Flying Mustangs over Korea was a hazardous occupation

Name: MiltonĀ Cottee
Date: 1950
Unit: 77 Squadron RAAF
Location: Pohang

Milton Cottee saw his first aircraft in 1931 or 1932 when he was five or six as it flew over his home at Murwillumbah in northern New South Wales. It turned out to be the mail plane flying to Brisbane.

Having been intrigued by this sighting, Milton was further encouraged two years later when he joined his father and brother as they drove to a field nearby where a plane had landed.

"Parked near the dusty unpaved road was a motley collection of cars, bicycles, horses and carts," Milton recalled." Into the field some distance there was a crowd of people. In the centre of this crowd was a huge aeroplane having three big engines. Lindsay said, 'There it is - Smithy's Southern Cross'."

Some years later he watched in awe as three fighter planes performed aerobatics at the Richmond air base while tied together with tape. If there had been any doubt where his future interests lay, they were settled that day.

In 1941, at the age of 15, he joined the Air Training Corps.

"Whilst a cadet with the Air Training Corps, I made two significant visits to RAAF bases," Milton said. "The first was to Richmond NSW from where I made my first flight. I recall that it was in an Avro Anson. I was intrigued and excited by the whole thing and this first flight did much to firm my resolution to join the RAAF as soon as I could."

Milton signed on as soon as he was 18 in October 1944 and underwent basic training. But by then the war was winding down and he never got to undertake flying training. Having returned to civilian life, he began studying engineering at university when a friend showed him an advertisement calling for applications from those interested in joining the RAAF for flying training on the first post-war flying training course.

"Three of us, who had previously met as members of No 63 wartime course, decided to apply for re-entry to the RAAF," Milton recalled. "My thinking was that I could always complete an engineering degree later but I would never have another opportunity to learn to fly with the RAAF. I did not realise at the time just how advantageous that year of university engineering would later turn out to be."

Flying training took place at Point Cook and later in Sale, both in Victoria, with Milton gaining his wings in August 1949. Soon afterwards he was posted to 77 Fighter Squadron flying Mustangs at Iwakuni in Japan as part of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force (BCOF).

Not long afterwards, on 25 June 1950, North Korea invaded the south to start what was to become a three-year involvement for Australian forces. Milton Cottee was soon in the thick of it.

"The third mission on 6 July was a classic," he recalled. "We started out as a four aircraft formation with Sqn Ldr Graham Strout leading but he had to abort. F/O Ken McLeod our number three took over and P2 Les Reading and I headed for Korea with full tanks, six rockets and as always full gun bins containing 2040 rounds. The inner guns in each wing had 230 more rounds than the outers. We always stopped firing when we got down to two guns, keeping those 400 odd rounds for self defence.

"Checking in through the newly established Joint Operation Centre on our 4-channel VHF radio, we were assigned to a 'mosquito' control aircraft wanting aircraft to strike a bridge to hold up a T34 tank column advancing south along the main Seoul/Taejong highway at P'yongtaek. We thought we would not be very effective against a bridge but we were the only aircraft he could get. [The 'mosquito' was a forward air controller which directed artillery and aircraft strikes.]

"We did not know at the time that earlier that day two sections of four Mustangs had strafed a train near P'yongtaek, believing the train to be North Korean. It was a terrible blunder. The train was carrying reinforcements for the small US force trying to delay the advancing tanks. Fortunately the Mustangs concentrated on destroying the engine and the casualties amongst the US Army soldiers were light.

"Soon after contacting the Mosquito aircraft - they were not yet called Forward Air Controllers (FACs) - Ken McLeod had us check our fuel state. We were close to bingo, a fuel state where we had only enough to get us back to base. Ken advised on the radio that we would only have a short time on target before having to return to base.

"Still about 15 miles from the target the Mosquito pilot suddenly called to us in a very agitated voice saying, 'Little Friends come hubba hubba I am being attacked.' He couldn't identify the attacking aircraft and continued to call for help. We all fire-walled the throttles and rapidly ate up the distance between us. I turned on the master armament switch and set up the guns and gun-sight for air to air. I even fired off a few rounds to make sure all was good and ready.

"My aircraft was a little faster than the others or maybe I had more RPM selected and hence more power. Speed kept increasing up towards 350 knots and soon I could make out the Mosquito aircraft and then another type flying away down a valley as though to escape. I was closest to this aircraft and called my intention to go after it.

