Suiho: The Gauntlet
By Bud Farrell
From his book, No Sweat
Note: Due to web site limitations, charts, diagrams and photos that appear in the published version of No Sweat have been removed, and portions of the narrative have been condensed. EJM
Ever since September 12th, 1952, I have regarded the Yalu River as a foreboding and forbidden barrier between North Korea and Manchuria, China; and just as “Manchuria” sounds even more sinister than “China,” the Yalu will forever hold fearful connotations for me, “ . . . the valley of the shadow of death!" The northwest corridor of The Yalu was like a line describing the very heart of North Korean war industry, and hydroelectric power production for all of North Korea and a major portion of Manchuria--the “Ruhr” of the “Hermit Nation.”
In 1952 The Yalu River was a heavily defended 130 mile GAUNTLET of hundreds of concrete reinforced gun emplacements containing over three hundred 85 MM, 88 MM, 90 MM, 105 MM, and up to 120 MM radar-controlled guns, manned by well trained RUSSIAN GUN CREWS of the Soviet 10th Antiaircraft Artillery & Searchlight Regiment. There were additionally over 368 high-powered radar controlled searchlights lining several miles of both sides of the river . . . as well as Antung, Manchuria, the dreaded MiG-15 base, estimated to hold 300 MiG -15s, just across the river from Sinuiju, a major city at the mouth of the Yalu and the northwest apex of the triangle known as “MIG ALLEY.” We made all of our runs from northeast to southwest with great practicality in planning in order to have the SHORTEST distance from target and “Bombs Away”, to the relative safety of the Yellow Sea in the event of damage requiring bailout or ditching, even when it meant flying the whole width of North Korea and the full length of the “Gauntlet.” The north side could not be legitimately violated or crossed, thus precluding any attack perpendicular to the river or parallel to the dam across the river, thus imposing severe accuracy restrictions on flight path and drop zone.
In effect, several major North Korean targets were within 30 miles of the MiG-15 threat that could NOT be removed, and on some missions we could actually see MiGs taking off on well-lit runways, coming up after us without [fear] of retaliation to their “hive” or sanctuary. So the combination of escape route, target location on the river, [and] our inability to cross the river, essentially “channelized” our bomb run . . . like a well lighted boulevard! The Chinese, North Koreans, and RUSSIANS, had simply to fire at the obligatory course the B- 29s had to fly--a “box barrage!”
In the early morning of September 12th, there was a buzz in the air that generally reflected something big-- a MAX EFFORT-- and the nervous edge adrenaline started early with loading extra ammo, cleaning and checking guns, and rechecking turret systems. [During the] late afternoon briefing the briefing room was “wired” with tension…the curtain drawn …and the red line went right up to the Yalu…near Antung…Manchuria….MIG ALLEY! Right ON the river, Suiho Hydroelectric Power Plant, just below the Dam, at the base…even more complicated and difficult than going after the dam itself! There were whistles and sighs upon just seeing the red line...even before the mission details, and then there were groans and a few heaves…some got physically sick in the back of the room …big game jitters!
We had been up to Sinuiju on the Yalu on July 30/31, the Oriental Light Metals Works, a large complex previously not hit, about four miles across the Yalu from Antung. [We] had gone over without any damage but Suiho was going to be another matter. Due to the target location, and preciseness required with the power plant tucked in at the base of the high dam, our approach was down river from the northeast in order to afford the shortest escape route out to over water in the Yellow Sea in the event of an emergency. An attack from any other direction would also have put us across the river into Manchurian Territory since the River took a sharp bend to the southwest right at the dam, with the dam at the apex of an inverted “V” in the river, and even our approach from the northeast paralleling the river required a dramatic “full needle width turn” immediately at “BOMBS AWAY” to preclude our intrusion into China. As we turned off target I remember looking almost STRAIGHT down out of my blister as we made a hard left, and thinking “we’re gonna slide off!”
A look at the following map of the Yalu River/Suiho Reservoir/Dam area, will reflect that a bomb run paralleling and in close proximity to the yellow line – the border delineating North Korea from Manchuria-China – from northeast to southwest, with “bombs away” at a point just before the dam, at the sharp southward break in the river path, would clearly require an incredibly sharp left – PORT - turn and bank to avoid overflying and intruding into Chinese territory. Flying such a distinctly defined and restricted flight path would and did put the bomber stream within range of hundreds of heavy caliber anti aircraft guns and searchlights lined up on both sides of the Yalu River…THE GAUNTLET!
That the 307th ship that was hit and blew up directly in front of us, as related later in this narrative, would fall on the Chinese side of the River is more readily imagineable when placed in perspective of this map.
