There are some Helicopter folks out there that probably think that the Pony Express mission, followed by the Green Hornets, and later by the Knives, were the original sneaky guys. Using helicopters to drop folks amongst the enemy, and then when needed, snatch people out of harm’s way and bring them home. They were not. They were preceded by some pretty gutsy guys assigned to K-16 just outside of Seoul during the Korean conflict. Here is part of their story, extracted from the Air Resupply & Communications Squadron’s web site, and used with the Author’s permission.
THE 581ST’s HELICOPTERS
Robert F. Sullivan
Did you know the 581st had a helicopter flight in Korea during the unpleasantness? Betcha didn’t! Not many of you know that when Larry Barrett attended the 1994: Air Resupply and Communications Association Reunion, many people told him they had no idea that the 581st actually had helicopters in theater for about seven months, in combat for about six months before Air Resupply’s black SA-16s came to K-16. Maybe it is time to tell that story.
We had a strange mission, or perhaps I should say all sorts of strange missions. Our primary mission of course was PsyWar, although to be honest I do not think any of us at the time thought what we were doing as waging psychological warfare. We certainly were aware we were dealing with some pretty strange people, but I don’t think I personally ever equated putting spooks ashore with PsyWar as such. But then, what would one expect from the only second lieutenant in the outfit, a brand new helicopter pilot at that!
Secondly, we supported 3rd Air Rescue. When they needed help, either helicopters or crews, 5th Air Force tasked us. We spent a lot of time in that capacity. After that, we did a lot of cat and dog, ash and trash missions for the 5th Air Force, and even for the 7th Fleet.
The Air Resupply SA-16 people met us when they moved up to K-16 in around April or May 1953, but by and large, the unit was still a mystery. My name is Bob Sullivan and I was the token Second Lieutenant in the original group of six pilots. Four helicopters, six pilots, one NCO, and twelve enlisted men directly out of at Sheppard. That was the total organization, and that combination should scare the hell out of almost any thinking person! 5 Oct 52 was the date we pilots arrived in . We asked where the 581st was, and people looked at us and said, “581st what? There’s no such outfit in !” Now that’s the 5th Air Force talking! Our new bosses! I think everyone was under whelmed by that answer!
The airmen arrived some months before we did. No one knew what to do with them, so Air Rescue put them to work. It is a good thing someone remembered where those guys went, for we had to go and recapture them! Finally someone at 5th Air Force said we were the guys with four helicopters. That was news to us. We had no helicopters, no tools, no people, no housing, no supplies, no weapons, and without 3rd Air Rescues generosity, no place to even sleep or eat. A b-4 bag each and the clothes on our backs were our only possessions at that point. To the 3rd Air Rescue Group, we looked, acted, and smelled like replacements, but they could not understand how we got there without coming through the Air Rescue Service pipeline.
Frank Westerman, our senior man, a captain, got on the phone, and things started coming together. How that man did that amazed me, but then, when you are a second Lieutenant, lots of things amaze you! Pretty soon, a very few days after our arrival, Koreans started putting up additional tenting next to Air Rescue; it looked like “Rescue City” just grew suburbs. Then they went out in the field behind the tents and put in four PSP pads, which got us sort of excited, thinking that we might eventually get helicopters to fill them. We spent the next thirty days or so, living with the 3rd, as regards our basic needs, like food and such, counting and storing all the goodies that seemed to appear like magic. When we found out that we were, in fact, the 581st’s helicopter flight, all of it, and that we were not going to get any more people, Frank decided it was organization time.
There were jobs that had to be done, and people had to fill the spaces that would make them happen. Since Frank Westerman was our senior rank, he obviously was the Commander. Joe E. Barrett, another Captain, and a long time helicopter pilot would be the Operations Officer, since he had more experience than the rest of us put together. Frank M. Fabijan had some supply experience, voila! a Supply Officer. I had an A&P Mechanics certificate, and had been the Assistant Maintenance Officer in a C-82 outfit from which I escaped by going to helicopter school. With a stroke of Frank’s pen we had a maintenance type. Lawrence A. Barrett suddenly became the Adjutant. I am not sure what Rut Garnett drew, but we were in business. Sergeant Jackabowski had been a ground school instructor on H-13’s in the Army program at Gary AFB, and he suddenly became the Line Chief, which is pretty damn heady progression when you stop and think about it. Now that we knew who we were, the next thing was to find out what we were.
No one knew where the helicopters were. Someone at 5th Air Force remembered something about helicopters in crates over at Kissararzu, and got on the phone. There they were, four brand new H-19A’s right out of the factory, and we think shipped via Mountain Home to Japan. We were reasonably sure that we were due for some Air Rescue cast offs and that news surely brightened our future. As quickly as Frank could get some orders, we were off to “Kiss” and ferried the birds to K-16. Since we were destined to spend a lot of time over water that little jaunt was a nice warm-up.
