The RAAF in Japan

The Royal Australian Air Force Squadrons based in Japan were 36 Transport Squadron, flying the Douglas C-47, and 491 Maintenance Squadron whose task was to repair and service RAAF aircraft...

36 Transport Squadron

When the Korean War began 36 Transport Squadron had only a single aircraft. The C-47 Dakota began operational flying on 2 July 1950, carrying supplies and ground crew from Japan to Korea. Such a small unit could never hope to meet the demands of wartime flying. As the magnitude of the mission became clear more aircraft and men arrived.

Delivering ammunition, cargo and personnel from Japan to Korea was hazardous. Relatively small, fitted with neither flight computers nor other sophisticated equipment, unpressurised, slow and with a low ceiling, Dakotas flew right into the weather, rarely over it. One squadron veteran recalled the risks:

...Mountainous terrain, thunderstorms, snowstorms, typhoons, severe turbulence, zero visibility, dangerous winds at some airfields, arctic temperatures, in-flight icing, accumulation of snow and ice on aircraft before take-off, frozen over and slippery landing surfaces, occasional enemy ground fire, overloading, … and saturated airspace over some airfields.

Few aircraft, however were so well-suited to the task. Former pilot Leon Murtagh completed almost three full tours during the Korean War flying 349 missions. The Dakota, he wrote:

...was easily manoeuvrable, extremely versatile and mostly a docile aircraft, with few inherent vices. However, it could bite if harshly treated. There was a correct technique for all conditions of flight and Korea had them all.

From January 1951, having delivered their cargo to Korea, the unit's aircraft began carrying Commonwealth sick and wounded on the return journey to Japan. Former flight nurse Cathy Daniel described a typical flight:

...we changed dressings, gave medication, distributed food and drinks, and reassured those who needed comforting. A lot were young British servicemen in a highly distressed state, and talking to them, keeping them calm, was a major part of the job.

From January 1951 to December 1953, 36 Transport Squadron evacuated 12,762 wounded and sick soldiers, sailors and airmen. Of these, the wing transported 728 personnel to Australia and 1530 to the United Kingdom. The end of hostilities, however, did not mean the end of the squadron's involvement in Korea and Japan. No. 36 Transport Squadron did not return to Australian until 1955.

491 Maintenance Squadron

No. 491 Maintenance Squadron was formed in October 1950 at Iwakuni in Japan to provide offshore maintenance for aircraft flying operations over Korea. As the war continued, the squadron's role evolved and a section of maintenance personnel was attached to 77 Squadron in Korea. Others flew in and out of Korea on a short-term basis to work on battle-damaged or worn-out aircraft. On occasion, members of the squadron were involved in salvaging crashed aircraft.

Australia's Official Historian of the Korean War described the level of technical support provided by RAAF personnel in Korea as 'outstanding'. Behind the accolade was the hard work of maintaining, repairing and sometimes replacing RAAF aircraft which, for maintenance crews, could mean 16-hour days in all weather conditions. As a result of their labour, the ground crews achieved a near perfect record of serviceability for No. 77 Squadron's Mustangs and Meteors.

Working alongside the Australians were Japanese civilian technicians whose skills, honed during the Second World War, were now used to keep RAAF aircraft flying. Noteworthy for having been formed and later disbanded in Japan, the squadron never operated on Australian soil in the four years it existed to December 1954.

Last updated: 13 February 2019

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2019), The RAAF in Japan, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 22 September 2023,
Was this page helpful?
We can't respond to comments or queries via this form. Please contact us with your query instead.