The Grumman F7F-3N "Tigercat" Story Part 3: Hawk & Busters
By Joe Thompson
In Part 2 we met Captain Kingman, the pilot, and MSgt Sykes, the Radar Operator, and learned a little about how they ended up at Kunsan AB in the middle of the Korean War. We followed them through the mission brief in the '513' Operations Hut and then accompanied them and the line crew out to the flightline to get ready for the launch. We're now strapped in, have a couple good engines running and we're ready to pull off the hard stand and head to the active runway. So let's add a little power and start our taxi.
"COFFEEMILL" POINTS THE WAY
Kingman glanced over to the pilots of the other escort aircraft and they each signaled they were ready to taxi. Kingman called the tower and checked in. The tower was well aware of the launch schedule and the controllers high in the tower cab had followed the Marines preparations down on 513's hard stands. They cleared Kingman and his section to taxi to the active runway which was currently 24. Kingman added power and rolled off the hard stand and onto the steel, "Marston Matt" taxiway. He immediately tapped the brakes to ensure he had effective stopping power and then pushed on the left brake to get the Tigercat swinging towards the main taxiway. As the aircraft steadied up on the taxiway he used his right hand to crank his canopy closed. With its closing the engine roar was muffed considerably in the cockpit.
With runway 24 as the active this evening, they taxied east and upon reaching the active runway the tower cleared the flight for immediate takeoff. Captain Kingman rolled onto the active and aligned the aircraft on the center. After a quick check of his instruments, shoulder harness, wing-fold lock, flaps, and other take-off critical items he then held the brakes and pushed the throttles forward until the MAP gauge indicated 40" for both engines, then released the brakes and increased the MAP output to 51". The Tigercat started to roll down the runway and gain speed rapidly. At around 85 kts indicated airspeed (KIAS) he gently pulled the control stick aft and the F7F took to the air. Kingman accelerated the aircraft to 140 KIAS. As he did he raised the gear and flaps and then started a shallow climbing left turn to head in the vicinity of Wi Do Island, southwest of K-8, out in the Yellow Sea. They were scheduled to rendezvous with the bombers over this island. Kingman climbed the aircraft using 41" of MAP and 2,600 RPM on the props. He made sure the oil cooler duct doors were open and the cowl flap control switch was in the AUTO position. With all that done, he checked in with the Marine Ground Control Intercept controller who would be peering intently at his radar scope in his darkened hut out by the tree line near the B-26 maintenance line.
"Coffeemill, Buster Zero Six airborne"
[Kingman - call sign 'Buster 06' - tells Marine Ground Control Intercept Squadron One (MCGIS-1 - call sign 'Coffeemill') - he's airborne]
"Coffeemill, Rog. Hawk flight is five-five
south of Roger Peter, Angels 19. Call back on join up, out?
[Marine ground controller tells Kingman that the B-29's - call sign 'Hawk' - are 55 nm south of the rendezvous point (RP) at 19,000 feet.]
"Buster Zero Six, roger out"
A front was moving in from the northwest and cotton ball shaped clouds started to pop up on the horizon. As they passed through 10,000 feet both men snapped their oxygen masks into place and Kingman flipped a couple switches on his armament panel and then charged his guns.
As they arrived over Wi-do Island the Tigercats began a lazy orbit and less than three minutes later Sykes called Kingman on the IC:
"I've got Hawk headed our way, south at 5 miles, our level"
OFF TO WAR
Several minutes later all the Tigercats were breaking off over the island to assume their escort positions on either side of the bombers. The B-29 section commander called Kingman and checked in,
"Buster Zero Six, Hawk Lead, good to have you along for the ride."
"Hawk Lead, Buster Zero Six, good evening gents. Glad to be along."
