The Ordeal of VF-653

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

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)
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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.

A July 1952 group photo taken on Valley Forge’s flight deck shows 18 flight-jacketed VF-653 crewmen. Arrayed at their feet are 13 flight helmets, emblazoned with polka dots and smiling clown faces, representing their missing comrades: two severely injured (and evacuated), 11 killed or missing. “A Navy photographer was taking pictures of us that day,” Balser recalls. “When he finished up, I gave him my camera and asked him to take this group shot.”

Back in Ohio and Pennsylvania, 11 families struggled with the losses. Dan Sanko tells me that his mom never fully recovered. She remarried several years later, but later divorced. She died in 1982.

In its April 4, 2005 issue, 53 years after Joe Sanko’s death, Newsweek published a letter from Kathy Sanko Fennell, Joe’s daughter. In response to a March 20 article entitled “Children of the Fallen,” Kathy, a physician’s assistant in Medford, Oregon, wrote: “I was 6 weeks old when he died. We never met. His remains were not recovered…. Throughout my life I often hoped that one day my father would suddenly appear…. There must be a better way to resolve conflicts that is less destructive.”

Dan Sanko grew up wanting to be a military pilot like his dad. “I had a ninth grade science teacher who gave us lessons on basic aviation and aerodynamics,” he tells me. “He had pictures of military aircraft that he asked the class to identify, but he wouldn’t let me even raise my hand. I knew every one of them.”


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