"Ray" Trebilco joined the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) in January 1945. He was a linguist in British Commonwealth Occupation Force (BCOF) until 1948, graduating as a pilot from 1 Flying Training School in 1949 and was posted to 77 Squadron in Japan for commission in 1950. He assumed a number of flying and intelligence postings up to 1982 with overseas experience in Japan, Korea, United Kingdom, Europe, Malaya, Thailand and the United States of America. His senior appointments included Officer Commanding RAAF Butterworth, Director General Recruiting, Air Officer Commanding Support Command and Chief of Air Force Personnel. He was awarded the DFC in 1950 and the AO in 1982. He was appointed Administrator Norfolk Island in 1982 and was OTC representative for Japan in 1987. He is now retired on the Gold Coast Queensland and is a member of the Korean Memorial Committee.
I was in Iwakuni for six months prior to the start of the Korean war and having served two consecutive tours during the height of both the North Korean and Chinese attacks, I was fortunate in having an overview of all the early encounters. Milt Cottee and I were posted to 77 Squadron in December 1949 after graduation from No.1 FTS (Flying Training School) followed by a quick conversion to Mustangs at No.21 Squadron at Laverton Victoria. We were the first of the new NCO (Non Commissioned Officer) air-crew system which classified air-crew according to their experience and not rank.
On base I was eligible to enter the Sergeants' Mess, but for administrative purposes I was equal to a Corporal, which was lower than a Corporal for disciplinary purposes. If this sounds confusing, it was and it led to unacceptable operational conditions after war broke out. What it meant at Iwakuni was that, initially, after a day's missions over Korea, we would return to find ourselves rostered for guard duty, not even as Corporal of the Guard but as one of his roving picquets! A subsequent parade to Wing Commander Spence to protest led to part of the anomaly being redressed in that we no longer had to carry out guard duties. The ridiculous 'P' system, however, continued for some further time and caused great confusion and a deal of resentment since it was a proficiency system designed to grade air-crew and was incompatible with the normal administration and discipline of the Service.
I flew a total of 424.50 operational hours on 172 missions. 101 missions were flown on Mustangs for 328.10 operational hours and 71 missions on Meteors for a total of 96.40 operational hours. I was fired at many times by AA (anti-aircraft) and small arms and even by MIGs (Chinese fighter aircraft) but fortunately I was never hit.
In the early days when the situation was really critical and there was doubt as to whether or not the precarious UN toehold could be sustained around the Pusan Perimeter, we were operating from Iwakuni. A pre-dawn take-off would see us at the southern shores of Korea at dawn for the first mission in support of the UN (United Nations) troops. We would then land at K2 airfield Taegu, on the 2700' strip, re-arm and re-fuel, take off for a further mission, sometimes even contacting an airborne controller during the climb and rolling straight in on a target very close to the airfield, land back at Taegu for re-arming and re-fueling again (perhaps even twice more), complete a further mission and finally return to Iwakuni. All this was done on 'dead reckoning', a combination of time and distance, airspeed and course and a cockpit full of military topographical maps of differing scales: 1:1,000,000, 1:500,000 and I:50,000. We had no navigation aids other than mental calculations and map reading abilities. Our radio was a 4-channel VHF (very high frequency) set, one channel of which was dedicated to the emergency frequency, one to our air traffic control frequency leaving only two channels for operational contacts. When being passed from controller to controller as might be required by the developing ground situation, flight to a new grid reference for visual contact meant a new struggle with target maps and a renewed battle with terrain and weather.
After the landing at Inchon and the breakout from the Perimeter by the 8th Army, the navigational requirements for successful missions and for any diversions during such missions became even more demanding.
However, August was the really critical month in my log book. I flew 25 missions for 58.05 operational hours and dropped 500lb GP (general purpose) bombs, 260lb Frag (fragmentation) bombs, and napalm (incendiary) tanks, fired 60lb warhead rockets and straffed with .5 calibre ammunition. The Perimeter held, reinforcements were able to reach Korea and UN forces were able to cross to the offensive. During this critical phase, all missions were different, hazardous, unusual or successful and I wouldn't want to highlight any particular one.
For the rest of the Mustang days to April 1951 when we returned to Iwakuni to convert to the Meteor, the nearest the war came to the intensity and tension of the Pusan Perimeter days was during the relatively brief close support effort we gave to the US Marine 10th Corps around the Changjin Reservoir north of Hamhung and to the beleaguered US 2nd Division on the road south of Pyongyang. At that stage we were based at Hamhung where we had moved to shorten the travel distance in pursuit of the fleeing North Korean Army. There was an eerie quiet for a while and then the Chinese entered the war and everything changed.
