The 37th Bombardment Sqn (L) Night Intruder

The 37th Bombardment Squadron (L) Night Intruder Black Knights - Korea

by Antonio G. Fucci  – 12 April 2017

This is a slice of history relating to the 37th Bomb Squadron, 17th Bomb Wing, N/I, Black Knights, and its role during the Korean War. This history is being presented at the 100th Birthday of the 37th Bomb Squadron on the 11th and 12th June 2017 at Ellsworth AFB. The following areas are some of our endeavors in Korea that I felt the present-day 37th Squadron might find interesting.

It has been sixty-five years since the 37th Squadron was engaged in flying combat missions in Korea and from that time I’ve had the feeling that 

Douglas B-26 Invader

“The B-26 Invader owned the night skies over Korea” – From the collection of Antonio G. Fucci ©

Korea was being treated like a black hole in outer space where war just happened to happen. The country and the war, still remain an opaque never-never-land.

For many years most of us that flew with the 37th during the Korean War have had to live with that period of time and our involvement in it, as simply “the Forgotten War” or the “War before Vietnam.” History doesn’t let us off the hook that easily. Mainly because no War ever really duplicates a previous war. The Korean War can be compared with the Vietnam War in broad terms at best. Granted, many of the challenges we faced between 1950 and 1953 in Korea were repeated in Southeast Asia, and more than just a few lessons had to be re-learned. But, in Korea, we had to quickly refresh ourselves on practices that had been learned during WW II. From the standpoint of technology, the Vietnam War was light years ahead of Korea. To us the War is “not forgotten”, we mourn for the loss of our Brethren and PRAISE the freedom that we helped attain to free a nation, from the enslavement of Communism, the Republic of Korea.

The ratio of casualties of the Korean War was greater (e.g. 3 years vs 10 years) than in Vietnam. This can be best be understood by the raw statistics of both wars. In three years (1950 -1953) the Korean War claimed as many American Casualties (36,000+), as did over ten years (1965-1975) of fighting in Vietnam American Casualties (58,000+).

Korea was the last of the massive “Big Battalion” land battle conflicts. For any of us that happened to fly over the MLR (Main Line of Resistance) during a massive artillery duel between the two armies at night, It was an awesome sight and never to be forgotten. It was like a scene from Dante’s Inferno as far as one could see in either direction

In Korea, we flew and fought with equipment that was essentially the same as that used in WW II. For example; our airborne radar wasn’t refined enough or available to allow us to conduct true all-weather operations. For us, our war was still one where you had to somehow find the enemy in the dark, set up an attack, and then get it over with. The problem here is that if you can see them, they can see you. When that occurred sparks would fly and you earned your pay. Also, your adrenaline pump would shift into high gear.

One of the Crews has stated that they had never been in a foreign country and seen so little of it as in Korea. Most of us only saw whatever the moonlight or flares would illuminate. Understandably, we didn’t waste any time getting out of that place, but not before getting a good glimpse of the countryside. It was a scene of utter desolation. The hills that once had contained dikes and terraces for the cultivation of rice no longer bore any semblance of having done so. From the air, you could see that whatever topsoil existed on the hills prior to the war was being washed into the rivers by the monsoon rains and the rivers were being clogged with silt and debris. The clogged rivers were in turn causing massive flooding of the best food-producing lowlands. In a country that even in the best of times could barely feed itself, this was catastrophic.

Had peace prevailed, and had Korea been the Garden of Eden, it still wouldn’t have been the greatest place to be stationed to Western standards. There was the buffalo pulled “honey wagon,” in which the peasants collected their own excrement for spreading on the fields. That stuff defies description. It possessed a smell so deep, pungent and penetrating, that it could literally stupefy a Westerner.

If you were to look at the Korean peninsula on a world globe it would remind you somewhat of the shape of Florida. In size, it’s 160 miles wide and about 600 miles long and I have often wondered how we managed to get lost as many times as we did in Korea. True, it was night, and everything was blacked out, but the place wasn’t very big. Heck, we had water on three sides of us, and if you even got near the Manchurian border the searchlights and radar-directed flak guns would let you know you’re in the wrong neighborhood.

