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Over Vladivostok

What follows is the second of a three part series of stories written by LtCol (Retired) Alex P. Brewer, Jr. This story is republished in its entirety with his permission and were originally published on his and in his book, "A Navigators Odyssey." TwelfthRecon extends a special thanks to LtCol Brewer for allowing us to republish his experiences here.

Lt. Col Brewer flew 50 combat missions as a RB-26 Nose Navigator with the 12th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron during the Korean War. During his career he also served as a navigator on B-47s, B-52s and on the world's first supersonic bomber, the B-58 Hustler.

RB-26 Robert Finch Collection
RB-26 12th TRS Korean War

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...

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...

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. They 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.

"...the enemy had anti-aircraft guns on top of every significant hill along this route and in the valley areas..."

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.

"...the moon was pretty bright, we were fairly visible to the enemy ground observers, so getting out over the ocean was our best option..."

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..."

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.

"Col. Berg called us into his office at Headquarters and we discussed the mission..."

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.

Peace was our Profession...

Copyright © 1994-2019

Alex P. Brewer, Jr. and Randy A. Brewer

The B-58 Hustler Page

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