They Waived Everything but Goodbye: Oregon Air National Guard in the Korean War

  • Published
  • By Lt Col Terrence G. Popravak, Jr., USAF (ret.)
  • 142 FW
This year commemorates the 60th anniversary of the beginning of the Korean War. The conflict caught many by surprise, and the post-World War II U.S. military establishment, much reduced in size following that global conflict, rushed into action. It was soon apparent that additional forces were needed in Korea, even with creation of the United Nations Command and the military contributions of other countries. In addition, the uncertainty of the intentions of the Soviet Union and its growing military capabilities created a threat and a demand for forces to defend the United States and American interests around the world. Once again the National Guard responded. For the first time since its establishment as a separate reserve component of the USAF on 18 September 1947, and building upon a proud aviation heritage that began in 1941, the Oregon Air National Guard (ORANG) swung into action.

The first OR ANG unit mobilized because of the war was the 1810th Engineer Aviation Company, which activated on 1 October 1950. As the Cold War heated up with American involvement in Korea a great need emerged for expeditionary airpower. Global airpower required aviation engineers to build and/or maintain the airfields needed for air operations Stateside and around the world.

As the desperate fighting that began that summer continued into the fall, the nature of the conflict changed significantly. Communist China entered the war, and over the fall and winter drove United Nations forces back. With concerns over the effects of Red Chinese involvement and the possible expansion of the war into a global conflict, the federal government called additional ORANG units into service.

In February, 1951, the 123rd Fighter Squadron and the 123rd Weather Station activated. The fighter squadron was assigned to the Air Defense Command to strengthen its CONUS fighter interceptor force. After WWII, the Soviet Union reverse engineered and copied the Boeing B-29 Superfortress very heavy bomber, known for its service in the Pacific theatre and the atomic bombings that ended the Second World War. They began to mass produce it in 1949 as the Tupolev Tu-4 (NATO reporting name BULL), and thereby created a bomber threat to the Continental United States (CONUS). This development, coupled with the successful Soviet nuclear weapon test in August of 1949, gave great impetus to the United States to improve its air defense, and the Redhawks were a vital part of the response. A month later, on 1 March 1951, the 123rd was redesignated as a Fighter Interceptor Squadron and remained on active duty until December 1952. Many of its pilots were transferred to other units, and were replaced by active duty Air Force pilots during this time. The rest of the 142nd Fighter Group activated on 1 March 1951 and served on active duty until November 1952. Although the group was not sent to combat as a unit, it performed the CONUS air defense mission and also sent individual personnel to serve with other units in Korea.

One example of ORANG's direct participation in the conflict was seen in nine pilots of the 123rd FS who were activated and served in Korea. There they flew the F-51D Mustang fighter-bomber in combat operations, providing ground support by bombing and strafing railroads, supply lines and troops convoys. It was both a vital and dangerous mission - 1Lt Earnest Wakehouse recalled that in at least 30% of the missions the pilot would land with bullet holes somewhere in the airplane. At least three of the pilots, Capt Taylor White, 1Lt Wallace Parks and 1Lt Wakehouse, completed 100 combat missions while serving with the 18th Fighter Bomber Wing. Unfortunately one Oregon Air Guardsman, 1Lt Orval Tandy, was brought down by enemy ground fire on his 57th mission on 5 September 1951. He was captured by Chinese Communist Forces and spent the rest of the war in a harsh prisoner of war camp, but returned after the armistice and continued to serve until retirement in 1972.

In defense of the homeland, the 142d Air Control and Warning Squadron (AC&W Sq) activated on 1 May 1951. Additional fighter units needed improved air defense radar coverage against the bomber threat, and the AC&W Sq helped meet the need. The joke in the squadron was that higher headquarters were in such a hurry to get the unit activated and in place, they "waived everything but goodbye." So after a mere 28 days to process, in May of 1951 the squadron sailed for Alaska aboard the U.S.N.S. Lt. Raymond O. Beaudoin (T-AP-189). Following their arrival and establishment at Ladd AFB in Fairbanks, they moved on to operate three remote radar sites along the Bering Sea and built three more sites at other remote locations in that territory. The unit served some 21 months on active duty before returning to Portland in early 1953.

Even for those ORANG members who did not deploy overseas to Korea or to Alaska, the Korean War brought many demands as the unit maintained a high readiness status. This took a toll on men and machines - sadly, three 142nd Fighter Group pilots and three F-51D aircraft were lost in unrelated accidents during 1951. Stunningly, one of the Korean combat veterans, Capt Taylor C. White, Jr., was lost in an F-51D accident in May 1952, six months after he returned from Korea. These were stark reminders that freedom is never free.

In the "Forgotten War," ORANG professionals successfully demonstrated the capability and readiness of the reserve component to serve the nation's call. During this 60th anniversary of the start of the Korean War, we should remember their accomplishments and sacrifice, as an example and inspiration for our service today. In this uncertain world, there is every reason for us to continue to hone and sharpen our skills for the next call. Today, as in the summer of 1950, the ORANG maintains the readiness needed to answer that call, whenever it may come, ready to fly, fight and win.