Beating to Quarters
Just before daybreak at sea off the Korean coast, June 25, 1952, the second anniversary of the beginning of the Korean War, Navy fighter pilot Ensign Ron Eaton, is jolted out of a sound sleep by the claxon of the General Alarm aboard his aircraft carrier. The USS Bon Homme Richard (CV 31) is about to begin another day of combat air operations against targets in North Korea. Today will be Eaton’s third combat mission. It will also be his last.
Truckbusters At Dogpatch
Three hours later, one hundred miles away from the Bon Homme Richard, at K-46, a dusty air base carved out between two mountains, the airmen of the 67th Squadron, 18th Fighter-Bomber Wing are also preparing for combat operations as day breaks. How Flight of the 67th Squadron has been designated as the Rescue Combat Air Patrol (RESCAP) flight for the Fifth Air Force. If any UN pilot goes down that day, How Flight will be called to use its old, but still lethal F-51 Mustangs to keep enemy ground troops at bay and protect the slow, vulnerable helicopter as it attempts a pilot pickup. How Flight includes 1st Lt. Archie Connors, just returning to combat flying after a tragic period of emergency leave to be with his wife as she fought for her life after a serious car accident. Today he will fly “Number Two,” position next to Number One position of the Flight Leader, the position he should be flying in himself had he not been called home on emergency leave. Today will be his 33rd combat mission. It will also be his last.
That Others May Live
Later that same morning, at a dusty advanced operating area (until recently a rice paddy), Captain Wayne Lear and Medical Technician Bobby Holloway arrive in their H-5 helicopter from a nearby Mobile Army Surgical Hospital. They wait near their helicopter for a call from the Joint Operations Center in Seoul that would send them off into enemy territory to attempt a pilot pickup. Their unit, the Third Air Rescue Squadron, Detachment One, like the 18th Wing, had been in Korea since shortly after the war had begun two years earlier. Aviation history is being made by 3ARS as its Korean War operations prove. Lear and Holloway wait are standing by at the advanced air strip as the Corsairs of VF-74 launch from the carrier to hit enemy targets. It will be Lear’s last combat mission and Holloway will begin a harrowing ordeal that will last for over a year.
At noon, VF 74 attacks trucks and supply dumps south of Wonsan, North Korea. On the way back to his carrier, Eaton is forced to bail out of his Corsair after it is badly hit by antiaircraft fire. The day’s tragic events are speeding up.
Ron Eaton’s Story
Now shortly after noon, Eaton hides in the underbrush of a nameless mountain valley in North Korea. Other Corsairs of his flight, under heavy fire themselves, strafe enemy troops to keep him from being captured. Ron’s childhood in Wilmington, Massachusetts and college years at Acadia University tell the story of a fine young man who was determined to overcome a chronic shortage of money to complete his education and to earn his Navy Wings of Gold. VF-74, “the Be-Devilers,” Ron’s attack squadron, prepares for deployment and operations from USS Bon Homme Richard (CV 31). The chapter concludes with Ron Eaton hiding in the brush, waiting for a rescue operation that was just getting underway.
Elliot Ayer, Flight Leader Mission 1890
Captain Elliot Ayer has recently been restored to his WWII Air Force Captaincy and returned to flying status. He had reverted to Master Sergeant for seven years following the down-sizing of the Air Force after WWII. He has been selected to be the Mission 1890 Flight Leader, the Rescue Combat Air Patrol that will attempt to pick up Ron Eaton.
Mission 1890’s Number Two pilot, 1st Lt. Archie Connors, is out to complete as many missions as possible and to prove to himself that he is as good a fighter pilot as his friends who have already begun rotating home as they completed their 100 missions. Archie comes from a Florida pioneer family, and he has shown himself to be a leader while in high school and college. After Air Force pilot training, he is posted to Korea and the 67th Fighter-Bomber Squadron, 18th F-B Wing, whose combat record ranks it among America’s most distinguished military units. Archie waits at K-46 to see if Mission 1890 will be activated.