The organizational set-up seemed to leave a good bit lacking. We were attached somehow to the 3rd Air Rescue Group, in that they provided our food and we used their mail system. Our “suburb” had been built adjacent to all their facilities, so we had showers, barber shops, and all the “nice” things in life readily available. We were attached to the 6167th Air Base Group for personnel/finance/administrative support, and I guess, operational control. Our goodies coming through the supply system came direct, once we managed to convince everyone that there really was such an outfit living over on the far side of the Base, alongside Air Rescue. As Colonel Mike Haas says in his new book, “if anyone noticed that four helicopters sitting over there did not have Rescue markings on them, we were fully prepared to tell people we were some rinky-dink trash hauling outfit.” Indeed, we had painted out the Rescue markings. I think, at the request of the Air Rescue Commander.
Our missions were fragged through “B” Flight of the 6167th, usually. A few we got directly from 5th Air Force. As openers we went down to Chinae (K-10) and placed a radio relay outfit atop the mountain at the North end of the runway. Seeing that no one had any prior experience with sling loads, it was sort of like the blind leading the blind for the first couple of hours, but we figured it out and all went well.
We put our first “people” ashore in on, I think, 27 Dec 52 at about three in the morning. We flew off Cho-do and put these folks in well above Chinnampo on the mud flats. Coming off Cho-do, we flew northeast, and as we approached the mud flats we turned more and more Northerly trying to keep the exhaust flame blocked by the bulk of the helicopter to preclude being observed. Once we dropped out “passengers”, we angled out away from the beach slightly, and when well off shore, turned west and then around to the Southwest, then to the Southeast and back to Cho-do.
We dropped some considerably further North; we dropped a couple in the Chinnampo estuary, which was really spooky. The majority of the flying was done as close as fifty feet off the water as we could get. In as much as the H-19 was built before radar or radio altimeters were installed, it was all the M-1 eyeball and an altimeter setting from Cho-do. I dragged the nose gear in the water one night, which caused a nose down pitching motion, and a very tight grip on the seat cushion, rest assured. Others bounced off the mud flats. If those missions were nothing else, they were sure interesting!
We were “Tree Frogs” for at least one cycle of call signs. I was sliding in on the mud flats up quite a ways North of Chinnampo, when “Kodak”, the radar station of Cho-do, asked how many “Tree Frogs” were out. He got no response, of course, and we went home the long way around. The real “Kodak” came on one night and said simply: “I am painting five, repeat, five targets.” Again, our “passengers” got a long helicopter ride.
One night when Frank Fabijan was out doing his bit for chaos, he said you could see flares popping from the coast-watchers as they thought they detected something happening along the coast.
Joe Barrett and Frank Fabijan picked a Marine Major named Cleeland off the ice on the Haiju Reservoir in a big daylight shootout. Frank Westerman and Larry Barrett went inland to the MSR and grabbed a chap named Cottrell, who was in deep serious trouble at the time; another shoot-out. Don Crabb (Garnett’s replacement) and I pulled Joe McConnell out of the water north of Cho-do after he shot down his eighth MIG and was downed in turn. These were all in support of Air Rescue, and were all prosecuted in daylight.
Frank Westerman and I left Cho-do about 3:30 A.M., straight line over water, to 26 miles South of Antung, planning to get up in the Cholson area at first light. We thought we were being so cool, and the first thing we found out when we started inland was a radar station no one knew about. So much for stealth and secrecy. The attempt to locate an evadee was done in a vain. That was the deepest helicopter penetration of the war, according to 5th Air Force. That one happened to be our own mission. One of Air Rescue’s SA-16 crews flew navigation for us on that mission at about 100 feet off the water and then stayed up there with us until we came back off-shore.
All in all, we, six of us, put roughly one thousand hours on four H-19s. We did both the ARC mission, and the Air Rescue mission, having never refused a single one. We earned a bunch of decorations, took our share of battle damage, yet never, as long as combat missions were flown in that theater, had an accident, a combat loss or a fatality.
Not too shabby for a bunch of beginners, Huh?
Air Resupply and Communications Squadron
Participating in the Korean War effort were elements of a newly-formed sub-command of MATS, the Air Resupply and Communications Service (ARCS). The ARCS was attached to MATS for less than three years, but its organization and subsequent Korean operations are noteworthy.
During the early stages of the Korean War, a scheme was hatched in the Pentagon to combine several overt and covert intelligence and propaganda missions into one organization that would counter the Communist threat on a worldwide basis both in hot and cold war scenarios. The Air Resupply and Communications Service was activated on 23rd February 1951, with its headquarters assigned to MATS Headquarters at Andrews AFB, although the ARCS headquarters were moved to Washington, DC, on 14th May.
From the outset, the mission of the ARCS was not clearly defined, especially its peacetime function. Planning for the organization was complicated by the fact that Tables of Organization for wing headquarters and subordinate units were drawn up in early February 1951, before Tables of Equipment had been produced. In other words, planners were attempting to procure personnel before it had been decided what types of equipment they would be required to use. As no Air Force regulation had yet been issued, MATS proposed a draft, in April 1951, for a vague Air Force Regulation defining the ARCS’ mission to ‘Provide worldwide air resupply and communications service for all Air Force and other US military activities requesting such service.’ Eventually, the missions of the ARCS were clarified as:
- the psychological warfare function, which called for the capability of preparing psychological warfare material in printed form, propaganda, and jamming enemy frequencies;
- aerial resupply, which called for the capability of introducing and evacuating ranger-type personnel behind enemy lines and supplying them and guerrilla units.
