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Sidney Jack Wright
Odessa, Texas -
"There was a cease fire, but people were still being killed. We were never safe—not one day. Every day we had infiltration, and we had orders to shoot those who broke into the area to steal from us or harass us. Our aircraft were shot down by enemy ground fire and it was our job to go get them. When we did, we were shot at going out to them. We worked on airplanes with weapons on our shoulder."
- Jack Wright
My name is Sidney Jack Wright of Odessa, Texas. I was born on June 1, 1934 in Gomez, Texas, a little village about five miles west of Brownfield, Texas. My parents were Albert Sidney Wright and Celia Geneva Clark Wright.
My dad had 80 acres and some leased land near Gomez, but times were hard when the Great Depression came. Everybody had trouble making ends meet. My mother died in 1940 of a brain tumor the year I started school in Gomez, Texas, and my dad had an even harder time after that. We lived with my grandfather in Brownfield, Texas, for about a year. I had a brother who was in poor health at that time, and Dad had to transport him back and forth to doctors as well as try to make a living for his family.
At that time Texas had an 11-year school system, but when they changed it to a 12-year system in 1941, I was skipped from first grade to third grade at Gomez. I missed second grade. I finished third grade and then started fourth grade in Gomez, but when our family moved to Roswell, New Mexico in 1943, I finished the fourth grade at the East Grand Plaines School outside of Roswell. Even though I had switched to a new school, I was caught up with my education and was really making better grades than the kids at East Grand Plaines were when I got there in February. I passed on into the fifth grade just like all the other kids.
Dad married my mother's niece, Lena Elizabeth Carter. My dad and Lena had a daughter Sybil, who was born and died on the same day. Then they had four more children, so altogether our family eventually included the two of them, and eight living children. I have three sisters and five brothers.
We were encouraged to move to Roswell, New Mexico by an uncle, J.T. Waldrip, who was a farm manager for the Sterrett brothers, who owned a ranch there. Since my dad was an ex cow poke, my uncle convinced my father to move there and help them with their cattle operation. I grew up and was educated in Roswell. At age nine I was working on a hay baler on the cattle ranch where my father and uncle worked.
The two Sterrett brothers were from Michigan, and they had inherited some old alkaline land outside of Roswell. The land didn't have any water on it other than a surface well so nothing much grew on it, but they moved their families to New Mexico to work the 600-620 acre farm. In their section of land they had about 500-600 acres of tillable land. An oil driller wanted to drill for oil on the land and the Sterretts agreed to let him if he would drill a well for them whether or not he hit any oil. He didn't hit oil, but he drilled into the ground about 200-plus feet deep and struck water in a large artesan well about five miles from their farm. A few years later they drilled another well that was even better than the first one. It was called the Oasis Ranch well, and it was the largest artesian well in the world at the time. Once they had all the water they needed, they started growing feed--maize and alfalfa hay, and planted orchards. They built two big barns to hold the feed, each one capable of holding about 11,000 bales of hay. The crops grew in such abundance that they had trouble selling it. It was ranching country and a lot of people were in the feed market business. The Sterrett Brothers decided to lease a 30-section (30 square mile) ranch, Cap Rock Ranch, to take care of the feed problem. Several years later the Sterretts leased another 30 sections and then another small ranch of 20 sections. They ended up with about 80-90 sections.
Back in those days the federal government owned most of the land in New Mexico, and farmers and ranchers could only lease the ground. When the federal government sold off the leased ground in the early 1950s or so, the Sterretts bought the land they had leased and then helped finance area farmers who also wanted to buy their leased land. The Sterretts financed them with the stipulation that if they ever decided to sell they were to give the Sterretts first refusal to buy their land.
Wendell Sterrett became a millionaire several times over, but he was an unpretentious man. He wore regular non-bush slippers, khaki pants, a plain western style shirt, and a gray Stetson hat. He drove a car that was three or four years old. After I got out of the army I worked for him for a while. His wife became ill with migraines or whatever and she said she had to have solitude. There was already plenty of solitude out there already, but Wendell purchased some property for her around Ruidoso, New Mexico about 70 miles west of Roswell. It was a lot quieter then than it is now with its Indian-owned casinos and such. The new place had a well with a pressure pump, but it had city water so they didn't need the pump. When Wendell decided to go up to Ruidoso and bring the pump back to the ranch, he asked me to go with him in his two-ton Chevy flatbed truck. When we got to Ruidoso, he discovered that they had built a utility house around the pump and it would be too much trouble to tear the whole thing down just to get the pump. We went home without it.
On the way back to the ranch, we stopped at a restaurant and ate a bowl of chili. I didn't have any money so Wendell bought my chili. By the time we got down to the little town of Tinnie, we were almost out of fuel. We stopped at a service station there to get some gas, but neither of us had any money. Wendell had a check, but the gas station attendant wouldn't take a check unless it was guaranteed to be a good one. Wendell said he guaranteed that the check would be good, but the attendant wanted proof better than his word. Wendell told him to call his bank for the guarantee. (He was serving on the bank's board of directors at the time.) After making a call, the attendant came back and said that he still wouldn't take the check because nobody he had talked to on the phone knew who Wendell was. The attendant had called a credit agency instead of the bank. Wendell told him to try the bank's number, so the attendant did. He came back with his head hanging down and looking kind of sheepish. Wendell said, "Would they guarantee my check?" The attendant said, "They told me that if you wanted to buy the whole town of Tinnie you could write a check and you would be good for it." We got the gas and made it back home all right.
Surviving the Depression
During the Great Depression times were hard. My wife’s mother always said, "Everybody smelled the same." We were all poor. You couldn't buy a job in those days. We lived in a little community, and since we had a two-story house with lots of bedrooms and a big barn, we put up a lot of kinfolk during the Depression. The government created the CCC and WPA programs in order to feed people. Dad worked for the WPA on Highway 380. He leased out his team and his Fresno to earn money. A Fresno was about the width of a wagon and it was on two skids, one on each side. Horses pulled it over the ground, and as it was pulled, the Fresno loaded dirt with a straight scoop. To load it, the handle was pushed down a little. When it was transported, the driver rode the skids and pushed the handle down further. To unload it, the handle was raised, causing the whole Fresno to tilt a little, and the dirt fell out for spreading. The handle controlled whether the driver was loading, transporting, or unloading.
Dad also had a job at the gin and some acreage. Since Dad had plenty of work, we had groceries, even if we had no money. Because of all the people staying in our house, there was lots of illness and death and a lot of sad things happened during that time. But we were raised by "The Greatest Generation". That's what made them great--they knew how to work and they taught us how to work, too.
World War II
I was in third grade at Gomez country school when Pearl Harbor got bombed. I was seven at the time. Because our neighbor's radio had batteries and ours didn't, we went to their dairy to listened to Roosevelt’s speech. From then on we learned patriotism. We were taught that we were at risk of being occupied. A movie came out around 1943 called, "The Fighting Lady". It was about the ship, USS Yorktown, although the identity of the ship was kept secret at the time. Our teacher took us all to the movie to see it. I remember that it was in brilliant color and showed actual war scenes. We saw war movies all the time during World War II.
My father went for a physical so he could join the military, but he was turned down three times. They said that because he was a farmer he had a critical job and they wouldn't take him. Four of my uncles served in the war. My Uncle Jesse was only nine years older than me and I called him our "big brother". He went in the military in the later part of the war and was on the carrier Enterprise when it was hit by a Kamikaze at Okinawa. They hit the gun placement above him and he was thrown against the bulkhead. It knocked him out and he had a concussion. At the time they released him from service, they didn't realize that he had been permanently injured. Later on he began to have seizures and the VA found out that he had scars from his war injury. He couldn't work after that.
One of my uncles, Paul Wright, was in the horse cavalry that later became regular cavalry. He saw a lot of action. Another uncle was sent to Puerto Rico and wasn't in any real danger. Another uncle, Charles Wright, was a forward observer and engineer in Alaska for a time, but then they sent him to Belgium and France, where he stayed for most of the war. Lots of people in our community got killed in the World War II.
We lived five miles from Brownfield, but it was only about four miles to the place that collected scrap aluminum. Uncle Jesse had a bicycle with a basket and I had a little wagon. I remember him riding his bike while I pushed the wagon to take scrap iron to the collection center. Kids had stamp books for war bonds. The stamps were 10 cents each and when we got a stamp book full we bought a war bond for $18.75. Everybody had one of those stamp books. We had gas rationing, lard rationing, egg rationing, and bread rationing so we could feed the military troops. Everybody buckled up--civilians and military. We all pulled together to win the war.
