Leon Murtagh joined the Royal Australian Air Force at the age of 18 years. He served May 1944 to October 1945 and was discharged as a Flight Sergeant Air Gunner. He rejoined the RAAF in 1948 and after completing a Pilots course at Point Cook in Victoria in 1950 he was posted to Japan/Korea September 1950.. He completed one tour with the Transport Unit in July 1951. He returned in 1952 as Captain and completed nearly three tours before returning to Richmond in May 1953 with a total of 338 trips to Korea. He left the RAAF in December 1953 to take up civil duties as a pilot and retired in 1986 with a total of 21,500 flying hours. He now lives in retirement at Nerang Queensland.
"Two pilots are required to go to Korea as co-pilots". So said Squadron Leader "Spike" Marsh, Commanding Officer (CO) of 36 Squadron, 86 Transport Wing, Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Richmond. He spoke to the Crew Room at large. "Volunteers may see me in my office". I looked at the then only other occupant of the Crew Room, Brian Dorrington, who nodded and we both went to the C.O's office. To our "We'll go Sir", he replied "Just as well because you're going anyway".
The "Police action" (started on 25th June 1950) soon involved 77 Squadron operating from Japan, aircraft departing Iwakuni, armed and loaded for ground attack sorties, then landing at Taegu (K2) in Korea, where they were met by fitters and armourers that had been placed there by the first aircraft of Commonwealth Flight (Com Flt) 77 Squadron A65-121, captained by Flight Lieutenant (Flt Lt) . Dave Hitchins and the crew and co-pilot Flt.Lt. "Dad" Taplin, Flt.Lt Ivan Pretty, Navigator and Flt.Lt. Joe McDonald, Wireless Operator. The Mustangs were serviced, refueled, rearmed and then proceeding on another strike, then returning to Iwakuni. This role of Com. Flt. 77 Squadron continued until two more Dakotas (Douglas DC3, "Goony Bird") arrived from Australia, A65-109, with Flt.Lt. Noel Elliott Captain, P111 Brian Dorrington Co-Pilot, Nav 111 "Hank" Hurley Navigator and a Wireless Operator W/O Bob Burns; A65-96 Captained by Ron Daniel, with Co-Pilot Leon Murtagh (myself), Flt.Lt. Frank Barkla Navigator and a Wireless Operator, W/O "Blue" Lang, in the first week of October 1950.
Around about this time, the Fighter Squadron moved to Pohang Dong (K3) on the East Coast of Korea and early flights were in support of them, but quickly expanded providing support to 3 RAR and other British Commonwealth Occupation Forces (BCOF) now operating in Korea and expanded to Pusan (K9), Kimpo (K14) near the South Korean capital Seoul, to Pyongyang (K23), the North Korean capital, Yongdongpo (K16) and following the Fighter Squadron's move to Hamhung (K27), high up on the north eastern coast of Korea and supplying the Fighter Squadron until 3rd December, when we were called very early one morning at Iwakuni, to fly direct to Hamhung to Pusan, on the southern coast of Korea. This was caused by the advance of the Chinese in support of their North Korean allies advancing across the frozen Chosen Reservoir. On arrival at Hamhung, aircraft would taxi to a dispersal point, be filled up, doors closed and take-off with a 'split-arse' turn as soon as the wheels cleared the ground in order to avoid the front line around the perimeter of the airfield, making sure you didn't dip a wing into the ground during the turn. The normal operating weight of an RAAF Dakota in Australia was then 28,500 lb. We had been cleared for a 1,000 lb overload, that is a take-off weight of 29,500 lb. What weights we departed Hamhung were not calculated very accurately. However, 2 good engines (Pratt-Whitney's) didn't let us down and performed well, helped by the very cold below zero temperatures and the Fighter Squadron was successfully evacuated to Pusan.
The 6th December 1950, saw our first and only loss of an operational aircraft at Suwon (K13). We had landed on the rather short strip, turned to taxi back to the dispersal bay and were told to hold our position as some fighters were about to depart. And there they were - a section of P51s starting to roll at the other end of the runway, the lead aircraft directly in line with out aircraft.
