Canberra – Australia (2)

>> It’s amazing now, isn’t it?

>> I am Milton Cottee, retired from the Air Force. I’m 90 years old, and I did my flying training in 1948 and ’49, after World War II. I was married during World War II, and that is significant to something I’ll say a bit later. After I completed my flying training, I was posted up to the British Commonwealth Occupation Forces in Japan to a place called Iwakuni where our squadron, No. 77, was based, and that posting was to have been for 6 months. Towards the end of 6 months, I decided to bring my bride up to Japan, and she arrived on the 28th of July, 1950. Sorry, 28th of … well, 2, 3 days before the war started, which was, yeah, June, June, yeah, June. Anyway, so I had my wife with me, and she shared all of my experiences during the Korean War. On the 25th of June when the war started, our squadron was put on immediate standby about 4 hours later because we were part of the United Nations’ battle group, and we were asked to go on standby. We armed our aircraft and got them ready for war. However, our government’s approval was necessary before we could get involved in the war, and that took 2 weeks, 2 weeks where we were waiting and learning as much as we could about where Korea was, and how could we get there and what was happening, so we were all apprehensive as to what was to happen. On the 2nd of July, asleep in a married quarter on the base of Iwakuni, a phone call woke me up at about 2 o’clock in the morning, and a voice said, “Milt, our government has approved us to go to war. There will be a jeep around to pick you up in 1/2 hour. You’re off on the first mission. All you need is your flying suit,” so I had to get up and leave my wife behind and go to war. It was the first time that I’d flown a Mustang at night, which was quite an experience, and our mission was to give top cover, top fighter cover, to DC-3 aircraft or Dakota aircraft that were evacuating civilians from Taejon in the middle of Korea. We flew across the sea towards Korea, and we normally flew a section of four aircraft. Very rarely did we fly any fewer than four aircraft in one section. One aircraft had to turn back with radio trouble, so that left three of us on the mission. We were fueled up with fuel in every conceivable tank, and our aircraft were consequently unstable. We had full guns at 2,500 rounds of .5 ammunition in the six guns, and we were ready for air-to-air combat. I had had very little training as a fighter pilot in that role and was wondering how I was going to manage. As we approached the coast of Korea, one of the members, number three, surged forward, and we wondered where he was going because we were normally in a formation, and the leader called up and said, “Where are you going, Tom?” And then the penny dropped. He wanted to be first into Korea, and he was. We chased him, but we couldn’t catch him before he crossed the coast. Anyway, it wasn’t a very successful mission. We found an airfield which we thought was the right one, circled around it for a long while and then went back home to Japan. My third mission was very eventful. We checked in with a control center and were given coordinates to go to, which was to a little place called Pyeongtaek just south of Seoul, and that’s where the bomb line was. That’s where the enemy had advanced to at this stage, and there was an airborne forward air controller giving us directions as to what to do, but we contacted him by radio, and we were about 10 miles away from him when he suddenly called up and said, “Little friends, little friends, come, hubba-hubba. I’m being attacked.” Now little friends is a name for Mustangs which derived out of World War II because they were escorting bombers into Germany, and the bomber crews called them little friends, and hubba, hubba is come quickly, so it was a funny mix of language that we heard on the radio. I was the first to see the other aircraft that was supposedly unfriendly, and I thought, “Well, I’ll have to shoot him down.” He was much lower than I was, and I chased him, and I was just about to fire with a no-deflection shot, which would’ve … couldn’t have missed him when he yawed out to one side, and I saw South Korean markings on the side, and I refrained from shooting and pulled up thinking that maybe it was a North Korean in South Korean markings, so I didn’t want him to have the opportunity to shoot at me, so I pulled way up above him and looked down while I was upside down and eventually determined that it was a South Korean aircraft that had come out of the sun to have a look at the airborne forward air controller. Now, back to the forward air controller, who had as targets or had had as a target a little bridge over a little river near Pyeongtaek, which he wanted to us to knock down. Now the armaments we had were just 3-inch rockets with 60-pound explosive heads, and we thought that they would be rather ineffective against a bridge. Nevertheless, as we started attacking the bridge, tanks were coming down the highway, and they were firing at us, so I diverted away from one attack to fire at the tanks, and at that stage, we hadn’t worked out that the best way to hit a tank was from the rear, and I was firing at them from the front. Anyway, it stopped the tanks from progressing down the highway, and then we tried to knock the bridge down, expending all our ammunition, and then we didn’t have enough fuel to get back to our base in Japan, so the forward air controller said, “Well, you can come back to my airfield at Taejon,” and we followed him, and it was late in the even and getting dark, and by the time we landed at this little airfield at Taejon, it was crowded with aircraft of all types, and we had hardly a place to park our aircraft, and here we were, three Australians in funny-looking flying suits which had been made Japan. They were actually white at the time, and we were carrying around a Mae West and a .38 revolver, and we were trying to get a message back to our base at Iwakuni in Japan. We found a communicator who wouldn’t take our message so … because of higher priority traffic at the time. We could hear artillery in the distance, and we wondered whether we would be overrun in during the night. We found a place to sleep in an empty house, and the next day, we foraged around for something to eat. The Americans on the base didn’t know that Australia had entered the war, so they were trying to get us to do things that we didn’t want to do. Anyway, we didn’t … We had to get some fuel, so we found an airman with a fuel tanker, and he didn’t want to give us any fuel because of the shortage of fuel, and I traded my revolver for a tank of fuel, and that was the way we got back home. Anyway, because of that, the leader that I had normally flown with had flown on another mission with someone else, and he was our first casualty, and if it hadn’t been for the fact that we had been delayed from getting back to our base that night … He