Pentagon planners envisioned seven ARCS Wings, to be activated at three-month intervals and deployed overseas after six months of training. While MATS acted as the parent command of the ARCS, its wing operations actually would be directed by Headquarters US Air Force from the Psychological Warfare Division, Directorate of Plans. And, once established overseas, ARCS squadrons would function as tenant organizations, and would be under the operational control of the theater commander.
The first ARCS wing, the 580thAir Resupply and Communications Wing, MATS, was activated at Mountain Home AFB, Idaho, on 16th April 1951. It was planned that the 580th ARCW would be composed of five squadrons:
- an Aerial Resupply Squadron, which would transport and evacuate personnel and supplies behind enemy lines;
- an Airborne Materials Assembly Squadron, which would ‘provide storage, maintenance, and aerial-type packaging of operational supplies, and the packaging of overt propaganda leaflets as a service to the US Air Force units engaged in leaflet attacks from the base area concerned’;
- a Holding and Briefing Squadron, which provided for the administration, briefing and supply of personnel assigned by other agencies for introduction behind enemy lines;
- a Communications Squadron, to provide a base area agent communications circuit, operating an around-the-clock broadcasting service over four frequencies simultaneously;
- a Reproduction Squadron, having the capability of reproducing covert propaganda material and up to four million overt propaganda leaflets a day.
The second ARCS wing to activate, on 23rd July 1951, was the 581st ARCW. The rwo ARCS wings trained with a number of aircraft, including the B-29, C-119, SA-16, C-47 and C-54, but were expected to receive additional types once deployed overseas.
In March 1952, an additional responsibility was given to the Air Resupply and Communications Service when all formal escape and evasion training in MATS was transferred to it from the Air Rescue Service. However, Headquarters MATS was becoming increasingly frustrated with the fact that there was ‘no firm policy of any kind in USAF on the future of ARCS, subsequent to completing (the) training cycle of ARCS Wings’, and MATS Headquarters made it clear that they wanted to be relieved of responsibility for the program.
As this debate festered between Air Staff planners and Headquarters MATS, in July 1952 the 581st ARCW became the first wing to deploy overseas when it moved to Clark AFB, Philippines (later Kadena AFB, Okinawa), attached to the Thirteenth Air Force. The 580th ARCW moved its operations in October 1952 to Wheelus AFB, Libya, becoming attached to United States Air Forces in Europe.
The 581st ARCW soon became involved in the Korean War, using its B-29s to drop propaganda leaflets, leaflets warning North Korean civilians of impending raids, and to insert agents behind enemy lines. Early in October 1952, a small detachment of six pilots and 13 enlisted men was sent to Korea to operate four new H-19As under the Fifth Air Force for the insertion and retrieval of agents along the coastal mud flats north of the DMZ. Flying off Cho-do Island, these 581st ARCW H-19As often supplemented 3rd ARS aircraft and its own SA-16As in the rescue of downed American and allied airmen, plus agents from within North Korea.  The full story of the 581st ARCW’s exploits during the Korean War has yet to be told,  but it is interesting to note that the last American prisoners of war to be released by the Chinese Communists, in August 1955, were the pilot and surviving crewmen of an ARCS B-29 that had been shot down during a leaflet-dropping mission near the Yalu River in January 1953. 
As the Korean War was drawing to a close, ARCS planners realized that with no peacetime mission developed, the command would be expendable in the upcoming post-war budget tightening process.
Brigadier General Monro MacCloskey, Commander of the ARCS since September 1952, made a valiant attempt to inspire his personnel to come up with new peacetime tasks for the ARCS to perform, but to little avail. The 582nd ARCW, the third ARCS wing, activated on 24th September 1952, was suddenly inactivated on 14th August 1953, before its training had been completed (its successor, the 582ndARG, was reorganized and deployed to RAF Station Molesworth, England, in 1954). On 1st January 1954, the Air Resupply and Communications Service was detached from MATS, although the organization continued to provide services to the Department of Defense on a much reduced scale.
 April 12, 1953: An H-19 helicopter assigned to the 581st ARCW hoisted Capt. Joseph C. McConnell, Jr., F-86 pilot with eight victory credits to date, from the Yellow Sea, after he had ejected from his battle-damaged aircraft.
December 27-31, 1952: The 581st ARCW flight of four H-19 helicopters at Seoul flew several experimental agent insertion sorties into enemy territory for covert and clandestine intelligence activities.
January 13, 1953: Some twelve enemy fighters shot down a B-29 on a psychological warfare, leaflet-drop mission over North Korea. The crew included Col. John K. Arnold, Jr., USAF, Commander, 581st ARCW.
For more information, go to: 581st on Wikipedia