In the Air
Vincent "Dinny" O'Brien was born Cowra NSW 1926 and first enlisted in the RAAF in July 1944. He transferred to the Permanent Air Force in 1948. He was promoted to Sergeant Air Frame Fitter in 1954, commissioned in 1957 and was promoted to Squadron Leader in 1970. He resigned his Commission for early retirement in September 1977. His overseas service included BCOF - Japan, 77 Squadron Korea, Mirage Project - France, 75 Squadron Malaysia. He was awarded Member of the Order of the British Empire in 1972. In retirement since June 1983 he takes an active part in community and ex service activities.
Absolute surprise and disbelief greeted me at RAAF Williamtown on Monday 3 July 1950 when I was informed that I was posted to 77 Squadron in Japan. Indeed, I was more surprised to learn that a war had started in Korea and that we were going to be involved. My wife of ten weeks was not impressed with this news. However, before she realized the magnitude of the situation I was gone, departing Sydney by chartered Qantas DC4 6 July, arriving Iwakuni for lunch Saturday 8 July. So began my fifteen months tour with 77 Squadron in Korea. On a rotational system, loosely employed, I served for varying periods at Iwakuni, Taegu, Pohang, Hamhung, Pusan and Kimpo. Most memorable of my many sojourns in Korea was the first one. This trip included three weeks at Pohang, the squadrons move to Hamhung, North Korea, our evacuation from Hamhung to Pusan, promotion to corporal and returning to Iwakuni on Christmas Eve 1950. This period of about eight weeks provided sufficient discomfort, frustration and anxiety to last me a long time. Inadequate clothing and bedding gave little protection to combat sub-zero degrees temperature combined with working in snow, ice, wind and sleet. Fortunately however, the United States Air Force (USAF) provide us with winter clothing. The issue included sleeping bag, pile lined cap with flaps to cover ears, pile lined jerkin, nylon outer trousers and jacket with hood, snow packs, ski socks, leather gloves with woolen inners and combat boots.
When the squadron was ordered to move from Pohang to Hamhung I was given the responsibility of moving the airframe support equipment with four other fitters and a canopied three ton truck. The equipment included tent, poles, aircraft lifting jacks, spare wheels, brakes, hydraulic components, tool boxes, tow bars, etc. At the departure point we were assigned to a Fairchild C119 aircraft of Combat Cargo Command. As we approached the aircraft loading ramps a rotund, ruddy faced, cigar smoking crew chief appeared to guide us aboard. Clearly he had reservations about us and our vehicle. No identifying badges or rank was worn by any of our crew as we were forbidden to disfigure the US clothing, as we had to pass it to other members replacing us when we were rotated back to Japan. Later, however, all squadron members received a personal issue. To add to our problems we realised that our truck would not fit into the aircraft cargo bay, as the canopy was too high. This problem was quickly overcome when I directed that the tubular supports be cut with hacksaws, and the canopy lowered to provide height clearance. Pre-flight briefing by the crew chief included: no smoking, seat belts to remain secured and flight deck off limits. Throughout the briefing the crew chief was wearing a Mae West and parachute and smoked his cigar. To my query he informed us that as they normally did not carry passengers, Mae Wests and parachutes were not available for us, nor were in flight rations provided. After about two and a half hours of discomfort in freezing conditions, we arrived at Hamhung. To subdue our hunger and anxiety in flight, we took turns to sit in the truck's cabin and smoke cigarettes.
Our short stay at Hamhung, 19 November to 4 December, was virtually one of survival. Aircraft unserviceability, together with increasing battle damage, ensured a high work rate over extended hours. Weather conditions were atrocious with the temperature down to 20 degrees below zero and strong wind blowing from the mountains.
Our day started pre-dawn sweeping snow from the aircraft with bass brooms and finished long after dark, when rectifications, routine maintenance and battle damage repairs were completed. Throughout the day all squadron members operated as a team, helping each other to refuel, re-arm and repair aircraft.
At this stage of events no beer ration was provided for airmen. When the order came to abandon Hamhung the squadron was a hive of activity and rumour. The night before we evacuated, four of us were speculating on the possibilities and feeling miserable and apprehensive. Jim Lill, corporal electrical fitter, now retired squadron leader, announced that he had a bottle of rum which he had brought from Australia. He suggested this to be the ideal time to consume it rather than risk it falling into enemy hands, should the worst scenario occur. Agreement was unanimous, the deed was done and four airmen, full of courage, enjoyed sound sleep on their last night in North Korea.
In retrospect, responsibility given to junior Non Commissioned Officers (NCOs) was far more extensive than that enjoyed by present day personnel. As an example, early July 1951 I was put in charge of an advance party of nine technical personnel to support the first Meteors to go to Korea. Four jets flew to Kimpo and we preceded them in a DC3 so that we were established to meet and service them. Our task was to maintain them for about a week until the squadron arrived. At this time I had been a corporal for about seven months. American hospitality continued at Kimpo. On arrival a USAF 2nd lieutenant liaison officer met us. When informed that I was in charge he assumed that I was a sergeant, and I did not tell him otherwise. The weather was warm so I wore my shirt sleeves rolled up, so that only the top of my chevrons showed. This was a deliberate ploy to confuse Americans and had been successful to gain entry to USAF Top Three Clubs (Sergeants Mess equivalent) in Tokyo when on R&R leave. The lieutenant provided me with a jeep and suggested I collect "combat rations" for my crew. Despite being unfamiliar with this ration I accompanied him to the supply section, where he made the necessary authorization. To my surprise and joy the rations comprised 200 cigarettes, chocolate bars, gum, toothbrush and paste, razor blades, cigarette lighter, condoms etc for each person. When asked the number of personnel in my crew I promptly replied twenty. To our delight double rations seemed an appropriate reward for being the first RAAF ground crew at Kimpo.
Clearly one was much wiser after several periods in Korea. As a consequence of this knowledge I took extra personal items to Kimpo for bartering purposes, including a bottle of Japanese whisky. One evening a USAF airman wandered into our tent looking to buy alcohol. After some diplomatic dialogue he agreed to purchase my Japanese whisky for $US10, with the proviso that I have the first drink. He made this request because of rumours that coloured water and worse had been sealed in bottles and sold as whisky. The quality of the whisky was so poor that I was obliged to drink half of it before he was convinced it was safe to consume. Of course I kept the $10.
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