Korean War Stories
Korean War Stories
12th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron
Lt. Col Alex P. Brewer, Jr.
Lt. Col Brewer completed 50 combat missions as a RB-26 Nose Navigator in the 12th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron during the Korean War. He also served as a navigator on B-47s, B-52s and on the world's first supersonic bomber, the B-58 Hustler.
The following stories are republished with his permission from his website B-58.com and his book, "A Navigators Odyssey."
We Were the Bait
The RB-26 was the workhorse reconnaissance bird of the Korean War and had a very impressive combat record. Our mission in the 12th was essential for Bomb Damage Assessment and played an important part in targeting enemy positions. We actually had several types of reconnaissance missions, which varied on a day-to-day basis. Targeting Orders would come around noontime from Fifth AF there in Japan and missions would be assigned at our 1PM Operations Briefing. Some combat missions would be an "easy" mission, like taking pictures for BDE of a bridge that was knocked out, a supply dump, front line support or the rail "reccy" up the east coast of Korea. When I use the word "easy", it correlates as to how much AA we would encounter in and out of the target areas.
The "not so easy missions" were when we worked with our "Little Brothers" the armed B-26s from the 3rd B.W. These missions were seek and destroy missions, targeting trucks and trains. We would support their mission by dropping flares on targets of opportunity and they in turn would either bomb them or "hose" them with their 13 forward firing 50 caliber machine guns. These nightly missions were not all that easy and required a lot of co-ordination between aircraft to be effective. Many a "choo choo" was destroyed and hundreds of trucks were put out of commission by this effective teamwork system.
The "really not so easy 'pucker' missions", were the ones that made the "Alone, Unarmed and Unafraid" slogan a joke. These missions were those where we supported our "Big Brothers" the B-29 Heavy Bombers out of Okinawa. General LeMay had convinced FEAF that bomber stream sorties using Shoran Bombing was the way to go. SAC was running "Shoran" missions against targets up along the Yalu (Mig Alley), trying to shut down the supplies coming from our Chinese and Soviet "friends". With the planned east to west track inbound, Charlie didn't have to be too bright to figure out the bomb run heading and track and then have Migs and AA waiting for the B-29s. Most all B-29 losses occurred on these difficult missions.
Our mission was to "loiter" just south of the assigned target areas and as soon as the last B-29 had made his releases, wait for bomb impacts and then run in and take a few pictures for the "Intel" folks waiting to see if SAC had hit the assigned targets. This was a good way to get BDE as well as get your "pucker factor" up and off the chart, as Charlie was definitely awake and pretty upset by now.
One of the mission that I flew as "Nose Nav/Bombardier" was especially noteworthy, as we had made our runs in and out of the B-29 target area, getting the usual AA (flak). After releasing all of our magnesium "flash" bombs and taken as many pictures as we could, we turned south and headed back to home base. We had climbed up to about 9,000 ft to get away from ground fire and light AA and to get better radio reception from the Navy ship stationed off the west coast of the peninsular which controlled that sector. As we approached "Big Ping Pong" as we called Pyongyang the Capitol of North Korea, from the north, we were under radar coverage from this Navy ship. Unfortunately, unknown to us, we at the same time were being targeted by two Mig "Night Fighters" who had been following us and were vectoring onto our position. The Navy controller in the area gave us a heads up and advised us that they had asked for two F-94 "Night Fighters" to come up and see if they couldn't give us some protection.
We were unarmed, (afraid) and going to try to get away from two Migs armed with 20 mm so this had the potential of one of those missions that the made for an early retirement. At altitude, we could hear the Navy telling us to stick around until the AF could get their F-94s into the area. In other words play "Bait". Easy for them to say, but "pucker factor" off the chart for us. Our reaction was to descend as low as possible, which we did and now we were operating in our environment. In addition, we turned back north in an effort to fool the Mig jockeys. The hilly terrain in this area gave us an opportunity to effectively elude our pursuers. After a few minutes of tooling around we popped up to get a read from the Navy on where the Migs were located. They told us they were vectoring the F-94s onto the Migs and for us to hang loose for a few more minutes. About 10 minutes later we saw a explosion on a hillside that we assumed was an aircraft crash impact. We again climbed up to be able to get radio contact with the Navy and they advised us to head back home and that the area was clear.