Although Korea is at the same latitude as San Francisco and Philadelphia, the weather is harsh, especially in the north during the winters. Biting Siberian winds blow down from the Asian interior and the temperatures drop to a minus 40 F. Many of us can remember flying night missions in the north when the ambient temperature registered minus 60 F. Survival after a bailout in those conditions wasn’t even worth thinking about. At times it was so cold that our gun heaters couldn’t keep our wing guns operable. A 500-pound bomb would hardly make a crater in the frozen earth. Strafing is always a risky proposition; day or night, and with our 50 caliber slugs ricocheting off the frozen ground it was sheer lunacy.

Summers are hot and humid with a monsoon season that turned Korea’s unpaved roads into quagmires. Temperatures reach 105 F. What our airbase was like during the monsoon season is best summed up by a remark made by the Deputy Commander of the 5th AF. “it was a terrible airfield – the damned thing was practically underwater.”

The primary area for the 37th Bomb Squadron operations in Korea was the great north-south wall of mountains reaching down the eastern coast from the Yalu River in the north to Pusan in the south. The highest peaks were about 9,000 feet above sea level and were located in North Korea around the reservoirs. We did most of our train and truck busting to the south of the reservoir area; simply because that’s where most of them seemed to be. Still, we had to prowl the northern mountains though, and as I recall, most of us didn’t like to go up there. It was cold, lonely, dark, and spooky. And if anything happened, it was a 550-mile walk back to home base.

We could fly within a few miles of the border that separates Korea from Russia (it’s only a 20-mile strip, the rest was Manchuria) and look across Peter the Great Bay and see the glow of the lights of Vladivostok, Russia. At least that’s what my navigator, said they were. Smaller hills and ranges extended inland. The western coast consisted of broad, flat, and muddy river plains. The 3rd Bomb Wing (our sister B-26 unit) operated on the western side of Korea. Occasionally we would cover some of their missions when they were weathered in, and they did the same for us. They were always amazed at our airfield and wondered how we managed to get in and out of the place without hitting something. We all wondered the same thing when we first landed there.

In line with this, I distinctly remember on several take-offs how severe the crosswinds were. One time, as we just became airborne and upon approaching the end of the runway, we had a severe crosswind that veered us to the left. Instead of the green lights being below us, (pull up gear time) they were over to our far right and buildings were below us.

Lumbering down the runway with two 500 pound bombs under each wing with 3000 lbs of bombs in the bomb bay, along with max ammo for the 50 Caliber guns, three in each wing, two in each turret, one lower and one upper, a total of ten. Some aircraft had an additional eight or six in the nose depending on the model. Along with this, fuel tanks were topped off. This was a difficult feat in normal weather conditions, let alone in severe crosswinds. We lost crews that did not make it on take-off, they crashed on the beach or into the waters at the end of the runway.

Along with this malfunctions did occur, engine failure was not prevalent, there was one item that did occur often. “The failure of the bomb shackles not to release”. Two shackles suspended each bomb, and on occasion, only one shackle would release and you had a “hung bomb”. This malfunction occurred to the shackles in both the bomb bay and the ones suspended from the wings. If the hung bomb was in the bomb bay, the Gunner crawled in the bomb bay, secured the hung shackle release lever with a bungee cord, and returned to the Gunners compartment. He then notified the Pilot that the task was performed and the Pilot would open the Bomb bay doors and the Gunner would pull the cord and the bomb was released.

This situation also happened on the shackles suspended from the wings. In this case, the Pilot would try maneuvers to shake the bomb loose. If the bomb would not release, you notified air control and you would be routed back to base over the water. Once back to base and on final approach, the aircraft was landed as gently as possible as not to have the bomb shaken loose. Once on the ground, you would taxi to the hot spot and the Armament crew would handle the situation.

37th Assignment K-9:
The 37th Bombardment Squadron arrived in Korea on 10 May 1952 via an envelope. It was a paper transfer as it replaced the 729th Bombardment Squadron at Pusan East Air Base (K-9). The 729th had been one of three squadrons of the 452nd Bombardment Wing flying out of K-9. The 452nd was an Air Force Reserve unit recalled on 10 August 1950, at the beginning of the Korean War, for 21 months of active duty service. The unit had been in combat since October 1950, and by May 1952, all the original reserve personnel had long been KIA, MIA, or rotated back to the ZI. Replacement personnel, some of which were recently recalled WW II retreads, or freshly minted Second Lieutenants, were staffing the organization.

On 10 May 1952, the 17th Bomb Wing replaced the 452nd Bomb Wing, which returned to reserve status. Nothing changed except the numerical unit designation. The 452nd’s consecutively numbered squadrons (728th, 729th, and 730th), we the 17th had the 34th, 37th, and 95th squadrons.