During this exchange Kingman had his F7F in a right, climbing turn and now he rolled out on a northerly heading 1,000 feet above and off the right wing of the lead Stratofortress and with that maneuver completed, they headed towards the target area, still 250 miles away. Next order of business was for Kingman to call 'Coffeemill' and report their join up on the string of bombers, which he did. It had been just over a half hour since leaving the hard stand back at K-8. Now it was pretty much settling into the monotony of the escort laced with the ever-present tension that they could get jumped by enemy fighters; one never knew. The group droned northward as numerous archipelagos in the Yellow Sea slide below them and then disappeared aft. About an hour after departure the moon began to emerge from the eastern horizon, just off the right wing tip. It was huge and was not what a bomber group wanted on night mission but the flight schedule was what it was and they had a mission to fly, at least they could probably count on some cloud cover to semi-conceal them from the prying eyes of enemy gunners.
Kingman keyed his IC and asked Carl:
"Carl, how's it going back there?"
"My friggin feet are freez'n. It's a good thing I wore an extra pair of socks!"
Pilots always checked on their RO's periodically. If an oxygen mask malfunctioned or an oxygen regulator 'went south' (malfunctioned) then an RO could pass out in the back cockpit and the pilot would never know it until he tried to contact his crewmate. Periodic calls ensured that they were OK - except for the heat! And the cockpits of the F7F Tigercats were notoriously cold natured beasts. This was long before the days of fancy heating systems and temperature controls. The heat was controlled from the pilot's cockpit and it was either on or off back aft. There was no temperature control. The Radar Operator had a small opening in the forward bulkhead under his instrument panel and he controlled the "temperature" by regulating the flow of warm air out of that opening with a cover plate. Not very sophisticated but this was mid 1940's technology.
As they approached N37° 30' they changed ground controller sectors from the Marine unit 'Coffeemill' located at K-8 to an Air Force unit - 'Dutch Boy' - on Cho-do Island. Kingman triggered his radio transmitter and spoke into his oxygen mask,
"Dutch Boy, Buster Zero Six with you on channel George Item."
The Air Force controller on Cho-do told Kingman that there was no detected enemy air activity near their intended target site.
"Buster Zero Six, the neighborhood looks quiet."
Silence is not an option on a battlefield. This is especially true of air operations which always have some form of emissions: radio, radar, transponder, or data links and any or all of these can be exploited, even if encrypted. Best to keep the radio traffic to an absolute minimum Kingman thought to himself. A quick "Roger" was sufficient.
They had just pasted Incheon off their right wing and now had 75 miles to go to their target. The incessant drone of the engines was comforting; it was when you didn't hear them that things got exciting. The cockpit was bathed in deep shadows now as the sun started to slide below the horizon.
SEARCHLIGHTS AND FLAK
Before long they crossed the mainland coast 35 miles northwest of Incheon and now they were over the area held by the North Koreans and you wanted to avoid getting shot down up here at all costs. They continued to track northward. As they passed the city of Sarwon (N38° 31' E125° 45') Cho-do was due west of them. They were only 30 miles south of the target area and the tempo quickened; Kingman checked on Sykes once again and Carl was still bitchin' about the heat. At least he was OK.
Perched in the nose of each behemoth B-29 fuselage sat scrunched a bombardier poised intently over a Norden bombsight. They were approaching their "IP" - the initial point on the bomb run - which on this mission was 18 miles south of the target. This was the starting point of the actual bomb run. From here to the "IP" the bombardiers were feeding data rapidly into their bombsights. They cranked in their altitude, forward air speed, wind speed and direction, and also ballistics data on the ordinance they were dropping tonight. Once the target was identified the bombardier would actually assume direction control of the aircraft through the bombsight, which was connected to the autopilot. Altitude and speed control remained with the pilot but the bombardier controlled right and left directional control of the aircraft. And contrary to popular perception the bombardier didn't push a button and release the bombs. The Norden sight, using a complex system of internal sensing devices and stabilizer controls used the crosshair manipulation by the bombardier and automatically released the bomb load. The bombardier did however call out "Bombs Away" as the bombers lurched upward with the release of their ordnance. It was all pretty high tech stuff in the 1950's. Meanwhile, snuggly enveloped in the tiny fuselages of the Tigercats, the Marine aviators waited for the pyrotechnic show to begin, both on the ground and in the air.
Passing the 'IP' enemy search lights started to come to life. These lights were radar controlled, as were the antiaircraft artillery (Triple A) batteries and this meant that the fun was about to begin. But still no MiGs, so perhaps the mission would only encounter flak. You were just as dead though if a Triple A shell even got close to your aircraft. The shrapnel from the exploding ordnance was enough to bring down a Tigercat or a Stratofortress.
