Extracted from Combat Support in Korea, Part VII, Quartermaster Corps, Facsimile Reprint, 1987, 1990, CMH Publication 22-1, Center of Military History, United States Army, Washington, D.C.
Capt. William J. Dawson, Jr., 8081st Quartermaster Airborne Air Supply and Packaging Company
The 8081st Quartermaster Airborne Air Supply and Packaging Company is the most-decorated quartermaster company in the U.S. Army, and the only Army unit in Japan to earn combat credit. But if you ever saw these men at work, with their tails hanging out of the rear of a C-119 while they got their cargo ready to drop, you’d know they earn their points, decorations, renown, and jump pay. We drilled into our men this motto: “Lives of individuals in combat depend on the supplies we deliver. Risk yours, if necessary, to get them there.”
I reported to Ashiya Air Base, on Kyushu, on 14 February 1951. At that time the company had 4 officers and approximately 88 men. Capt. Cecil W. Hospelhorn, who organized the company, was in the United States presenting his packaging and airdrop experiences in lectures and demonstrations. The operational procedures I mention are sometimes modifications of the methods he initiated.
At this time the company was commanded by Lt. Claude A. Jones, and I became his executive officer. We had a company headquarters, a parachute maintenance section, an air-supply section, a manifest section, and two air-delivery platoons.
The air-delivery platoons were responsible for loading the planes and dropping the cargo. The 1st Air Delivery Platoon (Lt. Paul E. Smith), in addition to its general duties, was responsible for all heavy drops. These men were all old-timers and persons Captain Hospelhorn had known for a long time.
The 2d Platoon (Lt. Billy G. Bishop) repacked all parachutes as its secondary job. Ashiya Air Base is on the beaches of the Sea of Japan, and the humidity there is high. For this reason personnel chutes had to be repacked every thirty days and cargo chutes every sixty days. We used Japanese employees to repack the cargo chutes, but the personnel chutes were never turned over to anyone outside the company.
When I arrived at Ashiya the company was working full-time. The men were loading and dropping an average of 3S planes every day. That is beyond the normal expected capability of an air-delivery company, but this rate continued for six weeks. In February 1951, X Corps turned to airdrop to build a stockpile of gasoline and rations, since land transportation was inadequate. We were pushed to operate at this level and could not have maintained it had we not been assisted by several hundred Japanese civilians. Later our load leveled off at five to ten planes a day, four or five days a week.
The air-delivery platoons worked in shifts. One platoon would do all the loading for a week while the other platoon had its men ride the planes and discharge the cargo. Assignments changed every Sunday. During the time our work was so heavy it was normal for our officers to spend their evenings in the orderly room, where they could play cards while waiting for the loading orders to arrive. We rarely bothered to go to the movies since we expected to be pulled out before the first show was over.
Orders for an operation normally came to us between 2000 and 2400. Requests came through G4 of Eighth Army, to 8247th Army Headquarters, Troop Movement Section, and then to us. Our first alert would tell us the number of planes to be loaded and the type of cargo. Our manifest section, which operated on a 24-hour basis, would receive the serial number of each plane, its capacity, the amount and type of cargo it would carry, and the on-station time (an hour before take-off). The capacity of planes varied greatly-largely because of fuel loads. The manifest section worked with these data, broke down the loads, and make a working manifest for each plane. They followed a few simple rules. For example, gasoline and rations were not to be loaded in the same plane, but gasoline and ammunition could go together.
While the manifest section was working, the commander of the loading platoon would send out his alert squad to the planes to check the tie-down bolts and put in the rollers. Either the company commander or the executive officer called the motor pool and ordered the vehicles for hauling the cargo from the ready line to the planes. We had available, on thirty-minute call, ten semitrailers and ninety 2- l/2 -ton trucks. The drivers were Japanese who worked on an around-the-clock schedule. We always preferred the semis because they would carry more cargo, and their higher beds made it possible to slide the cargo straight into the rear of the plane. With the trucks we had about an 18-inch lift. It took four 2- 1/2 -ton trucks to carry the cargo to one plane, while it took one and a half semis to do the same job. We never placed cargos for more than one plane on a truck for fear of confusion. At the ready line the trucks were loaded by Japanese laborers according to the working manifests.
While the trucks were being loaded and the alerted squad was placing the rollers in the planes, the loading platoon was assembling. The loaders reported to the hangars at the same time that the cargos arrived. From a central point the loading officer (platoon leader) ordered two American soldiers and four Japanese laborers to each plane, with the trucks and cargo. As each truck was unloaded it was released. Before the loaders left the plane they made up a white loading card giving all pertinent facts. They then returned to the hangar with the last vehicle and reported to the loading officer to be assigned other trucks and cargo for another plane. The loading officer sent his platoon sergeant to inspect each loading job, and before leaving the field he personally checked each plane. No one left the area until all inspections were finished. Normally a platoon could load five or six
planes an hour.
