacked railroads, roads, bridges, and the locomotives, trucks, and even ox carts moving along them.

The Korean War stretched the already thin ranks of America’s post-World War II armed forces. Within days of North Korea’s June 25, 1950 invasion of South Korea, Congress authorized the mobilization of reservists, and President Harry Truman immediately called up 25,000; before the year’s end, 135,000 more were tapped.

Fearful that Korea might be just the first step toward a global conflict, Pentagon brass kept organized units like VF-653 intact for Stateside training. But the delay in deployment was not just strategic. The Navy’s stock of fleet aircraft carriers had dwindled from a VJ Day total of 28 to just 11. Aircraft inventory had been cut too, from about 30,000 to less than 10,000. The consequences were predictable: delays in getting flight equipment and training; the use of World War II-era ships and aircraft pulled from mothballs; extended deployments for under-manned and under-maintained carriers; and reliance on the skills of an aging corps of carrier “prop jocks.”

At the outset, 14 Navy air reserve squadrons, including VF-653, were pressed into active duty. As established squadrons more fully integrated reservists and regulars, reservists would fly about a third of Navy and Marine Corps combat missions. In 1951, however, squadrons like VF-653 were conspicuous and untested.

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