launched the next day, before we got back to the base, and he was our first casualty. He flew into the target and was killed. That upset us to no end, and shortly after that, we lost our commanding officer, and we then progressively lost more and more people. We lost something like 41 pilots and many more aircraft. The missions that I flew early in the war were hectic because the enemy was advancing regardless of what we were doing. We were trying to stop them all the time, and when they got down as far as the Nakdong River, General MacArthur, the overall commander, said, “Hold the river. Don’t let them cross the river,” and we fought valiantly to help troops on the ground, who were on one side of the river and enemy on the other side. I found a bridge across the Nakdong River at a place called Chilgok, and I had two 500-pound bombs, and I thought, “Well, maybe they will want to cross the bridge, so I’ll knock it down.” I tried to hit the bridge with my two bombs, and I missed fortunately because several days later a message came down from General MacArthur’s headquarters saying, “That bridge is off-limits because we want to take an offensive shortly, and we want to cross the river on that bridge.” Anyway, that bridge is still standing even though a new bridge has been built beside it at Chilgok now. Now I have been back to Korea a couple of times since the war, and the battle of the Nakdong River is quite a classic. We were able to hold it. A funny incident occurred while we were doing that. We were flying from a place called Taegu, which is now called Daegu, and it was a very active airfield, and we would fly across from Iwakuni in Japan with a load of weaponry and deliver it and then refuel and rearm at Daegu, and one of our targets given to us out of Daegu was a railway tunnel in which North Koreans were putting supplies and men to hide during the day, and we were to knock down the entrance to the tunnel. We had rockets, and to get rockets onto the tunnel mouth, we had to fly very low along the railway line approaching the tunnel, bearing in mind that there was a hill to go up and over when we fired off our rockets, and after a while, we were getting out the odd rocket down the tunnel, and every time a rocket went down the tunnel and went off inside the tunnel, there would be a huge smoke ring come back out of the tunnel, and this amused us very much, and from then on, it was a competition to see who could blow the best smoke ring. And of course we were very effective in knocking out whatever was stored in the tunnel. We knocked down bridges. We knocked down gunning placements. We strafed dug-in troops. We had no rules of engagement actually. I wasn’t aware of any rules of engagement. We made up our mind as we went along. In wars these days, you have rules of engagement. You can hit this, or you can’t hit that, that sort of thing. I feel very sorry for many of the citizens of South Korea because often we would be tasked to fire at people on the ground that had enemy mixed in with the local population, and that leaves me very sad that we had to do that. In fact, I’m emotional about that. Anyway, all of this time, my wife was back in Iwakuni in Japan, and later in the year, later in 1950, we moved across to Korea to a place called Pohang, and it was a bare concrete strip with no facilities at all, and we lived in tents. And it was a very frugal existence, and we were resupplied by a transport aircraft coming out of Japan, and I can remember on one sortie out of Pohang where we went up as far as occupied Seoul and the airfield there at Gimpo, and I dropped two bombs on the main runway at Gimpo, and one of those bombs hit the runway and made a big crater. About a week later, the landing at Incheon had occurred, and Gimpo had been retaken, and we flew into Gimpo at night to support a paradrop operation that was being launched at Sunchon and Sukchon, the biggest paratroop operation in the world, I understand. Anyway, this was to cut off enemy troops from … that were trying to retreat towards the north, and I can remember running over a rough patch on the runway, and I thought to myself, “Well, they filled in my bomb crater, and I’ve just run over it.” We spent the night in a bombed-out terminal building at Gimpo. It was absolutely destroyed, and it was the only cover we had and the only place we could spend the night, and the next morning, we supported this big paratroop drop at Sukchon and Sunchon, flying in amongst the paratroopers as they dropped down and giving them support. Now after I’d flown 50 missions, which was towards the end of 1950, I was posted back to Australia and went back to Australia with my wife on a ship out of Kure on what I call Hell Ship Changti, and I have been back to Korea several times, and I’m amazed at the reconstruction of the country. We left it with hardly a building standing anywhere. Anything that stood up was knocked down, and now to go back and see the advances South Korea has made is quite incredible. And a group of us were fated at a ceremony at Chilgok, which was played on TV live, and we were on a stage with garlands of flowers around our necks and hailed as heroes, which was rather … forgotten the word. It was a little unusual for us to be called heroes. Anyway, everywhere we went in Korea, we were hailed as heroes, but I don’t think we deserved that. Anyway, in front of us on this stage, in front of a vast number of people on the side of the river, the Nakdong River there, there was a row of little tables, and on the tables were what we thought were little gift boxes, and we were asked to approach these tables after a while, and in each of these little boxes was some soft clay, and we were asked to make a handprint. We put our hands down on the clay and pushed it into the clay, and when we took our hands away, there was a handprint. Now these were to be the first exhibit in what was to be called the Peace Museum along the Nakdong River, and I’m rather keen to hear whether that museum has progressed and how finalized it is. I would love to go back and see it. Since then, I have had a very unusual Air Force career, becoming a test pilot, flew with the RAF on flight tests of their V bombers and then came back to Australia as chief test pilot for our own Air Force and actually took part in a top-gun competition that squadrons were entered into each year, and two of us became top guns for a year, and I blamed the Korean War for that because we ended up being able to fly very accurately to be able to aim accurately and feel what the aircraft was doing very precisely. I would like to add that my younger brother, name of Keith, Keith Cottee, thought that, “If Milt can do it, so can I,” so he joined the Air Force, and he was trained on No. 6 postwar flying training course. He was posted to Gimpo and flew Meteors out of Gimpo, so two brothers flew in the Korean War. Okay.

Memorial

Canberra - Australia

Canberra Australian Capital Territory, Australia