The 13th Flight of the royal Hellenic Air force in Korea (η ελληνική αεροπορία στον πόλεμο της Κορέας, 1950)
By Elias K.Maglinis (www.koti.welho.com)
Part of the Flight’s aircraft en route to the “Land of the morning calm”
The Korean War started on June 25 1950, when the communist forces of Kim Il Sung invaded the Southern part of the Korean peninsula where a western type democracy was established under the authoritarian leadership of Syngman Rhee. Kim Il Sung aimed at the unification of the country under a communist regime. The North Korean forces with the aid of the Soviet Union invaded South Korea, crossing the 38ο parallel which had been established by the Allies at the end of WWII, as the demarcation line dividing the country. The “Cold War” had just turned hot.
The request of the United Nations for military help to confront the invaders was answered by many countries.
Greece responded with the dispatch of a reinforced Army infantry battalion and a RHAF flight of transport planes. The seven C-47s of 13th Flight departed from Eleusis air base at 08.30 of November 11, 1950.They belonged to the 355 Transport Sqdn, known for its participation in the civil war. The majority of the officers and NCOs of this first mission were experienced airmen, veterans of the Middle East campaigns of WWII and the Greek civil War.
At noon of the 3rd of December, 1950 the first Greek aircraft landed on Korean soil. Immediately the Greek flight was attached to the 21st Troop Carrier Sq. (later renamed 6461 TC Sq.) of 374th Wing of the USAF.
The legendary 92622 which was named “Neptune” (in English on the port side and Greek on the starboard)
in a break from operations, is serviced. RHAF and Greek Army personnel pose in front of the aircraft.
In the center, wearing black flight jacket major Fragoyannis, commander of the Squadron who was later killed
in a tragic accident.
The US Marines trapped
While the US and the rest of the U.N forces (at this point British and Turkish) were advancing on the Yalu river, on the borders of North Korea and China, the leader of that country Mao Tse Tung decided to act. That was something the U.S president H.Truman was afraid of. Those fears were not shared by the commander of the U.S Forces in the Far East General Douglas McArthur. What none of them knew though, was that almost half a million of Chinese troops were secretly crossing the Yalu river, advancing south.
On November 28 1950, 20000 U.N. troops in the area of the Chosin Reservoir (mainly the US 1st Marine Division, the US 7th Infantry Division, and 41 Independent Commando Royal Marines) were attacked by more than 120.000 Chinese, who pinned them down. In very short time the numerically superior communist forces had taken the surrounding hills and established control over the only road that the troops could be supplied and reinforced .The U.N forces were retreating from valley to valley and from hill to hill. All this was happening under polar temperatures of -30 C°.
In order for the remaining combat-capable US forces to be able to resist and repel the advancing Chinese, they had to be urgently reinforced, but also to evacuate the thousands of their wounded, whose numbers were steadily increasing with every nightly Chinese attack. The only available way to achieve these two goals was by air.
So, an “air-bridge” had to be established between the positions of the beleaguered Marines and the rear bases for the re-supply and the evacuation of the dead and wounded. Only in Hagaru-Ri , a village near the Korea-China border 100 miles south of Manchuria almost a thousand wounded were waiting their rescue.
For their evacuation the trapped Marines prepared a 2.200-feet landing ground out of the frozen fields. This will be used by the C-47s called to save them from certain death. Three of those C-47s belonged to the 13th Flight of the Royal Hellenic Air Force.
The Greek Airmen remember
The RHAF unit had only being in Japan for two days before they were called to assist in the dangerous operation of disengagement of the US troops. Under normal conditions the Greek crews would have to go through an “adjustment” week, during which would fly familiarization flights. But the Chinese attack changed all that.
The supply packaging crews were working non-stop in the Ashiya air-base in Japan, preparing all kinds of material from food, water and medical equipment to ammunition, loading C-119 cargo aircraft of the 314th Troop Carrier Group, while at the same time Commander of the Greek mission was named Flt Lt Evangelos Tzovlas and his co-pilot was assigned Flt Lt Ioannis Papandreopoulos.The other members of the mission were: Fg Off Vlassis Dedes with co-pilot Plt Off Dimitrios Kouris, Fg Off Haris Paraskakis with co-pilot Plt Off Anastasios Stampouzos, Plt Offs Adam Agapakis, Ermis Vyzantios and Antonis Patrinelis, FS Yannis Papantoniou, Andreas Artsitas, Anastasios Yannakouris, Ioannis Kapotopoulos, Loukas Kypraios and aircraftmen Nikos Geranas, Nikos Lyrintzis, Alkis Panagiotakos and Nikos Roditis.
As Group Captain (ret) Haris –“Charlie”- Paraskakis remembers today, “On December 4, 1950 at dawn while asleep, an American comes in, wakes me up and tells me that next morning at 06.00, I have to report at the Operations Office.
