FlightSim.Com Celebrates The Centennial of Flight
A Tailgunner's View of the Korean War
Tour of Duty in the Mighty B-29
By Clyde G. Durham, former USAF, B-29 gunner
Sunday, July 27, 2003, marks the 50th Anniversary of the end of the Korean War. We are commemorating that event with an exclusive article series by Clyde Durham. "Tailgunner Clyde" served a long and distinguished career in the United States Air Force that included a six month tour of duty in Korea.
During those months, Mr. Durham flew hair-raising missions in the B-29s that survived withering flak and dodged hostile fighters over MiG Alley to pound the North Korean forces during the war. This is the first in a series of articles that chronicle his Korean War Tour of Duty.
Mr. Durham is a frequent contributor to
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And so it begins
At 1000 hours Sunday, 25 June 1950 Far East Air Force Headquarters received word of the North Korean attack on South Korea. About six hours earlier the North Koreans had slashed across the 38th parallel and the South Koreans were being totally routed. That afternoon, the United States Air Force was at war again. President Truman ordered Gen. Douglas MacArthur to send the Air Force and the Navy to battle.
First USAF bombers on the offensive were 12, Douglas B-26 attack bombers from the 8th Bomb Squadron. They hit rail yards at Musan early on the 28th of June. That same afternoon, four B-29s from the 19th Bomb Group (BG) out of Kadena Air Force Base on Okinawa hit roads and railroads just north of Seoul. The 19th BG was made up of the 28th, 30th and 93rd Bomb Squadrons and was permanently based at Andersen AFB, Guam. Less than 24 hours after being alerted, the 19th BG was at Kadena and preparing for their first combat mission over Korea. They had been told to take enough clothing and personal items for "a few weeks." No one dreamed that 37 months later, the 19th would still be at Kadena. It was the only one of the three original B-29 bomb groups to fly combat for the entire war.
Trial by fire for the new Strategic Air Command (SAC)
As the war began, in addition to FEAF's 19th, SAC sent the 22nd and 92nd Bomb Groups, also equipped with B-29s.In May of 1952 the three B-29 groups flying combat were: two at Kadena, the 19th and SAC'S 307th and the 98th, also SAC, which was based at Yakota AFB near Tokyo.
That same month a replacement crew, headed by Aircraft Commander Capt. H.M. Locker, prepared to fly from California to Kadena AFB, reporting for a tour of duty with the 28th Bomb Squadron. I was the left gunner on that crew.
We had orders to fly a re-conditioned B-29 from McClellan AFB to Kadena but after waiting 10 days with no plane being ready, our orders sent us to Travis AFB and a day later we left on a C-54 ambulance aircraft that shuttled between Korea and the states. They flew wounded GIs home and returned to the Far East with replacement personnel.
We spent about 24 hours at Hickam AFB in Honolulu then made the remainder of the trip in a couple of hops. After reporting in at 28th Bomb Squadron headquarters, we were assigned barracks, flight gear and attended orientation. This all took the better part of a week and then we began flying training missions. The training included very little formation flying, which was unexpected by us, but was long on navigation and radar bombing using SHORAN as well as LORAN. We soon were told why.
The B-29 pictured above is currently on display at the USAF Museum. This is one of the most famous Superforts of all. Named Bockscar, it is the airplane that dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki, Japan on August 9, 1945.
The Boeing B-29 was designed in 1940 as an eventual replacement for the B-17 and B-24. The first one built made its maiden flight on September 21, 1942. In December 1943 it was decided not to use the B-29 in the European Theater, thereby permitting the airplane to be sent to the Pacific area where its great range made it particularly suited for the long over-water flight required to attack the Japanese homeland from bases in China. During the last two months of 1944, B-29s began operating against Japan from the islands of Saipan, Guam and Tinian.
With the advent of the conflict in Korea in June 1950, the B-29 was once again thrust into battle. For the next several years it was effectively used for attacking targets in North Korea.
MiG-15s take their toll on the Superforts
Up until a few months prior to our arrival, most B-29 missions were during the daylight hours, but now that the Chinese Communists were into the war their better experienced MiG-15 pilots were really beginning to take a toll on B-29s. On one mission a few months before we got there, we were told that on one five-plane B-29 raid, four of them were lost to MiGs.
First Mission on the night of Friday 13th.
