Chapter 30



Service Details

Leon Murtagh joined the Royal Australian Air Force at the age of 18years. He served May 1944 to October 1945 and was discharged as a Flight Sergeant AirGunner. He rejoined the RAAF in 1948 and after completing a Pilots course at Point Cook inVictoria in 1950 he was posted to Japan/Korea September 1950.. He completed one tour withthe Transport Unit in July 1951. He returned in 1952 as Captain and completed nearly threetours before returning to Richmond in May 1953 with a total of 338 trips to Korea. He leftthe RAAF in December 1953 to take up civil duties as a pilot and retired in 1986 with atotal of 21,500 flying hours. He now lives in retirement at Nerang Queensland.


"Two pilots are required to go to Korea as co-pilots". Sosaid Squadron Leader "Spike" Marsh, Commanding Officer (CO) of 36 Squadron, 86Transport Wing, Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Richmond. He spoke to the Crew Room atlarge. "Volunteers may see me in my office". I looked at the then only otheroccupant of the Crew Room, Brian Dorrington, who nodded and we both went to the C.O'soffice. To our "We'll go Sir", he replied "Just as well becauseyou're going anyway".

The "Police action" (started on 25th June 1950)soon involved 77 Squadron operating from Japan, aircraft departing Iwakuni, armed andloaded for ground attack sorties, then landing at Taegu (K2) in Korea, where they were metby fitters and armourers that had been placed there by the first aircraft of CommonwealthFlight (Com Flt) 77 Squadron A65-121, captained by Flight Lieutenant (Flt Lt) . DaveHitchins 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. Thisrole of Com. Flt. 77 Squadron continued until two more Dakotas (Douglas DC3, "GoonyBird") arrived from Australia, A65-109, with Flt.Lt. Noel Elliott Captain, P111 BrianDorrington Co-Pilot, Nav 111 "Hank" Hurley Navigator and a Wireless Operator W/OBob 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 firstweek 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 expandedproviding support to 3 RAR and other British Commonwealth Occupation Forces (BCOF) nowoperating in Korea and expanded to Pusan (K9), Kimpo (K14) near the South Korean capitalSeoul, to Pyongyang (K23), the North Korean capital, Yongdongpo (K16) and following theFighter Squadron's move to Hamhung (K27), high up on the north eastern coast of Koreaand supplying the Fighter Squadron until 3rd December, when we were called veryearly one morning at Iwakuni, to fly direct to Hamhung to Pusan, on the southern coast ofKorea. This was caused by the advance of the Chinese in support of their North Koreanallies advancing across the frozen Chosen Reservoir. On arrival at Hamhung, aircraft wouldtaxi 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 thefront line around the perimeter of the airfield, making sure you didn't dip a winginto the ground during the turn. The normal operating weight of an RAAF Dakota inAustralia was then 28,500 lb. We had been cleared for a 1,000 lb overload, that is atake-off weight of 29,500 lb. What weights we departed Hamhung were not calculated veryaccurately. However, 2 good engines (Pratt-Whitney's) didn't let us down andperformed well, helped by the very cold below zero temperatures and the Fighter Squadronwas successfully evacuated to Pusan.

The 6th December 1950, saw our first and only loss of anoperational aircraft at Suwon (K13). We had landed on the rather short strip, turned totaxi back to the dispersal bay and were told to hold our position as some fighters wereabout to depart. And there they were - a section of P51s starting to roll at the other endof the runway, the lead aircraft directly in line with out aircraft.

On recollection and observation of other similarly loaded aircraftdeparting later, we felt the pilot thought he might give us a scare by holding hisaircraft down to pass closely over us. Believe me, the sight of a fully armed P51, 2 droptanks of napalm, 8 rockets and fully loaded machine guns a few feet in front of you, withthe undercarriage still retracting, was a most awesome sight. He succeeded in his attemptto frighten us, but did the same to himself as in his eagerness he cut it too fine, missedus 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 ableto drop them safely in a nearby paddy field and was able to land and roll past us with aseized engine (all coolant lost). The American colonel in charge of the base came and sawus, 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 passedhis hospital tent, where he saw two of the scruffiest, dirtiest Aussies, with dandruff outof this world. The Navigator and myself had been taken there to strip off and shake thepowdered glass from our dark blue uniforms, as there was 6-8 inches of snow on the groundall about and to attend to a small cut in Frank Barkla's head, where he had been hitby the aircraft compass. The next day, the aircraft, A65-74, was stripped of all movableparts including engines, radios, etc and then blown up, as the Chinese were on their waysouth in a hurry and only approximately 15 miles to the north. The 2 bottles of whiskeywere drunk in approximately 5 minutes by the four of us, followed by a 2 gallon can ofwater from the aircraft and not having any effect other than calming our nerves. We werepicked up a couple of hours later and returned to Iwakuni.

Late in November, 4 aircraft from 38 Squadron in Malaya joined usbringing our strength to 7 Dakotas and we became No.30 Communications Unit and the role ofthe unit became more in support of the B.C.O.F. in Korea. Each crew flying roughly everysecond day and averaging between 80 and over 100 flying hours per month. Operations of 30Communications Unit by now had developed into the role that continued throughout itsentire time in the Korean war and subsequently passed the cessation of hostilities. Therewas 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 byway of all these ports, resulting in approximately 8-9 hours flying in a wide variety offlying 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 andnow 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 wasdisengaged, the aircraft would turn off the runway, taxi around to the dispersal pointwithout any effort from the pilot.

