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. 

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