As a result of the Mig-15 attacks, strategy was changed and now we were flying almost 100 of our combat missions at night. In fact the undersides of less than half our B-29s had been painted black. It wasn't until after we had flown four or five missions that all the B-29s at Kadena had been coated with black paint on their undersides. After flying the orientation training missions we were cleared for combat and told that our first mission would probably be in the next three or four days.
The procedure in the 28th was to post the names of crew members and their aircraft on the bulletin boards in the barracks daily for the following nights mission. This was done about 24 to 28 hours prior to scheduled takeoff.
Since we knew we would soon be on a mission we were joking about flying it on Friday, the 13th! On Thursday afternoon, 12 June 1952 word quickly spread that Friday's combat roster had been posted.
A friend stuck his head in my room, we were bunked two to a room, and told me my name was on the list. I made a fast trip to see for myself and there it was! It was as though my name was typed in inch-high capital letters and highlighted with a spotlight.
I'm sure my heart paused for a few seconds. My first combat mission and on a Friday, the 13th!
As was the custom, crew members on their first combat mission were flown as extras or replacements on a veteran crew. Not until the second or third mission did a new crew fly as a unit together. With us it was our second mission that we flew as a crew with only an experienced pilot as observer. It was on a B-29 named Island Queen.
I remember very little about my first mission other than it was relatively routine. A total of nine hours and 35 minutes were logged and we encountered a little light flak. Otherwise it was uneventful except for the fact it was my first combat mission and that alone made it memorable for me!
Takeoff was around 1800 and we touched down back at Kadena at 0335.We went to debriefing at 19th BG headquarters then back to the hardstand to remove and clean all our .50 caliber machine guns. Even though on that mission we never fired them at a MiG, all guns had been test-fired before we reached landfall over the South Korean coast.
Back to the barracks shortly after daylight. Sleep finally came but I was so keyed up it took awhile to drop off.
Plenty of firepower.
The B-29 had five remote controlled turrets that contained a total of twelve .50 caliber machine guns. The upper forward turret held four guns and there were two weapons each in the upper aft, lower forward, lower aft and tail turrets.
The gunnery system on the B-29 incorporated switches that allowed a gunner to control not only his primary turret but take over certain other turrets in the event another gunner was knocked out of action.
Primary turret for the bombardier was the upper forward turret but by flipping a couple of switches, he could take over the lower forward, controlling both or either one.
The right gunner had primary control of the lower forward but he could also fire the lower aft and/or the tail guns. As left gunner, I had the lower aft as my primary turret, but could also fire the lower forward and/or the tail guns. The CFC, or top gunner, had the upper aft as his primary but could also control the upper forward. The tail gunner had primary control of the tail guns.
The mission routine.
With the exception of one daylight raid, the order for a combat mission went something like this: Notification of being scheduled for a mission was posted about 24 hours prior to the mission. The morning of the scheduled mission we four gunners would catch the 6x6 shuttle truck to the 28th BS Headquarters/Operations quonset huts. Then we caught a different shuttle that ran to all the 2801 BS hardstands. These were World War II hardstands and were really spread out to minimize damage from bombs or strafing attacks.
Once at the hardstand of our aircraft we would load and/or check the ammunition in all gun turrets, inspect our .50 caliber machine guns, set head spacing on them, then install them in the turrets. Following that we did a complete ground check of all our electrical equipment and computers that directed our remote-controlled gun turrets.
The final stage of our gun preflight was to arm the guns and then point the weapons in the upper turrets at about a 45-degree angle upward and the lower turret guns about 45-degrees down. This told everyone that all the guns on the aircraft were "hot" and to be very careful in turning on any electrical power or fooling with the turrets in any way.
Once we gunners finished our early preflight, which usually took two to three hours, counting travel time, we went back to the barracks area, ate lunch in our 24-hour mess then tried for a nap and a shower before getting ready for mission briefing at group headquarters.
The briefing and pre-flight.
Briefing was usually between 1400 to 1600 hours and following it our aircraft commander, navigator, bombardier, radar operator and radio operator went to shorter, specialized briefings. The pilot, flight engineer and four gunners went to the aircraft for another pre-flight, this one concerning checking and running up the engines and inspecting the airplane in general.
After the arrival of the remainder of the crew and the completion of their individual pre-flights, we lined up for crew inspection. Each crew member had a parachute, Mae West life jacket, one-man rubber dinghy, oxygen mask, helmet, head set, hand held and throat mike, flak jacket plus the individual's choice of fleece-lined boots, jackets, pants, etc. Even though we were pressurized and had heat for the crew compartment, it still got pretty cold at altitude.