I went to Roswell High School after graduating from East Grand Plaines grade school. In those days I had to be out of school part of the time to work on the farm. One year we had a big crop failure so I didn't have to work. I got to play football for the Roswell High School Coyotes and I ran track. I played defensive end and I loved it. The next year I wanted to go back to school and play football, but my father wouldn't let me because he said there was too much work to do on the ranch. If I couldn't play football I didn't want to go to school, so I dropped out my sophomore year. I eventually graduated at the age of 22 with a GED that I earned while I was in the army in Korea. I took some tests at the army education center that said I had an equivalent to two years college education. I scored higher than 98% of the other people who took the same eight-part test.
After dropping out of high school I learned how to be a Chevrolet mechanic by on-the-job training while working for McNalley-Hall Chevrolet & Buick in Roswell. I worked for them for a while before deciding to change jobs and go to Ford. Ford had offered me a job, but unfortunately after I had already quit my job to go to Ford, they wouldn’t take me due to my draft status. At the time, I was boarding with my uncle, Charles E. Wright, who was a World War II veteran. I boarded with him in town because my family lived on a ranch 25 miles from town.
Since I couldn’t find a job, I decided to enlist in the Army’s transportation corps in August of 1955. I enlisted at Roswell and took basic infantry training at Ft. Ord, California. I began my eight-week training there on August 8, 1955, but for two weeks after I got there I was in a holding unit for “yard birds”. Whatever hard, ugly work needed to be done, we yard birds did it. We scrubbed out toilets, dug trenches, and did whatever needed to be done. Our sergeants were really mean. I always thought they were frustrated drill sergeants. Later when I went overseas, one of those mean guys was onboard ship with me. At that time he was nice.
Basic training was rough, but I was very fortunate compared to the average American city-dwelling kid. I had a lot of physical conditioning in my growing up years. Working on a ranch where we had to load 200-pound bags of feed on and off trucks, hold cows down so we could brand them, pick cotton all day, and ride a horse all day had made me a pretty rugged individual. The only way kids get that kind of physical exercise nowadays is in sports.
Some of the guys in basic got extra duty if they fell out during one of the long marches we had to go on, but I never did. My uncle had already warned me before I left for my military training that our instructors would be yelling at us. I remember there was one smart-aleck kid who sassed the instructor and said, “I don’t want to do that.” The officer said, “I can’t hear you.” The kid raised his voice and said again, “I don’t want to do that.” The officer said louder, “I can’t hear you”--and ended up putting a bucket on the recruit’s head and making him march back and forth repeating, “I don’t want to do that.” The instructors in basic got the smart aleck out of the new recruits in order to make them into a soldier.
I remember that I got in trouble one time. We had a forced march where we went to training 17 miles away. That was the time of the “new Army” when they gave us everything we could physically stand. One day we went out for a march to a transition range in Ft. Ord where they actually had a town built especially for maneuvers and problems. After marching out to it, we were to go in and take the town with rifles and blanks. By the time we marched out to it we were dragging, but we went ahead and took the town in about two and a half hours. Then we had to march back. Some guy said, “We’re not going to have to walk back are we?” There were trucks, so we thought we would be able to ride back to our quarters. The officer said, “No, you’re not going to have to walk.” Instead, he made us double-time back on foot. Once we got back we all fell out. Unfortunately, I didn’t have my gas mask. They made an example of me. I had to do KP for about a week.
Cleanliness was important, but in the military there were always those who wouldn’t take a shower. We gave them a GI bath with an old scrub brush. Another funny memory I have of basic at Ft. Ord was at breakfast one day. I remember that one of the cooks asked a fellow how he wanted his eggs cooked, "Over easy or hard?". He said, "Hard." The cooks slid his eggs clear down the griddle and by the time it got to his plate it was hard alright!
We had rifle training, but I already knew how to shoot a rifle before I joined the army. When my uncle came home from the Navy in 1945 I was 11 years old and already had a shotgun. My brother and I hunted varmints, prairie dogs, squirrels, birds, ducks, everything at the ranch outside of Roswell. The area had lots of artisan wells and the Pecos Valley was beautiful because of all the reservoirs for irrigation. Because of all the water there were a lot of ducks.
Firing a rifle in the military was different than hunting for small game, however. The targets were stationary and they were so huge they weren’t really a challenge. The distance we had to shoot our M-1 rifles was usually up to 500 yards, with a special 1,000 yard target for sniper training. I had an expert score, so the army wanted to make a sniper out of me and keep me in the infantry. But I told them I didn’t want to sit off and hide and murder someone. I didn’t mind defending myself if I was attacked, but I didn’t want to kill them by sniper fire. My stomach couldn’t do that. When the army found out that I had mechanic skills, I was given an MOS of 671.2, which was aircraft maintenance.
At Ft. Ord we had periodic weekends of leave time. I was stationed at Monterey, one of the prettiest parts of California. Along the highway there were all kinds of beautiful places that had floor shows. I saw the big band leader and trumpet player Lionel Hampton at one of those places. We went on local tours. We went to the beach, but I didn't get in the water much because the surf was a little bit rough for a country boy. One time we went deep sea fishing after the first part of our training was over.
After our eight-week basic training was over, there was a graduation ceremony. Families from California and all over came to see it, including my cousin Ruby Cook, whose husband was also completing his training. We were in the same regiment, but I was in the 5th platoon and he was in another one. Ruby was my age so we had grown up together until about third or fourth grade. Her family were people who followed the harvest. They had stayed at our house part of the time during the Depression before they moved to Porterville, California.
After basic training was over I was transferred to Army Aviation. The army gave me a 30-day leave and then I reported for transportation training at Ft. Eustis, Virginia. Although I was now training in aviation maintenance, I was still a trained infantryman if I ever needed to fight. This came in handy in 1956, which I will tell about later in this memoir.
At Ft. Eustis I learned the principles of flight and all about airplanes. In order to repair them we had to know what made them work. We learned the principles of internal combustion engines. We also learned how to drive the planes on the ground because after the pilots got out we then had to take the planes over to the maintenance buildings to service them. Once we learned how to do that and then started flying with the pilots, we started to receive flight or “pro pay”—which brought in another $40 a month in our paychecks.
The hardest thing for me during transportation training was learning procedures, continuity, and organization of everything. It was pretty technical. We had to learn how the controls worked, how to guide planes up and down, controls for flaps, etc. Certain tensions were needed on cables and we had to know what those were. We had to learn how to use the prop pitch indicator. We learned how to use the tensionmeter. We had to adjust all of the control surfaces to make the plane fly correctly. We had to be a lot more about airplanes than the pilot., but he could fly it better than we could.
I had every weekend off at Ft. Eustis, so I found a girlfriend at William and Mary College, which was located near Ft. Eustis. She and I went to colonial old town a lot. All of the maritime museums were there, so I went to those, too. The Norfolk Navy shipyard was the graveyard of old ships from World War II. I went down there a lot. I wasn’t much of a fisherman, but I remember fishing off the wharf in Norfolk.
One weekend I went to a barn dance at Richmond. Famous singers like Ernest Tubbs and Webb Pierce performed there. I remember one opening act was some “idiotic clown” wearing a suede sport coat. He got up there to sing and shook his legs and stuff on the stage. That “idiotic clown” was Elvis Presley before he was famous. He was just a Tupelo flash back then. My brother-in-law, Mac McAlister, was in a five-man band in Memphis, Tennessee, and Elvis had tried out for it, but Mac said they wouldn’t hire him because he said Presley didn’t know how to pick a lick.
During my 26 weeks at Ft. Eustis I had a leave at Christmas time and went to Memphis, Tennessee to visit my sister Ruth over the holidays. Then after my training was complete, I had a short leave in Roswell and then was sent to Ft. Lewis, Washington, where I stayed for two weeks before boarding a ship to Korea at Seattle. I had already received overseas orders for Korea.
Trip to Korea
Going over to Korea, I remember hearing someone on the ship say, “The war is over so we don’t have to worry about being killed.” That statement proved not to be true, which I will explain a little later. The trip from the USA to Japan lasted 13 days. I was assigned to a modern, two-stacker troop transport, the USNS General Edwin D. Patrick. We cruised at 21 knots most of the time. I had never been on a boat bigger than a rowboat before, but I handled the trip just fine. I didn’t get sick, but we hit some rough weather on the trip and a lot of the others did get sick. It was hard to walk down the galley way because of all the vomit on the deck, and the smell was awful.
