BLIND AND ALONE OVER NORTH KOREA

BLIND AND ALONE OVER NORTH KOREA

From Chicken Soup for the Veteran's Soul

Blind and Alone over North Korea

I was blind, stunned, in pain, bleeding profusely and very much alone. At the controls of my Navy Skyraider attack plane over Wongsang-ni, North Korea, I was climbing, dazed and oblivious, toward a solid overcast at ten thousand feet—from which there could be no return.

It was March 22, 1952. I was just twenty-two years old. Earlier that day, dawn found me on the flight deck of the USS Valley Forge in the Sea of Japan, warming up my Skyraider. As a pilot in Fighter Squadron 194, the “Yellow Devils,” I was the standby in case one of the eight planes scheduled for the morning’s flight became inoperative. When my fellow pilot Charlie Brown’s plane lost its hydraulic system, and I was launched in his place. It was my twenty-seventh mission bombing North Korea. The targets were enemy marshaling yards, railroad tracks and other transportation infrastructure.

On the ninth of my planned fifteen bomb runs, at twelve hundred feet, an enemy antiaircraft shell exploded in the cockpit. Instinctively, I pulled back on the stick to gain altitude. Then, I passed out. When I came to a short time later, I couldn’t see a thing. There was stinging agony in my face and throbbing in my head. I felt for my upper lip. It was almost severed from the rest of my face.

I called out over the radio through my lip mike (which miraculously still worked), “I’m blind! For God’s sake, help me! I’m blind.”

Lieutenant j.g. Howard Thayer, in his own Skyraider nearby, heard the distress call. He saw my plane, still climbing, heading straight toward a heavy overcast at ten thousand feet. He knew that if I entered those clouds, he couldn’t help me. No one could help me.

He called out, “Plane in trouble, rock your wings. Plane in trouble, rock your wings.”

I did so.

Then came the order, “Put your nose down! Put your nose down! Push over. I’m coming up.”

Again, I did as he said and pushed the stick forward.

He climbed and flew alongside my plane and radioed, “This is Thayer—this is Thayer. Put your nose over farther.”

I complied. Howie Thayer was my roommate on the Valley Forge. Hearing his name and his voice gave me just the psychological boost I needed.

He continued, “You’re doing all right. Pull back a little. We can level off now.”

Thayer could see that the canopy of my plane was blown away and that my face was a bleeding mess. The crimson stain on the fuselage behind the cockpit turned dark and blended with the Navy blue of the Skyraider as the blood dried. He was amazed I was still alive.

Without the canopy, the two-hundred-mile-per-hour slipstream and unmuffled engine noise made sending and receiving our radio transmissions exceptionally difficult.

Despite these obstacles, I began to think clearly—in my moments of consciousness—and began to try to help myself. I managed to pour water from my canteen over my face. For a fleeting instant, there was a sight of the instrument panel, which disappeared immediately. I was blind again.

Howard kept up a stream of conversation. “We’re headed south, Ken. We’re heading for Wonsan [a port and prime target on the Sea of Japan]. Not too long.”

The throbbing in my head was getting worse, and the blood running down my throat nauseated me. I hurt, but I was unable to get the morphine from my first-aid kit.

I radioed, “Get me down, Howie!”

“Roger. We’re approaching Wonsan. Get ready to bail out.”

To which I replied, “Negative! Negative! Not going to bail out.”

All too often, our pilots had drowned or died of exposure after their planes had been crippled by enemy antiaircraft fire and they had ditched the aircraft or bailed out into the frigid waters of the Sea of Japan. My wingman, LCDR Tom Pugh, was killed in just this way on our second mission. In my case, I would have had to successfully evacuate the Skyraider and enter the water blind, with the probability of a tangled parachute harness and my rubber immersion suit, pierced by shell fragments, unable to offer protection from the freezing ocean. To my mind, bailing out meant certain death.

I would not bail out. Howie understood my decision. He would get me back behind the front lines into friendly territory—or I would die in the attempt. We turned and headed south.

Thirty miles behind the front lines, on the coast, was a Marine airfield designated K-50. This was our destination. I wasn’t sure whether I could make it that far, as I kept drifting in and out of consciousness.