Flight lunches and thermoses of water were delivered to the aircraft as we were pre-flighting. The meals consisted of two per man. One was fresh (sandwiches, piece of fruit, bag of chips, sometimes a cookie or candy and a bag with salt, pepper, sugar and a packet of instant coffee) plus an emergency ration box, called the 1F-4, containing a can of meat or cheese, a can of fruit, stack of crackers and salt, pepper, gum, coffee, toothpick, etc.
The fresh lunches were all the same (pretty good most of the time), but the IF-4 boxes varied from pretty good to terrible. The ones containing a can of cheese, boned chicken or ham were the favorites of most of us as was the cans of fruit and those of crackers.
Over a period of time we would build up a personal supply of IF-4s that we kept in our rooms and ate at times when we didn't feel like making the hike to the mess hall or the times when we were confined to barracks for a few days because a typhoon was doing its best to drown or blow away everything on the island. I remember one time when a typhoon hit and our plane was not flyable so we rode out the storm on the island. They had sent word the mess hall would close in an hour and would not reopen until the typhoon passed.
We decided to try for one last hot meal. Boy, was that a mistake. It was raining so heavy and the wind blowing so hard that we were soaked and had some of our clothing blown away before we went 20 feet. The rain, driven by the wind, felt like someone was shooting pellets of gravel at us. We finally gave up any attempt to make the mess hall and staggered back to the barracks and ate IF-4s for the next two days. We later found out the weather station had recorded winds of 198 MPH!
Third combat mission on Command Decision.
On our third combat mission we were assigned to fly an aircraft named Command Decision, arguably the most famous B-29 of the entire Korean War. Command Decision flew many combat missions over Japan in World War II and over Korea but it became famous for the five MiG kills it was credited with.
The 28th Bomb Squadron's Command Decision was the only B-29 of the entire Korean War to shoot down five MiGs. This occurred, of course, before we arrived at Kadena, but the aircraft commander when all those MiGs were shot down was Capt. Donald Covic. When his crew's tour of duty was up, Capt. Covic signed up for another tour and was the Operations Officer (and had become a major) when we became a part of the 28th.
There was a popular story told in the squadron about the MiG victories. It was said that Capt. Covic and the crew were on a daylight mission when they spotted a MiG- 15. They shot at two MiGs, claimed three, got credit for four and then painted five kills on Command Decision.
Of course, this was said with tongue planted firmly in cheek! Observers outside the crew verified all five kills. Perhaps even more amazing was the fact that three of those five kills were scored on one mission, two by the right gunner and one by the tail gunner.
Runway mishap grounds the war’s most famous bomber.
Almost a week after our third mission on Command Decision four crews, including us, flew a two-hour training mission in the local area. We were the first aircraft to land and the current crew of Command Decision followed us. All four planes landed and followed each other on the taxi strip heading to the 28th hardstands. We were about half way there and I happened to be looking back at Command Decision and at that moment I saw the nose of the airplane plunge to the taxi strip and all four props on the big 3350 Wright-Cyclone radial engines dig into the taxi strip.
We found out that the taxi strip had given way under the nose gear and dropped about 10 or 12 inches. The sudden stoppage of the nose gear and the forward motion of the airplane collapsed the nose gear.
How to Fly the
Watch the same World War II training film used to familiarize new pilots with the Boeing B-29 Superfortress heavy bomber "live" over the Internet. A single irresistible instrument of destruction (B&W, 1944, 36:17)
Major Covic was at his desk when word of the accident reached him. He immediately hopped into his jeep and went to the scene of the accident. It was several hours before he finally got back to squadron operations and when he walked in the first thing he saw was the "Command Decision" model resting on its nose on his desk. Someone had pulled off the nose gear! Maj. Covic left it that way until the real aircraft flew again, almost three months later.
Our crew had flown a different airplane on each of our first three missions but shortly after that we got word that we were assigned our own aircraft. At that time the Air Force still had a team concept of a unit consisting of an airplane, with the same ground crew and flight crew. The only time this varied much was if a plane was down for maintenance, the flight crew would make their scheduled mission on another aircraft.
The tragic mission of Apache … AC earns a DFC … Top Of The Mark gets shot to hell over MiG Alley and more white-knuckle missions as this Korean War Tour of Duty series continues. Read it here.
Clyde G. Durham