Rescue Helicopters in Combat
As Wayne Lear and Bobby Holloway wait for a possible mission at an advanced air base, they are helping write the emerging history and doctrine of rescue helicopter operations, a new capability that began to show promise with the arrival of the first helicopters to perform this mission at the end of World War Two. The operations of the Third Air Rescue Squadron that flies both helicopters and fixed wing aircraft illustrate the promise and the short-comings of rescue helicopter operations.
Wayne and Della Lear
Rescue helicopter pilot Wayne Lear has come a long way from the cockpit of the B-29 he originally flown eight years before at the end of World War Two. Wayne married his beautiful wife, Della Marie, in 1945. Their courtship and married life together took them to post-war Japan, helicopter pilot training, a tour at Air Rescue Headquarters in Washington, and the transition into the H-19, a much more capable aircraft that the H-5. After being posted to the Third Air Rescue Squadron in Korea, Wayne begins flying medical evacuation missions. His letters to Della reflect his empathy with the suffering he saw every day. When many of his badly wounded patients die, Wayne grieves for them and wonders about his ability to deal with the emotions of seeing and being a part of such tragedy.
Bobby Dale Holloway, Medical Technician
Waiting with Wayne Lear was Airman Bobby Holloway, a trained Medical Technician. Bobby’s youth in Ruston, Louisiana, and early Air Force service taught him self-reliance and important skills he will need to survive before Wednesday, June 25th is over. Holloway relates his experiences as a medical technician in earlier missions. If Mission 1890 were called for on this Wednesday, it would be Holloway’s 22nd mission. He would not complete the mission for 14 months.
As the lumbering H-5 rescue helicopter approaches the area, Ayer, Connors and other How Flight Mustangs pound enemy positions near where Eaton lies hiding in the brush. The hillsides on either side of the valley erupt with ground fire—from side arms to heavy anti-aircraft weapons. Clearly, it is a trap–baited with the downed pilot. Lear can abort the mission at any time. However, over the next twenty minutes, he makes three hovering approaches under heavy fire to reach the spot where Eaton had signalled to them with his survival mirror. On each harrowing approach, the helicopter takes hits. Both Lear and Holloway are wounded. Overhead, Ayer directs his Mustangs in repeated strafing and bombing runs against the deadly defenders. Connors joins Ayer in the attacks and makes sure as “Number Two man,” he covers the leader’s butt as best he can as they dive, jink and circle in the narrow valley where enemy soldiers fire everything they have at the protecting aircraft. Finally, after the third attempt under withering fire, Lear and Holloway have Eaton on board. The wounded Lear nurses the damaged helicopter back down the valley with his precious cargo for over five dogged miles as the blistering anti-aircraft fire pours down from the nearby hills. Seconds later, with friendly lines almost in sight, a lucky hit in the rotor changed a harrowing, but successful rescue, into the deadliest helicopter rescue mission of the Korean War.
After the Mission–Captivity and Bureaucracy
As far as the Air Force is concerned, Mission 1890 is over. It is far from over for Bobby Holloway and the families affected by the losses. As Holloway tries to survive a brutal imprisonment in North Korea, the families have to face the dispair of not knowing what happened, or when or if their loved ones are alive or dead. Although the Department of Defense attempts to help them in some ways, the bureaucracy is often frustrating to the families, particularly in providing information to them about what happened. After the Armistice is signed in July 1953, a prisoner of war repatriation process is begun that eventually brings Holloway home to his family, and also to face Della Lear for the first time. Over the following months, their relationship becomes a courtship and they marry in December 1953.
Archie’s remains are identified from among those returned during Operation Glory and the devastated Connors’ family prepares for his funeral. The chapter concludes with an Epilogue that tells the “rest of the story” about those affected by Mission 1890.
Mission 1890 and its losses would affect all of the families involved to this day. The “rest of the story” proves the strength of the human spirit and its ability to rebuild both hope and the lives on which it is founded.