The ship had several large compartments to sleep in, with about 16 men to a compartment. Bunks were stacked three high and were held up by chains from the bulkhead of the ship. Those on the top bunks had to climb up ladders to get to their sleeping space. I tried to always be in the middle bunk, but sometimes we had to change places with those who couldn’t tolerate where they were bunked.
There was a galley where they fed us and where we sometimes had KP duty. The food was great. I remember having steak, hamburger steak, fish and assorted sea food, turkey, chicken, fresh vegetables—everything. We sat on stools to eat at tables. We learned how to live on the ship as we went. I remember one time the port holes were open when we hit real rough sea. I was working in the kitchen at the time. A wave hit the ship and water poured into the galley. We had to close the portholes and clean up the mess caused by the water.
This ship had a merchant marine crew and they warned us not to gamble with them. We played cards and games with the other soldiers onboard to pass the time, and I remember that there were three movie nights on the trip going over. I also remember the fun we had when crossing the international dateline. They made people dress up in skirts and all kinds of weird stuff. I remember there was a big old fat sailor and they made us kiss him on the belly button.
As I mentioned, we hit some rough weather. It was during one of those times that one guy on the ship got an appendicitis attack. Since we only had a general medical team that didn't have the capability to handle surgery onboard our ship, we had to go out of our way hundreds of miles to rendezvous with another ship that had a medical staff that could deal with his appendicitis. When the two ships connected, they sent the patient over in a basket in a line, one ship to the other. After that we went back on our normal path.
Apparently due to the interruption in our course of travel, we ended up in fishing waters about 26 miles off the coast of Yokohama, Japan, where we collided with a 26-foot fishing boat. We thought the world had come to an end when the collision occurred. Our ship tried to reverse the engines before we hit the fishing boat, but the collision happened anyway. Everybody was told to remain calm. The 26 fishermen on the fishing boat were taken onto our ship, but when it was determined that they were okay, they let them go back to their own boat. Most of the injuries were on our ship, caused when we reversed engines. People onboard our ship fell and some were injured during the fall.
Arriving in Korea
Once we got to Japan we had to remain on the ship. No passes were issued. We stayed in port one day, then went on to Inchon harbor in Korea from there. Inchon had a huge harbor, as well as one of highest tides in the world. We had to wait for the tide to come in to offload. We then had to unload on LST-type ships to go on land.
We could smell Korea miles away before we got to it. It smelled of dead fish and sewage. When the tide went out it left nothing but mud behind. It was a nasty, filthy place. There were wharfs all around the bay where they loaded and unloaded ships. I recall seeing a few fine houses high up on the hill, but not many. Some houses in Inchon were brick, and others were made of rock or timber. I didn’t see anything that made me think there was wealth there. It was a poor country, and Inchon reminded me of some of the towns along the border of Mexico. The island of Wolmi-do, which sat on the other side of the bay from Inchon, seemed to have more trade and looked a little more prosperous than the rest of the port areas. American military had some things there.
Once we got to shore we rode troop trucks to an area near the 121st Evacuation Hospital. We saw natives when we unloaded from the ship, and we drove by them on the trip to our unit. They walked beside the road carrying their burdens on poles. Old ladies had heavy clay pots (that most women wouldn't normally be able to carry) balanced on their heads. Not at this time, but later on I saw some of the GI’s riding by on trucks reach out with their rifles and try to knock the pots off the women’s heads. That made me mad. I didn’t think that was right.
8178th Transportation Army Aircraft Maintenance Company
I arrived in Korea in April of 1956, and at a nearby repo depot (replacement depot) I was assigned to the 8178th Transportation Army Aircraft Maintenance Company located a 14-mile drive from Kimpo. My unit was part of what was known as Ascom City--a big government complex that included the 121st Evacuation Hospital, a replacement depot, an engineer and military police battalion, etc. All kinds of UN countries were represented there. Ascom City was about 16-20 miles from the DMZ. Seoul was about the same distance from the DMZ as we were.
When our truck arrived at company headquarters, I saw mostly Quonset huts. My quarters were in a Quonset hut that could hold about 40 people and 40 beds. There was an oil stove in the middle of the building. Our unit was the field maintenance unit, so we had more of the conveniences than the people at the DMZ or infantry areas had. For instance, we had a big hot water boiler that furnished hot water for the whole unit. We also had electricity, and lockers with our bunks.
Five Quonset huts were living quarters for enlisted men, and there were permanent, wooden huts for officers on the east side of the complex. Located in the middle of everything was the mess hall, which was also a permanent building. It looked exactly like the one featured on the television series M*A*S*H. There was a recreation center nearby that had ping pong, pool tables, a stage for shows, a juke box, slot machines, and tables and chairs. The supply area was on the west side of the complex and the company Headquarters and guard house were in the middle. The airstrip had a north/south runway and an east/west runway. It was a light paved strip that could accommodate about 20 small aircraft. There was a memorial near the control tower to two Korean War heroes, Rogers and Ludlow, who lost their lives there during the active war.
There was more than one mess hall in our compound. Each separate unit had a regular mess that was just for the personnel of that unit. Canned foods, powdered milk, and baked goods were served there. In addition we had an "open mess" that was like a restaurant. Anybody who paid could eat there, no matter what unit they were from. The only time we didn't have to pay for food at the open mess was when we had CQ duty at night answering the phone and such.
The guard building was also a first aid building for minor injuries. More serious injuries were treated at the 121st Evacuation Hospital, which was housed in an actual building. One time I caught some aluminum in my arm while reaching through an aluminum airplane. At the time it happened, I didn’t know that some of the aluminum chips had lodged in my arm. My arm eventually got inflected, and I had to spend the night at the 121st for treatment of the infection. A couple of days later I was back on duty.
Our bathroom was like an outhouse. It had about five holes and there was a trough of water leading from one hole to another. One time our Sergeant sat down on one of the holes and a rat in the trough bit him. I remember that one of the traffic control tower operators was a cartoonist. He was one of the cartoonists for the Dennis the Menace series. You can imagine what kind of cartoon he drew based on that rat incident!
Besides the outhouse there was a shower for the indigent women who worked on the post. We had a fire guard who checked all the fires day and night, and there was a hot water heater for this shower. Some of the guards would open the shower door and make the ladies scream. I didn’t do it, but others did.
Our chapel was where the education area was and church was available on Sundays. My buddy, J.B. Rogers, was a Christian boy. There was a little church in the village that he said was a Church of Christ. My mom attended the Church of Christ and Dad was a Baptist, so I kind of leaned toward the Church of Christ. J.B. and I attended that Korean Church of Christ pretty regularly. The congregation didn’t speak English and all we knew was some pigeon Korean, but we had an interpreter who sat with us and told us what was said. I heard that the largest Church of Christ in the world was established in Seoul sometime after I rotated home. Although most Koreans at the time I was there were Buddhists, I heard that thousands and thousands of people later attended the Church of Christ in Seoul. One of the ministers who helped found that Church of Christ was from Morton, Texas.
Duties at the 8178th
In July of 1953 there had been a cease fire of the active war in Korea. However, because there was no peace treaty then (and still isn't one to this day in 2014), our aircraft were always on alert. Combat support and liaison planes flew missions every day. The 8178th was the main maintenance facility for most of the Army aircraft in the country. Aircraft that needed maintenance came to us from all over Korea because we provided heavy maintenance. There were several small airstrips throughout Korea, but any maintenance too heavy to do at them was brought to us. We did all periodic overhauls.
What spare parts we didn't have to make repairs we had to order from Tachikawa, Japan or from airplane manufacturers in the USA such as Cessna. We were forbidden to cannibalize wrecked aircraft, but if an officer came up to us and said, "I want that L-19 in the air by noon," he really didn't care where we got the parts to fix it. If we told him that we didn't have the parts, he would say, "I don't care where you get them--I don't want to know. Just get that plane ready to fly." Since pilots were generally not good mechanics, we sometimes had to do a test flight with them. We didn't mind because we got paid an extra $40 a month for flying.
