Have you ever been able to reach out and touch the wing of a plane? While you're standing on the ground and the plane is flying? Ahh... that is a little different, more on that later.
I was a young corporal with a front line Marine Corps fighter squadron back in the early 80's. We had twelve of the finest fighter jets around at the time, the McDonnell Douglas F4 Phantom II. I thought they were the best anyways. We were deployed overseas to Iwakuni Japan for a six month stay of "forward projecting the US Military might". Not that I understood any of that, I just knew I had a job to do fixing the Radar systems on those birds. It was such a complex system that a manufacturers rep traveled overseas with us.
Our commanding officer at the time was probably one of the best I ever served with during my 16 years with the Corps. The F4 Phantom uses a two man crew and he was one of the back seat guys, a RIO (radar intercept officer), so I got to spend a lot of time talking with him about his flights and the problems he had. He stated that our primary mission for being overseas where we were was to "get and maintain air superiority" within 24 hours should North Korea decide to move South. A daunting task to say the least. I remember when the CO called the squadron together and announced to us that the Iran hostage rescue mission had failed and that with the worlds attention focused on that event, the North Koreans had started mass movements of tanks to the DMZ. We had 24 hours to pack up the squadron move to Yechon South Korea and start flight operations.
The flight there was one of the roughest I've had in a C130. If you've never flown in a C130 you're in for a treat. This one had all our equipment on large metal pallets running down the center of the plane and we were in "jump" seats along the sides. Flying in we were required to stay low in the valleys, consequently the pilots had to fly more like a fighter. We were past the 90 both left and right. Let me clear that up some. You are sitting with your back to the side wall of the plane, in front of you is a pallet of equipment. If you a lucky your seat is where you can see between the pallets across the plane to your buddy's on the other side. All of sudden the pilot rolls the plane sharply to the right and you are now laying on your back looking straight up within seconds the plane rolls back through level and keeps going to the left a little past 90 degrees and you are hanging from your harness looking straight down. Yep! the flight in was only an hour but it was the most interesting flight I've ever been on.
We landed at a remote airfield called K58 or Yechon, out side the perimeter of the base was one building, that's it, just the one for the whole town (at the end of 3 weeks there were 3 buildings, you will have to guess at what those were for). From the flight line to where we were staying was a walk of about a half mile. The accommodations were not the best either, tents, we had to stay in tents and cold weather sleeping bags on cots, but the airfield runway looked pretty good. I had heard that the ROK had airfields like this scattered throughout the country and that all the major roads were built to be able to convert to an airfield in case of war.
The days went by fairly quickly considering. We would send out the planes to drop either 500lb bombs or Napalm where ever the Koreans said to. They were marking our targets with 2.75 inch white phosphorus zuni rockets and our pilots would drop their load on top of that. I had heard that we were dropping within view of the North up on the DMZ. While the planes were out we just sat around in a tent playing cards. I got very good at spades and hearts. When the planes returned we fixed what ever was broken then repeated it all the next day. We worked 12 hour shifts and during our off time we didn't do much. There was a truck that came around to bring us beer (we were only allowed 3 per day but you could get the non drinkers to pick up their share for you). The temps were warm during the day and due to some rain the tent city was a mud hole, but at night it was below freezing and all the deep ruts froze in place. Getting up at 3 am out of a warm sleeping bag to trek over to the latrine was not an event you looked forward to.
One afternoon I was on top of the turtleback of the CO's plane troubleshooting a problem he was having when I looked to my right and saw a plane coming in for a landing. What caught my eye was that this looked like an F86 Saber jet of Korean war vintage. I was amazed to see it but even more amazed to see it carrying on wing pylons a pair of live Aim 9 Sidewinder heat seeking missiles. The other thing was that he was having some problems, the plane was not smooth at all and it was starting to look like he wouldn't make it when he suddenly banked to his left. Yep, right at me. His wing tip passed right over my head and seemed close enough to touch. I had ducked down but there wasn't much I could do from on top of an airplane. As he passed by I turned around and saw the plane roll sharply to the right and the belly just barely cleared the windows of the control tower. I mean by inches, it was that close. As he went by the tower the nose started coming up and it appeared that he would make an attempt at the other end of the runway. Sadly he did not make it to the other end and crashed into the mountain side. Last I heard was that he survived the crash with burns over 60% of his body. Weather he recovered or not I do not know.
Being as I had done this for many years you simply don't get distracted by these kinds of events and go on with what you were doing. As I was finishing up I noticed what appeared to be a Lear Executive Jet landing with a similar F86 (sidewinder equipped) flying just beside it as it landed. I got down from the plane and went to talk with the CO and let him know what I found. I got lucky to catch the CO when he was coming out onto the flight line and proceeded to fill him in on what I found and did to his plane. While talking to him the Lear jet taxied up and stairs dropped. Pouring out of the plane came many officers as well as several officers coming from the buildings around our area. I saw this and told the CO gotta go. I really had no desire to mingle with a bunch of US and ROK officers, but the CO told me to stay right there.
The entourage walked up to us and started shaking hands and making introductions, as I was shaking hands with the main ROK General he was introduced as General Chun Doo-hwan. It was then that I realized several things. One, the plane that crashed was an escort plane for this general and two, this was General Chun Doo-hwan, President/dictator of the country of South Korea. He had recently took power after General Park was assassinated. He was there to ask if we needed anything and to ensure we received anything we asked for.
It was shortly after that I awoke to the sound of a screaming jet engine at first I was disoriented and was thinking the birds are a half mile away, but soon realized these were flying in right over my head. Plane after plane they kept coming till it seemed I would never get back to sleep. Next morning there were APC's and tracked vehicles of all kinds everywhere, Every time you turned around there was a ROK Marine standing there with a loaded weapon and live grenades. Apparently the Students at Kwangju rioted and the planes (ROK F5's) were evacuated to where we were. Later the General crushed the student movement with the use of the army.
I took the last C117 (old DC3) out of Korea on what was to be one of it's last flights before being retired to the Smithsonian with a quick stop over in Osan. Just outside the base there is a store that sells every type of tennis shoe made for only four US dollars.
Yes, I have memories of South Korea, some not so good but most are. I hope the current crisis plays out well.