Friday, November 29, 2019

Harold Hillery: Last of the Lucky Men

Left: Capt. David Bisset of Savannah, Georgia; LT (later CAPT) Harold Hillery (USAF), New York City; and LT Arthur Clarke, Boone, Iowa.
July 20, 1950.  Taejon, Korea.  The city in which the U.S. Army's 24th Infantry Division made its headquarters on this day was becoming systematically overrun by North Korean Forces. PVT Philip Hughes was fully occupied with his part in the combat withdrawal of the 34th Infantry Regiment from its defensive position north of Taejon.  In the city, however, the headquarters was still staffed by men operating with little sleep and poor lines of communication with its field units.  As the day progressed, these men would prepare to abandon their post under the command of Major General William F. Dean

Attached to Dean's headquarters was 28-year-old U.S. Air Force LT Harold A. "Tank" Hillery of the 35th Fighter Interceptor Wing. Rasied in Harlem by a widowed mother, Hillery enlisted in September 1942.  He lucked his way into pilot training with the famed "Tuskegee Airmen" of World War II.  Like so many other officers, Hillery was now fighting his second war in Korea. He did not suspect on that day that he would become a historical footnote.

As with other U.S. military units in Japan, the 35th FIW was rapidly mobilized for wartime activity. Harold Hillery was based with this unit at Yokota Air base on Honshu.  Like so many other officers, Hillery brought his family with him to on-base housing in Japan. In the newly-integrated U.S. Air Force, Harold, his wife Ginny, and two kids would cautiously navigate the social millieu as his squadron's only African-American family.  The advent of war imposed new hardships as the 35th FIW would relocate its base of combat operations to Korea.  Its forward base at Po'hang offered rough accomodations, but greatly reduced the time-in-transit to the war zone.          

On July 20, Hillery complied with his duty rotation by commanding a tactical air control party (TACP) - a handful of U.S. Air Force personnel who functioned on the ground as liaison between combat forces and the USAF's airborne assets. To do this, Hillery swapped his F-51D Mustang for a jeep with a powerful (if somewhat unreliable) two-way air to ground radio.  His role as TACP commander put Hillery in direct contact with the officers on Dean's staff.  As commander of the TASP unit, Hillery oversaw not only the life-line to combat air support assets, but also a channel for General Dean's communication with command levels above the 24th ID. 

The day did not go well for the U.S. Army in Taejon. Enemy blockades and ambushes forced the Americans to dismount their vehicles amidst vicious urban street fighting.  Those who survived the battle took to the hills. Fortunately, neither General Dean nor LT Hillery were killed that day; rather they and many other Americans went missing in action. From there, their fortunes diverged. After three weeks of wandering the countryside by himself, Dean was captured and would spend the rest of the war in captivity.  Hillery, who endured similar wanderings, was one of the lucky Americans to rejoin friendly forces.

By the end of July, "Tank" Hillery was back in the cockpit, conducting dangerous ground strikes on NKPA forces. On August 10, his F-51's engine quit during a mission.  Hillery bailed out, splashing into the Sea of Japan.  Luck accompanied him once again: he was picked by a U.S. Navy submarine which would host him for a few days until the sub made its scheduled berthing in Japan. Luck, however, did not accompany Hillery on this cruise as he ended up losing a lot of money to the sub's poker players.

Harold "Tank" Hillery, one of the last of the lucky men to escape Taejon, would advance to the rank of major before retiring from the Air Force.  He died in 1994 at the age of 72, and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Friday, November 22, 2019

General William F. Dean : Hero(?) of Taejon

Major General William F. Dean upon his release from North Korean captivity.

When PVT Philip Hughes deployed to Korea in July 1950, he did so as part of the U.S. Army's 24th Infantry Division, commanded by Major General William F. Dean. 

In many ways, Dean was the right man for the task of commanding the first American Army unit to enter combat since 1945.  After compiling an admirable record as a division commander during World War II, Dean was appointed to the Far East where he played a pivotal role as military governor of South Korea immediately subsequent to Japanese occupation. He had overseen the 24th Division since October 1949. He had combat experience, he was familiar with the country, and his headquarters in Japan were closest to the Korean peninsula.