At our 1PM Briefing the next afternoon it was announced that F-94 Night Fighters had dispatched two Migs the evening before. There was no mention of the RB-26 that played the role of "Bait".
Peace was our Profession...
Copyright © 1994-2019
Alex P. Brewer, Jr. and Randy A. Brewer
The B-58 Hustler Page
Say "Cheese" Mr. Russkie, you're on camera!
As the "Nose" Navigator/Bombardier on a RB-26 Combat Crew, flying combat missions over North Korea, our 1PM daily briefing was always interesting. The previous days missions were reviewed and for those of us on the "Tiger Board" (Combat Crews ready for fly that night) would receive our mission assignments and targets for that night's mission. My crew was scheduled to fly that night and as crews were being called out and targets assigned, we were last to be called on, which wasn't unusual, but when the briefing Officer ask for all other crews to leave the meeting room, we knew that our mission was going to be something special.
There was a Lt/Col. assigned to Fifth Air Force Headquarters who had come over from Japan who took over the classified briefing. We were reminded that what we would hear was a Top Secret briefing that we could not discuss with any other crewmembers or for anyone else for that matter. We were sworn to secrecy and asked to sign a form acknowledging that this was a special mission of strategic importance. I was crewed up with Col. Russell Berg, our Wing Commander, who had volunteered to fly more than the 5 combat missions that was required of Staff Officers. Col. Berg was an outstanding Officer and pilot and after flying a couple of missions with him, he had me assigned to him as his personal Navigator.
Our "Top Secret" mission was to take photographs of the rail marshalling yards where cargo was being brought into the Siberian port of Vladivostok. It was no secret that the Soviets were supporting the North Koreans and the rail line which ran along the east coast of North Korea was a major source of military supplies to the enemy. The North Koreans had continually denied this at the "Peace" talks, so I would imagine that our President was the one wanting to know just how big a liar the enemy was.
The North Koreans had an elaborate warning system to protect the trains that operated along the coastline. Our sister outfit, the 3rd Bomb Squadron destroyed many locomotives and trains on this route which went thru dozens of tunnels in this mountainous coastline. So as to fake out the North Korean intelligence network, we were to fly up the Rail "Reccy" route and instead of turning south at the northern end, we were to proceed north across the tip of Manchuria and fly directly over the city of Vladivostok. I was sure the Russians would have a reception committee waiting for us and would really like to get their hands on our crew of three for political purposes.
The normal timing of the Rail "Reccy" mission was to terminate the mission at the north end and then fly east out over the Sea of Japan just as the sun was coming up. This way, the enemy Anti-Aircraft gunners along the coast would have a harder time seeing the airplane with the sun in their eyes coming over the horizon.
So I planned the mission to let down over the Eastern port of Wonson, which was the south end of the rail line, then work our way north past Hungnam, Kinchaek, Chongjin and then Najin. Which was the northern end of the route. Instead of turning back south, we planned on proceeding north to the assigned target area. After studying the target area, we decided to make our run from north to south, so as to reduce our exposure to anti-aircraft fire. Had we made the run to the north, at the end of the run, we would be over enemy territory and have to make a 180-degree turn to come back south. After 10 magnesium photo flash bombs detonated in the target area, I am sure every gunner would be alert and ready to take us on.
We planned to make our approach at low level a few miles east of the Siberian coast line, then turn west, coming over land and then make the dash southbound, in hopes that by taking the gun emplacements by surprise, we would be able to make our time over land short as well as undetected. After all, no other USAF aircraft had been so bold as to make this reconnaissance run and there was a good chance we could pull it off. (Years later, I learned that the USAF had routinely made high altitude reconnaissance missions with RB-57s targeting the same areas.)