We had every aircraft tool needed to fix a plane--hoists, jacks, grinders, measuring tools, etc. We also "made do" at the 8178th. Our movie generator and the fuel tank for it came from spare ones owned by the Air Force. We didn't "steal" them. We "borrowed" them. Unfortunately, we got orders that they both had to be returned to the Air Force--no questions asked if we got them back to them by a certain time. We did. It so happened that the fuel tank was an F-86 drop tank that was being used at Kimpo Air Base when we "borrowed" it.
Our regular hours of work were about ten hours a day from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., with a break for lunch. I was not a helicopter repairman at the time, I was an airplane mechanic. My job was to work on fixed wing aircraft such as the L-20 Beaver, L-19 Liaison, L-23 twin engine Beechcraft, and the larger Arrow Commander twin engine executive aircraft. We pulled engines out, tore them down, and fixed them. We set the tension on cables. We did anything and everything that made an airplane fly.
It was a 67-mile flight across the water to Japan. If an airplane had some little something wrong with it or was damaged a little bit and required that we take it to Tachikawa, we had to make it perfect before we flew it over the water. We wasted probably millions of dollars on old airplanes that were not serviceable anymore, just rebuilding them to get them to Japan. Then at Tachikawa, our government would tear the planes down, put them in crates, and ship them to the States to be sold at auction as army surplus. In fact, in Odessa, Texas, there was a place that used to rebuild Cessnas formerly used by the military. Several of those surplus planes were sold at Schlemeyer Field just outside of Odessa to civilians who wanted them for aerobatics and such.
When a plane went down, it was our job to decide if it had been brought down by pilot error, mechanical failure, or enemy activity such as sniper fire. One time we went on an aircraft recovery up by the DMZ. The pilot of an L-19 had had a hard landing and messed up the landing gear on it. Our unit was down by Inchon, a good 14 miles southeast of Kimpo. There was a good road that went from our unit to Seoul. Then we went north of Seoul to the DMZ area where the plane was. Our truck was empty on the way up to the DMZ, but we had the L-19 on the back of it on the return trip through Seoul. I had to ride in the back of the truck with the airplane due to the power lines in Seoul. The lines were so low that we had to use a stick of lumber with a notch on the end of it to hold the power lines up over the tail of the plane as we went under the lines. We went past the Emperor's palace, the circular drive, etc. I remember the beautiful architecture and the Han River Bridge. During the early days of the war, one of my friends from high school had been a guard in the MP's on the opposite end of the bridge after the communists had gained control of Seoul.
Sometimes we had extra duty besides airplane maintenance and guard duty. There was one officer who made us dig ditches for extra duty. We deliberately slowed down our airplane maintenance because he was riding us so hard; and as a result, fewer planes were ready to fly. This caught the attention of four-star general I. D. White who flew in from Japan to make an informal inspection of the 8178th to see what was causing the problem. The procedure when a field officer came for a visit was to drop everything you're doing and yell, "Attention." I shook hands with him (with my greasy hand!) upon his arrival, and he told me to carry on with my work instead while he began his inspection. He also borrowed my rag to clean the grease off his hand. When he left, he took our commanding officer with him and we never saw him again.
Remember the guy on the ship who said that we would not be killed because the war in Korea was over? Well, the war in Korea was “over” in 1956 like the war in Afghanistan is “over” now. There was a cease fire, but people were still being killed. We were never safe—not one day. Every day we had infiltration, and we had orders to shoot those who broke into the area to steal from us or harass us. Our aircraft were shot down by enemy ground fire and it was our job to go get them. When we did, we were shot at going out to them. We worked on airplanes with weapons on our shoulder.
The first plane I worked on when I got over there was an L-20. The observation plane had a camera well, and one day while it was on a mission it received ground fire. The plane was shot up and the cables that operated the rudder and allowed elevation control were shot through with bullets. While the captain was flying the plane up in front, his sergeant got down in the camera well, lay down on his stomach, and operated the controls by hand at the pilot’s command. They were able to land the plane. The sergeant was lucky that he didn’t get hurt. The pilot wasn’t as lucky. When they got to him he was covered with blood and he was dead.
Snipers shooting at our planes happened all the time, but I don’t think they were always trying to kill us. I think they were just trying to terrorize us. Since we were about 20 miles south of the DMZ, we were always on alert. One day we even loaded up for a practice bug-out drill in case we ever had to do bug-out for real.
A Turkish brigade was located in our company area. They had just a wire fence around their compound. When the slicky boys (thieves and guerillas) came into their compound to try to sabotage aircraft, trucks and whatever or steal and do whatever damage they could, the Turks killed them. The Turks saw them as enemies so they just took care of them. They cut off their heads and put them on sign boards on their gate as a warning. This was investigated by the United Nations after it happened. I don't know what they decided, but they reprimanded the Turks for treating civilians like that.
Russian-made MiGs flew over us to test our resolve. They just flew over without dropping anything. I happened to be assigned as an aircraft gunner on the company’s 50-caliber machine gun mount. During an alert three of us were to grab ammo, run down there, and mount it up. We never did have to fire it. I always wondered if I had to fire it at the enemy how long it and we would last--one bunker-mounted .50 calibre gun against eight similar guns on each MiG aircraft plus any missiles they might have.
My Scariest Day in Korea
May Day was a day of celebration for communists, and it always caused us problems. On May Day 1956 there was a big riot all over Korea, and on that day communist sympathizers from the village across the road from the 8178th assaulted our unit. We had to drive them back until they scattered. We didn't have combat-ready troops at the 8178th at that time. There was a military police unit, but other than that, the only thing "combat ready" about us was what we had learned in basic. We were outnumbered, but we used the diamond mob dispersal tactic. We formed a big diamond shape and marched into the village. The squads on the rear of the diamond broke off on the right and left side and went down the right and left side of the streets to push the villagers back. We did that on each street until the crowd was dispersed. When we started they said they were communists and hollered at us, "Go home GI". Our first sergeant told us, "No violence, no violence." But when he got hit by a two-by-four, things changed. We all started defending ourselves and if someone tried to harm us we hit them. By the time it was all over there were no more communists--just villagers again.
This was not long after the DMZ had been established and they really got it working. We had an American artillery unit stationed on the road between our place and Seoul. That day the communists decided to drive a tank into No Man’s Land on the DMZ. Our artillery unit had been zeroing their guns on every square inch of the DMZ as a drill just in case. When that North Korean tank came out there on May Day 1956, our artillery fired three shots with their big guns. The North Korean tank and the infantry units behind it were wiped out. We let them come and get their dead, and the destroyed tank remained there as a reminder to those who were always shooting at us.
That May Day was the scariest day I ever had in Korea. Those people were crazy--and they wanted to kill us. I would compare that day in Korea to what happened during the riots in Watts, Los Angeles a few years ago. It wasn't the North Korean military that attacked us. It was civilian people who went nuts on May Day and rioted. We were ordered to take care of ourselves and the hospital if needed, but we also had strict orders not to shoot anyone. The hospital, the replacement depot, and the 504th Engineer Battalion had their own people to protect them. They had many more people than we did really.
Ascom City was a former Korean War battle ground. The engineering units had done a good job of clearing the roads of minefields, but there was still evidence of the past war. In 1956-57, the buildings in Kimpo were still full of bullet holes from past battles. Many of our Korean War dead were still missing; in fact, there were more missing from the Korean War than the Vietnam War because so many of the battles had taken place in North Korea.
Since we were not far from North Korea and the DMZ, tension was there all the time. We had alerts at least once a week. Living in that tension was one of my worst memories of Korea. Any GI will tell you that being on alert all the time is like always getting ready for an exam that could happen any time. The tension even caused one of the guys in our unit to commit homicide. I don’t know if he had had a bad day or what, but he had a mental breakdown and killed one of his buddies. Many of the disabilities that Korea veterans have today were caused by the tension they were under while stationed in Korea.
I don't think any of us were resentful because we had been sent to Korea, although we made jokes about it. That’s what we were in the army for--to protect the country. Anyone who didn't understand that shouldn’t have been there. I was there just five years after the end of World War II. Japan had once controlled the peninsula, and then Russia tried to assume control of the peninsula, but Truman didn’t let that happen. He defended South Korea. The United States has had troops there since 1945. (My uncle Berry Watts from Texas was a career soldier who was in World War II and then in Korea in 1948.) When the Communists attacked South Korea, they were basically attacking our people as well.