It was informally understood that if the loading crews finished their work before 2400 they would not be called for training until 1300 the next day. If they finished after 2400 they were off all day. Actually, however, it meant very little to give them the day off, for most of their loading was done at night. Finally, under the pressure of work the training schedule broke down anyway.
Shortly after we received an operations order we notified the consolidated Air Force-Army mess of the number of in-flight lunches our men would need. The hour of assembly for the platoon assigned to fly depended on the length of the flight. The normal time from Japan to drop zone in Korea varied between two and three hours. An hour before take-off all crews and quartermaster flight personnel were due at the planes. An hour before on-station time the flight platoon began drawing their parachutes, pistols, in-flight lunches, emergency rations, and equipment. For example, if the drop were scheduled for 0800 and the flying time consumed two hours, then take-off was at 0700, on-stations at 0500, and assembly at 0400.
On arrival at their plane the quartermaster crew obtained the white loading card, checked the cargo to be sure it was safe, and then notified the crew chief they were ready. A copy of the manifest was turned over to the pilot, who had the final responsibility for proper loading. By the time I arrived at Ashiya the pilots had so much confidence in our men they rarely checked our work. I would say the best pilots still checked and never took our word for it, but usually the check was omitted. Our pilots were first-rate.
After take-off the dropmaster and his assistant continued to check the cargo. While the plane was climbing they checked the front cables. When the plane leveled off they checked the rear cables. Periodic checks were made if there was any unusual motion while in flight.
Usually the flight was monotonous and often uncomfortable. The turnaround time was four to six hours. The cabin of a C-119 contains only four seats, and those are occupied by the crew. If the Army men moved forward, they had to sit on the floor with their legs out straight —and that is uncomfortable over a period of time. Lots of times there wasn’t room up front because of cameramen, passengers, or flyers riding to get in their flight time. In the winter, or when the planes flew at high altitude, it was cold in the back of the plane. And looking out the open end of the plane always made me nervous in spite of my being called “Ace” Dawson.
Twenty minutes before we came over the drop zone the crew chief gave us a signal and our men moved to the rear of the plane to remove cables. The ties between bundles were removed; then the forward cable safeties were severed but remained taut against the bundles. When everything was ready the dropmaster and his assistant moved to the front of the cargo compartment and waited for the two-minute warning. At two minutes the bomb-shackle-release safety (a little red disc) was removed, and the men returned forward to await the signal to drop.
Over the drop zone the plane came in at an altitude of about 800 feet and at a speed of only 110 miles an hour. This is dangerous flying because of the low altitude and near-stalling speed. When dropping right on the front lines the plane makes an excellent target for small-arms fire. The planes approaching the drop zone came in trail at about 1,000 feet apart. This increased their accuracy but it also added to the danger of collision or other accident.
At the instant the bell rings the pilot pulls up the nose of the plane and jams the throttle open. This lurch causes the load to move down the rollers in the floor and out the open end of the plane. The dropmaster and his assistant run to the rear of the plane and count the bundles as they open, so they can figure the number of malfunctions. The rate normally ran
to about 3 per cent. After the count it was necessary to reach out of the open end of the plane and pull in the static lines. If any of the cargo failed to clear from the plane the dropmaster informed the crew chief, who told the pilot to make another run. Then it was just a matter of flying home, checking in the equipment, and waiting for the next day-unless there was a second flight.
These are the broad outlines of the air-delivery system, but of course there were many ramifications and problems. To speed up operations we normally kept all classes of supplies packaged and ready to drop on our ready line. The ready line was actually a small dump with the supplies on skids and the ropes tied. We ran out of containers and used rope to hold the items together. In fact, we used nine million feet of rope-some 1,700 miles of it-in one year. Most of the packaging was done by Japanese, and they were good at it. Without their help we could have never packaged the loads we did.
Parachutes are expensive, the large G-11 costing $1,300. Some idea of the cost of our operation can be obtained from these figures: we dropped 73,000 G-1 chutes (24 feet) which cost $43 each, and 70,000 G-9 chutes (18 feet), each costing $25. Dealing in those numbers and costs, it was essential to get the chutes returned from the drop zone whenever possible. Each division receiving a drop was supposed to get the parachutes to the nearest air base, and from there it was up to the Air Force to return them to Ashlya. No one really knows how good our recovery rate was, but I’d guess perhaps 40 per cent.