Then it started...muffled pops and a diffused circular small black cloud would appear and mark the point where a Triple A shell had exploded. Kingman glance to his right and saw the bomb bay doors swing open. Then small, dark objects started to rain down out of the underbelly of the B-29's and seconds later patches of bright orange and black smoke would appear on the ground to mark the spot of an explosion. As the bombers released their payloads over the industrial park four miles below, the flak increased in intensity and some shafts of lights were occasionally interrupted as an artillery shell exploded within the searchlight beam itself. Both Kingman and Sykes could feel their jaw muscle clenched tight as the Tigercat was buffeted by the concussion of shells exploding nearby. It must have been really uncomfortable for the dozen or so guys in each bomber because they were committed to flying straight and level during their run to ensure an accurate drop and they were the primary targets of the ground gunners. At least the Marines could move around.
Black puffs of flak started to fill the sky now. Below them floated blue gray clouds but these black ones were smaller and much more sinister. Occasionally one would explode close enough to shake the Tigercat as the invisible percussion spread outward from the exploding shell like the waves from a stone thrown in a pond. But that's where the similarity stopped because instead of water expanding outward from the point of impact here it was thousands of shards of shrapnel. It didn't take much of chunk of angry looking metal to pierce a fuel tank, sever a hydraulic line or come through a canopy and take off a aviators head. This was the real deal.
Kingman could feel his right hand tighten around the control stick so he tried to relax. He glanced over at the bombers again and noted that none of them had been hit...yet. The harsh stare of the searchlight beams continued to undulate to and fro as their radars searched for an aircraft target. The last thing a crew needed or wanted was to be illuminated in the piercing light of one of those searchlights. When that happened things were likely to get a hellva' lot worse than they were now. Kingman noted that the lead Stratofortress was now north of the target and in a matter of seconds everyone on the tactical frequency heard:
"Hawk Lead, off, exiting left."
The plan was to head off in southwesterly direction, clear the western coast of North Korea just to the north of Cho-do Island and then turn south and start the long haul for home back on Okinawa. If anyone got hit they could bailout or ditch near Cho-do, where a 'friendly' pickup was almost assured. Crash anywhere else and you were pretty much on your own. They would continue south until northwest of Incheon then make a track adjust to the southeast to intercept then fly down the 126 degree meridian.
About this time someone came up on Hawk and Buster's tactical frequency using the call sign 'Fat Boy' and the Cho-do controller chewed him out in no uncertain terms telling him he was on the wrong frequency. 'Dutch Boy' then shifted him to the correct one. 'Fat Boy' was the call sign used by the Navy PB4Y Privateer aircraft that dropped flares in support of ground attack missions. This one apparently got the wrong 'skinny' on his mission brief and came up on the wrong frequency and was properly admonished for his transgression.
After each bomber dropped their load, they banked to the left to egress the target area as the lead Stratofortress had done. Kingman now rolled 'Buster Zero Six' steeply to the left to pull off the target. Carl was tossed against the left canopy rail in the back cockpit so he tugged more tightly on his shoulder. At the same time he glanced out his left canopy and back towards the trailing edge of the wing and he observed what appeared to be a highway of burning fires. They were like runway edge lights but these were fires and extended for many miles and there were parallel lines too where the bombers had run in on offset tracks to carpet the area. Carl thought to himself that there was a lot of death and destruction down there....so long as it was them and not him! He snapped out of his momentary reflection and refocused his attention back to his radar scope. Still no MiGs...their luck was holding.
After departing the target area the escort tactics now reversed. On the way to the target the primary threat was ahead of them and several F7F's flew cover out ahead of the bomber string. When they were approaching the target these two Tigercats positioned themselves between the target area and the north, the direction from which enemy attack would most likely come. During the bomb run these aircraft had orbited that area ready to intercept any enemy aircraft. Now that the bombers had pulled off the target and were headed in the opposite direction the F7F's concentrated their attention 'behind' the bomber formation to guard against enemy fighters jumping them from the rear. Kingman was feeling pretty good about the 'hop' (a flight). Other than a few bumps from the flak it looked like smooth going from here on home.
