Osan AB (K55) – Part 2

Life In The 311th Fighter-Bomber Squadron
Osan AB (K55), Korea – 1956-57 ~  Part 2


If you have never flown in a C-119 Flying Boxcar (they have this name because that is what they resemble, as you can see from the photos below) – you have missed an experience. We sat in web seating along each side of the plane, just as you have seen paratroopers in the movies, and the only toilet facility was a funnel looking device attached to a rubber hose and hanging on a pole in the rear of the plane. No other facilities were available. So, if you had to do anything except urinate; good luck! The story is always told, though I never witnessed it, of a gullible young GI, who was told that the plane was in trouble and the pilot had to be notified. He was told to pick up the microphone (the urinal funnel cup), hold it tight against his face, and yell a loud warning to the pilot that the plane was in trouble; but he had to hold the cup tight to his face so that the pilot could hear him. Yes, there are people who are that gullible.

While Korea, still ravaged from the war, was a rather desolate place; Formosa was a tropical paradise. Actually, Formosa (Taiwan) is a tropical island off the coast of China and about four hundred miles north of the Philippine Islands. During our first TDY to Formosa, we lived in squad tents, each tent being home for about ten guys. At night we had to get into our bunks, tuck our mosquito netting in all around us, then spray mosquito spray inside the netting to get any mosquitos that had snuck in with us. One guy in our tent let his elbow slide out from under the netting one night as he slept; and his elbow was one big red welt the next morning.

Life In A Squad Tent

Mark Churchill And Me In Formosa – June 1956

In the photos above you see me in front of my canvas “Formosa home.” The photo on the right is me with my friend, Mark Churchill, from Lubbock, Texas. Mark was such a talented artist, I have often wondered if he made a career in the art world. If not, it is the art world’s loss. Would you believe, those Converse basketball shoes I am wearing in the photo, I bought in 1953 when I played high school basketball. I still have them today – and the only sign of wear is that the toe cover is cracked. Who said the Japanese are the only ones who can manufacture quality products?

During the first four to five months I was in the 311th FBS, we had a unique claim to fame. Our Commanding Officer was Colonel Jimmy Stewart. No, not the movie star Jimmy Stewart. However, at the same time that our Colonel Jimmy Stewart was boss of our squadron, the actor Jimmy Stewart was in the Air Force Reserves; and he was also Colonel Jimmy Stewart.

Our Colonel Jimmy Stewart, though, was more of a hard nose. At least that is what we thought. Why? Well, you see, we enlisted men who had access to jeeps used to love to take them over to the empty taxi strips on the Chinese air base and see how fast we could drive them. And the Colonel decided he did not like drag racing with his jeeps.

In Formosa, since we had no U.S. military facilities, we enlisted men were allowed to go to the MAAG Club. The MAAG (Military Advisory and Assistance Group) were military advisors, typically NCOs and officers, from the U.S. and other Ally nations. The MAAG Club was their equivalent of an NCO/Officer’s Club; but, in these circumstances, we enlisted men were allowed to use the club also. It gave us a taste of home, since it was like a social club where we could mingle with the families of MAAG personal who were allowed to bring their families with them on this assignment. It was a comfort to be able to socialize with American families.

And, for those of us who like to have a drink, it was well within our budget. As I recall, we could get a beer for ten cents and a mixed drink for twenty-five cents; a bargain, even in the late 1950s. The club had dancing and if a guy had a Chinese girl friend, he could bring her here on a date, just like back home. When you entered the MAAG Club, you were in the large ballroom, with tables and chair, and a dance floor. From the entrance, walk left, and you were in the bar area. There was a long bar, with bar stools, and the wall behind the bartender had a long black and white mural of a city skyline. I believe it was New York City. Even that mural gave one a feeling of home, of the good old U.S.A.

Then, for the more adventuresome GIs, there were the Chinese night clubs in downtown Tainan. One of these clubs was the Vienna Club. The photo below, on the left, is me standing in the Vienna Club with the owner, Jimmy. That was his adopted Western name for the benefit of doing business with Americans. I have no idea what his Chinese name was. The photo on the right was taken by my friend, Mark Churchill, when he and I wandered into the “off limits” waterfront area of Tainan, just out of curiosity. Someone should have told us that “curiosity killed the cat” – but, fortunately, we came out okay.

Vienna Club In Tainan, Formosa ~  With Jimmy, The Owner

Me Checking Out The Waterfront In Tainan

An interesting story about Jimmy, owner of the Vienna Club. For a time, during our second TDY to Formosa, our payroll was delayed by several weeks and we were a bunch of broke GI Joes. One evening, at the club, Jimmy asked if we wanted a beer. We, of course, told him we were broke. Jimmy then told us, “Don’t worry, you will be paid tomorrow at 2:00 PM.”