Hamhung was our second base in Korea. We initially deployed to K3 Pohang, to reduce flying time to the fleeing NKA (North Korean Army) before the Chinese came in. Their retreat, however, was rapid and most of our missions from Pohang were armed reconnaissance or strike missions; no close support missions were flown during this period. At Pohang we lived in tent lines and only had summer sleeping bags even though the night temperatures were way down. We wore a lot of extra clothing to keep warm. We did, however, have an Australian army design outdoor fuel-burning shower which was the source of great envy by the Americans with whom we were co-located. Outside our tent lines we had a couple of fuel-burning stoves as well and these were often the source of a hot breakfast in the form of a heated tin of Smorgans sausages.
But the distances were too far for effective missions from Pohang as the North Koreans moved beyond the Chongchong River at Sinanju and so we moved to Hamhung on the 40th Parallel and well inside North Korea. It was a snowbound field in winter and far colder than Pohang. It was the first experience for most of us to fly from a snow-covered strip and take off techniques had to be adapted for the blinding snow flurries of a preceding aircraft. Landings on the ice covered runways also needed some care. I should add at this point that when the war started, we were flying in light weight flying suits suited to the temperatures of Iwakuni and not the winter of Korea. Had it not been for the issue by the USAF of fur pile hats, winter jackets, all-weather boots with double insoles, warm socks, gloves, trousers, arctic underwear, etc, we would have frozen in Chosen (Korea- nicknamed "Frozen Chosen"). And what is more, the ground staff could not have done the magnificent job they did, particularly in Hamhung, of preparing our Mustangs in sub-zero temperatures and blizzardly conditions early in the mornings for the first flights without these items. The metal skins of the Mustangs were so cold that to touch them with bare fingers meant leaving skin stuck to the metal. Yet the ground staff endured these conditions uncomplainingly and our aircraft were always serviceable on time and completely reliable. It was so cold that by the time we, the pilots, started taxiing, the extremities of our feet and hands were entirely without feeling. It was only during the subsequent climb out, as heat flowed into the cockpit, that we went through the agonizing pins and needles and burning sensations in our fingers and toes before regaining full feeling. I think that is why we felt so sorry and helpless for the Marines on the Reservoir, totally outnumbered by the bugle and whistle-blowing Chinese and fighting a rearguard action that saw limbs lost through frostbite as much as through wounds.
And so to K9 Pusan airfield on the 3rd of December before we were overrun at Hamhung by the Chinese. Our final missions from the base en route to K9 were flown in support of the US 2nd Division retreating along the road from Pyongyang. Pusan was different. While cold, it was not snowbound and we were not living in windowless concrete buildings on frozen concrete floors in summer sleeping bags. We were quartered in wooden huts and had the ubiquitous fuel stove for warmth. We also had stretcher beds for the first time and these saw many a game of bridge in off hours.
There was a bar at the end of the hut and many games of liar dice (learnt from the Americans) and Rosie Rosie (acquired from the Brits I think) played during our spare time. From memory, there were no other diversions except watching departing and returning missions which we did endlessly. It was not an easy airfield to land at and the transport aircraft, especially the C46s of CAT (china air transport- Chennault Flying Tigers ) airlines, frequently just could not cope with the cross winds. That, plus the newly arrived US F9F (Shooting Star) jets blowing away the under surface of our PSP (pierced steel plank) runway as they ran up engines for take off, all made for interesting viewing.
Although we flew many missions in support of the UN forces under attack by the Chinese, the intensity of the war had changed dramatically from the Pusan Perimeter days. There were still heavy actions which required immediate close support, but a lot of our time was spent looking for targets. The Chinese were extremely clever and innovative in camouflaging their vehicles. Despite the UN's air supremacy and the difficulties for the Chinese of hiding large vehicles in flat snow covered areas, we had great difficulty in finding hidden targets. We could see numerous tracks in the snow where the Chinese had assembled during the preceding night, but not a trace of the vehicles was to be seen, at least initially. Finally, we found some of the answers, but perhaps not all of them. The Chinese would drive a vehicle through the side wall of a Korean building and replace the wall with white canvas or something similar. Napalm on the thatched roof where tracks were visible would reveal the burning truck or heavier vehicle underneath. Snow-covered haystacks in fields, with or without the revealing tracks were frequently camouflaged vehicles which you saw, either accidentally or by virtue of a change in the angle of view or in the lighting. Once one was detected, others popped into view with a suddenness like the arrival of the fairy penguins from the sea in Victoria.