The Airbase:
All airfields on the Korean Peninsula were given a “K” prefix. The 37th’s airfield at Pusan, Korea was given the designation of K-9. We called it “Dog patch.” (Which was our call sign) K-9 was like a box canyon in many respects. The only open side was 100 yards from the shore of the Sea of Japan. There was only one runway and loaded you took off toward the sea no matter what direction the wind was from. The only exception to this was our training flights, because of reduced ordnance loads the planes could clear the landward hills.

A person could write a book about the comments of aircrews when they first arrived at K-9. Some guys remarked about the short steel mat runway surrounded by a box canyon, later it was Black-topped. The weather (rain, wind, cold, and fog) made the whole thing unreal and didn’t help matters any.

Ice was another little tidbit that Mother Nature provided us with at K-9. Our B-26’s were not equipped with de-icer boots so this became a concern at times, but we did have anti-icing capabilities for the props. Picking up ice in any amount during a nighttime instrument climb-out with a full load of bombs and 130 octane fuel left a crew feeling orgasmic.

Landing at K-9 also took some measure of a pilot’s ability. After a night mission, you still had to face landing on the slippery runway. Just the moisture from the morning dew made it as slick as polished glare ice. Bear in mind, this was before reversing propellers and anti-skid brake systems were available. (We did have Hydraulic Brakes) Also, there was a wicked dike at the end of the runway that had been run into more than once and claimed a few lives.

Although K-9 airfield was never under direct enemy attack, we were a prime candidate. A detachment of U.S. Army engineers working on improving our runway was ambushed and murdered at a gravel pit a short distance from the base during late 1952. Also, various electronic homing beacons in the area were attacked on several occasions.

The Mission:
Our primary mission in Korea was to deprive the enemy of the capability of staging a prolonged offensive by disrupting his supply lines. We flew Combat Interdiction. The relentless day and eventually night interdiction of the movement of the enemy’s men and material, as well our delivery of effective front-line support was a major factor in the restoration of personal freedom and National Security for the long-suffering people of the Republic of Korea. (Our aircraft were painted black and the title “Black Knights” was born).

To be effective for our Mission we flew at low levels. When we dropped the bombs, you could feel the percussion from the explosion of the bomb. The enemy strung cables across the mountain peaks, we lost several aircraft in this manner. If the cables were strung close to the MLR / Bomb line, searchlights from our side zeroed in on the cables attach points so we could see the cables. Missions were low level, below 500′, many on final runs were at 100′. Low level was a necessity to identify any targets, all target acquisition was visual. On moonlit nights identifying a target was easier. Chasing a train was easy, as the engine gave itself away with the smoke it exhausted. Convoys and troop movement was more difficult, it was all visual. We did not have IR (infrared). The enemy could hear us and when we shot a burst, we were totally visible.

Though we inflicted huge losses on the enemy they still managed to stage some very damaging offensives. Oriental manpower seemed to overtake western technology. Our ability to inflict damage was equaled by the enemy’s ability to repair the damage. In effect, we pitted skilled crews, equipped with expensive and modern aircraft (WWII), against unskilled coolies armed with picks and shovels.

A good example of the situation that existed back then is this; in July of 1951 communist ground forces fired only about 8,000 rounds of artillery and mortar against our positions, but in May 1952 they directed 102,000 rounds at our ground forces. General Ridgway, 8th Army Commander, stated at that time; “there’s little doubt that communist ground divisions have accumulated adequate supplies. The hostile forces opposing the Eight Army have a substantially greater potential than at any time in the past. During this time communist ground fire wrought increasing losses on the B-26’s. By the summer of 1952, Colonel George Brown, 5th AF Director of Operations could only report that “we are trading B-26’s for trucks in a most uneconomical manner.”

As a crew, our goal was to perpetrate some mean things on the enemy and his transportation system, and then bring the aircraft back to home base in one piece and park it. To most of the flight crews, it all reduced down to a rather basic and simple equation; one crew and one airplane, versus the night, the terrain, and whatever the enemy had to take us down. This was like a big crap game, “a roll of the dice”.

Sometimes, if you happened to have one of the last missions of the night, you’d still be on your way out of North Korea as the sun came up. As always, in desperate situations, there is consolation, looking over one wing you see a beautiful peaceful sunrise, and over the other wing, you see the dark blackness of night and the horror that was left behind. It was an unbelievable sight.