Tall, lean and athletic, the 50-year-old son of an Illinois dentist eschewed the pomp and circumstance of high rank. Despite having the privilege of using staff cars, Dean was more inclined to walk to his appointments whenever possible. Aides said he was “his own best shoe-shiner.”

Dean has handicapped by the fact that the U.S. Army as a whole was poorly prepared to conduct war in 1950.  The early confidence of Dean's command quickly gave way to the humbling realization that his forces were overmatched by the North Korean forces that it encountered:   

I am convinced that the North Korean Army, the North Korean soldier and the status of training and the quality of his equipment have been underestimated. - Letter from Major General William F. Dean to General Douglas MacArthur, July 8, 1950

By July 20, not yet three weeks since the 24th Division's deployment in Korea, Dean and his headquarters were forced to hold a position in the city of Taejon. Holding this critical rail and logistics hub would buy time for the Army to transport more men and assets across the Pacific. Dean attempted to defend Taejon with forces that were outnumbered and underequipped.

History will recall the defense of Taejon as one of the U.S. Army's most humiliating defeats. Many observers have faulted General Dean for his role in this defeat, but no one can accuse him of shirking his duty. With his acuity already diminished by days of insufficient sleep, General Dean at one point picked up a bazooka and joined a gang of enlisted men to hunt enemy tanks in the narrow streets of Taejon. After his forces were scattered and diminished that fateful day, Dean was became one of the few Americans who escaped the city on foot, seeking refuge in the hills. Separated from his men, Dean roamed the countryside for 36 days before he was eventually captured. He would remain in the hands of the North Koreans for the duration of the war. He was welcomed to New York City in October 1953 with a ticker tape parade.

YouTube screen grab

Of his 1950 wartime experience, Dean said "There were heros in Korea, but I was not one of them."

Friday, November 15, 2019

Eligy for Duane

PVT Duane E. Wilson was the third of nine kids born to Edward Wilson, a carpenter, and his wife Nellie. Born in Mt. Vernon, Illinois in 1928, Duane enlisted in the army in 1946. By 1949, Duane was in Japan with the 25th Infantry Division's 65th Combat Engineering Battalion.

Duane apparently had difficulty adjusting to army life, even in the comfortable billets of occupied Japan. He drifted through a series of duty assignments without finding one at which he could excel. Duane committed a number of minor infractions along the way.  His record compelled a commanding officer to consider a discharge from the service.

Sergeant Major Poon Tom decided to intervene. It was February 1950. Tom, born in China but raised in San Francisco, called Duane into his office at battalion headquarters. Tom found that this six-foot-tall, mild mannered kid did not want to part ways with the army. Duane continued to bounce from one duty to the next.  He became a driver for the bridge-building platoon. Tom, keeping a watchful eye, asked Duane how he was doing.  Duane responded positively. More importantly, Tom got no negative reports from the bridge platoon. Then Duane got a clerk assignment in the Headquarters Service Company.  Duane's company clerk role allowed him to see Tom regularly as Duane delivered morning reports and daily dispositions sheets up to battalion HQ. Tom noted that Duane seemed happy and satisfied with his job.

Then came the Korean War. The 65th CEB was shipped to the war zone along with the 25th ID.  Combat deployments reduce the volume of paperwork, so Duane was reassigned to a position serving as the Colonel's orderly. Duane became disenchanted with this task, and requested a transfer to a line company.

Like so many other U.S. Army infantry units in Korea in 1950, the 25th ID was understrength. By August, this unit struggled to hold its share of the Pusan Perimeter from North Korean encroachment.  At its darkest moments, the division had to call up its rear echelon men - including its combat engineers - to join the ranks of rifle companies. 

On September 12, men from the 65th CEB supported a two-platoon attack formation attempting to take a hill near Saga.  A North Korean machinegun nest raked the flank of the formation.  PVT Duane Wilson was hit multiple times just below the chest. He died instantly.