The next day, the C119 from Korea landed – and, at 2:00 PM, we were in line on the tarmac behind the C119 getting our pay. Now, the evening before, when Jimmy told us this – the plane had not left Korea yet. How did this Chinese bar owner in Formosa know that the military payroll plane, still sitting in Korea, was coming and exactly when it would arrive? So much for military security.

Another comical event occurred on my first visit to Formosa. On the first day that we were allowed to go into downtown Tainan, my Arkansas friend, James ‘Smitty” Smith, and I got all spruced up and went to our GI bus – an Army 6X truck. This was our transportation to and from town; until we learned to make use of the Chinese pedicabs. On this, our first venture into the Formosa culture, Smitty and I sat in the front of the truck with the driver. As we were driving along, nearing downtown, Smitty and I saw a gorgeous, coke-bottle figure, Chinese lady wearing the typical long, form-fitting Chinese dress. We were both drooling over her figure, until we passed her – and saw that she was a white haired grandmother. We quickly learned that, over there, even the grandmothers looked good in those dresses, from behind.

One of the real treats we found in Formosa, actually on the Chinese air base, was the bottled Sarsaparilla. My first TDY tour in Formosa was in June and July, 1956, and Formosa being a tropical island, the chilled Sarsaparilla was really a welcomed treat. On those hot days, we would go to a small Chinese concession stand on the air base to get Sarsaparilla and a frozen popsicle they sold.

Being on a Chinese air base provided other amusing situations. The Chinese soldiers were standing guard duty all over the base and around our plane revetments. It was very common to see a Chinese soldier with a rifle in one hand and a Chinese-English dictionary in the other. One day a Chinese soldier approached me and asked, “GI, what this word?” I responded, “That word is ‘IF.” And he then asked, “What it means?” I would have trouble explaining “IF’ to an American – I had no idea how to tell a Chinese.

From our living quarters on the air base, we had to walk past the Chinese soldier’s barracks to get to the base main gate. From the outside, their barracks looked very much like enlisted men’s barracks on many air bases in America. However, looking inside you could see that it was quite different. The U. S. barracks, then, typically were two story buildings with a large room on both levels. Along each side of the room were double decker metal beds, with room for our footlockers and a small close closet. In the Chinese barracks, there were two long platforms stretching from one end of the room to the other, one above the other, on each side of the barrack’s center aisle. The Chinese soldiers would lay their mats down on the platforms to sleep.

Another great difference between the Chinese and us; a Chinese lieutenant who was a pilot earned about $2 a month. At that time I was an A/2C and, as I recall, earning about $100 a month. If their pilots earned $2 a month; imagine what the ordinary Chinese soldier was earning.


The first of August 1956, we packed up and rotated back to Osan AFB, Korea – just in time for a hot Korean summer. We would stay in Korea for four months while the 310th FBS and the 69th FBS did their two month stints in Formosa.

During those four months back in Korea, a number of memorable events occurred. Until now, I had never ventured off the air base into the local town, if you could call it that. The nearest village was typical of camp following villages. Establish a military base, and overnight, there was a Korean village.

One Sunday, my friend, Smitty, and I decided to take a walk. Leaving the base, you are immediately told that you cannot get off the main road. Anything off the road was considered off-limits and a GI could get into trouble for venturing into forbidden territory. Not that this stopped many of the guys who would go out seeking fun and night life. Smitty and I agreed that we were strictly staying on the road.

Several things quickly caught our attention. The little houses, or shacks, were made entirely of U.S. military material, with electric lines stretching through the remote, back fences of our base to bootleg into our generators. Much of the clothing worn by the people, particularly the older Koreans, was made of GI blankets; the scratchy, woolen blankets.

Walking down the road, we constantly had people trying to sell us something. The saddest was a little boy, about ten years old, who was trying to sell us his “cherry” (virgin) sister. Jokingly, we said, “No, where is your mother?” The boy replied, “You want my mother? She “cherry” too!” It was funny; but it was also heartbreaking, to think that a young boy would be on the road trying to make a living by selling his sister, his mother, or whoever – to earn money, to survive.

Being stuck on the base at Osan, with no acceptable activities off base; the USO shows were always welcomed escapes for us. We had several come during our year. One was a show featuring beautiful Tahitian and Hawaiian dancers, which even then, I was sure was not a great idea. You take a large air base, with thousands of young, lonely GIs who have not seen a “round-eyed” girl in almost a year – and put them in a theatre with beautiful Tahitian dancers on the stage; a lot of young guys had wonderful dreams that night.

