Published on September 4, 2012
The Korean War broke out in June 1950. By September, Captain Robert E. Wayne was already a highly experienced combat pilot. On the conflict’s first day, he downed two enemy aircraft in a single mission while flying a F-80 Shooting Star. Yet by August the overwhelming onslaught from the north had pushed US forces back to the final toehold in Korea. Somehow, the line held at Pusan. Capt. Wayne was reassigned to ground attack with the 35th Fighter-Bomber Squadron, flying F-51 Mustangs. In the late afternoon of September 4, 1950 — today in aviation history — while flying a strafing mission, Capt. Wayne was hit by ground fire. Pulling up to 1,100 feet, he realized that he couldn’t save the burning plane. Badly injured with burns on his leg and both arms, he bailed out and landed in a rice paddy five miles behind enemy lines, just north of Pohang. Even as he landed, enemy infantry were already closing in. There was nowhere to hide. Still, there was hope — the other 13 aircraft of his attack mission were orbiting overhead.
Helicopters in Korea
The Korean War was the first major conflict when helicopters played a key role. Tactics and equipment were still rudimentary, yet the crews pressed ahead; most of their missions were lifesaving shuttles transporting wounded soldiers for trauma care and surgery. The 3d ARS managed aerial rescue missions. The unit was equipped with both helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, including the SB-17, SA-16, SB-29 and SC-47 aircraft as well as H-5 helicopters, the USAF designation for the Sikorsky S-51. In production for four years since 1946, the H-5 was a general-utility helicopter that could carry up to four men, three if it carried much fuel. Its operating weight was just 1,250 pounds. Thus, with a crew of a pilot and paramedic and full fuel, one wounded soldier could be ferried from evacuation points near the front lines to MASH hospitals in the rear, where the H-5s were usually forward deployed. Often the pilots overloaded their helicopters by taking two wounded soldiers — it was risky but it worked. Given the intensity of the conflict, the 3d ARS was flying rotations as fast as the H-5 could fly, which wasn’t much — just 60 kts.
By the beginning of September, the Pusan Perimeter was holding, even if the ground battles were desperate. Air power was critically needed to stop the enemy from penetrating the lines. Many planes and pilots were lost to ground fire as a result. If the pilots could get offshore before bailing out, the 3d ARS amphibious planes could pick them up. However, if they parachuted into enemy territory, there were few options — they had to evade and, with luck, work their way back to UN forces. The concept of a rescue by helicopter in a contested battle area had never been tried — but that was about to change.
That afternoon, the call to the 3d ARS was urgent — could the unit perform a rescue mission behind enemy lines? Since this was something never before attempted, the JOC Rescue Coordinator referred the matter directly to the commanding officer of the Rescue Service, Lt. Col. Richard T. Kight, for personal approval. Precious time passed before a launch was authorized. although the commander declined to direct the mission given that there were no protocols in place. Instead, trusting in his men, he ordered that a pilot could take the mission on his own initiative. It wasn’t long before an H-5 helicopter was airborne out of Pusan, piloted by 1LT Paul W. van Boven. In the back, the assigned paramedic was Corporal John Fuentez. For 1LT van Boven, the choice of whether to go was clear — a former B-17 who had been shot down and taken prisoner during WWII, he had no intention of letting another man experience a POW camp, or worse. Clearly, the situation was desperate and everyone knew with certainty that the North Koreans had no intention of taking the downed airman alive. They were out for revenge.
Yet the H-5 was ill-suited for combat rescue — it was unarmored and unarmed. Between the two men, they had a pistol and a carbine. The brief was that the downed pilot’s squadron was still orbiting overhead, strafing any enemy ground forces if they attempted to close in — that would be enough, they hoped. To avoid enemy ground fire, 1LT van Boven flew east and went offshore before turning north to fly beyond the Pusan Perimeter. Once at a point east of the downed pilot, he descended low to the water and turned toward the shore, accelerating to 60 kts maximum speed. Meanwhile, over the radio, he could hear that one by one, the F-51s were leaving, forced to return to base with low fuel. By the time he arrived, just four were left on station — it had been two hours since Capt. Wayne had been shot down. Nightfall was approaching and, if the mission wasn’t accomplished now, there was no way to save the wounded piloted.
1LT van Boven took his H-5 helicopter in at top speed. Instantly, he spotted the column smoke from the still burning, downed F-51 Mustang. In that area, he searched but did not see the pilot, but then recognized that the other four F-51s were making strafing passes against enemy forces alongside an adjacent rice paddy. At that moment, he realized that the enemy was that very close. The wounded pilot was hiding in a rice paddy, hoping to avoid enemy fire, only barely kept safe by the continuous harassment of his squadron mates, who refused to give up. 1LT van Boven flew around the paddy and then approached from the north, hoping to surprise the enemy by arriving from an unexpected direction.