We met at the airplane and while the pilot was doing his walk around and visual inspection, I along with my rear navigator (we had two navigators on board because of the difficulty of navigation at night, low level without the use of nav-aids) were checking the safety wires and fusing on the magnesium "flash" bombs we would use to take the photographs at night. The bombs were extremely bright and allowed us to take photographs that were very valuable for target and bomb damage assessment. The only problem was that the enemy, "Charlie" didn't have to be too bright to figure out our altitude and heading, so after a couple of bombs detonated, the flak was sure to follow. Because of fuel considerations we only had 10 bombs on board in the bomb bay and no external bombs, which caused drag and required more fuel.
THE ACTUAL MISSION: The aircraft checked out with no major discrepancies and with an on-time take off; we were off and on our way. My job as "Nose" navigator was to take off in the right seat and take on the responsibilities of Co-pilot. This amounted to also monitoring engine instruments and after the pilot applied power, to hold the two throttle levers in "on" position as well as to actuate the landing gear retraction lever. After take off and level off, I would leave the right seat, get down on my hands and knees and crawl thru a tunnel to the nose navigator position. I would always leave my chest type snap on parachute in the crawlway to be ready in case of an in-flight emergency that would mean bailing out. Our route took us across the north east corner of South Korea and out over the Sea of Japan. As soon as we had proceeded far enough north, we turned back to the west and intercepted the rail line just north of Wonson.
We checked in with our Navy controllers who were stationed on a Cruiser off the eastern shore of North Korea. The advised us that there were two B-26's in the area, one heading outbound that had depleted his ammunition and the other one, a "Little Brother" had just come into the target area a few miles north of us over Hungnam, working a train target in that area. So we proceeded north with the idea of giving him a hand if he needed us.
The B-26 did not have cockpit heat, so we wore heavy flight clothing and electric jackets and over pants with boots, all plugged in to the 28volt electrical system to help keep us warm. The system never worked correctly, so we were either burning up or freezing. On this particular mission, the right knee area of the suit was shorted, so it was getting way too hot, so I had unplugged the pants part of the suit and just had the jacket part working. So needless to say with the cockpit temperatures below freezing, it was a little nippy to say the least.
By the time we had reached the area where "Little Brother" was working, he had moved further north toward Kinchaek looking for a target. The North Korean train operators would make dashes between tunnels to keep us from catching them in the open, so it was a cat and mouse game we all played. In the meantime, the enemy had anti-aircraft guns on top of every significant hill along this route and in the valley areas, had stretched metal cables between hills in hope of catching us. So it wasn't like we were making a "milk" run. By the time we reached Kinchaek, "Little Brother" informed us that he had engaged a locomotive with approximately 7 freight cars. He was sure that he had made a kill and asked us if we would photograph the target area to confirm his kill. Normally we would have, but on this particular mission, we only had 10 bombs, so we had to turn him down. He wasn't all that happy, but our mission had higher priority. In any event, he turned south and although we flew over the area of the destroyed train, I was unable to confirm his kill.
So now we were on our own, and I am sure that the listening posts that monitored our transmissions and radar sites in the area had relayed the information that there was another B-26 in the area. I decided that rather than risk going over Chongjin, a larger city on the rail line with lots of anti-aircraft guns we would turn east and go our over the ocean to avoid guns as well as detection. Since the moon was pretty bright, we were fairly visible to the enemy ground observers, so getting out over the ocean was our best option. Over land, the moon and stars were giving us pretty good visual navigation map references so long as we were over land. The only problem with going out over water was that we were limited to dead reckoning (DR) navigation, which wasn't all that reliable.
The instruments in the Nose bombardier compartment were limited to an airspeed meter and altimeter and a compass and a several switches that controlled the bomb bay doors as well as a bombing timing devise called an inter-velometer. There was no desk or any way to have any kind of lighting, so we relied on the "rear" nav, who had a desk, better instruments as well as a desk light.
So we proceeded northeast to our planned turning point about 30 miles north and east over the ocean northeast of Vladivostok. We turned back to the west, hoping to make landfall at our planned position. A few minutes later, I picked up some lights along the shoreline and determined we were about 5 miles south of the planned entry point of the Siberian Peninsula. We proceeded west for a few more minutes after making landfall and then turned south on our planned bomb run heading. Here it was about 3:30 AM and there were all sorts of lights on the ground leading into the north side of this big city.