The trip back south was quiet. Their radios came to life occasionally as 'Dutch Boy' alerted them to passing friendly traffic in the area. Carl got 'paints' (when a radar has a contact displayed on its screen) on all those within his radar's effective range. At 1006 'Zebra' they had made the jog to the southeast and picked up the 126 degree meridian and now turned due south to fly straight down it with the bombers in front of them. They had been in the air for a little over 2 hours. Kingman's left arm itched but scratching at it through his leather flight jacket and flight suit didn't seem to help. He reached up and nudged his oxygen mask to the side a bit to relief the chaffing. In the back MSgt. Sykes had his left arm balanced on his canopy rail as he watched his radar scope. Occasionally he would glance to the left or right to view the sky and he noticed that the scattered clouds below them appeared to be thickening.
At forty minutes past the hour they were 38 miles out from King 8. At this point Kingman keyed his mike;
"Hawk Lead, Buster Zero Six, you think you can find your way home from here?"
"Affirmative. Thanks for the company. We'll probably see you again when we're in the neighborhood."
"Have a safe trip back. Buster Zero Six out."
A MINOR DISTRACTION CLOSE TO HOME
Kingman immediately called the other F7F's and closed them up for the descent. A few minutes later they were all spiraling down just to the north of Wi-do Island. Kingman called K-8 and learned that it was raining on the field with visibility less than 10 miles and broken clouds in all quadrants. Runway 06 was the active now so they would approach from the water. As Kingman spiraled earthward he watched the needle on his compass indicator slowly spin around to kept track with the homer beacon marking the direction to Kunsan AB.
As they passed through 12,000' the rain started to pelt the aircraft. At 10,000' Carl unsnapped his oxygen mask, flipped his boom mike down into place and rubbed his cheeks however Kingman left his mask in place. Passing through 8,000', the islands just off Kunsan's coastline started to gradually take shape below them through the murky clouds and rain. As Kingman peered out the canopy into the murky gloom he noticed his radar indicator flash off for a split second then it came back on. Five seconds later it blinked several more times in rapid succession and then the screen went blank. He secured the unit and then re-energized it to no avail. He tried resetting the circuit breaker but the radar still stared back at him like Cyclops with its one eye blinded, so he secured the unit and told Carl about the malfunction. This was not the time to troubleshoot the problem; there was too much going on in rain, close to the ground and at night to worry about the radar indicator.
Kingman then told his RO to make sure everything was "...tied down back aft" as they prepared to land. About this time the tower cleared 'Buster Zero Six' straight in to land. Kingman started to run through his final checklist:
Tank Selector - MAIN
Fuel Boost Pump - ON
Mixture - AUTO-RICH
Supercharger - LOW BLOWER
Carb Heat - NORMAL
Props - 2,400 RPM
At 120 KIAS Kingman dropped the gear and added some flaps. He glanced left and right out of his cockpit to ensure that the main gear was extended. He then depressed the brakes to check for hydraulic pressure. Now he needed to make his weapons safe prior to landing.
Armament Master Switch - OFF
Everything looked good. Simply fly her down to the deck now. The runway lights appeared through the rain and Kingman twitched the control stick every so slightly to the left to line up with the runway. His left hand was resting on the throttle stalks. He made miniscule adjustments to both power and attitude as the aircraft rolled wings level and pointed down the runway centerline. At 100 KIAS he closed the throttle. The stick forces were very light and he let the Tigercat settle on her two main landing gear wheels first then the nose gear. As soon as the nose wheel touched the pavement he started to apply braking pressure, maintaining directional control with slight taps on the left or right rudder pedal.
'Buster Zero Six' exited the runway just past mid-field. And as he turned off Kingman retracted the flaps, opened the cowl flaps and the oil cooler duct doors and switched off the electric booster fuel pump. The tower cleared him to the squadron area and as he taxied in he contacted "513's" Maintenance Department and told them about the radar malfunction.
"Zero Six", standby one" was their reply.