On recollection and observation of other similarly loaded aircraft departing later, we felt the pilot thought he might give us a scare by holding his aircraft down to pass closely over us. Believe me, the sight of a fully armed P51, 2 drop tanks of napalm, 8 rockets and fully loaded machine guns a few feet in front of you, with the undercarriage still retracting, was a most awesome sight. He succeeded in his attempt to frighten us, but did the same to himself as in his eagerness he cut it too fine, missed us with his prop and collected the Dakota at windscreen level with his air-scoop, fortunately bounced off, realized he had not dropped napalm and rockets on us and was able to drop them safely in a nearby paddy field and was able to land and roll past us with a seized engine (all coolant lost). The American colonel in charge of the base came and saw us, bringing with him 2 bottles of American whiskey. By way of consoling us he said "In a way I was pleased to see the wrecked C47", as on the way down, he passed his hospital tent, where he saw two of the scruffiest, dirtiest Aussies, with dandruff out of this world. The Navigator and myself had been taken there to strip off and shake the powdered glass from our dark blue uniforms, as there was 6-8 inches of snow on the ground all about and to attend to a small cut in Frank Barkla's head, where he had been hit by the aircraft compass. The next day, the aircraft, A65-74, was stripped of all movable parts including engines, radios, etc and then blown up, as the Chinese were on their way south in a hurry and only approximately 15 miles to the north. The 2 bottles of whiskey were drunk in approximately 5 minutes by the four of us, followed by a 2 gallon can of water from the aircraft and not having any effect other than calming our nerves. We were picked up a couple of hours later and returned to Iwakuni.
Late in November, 4 aircraft from 38 Squadron in Malaya joined us bringing our strength to 7 Dakotas and we became No.30 Communications Unit and the role of the unit became more in support of the B.C.O.F. in Korea. Each crew flying roughly every second day and averaging between 80 and over 100 flying hours per month. Operations of 30 Communications Unit by now had developed into the role that continued throughout its entire time in the Korean war and subsequently passed the cessation of hostilities. There was a daily courier that departed Iwakuni in Japan at 0600 hours for Pusan (K9), Taegu (K2), Suwon (K13), Kimpo (K14) and up to Pyongyang (K23) until December 1950, returning by way of all these ports, resulting in approximately 8-9 hours flying in a wide variety of flying conditions.
With the advance of the Chinese, the most northerly port was now Taejon (K5), another short strip with just sufficient length for a loaded C47. Very slippery and now in January, mostly frozen. In fact, on landing, the main wheels would "shuffle" into a couple of frozen wheel ruts and if the tail lock was disengaged, the aircraft would turn off the runway, taxi around to the dispersal point without any effort from the pilot.
January 1951, we had a new Commanding Officer, Squadron Leader John Gerber. Dave Hitchins became Flight Commander in charge of flying, which continued to increase with loads of troops, mail and freight to Korea, personnel, mail, freight and medical evacuation of wounded troops on the return flights. From figures extracted from the Unit history sheets, in the 2 years from January 1951 to December 1952, we carried over 52,000 personnel to Korea, 2.5 million pounds of mail and 4 million pounds of freight and another 24,500 people within Korea, with a record of getting the job done, irrespective of whether that was second to none.
A tour of operations was 10 months and in April 1951, the crews ex Malaya were rotated to Australia, having served 4-5 months in Malaya prior to posting to 30 Commonwealth Unit. In April 1951 a funny incident occurred in Iwakuni. The Unit had 2 Auster aircraft which provided some short communication work in Japan. On the night of 21st an American Mariner flying boat had crashed and sunk in the sea at Iwakuni and we were asked to provide spotter aircraft for wreckage. I had the Radio Operator from my crew, "Blue" Lang with me, when we saw some wreckage and flotsam that warranted some investigation by the search boats. I told "Blue" to put a flare in the Very pistol, which was screwed into the floor between the pilot and passenger and when I called, to fire same to attract the attention of the surface crews, we having no radio in the aircraft. Having dived over what appeared to be a life jacket, I gave the order to fire. There was a loud bang, the cockpit filled with smoke and a red Very flare was buzzing around our feet. The aircraft fire extinguisher was useless, being empty, "Blue" was stamping his feet trying to stamp out the fire, which eventually burnt a hole through the floor and fabric of the aircraft and we very hastily returned approximately a mile to Iwakuni.
On arrival there was still some smouldering, "Blue" hopped out and I taxied the aircraft up to the American Fire Crew, as we had no radio to call for assistance. The Fire Crew were amazed to see a light aircraft taxi up to them, the pilot hop out and say "Put this out please". On investigation after the fire, five more flares, very charred and blackened, were found attached to the rise of the seat on which I was sitting. Subsequent questioning of pilots who flew the aircraft thought, as I had done, the position of the Very pistol in the aircraft was the firing position. It was the stowage position and you were supposed to fire it out of the window, with a possibility of firing into the aircraft wing. This was written up in the RAAF crash critique as "Hot Feet in Japan". Very funny after, but not while in flight, with a live flare buzzing around you in a fabric aircraft.