Dressed for Cold
Weather conditions in Korea are also a bad memory for me. It was very cold in Korea during the winter (sometimes 20-30 below zero). The lowest temperature I observed was 38 degrees below zero. We had a weather station at the control tower, so that was an official temperature. There was snow--wet snow that would have been great for skiing, but not so great for living and working outside. The cold caused all kinds of problems for us. Health-wise, there were a lot of flu-like symptoms and many got sick in spite of how we tried to keep warm. Lack of sanitation was the main cause of the illnesses. The civilians used human waste to fertilize the fields.
On our beds we had a tarp-like affair as a bottom liner of the bunk, and then we had a heavy wool blanket. Over that we put a type of "feather bed" that we could zip up like a sleeping bag. On top of that we put more blankets. To keep warm while on and off duty, we wore insulated Mickey Mouse boots. Inside of those we wore our combat boots and wool socks. We wore long woolen underwear under our heavy winter olive green pants (OGs). In addition, we wore a wool sweater under a wool blouse that was under a down-lined field jacket. We had a parka on over that. On our heads we wore a wool hat that had ear holes so we could hear, eye holes to see out, and a hole to breathe through, as well as a wool cap over that. We were issued steel hats, but I usually wore a leather hat instead. We wore lined gloves. Trigger finger gloves were also available, but I didn't like them.
Honestly though, even all of these winter clothes didn't keep us warm, especially when we had to walk guard duty. We had a battery shop and in order to keep the batteries in good shape we had to keep the shop warm. At the same time, we couldn't put heaters directly in the shop because it would have been too dangerous around the batteries. Instead, we had a fire in an insulated room separate from the battery shop. Sometimes one guard would slip into the insulated room to get warm while the other guard walked both shifts. Then they would change places so the other guy could try to warm up a little.
There was always more than one guard on duty--one guarding east/west and the other guarding north/south in the runway and aircraft maintenance areas. There was a similar set up in the company area where we lived and where our mess hall, open mess, officers quarters and supply areas were located. (The officer area was a prime target for the slicky boys.)
We carried live ammunition, and we were supposed to challenge anyone we caught stealing. There was no place to hold any thieves we captured, so we were ordered to beat them up to stop them from theft. I wouldn't do it. We were ordered to shoot them, but I don't know anyone who actually shot them.
There were two types of fencing--barbed wire called apron wire fencing in layers all around the outside of our compound. Inside of that and between another layer of the apron fencing was concertina wire. That was spring wire that had barbs all over it. Then we had a deep ditch with concertina wire inside the ditch all around the compound. They still managed to get through there and steal from us. They were expert thieves from birth.
Ice - Enemy of Aviation
Ice has always been the enemy of aviation, and just like back in the States, we couldn't fly planes in Korea under icy conditions. We had to store the fuel carefully and make sure that all moisture was out of it. Furthermore, because the planes were hard to start in cold weather, we had to use heaters to heat engines in order for them to start better and keep the oil warmed up so the plane could fly.
Ice also caused problems on the mountainous roads. One time an officer and I put an airplane engine in the back of a deuce and a half and started down the draw of a canyon. After we started down the hill we saw a wreck at the bottom where a 3/4 ton truck and a civilian vehicle had collided. We knew we were not going to be able to stop. We knocked that 3/4-ton vehicle out of the way. No one was in either vehicle, but the drivers of both vehicles were standing nearby. We stopped upon impact, filed an accident report with the army driver, and he turned the report over to the MPs.
We went on to Taegu and installed the R985 radial engine in an L-20 Beaver that belonged to the Air Force. We stayed there for three days because the airplane was hard to start. We didn't have the right equipment on hand at Taegu. We had some discussion on why we couldn't get the plane started. I felt that there wasn't a proper mixture of fuel, air and ignition. The impellar on the plane wasn't working properly so we had to wait for a part from Japan before we could install it and go on back home. Tachikawa had left a part out, which is what caused the problem, even though they didn't want to admit it.
During cold weather we had heaters with air ducts that we used outdoors for the aircraft. We put the air ducts into the aircraft to blow hot air into engine to warm it up so the planes would start up in the cold weather. We used some of those same heaters in our maintenance shop to keep it warm. The heaters were outside the shop, but the hot air was blown in through the ducts.
We had people assigned to fill the heaters up with gasoline. They were to shut them off, wait a certain period of time for the heaters to cool down, and then go back and fill them up. They used the same truck that we used to refuel our rescue aircraft because it had a large supply, and they used a smaller truck (3.4 Dodge) that had a small tank that carried 50 gallons. The tank had a hose leading from it.
One day two guys decided to do the refueling quicker. They didn’t shut the heater off and let it cool down. Instead, they figured they would take the nozzle off the end of the hose and one of them would hold the hose up until they moved to the next tank. Then they would let the hose down to pour into the opening of the heater tank. Unfortunately, when the gasoline hit one of the hot heater tanks, it caught fire. The driver jumped out and he lived, but he was badly burned. The reason he had to jump out was because the fuel was pouring out of the hose that the other guy dropped and the fire was catching up with the truck. The guy holding the hose got severely burned and died later on. The truck blew up but the driver got out in time. It was a dumb accident. Most fires are.
During monsoon season we had rain gear in the form of slickers and rain parkas. Rice was a main crop in Korea, so monsoon season was good for Korean farmers.
I was at the 8178th when a typhoon hit. Our airstrip was low and our headquarters were kind of up on a hill from that. We had warning that the typhoon was going to hit, but there wasn't much we could do about it. Kimpo's airstrip was full and couldn't accommodate our planes, and there wasn't anyplace else to evacuate them to because the typhoon was going to hit the whole area. All we could do was tie down our planes with ropes, get inside our Quonsets, and hope for the best. When the wind started blowing and strips of 4x8 sheet metal began flying around, we were all terrified. Our Quonsets were anchored in concrete so we had very little damage, even though the wind blew for 10 or 12 hours. When the eye passed over, everything was calm. It was totally still with no wind. We jumped into our deuce and a half and went down to the airstrip to check on the damage and the tie downs. Ocean water had come up on the strip, but there wasn't too much damage. We had to jump out of the truck and wade through water to check the tie downs. Water had come up about five feet on the strip and it was clear up to the floor of the cabins of the planes. The engineers helped us repair what little damage was done to our buildings after the typhoon was all over. There wasn't hardly any water in the Quonset huts or other buildings. The village huts were made of straw and wood, and there was lots of damage to them. We gave them what we could to repair their huts after the typhoon was over, but we also saw stolen parts of our airplanes and any sheet metal they could find covering their huts after they repaired the storm damage.
There was a Korean village located somewhat northwest across the road from the 8178th's airstrip. The village was a typical Korean community that included several clusters of about four houses each, fenced off in half block areas roughly similar to what we in the USA call "gated communities". Entrances to each of those buildings opened into a square that was within the enclosed area. The population of the village was probably 800-1,000 Koreans. It had a police building near the gate that was on our side of the village, various churches, a little Buddhist temple, statues of dragons, etc.
Korean mamasans from the nearby village were assigned to take care of the housekeeping needs of the GIs stationed at the 8178th. These ladies came over each day to work in our huts, straightening our beds after we left to go on our daily duties, doing our laundry, etc. It was sort of like the maid service in a luxury motel. There was one mamasan per three to five men, and each of us paid her $5.00 a month. That was a lot of money for them because I doubt if most Koreans made even $2.00 a week. Back in those days, ten cents would buy more than $1.10 would today. I bought a new Plymouth with air conditioning and everything for $2500 in 1966. Last year (2013) I had to pay $28,000 for a new car.
My mamasan was under 35 years of age, but it was like having my own mother there. If I did something that she thought was mean or something, she would hit me over the head with her broom. She looked after me real good, and it was nice to have her and the other women around. Besides "Mamasan", there were two other women from the village that worked in our hut. One was a young lady (who might have been Mamasan's daughter) that we called Babysan, and another one was about 22-23 years old that we called Jo-san. For as far back as Roman times there have already been women around any army post, offering sex for those who wanted to partake of it. We were not allowed to date any of the Korean women and we didn’t have any wrong contact with the mamasans in Korea at all. They just took our laundry to the washing facility we had in the compound, and cleaned up after us in the hut.
There was a Korean man in the village who did gopher work for us. He was an excellent repairman who could fix anything mechanical. He worked with metal, wood, concrete, anything. He was a natural do-in-yourself man. He made me a ring out of stainless steel that had his name and my name on it. Unfortunately, I lost the ring. But I still remember him for his great wisdom. Papasan, as I called him, could see the bright side of things, and he always seemed to say the right thing to us when things were looking bad. We could understand him because he spoke English. I don’t know where he learned it, but Korea had been under American occupation for 11 years by that time.