We all gathered there, without knowing the reason, in a “war atmosphere”.The first question of the American officer was:-“Don’t you have anything warmer to wear?”-Warmer, why?-we asked puzzled.-Where are we going?”
His exact words were:
-“You are going to fight in North Korea! There are trapped U.S Marines there!”
“So, we collected all the available warm clothes and in the briefing, we were told that after crossing the 40th parallel, we will be over enemy territory and we will have to switch off all communication and radio-compasses, so the enemy radar won’t detect us. We left with a heavy heart, because we were going into the unknown”…
RHAF C-47 92620 in an unknown airfield, during troop transport operations.
In the foreground air-navigator and veteran of the desert war captain Th.Carvounis.
“Landing at Yon Po, between Hugnam and Songjin on the north-east coast of the peninsula, a little over the 42nd parallel. There you’ll get your orders for the evacuation of the Hagaru-Ri. Don’t expect any airfield there, the Marines have just cleared a strip on an uphill road. The surface is uneven, frozen and slippery. Three of our aircraft were destroyed, only yesterday..”
After two hours of preparations and loading of the aircraft with supplies and ammunition and after they were issued with heavy winter clothing, the Greek crews were flying over the eastern coast of the Korean peninsula, crossing the sea of Japan from south to north. It was noon of Monday, 4th of December 1950 when they landed at Yon Po…
-“Greeks! Come to see the Greeks!”-The USAF airmen who approached first the Greek aircraft, shouted. They were very soon disappointed because contrary to what they expected…..the Greeks were not “Evzones” and were not wearing foustanellas!
“We parked -remembers H.Paraskakis- in an abandoned enemy airfield. There, we were informed that we will have to sleep in some ruins. There was no roof and no windows. Luckily, it wasn’t snowing, but the temperature was around -20 C°. We were issued with blankets and were ordered to put double sentries, because there was the fear of enemy infiltration during the night. They insisted that there should be one officer in every watch and that we should shoot at the first suspicious movement and without warning. Then, they showed us the food storage huts and told us to help ourselves with whatever we liked”
“Later, we went to the makeshift operations room where we were addressed by an U.S colonel: -“Gentlemen,-he started- in Hagaru there are over a thousand wounded U.S men, trapped.They are surrounded by hills full of Chinese. The Marines have made a sort of runway 2000 ft long and 45 ft wide. There is no control tower, and no room for many aircraft. They will have to take turns in landing and taking-off. You will fly 10 miles away and when you get the message that the aircraft on the runway is taking-off you’ll start your landing procedure. You will do this, until all the Marines are taken out. You are not going to need navigators, or radio operators, so they will stay behind because we need all the space available in the aircraft.”
In each of the three Greek C-47s US radio operators were attached. They were the captains Stores, Drew and Mino.*
H.Paraskakis realized how dangerous the mission was, when the colonel asked who among them was married.-“I am-I replied-.So, he ordered me to compile a will for my wife, in case something happens to me!
So, I wrote a few words on a piece of paper for my wife, wishing that it would never end up in her hands”.
“Then, the US officer told us to avoid the mountain peaks because they were occupied by the enemy and that we should be specially careful during the approach, since the hills on the left are heavily occupied by the enemy and they can shoot us down from there even with..a shotgun! In any case, you will be covered by U.S.Navy fighters which will be hitting those hills.”
At dawn, the Greek pilots and crews were ready in their aircraft. The weather was good and the temperature -19C°
Within twenty minutes they were flying over Hagaru ri valley. Smoke and explosions on the ground were the only indications that something was wrong in the “Land of the morning calm”.
“Far behind us in the port of Hugnam, ships were waiting for the valuable cargo that was retreating.
The hills and the village were covered in thick fog, while 10-15 fighters were hammering the hilltops. I could see them as they were swooping down like hawks on the Chinese positions and remembered our own dives a few years ago. Strapped now on a lumbering “Dakota” having on my right the US liaison officer Thomas Mino and standing between us, my co-pilot Demetrios Kouris, I was flying over the Chinese, trying to avoid the diving “friendlies” and the inhospitable hills”.
At some point, the Greek pilot glimpsed the runway through the fog. ”I banked, put the C-47’s nose down and using some points on the surrounding hills as reference, I was the first on the final approach, with too great rate of descent. In the meantime, the landing strip had disappeared in the fog. So, now I had on my left the top of the most treacherous hill. Instinctively I crouched, thinking how good a target I was presenting to the Chinese. Luckily, I had lost quite a lot of height and I was “crawling” to the runway, the start of which I was hoping to see soon through the fog! ”Thinking the short length of the strip and the ice on it, I was reducing my speed constantly which must have dropped to a critical point. A pull at the throttles was enough to bring the C-47 in contact with the uneven runway. At the same time, a huge explosion on our right- which momentarily made us think we lost the starboard engine- gave us a warning of what it means to be in the “front line “ on the ground.