We were completely undetected or perhaps those on the ground though we were a Soviet aircraft. Needless to say our adrenaline was gushing through our veins and I was on the run with everything going in our favor. I opened the bomb bay doors, rechecked the bomb inter-velometer (a devise that timed the distance between bomb releases). Although I was trained to use the Norden Bombsight, it was not usable at night at the low altitudes we flew. Since we had no bombsite, our system was simple, we would drop the first bomb from a timing point identified on one side or the other of the planned course. I identified the checkpoint, started my stopwatch and pushed the release button on time. A few seconds later, the first bomb detonated and it was like daylight as the blinding flash illuminated the whole area. A light sensing devise triggered the camera and we had our first picture. The second bomb detonated and the second picture was taken, overlapping the first by a few feet and so on until each of the ten bombs had detonated and we had ten pictures of the target area. As the bombs went off, I was able to identify the marshalling yard as well as the harbor directly south with a couple of freighters which probably contained war supplies for the North Koreans. When the last bomb detonated and the picture was taken, we made a hard left turn, descended to a low level and scooted out eastbound over the ocean.
I have no idea what the Russians on the ground were doing, but with those flashes lighting up the area, I am sure they were completely surprised. We were completely undetected and in and out of the area in just a few minutes. There was no anti-aircraft fire, and no evidence that we were detected until the bomb flashes illuminated the area. We breathed a sigh of relief as we headed out over the Sea of Japan and our rear navigator gave us a heading to fly southbound to head back to Kimpo. We proceeded southbound over water, hoping that in the event the Soviets had launched night fighters they would not find us.
After about an hour, we popped up to 7,000 ft. and contacted our Navy controller stationed east of Wonson harbor. They wanted to know where we had been as we had been off the air for a considerable time and they assumed we were working the rail line looking for trains. We gave them an ops-normal report and proceeded southbound and then made a turn back to the west to over fly the northern part of South Korea and headed back to Kimpo.
We arrived back in the Kimpo area, contacted GCA approach control penetrating the smoky/smog that engulfed the area. The Koreans in the area usually fired up their cooking stoves about dawn, cooking Kimchi or other delicacies, so the valley was usually pretty smoggy in the early morning. We made an uneventful landing and were greeted by the Lt/Col from Fifth Air force who was anxious to get our mission report and get the film back to Japan.
After crew rest, Col. Berg called us into his office at Headquarters and we discussed the mission again and also the idea of putting us in for the DFC, the Distinguished Flying Cross. The rear Navigator and I had all ready been awarded this medal on a prior mission, so it was decided that this would bring unwanted attention to this Secret mission, so the idea was shelved.
We never heard what the results of the mission were, who looked at the photos, or how they were used by Intelligence. In March of 2003, over fifty years after we flew this important mission, I received a letter from the Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld along with a letter of recognition thanking me and rewarding me for my efforts in flying this classified mission.
Korea was the forgotten war, but for us, it was the only war we had, so we made the most of it.
Story reprinted with permission.
Alex P. Brewer, Jr. and Randy A. Brewer
Not so typical combat mission, or how "Goosey" got his name
One of the combat missions of the 12th Tac Recon Squadron, K-14, Kimpo Korea, flying RB-26s was to follow the SAC B-29 bomber stream missions up along the Yalu river and take photos for Bomb Damage Assessment (BDA) of strategic targets the SAC B-29's were bombing. The B-29's used SHORAN (SHOrt RAnge Navigation) Bombing in trail formation at 25,000 ft. After the last 500# bomb was dropped, "Big Brother" as we called them would clear us (Little Brother) to come in on the same track and heading to take the bomb damage photos.