Less than 10 seconds later they called Kingman and instructed him to taxi to the Maintenance Hangar instead of to a hard stand. They would secure the aircraft there and then the line crew would tow the aircraft into the hangar so they could work on the radar that night.
Less than five minutes later they came to a stop in front of the hangar. The rain was still coming down but had abated a little. Capt. Kingman continued to run through various checks to shut down the engines and secure the aircraft.
Props - FULL INCREASE
He then made several supercharger blower shifts from high to low position then pulled the mixture control to IDLE CUTOFF. As the engines died from fuel starvation the big propellers 'clacked' down slowly until they stopped all movement. Kingman then switched off the ignition and battery and ensured that the switches on the electrical panel to his right were properly secured. He then ran through the final items on the checklist:
Tank Selector Value - OFF
Armament Switches - ALL OFF
Ignition - CHECKED OFF
Radio Switches - CHECKED OFF
Tank Selector Value - CHECKED OFF
Engine Selector Value - OFF
Cowl Flaps - OPEN
Oil Cooler Exit Duct Doors - OPEN
Flaps - UP
At this point he reached to his right and cranked open his canopy and yelled down to Sgt. Rose;
"Hey Sarge, you want the control locks set?"
"Negative Captain. We'll take care off it"
Almost done, now it was simply:
Main Battery Switch - OFF
Generator Switches - OFF
Canopy - CLOSED. He would ensure this upon exiting.
Carl was already out of his cockpit and on the wing. As Kingman un-strapped and climbed out of the aircraft Sykes was pulling his canopy over into the closed position. Kingman then yanked this canopy closed too and both men walked gingerly across the wet fuselage skin and climbed down the ladder to the ground. The roar of the other escort F7F's could be heard in "513's" area as they taxied in, took their places on various hard stands, and completed shutting down.
Capt. Kingman and MSgt. Sykes made their customary stop at the Line Shack and were warmly greeted by a couple sergeants standing behind the counter in the small room. As Kingman started to fill out the 'Yellow Sheet' Carl told him he didn't have any 'gripes' for the backseat - except for the lack of heat! (A 'Yellow Sheet' is a printed form that pilots used to record flight data after each hop. The 'Yellow Sheet' has a tear-off portion which contains basic aircraft information with space for aircrew log book stats, flight time, instrument time, number of takeoffs and landings, type of flight, passengers, and other assorted information.) Kingman noted the problem with the radar and once this was done they made their way to Operations for the debrief. Kingman pulled his helmet off as he walked and stuffed his oxygen mask down inside the cavity and rubbed his head with a gloved hand. His head itched like hell! Three and a half hours inside a flight helmet had a tendency to do that. The light, cool rain also felt good on his super short Marine haircut.
TARGET OF OPPORTUNITY - GUNNY STYLE
When Kingman and Sykes walked into the Quonset hut that served as their Operations Center they went over to a large peg board from which hung all the flight crews coffee cups. Once they had retrieved their personal mugs off the board and after sitting their helmets and flight bags on a table they made a beeline for a large silver, highly stained and dented coffee urn in the corner of the room. Several Marines were already hovering around the urn. As they stepped up the little clutch of Marines were roaring with laughter; another Captain stopped just long enough to say to Kingman:
"You gotta hear what happened while you guys were away Brad. Go ahead and tell that story again lieutenant."
A young Marine 1st lieutenant who would do the debrief, stood nearby. He turned to Kingman and said:
"Well Captain, as I was saying, about a hour after you guys launched the Gunny in Supply (Gunnery Sergeant in the Supply Department) took a couple of his corporals, loaded them up in that small stake truck they use for logistics runs and under the cover of darkness made their way over to an area just north of the thirteen's maintenance area (USAF 13th Bomber Squadron - B-26's). The Gunny had seen a pile of nice looking lumber that the Air 'FARCE' had stored over there on the ground. He felt it would be perfect for the 'renovations' he was doing in the '513's' NCO Club. Once they got over there they backed up to the lumber pile and started to load the wood into the truck. When they had the truck half loaded two MP's (Military Policemen - the Air Force calls them Air Police but the Marines refer to them as MP's) drive up and ask them what they were doing. Well the Gunny, being a shrewd, innovative, fast-thinking Marine told the MP's that he had been ordered by his Supply Officer to get rid of the wood so they were dumping it there."
