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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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(Continued from page 2)

Both rescues failed and two rescue helicopters crashed, one at each site. To make matters worse, a Corsair pilot from an ATG-1 night-flying detachment was killed, while five other RESCAP aircraft suffered crippling flak damage. VF-653’s Ray Edinger flew one of the damaged Corsairs, which had lost hydraulics and was dangerously low on fuel. When his Corsair touched down on Valley Forge, its wheel struts collapsed. Then, as the airplane skidded along the deck, a hung rocket on the port wing was jettisoned and tumbled forward. Flight deck crews raced for cover, but the rocket didn’t explode. Edinger managed to climb from the cockpit, shaken but unhurt.

Sanko, who had flown one of the RESCAP sorties, described it in a letter the next day. His flight had strafed and bombed a hill to keep North Korean troops from reaching the rescue site. Flying low, he’d destroyed a hidden anti-aircraft gun. His airplane, he wrote, “just quivered as near misses went by. I didn’t care, as we wanted so hard to give those poor guys on the ground some help.”

Novelist James Michener, who was then embedded with Task Force 77, described the day’s events in a newspaper dispatch titled “An Epic in Failure.” Michener had been impressed with the pilots’ perseverance. In an article in the July 1952 issue of Reader’s Digest, he recounted that the pilots had told him, “We don’t desert our men.” The experience inspired the fictional drama of downed aircraft and helicopter pilots that concludes Michener’s 1953 novel The Bridges at Toko-Ri.

***

The third combat tour for Valley Forge began on March 3. Better weather and a determination to take out North Korea’s railroad lines before the start of the monsoon season made the workload heavier. Sanko’s March 7 letter to his brother revealed that he’d flown three hops that day, getting “four [rail cuts] and four ox carts and again a small hole in the cowling of my plane….” With a new baby on the way, he was anxious “to see the next couple months scurry by.”

The North Koreans were matching the attackers’ pace. “Seems like the guns are increasing ever more in number and accuracy,” Sanko wrote in mid-March. “Every day the planes come back with battle scars…. Just can’t seem to be able to get a month without a loss.”

Aircraft records confirm his perception: Damage reports from enemy anti-aircraft fire were up 50 percent from ATG-1’s first tour. Because VF-653 had sustained the most pilot casualties in the group, Sanko wondered if “perhaps we are being too aggressive…. I’ve been trying to tell our skipper he was born with a horseshoe in his pocket. He’s as careless as they come at times.”

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.”

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