Then Howard spotted a Navy cruiser shelling enemy positions and knew that this was the bomb line. South of the bomb line was friendly territory.

The instructions continued. “We’re at the bomb line, Ken. We’ll head for K-50. Hold on, Ken. Can you hear me, Ken? We’ll head for K-50. Over.”

“Roger. Let’s try.” It was an effort to speak.

“Can you make it, Ken?”

“Get me down, you miserable SOB, or you’ll have to inventory my gear!”

(In case of an aviator’s death, a shipmate must inventory his personal belongings before they are shipped home—not a welcome chore. Howard and I had designated each other for this function.)

I continued to follow Thayer’s directions. But he could see that my head kept flopping down from time to time, and he doubted I could make it to K-50. He was probably right. He decided to get me down right away.

Immediately behind the front lines was a two-thousand-foot deserted dirt airstrip named “Jersey Bounce” that the Army used from time to time for its light planes that did artillery spotting. Thayer decided to have me land there.

“Ken, we’re going down. Push your nose over, drop your right wing. We’re approaching ‘Jersey Bounce.’ We’ll make a 270-degree turn and set you down.”

“Roger, Howie, let’s go.”

“Left wing down slowly, nose over easy. A little more. Put your landing gear down.”

“To hell with that!” was my instantaneous reply. I had seen this field on earlier missions and could picture it in my mind’s eye. It was rough and short, and with wheels down, too many things could go wrong. It was much safer to land on my belly.

“Roger, gear up,” Thayer concurred. This was one time when we wouldn’t follow the checklist.

Ahead lay the most critical part of the flight—landing, a complex maneuver requiring precision and skill. As challenging as my flying wounded and blind had been up to now, a sightless landing on a tiny dirt strip would be infinitely more difficult. One slip would result in disaster.

From his plane, flying twenty-five feet away from mine and duplicating my maneuvers, Howard’s voice was cool and confident, but the underlying tension was palpable. “We’re heading straight. Flaps down. Hundred yards to the runway. You’re fifty feet off the ground. Pull back a little. Easy. Easy. That’s good. You’re level. You’re okay. You’re okay. Thirty feet off the ground. You’re okay. You’re over the runway. Twenty feet. Kill it a little. You’re setting down. Okay, okay, okay. Cut!”

The shock wasn’t nearly as bad as I had expected. Some forty-five minutes after the shell blew up in my cockpit, my plane hit the ground, lurched momentarily and skidded to a stop in one piece. A perfect landing. No fire. No pain, no strain. The best landing I ever made.

Thayer elatedly said, “You’re on the ground, Ken!”

After cutting the switches, I clumsily climbed out of the cockpit. Almost immediately, an Army jeep with two men came, picked me up and took me to a shack on the edge of the field. From there, a helicopter flew me to the Marine airfield, where doctors at their field hospital started to patch me up and give me painkillers.

Thayer flew back to the carrier. I found out later that when he landed, a crowd was there to greet and congratulate him. He wondered how they knew what had happened and was told that most of our transmissions had been picked up on the USS Valley Forge.

Meanwhile, back at the Marine airfield, they felt I needed more expert medical care than they could offer, so I was transported to the Navy hospital ship, USS Consolation, where I underwent immediate surgery. Both of my eyes were bandaged for two weeks, during which time I wasn’t sure if I would ever see again.

But the possibility of a lifetime of blindness was a minor issue compared to just being alive. Eventually, however, I regained sight in my left eye. My career as a Navy carrier pilot was over. My life was not—because, although I was blind that day over North Korea, I was not really alone. Howard Thayer had been my eyes. Together we’d created a miracle. Today, still living on “borrowed time,” I am thankful for every moment of each and every day.

Kenneth A. Schechter

[EDITORS’ NOTE: Howard Thayer made the Navy his career. In January 1961, while flying a night mission in an A-4 attack plane from a carrier in the Mediterranean Sea, both he and his squadron commander flew into the water while on landing approach. Their remains were never recovered. Thayer was survived by his wife and three small children.

The new plane that Ken Schechter landed at “Jersey Bounce” was jacked up, given a new propeller, flown back to Valley Forge for repairs and later returned to service.

Ken and Howard’s story became the basis for the 1953 MGM movie Men of the Fighting Lady.]

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