SUIHO DAM & HYDROELECTRIC PLANT on THE YALU
An early evening takeoff would put us over Suiho shortly after midnight and about halfway back in the three group bomber stream, with sixty second separation (approximately 3 miles) between all aircraft at takeoff and throughout the mission. [The] Max Effort [required] virtually all flyable aircraft, up to as many as 60 ships, twenty from each Group. [The mission was] routine until we got near the 38th Parallel, demarcating the front lines, at which time, in our climb through an unpredicted weather front, we started to pick up ice. Our Aircraft Commander requested increases in power by the Flight Engineer several times to shake ice and prevent a stall.
After several tense minutes we got above the front but heard on VHF radio, a 93rd Squadron sister ship, Major Sander’s crew, in some distress from icing and only later learned that they had not been able to shake the ice and had augured in from approximately 25,000 feet with their full bomb load, with only one out of twelve surviving a last second bailout at 500 feet.
We continued for another 200 miles to the I.P. for our run in on the target through clearer than predicted skies. As we approached the I.P. from the southeast and before our turn to the left on the bomb run, I could see hundreds of antiaircraft gun flashes, both on the ground and flak bursts in the air at our altitude and above, and many fingers of searchlights stabbing at the aircraft ahead of us, almost a boulevard of beams lined up along the path. The “Box Barrage” of flak was described by one old pro, Capt. Frank Roll, as being as good as the Germans had put up over Berlin, which had brought him down and made him a POW in WW II.
As we turned on our heading to the target, with no diversion or evasive deviation in our track allowed, our A.C. called on interphone and said “Hang onto your ass…they’re catching hell up in front of us!” I felt an exhilaration and adrenaline flow like we were goin’over the top on an amusement park wild roller coaster ride, with breath held and sweating fists clutching the cold metal frame of the blister for some feeling of solidarity--the only time I had the heavy canvas covered lead stripped flak jackets under and on me! Enemy aircraft were dropping brilliant orange and white parachute flares above the bomber stream to illuminate the B-29’s to the orbiting MiGs waiting to pounce, with some so intent in pressing their attack that they pursued the B-29’s right into their own flak. I remember hunkering down behind my gun sight and trying to retreat within my oversized flak helmet like a turtle withdrawing its head into its shell.
From the I.P. to the “bombs away” there were continuous flak bursts around us , perhaps thousands within sight like a very long string of firecrackers going off in your face and all seeming closer in the dark then they really were, searchlights scanning from both sides of the river trying to find and lock on us--as they had each aircraft ahead of us--and then one huge overwhelming flash directly ahead of us reduced all others to nothing, and a B-29 immediately in front of us no longer existed--with only burning debris fluttering through the darkness to the hillside ground on the Manchurian side of the river--and our copilot impulsively yelled on interphone “Christ look at that!” The B-29 directly in front of us had taken a direct hit and disintegrated with the explosion of its full bomb load, and twelve men! This has always remained with me as what “Dante’s Inferno” might look like!
As we flew on, I tried to climb inside the flak helmet and make myself even smaller and ducked behind the gun sight reflexively, convulsively, through flashes, searchlights, and the rattle of falling spent flak shrapnel against our ship, and the ONLY time I ever actually smelled cordite from the flak explosions. At some point we took a direct hit of a major round that miraculously did NOT detonate on contact and went through our horizontal stabilizer VERY close in to the fuselage and Tail Gunners compartment, went up alongside the vertical stabilizer, grooving it for about ten feet and perhaps detonated above and behind our ship…with no effect on our controls or other equipment--and not discovered until we landed.
Captain Ralph Walt’s crew, just in front of us, was not as lucky, having a major round ricochet off their # 3 engine prop blade and then detonating just above the rear bomb bay and Gunners compartment just after bombs away, wounding two very seriously and damaging the aircraft with loss of electronics, radios, etc. Frank Skarritt, Right Gunner, and Lt. Bill King, Radar Observer, in the rear Gunner’s Compartment, were severely wounded and were given blood plasma from the first aid kits they had aboard as they struggled to make it into an emergency base in South Korea. Their Aircraft Commander, Captain Ralph Walt, was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his desperate and gallant successful effort to save his crew and aircraft! This was their 13th mission …and they were hit after midnite…September THIRTEENTH! NO one talked about our forthcoming 13th…like hotels not having a 13th floor!
Above: Captain Walt’s B-29, 44-61790 at K-13, Suwon AFB, South Korea for battle damage repair after Suiho mission. The # 3 engine was replaced.
Below: Frank Eckles (pictured) returned to Kadena AFB with Al Gerato, Flight Engineer and sole bailout survivor of Sanders crew after # 802 “BAIT ME” augered in from icing, with loss of 11. Photos on the right show extensive flak damage. Courtesy of Frank Eckles