Although the Air Force was given the drop-zone location, the exact spot was marked on the ground with a T panel. Soon the Chinese got wise to this system, and-they placed panels and received several of our drops. Then it became customary to have an Air Force Mosquito plane meet the C-119s ten minutes away from the drop zone and escort them in. On rear-area flights we sometimes dropped cargo along the sides of airfields.
Our men tried to see how close the drop came to the T and sometimes they could see that it went wide. When the unit being supplied was on the line this sometimes meant they could not gather the supplies. They immediately notified army G4, who passed the message to the 8247th, and then we got it. The notification of a bad drop normally reached the company before the planes returned. If it appeared to have resulted from a pilot failure, the Air Force usually made the same crew fly the second mission and hit the drop zone. Usually we sent our same men along. But when a plane developed engine trouble and had to jettison its cargo and limp home, we had someone else go on the replacement flight.
Sometimes the first effort to drop the cargo would be ineffective and the plane would have to make several passes over the DZ. One officer normally flew each day for morale purposes, and when an officer flew he took the place of an enlisted man and carried out the same duties. In November 1951, CWO Byron Kirkman and I were flying a mission together. We carried concertina wire for use along the Imjin River. The coils were wide and the bundles overlapped in the center of the plane. Just as the plane started to dump its load we hit an air pocket and the wire jammed. Nothing went out on that pass, so we notified the crew chief, then went to the rear to loosen the wire. The best we could do was to drop one bundle from each side of the plane on each pass. It took five more passes
to complete the job.
On my last flight there were six planes in the flight and the drop was on the front line. To hit the DZ we had to cross into enemy territory after the drop. The lead pilot did not give the signal to drop. Maybe the DZ wasn’t marked, because the other pilots followed his lead. We moved over enemy territory going 110 miles per hour at 800 feet. Enemy small arms cut up to thirty holes in each plane. In my plane, the Plexiglas windshield was shattered and both pilots were seriously cut in the face. The sergeant with mewas wounded, and only the chute he wore saved his life. One other dropmaster was injured. In spite of the fire and their wounds, the pilots turned, made another sweep over the DZ, dropped their cargos, went again over the enemy, and flew back to Japan. When we reached Ashiya Air Base all the emergency crews and ambulances were waiting and I felt as though
we had returned from a bombing mission.
While no one was killed on this flight, we did have two dropmasters killed in May 1951, when a failure to stop our artillery fire allowed one C-119 to be hit. A second plane crashed right behind the first. On this day, fortunately, we had only one soldier in each plane. We had five other emergency free-fall drops when our men bailed out of falling planes. We had three or four more men wounded on flights, and of course we had the famous case of Sgt. Robert Hale and Corporal Page who “just happened” to fall out of their plane right after they had dropped a cargo to the 187th Airborne RCT. Page was back in two days, but Hale was wounded by a sniper and did not return to duty for weeks. We took no disciplinary action, but we never believed their story of their “fall.”
Jumping wasn’t much to these men, for all were rated. We did a lot of jumping—even on Saturdays and Sundays if business wasn’t too heavy. We landed on the beach along the ocean, and sometimes we alerted the air-sea rescue people and jumped into the ocean for practice. We never had any casualties in our unit, but one lieutenant colonel who got permission to jump with us was killed on a water jump when he became confused and inflated his Mae West before he got out of his harness.
We tested a lot of Japanese parachutes for G4, and some of them were pretty good. We also ran a lot of tests to determine what items could be given a free drop. Concertina wire was dropped free but broke its securing wires and unraveled. What a mess! To counteract this we placed small chutes on the wire-just enough to slow it down. Canned rations smashed badly when dropped free. The new rubber containers for water landed in good shape, but they were small and frequently were lost. Blankets and all types of clothing came through the free-drop process very well.
One of our men (Sergeant Gordon) devised a bomb-shackle release that worked well in loosening cargo. The load was emptied by nosing the plane up. This was simpler than the standard practice of having the pilot operate the glider-tow device and sending out a pilot chute to pull out the cargo. We showed the Gordon device to one observer who came over from The Quartermaster School, and we even gave him one, but it hasn’t been adopted.
One thing our men were proud of was the magazine drops. Knowing that men on the front
appreciate any kind of reading, we used to tie bundles of magazines into the cargoes we dropped. We heard from those men at times, and their appreciation made us feel good. In spite of continuous hazards and combat rating, we lived the Air Force life and came home to clean sheets, hot meals, and movies. Helping the infantry out there made us feel more a part of it.