Another time, we had a Women’s Roller Derby show come to Osan. Once again, attractive “round-eyed” girls from the good old U.S.A. – and all we enlisted men could do was dream. Only the top level officers got to have drinks with them.

The USO show that touched me the most was an older couple – just a white haired man and his wife. They played the piano and sang for us; songs that reminded us of home, mom, and apple pie. Although my grandparents never played the piano and sang; I felt like I was near my grandparents just watching this older couple and listening to their music. This, for me, was by far the absolute best USO show I attended in Korea.

I have to give the Air Force credit though. During this period, they did supply the enlisted men with a bit of entertainment. One day, without warning, a Red Alert was sounded. When the Red Alert is not a practice, and we had never had a practice Red Alert before — this indicates that a possible enemy attack is imminent. We all rushed to our squadron area and were issued carbines and a gas mask; but no ammo clips – not one single ammo round among us. But, that is okay, we had our gas mask, which none of us had ever seen before; and we had our trusty carbine. If those nasty Communist North Koreans attacked our base, we would put on the gas masks so they would not recognize us as military men – and then club them with our empty carbines. Yes sir, the Air Force really knows how to entertain the troops. Who needed Bob Hope or Tahitian dancers?


December 1, 1956, the 311th FBS packed our gear and deployed to Formosa once again. This time, in place of the ten-man squad tents, the Chinese had built us bamboo huts about the size of our ten-man squad tents, to serve as our living quarters. Our work shops on the flight line were still tents, for deployment purposes.

These bamboo huts were nicer than the tents; however, they had one minor problem. The roof, an inverted “V” shape was also made of bamboo and there were horizontal bamboo poles every five or six foot, at the base of the roof, running from one side of the hut to the other. These horizontal cross beams made great walkways for large Formosan rats. One night, as I was sleeping, I felt something fall on my chest. Reaching up to push it away, I felt a big furry rat. The next day several friends and I rented a Chinese house downtown, complete with built-in Mamasan to do the cooking and cleaning. It costs the four of us $15 USD each per month, which included the Mamasan and the food she cooked – which typically was fish and soup, the kind you see in Chinese restaurants here with bits of egg and a few green veggies floating in it. Once in a while, we had the most delicious, tastiest oranges, which were the size of grapefruits.

Of course, when we ate the delicious fruits grown by the local farmers, we had to try to forget how everything was fertilized in Formosa. A Chinese man had the “Honey Wagon” concession on the air base. He had a wagon, drawn by a water buffalo. The wagon was like a large wooden box with a hole in the top. He would come on a regular basis and, with a bucket, clean out our toilets. You see, our toilets in Formosa were just outhouses, like on some farms in rural areas – the one with the crescent moon cutout on the door, and a Sears catalog hanging on a wire next to the hole, to serve as the family Charmin. But, to the credit of the Air Force, we did have toilet paper. Anyway, our “Honey Wagon” man gathered his goodies in the wagon and sold it to local farmers for fertilizer.

When we rode in the truck driving toward downtown Tainan, there was an area of about 2 to 3 blocks along the road where we had to pass a concentrated area of farms. The farms were not the only thing that was concentrated. If you did not hold your breath for that 2 – 3 blocks, you almost gagged from the smell. It was intense! Even riding in the back of the truck with its canvas cover, we knew just about when we would hit that area. Everyone would take a deep breath before we hit it; and then hold their breath as long as possible, hoping the driver would not slow down.

As I mentioned earlier, after a while, we got used to riding in the pedicabs, bicycle drawn rickshaws, rather than riding the truck into town. One day, two of my co-workers got all spruced up in their finest civilian clothes, best cologne – ready to hit the town. There were two pedicabs at the gate, so they each got into a pedicab and decided to have a race. They kept urging their pedicab driver to go faster, faster. Then, out of nowhere a Chinese farmer driving his water buffalo, fresh out of the rice fields laden with our special fertilizer – crossed in front of the pedicabs. One of the pedicabs hit the water buffalo and my friend flew out of the pedicab – and landed squarely on the back of the water buffalo – in all his fertilized glory. My friends cologne did not help him much at that point.

Christmas day, 1956, several friends and I went into downtown Tainan, to one of the Chinese bars. Being early in the afternoon, there was no one there except the owner and his family. The bar had an upstairs section with a dance floor. By the dance floor, they had a Christmas tree. I don’t know if it was for the sake of we Americans or if they truly celebrated Christmas. I took the owner’s son, about 3 or 4 years old, put him on my shoulders and we went upstairs to see the Christmas tree. Funny, I could not understand a word the child was saying; but he was so excited about the tree, I felt that I knew what he was feeling and what he was saying.