We re-deployed to Iwakuni on the 7th April 1951 to start our conversion to the Meteor. The conversion period lasted a little longer than necessary because the Squadron was not given permission to return to operations until all aircraft had been fitted with radio compasses. For those of us who had flown the length and breadth of the Korean peninsular without any radio aids other than a 4-channel VHF set, who had participated in Squadron bad weather recoveries using the VHF/DF letdown, who had only occasionally practised the luxury of a GCA (ground control) at Itazuke air-base in Kyushu, the southern island of Japan, and that only before the Korean War started, a radio compass was a luxury indeed. Allied to this, the Meteor had two 10-channel VHF sets, pressurization to fly at high altitudes, an ejection seat and two jet engines. We were well off indeed and felt that we didn't really need radio compasses other than to listen to the US Armed Forces' radio broadcasts. However, no one asked us. Nevertheless, the radio compasses did prove useful for recoveries into Kimpo when the weather was foul and certainly freed the frequencies from much idle chatter.
I took part in the first Meteor mission from our new air-base in Korea, Kimpo, located just outside Seoul. Again, our accommodation was similar to that at Pusan and the ''choofer'' outdoor shower again drew favourable comment from our USAF (United States Air Force) friends, this time the 4th Fighter Interceptor Group with whom we were co-located. We fared well for food as we ate at the 67th Recce Tech (reconnaissance technical) kitchen. That was the first time that I had eaten bacon and 'over easy' eggs, with hot cakes (small pancakes) on top of all that, and the lot then covered with warm maple syrup! We also had in our hut our Ops (operations) Officer, Stan Bromhead, who would get up about 2am every morning to shoot pheasant. He would pluck and clean them and throw them into a large container which we kept boiling continuously on our fuel stove in the hut. We would bring back vegetables from the 67th, throw them into the pot and have a continuous and delicious pheasant stew for whenever we felt like it. Stan's early rising also meant that the early morning briefings were always prepared in plenty of time.
The first mission was flown on 29th July 1951 and was part of the fighter cover regularly provided by the F86s for the ground attack F80s and F84 aircraft operating in North Korea. In retrospect, the fact that we flew top cover at 35,000' for the F86s in aircraft markedly inferior to both the F86 and the Mig 15 says a lot for British propaganda in regard to its vaunted high altitude fighter interceptor! We did not see any Migs airborne on this mission which was flown parallel to the Yalu River overhead Sinuiju; however, we did see Migs on the ground at Antung, just across the river.
UN aircraft were forbidden to cross the Yalu under any circumstances, a fact which gave the Migs the advantage of climbing to height unmolested, choosing the time and place and the conditions of any attack and of being able to disengage when they felt like it without fear of any hot pursuit. Later, when we did see them crossing, they avoided us initially. Because they had been singularly unsuccessful against the F86s, and saw us flying as top cover for the same F86s, when they did cross the Yalu they ignored us and dived to engage the lower F86s. Later, as they observed our failure to become involved, or perhaps even by chance, they did attack one day on their way through and Ron Guthrie became their first Meteor victim.
Instead of being utterly useless at 35,000' and even at 30,000', the Meteor found it could survive relatively comfortably around 20,000' and so later, fighter sweep missions were flown starting at 25,000' descending to 20,000' in 5 legs keeping the Mach speed up and retaining full maneuverability options. For all that, however, the early Meteors had no spring aileron tabs and rolling at high speed was hard work and relatively slow. During our sweep missions it had been interesting to observe the tactics of the Migs which seemed to indicate that Antung was being used as a four weeks' operational conversion unit. At least that was the view of some of us. The first week would see no activity at all over the Yalu. The second week would see a few aircraft cross the Yalu but not engage. The third week would see some sporadic encounters with a quick retreat to safety across the Yalu, while the fourth week would see up to 150 Migs airborne and crossing the Yalu in waves to engage for protracted periods. In all such encounters, one solitary Mig would position itself somewhere safe above 40,000. We figured it could have been the senior instructor, perhaps a Russian, who was directing the engagement but who also occasionally would make a pass at a lone aircraft and immediately climb to resume his position above the combat.