Fish Heads & Fermented Cabbage
We were not allowed to eat Korean food made in native homes. Eating it was a court-martial offense. Lack of cleanliness and hygiene was the reason why. Their home cooking wouldn’t pass any restaurant examination. It was just nasty. One of their main foods was Kimchee. That was fish heads, cabbage, onions, garlic, and whatever they had to throw in a clay pot. They stored the pot underneath their huts, putting dirt all around it and letting it sit and ferment like homemade brew. If they ate that stuff before they went to work, the natives weren't allowed on the base because they smelled so bad. The Kimchee served in American restaurants is no relation to the creations we saw and smelled in Korea. Take our word or remain ignorant! We who were there smelled it all.
There were tigers and monkeys in Korea. Although no one in my company did, I heard of some officers who went on the tiger hunts. They took an enlisted man with an M-1 rifle with them in case someone started shooting at them. There was great superstition in Korea. They believed that monkeys or apes stole babies, and it was a great insult to call a Korean a "won-song-ee" (monkey).
Funerals and going into the next world were important to Koreans. One of their superstitions was that if someone touched the body of a dead person, that someone was responsible for taking care of the funeral. I remember seeing a dead man on the side of the road who looked like he had been about to step up on the wooden sidewalk when he apparently collapsed and died right there. He was wearing black clothes, and it must have been during one of the cooler seasons because he was dressed warmly. Everybody just walked around him and left his body there. The dead were always eventually removed and buried--sometimes without anybody seeing who did the removing.
As I mentioned earlier, I took lots of pictures in Korea and Japan. Some of the pictures were of a Korean funeral procession. They put the deceased in an upright casket on a big pedestal and about 16 pallbearers carried it to the burial ground. The procession had mourners that sang sad songs and cried. The dead were buried sitting up.
One time we found a little boy in a bombed-out ball bearing building. He was about five years old at the time. He had piled some straw in a corner of it and he was living there. The orphanage couldn’t take him and he didn’t have any place to go, so we adopted the little guy and brought him back to our unit to live with us. He was assigned to the NCOs to take care of him. We put him in a little khaki uniform identical to the ones we wore in the summer, put some stripes on him, and called him Sergeant Lee. He was a real cutie and was the most spoiled brat you ever saw. He was a character. He slept with the NCOs in their quarters. I don't know whatever became of him. When I left Korea he was still with the unit.
In 1956 I asked my little 13-year-old sister what she wanted for Christmas. She said she wanted some can-can slips. I didn't have a clue what a can-can slip was. (They weren’t in the States when I went over to Korea.) So instead of getting her a can-can slip, I enlarged a picture that I had of her and had her portrait drawn by a Korean artist. My sister was a blonde, so the artist thought she had blue eyes and painted them that way. My sister had brown eyes, and did I get in trouble for that!
Our unit worked with an orphanage in a little village northeast of Inchon, Korea. It was a church- and military-sponsored orphanage located about five miles away from us and not too far from the 121st Evacuation Hospital. At least once a week we took groceries to the orphans, fed them, played with them, and talked to them. I liked children and really got attached to some of them. Kids are kids, no matter what country they live in. I took pictures of the orphanage and some of the children there. Years later after Korea, my wife and I went to work for a children's home in Texas. We took care of 52 kids and got attached to them, too. I mentioned my Uncle Berry Watts earlier. We compared notes about our time in Korea. We both liked the kids and we felt sorry for them. The people of South Korea had a tremendous love for their kids, they really did.
It was fun watching the kids. If they had a rock, a stick, and dirt, they had all the toys they needed. They played a game kind of like jacks here in the USA, except they played it with stones or whatever they had. Sometimes they made little figures that they picked up with the ball. They also had a hopscotch type of game. I recall that they had very imaginative games--like swinging a clay rock from a pole and batting it around. It was amazing what they could figure out to play.
In the Fall of 1956 I went on my first R&R, staying at the Ga-jo-en, a beautiful R&R hotel in Tokyo, Japan. Alan Zavar and I were in the room resting after taking in the sights. Alan was in the bathroom and I was asleep on the bed when all of the sudden the bed started shaking. I said, "That's real funny, Zavar." I thought he was pulling a joke on me, but we were in an earthquake. All the people were running out away from the building and into the streets. They were used to it, but we weren't! I bought the standard souvenirs to take home--mother of pearl photo albums and picture frames and that sort of thing. I took pictures of the Emperor’s Palace and rode a train bike on Mt. Fuji (and I broke it!). In February 1957, Jay Rogers (from California) and Alan Zavar (from Pennsylvania) went with me on my second R&R to Japan. We went to Hiroshima to see where the bomb had been dropped and rode the fast trains. It was funny to see the small-statured Japanese people and it was cute to see the friendly little kids who came up to us to practice their English on us. We saw the Datsun factory and saw how industry was coming back, but the country was pretty torn up. It looked similar to the devastation of a forest fire. We went to the Ginza shopping area and took in the Toyko premier of the "Love me Tender" movie by Elvis Presley. We took the baths and toured quite a few of the islands. I took a lot of pictures on my second R&R, but they and all of my first R&R pictures were stolen along with my camera bag on the day we were going back to Korea.
I returned to Korea from that second R&R on the afternoon of February 22, 1957, landing at Kimpo, Korea, in a C-124 Globemaster. Gen. Billy Mitchell once said about the Globemaster, “If you’ve got enough horsepower you can fly a barn door.” The joke among Air Force personnel was, “They left the barn on it.” Once we landed I had to wait for a ride back to the 8178th, which was located at an air strip across a rice paddy from the 121st Evacuation Hospital. I made the trip from Kimpo to the 8178th in a three-quarter ton truck, and by the time I got to my quarters I was ready for a good night’s sleep.
Unfortunately, nobody from Ascom City, the 8178th Transportation unit, or anyone else stationed in the area got any sleep that night. Shortly after I returned to my company, the crash emergency siren sounded and we were alerted that a C-124 Globemaster had crashed on a sandbar in the Han River shortly after takeoff. It was a traumatic situation. The plane was on fire on its right wing, and since it had just refueled, it was loaded with fuel that could explode any minute. Fortunately the fuel never caught fire, but there were fatalities and many casualties that had to be evacuated as soon as possible.
The crash site was about 15 to 16 miles away from our airstrip. Once the sirens went off we were ordered to prepare our choppers for use in the evacuation of wounded and to prepare a refueling station for them at the south end of our air strip. We had maintenance buildings, and that night there were some 15-20 helicopters parked there for repairs and whatnot. As I said, nobody got any sleep that night.
Most of our helicopters were H-13s. They were little and had only one fiberglass shell on each side of the copter that could carry one litter casualty each. The litters were placed inside the shell and then covered with a glass dome to keep the patient out of wind and other weather conditions. In emergency situations the helicopter could also transport one casualty inside the copter along with the pilot, but because the helicopters were small, there was a weight limit. The H-19 helicopters could transport more injured, but they took longer to load, so the H-13s could actually transport more casualties because they were faster to load and unload. That night the little H-13s probably transported 60-70 casualties or more to the 121st.
It was our job to not only refuel the copters by running fuel to them through a hose from a tank truck, but also we helped unload the casualties from the H-13s and load those who were able to ride in ambulances for transport over to the 121st Evac Hospital. Those too badly injured to make the trip in an ambulance were taken by helicopter directly to the air strip located next to the 121st.
It was one of the coldest nights I can ever remember. We were wearing woolies, thermal boots and cold weather gear, but it was rainy, wet and cold. There were about 50-55 military personnel from our unit involved in the evacuation of the wounded. We all took turns—some of us working outside in the cold while others recovered from the cold inside a building, and then we went back out in the cold again. Everyone was involved with the evacuation effort—medical personnel, cooks and bakers, replacement depot personnel, supply people--everyone. Some got frostbite because of the cold, but none of us had to take up any hospital beds.
Warrant Officer Eriksen, our maintenance officer, was injured that night. I had been his driver at one point in time and remember that he was a very tall man. Generally we didn’t refuel a helicopter when it was running, but that night we did. Mr. Eriksen stood up and the main rotor blade of one of the copters came down and hit him on the head. He wasn’t hurt too badly, and he survived.
After I left Korea I never heard anything more about the Globemaster crash in the Han River until 60-some years later. I mentioned the crash in church in March 2014, and the next week someone brought me a print-out of a story about the crash that appeared on the Korean War Educator website.