"It didn't take long to close the gap for an almost dead line astern attack. I concentrated on centring the small dot of the gyro gun-sight on the target. The aircraft rapidly grew in size and I knew that with no deflection I could hardly miss. Just a few more seconds to close the range - and then I started to make out some features. A two seater with the person in the rear seat obviously having seen me and causing the pilot to try some evasive manoeuvres. One of these was a violent yaw to the right so that I could see markings on the right rear fuselage.

"Instantly I recognised the markings as South Korean. My thoughts 'No red star here. Maybe it was a North Korean in South Korean markings. No firing now - but watch out he may try to shoot at me as I overshoot him - so don't give him a chance - overtake him to the right and get a good look followed by a tight left half barrel roll to slow down and keep him in sight from above. If he is quick, however, he may still be able to get a few shots off in my direction. Try to tell the others.'

"I went to press my transmit button in the end of the throttle twist grip with my left thumb, only to find, to my dismay, that there was no button where it should have been!

"By now I was alongside, with an overtaking speed of about 200 knots and I recognised it as a T6 Harvard, like the Wirraways I had trained on. Still suspicious, I pulled away as the pilot of the Harvard vigorously rocked his wings. I then heard Les Reading call up and say with relish, 'Milt's missed him he's mine.'

"And now I could look back and see Les lining up on the Harvard. How could I quickly tell him not to fire? I looked into the end of the throttle and saw that there were two contacts sitting there, where the little plastic push button used to be. I could see this on the floor of the cockpit but I couldn't reach it. I needed something to push those contacts together - but what? My fingers were too big. A pencil, which I always kept handy, served the purpose and I heard the radio click as it went to transmit. 'Les don't shoot - it's South Korean - Don't shoot.'

"A split second later and that South Korean Harvard would have been a fireball.

"Whilst Ken McLeod kept station above and to the rear of the Harvard, Les and I came back for a closer look, coming up on each side of the stranger. The poor fellow in the back was waving his arms in recognition as much as his canopy would allow and even the pilot in front was waving one hand in supplication. I waved back and confirmed him as South Korean.

"Ken called us back into battle formation and we headed back towards where we had first seen the Mosquito aircraft, berating the pilot more than somewhat for calling an enemy attack. Seems it had come at him out of the sun and given him a hell of a fright. They both had thought the other was an enemy.

"Now we were past our bingo fuel and still had a target to attack. Ken conferred with the Mosquito saying we could land at Pusan or Pohang if we had to. The FAC said, 'Aussies you have to hit that bridge down there and watch out for the tank column approaching it from the north. All friendlies have now crossed the bridge but they are being hard pressed by the tanks.'

"Putting aside our predicament over fuel and a place to land we looked over the area. As we approached the bridge we could see the lead T34 tanks slowly moving down the road. Muzzle flashes from machine guns indicated they were firing at us. A few rounds from us and the tank column stopped, presumably to give them a better platform from which to fire back at us.

"These were the tanks that had just routed Task Force Smith near Ansong, 12 miles [19km] to the north, the first US army attempt to slow the advance. We did not know that beneath us at P'yongtaek the remnants of that brave task force of 406 men under Lt Col Smith were straggling south as best they could. They had quickly found that their anti tank weapons had been almost ineffectual against the T34 tanks.

"It was some time before we were to learn that we could easily knock out those tanks by firing our guns into the engine compartment behind the gun turret.

"We soon assessed the best attacking direction on the bridge and made three runs firing two rockets on each pass. We hit the bridge a few times, with the tanks firing at us each time we came within range. The bridge was not knocked down but may have been severely weakened by our rockets with their 60 pound [27kg] heads. Having each expended six rockets, our next concern was to find a place to land. It was already late in the afternoon and darkness was only 20/30 minutes away.

"To our surprise the Mosquito pilot called to invite us back to his airfield which turned out to be Taejon. He said it should be long enough for Mustangs and some fuel would be available. Ken opted for Taejong and we did lazy S turns over the Cessna as we escorted him back to Taejong. On going to Taejon tower frequency we soon found that it was coming home to roost time.

"Light aircraft were converging on Taejon from all directions and already dusk was well advanced. A look down on Taejon showed a jumble of parked aircraft concentrated around a gravel strip. We were slotted into a long final with about eight aircraft ahead and others joining in behind. Through the deepening gloom I could see the other two Mustangs ahead picked out by their tail lights and I touched down with three aircraft ahead still rolling on the strip. Hard braking stopped me from overrunning Les, who was also braking. Then into the first gap on my right and I was able to move clear by about 100 feet, where I ended up with my higher wings overlapping those of the smaller aircraft. I closed down and breathed a big sigh of relief."

