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Big service in a "small" war

WHITEMAN AIR FORCE BASE, Mo. -- In my last article I told the story of 2nd Lt. Rich Walker's uncommon courage in World War II as he braved the heavy defenses of the Japanese to strike shipping targets in the Pacific.

Courage and service go hand-in-hand. The combat experiences of the 13th Bomb Squadron "Grim Reapers" in Korea provide powerful examples of both.

Shortly after World War II, the 13th BS transferred to Japan where it became part of the Allied occupation forces. Younger airmen replaced many of the war veteran crews as they returned home. While in Japan, the squadron was outfitted with the Douglas B-26 Invader bomber.

The B-26 was built for low-altitude combat. One version, called the "hard nose," bristled with up to eight .50 caliber machine guns in the nose, three guns in each wing, and upper and lower turrets with two .50 caliber guns each manned by a gunner.

During a squadron training deployment to Korea in 1950, the Reapers surprisingly found themselves surrounded by another conflict. The Korean War started June 25, 1950, as North Korean troops and tanks flooded south and quickly captured most of the South Korean peninsula. Three days later and despite their inexperienced crews, the Reapers flew their first combat missions of the war.

As the front lines shifted during the war, so did the 13th BS's bases. By mid-August 1951, the squadron was based at the present day Kunsan Air Base. During the Korean War, it was simply called "K-8."

While the squadron was at K-8, 2nd Lt. Charles "Charlie" Hinton arrived Dec. 15, 1951. He had just graduated from navigator school in November 1951. As he put it, "the week before graduation the entire class came down with a then prevalent social disease. It was called Gonetokorea."

The 13th BS's pilots, navigators, and gunners quickly became specialists at extremely low altitude strafing and bombing. Due to the thick anti-aircraft artillery and rifle fire, most missions were flown at night. The targets included trucks, railroads and railcars.

Lieutenant Hinton flew his first combat mission Dec. 30 at night. He wrote, "From takeoff to landing I never knew where we were. I remember the plane diving into the blackness of an inkwell and the explosion which blew a truck all over North Korea." But, Lieutenant Hinton quickly became an experienced low-level navigator.

He recounts a mission Feb. 7, 1951, where he and his crew flew into MIG alley in North Korea. "We stopped a train west of the river at Sinanju. In some of the lowest low level work I ever experienced, we came scooting across the mud flats and PULLED UP to shoot at the engine which was on the embankment of the river. We got lots of steam from the engine but it never exploded. We went around a hill and the flak continued to track us and shoot over the hill--even after we were out of site."

Despite the low-level tactics, the enemy's defenses remained tough.

"When the moon was full and you got down to look for trains you would always find flak," Lieutenant Hinton wrote. "North Korean gunners would be firing 20mm or 40mm guns at us with tracers. They looked like they were squirting up little red golf balls. I remember a mission with Jim Braly when we were stooging around east of Pyongyang at 7,500 feet and some anti-aircraft fire hosed up our way. I announced to Jim, 'No sweat on the flak. They only have a range of 6,000 feet.' As I said this I HEARD the shells pass over the canopy with a 'whit...whit...whit...whit.' I'd forgotten the hills were 3,500 feet in that area."
Lieutenant Hinton finished his service in Korea after his 50th mission June 6, 1951. He stated that he looks back on his time in Korea with great pride. He quoted Capt. Byron Dobbs saying, "I did feel that the United Nations would live or die on the basis of what happened on this peninsula. I felt that I should do my part." Captain Dobbs, Lieutenant Hinton's fellow navigator, returned home after he was captured and tortured as a Prisoner Of War.

Recently, Charlie Hinton stated that "people have forgotten there was another war with fuzzy aims in which people fought and died and came home without brass bands and welcome home parades. I am proud that I did my part."

Lieutenant Hinton's service in the Korean War was incredible, but perhaps his most impacting service happened after the war. In the 1980's retired Maj. Charlie Hinton played a key roll in founding the 13th Bomb Squadron Association--the "Invaders." Today, he remains actively engaged in the Association's mission to preserve the history of the Reapers and to educate young Americans on the importance of service.

Last year, the major donated his Korean War leather bomber jacket to our squadron. It is proudly displayed in our Heritage room as a tribute to his service during the Korean War and after.