The conclusion of our efforts and others is that we saved a Nation from the Enslavement of Communism and preserved Peace, Freedom, and Prosperity.

The Men:
One unique thing about the men who flew Night Intruder Missions during the Korean War is that we hardly knew each other. To this day, many of the men don’t know much about their fellow squadrons within the wing. In some cases, we barely knew the other crews within our own squadron.

We always flew alone and at night. During the daytime, we would try to sleep. Sometimes we would have daytime training missions to the Naktong or Mundo ranges for gunnery, bomb, and rocket practice. Briefing for the crews flying that night would take place at about 1500 hrs. Afterward, we would check out our aircraft, ammo, and bomb load, eat supper, and then try to sleep some more before take-off time. Take-off times would vary from 1800 to 0300 hrs. The whole thing was a “twilight zone” type of experience. Many combat crews flew an entire mission tour in four months, although I would guess that the majority of them took five months or more. As you can see, we spent a great amount of time in the air for such a short period. Time to socialize with your fellow airmen was rare.

The very nature of the Night Intruder business combined with our schedule didn’t allow us much of a chance to bring the overall situation into focus very well. Our main strength and perhaps our closest loyalties as well seemed to be contained within us as an aircrew. It’s difficult to explain this without encountering feelings that we had long ago. The majority of us had been together as crews since the beginning of combat crew training at Langley Field, Virginia. We grew close to one another and learned to function as a team. We had to, in Korea, the mountainous terrain and the enemy didn’t let too many mistakes pass unnoticed. We lived, flew, and on occasion died together and it was always in the dark of the night, as a crew, alone. A strong bond developed within the crew. Years later it is still strong. Details of events back then have faded with time, but the feelings remain undiminished.

As far as personnel was concerned we had as diverse a group of men as could be found anywhere on earth, with the possible exception of the French Foreign Legion. A good number of our men were WW II combat veterans and Regular Air Force. Others were also WW II combat veterans but were recalled Reservists but understandably would have preferred to be someplace other than fighting in Korea. Still another element was the kids fresh out of school. It took all kinds. This combination of age and experience levels created some interesting situations. Sometimes a crew would have a freshly minted 2Lt Lieutenant as a Pilot and Aircraft Commander, while the Navigator was a well-seasoned Captain. A few hairy night missions in the north soon adjusted priorities and leveled personalities.

There cannot be enough said about the ground crews and maintenance personnel and their devotion to keeping us flying. Before taking off on a mission, there was the Crew Chief there waiting for us to assure us that the aircraft was in perfect running condition and was waited there for us to return. Also willing to do “whatever it takes” to have a successful mission.

The Aircraft:
At one time or another during the Korean War, we were allocated just about every type and version of the Douglas B-26 Invader that was ever built. Perhaps it should be said rebuilt, as they had been built during WW II and most had seen prior service. Generally, by the time we received them they had been modified and updated. The nose wheel strut and support seemed to be the only structural weakness of the Invader, and even at that, it took a fair amount of abuse to collapse one.

Many of these same planes would be supplied to the French forces in Indo-china after we finished with them in Korea. Then, a decade later, we turned around and used them again in Vietnam. Age and long hard service finally caught up with the B-26 during the early part of that war and several were lost when in-flight structural failures occurred with the loss of crew and aircraft. Overall, the Douglas B-26 Invader was one tough airplane.

I don’t think combat aircraft were meant to be comfortable, and our Invaders were no exception to the rule. Freezing in the winter, but we did have heated suits, boiling in the summer, leaky when it rained, and a gymnastic challenge to climb into, they probably were no better, or worse, than any of the other aircraft of that era.

The Douglas B-26, like the Martin B-26, is a good-looking airplane. Even painted black such as our planes were in Korea, they had class, – sort of like consorting with an expensive “Lady of the Night!”

What did we do to aid in the effort to bring about the Armistice? I do not know the specifics of the 37th, but below is the information of the 3 B-26 Wings that served in Korea, the 3rd, 17th, and 452nd.

The information below is from WIKIPEDIA – probably as accurate as any that can be found.