January 1951, we had a new Commanding Officer, Squadron Leader JohnGerber. Dave Hitchins became Flight Commander in charge of flying, which continued toincrease with loads of troops, mail and freight to Korea, personnel, mail, freight andmedical evacuation of wounded troops on the return flights. From figures extracted fromthe Unit history sheets, in the 2 years from January 1951 to December 1952, we carriedover 52,000 personnel to Korea, 2.5 million pounds of mail and 4 million pounds of freightand 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 exMalaya were rotated to Australia, having served 4-5 months in Malaya prior to posting to30 Commonwealth Unit. In April 1951 a funny incident occurred in Iwakuni. The Unit had 2Auster aircraft which provided some short communication work in Japan. On the night of 21stan American Mariner flying boat had crashed and sunk in the sea at Iwakuni and we wereasked 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 someinvestigation by the search boats. I told "Blue" to put a flare in the Verypistol, which was screwed into the floor between the pilot and passenger and when Icalled, to fire same to attract the attention of the surface crews, we having no radio inthe aircraft. Having dived over what appeared to be a life jacket, I gave the order tofire. There was a loud bang, the cockpit filled with smoke and a red Very flare wasbuzzing around our feet. The aircraft fire extinguisher was useless, being empty,"Blue" was stamping his feet trying to stamp out the fire, which eventuallyburnt a hole through the floor and fabric of the aircraft and we very hastily returnedapproximately a mile to Iwakuni.

On arrival there was still some smouldering, "Blue" hoppedout and I taxied the aircraft up to the American Fire Crew, as we had no radio to call forassistance. The Fire Crew were amazed to see a light aircraft taxi up to them, the pilothop out and say "Put this out please". On investigation after the fire, fivemore flares, very charred and blackened, were found attached to the rise of the seat onwhich I was sitting. Subsequent questioning of pilots who flew the aircraft thought, as Ihad done, the position of the Very pistol in the aircraft was the firing position. It wasthe stowage position and you were supposed to fire it out of the window, with apossibility of firing into the aircraft wing. This was written up in the RAAF crashcritique as "Hot Feet in Japan". Very funny after, but not while in flight, witha live flare buzzing around you in a fabric aircraft.

We continued flying until July 1951, when we flew the aircraft we hadtaken to Japan back to Australia by way of Iwo Jima, Guam, Momote, Townsville, toRichmond.

February 1952, I returned to Iwakuni as an aircraft Captain. Theoperation was then similar to that previously described, Yongdongpo (K16), on an island inthe Han River, just outside Seoul, being the most northerly port of our service. Thisairfield had then over 1000 aircraft movements per day, a density of traffic that is onlynow being equaled in a few parts of the world. Now As the aircraft Captain, I had to makethe decisions and cope with the situations as they developed, whereas previously I had satthere "fat, dumb and happy" - well mostly anyway. It was high density airlinetype flying, in which to fit the number of transport aircraft into the sky, a verticalseparation of 500 feet was used; nowadays a minimum of 2000 feet vertically is used. On aclear day you could always see other aircraft around you. We operated in all weatherthroughout the year - winter time usually wet with ground temperatures below zero and airtemperatures of minus 30 degrees C. Icing being a real hazard, the aircraft being equippedwith wing and tail assembly de-icing boots, prop de-icing, alcohol and hot air de-icingfor carburetors and alcohol windscreen de-icers. You could finish up with all systemsoperating correctly, METO (maximum except take off), power on both engines, the air speedback to below 100 knots, with a load of ice you could not shed and an icy hum you couldnot forget. Crew will always remember the first ice to fly off the propeller and the loudbang as it hits the aircraft side - I've had holes in the fuselage from such ice. Onthe ground you walk around the aircraft and knock off what you could. I've seenspikes of ice, 6-8 inches long on the propeller spinners and a 2 inch build-up of ice onthe ignition leads in the air.

Turbulence was also a problem. I once had to call for an ambulance tomeet the aircraft at Iwakuni for some troops, who were at the end of their endurance, dueto air sickness and who had to be hospitalized after landing. On another occasion in astack over Pusan, a thunderstorm moved into the stack. No matter what I did, the aircraftwould not hold height - it was very unstable. I saw other aircraft in the stack as wepassed 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 turnsinto the Elsen. This compartment was meant to hold only one person at a time and thisoverload put the stability of the aircraft so far out of trim to make it exceptionallydifficult to control. On landing and getting off the aircraft, my knees gave way with allthe 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 Sergeanthe 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 loadof 'Diggers" returning to Japan on R and R, a beautiful calm day, they evencomplained of it being too smooth until nearing the coast of Japan, we were jumped by apair 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 theirway.

We could not have maintained our record of reliability without GroundControl Approach (G.C.A). The American Ground Control Approach precision landing systemwas fantastic. Sometimes landing in zero visibility, particularly at K16, flyinginstruments only, the relief of hearing the final approach controller say "touchdown, touch down now, your wheels are now rolling" and feeling the rumble of wheelson the runway, stopping and seeing the "follow me jeep" that would lead you toyour 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 ourGround Crews and their unstinting servicing of our aircraft. On arrival back at base eachday, we would be met by the various mustering chiefs as you taxi into the line, observingany signs of major oil leaks, etc., they would listen to your report of the aircraftoperations, then a team off cleaners (a lot of these Japanese cleaners had been topmechanics in the Japanese Air Force and Navy), would descend on the aircraft, which wouldbe thoroughly cleaned, serviced and ready for the next flight in the minimum time, even ifthey had to work all through the night to do so. The Unit never, in my memory, missed aflight 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 superbrecord 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 ofoperations, I completed 338 trips to Korea, that is one very second day for 2½ years - anexperience not to be forgotten and which helped me greatly in my latter career as anairline pilot.


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