On our second trip to Formosa, our Commanding Officer was Colonel John Back. Over the Christmas weekend, Colonel Back left, possibly to Japan. I don’t know. But, he left orders that, over the Christmas weekend, only half of us could leave the base. Normally, there were no restrictions about who could go into town, as long as we were back in time for duty in the morning. Colonel Back left Major Simon “Andy” Anderson in charge of the squadron while he was gone for the weekend. As soon as Colonel Back was gone, Major Anderson gave everyone permission to go into town.

I mentioned that, of all the officers I remembered well, the first was Lt. Bob Ford, for the kind of man he was. The other officer I recall very well was Major Anderson. He was a veteran of the Korean War, and as I understand, came very close to becoming an ace. I believe he got four MIGS. Anyway, he was an experienced, capable, very confident pilot.

While all the other pilots came to their plane looking all military spit and polish, Major Anderson typically came out with most of the zippers in his flight suit open, and a baseball cap turned backwards – and this was 1956, not 2004. The enlisted men always joked that the reason Major Anderson’s flight suit zippers were always open was that he had candy bars and comic books in them. Now, let me say, that was the rumor; I cannot personally confirm it.

However, there is one rumor that I can definitely confirm. The guys always talked about Major Anderson not using his radar/fire control sighting system; but instead using “Kentucky windage” – which was when the pilot stuck a wad of chewing gum on the front windshield of the cockpit and used that like a rifle shooter uses the sight on his rifle. Normally, the radar/fire control system imposes a circle of light dots on the windshield, with a crosshair in the middle. As the pilot came nearer to his target, the circle of light, called a reticle, will grow smaller and the pilot centered his target up in the reticle with the crosshair on the target plane. As long as he held that position, the radar/fire control computer would calculate such things as wind velocity, distance, arc, lead time, etc., to give the pilot the best opportunity for a kill. With Kentucky windage, you point the plane like you would a rifle, get your “chewing gum” sight on the target plane, and fire.

As I said, I can confirm this rumor. Our twenty four F-86Fs were separated into flights of eight. I was responsible for the radar/fire control system for one of the flights of eight aircrafts. Major Anderson’s plane was in my flight. One day, as he was going up for a target firing run, I knew before he took off that the radar was dead in his plane. If he attempted to turn on the radar/fire control system, he would have no reticle on the windshield. The system was totally dead.

But, rather than say anything about this, I pretended that everything was okay; and when Major Anderson returned from his flight, I drove out to the plane and called out, “Hi Major, how was the radar/fire control system?” He smiled and yelled back, “It worked just fine.” Hmmm, not in that plane it didn’t; not that day.

Another amusing story happened while we were in Korea. After each flight, we would go to each plane and check the pilot’s log book. If there was a problem with the radar/fire control system, or any other system, the pilot would write it in the log book. We would get into the cockpit, turn on the radar/fire control system and run the limited tests we could on the ground. As I said before, when the pilot is flying, the reticle (circle of light dots) will get larger or smaller, depending upon the distance to the target plane. The pilot locks onto the target, keeps the enemy aircraft in the crosshair, and when the reticle is about the size of the target plane, the pilot fires for a sure kill. However, sitting in the cockpit, on the ground – no matter how much I daydreamed about being in a dogfight at 20,000 feet – there was no way to fully test the system. So, when we could not find a problem, we would write in the log book, “Ground check OK.”

One day, our Commanding Officer came into our radar shop with fire in his eyes, “Who is Airman Gray?”

“I am, sir,” I answered.

“What do you mean, ‘Ground check OK’? If an officer says there is a problem, there is a problem. And don’t you dare call an officer a liar! Do you understand?”

“Yes sir!”

From that day, anytime I could not find a problem on the ground – I just wrote in the log book, “Replaced fuse F1.” And I never had another complaint.

Back in Korea, I am not sure if it was between our TDYs to Formosa or if it was after we returned in February 1957; we had an incident which really showed the quality of pilot we had in Major Anderson. He was returning from a mission when the control tower noticed that his nose landing gear was not down. He could not get the gear to lower into position. Major Anderson flew around, dropping his excess fuel, while the emergency crew foamed down the runway. It was a very tense, but exciting moment, watching the plane make a wide circle over the hills surrounding Osan AFB and make a long, low level approach to the runway. Major Anderson came in like he was floating, set the rear landing gears down, and seeming to roll forever on those two rear landing gears – before gently lowering the nose of F-86F into the foam on the runway – with no damage to the pilot or to the plane. It was a beautiful example of how well the U.S. military pilots are trained.

Continued in Part 3

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