Other Memories of Korea
Not all of my memories of Korea are bad ones. One of the favorite things my buddies and I used to do was climb up on the side of one of the mountains nearby and look out over the skyline. We could see the outline of Inchon in the distance, and when the tide was in we could see out over the ocean. The scenery was really pretty.
Christmas in Korea
Our unit celebrated Christmas 1956 just like back in the States. There were lots of Christmas trees, and we probably had better ornaments in Korea than back in the States because the villagers made ornaments for us out of glass or anything we wanted. We also made ornaments ourselves out of paper and other things. We had a gift exchange and we received presents from home in the mail. I got fruitcake and cookies from my stepmother, little sister and other people. If they came by air mail they were okay, but if they came by ship they weren't very palatable by the time they got there. If someone got a cake from home, he knew it was going to disappear pretty quick. About all he could expect was to get one slice. We were kind of a family, and everybody shared. Another Christmas memory I have from Korea is that we put a beard, eyebrows, red hat and Santa face on one of our H-13 choppers and delivered presents to the children of the orphanage in it.
Jane Russell came over to do a USO show in Korea, but I didn’t get to see her. We had our own entertainment. Sometimes we saw little Korean acts, and sometimes the British and Turks and other countries had shows they invited us to see. Besides our open mess, we had a recreation center where we gambled and played cards. We also had slot machines. There were no American gambling laws there, but we didn't play cards for money anyway. The Red Cross came over and served us our coffee. Those old gals who were volunteers were old enough to be our parents. (That's why we went on R&R!)
In June or July of 1957 there was a congressman who went over to Korea. He took his 10-11 year old daughter and his wife to see the sights and visit Seoul. They were in an L-20 Beaver attempting to land in Seoul when their aircraft was in an accident. Keep in mind that a Beaver landed at about 60-65 miles an hour. A C-47 ROK plane came up behind them as they were attempting to land. The control tower flashed a red light and waved the ROK pilot off, but he either wasn't paying attention or didn't get the message that the Beaver had the right-of-way. The ROK plane went under the Beaver and its vertical stabilizer hit the strut on the right hand side of that Beaver, cutting the strut and damaging the wing. Since the Beaver was on its final approach and had already cut power, the Beaver's pilot didn't have a chance to react. The Beaver went into a 150-foot free fall, hit the ground, and tumbled to a stop. Luckily everyone on the plane was wearing a seat belt and shoulder harness, so the only injury was that the little girl had a broken leg.
I took lots of pictures when I was in Korea. With the exception of some pictures and film that I had already sent home, I had all of my film, pictures, movie camera, and other camera in a camera bag when someone stole it. I had left it unattended to do something and it was missing when I got back. Most of the pictures that I now have were taken from February through August 1957 with another camera I bought after my first one was taken. When my wife and I celebrated our 40th anniversary, I made a home movie of our life, adding some of the pictures that I had taken during my assignment to Korea. The film combined home movies of our family and our marriage, my first R&R trip to Japan, the staff of my company in Korea, scenes from Korea, and so forth.
I rotated out of Korea on August 8, 1957 and came back to the States on an old Liberty Ship from World War II, the C.G. Morton. A little known fact is that Liberty Ships had the same dimensions as Noah's Ark--30:5:3 (length to breadth to height). That old troop transport ship only had a top cruising speed of about 13 knots, so it took a lot longer to come back to the States than it took to get to Korea. The Morton was past due dry dock when we got to Japan, but they wanted to make one more trip back to the States with it via Okinawa and Hawaii. By the time we got home we had been at sea for 21 days.
When we got to the States I didn’t know if we were going to be able to get off. The Asian flu was going around on the ship and many of us caught it. We were afraid we would be quarantined when we got to the States, but we were allowed off the ship. The prettiest sight I ever saw on the water was the west side of the Golden Gate Bridge as we sailed up to the California coast. It was very emotional to see it.
When we got off the ship we were sent to the debarking station. There was a mess hall there and they fed us lettuce that was green, tomatoes that were red and fresh, and meat that was not canned or frozen. In Korea all of our food had to be flown over or sent by ship. If flown over, it arrived at Kimpo, where the crew that unloaded the planes gave first pickings to their mess rather than to ours.
After a leave home I was sent to Ft. Gordon, Georgia for a year. When I got there Capt. John T. Stanfield of Turkey, Texas, was looking for soldiers returning from Korea who knew about aircraft maintenance on an L-20 Beaver. The L-20 Beaver, as it was called, was a single-engine aircraft that could haul six people. Captain Stanfield picked me out particularly because of my qualifications for that airplane, so he ordered me off the rotation roster. A rotation roster was like a ticker-tape catalog of qualifications of returning Korea veterans. Captain Stanfield had me assigned to the Signal Corps Training Center’s aviation unit at Ft. Gordon, where I worked on De Havilland Liaison 20 aircraft.
The University of Maryland offered a course through the United States Armed Forces Institute (USAFI), and I took it while stationed at Ft. Gordon in 1957-58. I took a general college equivalency course and got a college-level certificate from USAFI that was the equivalent of a year of college. I was promoted to Staff Sergeant as well. However, my job as platoon sergeant and line chief required an NCO staff sergeant instead of Specialist 5 rating. We had a new person in the unit, Sergeant Leid, who was a career soldier who was due for his promotion the same time I was. Being a career soldier, and since he was not in a job position to be an NCO, he was to be promoted to Sp5 instead of staff sergeant. He complained about it, so Captain Stanfield consulted with me and him about it and I asked, "If I took a specialist rating instead of the NCO rating, would I have to be a platoon sergeant?" He said no if it was all right with Mr. Leid. The unit was only allowed a certain number of NCOs and a certain number of Specialists. The specialist was the work we did. An NCO was a leader of men. I volunteered to be a specialist. Captain Stanfield said he would see about that and he did. I was promoted to Specialist Fifth Class and only at the line chief job. Sergeant Leid was given the platoon sergeant job at my request. I just wanted to work. I didn't want to be an NCO. I wasn't going to be a lifer. Sergeant Leid was just the opposite.
We had several incidents concerning near collisions of aircraft at Ft. Gordon. One of them involved a young man named George Washington "G.W." Bush. He was doing a periodic (P.E.) inspection on an L-19. Sergeant Sulser, who liked to chew Beechnut tobacco, was assisting Mr. Bush. Sulser was sitting in the pilot's doorway with the inspection book in his hand, trying to show Bush what procedure to follow. There was some confusion so I asked Bush to go and put gas in another L-19 that was parked nearby. He had to taxi down the apron (border) of the runway to the gas pumps and control tower. As Bush was starting the aircraft, we looked up and saw a C-47 Gooney Bird landing. It was on its final approach and was powered down too much to regain altitude again. Bush was out on the runway instead of the apron. I ran out to the L-19 and hit it on the side of the tail section in front of the vertical stabilizer. That put a force to the tail section which unlocked it so I could turn it. I pointed Mr. Bush back toward the apron of the runway and got him off the runway. We killed the engine and waited until the C-47 landed, and then went on to fill up the airplane. I saw the pilot of the Gooney Bird get out after he landed. He was laughing, but at the time of the incident he wasn't laughing--he was scared. I saw Sergeant Sulser and he didn't look too good. I ran up to him because I thought he had had a heart attack, but what happened was he swallowed his plug of tobacco in the excitement. He was white as a sheet. The traffic control tower operator got a chewing out because he was supposed to blow a horn when a plane was coming in but he didn't. I got reprimanded for not paying close enough attention to Bush. I assumed too much that Bush knew what he was doing. I also got a pat on the back for reacting quickly in an emergency. That made up for the reprimand. Bush did a good job on the P.E.
Another incident involved a flight service box that monitored all air traffic calls from Ft. Jackson and other places all around. One night there was a T-33 that flew over and I heard him say, "Ft. Jackson this is T-33. I'm requesting permission to land because I'm low on fuel." The air traffic controller said there was no visual on him and told him to go around again. I heard a jet plane go over but didn't think anything about it until I heard Ft. Jackson give him Runway 180. The pilot of the jet plane said, "Ft. Jackson, you don't have a Runway 180." I got on the transmitter and told him, "I think you're over Ft. Gordon." I asked him to make another pass. He said he would, but he was running short of fuel. I gave him permission to land, but warned him that our runway was too short for a jet to land and there was a hospital at the end of the runway. I turned on all of the tower lights and we put up flares. He touched down by the fence at the motor pool and burned rubber all the way down the runway, flaps and brakes on, and hit the cable near the end of the runway about 300-400 yards from the hospital. The jet tore the barrier up out of the ground. The barrier was about four sawed-off telephone poles with steel cable. The nose gear of the jet was damaged, but the next day the Air Force came in, repaired the nose gear, and flew the jet back to its home base. Our engineers repaired the barrier.