These BDA missions were always exciting (I flew 3 of them), as we had front row seats to see a lot of bomb explosions, search lights and a lot of flak. So this was a fun mission (NOT). Think of it this way, the B-29's drop bombs make a lot of noise and all of the North Korean Anti-aircraft gunners are awake and unhappy because their weapons couldn't quite reach the B-29s. We would "loiter" off to the side of their targets at 1,000 ft. or less and as soon as we were cleared in we would climb with Indicated air speed of 250 to 280 knots to our bombing altitude of 8,000 ft. to drop our magnesium photo flash bombs. So a huge photo flash bright light goes off and then a few seconds later another one goes off, and so on. To get the proper overlap spacing on the photos, we had to hold heading and airspeed for a little over a minute. We would drop 12 in a row, which was our bomb bay capacity. No big deal, unless you were being shot at. These photo flash magnesium bombs illuminated the ground and also triggered the camera that took the photos. (I dropped over 500 on strategic targets, front line support and various other assigned targets). After seeing a string of bright lights going off in the sky, it didn't take a very high IQ for the North Korean gunners to figure out where we were. For us, it was like flying through the fireworks at Las Vegas on the 4th of July. On one of the missions I flew, we came home with 31 flak holes in the airplane. From the Bombardiers position in the glass nose RB's the view was great, but the only thing between you and the 37mm and 57mm flak was the Plexiglas nose cover. If you go to Google, you can find pictures of RB-26 "glass nose" warbirds.
Now that you know what the airplane and mission was all about. Here is what happened to another crew, doing BDA, following a B-29 mission. They had just been cleared to turn inbound by "Big Brother" and were climbing to start their bomb/camera run and immediately started picking up heavy flak dead ahead. As they turned inbound with the bomb arming switches on, the entire nose compartment exploded, knocking the Nose Navigator unconscious. At that airspeed, the wind coming through the nose into the cockpit was greater than hurricane speed. The pilot was barely able to keep control and immediately aborted and turned southbound to get away from the flak. He salvo'd the bombs and slowed the airplane down just above stall speed, as the wind coming into the cockpit thru the crawl-way that accessed the nose was like a wind tunnel. The outside air temp was below freezing, so it was a very hazardous situation. The rear Navigator was in a compartment behind the bomb bay, but could not see out of the airplane, so he relied on the pilot and Nose Nav. for map reading and visual fixes. The rear Navigator also operated a Loran set, which was unreliable because of the low altitude and mountainous terrain.
So here they were with major damage to the Nose Nav./bombardiers cockpit. To slow down this terrible wind coming into the cockpit, the Pilot had reduced the airspeed to a little over 100 knots and had only a vague idea of where they were. The Rear Nav. informed the Pilot that they were just north of Pyongyang, so it was hazardous to ask for any kind of support over the radio, because the North Koreans monitored the aircraft frequencies we operated on and they would have vectored Mig19 night fighters operating out of China with Russian Pilots to intercept them. About 30 minutes later as they were heading south, flying around the Pyongyang area, the "Nose" Nav. woke up (we used throat mikes, so he was able to talk and our cloth helmets had earphones built in), and told the Pilot and Rear Nav. that he was blind, his arm was broken, he had numerous cuts and bruises and that he was in excruciating pain, as a piece of the Plexiglas had cut his chest and stomach open and that his intestines were hanging out. He was obviously hurt pretty bad and getting him back to Kimpo flying low and slow was a challenge. Fortunately they did not encounter any night Fighters or more flak coming back to K14. They finally made it back across the DMV and over friendly territory and made a successful GCA landing.
When the Pilot turned off the active runway onto a taxiway, the fire trucks and ambulances were there to get the "Nose" Nav. out of the damaged compartment and to the base hospital. They treated him at Kimpo for a couple of days and then sent him back to Japan where 5th AF had a full service hospital. He suffered a broken arm, both eyes were swollen shut, some minor frost bite and numbers cuts and bruises, but it seems that his intestines were not on the outside after all.
As it turned out, that the airplane had not been hit by flak, but had actually hit a goose in flight. I have to assume that shock makes goose feathers and intestines seem like human feathers(?) and intestines. After a couple of weeks, 5th AF send him back from Japan with his arm in a cast and sling and with no DFC or Purple Heart, although in all fairness, it was an enemy goose. When I finished my 50th mission a few weeks later, I imagine that he was still getting used to his new nickname...."Goosey"!
Story reprinted with permission.
Alex P. Brewer, Jr. and Randy A. Brewer