When the doors opened and the loading of the wounded started the earth around the runway was shaking from the exploding Chinese mortars. There was the unforgettable sight of the unshaved, with frozen eye-brows and beards, red eyed from lack of sleep, exhausted and combat-weary Marines, running and firing with any weapon available into the surrounding hills.
There was close combat going on, on the nearest of the hills and big artillery pieces were firing from the perimeter on the enemy positions, while machine-guns nearby were adding their fire to the effort of keeping the Chinese from overrunning the US positions.
H.Paraskakis remembers how he followed V.Dedes’ aircraft. ”When he was ready for take-off, he signaled me to take his position in loading the wounded and dead”. The Greek crews were helping the casualties to board the plane and with the loading of the dead bodies. A hard task, made even harder by the terrible cold which froze the fingers and made the securing of the stretchers difficult.” We took the wounded -remembers H.Paraskais, today- and placed them on the bare floor. Maybe forty or fifty of them, one on top of the other! We loaded dead also, frozen and covered with blankets and parachutes. Blood was frozen on their uniforms and faces”
The “forty or fifty” persons that H.Paraskakis mentions, is a load almost twice as much as a C-47 is allowed to carry.
According to the log-book of V.Dedes’ co-pilot Demetrios Kouris, on the second day of their mission their aircraft carried 43 wounded! As V.Dedes writes: ”Laying on stretchers, sitting on the side benches and the floor and others standing, holding on the roof cable, reminded me of bus passengers during the rush hour! I felt sorry I didn’t take a few more wounded”
The war correspondent of the Athens daily “Acropolis”, Kostas Triantafyllidis noted on December 7, 1950 that he was helping with the wounded on H.Paraskakis’ aircraft, on its return from Hagaru-ri. One of the wounded, named Van Thomson from Florida said to him:” Last July I was in Greece. I could never imagine that Greeks will save me from this hell!” Someone else nearby kept saying, sobbing:” We were one against ten, how could the boys manage?”
During their arrival and departure, all the US and Greek aircraft were receiving a hail of small arms fire and there was not even one without the bullet marks to prove it.
Again 92622 at the beach of K-53
The last mission
The flights to Hagaru-ri continued until December the 6th, 1950. According to V.Dedes, the last day’s mission was unforgettable.
At the briefing in Yon Po the day before, the Americans announced that the main body of the US Marines will have to withdraw during the night and that the defenders had to keep the runway open at all costs until 21.00 hrs.Only three to four aircraft will be needed to carry the wounded of the “last stand”. One of these aircraft would be V.Dedes and D.Kouris’ C-47.
The Greek aircraft was the first to take off. There was no fog that morning, but also no radio on the runway, so the crew had no idea what awaited them on the ground.
Was the strip secure, or was it taken over by the Chinese?
During the landing, the Greek C-47 received machine-gun fire on the port side, but the crew were relieved to see “tall figures”(US Marines) approaching, when the doors were opened.
The village was on fire, as was a US C-47.”Two big trucks were waiting when I landed”- writes V.Dedes-“They were both full of dead from the last night’s fight. Hurriedly, we loaded 18 bodies all of them frozen, with tragic expressions on their faces. We covered them with colorful parachutes and treading through them we headed for the cockpit ”After a while, the unfortunate** “Dakota” 2612 left the runway of the burning Hagaru-ri and the brave Marines who had to keep the Chinese back and then head for the port of Hugnam.
For their contribution in the operation to save the US Marines of Hagaru ri, the Greek flight was awarded with a citation by the US President, while the Air Medal was awarded to the 9 officers, 6 NCOs and 4 airmen, by the Combat Cargo Command: “Because they showed unparalleled courage and self sacrifice during the execution of many war operations, under adverse weather conditions and in enemy air space, under imminent danger of attack by the enemy Air Force”.
During the Korean War Hagaru-ri was the only place where the Greek aircraft came under enemy fire. Fortunately they had no casualties on those missions (the 13th Flight lost 12 men in Korea).
It has to be noted, that the greatest danger during the units’ stay in the “Land of the morning calm”, from December 1950 until May of 1955 (two years after the end of the war) came from the extreme weather conditions and the primitive landing grounds.
As Akrivos Tsolakis, very aptly writes in his book “Korea”, quoting from the notes he kept during the war:”Any similarity of those strips with a surface prepared for the landing of aircraft, is coincidental!”
* Name spelling can be wrong, as it is translated from Greek verbal testimony.
** Unfortunate because she was to crash in Taezon, outside aerodrome K2 on May 26, 1951,
killing the pilot Plt Off Anastasios Vamvoukas, co-pilot Lieutenant Plt Off Nicos Mamalis,
technicians Sergeant Andreas Aritsas, corporal Spiros Economopoulos and South Korean 2nd
lieutenant Yank Pok.