Allied aircraft dominated the skies at this stage and were in constant demand to support the ground forces.

"Just north of the bomb line near Taegu were a few short railway tunnels," Milton said. "At night the North Koreans would use these tunnels to hide trucks loaded with supplies. We were assigned to attempt to make the tunnel entrances collapse using our rockets with their big 60 pound [27kg] heads.

"We found that the best attack could be made by flying just above the railway tracks approaching the tunnel entrance. A little pull-up to allow for gravity drop just before release of the rocket was required followed by a very hard pull to clear the hill above the tunnel entrance. This could be followed by a half roll to give one a view of the rocket explosion.

"Using this technique about one in four rockets could be made to enter the tunnel. The resulting effects of the explosion of the rocket inside the tunnel was initially unexpected. There would be a whoosh of smoke out of the far end of the tunnel and a giant smoke ring would then come flying out of the near end.

"After a couple of these we soon began a competition to blow the biggest and best smoke ring. For anyone or anything inside the tunnels it must have been decidedly unhealthy. The North Koreans soon stopped using those tunnels.

"Other smoke rings were more ominous. These were from flak. I was never briefed on the finer points of flak until after a mission which took us over the harbour of Wonsan. Suddenly there were black puffs appearing about 5,000 feet [1525m] above us. Bay Adams called flak and to start weaving. He was already doing this quite vigorously and I started to do the same. However I was intrigued that the flak continued to burst well above us, so my weaving dropped off.

"During the debriefing after the mission Bay tore strips off me about my attempts at weaving. I exclaimed that the flak was way off target and nowhere near me. With raised eyebrows he said softly and with great effect, 'Is that the first time you have flown through self destroying 40mm ?' It now dawned on me that the AA must have been passing close to me and that the proximity fuses may have come awfully close to finding me. Perhaps if I had been weaving more vigorously I may have flown closer to one of those nasty things.

"As our war of interdiction developed we took on a close interest in a particular railway bridge across a ravine. Having knocked down this bridge early in the war we took the occasional opportunity to look at the attempts being made to rebuild it. About half way through its rebuild we went in and knocked it down again.

"F/Lt Jack Murray and I, armed with rockets and guns, went in to have a look again, some time later. This time they were waiting for us. Soon after spotting the partially rebuilt bridge I saw two big black puffs of flak appear just behind Jack's aircraft. Soon after I felt the double thump from two bursts close to me. I recall a feeling of profound anger as I saw flashes from sandbagged gun emplacements near the bridge.

"Being in a good position to roll immediately into a dive at one of the two AA guns I brought my six 50 calibres to bear and opened up with a long hosing burst. Meanwhile I selected rockets in salvo at minimum interval timing and flew in to the optimum launch range still firing my guns. Little figures were running in all directions around the AA gun I had selected as six rockets followed in close succession from my wings. Then followed a hard pull up and half roll to see the effects.

"A few of the sandbags could still be seen but the gun had disappeared. As I rolled upright I spotted Jack diving on the remaining gun emplacement. Muzzle flashes showed that those on the ground had recovered from the surprise of my attack and were firing back, so I flew into position for a strafing dive in support. But this wasn't necessary. Jack's rockets streaked in onto the second gun emplacement and its ammunition went off with a huge smoking burst which reached up to engulf his aircraft. I was relieved to see him fly out of the smoke.

"All signs of ground fire had now stopped. We were able to look over the partially rebuilt bridge without further interruption. Our report stated that the bridge would not need further attention for a while. Two weeks later, a couple of well placed 500 pound bombs delivered during a 60 degree dive knocked the bridge down again."

Milton said that ground fire was the cause of most of their losses and damage so was always of concern.

"Small calibre ground fire was ineffective whilst we were above about 1000 feet [305m]. It was whilst strafing and firing rockets that we were most vulnerable. It was then also that we were able to see the muzzle flashes of ground fire. Without muzzle flashes there was no other indication to enable us to know that we were being fired at. That is, unless one took a hit. Even then it would have to be a hit which could be felt or which had damaging effect.