During the period I was at Kimpo, the Squadron was involved primarily in fighter sweeps, initially at 35,000' descending to 30,000' over Sinuiju and later at 25,000' descending to 20,000' over Sinanju. We still flew as part of the protection for the ground attack F80s and F84s, but in our new location we had the initial protection of the F86s instead of the reverse as it had been when we were overhead Sinuiju. We also escorted B29s, B26s and RF80 aircraft on photo reconnaissance missions. We usually received good warning of the imminent presence of Migs as their departure from Antung was reported to us by our GCI (ground control intercept, GCA ground control approach ) controller as 'train No.1 is leaving the station', 'train No.2, etc'. This indicated that from 16 to 20 Migs had become airborne and were climbing to height on the Manchurian side of the border. Obviously, when the count got to 'train No.6, 7, 8' we knew things were soon to become serious. When the crossing of the Yalu by the Migs had taken place, we would be told 'heads up all aircraft in the Sinanju, Pyongyang, etc area' and a quick look would quickly verify that the sky indeed was full of silvery flashes. The Migs always had height and numbers on their side since the F86s rarely had more than 24 aircraft in the air and we never had more than 16.
I have been fired on and have fired at Migs without results either way. If we saw the Migs, especially at the lower altitudes we were not in danger of being shot down because of our rate of turn and turn radius. One could always force an overshoot, but a reversal was comparatively slow because of our aileron loads and the possibility of becoming an instant target for a second Mig. We were only able to get in long but opening range shots unless the Mig committed some tactical error such as slowing down and trying to stay with the Meteor's turn.
To my mind, 77 Squadrons' greatest contribution to the Korean War occurred during the Pusan Perimeter when the results were definitely critical and measurable. The situation was desperate and targets were numerous. Air power applied all round the small front helped repel all attempts by the NKA to cross the Naktong River and provided just enough time for the relief forces in the shape of the US Marines to land at Inchon and create a second front and for the US 8th Army to regroup and break out of the Perimeter. We certainly contributed a lot during the desperate early days of the Chinese offensive when we operated from Hamhung, but that offensive continued despite our efforts until their supply lines just became too long and operations south of Seoul could no longer be supported. From being essentially a very professional and competent ground attack squadron during our Mustang days, (and the red, white and blue spinner of our Mustangs was always welcome in the tight ground battles), we changed to an air-to-air role in which we were far less proficient.
Possessing an inferior high altitude fighter, with its limiting Mach of .84 (less than the speed of sound) and restricted rear visibility, and lacking specific air-to-air tactics which were not taught or practised until we acquired the Avon Sabre in the mid to late 'fifties', we added numbers and enthusiasm to the air battle over North Korea but could hardly say we played a major role in deterring the Migs.
About the ground staff and their dedication - I can't speak too highly of them. They slaved away day and night to keep our aircraft serviceable; in the dust and rain at Taegu; in the bitterly cold tented environment of Pohang; in the snow and sub-zero temperatures of Hamhung; and at Kimpo, again in bitterly cold and often snow conditions. They never complained; always took a great interest in the results of our missions; were saddened as we were at the loss of pilots they knew and liked; and filled us with the greatest confidence in the performance of our aircraft even when we were flying five and six hour missions deep inside North Korea. They vicariously shared the successes and fears of all our missions and in every way made us proud to be the unit we were.
With regard to working with other nationalities, the only one with which we had close contact was the USAF when we were part of the 35th Fighter Interceptor Group. They were a great bunch of people and our relations were warm and cordial in the extreme. I didn't get to know the 4th Fighter Wing too well at Kimpo; they were very busy fighting the Migs and were across the other side of the airfield anyway. Nevertheless, we knew them in the air and there was a lot of mutual respect in terms of professional recognition. We also had a lot of time for the bomber crews of the B29s and B26s which we escorted. They just flew straight and level through the flak to bomb their targets while we, the bomber escort, had the luxury of changing altitude, course and speed to avoid the flak situation. There again, the flak suppression boys of the F80s and F84s (ground attack), whose job it was to hit the flak positions just before the bombers bombed, also had our respect, but, unfortunately, we had no contact with them on the ground.
There were many humourous and sad incidents in my 18 months' tour; however, in the rather limited circumstances in which we existed in Korea, most of the humour related to people making mistakes which, although serious in many instances, were seen by us almost as light relief rather than the opposite. To recount them in any detail would involve names. Suffice to say that many pilots under stressful circumstances find their amusement in things that might appall armchair critics at home so I would prefer to remain silent with my own memories.
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