Kingman looked at Carl, who was already grinning from ear to ear, and Kingman had to keep from busting into laughter at this point. He simply said, "You gotta be kidding me?"
The young Marine officer continued with his story.
"No sir. The Gunny tells them they're throwing the wood away and the MP in charge bellows 'To hell you are. Not on our base. You friggin Jarheads pile that wood right back on your truck and haul your asses back over to your side of the field. If you want to dump it somewhere you do it over there'. So that's exactly what they did. The woods out behind our supply hut even as we speak. I suspect the 'requisitioned building material' will be installed by this time tomorrow."
By the end of the story Kingman and Carl and everyone else in earshot was laughing so hard they gagged on their coffees. Chalk another one up for Semper Fi! (Semper Fidelis, 'Always Faithful' the Marine Corps motto).
And so it was on Kunsan Air Base. It was the 'dogs and the cats' living together, working together, flying together and sometimes dying together. Kingman felt weary now. He just wanted to debrief and get back to the "Q" and stare at his picture one more time before snapping off the light and drifting into a deep sleep. At least in his sleep he was sheltered from the war. In a couple days Captain Kingman and MSgt. Sykes would climb back into another "Flying Nightmare" aircraft and do it all over again and again... and again.
Least We Forget - This story is a tribute to all the U.S., South Korean and Allied soldiers, sailors, and airmen who so gallantly served in the Korean War, but especially to the intrepid Marine aviators who were attached to VMF(N)-513, "The Flying Nightmares." And not just the aircrews either, but to all the squadrons personnel. Every man attached to '513', regardless of his specialty, provided a critical skill that was essential in ensuring that the mission was completed successfully.
It's all too easy to remain ignorant about the extraordinary sacrifices made by our countries men and women during armed conflicts, but each of us has a duty and obligation to them and our country to learn about and appreciate what they did when called upon by their nation. These 'heroes' were summoned upon to serve and they did so in an exemplary manner and some paid the ultimate price.
Never forget them! Take some time to learn about them and from them. With each passing day we lose more and more of these heroes so it's incumbent upon each of us to take the opportunity now, while we still have it, to have them share their experiences with us. It was their deeds that helped fashion the content of our national character.
I always enjoy hearing from those that read my articles. I invite any comments regarding this or previous stories I have authored. And, if you have an idea for a future article, I'd be interested in hearing about it.
CREDITS & REFERENCE LINKS
F7F Tigercat by Alphasim available at FlightSim.Com, file name ALPF7FTG.ZIP
F7F Modified Flight Dynamics by Bob Chicilo available at FlightSim.Com, file name F7F-3UP.ZIP
"513" Livery Repaint - by the author.
Pilot and Radar Operator Panels by the author.
Kunsan AB circa 1952 Scenery by the author.
BOOKS YOU MAY BE INTERESTED IN
History of Marine Corps Aviation in World War II by Robert Sherrod, Combat Forces Press, 1952
Night Fighters Over Korea by G.G. O'Rourke with E.T. Wooldridge, Naval Institute Press, 1998
F7F Tigercat in Action by Capt. W.E. Scarbourgh, Squadron/Signal Publications, 1986
Pilot's Manual - F7F Airplane by US Navy, Bureau of Aeronautics, Washington, D.C. 1945
ADDITIONAL SOURCES YOU MAY BE INTERESTED IN
Kunsan Air Base: How it Was http://kalaniosullivan.com/KunsanAB/VMF513/Howitwasa1ac.html
WARNING: Certain sections of the web site cited above contain MALWARE and should not be viewed unless you are confident in the effectiveness of your anti-virus program.
Flying Nightmare's Unit History http://www.harrierpilot.com/history.htm
Korean War Timeline http://www.rt66.com/~korteng/SmallArms/TimeLine.htm
Korean War Maps http://www.koreanwar.org/html/maps.html
FEAF/UN Aircraft Used in Korea and Losses by Type http://www.korean-war.com/AirWar/AircraftType-LossList.html