The next day, M/SGT Poon Tom wrote a letter to the company file that outlined Duane's experience with the 65th CEB.  Many years later, Tom's son Michael came across a copy of that letter in his father's estate documents.  This blog post draws directly from the document that Michael Tom found and shared on     

Friday, November 8, 2019

Howard Odell's Last Dogfight

TOP:  An F-80C Shooting Star from O'Dell's 36th Fighter-Bomber Squadron.
BOTTOM: A Yak-9U of the North Korean Peoples Air Force
Wednesday, July 19, 1950, northern outskirts of Taejon, Korea. U.S. Army PVT Philip Hughes's 34th Infantry Regiment dug in on the slope overlooking the Kapch'on River. Hot but clear weather had prevailed for days. This allowed the small but stealthy North Korean Peoples Air Force to take to the skies.

American military forces were only three weeks into their commitment to the conflict in Korea.  Caught off-guard by the "wrong war at the wrong time in the wrong place," the U.S. Air Force was particularly beset by shortages and mismatches of assets. The Air Force could at least draw upon a deep cadre of pilots with World War II combat experience.

Captain Howard E. Odell was such a pilot. The 30-year-old from Poughkeepsie, New York was a veteran of air combat over China, where he flew a P-40 Warhawk with the 23rd Fighter Group. After returning home, he maintained a reserve commission until rejoining regular service in the late 1940s. The Air Force trained him to transition to the new jet fighters just entering service. Capt. Odell was then billeted in Japan with the 8th Fighter Group's 36th Fighter-Bomber Squadron, which was still adjusting to its new mount, the F-80C Shooting Star.

The USAF's sudden commitment to the war in Korea posed immediate challenges. Like all the early jets, the F-80 was a fuel guzzler. There were no suitable airstrips in Korea during the early weeks of the war, so the F-80s had to operate from bases in Japan. Pilots had to traverse the Sea of Japan before entering the combat zone; this left precious little fuel - and time - to enjoin the fight. This was Odell's situation on July 19, 1950, when he participated in a flight of four F-80s performing combat air patrol over Taejon. Fate placed an equal number of Russian-built North Korean Yak-9U fighters in the same skies that day.

Philip Hughes and the other ground troops had a front line seat for the aerial battle that ensued.  The USAF F-80s had an advantage in speed, but the propeller-driven Yaks had superior turning abilities. In addition, the Yak's cannon armament was more lethal than the F-80s' .50 caliber machine guns.  Pilot skill would be the wildcard in this match up.

The swirling dogfight was quick, but lethal. History records the USAF as the victors, as the four Yaks were blasted out of the sky. But the victory was not without cost. We'll never know the details, but at some point during the fight, a Yak pilot found Howard Odell's F-80 in his gunsight. It took only a couple of hits by the Yak's 20 mm ShVAK cannon to disable his target. Odell fought the crippled aircraft's controls, attempting to take it down for an emergency landing on Taejon's dusty little air strip. The damage proved to be too much; Odell went down with his aircraft about a mile west of the airstrip, behind enemy lines.

Capt. Howard E. Odell's remains were never recovered.  He is recorded as missing-in-action to this day. 

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Rice Paddies in Korea

U.S. Army Photo
When the Korean War soldier was not scaling hills, he often found himself slogging through rice paddies.  These water-logged flats of land were cultivated by famers assisted by ox-driven plows.  To maximize crop yields, the farmer employed "night soil," that is, human excrement that was dutifully collected and distributed by the bucket-full.  American troops had no choice but to traverse the malodorous muck which often sucked the boots off their feet.  If subjected to enemy fire, troops had no alternative but to drop to the ground and lie prone until the threat was lifted.

It got worse.  Army support logistics were far from reliable during the early weeks of the war. Among the consequences were critical shortages of potable water.  Soldiers' limited access to water during July and August of 1950 coincided with 100-degree temperatures.  Add to this the chaos of battle, and this explains why almost all troops had no choice to drink water from rice paddies.

Disease caused more American casualties than did combat.