We continued flying until July 1951, when we flew the aircraft we had taken to Japan back to Australia by way of Iwo Jima, Guam, Momote, Townsville, to Richmond.
February 1952, I returned to Iwakuni as an aircraft Captain. The operation was then similar to that previously described, Yongdongpo (K16), on an island in the Han River, just outside Seoul, being the most northerly port of our service. This airfield had then over 1000 aircraft movements per day, a density of traffic that is only now being equaled in a few parts of the world. Now As the aircraft Captain, I had to make the decisions and cope with the situations as they developed, whereas previously I had sat there "fat, dumb and happy" - well mostly anyway. It was high density airline type flying, in which to fit the number of transport aircraft into the sky, a vertical separation of 500 feet was used; nowadays a minimum of 2000 feet vertically is used. On a clear day you could always see other aircraft around you. We operated in all weather throughout the year - winter time usually wet with ground temperatures below zero and air temperatures of minus 30 degrees C. Icing being a real hazard, the aircraft being equipped with wing and tail assembly de-icing boots, prop de-icing, alcohol and hot air de-icing for carburetors and alcohol windscreen de-icers. You could finish up with all systems operating correctly, METO (maximum except take off), power on both engines, the air speed back to below 100 knots, with a load of ice you could not shed and an icy hum you could not forget. Crew will always remember the first ice to fly off the propeller and the loud bang as it hits the aircraft side - I've had holes in the fuselage from such ice. On the ground you walk around the aircraft and knock off what you could. I've seen spikes of ice, 6-8 inches long on the propeller spinners and a 2 inch build-up of ice on the ignition leads in the air.
Turbulence was also a problem. I once had to call for an ambulance to meet the aircraft at Iwakuni for some troops, who were at the end of their endurance, due to air sickness and who had to be hospitalized after landing. On another occasion in a stack over Pusan, a thunderstorm moved into the stack. No matter what I did, the aircraft would not hold height - it was very unstable. I saw other aircraft in the stack as we passed vertically. Luckily we missed them and after landing, found that 6-8 'Diggers', not wanting to make a mess of the aircraft floor, being sick in turns into the Elsen. This compartment was meant to hold only one person at a time and this overload put the stability of the aircraft so far out of trim to make it exceptionally difficult to control. On landing and getting off the aircraft, my knees gave way with all the rudder controlling and being greeted by Brigadier Park, the New Zealand 'K' Force Commander remarking "a bit rough today staff" ( as I was a Staff Sergeant he used the Army term for 3 stripes and a crown).
Generally speaking our passengers were a most uncomplaining lot, putting up with atrocious conditions with stoical resignation. Except one day, with a load of 'Diggers" returning to Japan on R and R, a beautiful calm day, they even complained of it being too smooth until nearing the coast of Japan, we were jumped by a pair of F94 USAF surveillance aircraft, who often used us for practice interceptions. After the initial pass they returned and we had 10-15 minutes of evasive action practice. I would not leave the aircraft at Iwakuni until those troops were on the bus and on their way.
We could not have maintained our record of reliability without Ground Control Approach (G.C.A). The American Ground Control Approach precision landing system was fantastic. Sometimes landing in zero visibility, particularly at K16, flying instruments only, the relief of hearing the final approach controller say "touch down, touch down now, your wheels are now rolling" and feeling the rumble of wheels on the runway, stopping and seeing the "follow me jeep" that would lead you to your parking position.
The flying record of this Unit, which had become 30 Transport Unit, then 36 Squadron, could only have been maintained by the complete co-operation of our Ground Crews and their unstinting servicing of our aircraft. On arrival back at base each day, we would be met by the various mustering chiefs as you taxi into the line, observing any signs of major oil leaks, etc., they would listen to your report of the aircraft operations, then a team off cleaners (a lot of these Japanese cleaners had been top mechanics in the Japanese Air Force and Navy), would descend on the aircraft, which would be thoroughly cleaned, serviced and ready for the next flight in the minimum time, even if they had to work all through the night to do so. The Unit never, in my memory, missed a flight due to unserviceability. In the time from the beginning to the end of hostilities, the Unit stopped flying once only, due to a typhoon between Japan and Korea. A superb record and achievement.
I remember life at Iwakuni, the Senior Non Commissioned Officers' Mess, with its facilities and staff. It was magnificent. In just under three tours of operations, I completed 338 trips to Korea, that is one very second day for 2½ years - an experience not to be forgotten and which helped me greatly in my latter career as an airline pilot.
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