“When the North Korean Army invaded the South on 25 June 1950, the USAF was critically short of flight bombers. The B-26 Invaders in Japan proved to be valuable in the night interdiction role and it fell to the B-26 to fly the first and last bombing missions of the Korean War. Their first mission was on 28 June 1950 when they attacked the railroads supplying the enemy forces over South Korea. Their first attack on North Korea was on 29 June, when they bombed the main airfield in Pyongyang. The Invaders of the 3rd, 17th, and 452nd Bomb Wings flew some 60,000 sorties and were credited with the destruction of 38,500 vehicles, 3,700 railway cars, and 406 locomotives. The B-26 had the honor of flying the last combat sortie of the Korean War, when, 24 minutes before the Armistice Agreement went into effect on 27 July 1953 a B-26 of the 3rd Bomb Wing dropped the last bombs of the Korean War.”

As a note, The following is printed in the booklet “Within Limits”, entitled “ The U.S. Air Force and the Korean War” by Wayne Thompson and Bernard C. Nalty, published by the Air Force History and Museum Program in 1956, “ What is needed to improve the effectiveness of Interdiction was not more bombs dropped from high flying B-29’s but low – altitude aircraft that could locate and destroy truck convoys and trains moving at night…., Air Force B-26s…” ref: Within Limits.

“The B-26 owned the night skies over Korea”

The Enemy:
Flying the type of missions we did, we got to know the enemy on an almost personal basis. At times they would seem about as familiar as some of our own people, they were more predictable anyway. Although we rarely, if ever saw enemy personnel in the dark, we learned to know and grudgingly respect them from their habits and perseverance.

Most missions were 4 to 5 hours long; with about half of that time spent prowling as close to the ground as you could get without becoming a statistic. Almost all of our flying was done over extremely rugged and hostile terrain and in narrow mountain valleys with winding roads. It was all very intimidating and don’t recall ever really adjusting to it.

Flak traps were common and if you were caught “low and slow” in a valley it was bad news. There just wasn’t much room to maneuver to evade the flak guns without getting smeared on a hillside. In modern-day business jargon, you could say, “Our options were extremely limited”.

Sometimes we would encounter a coordinated series of flak traps. Each enemy gun crew would let the next one know you were coming their way. The reception we received was at times spectacular and after a night of that kind of activity, it sometimes was difficult to relax or sleep after returning to home base.

Once the aircraft was parked and secured, a Jeep drove us to HQ to be debriefed by Intelligence. To get ready for Intell to debrief us, we were given “Old Methuselah” and when available “Seagram’s V.O.” medicinal liquid (debriefing booze). This was to relax us to respond to Intell’s questions. This sometimes helped. This happened after every Mission as we were debriefed by Intelligence.

The FIGMO Ribbon. 37th Squadron Tradition

As history would say it always was. But to the best of today’s knowledge, which I can attest to, specifically from the 17th Bomb Wing (L) N/I, K-9, Korea. 34th, 37th & 95th Squadrons It is as follows:

What is it?

The ribbon is approximately 10” long, and ¼” wide, gold in color with black banding and is one of the most cherished ribbons to receive…Upon receipt of this ribbon, it is the authorization to PCS to the ZI. (USA)

How it is earned?

It is earned in two sequential stages.

1. Successfully complete the authorized number of Sorties.

2. Upon completion of the last mission and during and after debriefing from Intel, a medicinal liquid is presented to the FIGMO Ribbon recipient which has the FIGMO Ribbon attached from the distillery (Seagram’s V.O.) This was in lieu of Old Methuselah.

Upon successfully dispensing this medicinal liquid by the recipient and fellow crew members, the Ribbon is removed from the container holding this liquid and the Senior Officer presented it to the recipient with a gracious salute and handshake.

This ribbon is to be worn as part of their uniform until the date of departure. The ribbon is placed on the zipper handle on the upper left of the flight jacket.

Our FIGMO Mission was significant other than being your last Mission. At debriefing instead of “Old Methuselah” to relax you during debriefing, you were Honored with Seagram’s VO which was shared with your crew and others on completion of the required missions. On the neck of the bottle was a Gold Ribbon with black edges. I still have mine on my flight jacket!

Attached is a letter from the Chief of Staff, United States Air Force, General Mark A. Welsh III, recognizing the 37th Bomb Squadron.
Antonio G. Fucci / FBI April 2017
Black Knight 37th Bomb Squadron (L) Night Intruder K-9
This slice of history was prepared by me, Antonio Fucci, and edited by my fellow Black Knights Ted Baker, Don Eaton, Bob Reynolds, and Charles Tucker.
Depicted below is a copy of the painting “Night of the Invader” Commissioned by Black Knight Charles Tucker.

Letter to Antonio Fucci From United States Air Force Chief of Staff, Mark A. Welsh III

Photography, Aviation Illustration, and MORE...