Seconds later, Capt. Wayne heard the rotors of the H-5 helicopter nearby — he looked south but saw nothing, then realized the sound was coming from behind him, from the north. He stood and turned and saw the helicopter hovering a distance away. It was now or never. He ripped open his flight suit and peeled off his white undershirt. Waving the shirt frantically, he ran toward the helicopter, in excruciating pain from his burns. From all around, the enemy troops opened fire. They too realized that it was now or never — they opened fire with everything they had. Bullets were soon striking the helicopter, which flew closer and set down on the edge of the rice paddy, ignoring the incoming small arms fire.
Amidst the developing chaos, from high above in his F-51, the eagle sharp eyes of Capt. Stan White spotted a lone North Korean soldier who had worked his way to within 100 yards of the downed pilot. As Capt. Wayne ran toward the helicopter, the North Korean soldier also leaped up and was running now toward the wounded pilot. At 50 yards, the soldier pulled out a revolver and took aim. Capt. White pointed his F-51 Mustang down and, despite the close proximity to the downed pilot and the rescue helicopter, made a blisteringly accurate strafing pass. Firing with all eight of the F-51’s .50 caliber machine guns, he took down the soldier in a hail of bullets.
Also covering the rescue overhead, one of the other pilots, Capt. Edwards pulled out his personal camera, rolled his plane left as he flew overhead, and took a photo of the helicopter as it was hovering over the pilot — thus capturing a unique moment in history. As he snapped the photograph from above, down on the H-5, the paramedic, Cpl. Fuentez, reached out and grabbed Capt. Wayne as he staggered up to the helicopter. As he pulled the pilot into the H-5, 1LT van Boven pushed the stick forward and headed back toward the coastline as Cpl. Fuentez quickly reported on the damage to the helicopter — there were a lot of holes, but nothing critical had been hit. The flight out was covered by the remaining F-51s which made final strafing passes. They followed the helicopter until it made the safety of the Pusan Perimeter.
For the action, 1LT van Boven was awarded the Silver Star. By the end of the war, 3d ARS personnel would pioneer the concept of the Rescue Combat Air Patrol (ResCAP), in large part based on the rescue performed by 1LT van Boven and Cpl Fuentez that day. A ResCAP involved a flight of armed, propeller-driven fighter aircraft that would orbit the downed pilot, strafe enemy forces if they approached and suppress ground fire. Above it all, a T-6 nicknamed the “Mosquito” would orbit directing the rescue mission, while the helicopter would make a run to accomplish the pick-up; the paramedic in the back would take the dangerous mission of recovering the downed pilot, sometimes even leaving the helicopter to bring him in. ResCAPs were so effective that 20 years later, largely unchanged, they were still in use in the Vietnam War, where they saved numerous USAF, USN and USMC pilots.
As for the paramedics in back, Cpl. Fuentez and others like him would pioneer a new field in the USAF — the Pararescueman or Para-Jumper (PJ) — today’s PJs are among the highest trained, most elite special forces personnel in the world, yet they owe a debt of gratitude to the incredible feats of Cpl John Fuentez and the others like him who lead the way at the beginning. Lt. Col. Richard T. Kight would subsequently author the Code of the Air Rescueman, which is still used today: “It is my duty as a Pararescueman to save lives and to aid the injured. I will be prepared at all times to perform my assigned duties quickly and efficiently, placing these duties before personal desires and comforts. These things I do, that others may live.”
One More Bit of Aviation History
The tiny H-5 helicopters were underpowered and slow, with a maximum speed of just 60 kts. Their maximum range was just 150 miles. They could pick up just one man. The highest altitude they could achieve was only 4,000 feet. Yet three months after this first rescue behind enemy lines, the 3d ARS concluded in a formal study that the H-5 was “the perfect aircraft for rescue work in areas where conventional aircraft cannot land. In the rice paddy-filled flat areas of the Far East, very little open area exists for landing light aircraft; and the helicopter, which can land in a rice paddy or on a narrow road, can be utilized to a maximum.” Ultimately, the H-5 would be replaced by more powerful helicopters, first the H-19 and then, with the Vietnam War, by the famous Jolly Green Giants.
Today’s Aviation Trivia Question
Who was the most successful USAF rescue PJ in history?
From the Archives
First Aero-Medical Evacuation — read about how a volunteer pilot in the midst of World War I took a wounded Lance-Corporal from a distant spot in the midst of the Sinai desert to El Arish for medical care — the world’s first aero-medical evacuation flight! Read more! =>