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.

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