As the EC-97 crossed over the mainland of Japan it felt like the first mission the pilot had flow over Japan during the War as a young second lieutenant flying from a base on Tinian. The Boeing 337 was an offspring from the B-29’s design and with his hand firmly on the yoke as the aircraft buffeting in the turbulence it felt all too familiar to him. In those days he wasn’t flying bombing missions over Japan, but reconnaissance flights filming the bomb damage done by B-29 strike missions or gathering target and weather data for a forthcoming sortie. Tonight it seemed like just yesterday.
As the distance from Japan increased and the coast line of the South Korean peninsula grew closer the entire crew’s anticipation and activity also increased. They were eager to get away from the confines of this aircraft, so they began to gather their gear and storing it in its proper place.
The aircraft crossed the Korean coastline near the small coastal city of Pohang. The city itself was mostly obscured by clouds but the crew could see a few lights of the city below. Shortly after they started their descent on a heading that would take them into the airport at Seoul, the country’s capital. Kimpo Airport was once a major fighter base during the Korean War, but it wasn’t the destination runway they’d actually be landing on. The radar approach controller gave them a left turn “for spacing” to separate them from other arriving traffic which there were only two and they were not anywhere close. However this turn put them on a course to the destination where they would be landing. Another airfield that played a major role in the air war over Korea.
Suwon Air Base was the home of the 51st Fighter Group in those days, now it was a little used field controlled by the South Korean military and where the CIA established a small temporary operational support unit. The EC-97 landed without incident and was quickly greeted by a jeep like truck with the familiar “FOLLOW ME” sign on its rear. The flight crew was instructed to shut down its outboard engines and taxi without any lights on.
“Where is this guy taking us, it looks as if were going out into the dingtoolies!” the copilot stated.
“I can’t be sure but I think we’re taxiing on PSP matting.” said the pilot.
The FOLLOW ME vehicle slowed, an occupant with lighted wands jumped out the passenger side, then it sped away to the left. The marshaller walked backwards motioning the big aircraft forward. Then suddenly he motioned for a hard left turn and literally had to run to double time backwards to turn the aircraft one hundred and eighty degrees. Once the aircraft had swung completely around and the nose wheel centered up, an indication to STOP was signaled followed by a cut engines sign.
The crew shut down the two engines and secured the aircraft. Chocks were placed around the main wheels and a power cart could be heard starting up but no connect was made to the aircraft. Instead this cart was the winch system used to raise and cover the Night Lark with a camouflaged tent and netting. When the crew emerged down the aircraft’s stairs emerging into what they felt was a pitch black insides of a circus tent. In fact it was very similar, only it blended in with the surrounding countryside from every angle including if anyone was looking downward at it. The Night Lark now nestled into her new “nest.”
“Skipper, what the hell kind of hanger is this?” One of the crewmen asked.
“Nothing like I can remember ever being in.” He replied.
Just then the inside of the “tent” lit up. It wasn’t bright but at least you could now make out more than what the aircraft’s cabin lights cast out the doorway. A big man in civilian attire approached them accompanied by another man, who was much smaller wearing a uniform.
“Welcome to Suwon gentleman I’m Dirks, the detachment commander here, this is our host Colonel Yi. This is his base and he has graciously allowed us to set up our circus for a few weeks.” He said with a distinct facial expressions that was a troubled relationship. The only thing on the crews mind at this moment was finding a place to unpack their gear and get some hot chow. But they shook hands with their new hosts and smiled.
“We’ve got a barracks ready for you and your crew, though for now everyone will bunk in the same bay. We’re working on getting some trailers setup, but we haven’t been given a place to set them up yet. A truck will be bringing you some hot chow up from Osan in about an hour. We typically eat our meals there, but it was easier to bring it to you tonight.” Dirks explained.
The barracks wasn’t really a barracks, it was more of a small storage building with no windows and just one door. Inside the crew found sixteen cots set up, with a thin GI mattress, pillow and linen rolled up and stacked on one end. The room was illuminated with three light bulbs equally spaced apart dangling at the end of their power cord from the rafters.
The navigator said what everyone else was thinking…”From one Spam can into another.” As he tossed his duffle bag next to the first cot he came to. The rest followed his lead. Most didn’t even make their beds, they just rolled the mattresses out and laid the linen over the pillow then laid on down to await chow.
“This is going to he a long and hellish deployment if this is going to be our digs for the next 90 days.” One of the radar operators said. The others just moaned in agreement.
Chow arrived two hours later, nothing fancy, plenty of burgers, fried chicken, fries, Coca Cola, Coffee and a sheet cake for dessert. It was tastee, but sat heavy on everyone’s gut. The crew settled into their cots which they now had made and they all seemed to doze off quickly.