Shortly after this incident, there was a helicopter crash on the base. An H-13 was practicing auto rotation landings. If an engine quits and the helicopter has enough altitude it can still land without crashing. This time, however, the pilot miscalculated. They didn't have enough lift and the helicopter crashed, destroying the aircraft. Instead of crashing on the runway the pilot crashed into the barracks south of us next to the parade ground at Ft. Gordon. In our fuel maintenance unit one guy who was in the bathroom saw the crash from the window. He came running out of the bathroom screaming that there was a crash. We jumped in the crash truck and drove over to the scene. There was an observer and one pilot-in-training in the helicopter and one of them was about to light a cigarette. The helicopter was sitting in a pool of gas. Sergeant Sulser hollered real loud, "If you light that cigarette I'll shoot you, but there won't be any need to do it." If he had lit that cigarette it could have blown both tanks and everybody could have been dead.
Later on they moved us to Busch Field about 17 miles west. This was the civilian airfield that President Eisenhower landed at when he played golf at the Master's Golf Course. The Army's Signal Corps aircraft division leased a part of the field. When Eisenhower came to play golf they isolated the area, shut the aviation department down, and we got a day off.
It was at Busch Field that I learned about Bostonians. We had a standing order that when we were working on aircraft, if anyone under a field grade officer (major) rank came through the area, we didn't have to salute, otherwise we'd never get any work done. One time a bird colonel was just getting off a plane when one of the young men who was one of my mechanics was pulling his tool box along. The colonel spoke to him and the Private stopped to answer, but he didn't salute him. The colonel continued walking up to me and asked if there was an order that officers weren't supposed to be saluted. I told him about the field grade order and said that I thought that the Private didn't realize he was a colonel. The Private was from Boston. He didn't realize the difference between a field grade officer and a 2nd lieutenant. The Private didn't care. He just knew his orders were he didn't have to salute anyone who was under a field grade. If he was from Texas he would have known better, but Bostonians have a different outlook on things.
One more interesting thing that happened at Ft. Gordon was I got engaged to one of my friend's sister-in-laws. Her father was a successful businessman in the Chicago area of Illinois. She had it all planned out for me what I was going to do in her dad's company. She was a lovely young lady, and I thought I was madly in love with her until I realized what she was planning for me. She was Catholic so I had to meet with the priest and agree to sign a contract that our children would be raised Catholic. When it came down to it, although I loved her, I couldn't go along with the Catholic interpretation of the Bible or her plans for me joining the family business. I'm glad I broke off our wedding plans, because in the end, Mr. Wright got the right girl.
I stayed at Ft. Gordon until I decided that I had enjoyed all the military I could stand. Captain Stanfield wanted me to stay and promised me a Specialist 6 rating, benefits, and a pay raise, but I wasn't a military man. I wanted to go it on my own. I was discharged on August 8, 1958, and then went to Brownfield, Texas, where I worked for General Telephone & Electronics in the automotive center and warehouse in general headquarters. I met my dear wife who was a stationary clerk for GTE there in the warehouse. Wilene Marie Lewis and I got married June 12, 1959 and we are still married. We have a son David Wright in California, a daughter Mrs. Tim (Brenda) Garvin in Texas, and two grandsons, Timothy Paul Garvin and Ryan Taylor Garvin.
We stayed in Brownfield until we moved to Roswell, where I worked at Walker Air Force Base for Boeing for about a year. After that I tried farming and ranching until 1964. My boss, Mr. Taylor, had about 26,000 acres of land in New Mexico and Texas on the state line. He raised stock and farmed the land. I tried to get some acreage of my own but didn’t get it, so I went into the custom harvesting business. I had 17 trailers and a lot of equipment to do things like strip cotton and take it to the gins. I invested in some machinery, but that didn’t work out. After that I went to Odessa, Texas, and worked for Wooley Tool & Manufacturing for 18 years. I started as a machinist and worked up to quality control manager. After that I had my own garage business called, “The Wright Place”, in Odessa.
In 1983 I fell off the top of my garage while trying to fix an air conditioner. I fell on a concrete slab and injured three of five vertebrae in my back. The fall also messed up my equilibrium. (I no longer get up on garage roofs or ladders!) I closed down my garage business and we moved to Lubbock, where my wife and I worked at the Children’s Home of Lubbock. Our son was in college, our daughter was married, and we had “empty nest syndrome”. My wife and I have always been crazy about kids, so we both worked at the children's home. I was in charge of transportation there for seven years.
After that we came back to Odessa and I got a job working for the county installing radio and barrier equipment in an order of new police cars. I then worked two years at the K&N Automotive garage in Odessa. In 1995 I went to the VA Hospital in Amarillo to have a knee replaced. Due to other health problems I was never released to go back to work, so I retired and have been on disability since age 61. I am an inactive member of the local VFW. In my retirement I exercise, take care of my house and yard, give auto repair advice to friends, walk a lot, and am active in the Eisenhower Church of Christ at 21st & Eisenhower here in Odessa.
I think it's right that we still have troops in South Korea. The North Koreans would still like to take over South Korea. The Communists are still the same enemy they were before the war.
I never went back to Korea, although I wouldn't have minded seeing where I was stationed back in 1956-57. My strongest memories of Korea are of the people. They weren't a free people when we got there, and even after the cease fire they lived in a country that had been torn up by war. But the Koreans are resilient people. Industry has rebounded, and two Korean manufacturers now sell Korean-made automobiles in the USA.
In contrast, our country is in pain. Our government can't handle its finances. Politicians have driven our industry out and they've got our money down to where a dime in 1966 was worth more than $1.20 is now--and we just keep printing more and more money. The US Constitution is being circumvented by the current administration, and Congress and the Senate don't do anything about it. The "wonderful, modern thing" seems to be, rather than allowing moms to be moms and dads to be dads, we are leaving parenting to the government. Politicians are involved in our children's education, creating tests they can pass but that teach them nothing. The Japanese, Chinese, German, and Scandinavian children test more intelligent than Americans because they're brought up to be more dedicated to learning. Today our kids think with their thumbs instead of their minds, and when school is out, moms in the United States complain, "It's going to be a long weekend." They'd rather work at their job than be with their family. I can't help but wonder, who's got the job of raising their kids?
It is my belief that parents are to behave themselves in the manner in which the Bible tells them to behave. The children in the church where we attend are taught true failure is living our lives and not going to Heaven, and that true success is living our lives and going to Heaven. Our children are also taught that when they get married they should marry a Christian--one man and one woman for life.
I think we should put every kid of draft age in the military and start acting like the powerful nation with a strong military that we always were in the past. If we give young people the training and discipline that being in the military is known for, I think it would close a lot of reform schools and stop the killings and shootings that are taking place in our schools today. Our young people in the military now are all volunteers and they are wonderful. The reason they are great is because when they get in the military and have discipline, they appreciate it.
I think that downsizing the military is stupid. Our government has already turned most of our military secrets over to other countries. Those countries now have better weapons than we do. We once armed the world with our industrial might. Not now. We're the little third world country now. We are no longer the most powerful nation militarily. I believe that the current president of the United States has made our country weaker than when King George was trying to kick us around. I also believe that it wouldn't take long for another country to take us over because we don't have any deterrent. All we can do is talk to others about it and pray about it.
My seventh generation grandfather was decorated in the Battle of the Cow Pens and the Battle of King's Mountain in South Carolina. These were the turning points in the Revolutionary War and our government was not indecisive as our current president and government are. The men knew what they were fighting for. That's why we became a democratic nation. We were a Christian nation until the Supreme Court and our current president told the Muslim-guided country of Arabia that we are not a Christian nation. Most of us, like those militia men of the Revolutionary War, believe we are a Christian nation. Our president and the Supreme Court have decided that we are not a Christian nation. They seem to be following in the steps of King George and don't deserve to guide our nation with that attitude. I hope that America wakes up and we become the leader again as we were when we became a democracy after the Revolutionary War. This is the way an old soldier feels.