"On 15 October our section of four, led by F/Lt Fred Barnes, was assigned to provide close support to Australian troops advancing into the village of Namchonjom. On arrival in the area we could see the Australian force advancing along a road about two miles from the village. The road went straight through rice paddy fields which were partly flooded with water. Enemy fire was coming from the village and the ground controller was soon asking us to subdue this fire.

"We had napalm and guns and proceeded to drop our napalm on gun positions near the village. Following Fred out of his napalm run I was intrigued to see that he had a napalm tank hang-up under his left wing.

"These hang-ups occasionally happened with the Japanese manufactured drop tanks we used. The two suspension lugs used to hang the tanks on the bomb racks had been made with slightly incorrect dimensions with the lugs a fraction too close together. This caused the tanks to sometimes jam on the bomb release unit. To get a positive release it became our practice to give the stick a hard sharp pull back at the moment of pressing the release button on the top of the stick.

"Fred had done this but this tank was reluctant to come off. Another practice was for us to climb away from a target towards our own lines whenever possible. So I watched as Fred climbed up over our own troops. As he reached about 3000 feet and approaching our own troops, that tank came off. I watched in fearful apprehension as the tank of napalm tumbled end over end towards them, to land with a great burst of flame in a paddy field about 200 yards [180m] off the road.

"Fred's apologies to the ground controller were short as we carried on with strafing the enemy in the village. It was satisfying to see those Aussie troops occupy the village with the enemy retreating.

"We flew often in direct support of troops on the ground. Mostly we were able to talk by radio to a ground controller who would direct our efforts for maximum effect. Once whilst firing into enemy positions across a ravine, we received a call from the ground controller to make our attacks from another direction. He had just been hit on the back of his helmet by one of our cartridge cases. We had given little thought to the fact that our empties and links were being ejected overboard during gun firing.

"On 20 October 1950 I flew a mission out of Pohang and landed at Kimpo about 30 minutes after dark. I recall touching down and rolling over a rough part of runway knowing that the roughness was a filled in bomb crater, quite probably one I had earlier caused when I dropped two bombs on that same runway. We had also napalmed and strafed the Kimpo terminal building during successive missions. Now we found ourselves in the strange situation where we had to spend the night in that burned and beaten up terminal building.

"The next day we were to give close support to one of the largest paradrops of the war in the Sukchong/Sunchon area south of Pyongyang. The troops were members of the 187th Airborne Regiment, understood to have been the first US Army troops deployed from the US in support of the Korean war. The Japanese gave them the nickname Rakkasans on their arrival in Japan.

"We were up at first light and there, scattered over every available parking space, were C82/C119 Packets and C47 Gooney Birds loading up with paratroopers and equipment. I took a few photographs before climbing into my fully armed Mustang wondering about the apprehension of all those brave men. I wanted so much to be as effective as possible in helping them.

"We watched from our cockpits as streams of these aircraft took off and formed up into huge formations. I took a few pictures. After they had all taken off, it was our turn and our 12 Mustangs took off to catch up with the transports.

"We took up top cover positions above the huge formations. Soon they were disgorging thousands of parachutes on the selected drop zones. Airborne air controllers were already in position to direct our close support. We were soon hard at work suppressing sporadic ground fire from enemy troops. Often we found ourselves dodging around parachutes and giving encouraging waves to those descending. The enemy ground fire was short lived as we took every opportunity to pick off machine gun positions.

"The para-troopers could be seen getting organised on the ground. Varied colours of parachutes were spread all over the ground like mushrooms. I was elated to have been able to provide direct covering fire for the descending troopers some of whose lives may have been preserved as a result. Complete surprise seemed to have been achieved and this force did much to cut off large sections of the enemy as it was attempting to escape the trap that the Inchon landing turned out to be.

"All of our 12 aircraft recovered to Pohang, some with minor hits from ground fire. We then busied ourselves with preparations for further missions in support of the Rakkasans the next day."

Milton Cottee's tour of duty came to an end when he completed 50 missions with a flight time of 150 hours and he returned to Australia. He went on to become one of very few to have served in World War II, Korea, Malaya and Vietnam, and eventually retired from the RAAF as a Group Captain.

The material for this article was supplied by Milton Cottee of the Australian Capital Territory
8/01/2002 10:28:49 AM


Last updated: 4 June 2019

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2019), Flying Mustangs over Korea was a hazardous occupation, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 14 August 2020, http://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/stories-service/australians-war-stories/flying-mustangs-over-korea-was-hazardous-occupation
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