Eight hours later they were jolted awake by the opening of the steel entrance door and someone yelling “Wake Up! Breakfast is ready and mission briefing is in one hour!” The sunlight flooded in through the doorway. Everyone started to moan, they all felt like they had a hang over. Their heads ached and then it hit them…”What the hell is that god awful smell?”
This revelation was delayed because the only thing they could smell last night was the canvas of the “hanger”, the smells associated with being around aircraft and its support equipment. But this morning the aromatic offerings of Korea made its way in through the now open doorway. A mixture of fish, rotting vegetation, a plethora of different feces, stale air and other nondescript but repulsive odors. One of the agency boys stuck his head in the doorway and said there was a portable shower now setup and ready for its first customers and if they hurried they’ll all get one before the hot water ran out. Everyone grabbed their shower kits and shuffled outside towards the shower. They arrived just in time to find young Airmen handing out cups of fresh hot coffee. Only two could shower at a time so coffee was a welcome alternative to smelling the odors they were experiencing. The young airman noticing the crews noses buried in their cups to mask the odors shouted, “You’ll get used to it in a couple of days, we all did.”
Breakfast was still being eaten when the briefing started. It was lead by a short little guy in a white short sleeved shirt and a well worn blue necktie. He had is collar unbuttoned and the tie loosened. His pack of Lucky Strikes was clearly visible through his shirt pocket and he looked like he needed one bad. He started his briefing…”Tonight we have a simple run for you, just going to do a practice sortie. You’ll be shadowing a commercial airline flight bewteen Tokoyo and Hong Kong. Timing on this is critical so you can get in the slot and shadow it until it reaches Hong Kong. We know that this particular aircraft occasionally flies not to Hong Kong but onwards to Hanoi. We’re, that is you are going to start following this flight every night on the chance you get to follow it as it makes its way into Hanoi.
“When will we know whether or not it is going to Hanoi instead of Hong Kong?” Ask the aircraft commander.
“Our agents in Tokoyo believe the only time it in fact does alter its intended route and bypass Hong Kong is when it has a courier, some government official or an invited guest.” The briefer replied. “They typically have not been arriving in Hong Kong airspace with they intend to go to Hanoi. Someone in the Hong Kong air traffic control knows ahead of time and simply seems to report the flight as having arrived on time. We picked up on this fact because we discovered that some days records indicate it arriving long before its scheduled arrival. We believe it is about the time it diverts to Hanoi.”
“So where can we expect it to divert if it is, do we know its route?” The navigator asked.
“That location varies but it is either while it is near Xiamen or Shantou. How it gets to Hanoi from there we don’t know. Our agents just report its arrival in Hanoi and when it leaves on the return to Tokoya via Beijeng. We’re not sure if it takes an overland route or by sea. None of the Navy’s radar planes have been able to track it, the Chinese Air Force has been also active on those nights southwest of Hong Kong all the way to Nanning.” He explained.
A tall gray haired old guy stepped up to the front of the room. Everyone took notice as he was chewing the remains of a cigar. He spoke with a southern accent. “While you were sleeping the better part of the day away, my boys installed a new radar gizmo into your aircraft. It will help you follow another aircraft at close range. It has less power than a flea, but you’ll be able to track it if you stay withing a hundred yards. It is designed to not set off any of the bad guys sensors. It works similar to a missiles targeting radar, a very small signal cone. Once you’re in the grove you can dial back the gain so no one will ever know you are there unless they are between you and the aircraft you are following. I’ll brief the flight deck crew before you depart.” He stated. Then he shifted his cigar to the other side of his mouth and walked out of the room.
The briefing continued on for another hour. It finished up with one last question which was poised by one of the youngest members of the crew. “There wouldn’t be a chance we’d get to RON (remain over night) in Hong Kong would there?” Everyone laughed and already knew that answer.
The build. Well the story is taking shape faster and better than the model. Disaster struck as I was installing the nose gear legs into the wheel well. The wheel well apparently wasn’t cemented well enough in place the slightest pressure caused it to recede deep into the fuselage. There is no way to access it to replace it so it looks as if this will be a gear up in-flight model. I managed to complete the engine nacelle assemblies and install two of the four on the model. The engines are a bugger to line up on the inside of the nacelles. Since the gear are going to be up, I have to make some guides for the gear doors so they are easier to position in the closed configuration. It also means I might consider cutting some clear styrene discs to replace the propellers. Hmm. Have to give that some more thought.
If you are enjoying the story let me know, post a comment!
Continue on to Chapter IV.